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Two foundational truths to teach our kids about gender

Celebrating who God created us to be

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December 7, 2020

My favorite scene in the original Toy Story movie (1995) takes place at the Dinoco Station. Woody and Buzz fight, and their squabble sends them falling out of the minivan onto the concrete. The argument goes on for a moment when, suddenly, Woody stops. He looks up and watches in horror as Andy and his mom drive away. Woody chases after the car for a few steps. “Doesn’t he realize I’m not there?” he shouts, “I’m lost. Oh, I’m a lost toy!” In that moment, Woody experiences deep anguish, because he knows who he is. You see, the toys in the world of Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story movies want nothing more than to bring joy to their owners. They want to love and be loved by their kid.

Buzz Lightyear’s reaction fascinates me in this scene. He doesn’t understand the importance of catching up with Andy. He doesn’t understand the great tragedy of being lost. Buzz thinks he’s a real spaceman having an adventure on an uncharted planet; he doesn’t know he’s a toy. What Buzz can’t see is that he’s more lost than he knows.

We are just like the toys in those movies. The toys are lost without Andy, and we’re lost without God. God made us in his likeness, as his children—to love and be loved by him. God made people as his representatives. If we try to take account of our lives without considering the One for whom we were made or how he made us, we’re as lost as Buzz Lightyear.

So, how did God make us? It’s important to teach two foundational truths to our kids about how our gender relates to being made in God’s image: (1) God made two sexes, and (2) implicit in our creation as male and female sexually is the expression of our sex in two complementary genders.

First, God made two sexes—male and female. Right at the beginning, God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26–27). According to these verses, the biological difference between men and women—our biological sex—is a fundamental part of God’s design. Our sex is a part of who we are as well as a part of what it means to be made in God’s image.1See Patrick Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” in Eikon: A Journal of Biblical Anthropology 2, no. 2 (Fall 2020): https://cbmw.org/2020/11/20/man-and-woman-toward-an-ontology/ and Nate Collins, All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 208.

The term biological sex refers to the difference between male and female that is inscribed on our bodies in at least four different ways—our genetic code (XX for females and XY for males),2I agree with Marty Machowski when he writes, “Just as the fundamental created elements of the earth are fixed, so is our biological sex. But the fall has also affected our chromosomes. Because of the fall, a very small percentage of people are born with genetic disorders [such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Klinefelter Syndrome, or Turner Syndrome]. Some of those disorders would affect a person’s sexual characteristics. It is important to show kindness and compassion to those who have these genetic disorders” in God Made Boys and Girls: Helping Children Understand the Gift of Gender, (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2019), 30. our genitals, the brain and hormone chemistry within our bodies, and in such secondary sex characteristics as our hair growth patterns and muscular-skeletal structure.

Kids need to know their bodies are gifts from God, and they need to learn about these differences. Gaining awareness of their bodies and learning appropriate names for body parts gives young kids a foundation for understanding biological sex and gender. This can start with toddlers, who for their safety need to be taught the proper names for their genitals and about what kinds of touches are appropriate.3Cf. Justin Holcomb, “9 Ways to Protect Your Children from Sexual Abuse” (Aug. 8, 2015), accessed online at http://justinholcomb.com/2015/08/11/9-ways-to-protect-your-children-from-sexual-abuse/. Young children need to understand some parts of their bodies are private and should only be touched when they need help in the bathroom, need help bathing, or during a doctor’s visit. During the adolescent years, continuing these conversations can help teens know they aren’t crazy as their bodies change and they experience new impulses and desires.

Second, God breathed life into man and woman—two people with complementary gender expressions. Gender is a term that, historically, was synonymous with biological sex. As a Christian, I affirm that gender is who I am biologically according to God’s created design. This is my true gender, who I am according to God. In this sense, a man or woman’s gender is never fluid. It cannot become whatever we want it to be, because it’s a part of our personhood.4Collins, All but Invisible, 212. I love how my own local church’s doctrinal statement celebrates this: “Gender is a fundamental given of human existence, with maleness and femaleness being congruent with human embodiment and being an unchangeable, stable, and consistent characteristic of each image bearer established by God’s creational intent.”5Bylaws of Sojourn Church Midtown (Louisville, KY). Adopted December 2018.

But the term “gender” can be used in two additional ways as well:

Gender identity is a term used in our culture to refer to an individual’s personal sense of identity as masculine or feminine, or some combination of each. It involves self-understanding—how people think about themselves.

