In the story of Peter Pan, Peter leads the Lost Boys on the island of Neverland, where children never grow up. They are perpetually young. This magical story of escapism is a celebration of youth. But as observant adults grow and reexamine the story, there is a sinister undertone: Peter kills any Lost Boys who grow up. In Neverland, it is against the rules to grow up, and breaking these rules results in death.
As the story reads, “The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them, counting the twins as two.”
Though much can be said of this, what is interesting for modern readers is the analogous nature of Peter Pan’s killing of the Lost Boys, who grow older, and modern society’s killing of manhood. Modernity is a Neverland that desires nothing more than the death of masculinity, adulthood, and even simple notions like the need to grow up. Instead, society, as a type of Peter Pan, pushes forward the concept of perpetual adolescence. It desires for men to behave like little boys and for women to behave like little girls. Rather than adopting responsibility, contributing to society, or fulfilling the God-given Dominion Mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” (Gen. 1:28), men and women alike are encouraged to focus on nothing other than their own appetites. When women behave like women, they are said to be oppressed by the patriarchy. When men behave like men, they are said to be oppressive. Adolescence, on the other hand, is continually celebrated.
The Problem of Perpetual Adolescence
Today, growing up seems an exercise in futility to many and what has happened is more and more men (and women) are adopting a state of perpetual adolescence. Like the Lost Boys from Neverland, they refuse to grow up. They shirk responsibility. In fact, their responsibilities are next to zero, and a mere cursory glance at most young people reveals a startling inability to commit to any legitimate responsibilities. It is not only that they do not wish to have responsibility; they are incapable of adopting any.
Both men and women are growing older without committing to a single partner. It is no longer surprising to hear of a couple in their thirties, or even forties, that has yet to settle down or have children. And to be clear here with that last sentence, I am sympathetic to those married couples who struggle with infertility. My point is that real manhood requires commitment, and the lack of commitment by those unwilling to commit to the union between one man and one woman is very concerning.
What is surprising and truly counter-cultural are the young men who love their wives, father children, and hold steady jobs. The norm is for young men to live bachelor-like lives (typically, many continue to live at home) while attempting to fulfill dreams of great success in the workplace – if they work at all. Rather than committing to a wife and children, they jump from one sexual escapade to the next. And, even in some families where the man has committed himself to one woman and has fathered children, he is often conspicuously absent, focusing instead on things like video games, entertainment, and being all-around lazy. Man has refused to do what God has created him to do.
Some men, seeking masculinity, have found a home in radicalism, escapism, and entertainment, like the aforementioned video games. Perpetually adolescent, he either amuses himself to death or seeks to fill the void with whatever he has imagined manliness to be like. This is also why some men have found themselves on the alt-right or alt-left; seeking adventure; he adopts the ways of radical political activism as an escape from his drab existence of adolescence.
Is it any wonder? Men have misunderstood what masculinity is. It is more than being strong, industrious, and creative (though all of those things are good and designed by God). To be a man, according to God, is to know Christ, love Christ, and proclaim Christ. To be a man, according to God, is to be watchful of the times and seasons, to stand firm in the faith, to be bold, and to be courageous. To be a man is to have all manly attributes, like the ability to create, fight, and defend, bonded together in love. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:7: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Where has this myth of perpetual adolescence been propagated, and what is the solution?
It may seem strange to start with the Church as one of the purveyors of this crisis of perpetual adolescence. After all, as the Body of Christ with Christ Himself at the head, does it not make sense to say that the Church is the only institution that possesses the answer for solving the problem of inept and effeminate masculinity? However, the fact remains that though the Church has the answer within the Scriptures, the Church has been at the forefront of perpetuating the myth of the perpetual adolescent.
This is not a new development. The Church, unfortunately, has encouraged this for centuries. It has forgotten 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 (ESV): “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
Christian men are encouraged to be watchful and to stand firm in the faith. What has happened is that men are instead lax and lazy. Many with faith in Christ would not know how to stand against those who attack the faith if they were given the opportunity. They do not know doctrine and have expected the women of the Church to lead them in teaching and prayer. Most men seem not to possess any true faith at all and, in an effort to be liked and accepted, will adopt whatever posture the situation calls for.
