Evelyn Bassoff, a psychologist and author of Between Mothers and Sons, tells the story of a celebrated bullfighter from Madrid who disappeared one evening during his own victory party. After searching the entire house, one houseguest finally found him in the kitchen, washing dishes. The guest was aghast. He couldn’t swallow the idea that a bullfighter — the pinnacle of masculinity in Spanish culture — would be engaging in what he thought of as a woman’s work. When he asked the bullfighter what he was doing, the bullfighter looked him in the eye and stated, “Sir, I am a man. Everything I do is masculine.”1Evelyn S. Bassoff, Between Mothers and Sons: The Making of Vital and Loving Men (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 18. Cited in Nate Collins, All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 218.
Recently, I wrote about two foundational truths that parents should teach their kids about gender. The goal of teaching these truths is to help your child, like this bullfighter, grow in confidence in their given gender.
First, because God made mankind male and female, a person’s gender corresponds with his or her biological sex. Gender is, in this sense, fixed. It cannot become whatever we want it to be, because our gender is a part of our personhood. Being a man or a woman is a gift we receive from God.
But while our true gender is fixed, it’s important to affirm ways in which gender expression varies from person to person—even in the Bible. Think, for instance, about the two patriarch brothers, Jacob and Esau. They were both men. But Jacob imaged forth God’s orderly rule in the kitchen: he made a legendary lentil stew! Esau, on the other hand, expressed his masculinity as a hunter (Gen. 25:24–28).
Jacob and Esau were different boys, and it’s not just Jacob and Esau. There are a range of ways masculinity and femininity are expressed across relationships and cultures today as well. In Scotland, for instance, a kilt is a cultural expression of masculinity.2Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, 31–32. In the United States, wearing one might seem more appropriate for a schoolgirl. As I described in the previous chapter [of A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Your Children About Gender: Helping Kids Navigate a Confusing Culture], the man and woman in the Genesis 2 narrative expressed their gender in the context of their relationship. Their gender expression was personal and relational. This is always the case. Gender always takes a cultural shape, and it doesn’t emerge identically across all times and cultures.
This is where raising kids can get tricky. What should we teach our children about gender expression? Are there biblical gender norms that are essential to teach our kids? If so, how do we distinguish between what is part of God’s design for gender expression and what has been culturally constructed since the fall?
Teaching our children about gender expression
The Bible never gives us the impression that it’s essential to teach culturally constructed gender stereotypes to children. Phrases such as “Boys don’t cry” or “A woman’s place is in the kitchen” should be eliminated from our vocabulary. We shouldn’t think there are certain traits that will make a boy manlier or a girl more of a woman. Even the term “gender roles” can be unhelpful when it gives the impression that manhood and womanhood, masculinity and femininity are cultural personas or scripts to which children must conform.3Russell Moore, “Gender Roles,” Video posted July 2, 2019. Accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmeTPNLHw18/. That’s not the kind of conformity we want our kids to embrace. Instead, parents should call both their daughters and their sons to be transformed, that is, to live in conformity with the character of Christ. As kids of both sexes grow in maturity and, if converted, transform into Christ’s likeness, the integration of their body and soul will ensure that they grow to maturity as women and as men.
This doesn’t negate sexual difference. Parents are responsible to teach their children, who already have a given gender, the kind of character that’s necessary to be a godly son or daughter, brother or sister, wife or husband, mother or father.
Boys need to grow up into godly sons and potential fathers who can provide for and protect others. Girls need to grow up into godly daughters and potential mothers, that is, influential helpers who cultivate the relational structures necessary for nurturing others.
For young men, this means parents should prepare them to live as servant leaders — to work to cultivate good, to fight to protect what’s true, and to take initiative:
A boy’s gendered body is a gift that enables him to help fulfill the creation mandate and the Great Commission:
- Work for good. A typical man’s physical strength may allow him to provide for his family. Adam was created with an orientation toward work. Genesis tells us the Lord formed the man from the ground (2:7), and then he placed him in the garden “to work it and take care of it” (2:15). If a husband or father refuses to work and provide for his family, this amounts to denying the faith (1 Thess. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:8). A lazy man fails to steward the strong body God gave him (Prov. 12:24). He fails to conform his life to Christ, who sacrificed his body for our sake (1 Peter 3:18).
We must teach our sons to cultivate their bodies, minds, and relationships—not for selfish gain, but for the sake of God and others. If a young man doesn’t love God, he’ll work with the wrong goals in mind (Gen. 4:19–24; 11:1–9). We can teach young men to get a job and start investing early — not so they’ll be millionaires by 40 but instead to learn the character and skill necessary to serve others and potentially provide for a family. Boys need dads and other older men to model service in church and community. They need to see men working with humility for the sake of justice and mercy (Micah 6:8).
- Fight to protect. Our goal should be to raise young men with self-control, who will use their physical and emotional strength to protect others. Some men fail to control their strong emotions and become foolish hotheads (Prov. 14:16–17). Others use their physical strength for violence and abuse (Gen. 4:1–16). Adam neglected his strength. He should have spoken up to protect his wife from the serpent’s lies (Gen. 3:6). But in Adam’s failure, we receive the promise of one who does fight, protect, and who will crush Satan on the final day (Gen. 3:14–15; 1 Cor. 15:25; Rev. 20:10).
