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.

For the Illumined Mind

augustineThere is a special breed of Christian, well at least in my opinion, who were brought to life from a state that appeared quite alive to begin with; those people who were actively searching for truth but were unable to grasp it by their own pursuit.

Of course we understand that they were not truly living since all things apart from Christ are spiritually dead, but a special type of person I still feel. The kind of person Paul preached to in Athens, who groped around in the darkness for the Truth who was not far off (Acts 17:27). People like Augustine who reflect: “I enjoyed the books, while not knowing Him from whom came whatever was true or certain in them. For I had my back to the light and my face to the things upon which the light falls: so that my eyes, by which I looked upon the things in the light, were not themselves illumined.”

There is a world of information and knowledge, where truth can be discovered, with many thinkers, readers and writers operating in it; intelligent people who have studied broader and deeper than I ever think I will. But there is one supreme truth that many of these intellectuals will continue to fumble in the darkness for, one that many simple minded men have taken hold of: Christ Jesus! “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:18).

But by the mercies of God, “he saves us, not because of the works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:5-6).

This special Christian, who once pursued knowledge by the pattern of the world, is now set free by the mercy of God to think and reason and calculate in truth. I love to watch this person, who so loves to think, suddenly understand the information he has curiously stored up all his life. Their minds reboot and now direct them on a path of living out the will of God. David Peterson in Possessed by God writes,

“It is a fundamental principle of Christian spirituality that God does his sanctifying work through our minds. In so doing he works with our conscious cooperation and permission.”

A great reversal has taken place, the Romans 1:21 man now becomes a Romans 12:2 man and the instruction is to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is.”

But caution, there is still the warning to not be conformed to the world, because the wisdom and influence of the world is very appealing. It draws out our old compulsive nature and deceives us once again into thinking that it is true wisdom. But it is folly because worldly thinking has not been thought through to completion. The godless man looks at life as it is now, as if this is all there is and ever will be. There is no vision of a perfected world; no decision made in light of the eternal. Whether consideration has been given for an entire lifetime or for one-hundred lifetimes, it is still too short-sighted to be fully good, perfect or true. How difficult it is to keep our minds set on things above, allowing the prospect of eternity to shape our perspective. This short life is so distracting and enticing; to pursue comfort, worldly knowledge and acclaim. As explained so well from the pulpit recently, the only gain in death is if to live is Christ (Philippians 1:21). Any other life pursuit will end in loss and prove you to be the greatest fool.

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!” To paraphrase Ephesians 4:18-23: Your mind is no longer futile, ignorant of the eternal or darkened in its understanding. You have heard about Jesus, you were taught in Jesus, as the truth is in Jesus. Therefore, put off your old self, be renewed in your mind and put on the new self.

foreverIt is no wonder that it is the Spirit who works this out in us. He is from the eternal, sets our minds on the eternal and makes us into a new self, preparing us for the eternal. We are being made into forever beings, in the image of our creator, and the preparation begins in our minds (Colossians 3:10). It is amazing that God would go through so much effort to acquire for himself someone like you for forever!

Reader, fabulous and most brilliant mind, be renewed so that your discernment will be clear to see that the most reasonable offering to God is yourself.

The Agency of Definitive Sanctification: Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Portrait of John MurrayThe unfortunate result of writing a thesis is that you end up with a lot of material but not enough space for its inclusion. There is a great tragedy in this, for apart from a few keen theological students and your honours supervisor these by-products are not really accessible reading. But that is not going to prevent me offering this brief piece, which is more of a hors d’oeuvre, on the agency of definitive sanctification.

John Murray on sanctification roused my interest in this question (see Collected Works: volume 2, p285-293). His answer to the question is given as a twofold progression where the second step, in my opinion, undoes the first. For he says that (1) while it is the saving action of each person in the Trinity that believers are sanctified, (2) it is by virtue of the Son’s complete work on the cross that the action of the Father and Holy Spirit take effect. So much for the old Latin expression opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa (the external works of the Trinity are undivided). Murray appears to reduce the work of both Father and Spirit, within the Triune God’s sanctification of the creature. Below I will briefly outline why we should not limit the agency of our definitive sanctification to one person in the Trinity.

