At the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church to, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13). In particular, the phrase “act like men” has led many to assert that the apostle makes a positive case for acting in a masculine manner.
This misconstrues the phrase’s meaning. The phrase “act like men” translates a single Greek word (ἀνδρίζομαι) which means to act in a courageous and virtuous manner. To understand the meaning of the verb translated above as “act like men,” we can refer to its dictionary definition, its use in contemporary sources, and its contextual meaning in 1 Corinthians.
A standard New Testament Greek dictionary, BDAG, provides the translational gloss for ἀνδρίζομαι as “conduct oneself in a courageous way” (s.v. ἀνδρίζομαι, 76). BDAG’s definitional gloss shows how the word was used during the era of the New Testament. Its earlier use in classical literature as well its later use during a sort of classical renaissance (4th ce.) had a more direct masculine tilt (the verb relates to the word “male,” ἀνήρ).
BrillDAG a dictionary that supplies classical Greek definitions provides a number of glosses such as “to cause to become a man, make strong” or “to reach manhood, maturity.” Other uses include “to act as a man, behave manfully” or “to wear men’s clothing” (s.v. ἀνδρίζω) In these cases, the direct meaning “act as a man” exists alongside the metaphorical meaning of “make strong.”
Part of the difficulty with defining ἀνδρίζομαι is that in philosophical discussions during the centuries before Christ “to be manly” became synonomous with “to be virtuous.” This sort of use can be seen in the contemporary word virtue which comes from the Latin word vir, which means “man.”
Yet when this term for virtue or courage becomes applied generically or to both sexes, it takes its obviously metaphorical meaning: to be courageous or virtuous.
Polycarp during his martyrdom (early 100s) is reported to have heard a voice say to him: “be strong, and show yourself to be a man [ἀνδρίζου]” (MPoly 9). During the 90s, Hermas could apply this term to both a man (VHermas 3.12.2) or to a woman (3.8.4). In this sense, the word “act courageously” has masculine overtones but can likewise be applied to women since it carries a universally applicable attribute: namely, courage or virtue.
In first Corinthians 16:13, Paul addresses the church of Corinth which comprises both men and women as earlier passages in 1 Corinthians make clear (e.g., 1 Cor 14:34). The resurrection destiny of all Christians into the image of the man Jesus Christ also applies to both men and women in Corinth (1 Cor 15).
There is not then any obvious hint that Paul somehow specifies only men in 1 Corinthians 16. Added to that, the whole sequence of commands link together: “Watch, stand in the faith, take courage, be strong” (my trans.) and likely the next verse also should be included: “Let all of your activity be done in love” (v. 14). None of this sounds specifically made for men since all should stand in the faith or act in love (cf. 1 Cor 13).
What I think clinches the inclusive sense of the command is Paul’s use of an Old Testament idiom to wait, to be strong and to be courageous (2 Sam 10:12; Ps 27:14; 31:24; BDAG lists these). It is worth quoting a couple of these passages to illustrate the point:
- Psalm 27:14: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
- Psalm 31:24: Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!
Paul seems to pull on this classical idiom to encourage faithfulness in 1 Corinthians 16:13: “Watch, stand in the faith, take courage, be strong.”
If anyone still doubts, we only need to look to the Greek translation of the Hebrew of Psalm 27 which uses the verb ἀνδρίζου to translate the Hebrew term for “courage” (אמץ). The exact same thing is true in Psalm 31:24 which uses ἀνδρίζεσθε.
In Hebrew, the word “courage” (אמץ) does not carry the connotations of masculinity like the Greek term ἀνδρίζομαι can. Hence, the Greek translators of the Old Testament which Paul mainly cites have used ἀνδρίζομαι in its normal metaphorical sense. And it is almost certain that Paul did too.
Paul’s likely use of an Old Testament idiom to a mixed audience should make it clear that “act like a man” is an imperfect translation. Or more accurately, it would be incorrect to use this translation to mean to act in some distinctively masculine way to the exception of some feminine way of acting. If by acting manly, someone means act courageously, then such a translation would work.
Yet almost nobody today in North America would understand this translation with that sense. Hence, to use “act like a man” in translation could unintentionally lead someone to mistake the meaning of the text. Granted, Christian leaders can and should explain the meaning of the passage in context which mitigates this possibility.
Still, some emphasize the assumption that this passage denotes masculinity in contrast to femininity as such. It does not. Instead, it encourages all of us to act like the saints of Old—to stand firm in our faith, wait for the Lord and be strong and courageous as the Lord told Joshua before he entered the land by faith (Josh 1:9).