*Warning: 2,000 word post!*
I’ve had a couple posts where I gave a general defense of singles and those married without children in the church and Christian subculture – particularly within evangelicalism. Why a defense? Because these groups can be marginalized, maligned, and misunderstood – sometimes overtly/purposefully and other times inadvertently. In this post, I want to delve more into Scripture – specifically marriage and children.
A few examples of what I am addressing… Some interpret “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis as a command to be obeyed by all, even today. The primary and essential purpose of marriage is procreation and the raising of children. Companionship is secondary. A marriage without children is inconceivable (no pun intended!). Infertility is seen as an exception, of course, but perceived as a problem to be solved through medical intervention or adoption.
Married couples without kids (by choice) can be characterized as having purely selfish and shallow reasons. Look at this article from Albert Mohler: Deliberate Childlessness: Moral Rebellion With a New Face. It is harsh, and lacks nuance. An excerpt…
“Christians must recognize that this rebellion against parenthood represents nothing less than an absolute revolt against God’s design…Couples are not given the option of chosen childlessness in the biblical revelation…The church should insist that the biblical formula calls for adulthood to mean marriage and marriage to mean children.”
Perhaps you think Mohler is a loose cannon? No. There is a surprising number of Christians out there who think it is wrong, sinful, for a Christian couple to remain in a childless state. (Also note Mohler’s indirect jab against singles.)
In this article (A Child-Free Christian’s Plea to the Church) the author responds to 4 common accusations or assumptions about couples without children: we are selfish, we hate children, we are defective, we will have a life without purpose. Another thoughtful article here: On Being Christian and Childfree. It begins…”Why does it seem that people react so strongly when the choice to not have children becomes known? Do they feel threatened by that choice?”
The shallow and selfish assumption? I know couples who have chosen not to have kids for thoughtful, mature, selfless reasons. And couples who have chosen to have kids for thoughtless, immature, selfish reasons! People can have kids to fill a void in their life, to attempt to save a relationship, to carry on the family name, or with no forethought at all. The second article in the previous paragraph shares a variety of thoughtful reasons for married couples not having children. This is not to say that there are no married couples without kids who are shallow and selfish (some are) – but it is not accurate or fair to only assume altruistic motives from those who have children!
Okay, lets finally delve into Scripture.
→ Be fruitful and multiply?
Genesis 1:28 (Adam and Eve) “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Similarly in Genesis 9:1 “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”
These verses can be explained in several ways. Note in both verses that it begins by saying God was blessing them. “Be fruitful and multiply” can thus be viewed as a blessing, plain and simple – and not a command or law. These verses can also be viewed as a cultural mandate – note cultural. The people as a whole needed to multiply, but it does not apply to every single individual.
Furthermore, at these two moments in time there was a special need to fill the earth! This is no longer the case. We have populated the earth quite well. Another thought I had…While some make these verses law, the law had not been given yet. That would come later with Moses. The law was given to the people of Israel, but “be fruitful and multiply” was said specifically to Adam and Eve, and Noah and his sons.
Another point: If “be fruitful and multiply” is a command for all to obey, then Jesus was disobedient! That would be a heretical belief. Jesus was raised according to Jewish law and customs, and it says Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly. Perhaps some could say that Jesus fulfilled this in another sense by bringing many sons and daughters to glory through his death (Hebrews 2:10). Praise God – he did. Wouldn’t this mean that we also can bear fruit for God in ways other than physical children? I recently saw this:
Creation mandate: “Fill the earth with humans.” (Gen. 1)
New creation mandate: “Fill the earth with disciples.” (Matt. 28)
→ What is a woman’s ultimate purpose or calling?
Derek Kinder in his Tyndale commentary on Genesis, shares this about the creation of the woman in Genesis 2:18-25: “So the woman is presented wholly as his [Adam’s] partner and counterpart; nothing is yet said of her as child-bearer. She is valued for herself alone.” – Note: valued for herself alone.
In discussing the impact of the Fall on marriage, Kinder states that the Fall led to polygamy and an “unbalanced view of marriage, which regards it as an institution in which the wife’s ultimate raison d’etre is the production of children. Where God had created the woman first and foremost for partnership, society made her in effect a means to an end, even if a noble end, and wrote its view into its marriage contracts.”
Note he says “even if a noble end.” Bearing children is certainly good and desirable, but should not be considered the wife’s most important reason for existing. I think Jesus would agree! In Luke chapter 11 we see an interaction between Jesus and a woman (verses 27-28):
As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and blessed are the breasts that nursed You.” But He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Some Christians say that a woman’s highest calling is motherhood. No! A woman’s highest calling is to follow Jesus.
