Equipping for Life: A Guide for New, Aspiring and Struggling Parents
Today, we’re happy to have Mark Baker as a guest author at Biblical Foundations. Mark is a PhD student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as well as an elder at Christ Church and Dean of Faculty at Paideia Academy, both in Knoxville, TN. He is married to Ashley and they have four children. As a father and educator himself, we’re grateful to share Mark’s insightful review of Equipping for Life.
Very few people could have written this book. It is co-authored by a married couple who both have doctoral degrees and have raised four now-grown children. Furthermore, the Köstenbergers have both previously written significant contributions to the field of marriage, family, and gender roles. Andreas has written God, Marriage, and Family (2nd ed., Crossway, 2010) and co-edited Women in the Church (3rd ed., Crossway, 2016); Margaret has written Jesus and the Feminists (Crossway, 2008). The couple has also co-authored God’s Design for Man and Woman (Crossway, 2014). Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger have a truly unique collection of gifting and life experience that they put forward in this book. I praise God for raising up people like the Köstenbergers who have provided such excellent resources for training and shepherding the next generation.
Equipping for Life is for parents of all kinds: brand new parents, experienced parents, future parents, and single parents. Broadly, it is organized by the three R’s of parenting: Realism, Relationship, and Responsibility. The authors explain the significance of this focus: “Each of these emphases is borne out by a tension we perceive especially in young parents: between idealism and realism; between relationship and task orientation; and between a responsible engagement with your children and a permissive stance” (17–18).
The authors’ hope in writing Equipping for Life is to provide a framework that explains God’s design for parenting. Instead of addressing a specific crisis or a particular discipline issue, this book aims to form whole categories of thought through a biblical-theological approach: “We seek the Scriptures from beginning to end to see what they can teach us about a given topic—in our case, parenting” (20). Therefore, the primary approach of this book is not sociocultural (family structures and traditions), psychological (emotions and communication), or counseling-oriented (addressing specific problems). Instead, it provides a biblical foundation for parenting that is communicated through humble exhortation and sound advice from trusted mentors who have experienced the joys and trials of parenting.
Part 1: Realistic Parenting
Waking up to the Real World of Parenting
Part 1 covers the first “R” of parenting: realism. It begins by addressing an often-overlooked aspect of parenting: the parents themselves. The authors use the grand narrative of Scripture as a frame of reference for their instruction. God created humans in his image, which means that children are imagebearers of God and meant to put his glory on display. Furthermore, parenting is grounded in the fatherhood of God (Eph 3:14–15; Heb 12:9). The authors affirm that “as fathers and mothers, we can relate to God on a deeper level because we can further enter experientially into what it means to be sustainer, provider, protector, and ultimately parent” (35–36). The section on the fatherhood of God is especially powerful.
The Köstenbergers also rightly situate biblical complementarity within the context of God’s created order. They provide helpful examples of how this kind of loving complementarity is played out in real life: the husband should take the lead in discipline and decision-making; the wife supports the husband in disciplining in his absence and giving vital input for making the best decision.
The fall of humankind represents another part of the biblical storyline that proves relevant to parenting. The authors point out how sin will affect your children and your ability to parent. Parents, therefore, should be prepared to discipline with consistency, firmness, and love. In this context, the Köstenbergers give seven principles of parental discipline. The fourth principle is especially helpful: discipline must be child-specific. Though we should be fair, we should also tailor our discipline according to the specific personality of each child.
The third and final chapter in Part 1 profoundly captures the focus on realism. Structurally, it covers three major topics: cultural engagement, busyness, and common difficulties in parenting. The authors wisely steer parents away from the twin errors of over-sheltering against culture and unguarded assimilation into culture. Instead, they appeal to Romans 12:1–2, which tells us that we should seek to transform culture through strategic engagement.
Second, the Köstenbergers bring the helpful reminder that “our capacity to handle stress is not boundless” (78). This section is full of practical application. As the leader in the home, a husband should help his wife find time and space to recharge, whether it is by getting a babysitter for a date night or by watching the kids, so she can get time by herself. Busyness does not always indicate godliness; sometimes it is the opposite: “A busy life may flatter our egos and serve as a sort of escape mechanism—no need to come to terms with our loneliness, unanswered questions, uncertainty regarding our calling … but it hardly ever permanently and successfully serves as a substitute for doing a few things well” (82).
Finally, the authors introduce one final triad that can contribute to parental overwhelm: sex, money, and in-laws. They conclude that a “realistic approach to parenting will recognize that challenges will come in these areas and will try to be proactive and sensible in these pressure points of life” (97). I personally wish that every Christian parent would at least read this chapter. So much parental heartbreak could be spared if this wisdom were heeded!
Part 2: Relational Parenting
Loving Your Children
Part 2 covers the second “R” of parenting: relationship. Here the authors contrast relational parenting with task-oriented parenting. The Köstenbergers rightly begin this discussion with the necessity of regeneration. They make sure to clarify that regeneration is God’s work, but they also maintain that parents should strive to present the gospel to their children clearly and consistently. The next step is a lifelong step: discipleship. The authors outline three key areas of discipleship in parenting: relationship (chapter 4), presence (chapter 5), and conflict resolution (chapter 6).
