I come from a cavalry family, as in horse soldiers. My great-grandfather was a cavalry scout in the frontier West. My grandfather commanded the Army’s last horse cavalry regiment (in 1938, believe it or not). At that point, our family switched from horses to tanks, and both my father and I served as tank officers.

Of all the great cavalry movies, none holds a dearer place in my heart than John Wayne’s classic, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Portraying Captain Nathan Briddles, a grizzled Civil War veteran who is facing the end of his career, the Duke is a walking cornucopia of manliness. When I was a young armored cav officer, I not only watched this movie roughly a thousand times but absorbed much of its ethos. Anyone who has seen this movie can tell you that Captain Briddles’ approach to manliness can be summed up in two words: Never apologize! Over and over again, he grills his hapless lieutenants, always with the same emphasis: “Never apologize, Mister!” I am afraid that I took this counsel a bit too much to heart, with the result that my early twenties were a little more obnoxious than they needed to be.

When I became a Christian, however, I learned that not every manly saying in John Wayne movies should be adopted. “Never apologize” may sound great in theory, but in practice it can combine with a man’s sin nature to make him overbearing and arrogant. As I became more familiar with Scripture, I learned about two different words that do a far better job of summarizing how a man should live: “work” and “keep.”

Taken together, these two words serve as a summary of the Bible’s mandate for masculine behavior. Men are called to be men, fulfilling our calling before God in this world: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Our calling in life really is this simple (although not therefore easy): We are to devote ourselves to working/building and keeping/protecting everything placed into our charge.

What exactly do these two words signify? Let’s look more closely.

Work: to cultivate as a gardener

First, let’s consider avad, the Hebrew term translated in Genesis 2:15 as “work.” This is an extremely common word in the Old Testament, and can appear in a verb or noun form. As a verb, it most often means “work,” “serve,” “labor,” “cultivate,” or “perform acts of worship.” As a noun, it usually indicates “servant,” “officer,” or “worshiper.” Because the context for Genesis 2 is the Garden of Eden, we should first consider how avad applies in an agricultural sense. Adam was called by God to till and cultivate the garden so it would grow and bear an abundance of fruit.

What does a gardener do to make his garden grow?  He tends the garden; he works it. He plants seeds and prunes branches. He digs and fertilizes. His labor makes living things strong, beautiful, and lush. As he works, he is able to stand back and see that he has accomplished good things. There are rows of tall trees, rich fields of wheat, bountiful vineyards, and colorful beds of flowers.

According to the Bible, this kind of work describes one of the two main planks in a man’s calling. Not that men are all literally to work as gardeners. Rather, we are called to “work” whatever “field” God has given us. We are to invest our time, our energies, our ideas, and our passions in bringing good things into being. A faithful man, then, is one who has devoted himself to cultivating, building, and growing.

Take a Christian man’s professional life, for example. Our calling to work means investing ourselves in accomplishing things of value. Men should be using their gifts, talents, and experiences to succeed in worthwhile causes that (if they are married) provide for their families. This can be anything that accomplishes good. A man can make eyeglasses, do scientific research, or manage a store; the examples are almost endless. But in each case, our mandate to work means we should be devoting ourselves to building good things and accomplishing worthwhile results.

Of course, our “garden” includes not merely things but people. Men’s calling to cultivate means we are to be involved in the hearts of people placed under our care—people who work for us, people we teach and mentor, and most especially our wives and children. A man’s fingers should be accustomed to working in the soil of the human heart—the hearts of those he serves and loves—that he might accomplish some of the most valuable and important work of this life.

This biblical mandate to work—here with the emphasis on cultivating and tending—explodes a great misconception regarding gender roles. We have been taught that women are the main nurturers, while men are to be “strong and silent.” But the Bible calls men to be cultivators, and that includes a significant emphasis on tending the hearts of those given into our charge.

A husband is called to nurture his wife emotionally and spiritually. This is not a sideshow to his calling as a husband but is fundamental and central to his masculine calling in marriage. Likewise, a father is called to be intentional about plowing up and nurturing the hearts of his children. Men who are seeking to live out the “Masculine Mandate” will be nurturers.

Keep: to protect as a sword-bearer

The other half of the masculine mandate is found in the word keep. Here, the basic meaning is to “guard” or “protect.” This is captured in another common Hebrew word, shamar, which is translated by such English terms as “watch,” “guard,” “protect,” “take under custody,” or “exercise care.” The word is used of soldiers, shepherds, priests, custodians, and government officials. I especially love the way God uses this word regarding Himself. The Lord frequently states that He guards and keeps those who trust Him. In fact, shamar is the idea behind the powerful biblical image of the Lord as a tower or strong fortress.

This calling to keep rounds out the Masculine Mandate of the Bible. A man is not only to wield the plow, but also to bear the sword. Being God’s deputy lord in the garden, Adam was not only to make it fruitful, but also to keep it safe. Likewise, our basic mandate as Christian men is to cultivate, build, and grow (both things and people), but also to stand guard so that people and things are kept safe—so that the fruit of past cultivating and nurturing is preserved.

To be a man is to stand up and be counted when there is danger or other evil. God does not desire for men to stand by idly and allow harm, or permit wickedness to exert itself. Rather, we are called to keep others safe within all the covenant relationships we enter. In our families, our presence is to make our wives and children feel secure and at ease. At church, we are to stand for truth and godliness against the encroachment of worldliness and error. In society, we are to take our places as men who stand up against evil and who defend the nation from threat of danger.

What greatness looks like

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), and He is still calling on men to cause good things to grow and to keep precious things safe. If we reflect a moment, these are the commitments we tend to admire in great men, and this should not surprise us.  Truly great men are servants who give themselves to a worthy cause and leaders who stand for what is right. Come to think of it, this is what we admired in all those John Wayne movies. Take away the dumb saying, “Never apologize,” from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and we see that practically everything Captain Briddles did fell into the categories of building up or keeping safe.

If we want to be the men God is calling us to be—men who are rightly admired and respected by those we love, men who faithfully fulfill our duty before God—then we will make as our motto and watchword the Masculine Mandate that we as men have received from God: We will work and keep.

Excerpted from The Masculine Mandate by Richard D. Phillips, © 2010. Published by Reformation Trust Publishing. Used by permission. All rights reserved.