What is a gentleman? Given today's significant cultural shifts — many of which being at the hands of new government regulations and mandates, seemingly in tandem with a relentless pop culture push — traditional roles and attitudes toward men and women are being challenged in ways we have not seen throughout history. A main focus has been, of course, in how men treat women. Until recently, so it would appear, boys and young men have been widely taught to be gentle with females, to treat them with care and deference. With the post-modern struggle to erase any perceived differences between men and women, such attitudes are often looked upon with hostility and as an affront to women's dignity and strength. In short, gentlemen are being perceived — and treated — as sexist.
What should a Christian man's response be to these shifting viewpoints? Where does he draw and straddle the line in his dealings with like-minded Christian women and women outside the faith, many of whom may be unreceptive to overtures of gentlemanly behavior?
Pivotal to this issue is the fact that how we treat anyone is determined by our relationship with God. First, we know through biblical teaching that without faith in Jesus Christ, no one can have a relationship with God (John 3:16, Romans 5). Once the connection is established, a true faith will prompt a believer to live in a way that is pleasing to God. That desire, although imperfect, comes naturally to a believer (James 2:14-26). His life will bear out evidences that his faith is genuine. Further, a mature Christian's life will have as its hallmark the fruit of God's Spirit that lives within him. This fruit is characterized as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:21, 22). Love is mentioned first in the list because it is foundational to everything we do in life. We see this elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus imparted to us the two greatest commandments. In short, love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). Therefore, a gentleman will love God first, as the basis for every human relationship he has.
So, what is a gentleman, anyway? Merriam-Webster's definition is "a man who treats other people in a proper and polite way." That is, to treat people in a way that is appropriate for the situation. For instance, if a person is uncomfortable or embarrassed about the way he or she appears, a gentleman would make an effort to ensure that person is accepted and welcomed. If that same person accomplished something great, a gentleman would offer enthusiastic acknowledgement and congratulations.
Politeness has to do with happily putting a person's needs and desires before our own. To put a biblical slant to that definition, we need to consider a few passages of Scripture, as there is biblical precedent for this attitude. First, Jesus taught that we should follow our natural inclination to do unto others as we would have them do to us. This is commonly known as the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:11, 12). Paul echoes this sentiment exhorting Christians to:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3, 4
When we genuinely consider others better than ourselves, we are practicing humility in its purest form. We will then give careful consideration to their needs ahead of, or at least before, our own.
In a practical sense, a gentleman is one who puts at ease the people around him. He measures his words carefully, and naturally avoids awkward moments. He makes himself a welcome sight in any situation, as he knows beforehand how to act in whatever position he finds himself. He always seems to have the right answer, or at least some salient thoughts worth considering. He is naturally inclined toward the needs, thoughts, and feelings of others. These principles should be applied in equal measure to everyone. They will, however, be played out differently depending on the person or circumstance.
So, how could these seemingly universal values be a cause of conflict, even inspiring laws to be written to combat them when they are applied toward women and other people groups? The problem is that western culture's hostility toward the Judeo-Christian mindset is reaching an apex and is beginning to impose in earnest its vitriol on those who would live their lives by its tenets.
Let's look at what the Bible has to say about these roles. Scripture is clear that men are to assume a leadership role within a church body, and within his own family (1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Ephesians 5:22-24). It is important to note that these different roles do not indicate that men are more important than women. The Bible is clear that men and women are created equally and in God's image (Genesis 1:27), however it is very apparent that God has ordained men and women to assume different roles in society (Genesis 2:18). These roles have been followed broadly in some sense in virtually every culture throughout history. According to the Bible, women were created to be helpers to men, but still are equal to men in their status before God. This fact is echoed in 1 Peter 3:7.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
These verses are often highly controversial and offensive among many unbelievers and to those who do not hold to the reliability and authority of Scripture. The Bible draws clear lines to delineate the roles between men and women within the church and at home. Many Christian men understandably apply these functions into other areas of life, even where people may not adhere to, or even be hostile to, Christian ethics and norms.
The problem is that these roles are understandably vilified in light of abuses that have taken place throughout history — abuses that in no way reflect the intent of God's original design and purpose for men and women. Still, a gentleman will consider the needs and feelings or women and be a proper example of God's love toward them. He will do this without expecting anything in return.
Looking at the reality of the situation, we know that woman's status as a "weaker vessel" is a (accurate) generalization, as the vast majority of men should know at least a handful of women who are stronger, both physically and mentally, than they are. However, in general, a man will be able to build up his strength through exercise or manual labor more quickly and to a greater degree than a woman. It also should be no secret that a woman is more inclined toward her emotions than a man, but again, there are obvious exceptions to this as well.
Regardless of these differences, since the gentleman is one to act appropriately in any given situation, he will understand that it may be wise to modify how he treats women who do not follow the standard God has laid out for men and women in the Bible. A man may want to weigh how he treats a Christian woman against how he treats an unbeliever. A godly woman will welcome a man who abides by the standards laid out above. If she comes across a true gentleman, she will see him treat men and women with the same degree of love and deference. An unbeliever with a western mindset may automatically object strongly to any overtures he may make in showing respect to her. Of course, showing love to that person, he would consider taking that inclination into account and may modify his behavior. Such actions as opening doors, offering his seat, or lifting heavy items may not be welcome by some women. That doesn't mean we should never do them, but if a man interacts with a woman he knows to be against such gestures, then he would find himself solidly within the confines of being a gentleman to not force those situations upon her.
One personal example of this scenario can be found within the military. I have made it a habit to stand when a woman enters a room in most situations. Many military members often frown upon this show of respect, as the equality of men and women is constantly being stressed, and altering behavior based on one's sex is often looked upon as condescension. Of course, the behavior modification is practiced in almost every circumstance, anyway. Some personal conversations between men in the military would very likely lead to an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint if the same was said to a woman.
Just consider your surroundings and the people around you. Keep others in mind in everything you do. The key is to love God, love your neighbor, and do to others as you would have them do to you. Then you will be a true gentleman in every situation!