Father as Monarch: the initiating agent of the Trinity (Dr. Benjamin Dean, my lecturer in systematic theology at George Whitefield College)

Without presuming to address the myriad of questions surrounding the taxis (order) in the Trinity, this distinction made by Ben Dean is a helpful one: when we speak of the Monarchy of the Father we can do so with reference to his person but not his being. That is to say that the Father, without being ontologically superior, is the prominent person within the Trinity. His prerogative is privileged as he is the leading and initiating figure of the Trinity. Thus when we speak about the co-activity of the Triune God we need to bear in mind that it unfolds within a defined order. Bringing this back to sanctification we should remember that the Son’s work is carried out in submission to the Father’s desire that his creatures enjoy a relationship with him, and for this they must be sanctified.

The pactum salutis: the covenant of grace

Though it is often forgotten or unmentioned, the pactum salutis (pact of salvation) is a hallmark of Reformed theology. It presupposes communion with Christ, a union or bond forged between the mediator and God’s elect in eternity. Election is the Father’s decision to make a covenant of grace with certain creatures he chose before time. The Father gives the elect to his Son and unites them with him, which explains Jesus’ phrase in John 10:28-29 where he assures believers that he will lose none that the Father has trusted into his hand. Though not very different to the first point I have made, the pactum salutis teaches us is that in sanctification, we are not merely benefitting from Christ’s work and our position in him, but as covenant partners with the Triune God from eternity, the Spirit appropriates covenant blessings (salvation) to us.

 The Spirit makes us holy: the consecrating agent (John Webster, Confessing God, p128-129)

In eternity the Father looks ahead to our reconciliation and sanctification, in history the Son takes up the creature’s cause and reconciles them by his sufficient work, in which our sanctification finds its organic source. But it is the Spirit who completes the sanctification which was willed by the Father and effectively procured by the Son. The Spirit acts upon the creature filling out its history in completion of the divine purpose. He makes this sanctification actual. His work establishes creatures in fellowship with “the thrice Holy One”. Thus without his work the salvation initiated in eternity and secured at Calvary cannot be enjoyed by the creature.

Scutum FideiWe will finish where we started, with John Murray, who concludes his chapter on the pattern sanctification like this, “when Christ is truly honoured, the other persons of the Godhead are likewise honoured” for we see the Father’s glory in the Son’s face and know that the Spirit glorifies the Son (p312). I wholeheartedly agree with Murray, but ask if we would not gain a greater grasp of the Son’s work as we remember its integration within the Trinity’s.

What is the place of ’emotion’ in the Christian life?

pulpit

I’ve recently been diagnosed with depression. So I’ve been pretty man down lately. I have started on a dose of anti-depressants, and they’re slowly kicking into my system. As I was on my way up I was hit by a solid bout of flu. As much as flu sucks, I honestly quite enjoy the time in bed to sleep, read and think.

During this time I started reading a book called ‘Feel‘. In it Matthew Elliott argues that if we downplay emotions in the Christian life, we distance an important, God-given part of ourselves.

Here’s the description from the Amazon page:

“In Feel, Matthew Elliott takes a critical look at what our culture and many churches have taught about controlling and ignoring our emotions. He contends that some of the great thinkers of the modern era got it all wrong, and that the Bible teaches that God intends for us to live in and through our emotions. Emotions are good things that God created us to feel. Matthew helps us to understand our emotions and equips us to nurture healthy feelings and reject destructive ones. So refresh yourself, drink deeply, and learn to live with a new, passionate heart”.

pulpit I’ll be honest, after reading the subtitle (“The power of listening to your heart”) my sensors were tingling a little. But, surprisingly, it was brilliant! It gripped my heart and sent my mind all over the place as I thought about whether it clashes with anything in my theology. I think the best part was that it got me to read the Bible and pray with a new air of excitement.

Has anyone who checks in here read it? If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. I’m convinced by his argument, and think he highlights something important which is downplayed or, at least, overlooked in most reformed circles. It has given me something to chew on as I think about how to approach my pretty significant emotional. So I’m looking for an opportunity to chat about some of the ideas he raises.

I realise that most of you won’t have read it though. Obviously I recommend you give it a read. But most of you won’t have the time for that. So, because I would still like you to get involved, I have made a plan for you. I have made something of a summary. Give that a read, and then let me know your thoughts below.

P.S. I’ve also been thinking about posting something longer on godliness, friendship and intimacy. So keep an eye out for that too.