Doodle: Childlessness and the Sovereignty of God

I have now written a couple of posts arguing against the position of many Christians that says married couples must at least attempt to have children. Most recently I challenged what I believe are weak arguments against deliberate childlessness, developing another post I wrote on the topic last year. This shorter post is a personal note, appended to those linked above. And I am writing it because though I stand by my position, my wife and I recently had a child; in fact, we knew my wife was pregnant when my first post went up. So here, very briefly, I want to answer some of the pointed criticisms and more emotional reactions to my posts.

God is sovereign

Institutes volume 1One comment on my original post read, “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.” AJ, who posted the comment, could not have been more correct. We had decided that we did not want children, but God willed something else. I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes this year and it was certainly no coincidence that I read this the day before my son was born, “Augustine rightly complains that wrong is done to God when a higher cause of things than his will is demanded” (1.14.1). Calvin also writes that we must accept God’s secret purposes. Though that section addresses speculation, it applies well to sovereignty. Later, Calvin writes, “If we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan (1.17.1).

Children are a gift

Since God is sovereign it follows that children are the result of him giving them to us. They are not something everyone is entitled to, nor are they something every married couple should expect (or demand) from God. This is surely part of the reason children are called a blessing throughout the Old Testament. My wife and I are very grateful for our son. Our experience of him has been serendipitous, an unlooked for delight. But because children are a gift, a blessing from the Lord, all of us must remember what the Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “I write my blessing to that sweet child, whom you have borrowed from God; he is not heritage to you, but a loan, love him as folks do borrowed things.” We are not entitled to children, as Rutherford says they are not our heritage but borrowed from God. We are entrusted with children, to treasure and take care of them.

How to we respond to God’s sovereignty and gifts?

Theodore LewisThis is the question all of us must answer, and not only when God gives or withholds children. At another point in his Institutes (1.16.6), Calvin shows that the scope of God’s sovereignty is ubiquitous, “Nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination.” This, Calvin says, means that discontentment with our lot is nothing other than the attempt to rid ourselves of God’s purposes. AJ’s comment on my post touched on this, “Hopefully if your wife does get pregnant the child is not aborted. Surely a pastor would not do that.” I would want to add that no Christian would do that. But the point as I conclude is the question: how do we respond to God’s sovereignty, and the gifts he does or does not give us? One of the names we were considering for our son was Felix, which is Latin for lucky or fortuitous. The name we settled on was Theodore, ‘gift of God.’

Unconvincing Arguments for Why Married Couples Must Have Children

Last year I wrote a response to Tim Challies, and what I thought were some weak arguments showing why married couples should not deliberately remain childless. Before we got married, my wife and I agreed that we were not persuaded biblically that couples must procreate in order to be obedient to God. The result of that position has been numerous conversations in the past few years. Therefore the arguments listed below are predominantly points that we have heard or discussed. Unfortunately I do not remember all of the respective sources. But they are certainly commonplace in the debate about deliberate childlessness. Let me say that I do not claim to comprehensively refute these positions. Rather my purpose in writing this post is to encourage conversation.

Two paths in the New Testament: singleness and marriage

Most likely an erroneous extension of Paul’s quite bemusing argument in 1 Corinthians 7, this idea says that Christians can choose either to remain celibate or get married, with the latter necessarily entailing children. This is a reductionistic and narrow point. If the second path involves marriage and children, can we not then conclude that adoption is excluded from the path of singleness? Or that couples that are unable to have children are required to adopt? While those are undeniably the two paths before Christians concerning marriage, it remains an unproven assumption that the path of marriage requires children.

The creation mandate of Genesis means we must have children

This is a statement that warrants a much more detailed and lengthy post, so I will be brief here. The command given to Adam and Eve in Eden must first be considered in its Old Testament context. It was tied to the human commission to fill the earth, specifically given to Israel under the old covenant. As George Athas commented on a previous post on Malachi 2:15, “These words were written within and to people in the old national covenant, for whom having offspring was a national duty. In the new covenant, this is simply not the case, because the new people of God are not a country with citizens inheriting holy land from the previous generation. Those national elements are no longer part of the framework for how we operate as God’s people. As such, if someone posits that everyone needs to try to have children, they would need to do so on other grounds.”

Having children will sanctify you

“…in a way that nothing else will,” is often appended to the above statement. By this people generally mean having children will especially sanctify you. Apart from the fact that this idea is not explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, it implies some plainly wrong conclusions. If a type of sanctification is on offer in raising children that is not repeatable anywhere else in human experience, we can expect parents to be the most mature and godly Christians. If this were the case, then certainly Paul would not have desired celibacy for anyone (1 Corinthians 7:8). In fact, for marrieds to tell childless couples – and similarly for marrieds to tell singles – that their own path breeds greater godliness is just insulting.

