is it always wrong for christian couples to choose to remain childless?

Recently, Lionel Windsor over on the the Sola Panel wrote an article entitled Welcoming Children in which he argued that it is inappropriate for Christians who marry to plan not to have children:

The Bible teaches that marriage is good, and that one of the indispensable reasons for marriage is children. So if you notice references to children being marginalized or omitted at a Christian wedding in your church, perhaps you could have a quiet word with your minister and politely ask them why.

I submitted a couple of comments, but the conversation was stifled when my last comment was not posted by the moderator(s). Well, I guess that’s their prerogative (I wasn’t rude, I just questioned the argument). Along the way a number of others offered links to posts they’d written or others had written in support of Lionel’s argument, including Jean Williams writing how many children should I have which itself followed an earlier post entitled Motherhood Q&A: Less Children, More Ministry? (which should, of course, have been “fewer children” now, shouldn’t it?), and even Al Mohler who wrote Put a Stop to Large Families?.

By way of contrast, Raymond C. Van Leeuwen has written an article which admits that there may be valid reasons why a Christian husband and wife may choose not to have children. It can be read here.

Now I suspect that part of this all comes down to a backlash against the contemporary trend to diminish the importance of children and childraising, some aspects of which may be traced to feminism, but also to materialism in general. Let me say that such ideologies do need thoughtful Christian responses, but I also suspect that there’s a degree of knee-jerk reaction where the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other when the truth lies somewhere between the extremes.

Let’s begin by considering the points used to support the contention that christian couples are not free to choose to remain childless. The points of argument I’ve seen go like this:

  1. Gen 1:26-28 records a divine imperative to populate the world, and lest we miss it, the same instruction is given after the fall and flood to Noah (cf. Gen 9:1, so this isn’t something that no longer applied after the fall).

  2. Gen 2:18-25 notes God’s recognition that man alone is not good, presumably because alone he cannot fill the world. The solution is the provision of woman.

  3. Thus one of the purposes of marriage is the bearing of children.1

  4. Children are always and only ever regarded as a blessing from God in the Bible, and the converse, that being unable to bear children is considered negatively, only reinforces the notion.

  5. The choice not to have children is frequently a reflection of the self-centredness of modern society where children are an inconvenience and interfere with a person’s accrual of material goods.

All good points, but perhaps they’re a little simplistic and we need to look more carefully. So here are some additional consideration which may impact on the conclusion we reach:

  1. There are some difficult questions raised by Gen 1:26-28. How does it apply today? Is the earth full?

    Consider, for a moment, other times places are said to be “full” in the OT. The earth was already full (of violence) in Gen 6:11-13. It is again filled in Ex 1:7 when the land (of Egypt) was full of Israelites (in fact, Ex 1:7 uses the same word for “fill” and the same word for “earth” as found in Gen 1). If Egypt was said to be full of Israelites in Ex 1:7, and the population of Egypt then was nothing like what it is now, then Egypt, at the very least, is now over-full! Other places said to be full are described in 1Kings 20:27; Isa 2:7 (where the land is full of horses and idols); Jer 23:10 (where it’s full of adulterers); well, you get the idea by now I hope.

    Given that Gen 1 tells us that we are meant to rule the world as God’s image—i.e. as his representatives conveying his rule—I think that encouraging our own population to exceed that which can be readily supported and to reach a point which depletes the world of both animal and mineral resources is a clear abuse of our role as God’s image.

    Lionel Windsor argued that the earth is not full, but then defined “full” in the comments to his post as:

    I don’t agree that by any biblical measure of “full” the earth is overpopulated. The biblical measure of “full” is that the situation envisaged in Genesis 1 has been achieved – i.e., that there is a large number of human beings acting in obedience to God as his image, delighting in relationship with him and ruling his world justly and fairly. This will ultimately be achieved in the great multitude who worships the Lamb in the new creation (Revelation 7:9, 19:1-6, cf. chapters 20-21). Hence it is brought about primarily through gospel preaching.

    This raises a few problems. First, the Bible certainly does have other notions of “full” besides this one, which means Lionel overstates the case to claim that his definition is the biblical measure of full (see the list of other full things above). Second, however, if we grant that this is a nice definition of full, it ultimately undermines the argument about having children. This is because the means to filling is no longer having children! As Lionel noted, it is by preaching the gospel that this filling is achieved, and nowhere in the NT is procreation identified as a means by which the kingdom is expanded.

