Embedded Portraits: A Theological Vision for Families 3


What’s the question that expecting parents most often hear? My vote: “Do you know what you’re having?”

The anticipated answer, of course, is not “a baby” but “a boy” or “a girl.” And the balloons for the girl will be pink, and for the boy they will be blue.

The question we want to ask in part three of this series on the family is, Does the fact that we’re having a boy or a girl make any difference in parenting beyond the color of their balloons? The answer according to Scripture is emphatically, Yes! And pastors should know why so that they can better equip the men and the sons, the women and the daughters, in their congregations.

Biblically, boys and girls are not interchangeable. In one sense, this is not a surprise for most parents. Genetic differences express themselves in striking ways, like the little girl I read about whose mother gave her a train to socialize her as gender neutral. The girl took the train, carefully wrapped it in a blanket, and put it in her stroller to go to sleep. But, in another sense, there are fundamental differences in God’s purposes in making boys and girls, and this may come as a surprise to some parents, even Christian ones.

In the previous articles of this 3-part series, we have considered how the Trinity, the gospel, and the church are reflected in our relationships with our children. In this article, we will consider what God teaches us about himself through the gender differences of our children. We’ll also talk about the roles God intends for men and women to play and how we can train our children for those roles.


The most fundamental biblical teaching on gender is this: God intends to project his image differently through men and women, who are created equally in his image.

So men and women are equal in dignity and value to God (see Gen. 1:27). This is because, as Wayne Grudem puts it, both men and women are “more like God than anything else in the universe” (Building Strong Families, Dennis Rainey ed., 29). But we are different in our design and in our roles. We are not interchangeable; rather, we complement one another. In God’s design, the “weaknesses of the man are not weaknesses and the weaknesses of the woman are not weaknesses. They are the complements that call forth different strengths in each other” (John Piper in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 49) (“RBMW“).

Often this complementary design is discussed in terms of headship and submission. We see this in marriage, where the husband is described as the head of the wife (Eph. 5:23), and in the church, where only men are authorized to teach (1 Tim. 2:12). And this complementary design is fleshed out in different activities or roles, a differentiation that “is traced back to the way things were in Eden before sin warped our relationships. Differentiated roles were corrupted, not created, by the fall” (John Piper in RBMW, 35).

This is not surprising, because differentiated roles exist in the Godhead itself. The Father and the Son are not the same person; they have different roles; but they are both fully God. “Just as the Father and Son are equal in deity and equal in all their attributes, but different in role, the husband and wife [and men and women generally] are equal in personhood but different in the roles that God has given them” (Wayne Grudem in Building Strong Families, Dennis Rainey ed., 60).

So here we see yet another portrait of divine truth embedded in the family—the portrait of the roles of the trinity displayed in our very genders. Praise God for the marvelous witness he has left himself in our homes!

Well, then, if God has indeed created men and women to be different, how then should we raise our boys and girls? The short answer is that we should raise our boys to be biblically masculine and our girls to be biblically feminine.


Beginning with boys, the natural question to ask is what biblical masculinity looks like. John Piper usefully answers it this way: “at the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships” (RBMW, 35).

Teach Them Mature Masculinity

Note that Piper’s definition starts with the idea of mature masculinity. It’s not just any masculinity for our boys that Christians want. There is plenty of immature masculinity in this world. It helped to create, or at least to foster, radical feminism. We are not shooting for domineering, insensitive, authoritarian, condescending men.

When a son uses his strength to take advantage of a younger brother or sister, the parent has an excellent opportunity not to yell at him but, after taking him privately aside, to point out that God has given him strength to do good to others. Parents should teach boys that their strength and courage should be harnessed to protect others and to take risks for Christ.

Teach Them a Sense of Benevolent Responsibility

This leads to the next part of Piper’s definition of biblical masculinity: Christians want to raise boys to have a sense of benevolent responsibility. Even if boys cannot live out their benevolent responsibility towards women (as when they attend an all-boys school, are single, or become injured), parents should teach them to sense, at a deep level, their responsibility and to look for ways to express it towards women. “For example,” Piper writes, “such a man’s sense of responsibility will affect how he talks about women and the way he relates to pornography and the kind of concern he shows for the marriages of the men around him” (RBMW, 36).

