Responding to Challies: Is It Okay To Deliberately Not Have Children?

Christopher AshYesterday Tim Challies posted asking if Christian couples can decide not to have children. The article relies on and develops a few points Christopher Ash makes in his excellent book, Married for God. However, I cannot agree with the reasoning of either Challies or Ash. Having heard similar arguments in numerous conversations, I remain unconvinced that Christian couples must have children or that the decision not to is sinful. I have planned a series of posts on the topic, and we might call this short response some of the first fruits.

Challies’ first point addresses the false dichotomy between having children and serving God. Quoting Ash, “We do not serve God rather than having children; we serve God by having children.” It is a true point: the married couple need not choose between having children and serving God, since rearing children is certainly one of the places married couples serve God. But that does not make it an essential means of serving God in marriage.

Later in the article, Challies presents his own false dichotomy: embracing children as blessing from God or calling them a curse. Really? When a friend chooses to remain celibate for whatever reason do we accuse him of calling marriage a curse? Or, let’s consider a passage often dragged into this discussion, ‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children’ (Psalm 127:5). Does the couple that decide to have just two children call the “full quiver” (four, five, a Catholic dozen) a curse? We are not strung between calling children a curse or a blessing.

Finally, Challies makes a point that I really appreciated: children are uninvited strangers that couples must extend sacrificial hospitality to. Unlike our spouse or close friends we cannot choose children that suit us. However, reading this point did bring to mind another, made by Stanley Hauerwas, “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do…give it a while and he or she will change…The primary problem [then] is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” On top of Hauerwas’ point, both Old and New Testaments encourage believers to entertain and care for strangers. Furthermore, if ever there was a place that forced unlooked for and very often inconvenient relationships it is the local church. Sure, children interrupt marriages causing sanctification and forcing hospitality. But they are not the only place where couples can practice hospitality and putting strangers ahead of themselves.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I hope to write more on this topic. I admit that this response is rushed and does not present any arguments in favour of deliberate childlessness, nor does it deal with the question of Genesis 1-2 and the creation mandate. Hopefully those will come. But in the mean time, it is frustrating to hear the poorly thought-out arguments mentioned above that prove nothing, yet somehow are persistently plied as if they did.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • Sean

    I would agree Graham. If Paul argues for the unmarried (1 Cor 7:32-34. The unmarried man is concerned about the work of the Lord, how he can please the Lord; but the married man is concerned about the affairs of this world, how he can please his wife, and his interests are divided. ) on the basis that our attention is divided away from the Lord. How much more does this have relevance to having kids?

    • thanks for the comment, Sean, 1 Corinthians 7 is an infamously embattled text (most recently Lynsay told me she can’t get reach any other conclusion from reading it besides singleness being better than marriage). But the problem with this argument is that it re-establishes the false dichotomy Ash and Challies are refuting: one needn’t choose between serving God and having children, since we can serve God in raising godly offspring. But then we run into trouble – because of 1 Corinthians 7 – around the question of singleness and marriage. Why does Paul say what he does if marriage is another area where we can mindfully as well as selflessly serve God in serving another? It’s a strange text, since we instinctively shouldn’t think of family (something ordained by God) as merely worldly affairs. No answer here

      • Jordan Pickering

        1 Cor 7 merely says that interests are divided (i.e. one’s interests must include how to care for one’s family). It doesn’t say that you cannot serve God as a married person or that family is merely worldly. The NT assumes people will have children as a normal part of life, but it doesn’t suggest that it is necessary. 1 Cor 7 certainly makes marriage unnecessary (and Paul is advocating single-minded focus on the gospel as the best vocation), which isn’t a massive point in favour of theological breeding in the NT.

        • hey Jordan, thanks for the comments (both here and on Facebook). I do think 1 Corinthians 7 is more contentious than you’ve allowed. Paul does seem to equate the divided interests of marriage with the affairs of this world (7:33-34), though that isn’t necessarily worldliness. It’s also hard to get around his “he who does not marry does better” (7:38), whichever translation you go with.

