In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, a Greek war hero faces imposing challenges in his long journey home. After decimating the armies of Troy, King Odysseus sets out for Ithaca only to find himself wrestling against more formidable foes. For ten years the whims of gods and the winds of fate hinder his journey, while a horde of rapacious suitors besiege his household and woo his wife.
In time, with the aid of a sympathetic goddess, Odysseus reaches his homeland to oust the gatecrashers and restore order to the kingdom. But over and above the help of his Olympian patroness, Odysseus’s success hinges on something else: a steadfast vision.
Driven by his love for family and his desire for justice, the waylaid hero rejects the entrapments of self-pity and self-indulgence to fulfill his duties as husband, father, and king. It is a vision that plays into the development of another man in Homer’s tale: the king’s son, Telemachus.
A Coming of Age
During his father’s absence, young Telemachus is raised by his mother and a trusted nursemaid. Uncertain of his father’s fate, the boy endures the offense of the suitors, all the while hoping that his father “might drop from the clouds” to rout the unwelcome guests. Without any male influence or masculine vision, Telemachus plays the victim, adopting a passive posture into young adulthood.
When the prince’s frustration reaches its limit, all he can do is complain about his situation and look outward to his father’s return or his mother’s assertiveness for salvation. It is at this point that the goddess Athena steps in to “rouse [him] to a braver pitch, [and] inspire his heart with courage.”
After patiently listening to his blather of grievances, Athena exhorts Telemachus: “Reach down deep in your heart and soul for a way to kill these suitors… You must not cling to your boyhood anymore—it’s time you were a man.”
It is a pivotal moment for Telemachus. In the space of a few phrases, a young man’s imagination is captivated by a compelling vision of what it means to be a man. No longer is it the duty of his father or mother or community to deal with the interlopers and restore honor to the family—it is his duty.
The prince is so stirred that before the sun sets he takes care of business, serving notice to the suitors and announcing his plans to find his father. In rejecting passivity and accepting the responsibility of righting things in the household, Telemachus crosses over from boyhood to manhood.
The Odyssey reveals the power of a masculine vision in a man’s life, one which is but a penumbra of that imparted in the beginning.
In the Garden
After God creates Adam, he gives him the “Creation Mandate” to work the garden and care for it. These custodial responsibilities include naming the varieties of fauna which, according to customs of the era, suggests a leadership role for Adam. But before he swoons under the weight of his burden, God gives Adam a “helper,” Eve, on whose account Adam is told he “will leave his father and mother and be united.”
Leader? Helper? To our modern ears, this sounds downright patriarchal—a code word in fashionable circles for female subjugation by iron-fisted males. This would be true if these verses were about license and power. But they’re not; they’re about responsibility. And that makes all the difference.
In his popular study series, The Quest for Authentic Manhood, Dr. Robert Lewis notes that God gave Adam three responsibilities in the Garden: a work to do, a word to obey, and a woman to love. Likewise, the second Adam, Jesus, was given a work to do, a word to obey, and a woman to love—redeem the lost, obey his Father, and care for his “bride,” the Church.
The Definitive Model
Jesus could have undertaken his mission on earth decked in full royal regalia, demanding all the privileges entitled a king. Instead, he announced that he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” An astonishing statement for God incarnate, but not nearly as astonishing as his actions.
Jesus’s band of generally clueless disciples had a habit of jockeying for position, seeking to find out who was at the “head of the class.” Time after time, Jesus patiently corrected them with lessons about “the first will be last” and “the exalted will be humbled.” Then came the most unexpected lesson of their apprenticeship.
At his last Passover meal, Jesus leaves his rightful place at the head of the table and takes up a towel and basin—a move that makes his followers fidget, for such was the job for the lowliest servant. When he starts washing their feet, they are aghast. Peter recoils in confusion, refusing the Lord’s service until he is warned that to remain in the circle, refusal is not an option.
After Peter and the rest submit, Jesus explains: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
Jesus’s leadership style was a radical departure from that in the religio-sociopolitical establishment of the day. It was a shock to men who had been told they had the mind-numbing authority to bind and loose. And yet, servant-leadership was to be the Christian standard not only for the administration of the Church, but for every sphere of life, as we learn from the Apostle Paul.
The Pauline Man
It is a sad fact that Paul’s writings have been wielded by many unscrupulous men—in search of the god they want, rather than the God who is—to justify a heavy-handed approach to domestic leadership. Sincere men (and women) often leave Paul’s teachings confused, if not angry, wrestling with present-day applications. But those who see Paul as an angry chauvinist, a coercive patriarch, or a woman-hater have not understood him.
In many of his letters, Paul commends women, by name, for their contributions in the Kingdom, and in the case of two, Nympha and Pricilla, for the churches meeting in their homes. He goes as far as to say that in Christ all are of equal worth and importance: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave not free, male nor female.”
So whatever we’re tempted to think about Paul’s teachings about women, they have nothing do with their value, significance, or ability.
But perhaps the most telling passage is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he instructs women to (gasp!) “submit to your husbands.” Often overlooked is the verse directly preceding it, telling all readers to “submit to one another.” Then he turns the spotlight on men, giving them a supreme standard: “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” In that light, male leadership is not domination and female submission is not subjugation. Rather, they are the complementary roles and necessary responsibilities of those entrusted with the privilege of fulfilling the Creation Mandate.
In Odysseus and Telemachus, masculinity is modeled by the courageous acceptance of duty. In Christ and Paul, that model is elevated to that of the servant-leader—the man who accepts his role as a leader and fulfills his responsibilities in humility and service. As to what that looks like for men today, Dr. Robert Lewis suggests 25 characteristics of a servant-leader.
- Includes his wife in envisioning the future.
- Accepts spiritual responsibility for his family.
- Is willing to say “I’m sorry” and “Forgive me” to his family.
- Discusses household responsibilities with his wife and makes sure they are fairly distributed.
- Seeks consultation with his wife on all major financial decisions.
- Follows through with commitments he has made to his wife.
- Anticipates the different stages his children will pass through.
- Anticipates the different stages his marriage will pass through.
- Frequently tells his wife what he likes about her.
- Provides financially for his family’s basic living expenses.
- Deals with distraction so he can talk with his wife and family.
- Prays with his wife on a regular basis.
- Initiates meaningful family traditions.
- Initiates fun family outings for the family on a regular basis.
- Takes the time to give his children practical instruction about life.
- Manages the schedule of the home and anticipates pressure points.
- Keeps his family financially sound and out of harmful debt.
- Makes sure he and his wife have drawn up a will.
- Lets his wife and children into the interior of his life.
- Honors his wife in public.
- Explains sex to each child in a way that gives them a wholesome perspective.
- Encourages his wife to grow as an individual.
- Takes the lead in establishing sound, biblical family values.
- Provides time for his wife to pursue her own personal interests.
- Is involved in a small group of men dedicated to spiritual growth.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Telemachus Listening to Mentor” painted by Charles-Joseph Natoire (1700-1777).