One of the men in my life who has shown the most sincere, sustained, intelligent interest in my marriage, and who has helped me the most, is a 31-year-old single man. He is a fine example of a man with a sense of benevolent responsibility toward women, even though he has few occasions to practice it directly.

Teach Them a Sense of Benevolent Responsibility

And what is this a sense of? It’s a sense of benevolent responsibility. Benevolence, as I have already suggested, is using one’s strength to do good to others. And the word responsibility, Piper writes, shows that masculinity is a “God-given trust . . . not a right” (RBMW, 37). It’s not so much a prerogative, but a calling, a duty, an obligation, and a charge, says Piper. The man “will be uniquely called to account for his leadership, provision and protection in relation to women” (ibid). We see this pictured in Genesis 3:9. Eve had initiated the first couple’s sin, but God came looking for Adam. He was called to account. So too in our families.

Not only should fathers feel this sense of responsibility, they should explain it to their sons (and daughters). Fathers should teach their children about the trust—the calling—that they have been given as fathers. In fact, they should talk to their children about how they are unable to handle this calling, and how Christ is able. They should ask their children to go to God on their behalf. As young boys and girls learn to ask God to make their dad’s better husbands and fathers, they will learn more about this mature sense of benevolent responsibility that men have.

And what an instructive, clarifying, precious moment for children—when they hear their fathers acknowledging before God their weaknesses and asking God for help!

Teach Them to Lead

What should boys learn it’s their responsibility to do? To lead. As Piper notes, the word “lead” can mean many things to different people—”Does it mean I need to drive the car?” So let’s clarify it with a few statements:

Leadership involves service and sacrifice. According to Piper, leadership is not a “demanding demeanor,” it’s “moving things forward to a goal.” Specifically, it’s moving things forward to “holiness and heaven” (RBMW, 38).

Jesus led his bride to holiness and heaven on the Calvary road. He looked weak, but he was infinitely strong in saying NO to the way of the world. So it will be again and again for mature men. . .  (ibid.)

Christian parents should train their boys to move others forward, through their own self-sacrifice, toward a goal of holiness and heaven. Sons should be able to watch their fathers treat their mothers in this fashion. If they have younger siblings, they should be given opportunities to do this now.

Leadership does not presume superiority, but cultivates and mobilizes the strengths of others. Christian parents should teach their boys not to demean or ignore girls (ultimately women), but to nurture them in the service of Christ. As Michael Lawrence, a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, has put it, parents should teach their boys to lead through nurturing. This usually does not come naturally to boys, who are interested in serving themselves. They have to be trained to be attentive to others and to foster the growth of others, especially among those who are weaker.

Leadership does not have to initiate every action, but it feels the responsibility to provide a general pattern of initiative. This sounds very nice—and very theoretical. So Piper puts the point practically:

[T]he leadership pattern would be less than biblical if the wife in general was having to take the initiative in prayer at mealtime, and get the family out of bed . . . on Sunday morning, and gather the family for devotions, and discuss what moral standards will be required of the children, and confer about financial priorities. . . A wife may initiate the discussion and planning of any one of these, but if she becomes the one who senses the general responsibility for this pattern of initiative while her husband is passive, something contrary to biblical masculinity and femininity is in the offing. (RBMW, 39)

Boys should not see Christian parents living this way! Passive fathers raise passive sons. If a father doesn’t know whether he’s too passive, he should ask his kids, “Who seems to lead our home, mommy or daddy?”

Teach Them to Provide

A mature man also has a sense of benevolent responsibility to provide. What does this mean? We do not mean that a woman cannot help support the family financially. We do mean, in Piper’s words, that “when there is no bread on the table it is the man who should feel the main pressure to do something to get it there” (RBMW, 42).

This is implied in Genesis 3 where the curse touches man and woman in their natural places of life. It is not a curse that man must work in the field to get bread for the family or that woman bears children. The curse is that these spheres of life are made difficult and frustrating. In appointing the curse for his rebellious creatures God aims at the natural sphere of life peculiar to each. Evidently God had in mind from the beginning that the man would take special responsibility for sustaining the family through bread-winning labor, while the wife would take special responsibility for sustaining the family through childbearing and nurturing labor. Both are life-sustaining and essential.
. . . .

