What does a former tank officer turned pastor have to say to men about being men? A lot, apparently. Richard Phillips’ book, The Masculine Mandate: God’s Calling to Men (2010), is an excellent combination of useful illustrations, biblical reflection, and keen insight about what God asks of us as men.
The basic premise of the book comes from Genesis 2 where God places Adam in the Garden of Eden—not outside the garden in the wilderness, contrary to John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart, as Phillips points out. He places him there with a specific job assignment: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). To “work” and to “keep” are the two basic tasks we perform as men in whatever context we find ourselves.
He defines “working the garden” this way: “To work is to labor to make things grow…nurturing, cultivating, building up, guiding, and ruling” (8).
Phillips elaborates on this idea in the next chapter:
According to the Bible, this kind of work describes one of the two main planks in a man’s calling. Not that men are all literally to work as gardeners. Rather, we are called to ‘work’ whatever ‘field’ God has given us. Men are to be planters, builders, and growers. A man’s working life is to be spent accomplishing things, usually as part of a company or other grouping of people. We are to invest our time, our energies, our ideas, and our passions in bringing good things into being. A faithful man, then, is one who has devoted himself to cultivating, building, and growing (13).
We are to be growers in this way in our parenting, our marriage, our work place, and our church. In all of these contexts our “we are to invest our time, our energies, our ideas, and our passions in bringing good things into being.”
This idea is a powerful one that can bring clarification to a lot of “What do I do now?” moments that we experience in these various contexts. We are to invest ourselves to see this organization or person grow strong, deep, and healthy.
The second broad task we have is to “keep” our “garden,” which he defines like this: “To keep is to protect and to sustain progress already achieved….guarding, keeping safe, watching over, caring for, and maintaining” (8):
A man is not only to wield the plow but also to bear the sword. Being God’s deputy lord in the garden, Adam was not only to make it fruitful but also to keep it safe. Likewise, our basic mandate as Christian men is to cultivate, build, and grow (both things and people), but also to stand guard so that people and things are kept safe—so that the fruit of past cultivating and nurturing is preserved (15).
One context he explores in the book is our friendships. What does it mean to “work” and “keep” in our friendships? Here he looks at Jonathan’s friendship with David as an example. At a particularly weak time in David’s life Jonathan came to him and “strengthened his hand in God” (1 Sam. 23:16). This is a building, cultivating act of Jonathan’s. Jonathan would prove himself David’s protector as well, for Saul was intent on destroying David. Jonathan intervened throughout this bitter rivalry to save his friend.
He also explores work, parenting, marriage, and service in church through this grid of “work” and “keep.” The strength of this is its relative simplicity, though he is careful to incorporate key texts on each of these areas as he discusses them.
If there is a weakness, at times he might be putting more on Genesis 2:15 than is warranted, and similarly in chapter five more on the shepherd metaphor than the Bible might teach. Yet, since he is primarily wrestling with the key texts on each of us his topics—Ephesians 5:25-30 and 1 Peter 3:7 for husbands, for example—he never goes too far outside biblical bounds. We also might have liked a few more Braveheart type illustrations throughout the book, but since the book is not long (150 pages) we are easily able to stay with him to the end.
An added benefit is that the book includes “questions for reflection and discussion” at the back. Skimming through these questions they seem well written for an individual or small group study.
Overall, Richard Phillips has given us an outstanding overview of what it means to be a man. I can easily see it being used by an individual wanting to grow in his understanding, a small group of men wanting to keep each other accountable, or perhaps the father looking for a discipleship tool for his older teen or college-aged son.
In other words, buy it, read it, and then read it again in a couple years after it’s gotten a little fuzzy in your memory.