Embedded Portraits: A Theological Vision for Families 2


In his theology of baptism, the covenant, and children entitled Children of Abraham, David Kingdon argues that it’s not enough for Baptists to theologize about children only in the negative by denying that children should be baptized. Rather, Baptists should work harder at understanding positively how God intends for Christians to regard their children.

I both disagree and agree with Kingdon. I disagree with Kingdon because, in my estimation, denying that children should be baptized is not just negative, it’s positively affirming God’s unique calling on the church to be his ultimate means of evangelism and kingdom proclamation on earth (e.g., Mark 3:34-35). At least since Christ’s ascension, session, and giving of the Spirit, the church has been uppermost in God’s plan for blessing the nations, more than the biological family or anything else.

Still, Kingdon makes an important point that both paedobaptists and baptists need to hear, because the church does not perform its mighty work apart from the family. As we discussed in the first article, the church’s very vocabulary—the vocabulary of the Bible about the nature of God, the gospel, and the church itself—is inherently familial. Thus, in the Mark passage I just noted, Jesus depends on his listeners’ knowledge of the human family to explain the nature of the church. The same is true for us. There is a sense in which we in the church depend on the family.

So there’s more to say about children and families than to simply affirm or deny the continuity of the covenants! In this series of articles, I am trying to say that bit more. It’s not a complete theology of children or the family, but I hope we can consider some basic principles that both baptists and paedobaptists will agree upon.

Given that God has made the family a portrait of precious biblical truths, something all Christians can and should affirm is that God intends for families to minister both to the church and to the world. We’ll consider each ministry in turn.


If God has embedded the biological family into creation to present the world a picture of the church, as we considered in the last article, it must be the case that building families is a vital ministry to the church.

Sometimes 9Marks encourages churches to consider the example that they are setting for other churches by saying that “every Timothy needs a Paul, and every church needs a model.” But this raises the question of where the model church should look. Amidst the many metaphors God gives us to describe the church, one of the central metaphors—and one important place for churches to look for a model—is the family. A well-ordered family is a powerful, God-ordained, universal witness to the church of what it ought to be.

“God’s Household” in 1 Timothy

This is a key theme of Paul’s entire first letter to Timothy. “I am writing you these instructions,” Paul told Timothy, “so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). He then instructs the young pastor to call upon his experience in a family to show him how to treat the members of his congregation: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2).

As we noted in part 1, Paul tells Timothy to recognize elders for the church family by looking for good spiritual and earthly father figures. As Vern Poythress puts it, “Paul in effect presents an argument: good family leadership must be one of the criteria for appointment to the position of overseer because the very same skills and competencies are required for overseeing ‘one’s own house’ and the Christian ‘house'” (“The Church as Family,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 236). (This does not mean that single men cannot be elders. Paul himself was single, and he commends singleness as a blessing to the church.)

Poythress beautifully describes the process by which the church family develops. Notice specifically how a growing church family presupposes some understanding of a healthy human family:

Since God is our Father, we really are in a fundamental sense one family. The Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the Family gives us yearnings toward our fellow family members. In the long run, Christians cannot be satisfied with nothing more than a large, anonymous meeting once or twice a week. The ties of love demand more frequent and more intimate relations. . . .

As Christians meet with one another and know one another more intimately, their sense of being one family grows. They begin to treat one another in the way Paul counsels: the older men as fathers, the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, the younger women as sisters (I Tim. 5:10). People are no longer faceless masks, but real people, bound together by family ties. The same logic operative in natural families begins then to play itself out in the church as God’s household. In the intimacy of this spiritual family, people find that they are treating one another in a manner that respects differences of age, sex, and personality.

This is not to say that only people from healthy families can be healthy Christians and church members, or even that the family is more important in God’s plan of redemption than the church. Still, it’s worth noting that the very language we use to describe a healthy, growing church comes from what people know—from creation—about the family.

A Beautiful Symbiosis

In all of this, there is a beautiful symbiosis: the family blesses the church and the church blesses the family. Poythress again: “Because of the close relation between family and church, godly family life stimulates appreciation of God as our heavenly Father, and appreciation of God stimulates godly family life. Both are enhanced by the example of mature, fatherly [and motherly] leaders within the church” (ibid., 245). The reverse is also true: “[the] disintegration of household order within the church adversely affects both our consciousness of being in God’s family and the quality of love within Christian families” (ibid.).

Are you beginning to see the importance of the corporate witness of the family to the church, and the church to the family? The two bodies should aid one another. “The life of the church never overthrows but rather enhances the life of the family based on God’s design from creation” (ibid., 239) (emphasis added).

Practical Applications for Your Church

So be honest. Would you describe the relationship of families and your church as a beautiful symbiosis? Specifically, does the life of your church overthrow or enhance the life of its families? And does the life of your church’s families overthrow or enhance the life of your church?

Let’s talk practically, then, about how we can encourage healthy, mutually beneficial relationships between our churches and their families. The job is accomplished by teaching—by both word and example.