We have an opportunity to participate in Christ’s victory when we fight for what is good and true (Rom. 16:19). Throughout the Scripture, we’re given examples of men who use their strength to protect others. Abraham went to war to save Lot. David fought again and again to save Israel. Not all our sons will learn to wrestle or do martial arts, but they can all learn to speak up and fight for what is good.
Perhaps the most important battle we fight is the fight against our own sinful passions. As Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 4:3–6: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.” In a world that is rampant with pornography, training our sons to fight the good fight by confessing their own sinful passions is essential.
- Take initiative. Think about how God commissioned Adam — before the fall — to live as a servant leader. He names Adam as head and representative of the human family (Rom. 5:15; 1 Cor. 15:22). But ultimately Adam failed (Gen. 3:6). Only Christ truly showed us what it means to serve as head by humbly considering others as greater than himself (Phil. 2:3–8). If we’re going to raise young men to serve as faithful covenant heads of families, we must teach them to serve sacrificially.
When a cup spills at the dinner table, a boy shouldn’t wait for mom to grab a paper towel. Teach boys to jump up and move toward the problem with eager humility (Prov. 3:27). This is important. We must show young men that serving others as a son and brother does mean taking initiative, but it doesn’t always require being in charge. Even if our boys enter a headship role as husbands or fathers, they need to learn that these leadership roles require spirit-empowered service (Eph. 5:23; John 13).
A girl’s gendered body is also a gift that enables her to help fulfill the creation mandate and the Great Commission. Just as we prepare young men to be servant leaders, we should call young women to live in conformity with Christ’s character as influential helpers:
- Give help and influence. When God made the woman for Adam, he created “a helper suitable for him” because it wasn’t good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Through her gendered orientation toward relationships, a woman reflects God’s character as help and salvation for his people (Ps. 33:20, Ps. 70:5; Ex. 18:4). Every woman should be inspired, and every prideful man humbled, to see that each major era of biblical history begins with a woman: Eve — Genesis 3; Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter — Exodus 2; Hannah — 1 Samuel 1; Mary and Elizabeth — Luke 1. Notice too that it isn’t required to be a mother to have saving influence: Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t give birth to Moses, but God used them to bring deliverance to the Hebrew people (Ex. 2:6).4Wording adapted from Daniel Montgomery, “Gender Questions, Week 3: Women and Femininity,” a sermon at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY (Dec. 16, 2007).
The woman was made as co-ruler with the man (Gen. 1:26); there’s shared authority in that statement. There is strength and dignity in the woman who contributes to both home and society by running the family business and leading in trade (Prov. 31:10–31). But oftentimes influence accomplishes more than authority ever could — both for good and evil (Prov. 8–9). Eve didn’t need to flex her muscles to influence Adam to eat the fruit; she simply gave it to him. Her actions had destructive power. Teach your daughters that their actions and words have influence (1 Tim. 2:9–10; 1 Peter 3:1–5). Then teach them to ask, “Is what I do and say a help or a hindrance to others? Do I think about how I can help and serve, or do I only consider how I want to be served?”
- Nurture and empower others. After the fall, God named the woman Eve, mother of all the living (Gen. 3:20). This was a grace. The man and woman received the wages for sin but not yet fully; the woman’s body could still give life. This is a great gift. In raising children, both a man and a woman’s nurturing presence are necessary. But a woman’s design for nurture is unique. Her body is crafted by God to incubate and sustain a baby’s life from conception to birth. Her milk alone can sustain her newborn for the first part of the baby’s life.
Not every woman will become a wife or mother, but every one of our daughters can provide life-giving care for others. Paul instructs every woman to display leadership in the church by serving as spiritual mothers (Titus 2:3–5). We see examples of this in Priscilla’s ministry to Apollos (Acts 18:26 — her name is listed first before her husband!), in Philip’s prophet daughters (Acts 21:8), and in Timothy’s grandmother Lois (2 Tim. 1:5). Such women model what it means to nurture others in the faith through strong influence as teachers of God’s Word.
Now that I have outlined some particular encouragement parents can give to their daughters and sons, please allow me to make a clarification. I’m not saying that men shouldn’t contribute to society’s relational structures. A father shouldn’t be all authority with no nurture.5Moore, “Gender Roles.” Nor am I saying that women shouldn’t provide for and protect their families or communities; consider Deborah the judge (Judg. 4–5)!
Throughout the Scriptures, we see that both sexes are necessary for God’s people to fulfill their essential functions in the world. Both sexes are necessary to fulfill both the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20). Wendy Alsup describes it this way:
At the most basic level of human existence, both sexes are necessary for bearing new image-bearers into the world, an incredible, though often downplayed function of these sexes. But whether individuals ever have biological children, the two sexes are integral in bearing and growing spiritual children. The importance of each sex is lost if we dismiss the distinct elements of their giftings or roles given in Scripture for doing the work of discipling the next generation of believers.6Wendy Alsup, “Equal but Different: A Complementarian View of the Sexes” in Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues, ed. Joshua D. Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 107–108.
It’s the importance of using the distinct giftings that we have as men and women to disciple coming generations that we need to pass along to our kids. Our goal as parents should be to celebrate our child’s biological sex, their true gender, as a gift for ministry and prepare our kids both to receive this gift and to employ it with Christ-like character.