Furthermore, on this point, if you will allow me to be a little silly, becoming a missionary in North Korea or planning a church plant in Eritrea will also sanctify you, tremendously. Though we do not hear missionary organizations appealing for missionaries on the basis of how God will use it to make you more holy. Many decisions will sanctify us, but this does not amount to biblical imperatives to make those decisions.

When married couples choose childlessness it is always selfish

This point has some connections with the previous one, but I will address it separately. There is no denying that there is some truth in this position: for children prove a remarkable imposition and threat to idols of leisure, autonomy, and freedom. Therefore there may be selfish reasons for choosing childlessness, as there may be selfish motivations for remaining single. There is, I think, a double warning that knocks this position back: firstly, we should be very slow to pronounce on motives, since we do not know each other’s hearts. Secondly, we are must be very careful not to make our preferences into virtues, and others’ into vices. Calvin (2.3.2) wrote of the hydra of wickedness that lurks in each of our breasts. Selfishness can certainly be behind the decision to have children, only I am yet to hear someone who has chosen a childless marriage accuse those with children of sinful motivation. Without knowing my neighbour’s heart I should be slower to reach conclusions about her decisions. And when those decisions differ from mine I certainly should not demonize them. 

Birth control means seizing control from God

One of the most staggering things I have encountered is that people using this argument have taken contraceptive measures. Calling on other Christians to fully trust God in the area of reproduction eliminates the decision to reach your desired number of children before intervening. Perhaps I am being unfair, or exaggerating the ad infinitum conclusion of this statement, but I feel that it requires those using it to surrender all of their procreative outcomes to the Lord. No contraceptives. Either, birth control, planning the size of one’s family, is prohibited because any such action removes God from the picture; or Christian freedom means we make decisions – that are neither right nor wrong – trusting our God who is sovereign in them. People in glass houses should not throw stones.

Children help marriage fulfill its New Testament role

What is that role? It is clearly laid out that in Ephesians 5, to make the gospel plain. The self-sacrificial love a husband is to show his wife is designed to illustrate Christ’s love for his people, the church. But I honestly cannot fathom how having children illuminates the relationship between Christ and his church, especially since nowhere in the New Testament is the link explicitly made between marriage and children. I am not denying that the New Testament assumes marriages will produce children, but pointing out that nowhere do we see an imperative to do so. Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace, points out that regarding marriage the New Testament is noticeably nonbiological in its emphasis. He also quotes John Boswell, who observed that the Old Testament idealises marriage in terms of sexual attraction, not procreation. Finally, he comments that both Jesus and Paul discuss marriage without using procreation as a rationale or functional justification. Children do not help marriage fulfill its New Testament role. I would venture further, though more reading is required, in suggesting that while procreation was a function of marriage in the Old Testament that was not God’s purpose in creating the institution.

I hope you will do some of your own thinking, perhaps even respond to some of the points above, or add a more convincing position that I have overlooked.

Malachi on Divorce, Godly Offspring, and the Gospel

Two months ago I responded to an article posted by Tim Challies. He developed a few points made by Christopher Ash, in Married for God, arguing that it is sinful for married couples to deliberately not have children (you can see my brief response here). Another arrow in the quiver of those who are convinced married couples must at least attempt to have children is found in Malachi 2. With our home groups working through the post-exilic prophet, I have enjoyed much time for reflection on the book of Malachi. The ESV reads, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (2:15). In case you missed it: God desires children from marriage.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaHowever, a few comments are necessary before concluding what this passage might say. Firstly, the Hebrew is messier than a two-year-old’s attempt to write out a physics equation. In his technical commentary, Douglas Stuart admits: “It is not at all clear what point(s) three-fourths of verse 15 is making.” The only clause that is not disputed is the last, “Do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.” This disagreement over rendering becomes apparent when comparing the ESV (above, similarly NIV) with the NET, “What did our ancestors do when seeking a child from God?” The ESV makes God the subject of the verb ‘to seek,’ whereas the NET makes Israel’s forebears the subject. Douglas Stuart confirms this ambiguity, offering: ‘Israelites who divorced and remarried were (vainly) seeking godly offspring,’ as another potential rendering. Considering just how contested this text is, we would do well to treat it cautiously and not dogmatically.

Our second consideration is the larger context of this verse. Nearly every commentator agrees that it belongs to the larger section of 2:10-16, where Israel is being castigated for its faithlessness (2:10, 11, 14, 15, and 16). This faithlessness is expressed in two sections: firstly, intermarriage and spiritual syncretism (2:10-12); secondly, divorce without good reason (2:13-16). Our embattled verse falls into the latter. Therefore if we decide to go with the more traditional rendering of the 2:15 (ESV and NIV), which says God desires godly offspring, we must locate it within Malachi’s reproach for those who are divorcing. We could then give the general sense of our verse like this: ‘Don’t divorce because God is seeking godly offspring.’ This would mean that the emphasis is not so much on God desiring children from marriage as much as it highlights to the spiritual devastation divorce does to the effected children.