Family to Church. On the one hand, we need to teach our congregations about the profound ministry of human families. It is difficult to overstate the urgency of this task, particularly in the West, where the value of a biblically ordered family is rapidly being lost. Powerful cultural currents are sweeping through our churches, hitting married couples, singles, and children, and leaving them bewildered about some of the most basic life questions. Is parenthood important to God? Why? What is the role and purpose of children? What is the role and purpose of sibling relationships? What is the role and purpose of gender? Many of our people simply do not know. Many of us do not know.

Pastor, teach your people God’s truth about the ministry of the family to your church. Teach them that parenthood is important to God because it provides the church with a picture of certain aspects of the Trinity. Teach them that having children is important to God because it provides the church with a picture of our adoption through Christ. Teach them that sibling relationships are important to God because they provide the church with a picture of the relationships between its members. Teach them, as we’ll discuss in the next article, that gender is important to God because it provides the church with a picture of certain aspects of the Godhead.

  • Consider how you can encourage that young couple struggling with the Bible’s command to have children. In exchange for the sacrifice involved in having children, they will provide the church with a picture that reflects aspects of the relationship between the First and Second persons of the Trinity.
  • Consider how you would encourage that lonely single. By spending time with one of your church’s families and watching how the parents treat the children, he or she can grow in the knowledge of God’s tender fatherly care.
  • Consider how you can encourage that mother in your church who often second-guesses her career sacrifice to stay home with children. She is providing the church with a picture of God’s sacrificial, constant, minute care for his children and cultivating sibling relationships that provide a model for brothers and sisters in the church. Help her see that she has gone into full-time ministry!
  • Consider how you can encourage those two men in your church who “just can’t get along.” They can make headway in their relationship by praying over how they teach their children to get along, and then applying those lessons to themselves.

And these are just a few examples. As you preach through Scripture week by week, don’t let the drumbeat of family language pass by without commenting on the significance it lends to their most familiar relationships. Of course,this will often be the passage’s secondary application, which is the reason why we so often miss it. And one will need to take care not to over-employ these analogies by forcing them into exact parallels. But we should also take care not to under-employ the analogies either, give the ministry of the family its due, and watch how it enhances the life of the church.

We should also teach our congregations about the ministry of families by showing them. “Most people learn far better from example,” Vern Poythress writes, “than they do from teaching in the abstract. So how do they properly assimilate teaching about family life? Ideally they imitate the family lives of their church leaders. But this imitation is most effective if they can actually see something of the family life of their leaders” (RBMW, 246). Pastor, encourage the leaders in your church, along with their wives, to open their homes, particularly for family worship. Open your doors and your hearts, and let your people learn the ministry of the family by personal experience.

Church to Family. On the other hand, we need to teach our congregations’ families how the church profoundly ministers to them as families.

First, teach congregations to listen to what is said at church about God, the gospel, and the church in order to learn how their homes should function. We want our families to understand that the Bible’s chief concern is not what we learn about God from our families, but what we learn for our families from God, given that we were created to image him, and not he us. For our families to serve as proper images of divine realities, we need to hear from him what he is like.

Yes, the church is a special grace body and the family is a common grace body. But this is precisely what enables the church family to instruct the human family—without special grace the church would not resemble a family at all! And the more our human families heed instruction from the church, the more they can provide visible pictures for the church itself to imitate and summon to illustrate divine realities. Conversely, if the church crowds out or ignores the family, then it only diminishes its own message by failing to uphold these precious, God-given, living pictures.

Second, urge your congregations to look to the example of the gospel-grounded church family as an instructive picture for individual families. Remind them that love and submission between a church member and an elder, for instance, sets a pattern for the relationship between the parent and the child. Or the gospel harmony between a white brother and a black brother, to use another example, has lessons for the teenage brother and sister who have difficulty appreciating one another’s differences. (Of course, much of this effect will likely be lost if you have multiple services tailored to various demographics.)

The church’s “picturing” ministry to the family can also occur by bringing children to the meetings of the church. This lets the children see the church family interacting with order and reverence for God and, if it’s a worship service, worshiping together our heavenly Father. (For an excellent discussion of the benefits of taking children to worship services, see John & Noel Piper, The Family: Together in God’s Presence.) Here too the children will see a helpful contrast with their family, as they see that, unlike the human family, the family of God is diverse in age, ethnicity, socio-economic status and myriad other ways.

By what we teach and how we live, let’s pray that our families would better minister to our churches, and our churches to minister to our families. May they never overthrow one another, but enhance one another to the glory of God.


Building families is not only vital to the church, it’s vital to the world. God designed the family to be a universal model of some of the most precious truths about himself and his plan of salvation so that everyone is prepared—to some degree—to hear the gospel.

Why Satan Attacks

Yet have you noticed that the concept of a family in Western culture is becoming more and more distinctly Christian? When we tell people the amazing news of a Father who “so loved” the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that we could become his adopted children, we hope we can assume that they know, on a human level, about these basic types of relationships. But this assumption is becoming increasingly difficult to make because the cultural tide that has swept through the church has ripped with even greater force through the culture. And Satan has clear reasons for only making things worse.

