In Today’s Culture, Should We Avoid Using “Effeminate” to Describe What Jesus Is and Isn’t Like?

Question from a Reader:

In a blog about Jesus, Randy quotes David Powlison who writes, “It’s unfortunate that ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ has become a picture of someone weak and ineffectual, a sentimental, pablum savior…”

Given our culture today, is there a reason “effeminate” would be inappropriate to use in a sentence like this when describing a picture of a gentle and meek Jesus (I picture a pale, long-haired man with delicate hands, etc.)? I have certainly seen “effeminate” used to describe a misunderstanding of Christ’s person before. I am curious to know if it is wise and loving to avoid that word in certain cultural contexts.

Answer from Stephanie Anderson, EPM staff:

Since those words are from David Powlison, we can’t speak as to why he chose those particular ones. The quote “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” is from a hymn by John Wesley (see some thoughts on the hymn here.)

As to your question whether it’s wise and loving to avoid that word given our cultural climate, I’ll point you to a quote from Randy. He writes in Happiness, “Jesus is not only the Lamb of God or the Good Shepherd. He’s those and much more. The gentle, compassionate Jesus is also the Jesus who drove the merchant-thieves from the Temple and spoke condemnation against self-righteous religious leaders. Were Jesus as meek and mild as many think, he never would have been crucified. But his less popular qualities so outraged people that they nailed him to a cross.”

The Merriam Webster dictionary describes “effeminate” as “having feminine qualities untypical of a man: not manly in appearance or manner” and as “marked by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement.” As believers, it’s vital that, to the best of our ability, we consider the fullness of Christ’s character we see in Scripture and faithfully represent that to the world around us. Given this word’s definition and common use, I would say that this word would not be a wise one to use to describe our Lord and Savior, though there may be a time and place when it’s helpful to use in explaining who He is not. Certainly when we are writing and speaking, we should take into consideration our audience’s perceptions and sensitivities, but our top priority should be portraying Jesus accurately.

We must be careful to show the balance of Jesus’ character. He was certainly not macho in the sense of proud or overbearing. He was gentle and patient and fully exhibited the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). He was also humble (Philippians 2:5-8). Randy writes elsewhere, “Jesus was neither effeminate nor macho. His battle against Satan, the crushing of the Serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15), and his victory in the resurrection were emphatic.” In choosing how to have Jesus portrayed in his book The Chasm and graphic novels Eternity and The Apostle, Randy reminded the artists that Jesus was a carpenter who worked outside, and a Middle Eastern man. He was neither weak nor lily white. But He was also kind and warmhearted and happy—the kind of person who attracted and interacted with children.

In his thoughts on the moral perfection of Christ, Oswald Sanders wrote this: “The best qualities of both sexes combined in Him. But while possessing all the gentler graces of the female, He could never be regarded as effeminate. Indeed, He was linked in popular thought with the rugged Elijah and the austere John the Baptist (Matthew 16:14). There is contrast yet no contradiction in His delicacy and gentleness in handling people who merited such treatment, and the blistering denunciations He poured on the hypocrites.”

You might be interested in these further reflections from Desiring God’s Greg Morse, as well as Erik Raymond’s article Think of Him as God…or responding to the preaching of an effeminate Jesus.

Photo by Carolina Jacomin on Unsplash

Stephanie Anderson is the communications and graphics specialist at Eternal Perspective Ministries.