In a master’s thesis that carefully looked at every occurrence in the Gospels where Jesus interacts with women, it says: “in every instance where Jesus reproved women it was for their failure to subordinate their feminine interests to their interests as citizens of the Kingdom of God.”
Don’t miss the point here. The point is NOT to discourage parenthood. Children are a blessing, and parents should be committed to the care of their children. The point is that even good things, like children, can become IDOLATROUS in our life.
→ Christian Freedoms
Several epistles of Paul in the New Testament discuss the concept of Christian freedom. Some things for a Christian are non-negotiable, either right or wrong. But other activities or choices fall under the umbrella of freedom. Paul offers various ways for a Christian to determine what is permissible for them.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul talks about singleness and the married state, and a good deal of freedom is given about personal decisions with such matters. What is right for one may not be right for another. Some should marry, while others can handle singleness. There is an emphasis on being content with our life circumstances, as well as being in a better position to serve God. Devotion to Christ is paramount. See here: Paul and Sex. “Marriage matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as devotion to Christ.”
While having children is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7, I think children would fall into this category. Each couple needs to prayerfully consider their own circumstances and motivations. What if some married couples can best serve God without children? Maybe childlessness due to infertility is not always a problem to be solved, but a state in which to be content – as well as an opportunity. “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” 1 Tim. 6:6
More here in a worthwhile article from professor and author Karen Swallow Prior: Called to childlessness: The surprising ways of God. (Prior happens to be Southern Baptist, like Mohler, but she handles the issue much differently.)
→ Some questions to induce thought:
- If “be fruitful and multiply” is a strict/literal command, then what about the many couples today who only have 1 or 2 kids by choice? Are they being disobedient? Limiting yourself to 1 or 2 kids hardly seems to fulfill this command. The orchard owner whose apple trees only produce 1 or 2 apples would not consider the trees fruitful. How exactly do we know the correct number to fulfill this command? Is it 3, 5, 8, 10, 20? (Albert Mohler only has 2 children. How did he and his wife decide? Perhaps I should judge the Mohlers for being selfish and not trusting God with a bigger family?)
- If marriage is first and foremost about procreation, should couples cease sexual relations when procreation is no longer possible? What about late in life first marriages? If you do not get married until the mid 40’s or older, it makes the birth of a child less likely or impossible – and some adoption agencies will not accept people over a certain age. What about late in life second marriages due to the death of your first spouse? What about unique marriages, like the marriage of beloved Joni Eareckson and Ken Tada? More here: Deciding to Marry a Quadriplegic: Couple Tells Love Story.
Marriage can be primarily about companionship, or involve sexual intimacy that does not lead to procreation. Song of Solomon is not focused on procreation. Paul speaks of man and wife fulfilling each other sexually, and procreation is not mentioned.
→ Respecting each other and honoring Christian freedom
Married couples without children are accustomed to being marginalized, maligned, and misunderstood. Unfortunately, there are some child-free folks who are harsh against those with kids, especially big families. The derogatory term “breeder” can be used for those with kids! This is wrong. Respect needs to go both ways. It is hypocritical to want people to respect your life decision, while not respecting theirs.
Yet…Imagine if you are always attacked and marginalized for your child-free state. It is understandable that you may lash back, even become hostile. But that is not the Christian way. If you harshly judge the child-free, you may be contributing to their hostility. The apostle Paul warns against doing things to embitter others.
As Christians, we should seek to honor God with our lives – whether we are single, married with 2 kids, married with 12 kids, or married without kids. Each state has its pros and cons. God does not put us all on the same life path! We all have different capabilities and limitations. Throughout the Scripture and church history, those with differing life circumstances have been utilized for God’s eternal purposes.
→ Concluding thoughts…
Those without children can be told that life will lack true meaning or purpose without kids. How can Christians, in particular, say such a thing? What message does this send to those struggling with infertility? If they can not conceive, they are doomed to a meaningless life. How cruel.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In HIM, our life finds meaning and purpose, whatever our life circumstances may be. Each of us is complete in Christ, and possess spiritual gifts and abilities for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.
Finally, please consider that marriage and children does NOT always involve choice. Not everything is under our control. The best laid plans can go awry! We should not automatically assume that someone is in a certain “state” due to deliberate choices, personal flaws, or poor judgment. Sometimes things just happen, or just don’t happen. Only God knows why!
Let us encourage one another, rather than tear each other down for not having the “right” number of children.
Let us pray and proclaim with Paul:
“my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” Acts 20:24