          But putting all of that aside I thank you for the point above; I hadn’t thought about the significance of Paul’s silence on the matter of childbearing in this passage. His emphasis is on the conjugal duty to one’s spouse, and if the biblical imperative were on marriage for procreation then we would expect Paul to argue that, rather than assume children were a given in marriage

          • Jordan Pickering

            I might be misunderstanding the problem, true. I understand Paul to be saying that the ideal is single minded Gospel service, making spiritual children, if you like, which necessarily means that marriage is second best. Marriage undoubtedly means that one’s commitment to Gospel work must fit around one’s commitment to one’s spouse. Hence it is concerned with worldly things (keeping the family fed, housed, happy etc.), though it is not morally worldly, as we might talk of worldliness.

            It is worth noting that it is a modern conservative argument that we need to outbreed other religions, or more charitably, that our kids are our first mission field. The Bible makes no such argument. In fact, of spouses this same passage reminds us that we cannot know that an unbeliever will come to faith. Children of Christians have an advantage, but the same is surely true of them. Our imperative is the Great Commission, not having kids.

          • Pierre Queripel

            Hi Jordan.
            “Our imperative is the Great Commission, not having kids.”
            I see this as a false dichotomy. I would suggest that the main way that most of us are to carry out the great commission is by baptising our children and teaching them to obey everything that Christ commanded.

          • Jordan Pickering

            Hi, Pierre, I agree that this is a responsibility we have to our children. What I am saying is that the NT gives us the great commission as an imperative, but not one to have kids. I was representing what I think Paul’s argument is when he says ministry of the Gospel is better than marriage, and pointing out that this is against the grain of the usual argument we make in favour of breeding.

  • AJ Smith

    Ya know what? You aren’t the one who decides if you have kids or not. You may do your best to prevent it, but if the Lord wants you to procreate you are going to have kids. Hopefully if your wife does get pregnant the child is not aborted. Surely a pastor would not do that. Quit worrying about it. If it happens, it happens and you will do fine. My spouse wasn’t big on having kids. The mind was changed and we lost several babies. We ended up adopting, so that was pretty purposeful. Our son has his problems, but I can’t imagine life without him. He is quite the kid. He does more evangelizing than we do. Don’t put limits on the Lord.

  • Nils Holmgren

    Perhaps the Bible is silent on this because the power to (successfully) control procreation is a brand new one. I’m not sure Christians would have debated this much pre-1960. Of course, silence also means that we can’t call sin what lies in the area of freedom. But when we’re deliberately preventing one of the God-ordained purposes for sex, we better make sure our motives are not self-centred. Problem is: they usually are.

    • thanks for the interaction, Nils. I’m glad that you put procreation under the header of Christian freedom meaning we can’t call it sinful. I would push back slightly on us being able to successfully control it. (1) Biologically a woman is only able to conceive for less than a third of any given month. (2) Even within those days in the menstrual cycle when a woman can fall pregnant, there are ways to avoid it; see Genesis 38.

      I have also been told that the decision to not have children is always motivated by self-centredness or sin. However, it isn’t really an argument since most of the time our motives are mixed up, even having children can be selfishly motivated, most often due to the idolatry of the nuclear family. I think a better question to ask is: can a couple deliberately refrain from having children and motivate it biblically. By biblically here I mean both: (a) show that it isn’t sinful to remain childless on purpose; and (b) could they, like the single in 1 Corinthians 7, make godly and selfless use of their time and decision

      • And maybe to add to that, it is very easy to remain single for selfish reasons.

        • Great minds, hey James, “Let no man rashly despise marriage as something unprofitable or superfluous to him; let no man long for celibacy unless he can live without a wife. Also, let him not provide in this state for the repose and convenience of the flesh, but only that, freed from this marriage bond, he may be more prompt and ready for all the duties of piety” (Calvin 2.8.43, discussing the seventh commandment).

