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.

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
  • George Athas

    A few further factors to consider:

    (1) Marriage is, by definition, family making. The family exists as soon as husband and wife are married. The children do not make the family. The husband and wife do. Their union is familial.

    (2) The familial nature of marriage means that children are a natural consequence of marriage (on average). So couples who marry should be open to children. But this does not necessitate having children. An elderly man and woman who are past reproductive age may legitimately decide to marry. They are a family unit on their own when they marry without having children.

    (3) The human race needs children to survive. So we need some people to marry and have children. But this is a mandate to all humanity collectively. While every familial couple participates in that mandate because they are human, they do not need to enact it themselves for the mandate to be fulfilled. But at least some do. This is why being a family is a public matter. The survival of the human race is about our collective effort as a community, and not just as individuals. Take an extreme scenario: nuclear war kills off almost everyone on the planet; those left would have a moral responsibility to have children so that humanity survives. But the more population we have, the freer we can be about having children (or not).

    (4) Since we need children to survive as a human race, and marriage is necessarily familial, the normal expectation should be that couples have children. But again, this is about the institution of marriage, rather than about every instantiation of that institution. As mentioned in (2) above, it’s possible to be a family without children. But the institution of marriage is about family making, and children have a place in that.

  • Jordan Pickering

    Thanks Graham, I have yet to hear a single decent argument that childbearing is an imperative. But all of these bad ones have made me sympathetically annoyed.

  • Brad Flood

    A good topic to wrestle with. A few observations …

    The creation mandate was given to man prior to the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel and It should not be tied to the Old Covenant. Jesus refered back to the mandate given in Genesis when questioned about divorce in Matthew 19.

    The Old Testament assumes that marriage and procreation are tied together. This was the atmosphere into which the New Testament writers wrote.

    Children are seen as a blessing from the Lord in both the Old and New Testaments.

    The observation from John Boswell should be taken with a ‘pinch of salt’ as he had his own agenda of promoting same-sex unions in the church and thus needed to put a wedge between marriage and procreation.