Notice, though, that the call is not only to be watchful and firm but to be a man. True, biblical masculinity is hard to come by, for it is watchful, firm in the faith, strong and bold in truth, dependent upon Scripture, able to lead, provide, protect, defend, and always acts in love. What an anomaly it is to find such men today! Often, when they are found, the world simply calls them mean-spirited, oppressive, and misogynistic.
Perhaps within the typical youth group, we find the symptoms of perpetual adolescence taught and most prevalent. These meetings have become miniature Neverlands, over which rule the insipid Peter Pans of churches. Children are taught to be entertained, to have fun, and not take the Bible too seriously. Boys are taught never to grow up.
In the past, children were expected to sit through church services, including the sermons (which, during the age of Puritans, could last hours), and they were expected to pay attention, understand, and behave. This is juxtaposed with today’s youth, who are ushered off to a different part of the church, separate from the adults, where they play games, eat snacks, and do crafts. Perhaps, they may learn about how a great fish swallowed Jonah for a few minutes, but then it is back to games and snacks.
Is it really any surprise, then, when these same children never learn how to grow up? When they age and are forced out of the fun and games of the youth group, they cannot handle the “adult” worship of the traditional church service.
The modern Church has learned how to produce infants in the faith, but not men. Fans of Christ, but not followers. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:2: “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now, you are not yet ready…” And, again, the writer of Hebrews says, in Hebrews 5:12: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.”
It is not spoken of as a good thing that these men in the church behaved like children, capable of only spiritual milk. They should have been able to take in the true spiritual meat that Christ offered in His Word. Instead, they could only manage to take in comparatively little nourishment.
Many would appeal to Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:2-4 in order to defend perpetual adolescence as a good thing: “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'”
Jesus is not telling people they must behave like children. On the contrary, He expects the Christian to grow. Rather, he explains that the Christian must adopt a posture of child-like faith in Himself. A child, especially a young child, typically believes everything they are told, without question. That is how the Christian is to approach Christ: with absolute devotion and trust in all that He has said and done.
There does, however, come a time when the child must grow, just as the Christian grows in faith. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
Men are expected to not only grow up physically but to put away childish things. This means that he is expected to adopt various responsibilities, become a contributing and functioning member of society, and, Lord willing, get married and have children.
Just as the Church has encouraged this behavior, so too has the family. Growing up, the majority of youth today have seen, time and again, the wife and mother take charge of the household. If the family is Christian, it is usually the mother who cares for all things spiritual. The husband and father are either absent or sits beneath her teaching. He is not expected to lead or contribute in any meaningful way, except on rare occasions where he is at least viewed as the family provider.
Women have taken to the pulpits (a direct violation of 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and the cultural mandate), so too have women taken to lead the household. When Adam and Eve fell, God warned that the woman would desire to rule over her husband (this is why the rise of radical feminism is unsurprising). Woman has continually given in to this sinful instinct. However, even more sinful is that man has allowed her to do so by shirking his responsibility.
The idea has become that the man is expected to work (though not always the case anymore, as more and more women seek to leave the rearing of children and homemaking behind in favor of finding a career in the workplace), to BBQ in the summer, and occasionally show up to sports games and family gatherings. His responsibility to his family is limited. Little is expected of him in the modern family, and so little he does.
The home has become a sort of modified Neverland. Women may grow into adulthood, as various responsibilities she was never expected to bear are thrust upon her shoulders. Still, the man is enabled to live a life of ease and luxury. There is often little difference between his behavior and that of his children. He is perpetually adolescent within the home.
It should be little surprise that the culture and the society of modernity have contributed to this issue, but it has done so because it has followed in the footsteps of the Church and the family.