    Third, the notion that Gen 1:26-28 operates as a command is also not clear-cut. In the article by Van Leeuwen cited above, he notes that the form of the instruction is that of blessing, not command. Elsewhere similar constructs (where piel ברך is followed by an imperative) do not have the imperative functioning as a command but more as a promisory manifestation of the blessing itself (e.g. Gen 24:60). If this is accurate, then the command to be fruitful is actually the content of the blessing: human population will grow because they are blessed by God. As Van Leeuwen says:

    “God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number.'” The Hebrew grammar utilized in this passage is the same used in other parts of Scripture to express prayers and wishes of blessings upon families… So the statement to “be fruitful” doesn’t refer to what couples must do to please God, but what God can do for and through humankind.

  2. What does Gen 2:18-25 actually tell us about marriage? Does it imply that marriage is normative in some way, does God’s observation that the first man was alone apply only to that first man?
  3. One common line of argument here is that it is not good for the man to be alone because in that state he cannot fulfil the command to fill the earth (one prominent proponent of this view is David Clines, see “What Does Eve do to Help?”). Now there is something to this, as I think Sailhamer has shown (see “Genesis” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 46). After all, alone the man cannot have children. But there’s a danger of claiming too much as well.

    Read in context, Gen 1:26-28 presupposes the existence of male and female prior to the pronouncement of the blessing, so that it does not stand as a precursor to the observation that man alone is not good. Second, the problem of man’s alone-ness is resolved with the construction of the woman, it does not await the arrival of children. Third, elsewhere in the OT it is clear that being alone is intrinsically bad. Human beings are made to be in relationship with other human beings (see, for example, the penalty for some transgressions whereby the guilty party is ‘cut off’ from the people, e.g. Lev 7; 17).

    The question over whether Gen 2:18-25 implies a normative status for marriage is more difficult. Does the problem of the first man’s “aloneness” simply imply a need for human companionship, or something more? Does it imply the need for family, since the aetiological note about the man leaving his parents represents the departure from one family in order to form a new family? Or does it specifically imply the need a man has for a wife?

    ISTM that the answers to these questions are not entirely self-evident. If the last option is chosen, what are the implications of Jesus’ revelation that in the age to come there will be no marriage?

  4. I have no problem with the claim that marriage is the correct context for bringing up children, but this is not equivalent to saying that all married couples must be prepared to have children.

  5. Is it true that children are “always and only ever regarded as a blessing from God in the Bible”? I don’t think this claim is as clear-cut as many assume, and I hope to examine it in more detail in a future post.

Other considerations beyond immediate responses to the points identified in support of the “must have children” case include:

  1. Marriage imagery (when applied in both OT and NT to the relationship between God and his people) never extends to include children. It is apparent then that marriage was a notion which did not intrinsically include children, it could stand alone.

  2. Paul, in 1Cor 7, relates some relevant issues on the question of marriage and ministry. What is important to note is Paul’s reasoning: (a) the single man is free to server the Lord, the married man is bound up with earthly concerns; (b) so it is better to remain single, unless the alternative is “to burn,” in which case (c) it is better to marry. Now this analysis of Paul’s argument may be hopelessly simplistic, but note that children do not enter the debate, they are not offered as a reason for getting married, nor are they highlighted as a means to expand the kingdom or a substitute for evangelism or other forms of Christian ministry. Instead, even Paul’s concession allowing marriage is founded on the best way to serve the Lord.

    Children are only discussed at all in the context of mixed (believer to unbeliever) marriages where the children are already part of the family.

    Now it could be that Paul simply assumes that children are part-and-parcel of marriage. But even if he does, that does not prove that Christians may not choose to marry but remain childless. And if Paul understood Gen 1:26-28 to be a command, would he have been abrogating the command by instructing people to remain single?

Conclusion

Now I am not arguing that Christians should not have children (or else I’m in trouble!). Rather, I think that a sound biblical case can be made to support the choice some Christian couples may make not to have children in order to free them for serving the Lord. Now there are no doubt those who choose not to have children for all the wrong reasons, but that shouldn’t be a reason for disallowing the right reasons.


1. On this point Jean Williams, cited above, also appeals to Mal 2:15, but this is a very difficult verse to interpret, see M. A. Shields, “Syncretism and Divorce in Mal 2:10-16” ZAW 111/1 (1999) 68–86.

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