One of the strengths of this section is the perspective on practical realism. The authors wisely note: “Unfortunately, parenting can’t be reduced to a formula: If you do A, B will happen. Human relationships are complex, especially in a world controlled by the ‘ruler of this world,’ which puts sinful people together in sinful families and communities in this imperfect world” (119–20). Formulas are easy; real parenting is not. But this realistic perspective will bring the reader to a place of trust in the power of the gospel. As we engage in gospel conversations with our children, we trust that God will do his good work in his timing.
Throughout this section the Köstenbergers give many practical examples and stories. At one point they give a brief description of each of their four children: Lauren, Tahlia, David, and Timothy. The descriptions illustrate the kind of personal relationship it takes to know and disciple your children well. The authors also provide a brief biblical theology of God’s presence. They show that God’s design throughout redemption history is to graciously provide his presence. This piece of redemption history is then applied to parenting: as parents (and imagebearers of God), one of the best things we can do is be physically present with our kids. This point showcases what the Köstenbergers do best: taking the biblical foundation of parenting and applying it with specific practical examples.
Part 3: Responsible Parenting
Guiding your Children toward Responsible Adulthood
The third and final “R” is responsibility. The three “Rs” of parenting are connected: A realistic approach to parenting that is built on relationship will ultimately lead to responsible adulthood. Again, the Köstenbergers rightly start out with utter dependence on the Spirit’s work: “As we walk with Him, are led by Him, live in Him, keep in step with Him, and are filled with Him, we’ll set our mind on spiritual things, and the Spirit of the risen Christ will infuse our mortal bodies with supernatural strength to surmount our sinful nature” (176). Practically, the authors point to humility as a key virtue in parenting, both for the parents themselves and as a virtue to instill in your children. In this regard, Andreas adds a helpful anecdote: “I sometimes tell my son before a game that even if he scores zero points, I’ll love him the same as if he scores a hundred points, just so he knows not to connect my love for him to his performance” (183) The authors also include an excellent section on wise use of technology and some good advice on how to help your children engage with social justice issues.
Chapter 8 covers the topic of education. The Köstenbergers are unashamed advocates of schooling children at or from home, although they fairly represent the benefits and drawbacks of the various educational options. On this point they keep the main thing the main thing. Whatever educational option we choose, our job is far from done when “school” is over. Our kids are learning all the time, and we have been given the responsibility to steward this opportunity well.
Chapter 9 brings everything full circle in equipping our children for life: it covers spiritual gifts, mission, marriage, and vocation. The Köstenbergers provide a wonderful vision for family involvement in the Great Commission: “Parenting takes place at the intersection of three missions that encompass the parent, the child, and ultimately God. The mission of parenting—bringing children into this world and raising them to love and serve God—involves equipping children for their particular mission in life and takes place within the larger scope of the mission of God” (229). Too many families have been broken apart by a father or mother who individually pursues mission opportunities outside the home to the detriment of their own families. If families could engage in mission together, they would be more unified as a family and receive the blessing of reaching others for the sake of the gospel.
As far as preparing your children for their future spouse, the authors helpfully outline some of the major philosophies of relationships:
- Dating: Spending time together exclusively for a certain amount of time to enjoy the opposite sex, not always with the purpose of finding a marriage partner. Serial dating may ensue with several or many people, with or without the purpose of finding a marriage partner.
- Courtship: Commitment at the outset of spending time together (usually with parents’ permission) that the couple is pursuing marriage. Time together also involves accountability to an outside party.
- Friendship: Young people get to know each other in large and small group settings (or other informal ways) to form friendships before committing to a purposeful (likely to get married) but still exploratory relationship (253).
As with many other contentious issues, the Köstenbergers are fair with each position, but gently advocate the “friendship” model. This model does seem like the most helpful way forward. “Serial dating” can often lead to broken hearts, and the courtship model, while advantageous in some ways, can often seem too rigid or too impractical in some situations. The footnotes in this section also provide additional resources that will prove helpful for those in need of further guidance.
Personally, I found Equipping for Life encouraging, edifying, and convicting. I am encouraged by the gospel promises that are woven throughout the book. I am edified by the examples of a mom and a dad who have labored for the wellbeing of their four children. I am convicted by my own shortcomings: I need to put down my phone and be more present with my kids. I need to use life’s challenges as ways to engage my children with the gospel. I need to get on my knees and cry out for God’s regenerative work to come to my own children.
What sets Equipping for Life apart from the (literally) hundreds of other Christian parenting books? Alasdair MacIntyre’s oft-quoted line is applicable here: “I cannot answer the question, ‘What ought I do?’ unless I first answer the question, ‘Of which story am I a part?’” Equipping for Life provides this story—the grand story of our redemption—and situates sound parenting advice within the context of that story.
Practically speaking, Equipping for Life will be most helpful and applicable for parents of school-aged children and above. My oldest child is eight, and I am very thankful I read this book now (in fact, I wish I had read it earlier!). Even though I have not yet faced every topic covered in the book, the Köstenbergers have laid out a biblical framework for parenting that has recalibrated some areas in my life and encouraged steadfastness in other areas. Pastors would do well to put this book in the hands of their church members. Moms and dads would be edified by reading it together. Grandparents could read it and learn how to support their children in parenting. The list could go on and on, but suffice it to say, Equipping for Life is a gem among parenting books!
Note: This review was originally published at Books at a Glance on June 1, 2018. You can find the original article here. You can purchase Equipping for Life (Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger; Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 2018) here.