This line of thought fits with the explicit purpose God ascribes to marriage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), though undoubtedly consistent with the Old Testament (Hosea). Marriage is an expression of the gospel. Christ’s self-giving love and unconditional love for the church is an expression of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant Israel repeatedly broke. The gospel is pictured in unbroken marriages, kept vows and selfless love. God hates divorce because it is antithetical to that purpose; marriage is driven by grace while divorce in some ways denies it. A repeated contrast in Malachi is between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. Divorce is not merely an indication of Israel’s moral collapse; it is detrimental to their children’s picture of God’s faithfulness, his grace and the gospel.

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.

Rejoice in Adoption

When I was a child I remember feeling a sense of scandal when I found out that someone I knew was adopted. Perhaps the emotion was evoked because, more often than not, it was a fact kept secret; it was never public knowledge, it was never spoken about and many times the reality was even hidden from the children themselves. adoptionOver recent years however, I have come to meet and get to know many who have either adopted or been adopted and, my perception has changed drastically to an overwhelmingly positive one. Not only have I found adoption to be more celebrated in particular circles but I have come to understand that adoption in and of itself is one of the most beautiful expressions of love that we are able to witness or, for some of us, have the privilege to be a part of.

‘Adoption’ is a word we seldom come across in the Scriptures but the reality of it is taught and alluded to often. Our identity as children of God is one we regularly turn to and rejoice in but the doctrine itself is one that has been desperately ignored. As the arrogant and often disillusioned people we are, we are very quick to claim our right as sons and daughters of God but seldom consider how we are so. We are so by adoption. Not by any birth right that we could claim what is genealogically ours.

In the ancient Roman world adoption was a failsafe method of ensuring an heir where there was none and, when it was practiced it was only a privilege extended to those who had proven worthy of the family name. Adoption was earned, and only because a father had no alternative. If you were adopted, you were Plan B, and loved for your achievements or potential. This was most likely the context in places like Rome, Ephesus and Galatia that Paul addresses in his writings.

But something is different about our adoption into God’s family. When we are saved it is not simply a single solution but rather a beautiful spectrum of salvation. God calls us, he justifies us, he regenerates us and he adopts us. While we may experience many of these simultaneously, it is constructive to view each one in turn. R. A. Petersen helpfully points out how each gift of grace answers a different and specific need. He explains how justification, for instance, is a response to our condemnation, while sanctification is needed because of our contaminated nature. Regeneration is the gift of spiritual life to people who were spiritually dead and it is adoption that rescues us from our state of slavery (Adopted by God: from wayward sinners to cherished children). However, I would add that not only were we slaves and orphans but we belonged to the family of the devil and were by nature children of wrath. When God saves us he does not reboot or press rewind so we can start again and live better lives, but he addresses our every area of need and transforms us.

fistpumpIf we are astounded by our redemption and justification – Christ taking the place and payment of an undeserving and unlovable people – then consider one step further. Not only did God love his enemies and give his only Son to death, but he gave those rebellious and undeserving people His name and made us his sons and daughters. He adopts the slaves he sets free. It is not as if God has no heir to inherit the kingdom – Christ is the perfect son who was perfectly obedient to the Father. In fact it is not as if our eternal God would ever need an heir. And even if he did we would never qualify as candidates for divine adoption given our wretched states. We have never and could never live up to God’s standard to be honorable heirs of heaven.

How deep, how unfathomable and how great is the love of God that we should be called his children (1 John 3:1). Our adoption into the family of God is such an excellent display of the purest and richest love we could ever know.

I find it remarkable that we get to see glimpses of grace in the ordinary patterns we witness every day. As God’s people and as redeemed image-bearers of the Divine, we have the privilege of displaying it to those around us in our relationships: our marriages, our churches, our roles and responsibilities, our giftedness and in every relationship we engage in – and if you have adopted or been adopted, then delight in that picture of grace as well. I don’t pretend that all families have practiced adoption well, but in redeemed God honoring families, I’d invite you to look in and notice a divine parallel. Often people minimize the relationship to a sympathetic gesture or simply a solution to infertility, and often openly question their legitimacy as family members (shame on you). Would we say the same about our adopted status in the family of God? Adoption holds the potential of being a beautiful picture of the love God has for us. Our adoption into God’s family was a love choice, not some desperate desire for legacy. Children of God, rejoice in adoption!