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  • Pierre Queripel

    Hi Graham

    I agree that we should not require of people what scripture does not require of them (assuming that we have not been too hasty to conclude that scripture really is silent on the matter). Nevertheless, if I were friends with a Christian couple who were considering voluntary childlessness, I would be interested to hear their reasons.

    My wife and I wrestled with this question on and off for six years. At the time, we each had full time “secular” jobs and were heading up a Sunday school while helping to establish a new church. We eventually decided, with the help of a John Piper article, that it’s okay for Christian couples to decide not to have children, especially if they are somehow involved in passing on the knowledge of God to future generations. The very next day, we found out that we were pregnant for the first time, and for that we are thankful.

    While some couples may have good reasons for choosing not to have children, our own hesitancy in having children was flawed on a number of levels, and I hope that others don’t make the same mistakes.

    Firstly, we had a relatively low view of the role of parents in raising godly offspring. We measured the health of a church’s youth ministry, not primarily by the faithfulness of the parents, but by whether they employed a full-time theologically trained children’s and youth worker. We measured the youth ministry’s health by whether the church had a team of committed and trained expositors catering for a wide range of distinct age groups. After all, most Christian parents we knew were raising unbelieving or apathetic kids and needed us to step in and compensate for their shortcomings. It was only natural that we would avoid having kids of our own so that we could be freed up to make sure that other people’s kids were well taught. From our reading of scripture and our experiences in five-or-so churches, we have come to believe that, humanly speaking, a church’s official children’s ministry can’t put in what parents have left out. On the contrary, the parents ARE the children’s ministry, and if a church chooses to have an official children’s team, their role is to compliment and support what the parents are doing. I find it striking that, when Paul addresses children specifically in his letters, he simply tells them to obey their parents.

    Secondly, we were guided, I believe, by unwarranted pragmatism. We reasoned that children are statistically the most likely people to be converted, and so we had to reach as many of them with the gospel as possible. Again, this is different from Paul’s approach. Rather than targeting children directly, he addressed heads of households and the households then tended to fall in line with the head. Some might argue that the book of Acts is not normative in this regard, and that Paul was simply accommodating himself to a patriarchal culture. Rather, I would say that societies have patriarchal elements, however distorted, because that is the way God designed families from the beginning (e.g. Gen 18:19). If I may speak pragmatically for a bit, some Americans claim that if Americans had chosen not to prioritise evangelistic outreach, but instead simply focussed on raising godly off-spring there would be more Christians in America today. I suspect they are right (not that we should neglect evangelistic outreach).

    Thirdly, and similarly, we saw the great commission as primarily about evangelising as many people as possible and training converts to evangelise others. On the contrary, Matt 28 emphasises baptising and teaching all-of-life obedience. It is first highly intensive before it is extensive. This implies that the role of the family continues to be central in the disciplemaking process, just as it was in the OT (e.g. Deuteronomy & Proverbs). The discipleship process extends beyond the family, but it generall doesn’t bypass it.

    Fourthly, we wrongly elevated formal, church-based word ministry above other vocations, motherhood and fatherhood included (which are partly word ministry anyway).

    Fifthly, we once thought that the world was over-populated, whereas we now regard it as under-populated, at least when it comes to God-fearing stewards. I now say that problem isn’t too many babies, but too few fathers.

    Finally, we underestimated the joy that children can bring to one’s life. A friend of ours, who is not inclined to idolise children, once said that her happiness doubles with every new child. I really feel for those I know who chose not to have children and later regretted it, as well as those who had children and then regretted having the “snip” too soon. I’m sure that no one on their deathbed ever said, “I had too many children”. If we have any regrets it’s that we started rather late.

    Anyway, I look forward to hearing the rest of your series. 🙂

    Pierre

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