Again I stress that the point here is not to dictate the details of any particular pattern of labor in the home. [For example, who does the laundry? In my house, for example, my wife does the laundry, but I do most of the ironing; I earn the income, but she handles the finances.] The point is that mature manhood senses a benevolent responsibility before God to be the primary provider for his family. And the same is true for a social group of men and women who are not married. Mature men sense that it is primarily (not solely) their responsibility to see to it that there is provision and protection. (BMW, 43, n.15; citing Deut. 10:18; Jer. 31:32; Eph. 5:23; Col. 2:19).

In order to promote this responsibility to provide in their sons, mothers can encourage their children to observe their father’s hard work. They can also set a good example by expressing gratitude for that work whenever they spend money. Fathers, on the other hand, should ask themselves the question, Does my job serve my family, or does my family serve my job? I ask myself this question in order to ensure that I’m not putting more weight on my job than my family was meant to bear.

Teach Them to Protect

Finally, a mature man has a sense of benevolent responsibility to protect. We see this in Ephesians 5:25, which instructs husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” As Piper puts it,

Christ is here sacrificing himself to protect his wife, the church, from the ravages of sin and hell. This is not an arbitrary assignment. It is fitting because men were created for this. . . . The sense of responsibility to protect is there in man by virtue of this design in creation, not by virtue of the marriage covenant. (BMW, 44 n.16)

We also see this in the Old Testament, as the men, not the women, had the duty of going to war.

In my own marriage, one of the primary ways my wife wants me to care for her is to give her my protection. Now, we have two-year-old twins; her biceps are impressive. And I can remember jogging with her in a mountainous area just after law school. She pushed two large children in a jogging stroller up a nauseating incline 40-yards ahead of me—cruising and suffering no real shortness of breath. In between heaves, I remember thinking, “Who’s the weaker vessel here?” But in her candid (non-trash-talking) moments, my wife is fond of saying, “I’m a delicate flower.” And she means it. She wants my protection—of her heart, her mind, and her body, including her physical health. Though it doesn’t happen often, she hates it when I travel. And this is also why I have to be especially careful not to speak with even a hint of harshness.

By God’s grace, the men at my church are being taught to offer this kind of protection. There are the single men who look out for their sisters by walking them home at night. There are many who have embraced the courtship model of preparing for marriage in order to protect their sisters. And there are men who confront a brother who isn’t being careful in his relationships with women.

Again, mothers should be reminded of their opportunity to teach this to their sons. Boys should be taught to be sensitive to their mothers and their sisters—to look out for them, to protect them, and to speak kindly to them.

And fathers should model this kind of sensitive, protective care to their boys, and challenge them to do the same. Here’s an assignment to give to fathers. Ask their son(s), “Do you think I am harsh with your mom?”


If mature biblical masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, to provide, and to protect, what is mature biblical femininity? (I want to know because I have three daughters!) Here again John Piper’s answer is useful: “At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to women’s differing relationships” (BMW, 46).

Teach Them True Maturity and Beauty

As with his definition of masculinity, Piper’s definition of femininity starts with the word “mature.” We don’t want just any femininity for our girls.

The world offers many versions. A popular version right now looks much like masculinity—it is independent, assertive, and vocal. But we do not want to raise girls to become women who are simply interchangeable with men. They are not the same! Remember, the Bible presents a picture of gender in which men and women complement one another.

Another version looks like the harlot in Proverbs. This hyper-sexualized version of femininity is very popular, too. Just ask any mother of a girl in her teens (or even “tweens”) how easy it is to find—not just modest clothes; those are essentially impossible for teenager girls today to find—but clothes that are not out-and-out racy. My culturally astute wife pointed out that the optimal woman today seems to be a hybrid of this masculinized and hyper-sexualized version of femininity. She calls this “Alias” femininity, after the television show—both aggressive and sultry. “Women love Elizabeth Bennett,” she says, “but they want to be Angelina Jolie.”

What should mothers teach their daughters instead? They should talk with their daughters about inner beauty—the beauty of the heart, the beauty of a “gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” Even at young ages (5, 6, 7), we can see the spirit of a girl who, if not lovingly and firmly corrected, will grow up to be a bossy, critical, spiteful wife and who will attempt to usurp her husband’s authority and lord it over him. Mothers should also talk with their daughters about their eating habits. Girls should learn not to make an idol out of the perfect body or to find their solace in food.

