Dear Briefing: Should Christians have children?

Twenty years ago, many people got married and had kids, if not, got married to have kids, but these days people seem to shack up and have dogs. Should a Christian couple’s plans include children?

A study was released in 2001 by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) as to why young couples were increasingly deciding to postpone or avoid having children. Research was based on 2500 childless respondents in 1981 and 2000 respondents in 1996. The dominant reason? Simply a lack of interest in becoming parents. Some felt that it would impinge on their lifestyle. Others felt ambivalence about children themselves. You have to respect the honesty of the woman who said “I have a cat. I don’t feel like it. I’m too selfish.” A nineteen year old female said “I don’t like them. They scream, s— and want food.” In hard economic terms (OK, soft Australian dollar terms) Ruth Weston and LiXia Qu from AIFS claimed that a woman with a high school education gave up $162 000, after tax, or 37% of her lifetime earnings, for the ambivalent joy of having the first child. Later children came at a discount—only $12 000 foregone earnings for number 2 and $15 000 for number 3.

Even sympathetic readers of such a survey must squirm a little bit at the sheer naked self-centredness of some of the responses, or at the calculating nature of putting a dollar value on your firstborn. Children could, of course, repay the investment handsomely. If child number 2 turns out to be Tiger Woods, it’s Gold Coast mansions all ’round for the entire extended family. But anyone who doesn’t recognise the cost of having children—personal as well as material—is foolish, probably childless, and in for a very nasty surprise.

In biblical terms, however, to bring such calculations to the forefront of our thinking is a sign of spiritual sickness. Both at creation, and after the flood, man is given the command to “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it”. There is nothing arbitrary about this command. It is not as if God could instead have told Adam and Eve and their descendants to get regular haircuts, invent the mobile phone, or perform some other equally meaningless task. Having children (filling the world) and ruling is what it means to be in the image of God. God’s plan is to rule the world through those made in his image—us, our children, our children’s children, and so on.

If anything this is even clearer in the New Testament. God is revealed to us there as the eternal Father of the Son, Jesus Christ, through whom God sustains and rules the whole of creation (Jn 1:1-3). Through Christ’s resurrection, God has poured out in us the Spirit of his Son, so that we are now adopted into God’s family (Gal 4:6, Rom 8:14-15). And God becomes our Father as we trust in him through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

If this is true, and God’s spiritual Fatherhood is what really matters, then surely it follows that earthly fatherhood is an optional extra? Shouldn’t we rather direct our energy to telling people the gospel, so that people will trust Jesus and become children of the heavenly Father? Indeed, in one sense this is absolutely true, and commended by Scripture! In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul shows that you can opt out of fatherhood or motherhood by opting out of marriage. And this is a very good option, if it enables us to be single-mindedly devoted to the kingdom of God (1 Cor 7:32).

But if we choose to marry—and there are good reasons for it given in 1 Corinthians 7:9—then the having of children is a part of the package, part of being obedient to the command in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:7. In becoming parents we are reflecting the Fatherhood of God. And it’s a sign of the sickness of our society that this would be seen as a burden rather than a blessing—a view that contradicts both personal experience and the testimony of Scripture (Gen 12:2, Ps 115:14, Ps 127:3 etc).

Indeed, the Bible envisages that the joy of having children will involve spiritual blessing as well, and not just for the parents. As Malachi 2:15 says, “Has not the LORD made [husband and wife] one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring”. Those godly offspring become a blessing to their parents and to the whole world.

Those who marry and choose not to have children may think that they are doing well for themselves—freedom from care, greater lifestyle options, and increased income. Some Christians may even wrong-headedly argue for increased gospel opportunity. But the blessings foregone are massive, and far greater: the opportunity to reflect the likeness of God in this fundamental area of life, the opportunity to produce children in his likeness, the opportunity to make a deliberate choice against self-centredness and in so doing understand grace more deeply by living it out.

Yours parentally,

Gordon Cheng

P.S. The sadness of those unable to have children is further evidence that children are a blessing from God. We should beware of adding guilt to an already heavy burden by insensitively implying that all childless couples have been disobedient.

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