Technology has enabled many women to do what, formerly, only men were capable of. Women work on construction sites, join the military, and guard prisons. Men have found an increasing number of women entering fields that, for a long time, were thought to be the sole work of men. With the Church and family perpetuating adolescence in man, the last piece of society that required true masculinity, or at least a tinge of masculinity, has left man behind.
The rise of radical feminism has resulted in the idea that “whatever a man can do, a woman can do better.” Man is made to feel guilty for perpetuating a patriarchy that has supposedly suppressed women’s rights. He has continually been told that he is worthless, useless, and pointless. All that is left for him to do is to take a seat next to woman, acknowledging that he is of the inferior sex.
While neither sex is inferior because God has wisely created both for distinct purposes and roles, society has, like Peter Pan, sought to kill masculinity. Masculinity, according to society, is not nice but mean and unwanted. The result has been, for decades now, men who refuse to grow up and take their place in society.
It would seem Neverland is all around us, and Peter Pan has won.
First Corinthians 16:13 is vital in this conversation. Men must be men. Boys must grow into adulthood. Girls must become women, yes, but the boys who become men are expected to lead. Far from a Neverland-like society, the survival of Western civilization and culture depends on this very thing: Men must become men, putting off childish things, and leaving Neverland behind. Captain Hook must oppose the tyranny of Peter Pan once more.
However, the problem remains that men do not understand their roles to behave like men. So, what is it to be a biblical man?
Two things are needed: A true, biblical man must work, and he must keep. Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
Let us return to the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'”
Here, God gives the command for the man to work. This work consists of a few different aspects: First, man is to bear God’s image on earth. As Jesus once said, the Christian is like a city on the hill and a lamp that cannot be hidden (Matt. 5:14-16); therefore, the Christian man must represent Christ well before others, embodying His nature through the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit.
As God’s image-bearers, man is also commanded to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, settle down with a wife and have kids (if the Lord permits). As Proverbs 5:18 says, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth…” Faithful commitment to a wife from a young age is great medicine for perpetual adolescence.
This love for his wife results in the bonding together of the flesh so that the two become one (Gen. 2:24). Specifically, the conjugal union fulfills the command to be fruitful and multiply; as God’s image-bearer, God commands man to create more image-bearers to fill the whole earth with His glory. Psalm 127:3-5 says of children, “Behold; children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”
Though modern society pushes men to reject such responsibility as husbands and fathers, it is a biblical command, and the younger the man begins to fulfill it, the better. The more children he has, as able, the better.
This commitment to spouse and children leads the man, of necessity, to rule over nature. He must take dominion of his surroundings; his and his family’s survival depends on it. This means the man must work to make a living and provide for his family.
Yet, in this work, there is also the need for man to fulfill the Great Commission. Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Taking dominion of the earth does not mean that man becomes his own god. On the contrary, taking dominion means bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ through the proclamation of the gospel and making disciples who are holy in obedience to Christ and His commands.
This makes the connection between working and keeping clear. The man, in taking a wife, filling the earth, and bringing all things under Christ’s Lordship, is also required to keep his wife and children; that is to say, he must promote their spiritual growth and protect them from both physical and spiritual harm. This means the husband and father’s responsibility is to lead his family in times of Scripture reading, doctrinal instruction, and prayer. He must cultivate spiritual discipline within his own life and his family.
When the Church promotes this view of manhood, churches will be healthier, families will be stronger, and the culture will find its strong defenders once more.
The solution to perpetual adolescence is simple: boys need to be taught to become men through God’s Word. Peter Pan must be slain by Captain Hook, and the perpetual adolescence of Neverland discarded in favor of real-world responsibility as mandated by God.
Jacob Tanner is a husband, father, and pastor, living in Pennsylvania. Holding to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Jacob is focused on both evangelism and reformation. He is the founder of the Sound of Truth Ministries, where they have regular podcasts and preaches whenever the opportunity arises. His passion and motto are, “To know Christ and make Him known because He has made us His own.” He can be found spending time with his family or with a book in his hands in his free time.