Many people increasingly come from homes that will have chilled their hearts to the idea of a wise and loving father; the idea of faithful, tender love from brothers and sisters; or the idea of the blessing of living under authority. Why does Satan attack the family? He wants to disintegrate and distort the family beyond recognition precisely so that the gospel is as inaccessible as possible. And by all accounts he’s having great success of late in Western culture.

Under this fierce assault, Christians cannot afford to be neutral or worldly. My point here is not to call for political activism (though there may be a place for that), but for personal and corporate faithfulness. The church should view building strong vibrant families as gospel work. Opening our homes to non-Christian friends is an increasingly valuable evangelistic opportunity.

The Family as an Outpost

Indeed, since Satan has so successfully attacked the family—and thus distorted the very conceptual categories we have for conveying gospel truths—Christian homes are a vital base of evangelism. Dawson Trotman, founder of the evangelistic group Navigators, said, “I believe with all my heart that one of the greatest soul saving stations in the world is the home” (in Carolyn Mahaney, Feminine Appeal, 100).

Dawson’s point is especially poignant since our homes are “in the world.” They sit on streets with non-Christians. They are “outposts.” It’s a different kind of outpost than the church, since our children may or may not be Christians and so may or may not proclaim the gospel. But as we live out our God-given familial roles in God-ordained ways, we soften the ground for non-Christians to make sense of good news about a God who sent his Son to die so that we could be made part of his family.

We can also reach out from our homes in mercy ministry. Through our children’s involvement in neighborhood activities, for example, we can look for opportunities to get to know non-Christians by caring for their needs. Remember, the Proverbs 31 woman used her home as a base of operations to care for the poor.

Home—A Pejorative Term?

If we’re honest, though, we must admit that “home” in many circles is a dirty word. Radical feminism in particular has wreaked havoc on the concept of home. How sad that even within many evangelical churches the “stay-at-home mom” is a pejorative term!

But in Scripture home is a place of blessing. We see this in Proverbs 31, as the “wife of noble character” centers her amazing industriousness on her home. We also see it as Jesus assures his fearful disciples with the promise that one day they would be with him at home: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you….I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-4).

In other words, God appears to regard the job of preparing a home as suitable for women of “noble character” and the Son of God himself!

A Small Picture of Heaven

In her excellent little book Feminine Appeal, Carolyn Mahaney encourages women to build homes in which it’s “impossible to keep from thinking about God” (100). Does this seem farfetched? Consider what a faithful father, a godly mother, obedient children, and perhaps even a holy grandparent or two pictures. Is it not a small picture of heaven?

By God’s grace, I have known many families in my church whose homes presented deeply attractive havens to children with difficult homes of their own. One woman in our church developed a friendship with neighbor kids who would arrive for cookies at around 4 p.m. every day. Another couple found that their teenage children’s non-Christian friends increasingly preferred spending an evening with that Christian family rather than the mall. Those teenagers experienced something different in that Christian house!

Another example that comes to mind is that of missionaries our church supports in a Muslim country. The couple has several daughters, and they have testified that the greatest tool of evangelism is their home life. Their Muslim friends are amazed to see the love and respect the father has for his wife and daughters, and their neighbors love to spend time in that Christian home.

In other words, Christian churches in both Muslim countries and the secular West should help to expand Christian families’ understanding of themselves: they can be an evangelistic base of operations.

The Gospel Work of Having Children

These days, even having children can help the work of evangelism. Having children too early, having too many, or having them for the wrong reasons, can raise eyebrows. Sometimes it’s even looked down upon, as one woman with six children discovered when her friends referred to her as a “breeder,” according to a recent Christianity Today article.

But notice how such language conveys a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be made in God’s image. Humans don’t “breed,” says Al Mohler, they procreate. In light of God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28); in light of God’s promise that that the man whose home is full of children is blessed (Ps. 127:3-5); in light of God’s assurance that childbearing is God’s ordained place of safety for the married woman (1 Tim. 2:15), surely Christians should be wholly unsympathetic to any reference to childbearing as “breeding.”

If God intends for our families to teach humanity something about himself, his gospel, and his church—as we considered in part 1 of this series—then having children provides an opportunity for Christians to teach about such things through their homes. Having children can also show that Christians have kingdom priorities, rather than selfish and worldly ones.

Finally, having children provides an opportunity to evangelize future generations. Have you ever noticed that God repeatedly promises to bless generations of families? In the Law, God promises to show love to a “thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Deut. 7:9). The Psalmist says that “from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children” (Ps. 103:17). And we see great examples of this in the New Testament, as with Timothy, who learned the gospel from his mother and grandmother. God loves to bless families.


Do churches have anything to say about children beyond whether or not they should be baptized? Certainly. Building families is critical Christian ministry. It’s critical for the church and for the world, which see in the family a picture of God himself and a redeemed community.

In part 3 of this series, we will consider how men and women image God differently, and what that means for raising boys and girls differently.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Andrew Nichols

Andrew Nichols is married with four children. He and his wife, Bari, live in Arlington, Virginia, and are privileged to be members at Anacostia River Church. Andrew is a lawyer who enjoys reading about politics, theology, history, and basketball.

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