Teach Them True Liberation

Next, mature femininity is a “freeing disposition.” In 1963, Betty Friedan helped launch a movement to liberate women from what she viewed as an enslaving stereotype. She argued that a “feminine mystique” trapped women in their homes, which she called “comfortable concentration camps” (The Feminine Mystique, 1983 ed., 307). As we have said, the feminist movement was in many respects a reaction to male abdication, and there is no excuse for that. But only the truth can set us free—can liberate us.

As we are convinced that God’s Word is truth, we are convinced that it alone will liberate us. Elizabeth Elliot puts the point beautifully:

We must and do deplore the stereotypes that caricature the divine distinctions [between men and women]. We deplore the abuses perpetrated by men against women . . . but have we forgotten the archetypes? Stereotype is a word generally used disparagingly to denote a fixed or conventional notion or pattern. An archetype is the original pattern or model . . . . I am not here to defend stereotypes of femininity, but to try to focus on the Original Pattern.

The first woman was made specifically for the first man, a helper, to meet, respond to, surrender to, and complement him. God made her from the man, out of his very bone, and then He brought her to the man. When Adam named Eve, he accepted responsibility to “husband” her—to provide for her, to cherish her, to protect her. . . But Eve, in her refusal to accept the will of God, refused her femininity. Adam, in his capitulation to her suggestion, abdicated his masculine responsibility for her. It was the first instance of what we would recognize now as “role reversal.” This definite disobedience ruined the original pattern and things have been in an awful mess ever since. (BMW, 397).

And then, as if in direct response to Friedan, Elliot closes with this:

The world looks for happiness through self-assertion. The Christian knows that joy is found in self-abandonment. “If a man will let himself be lost for My sake,” Jesus said, “he will find his true self.” A Christian woman’s true freedom lies on the other side of a very small gate—humble obedience—but that gate leads out into a largeness of life undreamed of by the liberators of the world, to a place where the God-given differentiation between the sexes is not obfuscated but celebrated . . . for it is in male and female, in male as male and female as female, not as two identical and interchangeable halves, that the image is manifested.

To gloss over these profundities is to deprive women of the central answer to the cry of their hearts, “Who am I?” No one but the Author of the Story can answer that cry. (BMW, 398).

I’ve spent extra time with these quotes because the battle between the Friedans and the Elliots of the world—call it the “battle of the Bettys”—may well be the defining issue for Christian parents trying to raise daughters. We cannot afford to be neutral.

As Mark Dever has written, the issues of biblical masculinity and femininity is “increasingly acting as the watershed” issue within the church, “distinguishing those who will accommodate Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture.”

Pastors should take a sober look at the culture. It’s intensely interested in answering the cry of women’s and daughters’ hearts, “Who am I?” But it’s giving them the wrong answer—the same one that tripped up Eve. Pastors are therefore charged with helping husbands and wives to see the “largeness of life undreamed of by the liberators of the world” that is found in celebrating the differences between the sexes. Women and their daughters in the church should learn that true freedom is being what they were made to be—female.

Teach Them to Affirm and Receive Male Leadership

What does a mature woman have a “freeing disposition” to do? She has the Christ-given freedom to affirm strength and leadership in worthy men. And this applies not just to married women. Even an unmarried woman can express her femininity by affirming the godly leadership of her father, for example, or her elders. Daughters should therefore be encouraged to affirm, not buck, their father’s leadership. Though there’s not an exact parallel, affirming a father’s leadership will be good practice for life in the church and, if the Lord wills, in marriage.

A mature woman also has the freedom to receive strength and leadership from worthy men. Piper writes,

A mature woman is glad when a respectful, caring, upright man offers sensitive strength and provides a pattern of appropriate initiatives in their relationship. She does not want to reverse these roles. She is glad when he is not passive. She feels herself enhanced and honored and freed by his caring strength and servant-leadership” (BMW, 48).

Women and daughters should be taught to delight in being led and protected and provided for—and daughters will learn to delight in such things as they watch their mothers do so.

Teach Them to Nurture Male Leadership

Finally, daughters should be taught that biblical femininity is a freeing disposition to nurture strength and leadership in worthy men. In fact, this might be described as a woman’s core calling. God said it was “not good” for man to be alone, so he provided “a helper suitable” for the man (Gen. 2:18). As Pastor Michael Lawrence has put it, Adam’s problem was not loneliness—he had perfect fellowship with God. His problem was incompetence. He needed help.