Let’s distinguish between my true gender and my gender identity: God has purposes for my (Jared’s) gender. He designed me to be a man. But I could think of myself as a man or a woman. My sense of who I am, that is, my self-understanding, may match up or differ with God’s intentions and design for my gender.

There is also a third way the word “gender” is used. It’s used to denote the behavioral traits and roles that are typically associated with one’s biological sex within families or society in general. We’ll call this gender expression. It’s the enculturated ways people reflect their biological sex or gender identity in relationships.

Our kids need confidence both in how God has made them as well as how he has called them to live—all in line with their given gender. Contrary to common expectations, living in accordance with God’s design brings freedom rather than bondage.

Let’s distinguish between my true gender and gender expression: Again, God has purposes for my (Jared’s) gender. He designed me to be a man. In the culture where I was raised (the American South of the 1980s and 90s), the male gender was typically associated with macho traits like shooting guns, loving action-adventure movies, or driving a Z-71 pick-up truck. Such traits are enculturated. They’re rooted in society and culture.

If I were to wear a skirt, a form of dress typically associated with the female sex in American life, my wife would be confused, and my male friends might be tempted to mock me. But if you stick me on a plane overseas to Indonesia, then I could wear a sarong wrap, and I’d fit right in with Indonesian brothers in Christ.

God designed two different genders with differing gender expressions. The goal of making man and woman in this way was so they might together reflect God’s glory as his sons and daughters. While God made each person to represent him in some unique way, we need both women and men—with their complementary gender expressions—to get a complete picture of God’s loving character and purposes in this world.

The Bible binds our biology and engendered ways of living together. In the garden, gender expression matched the man and woman’s true gender. In the culture of Genesis 2, the masculine gender reflected the order God exercises over his creation. The Lord formed Adam from the ground (2:7), and then he placed the man in the garden to bring order to it, “to work [the ground] and take care of it” (2:15). A few verses later, God sent Adam to classify and name all of the beasts (Gen. 2:19–20). Adam is structuring and ordering God’s world like the image-bearing scientist God made him to be. In a distinct way, the feminine gender reflected God’s nurturing relationality (Is. 49:15; 66:13). The woman is the suitable helper for whom Adam had been looking. Her creation made human relationships possible (Gen. 2:18, 21–22). God orients the woman toward community (Gen. 2:22)—to give help to and influence the man as her companion.

After putting man and woman together, God went one step further. He commissioned the man and woman to work together (Gen. 1:28). As a married couple, the man and woman took on distinct roles to accomplish God’s purposes. As Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup describe:

By creating them as male and female, God invested their bodies with strengths and weaknesses that would bind them together in mutual dependence as they fulfilled the creation mandate. The woman’s body would allow her to cultivate new image bearers, but this would also make her more vulnerable. The man’s body would be unable to bear life, but his physical strength would allow him to protect and provide . . . The differences between them were not an end in themselves . . . They were the means by which they would together cultivate the good bounty of the earth and their own bodies. Together they would rule and reign over the new creation as King and Queen.6Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup, “Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Part 3” Practical Theology for Women (Sept. 30, 2016). Accessed online at http://theologyforwomen.org/2016/09/toward-better-reading-reflections-permanent-changes-text-genesis-316-esv-part-3.html/.

Of course, all contemporary human cultures are fallen. Gender expressions today may correspond with God’s design or they may serve to exaggerate or diminish that design. It’s important to see that God gives us our gender so that we can reflect particular aspects of his character and our relationship with him in the way we live and relate. I love how Patrick Schreiner’s sums up what it means to be male and female:

The fundamental meaning of masculinity is sonship, brotherly love, and potentiality toward paternity.

The fundamental meaning of femininity is daughterhood, sisterly love, and potentiality toward maternity.7Schreiner, “Man and Woman.”

Our kids need for us to celebrate these truths, and they need us to celebrate them. They need for us to celebrate the people God has created them to be as gendered persons. Celebrating our kids will give them confidence in God’s design. Like Buzz Lightyear, our kids need confidence both in how God has made them as well as how he has called them to live—all in line with their given gender. Contrary to common expectations, living in accordance with God’s design brings freedom rather than bondage. Being a man or woman, being male or female, is a gift. And that’s something to celebrate!

A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Your Children About Gender: Helping Kids Navigate a Confusing Culture

Jared Kennedy

Jared is the husband of Megan and father to Rachael, Lucy, and Elisabeth. After serving fifteen years on staff at local churches, Jared now serves as a freelance editor, as the Managing Editor of Gospel-Centered Family, as a Children’s and Family Ministry Strategist for the Sojourn Network, and as an … Read More