Teach Them to Be Helpers…

What does “helper” mean? In the original Hebrew it means “helper.” One of the women in our church once said that her original reaction to this word was to cringe, which is probably true for many women. We have the image of “mommy’s little helper”—an unnecessary person, maybe even a hindrance; someone you let “help” you for their benefit, but not for yours. But “helper” in Scripture is a strong word. The vast majority of times it’s used of God himself. Women do not fundamentally help men from a point of weakness; the reason they can help is that they have tremendous strengths.

…To Their Husbands

Women are helpers to their husbands. This starts with a women’s very orientation. They help their husbands by being oriented to them, and not primarily to themselves. (As we saw earlier, this is not to say that a husband should be oriented to himself; he should be oriented to God and leading his family to serve God.)

One former member of my church presents a good example of this husband-ward orientation. When she was unmarried and had no immediate prospect of getting married, she got a law degree without going into debt. Now that she is married with children, her investment in a law degree has served as a major asset to her husband, who is a United States Attorney.

Women also help their husbands by having and raising children. As we considered in part 1 of this series, God created humans to spread his image throughout the world in part by procreation. So it’s not surprising that the New Testament admonished married women to have children (1 Tim. 2:15; 5:9; cf. Titus 2:4) and to help their husbands by being “busy at home” (Titus 2:5; see also 1 Tim. 5:14).

Interpreting these New Testament texts, Andreas Kostenberger writes that “women are to be devoted first and foremost to the home, supervising their households with discretion and industry” (God, Marriage, & the Family, 122). First and foremost? This is not how the culture tells women to think of homemaking. But it is how Scripture says to think of it. If a pastor is concerned these words will discourage the wives and daughters in his congregation, he might consider John Piper’s challenge to women. I pray, Piper says to women,

That you not only pose the question: career or full-time homemaker?, but that you ask just as seriously: full-time career or freedom for ministry? Which would be greater for the Kingdom—to work for someone who tells you what to do to make his or her business prosper, or to be God’s free agent dreaming your own dream about how your time and your home and your creativity could make God’s business prosper? And that in all this you make your choice not on the basis of secular trends or upward lifestyle expectations, but on the basis of what will strengthen the faith of the family and advance the cause of Christ. (BMW, 56)

Does a mother want to set high goals for her daughters? She should catch this vision and pass it on to them. She should teach them the joy of being “God’s free agent,” dreaming their own dreams about how they can use their time, home, and creativity to “make God’s business prosper.” She should teach them not to follow secular trends or lifestyle expectations, but to pursue whatever will strengthen their families and advance the cause of Christ.

Please don’t miss the word “teach.” Biblical femininity is caught, true enough; but it is also taught. Many are the women whose mothers were “busy at home” and practiced the biblical virtues, but who allowed their daughters to grow up with almost no practical or theological instruction. And their daughters today are paying the price. They have to train themselves to do practical tasks and retrain their minds to think about homemaking on biblical terms.

Pastors, encourage the women in your congregation to be deliberate in teaching biblical femininity. Otherwise, rest assured the culture will fill the calendars of the daughters in your congregations, and they will grow up to be interchangeable with men.

…To Their Churches

Women are helpers to their churches. Even while women are unmarried, they can employ their talents in the church. A single woman can consider how she can be more “devot[ed] . . . to doing what is good” (Titus 3:14) by pouring herself into helping God’s people.

What does this mean for mothers? They should prepare their daughters for a life of service in “God’s household,” the church, by giving them opportunities to serve from an early age, and holding up for them women who make serving in the church part-and-parcel of their lives.


The home is full of embedded portraits of redeemed relationships. Parent-child relationships model something of the relationship between the Father and the Son as well as our relationship with God as Father. Brother-sister relationships model our relationships with each other in the church. Children are therefore no afterthought in God’s plan, but one of his key means for preparing humans to grasp the basic truths of the gospel. Nor is gender an afterthought in God’s plan, especially as it’s expressed in families. It, too, is one of his central means for preparing us to grasp basic gospel truth—the truth of the very different roles of the co-equal persons of the Godhead.

Pastor, are you starting to see the portrait of God’s purpose for families and parenting? Is the focus sharpening? Is it turning from black-and-white to color? May God give us wisdom and determination to raise masculine sons and feminine daughters, that his image may be clearly and beautifully shown to the world.

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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