Welcoming children

One of the quirks of being a Christian minister associated with an historic building like St Michael’s Wollongong is that I end up officiating a lot of weddings. But occasionally I also get to attend weddings which others officiate. Not long ago, I attended a wedding at another church. It was a great wedding, full of joy and wonderful testimonies to the grace and love of God through his Son Jesus. However, I did notice something that I thought was very strange: throughout the wedding, from the processional to the final speech at the reception, no mention was made of children at all. Not once.

Now I don’t think this omission was deliberate. I have no reason to think that the couple are averse to having children, nor that the minister in charge of the service tried to leave out any reference to them. I think it was just an oversight in the wedding planning process. Furthermore, the reason that I noticed it is not because I’m particularly astute or virtuous; rather, it’s because I’m an Anglican minister who has done lots of weddings, and I just noticed that the wedding was different to the way I normally do it. Whenever I officiate a wedding, I’m required by the laws of my denomination to bring up the subject of children in two places: firstly, in the introduction to the wedding. The words I use are modernized and adapted from the Marriage Service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which lists three reasons for marriage. The first is children:

First, It [i.e. Matrimony] was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, after the marriage is solemnized, I am required to pray for the couple using the ideas expressed in the following words (unless the woman is past childbearing age):

Merciful Lord, and heavenly Father, by whose gracious gift mankind is increased: We beseech thee, assist with thy blessing these two persons, that they may both be fruitful in procreation of children, and also live together so long in godly love and honesty, that they may see their children Christianly and virtuously brought up, to thy praise and honour; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In hindsight, as I reflect more on the biblical teaching, it seems to me that the Book of Common Prayer is spot-on, and the fact that children were not mentioned at all in the wedding I mentioned was a serious oversight. In the Bible, children are always seen as a blessing from the Lord, and childlessness in marriage is always a cause of grief. The command in Genesis 1:28 is just the beginning of a consistent biblical theme: marriage is for children, God loves children, and God’s people are to reflect God’s attitude:

And God blessed them [i.e. man as male and female]. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:28 ESV)

I’m not talking here about the details of family planning and contraception—I accept that different families will have different capacities, timings and situations. Nevertheless, the consistent biblical teaching is that marriages should have a warm and welcoming attitude to children, for this is one of the primary purposes of a marriage. It follows that in a wedding ceremony, the bearing of children should not simply be assumed, but should be given a prominent and explicit place.

Indeed, the general conservative Christian stance against abortion requires us to have a strong, firm and outspoken culture of warmly welcoming children, otherwise our opposition to abortion will just become a hypocritical farce.

Just as an aside, some might argue that today’s world is different from biblical times, and that the world is so overpopulated now that the second part of God’s command in Genesis 1:28 (to “have dominion”) actually negates the first (to “multiply”). The argument goes like this: we have come to a point where there are simply too many people in the world, and any more ‘filling’ will mean that we aren’t taking care of the world properly; we have already completed our obedience to God’s command to “fill” the earth—and now we can stop procreating.

However, it’s not really true that overpopulation itself is causing the strain on the earth’s resources. What is causing this strain is a much more basic problem—a problem which Francis Schaeffer identified way back in the 1960s, and a problem which the Bible talks about again and again: human greed (e.g. Exod 20:17, Rom 1:29, Jas 4:2-3). It’s not that there are too many people, it’s that certain people (especially in the West) are insatiably using more and more resources. Think of Australians: in general, on average, we are gobbling up oil to get ourselves around more conveniently, and we are gobbling up land because the average household size has dropped, so fewer and fewer people are now living in bigger and bigger houses (not to mention the extra cost in electricity for heating and lighting, etc). The strain on the earth’s resources would be stopped overnight if we all became content with what we had, and were happy to live with larger families under one roof.

Or take food resources, for example. To quote a statistic I heard recently, there are now more obese and overweight people in the world than there are malnourished people in the world. (That includes countries such as China.) That statistic means that there is more than enough food for everybody many times over. It’s just that it’s not being distributed properly—because of corruption and greed. Overpopulation isn’t the problem; it’s the age-old problem of greed.

In fact, I reckon a better way for western Christians to combat the problems that are so often blamed on overpopulation would be to have more children—providing that they are committed to seeing that all of their children are “Christianly and virtuously brought up”. For if that is true, there should be more and more people who have been brought up to be less greedy, more patient and more generous, to use less resources, and therefore to effect a good and lasting change in our world.

The Bible teaches that marriage is good, and that one of the indispensable reasons for marriage is children. So if you notice references to children being marginalized or omitted at a Christian wedding in your church, perhaps you could have a quiet word with your minister and politely ask them why.

21 thoughts on “Welcoming children

  1. Let me hasten to add that I don’t want to downplay the tragic and often silent grief of infertility. In this case, I know the (young) couple in question, and I know that they have no reason to think that they cannot have children.

  2. When my husband and I got married we actually requested that there be no reference to future children, mainly because we were aware that I might not be able to have kids due a medical issue in my teens. We didn’t think it was appropriate to bring up that source of possible sadness on what was supposed to be a happy day. I think we need to be careful not to put our foot in it with such a sensitive area as fertility – and I acknowledge your comment above Lionel.

  3. What would you say to Christian couples who enter marriage having decided they do not want to have children?

  4. Dear Lucy – For any given Christian couple who enters marriage having decided they don’t want to have children, I would want to have a very long conversation with them to ascertain what’s behind their decision. There may be a legitimate medical reason (e.g. a high risk of passing on a major genetic abnormality). Or it may be a bad experience of childhood that has significantly skewed their view of children and parenting. Or it might be just plain old-fashioned selfishness, which needs repentance. In any case, something has to have gone very seriously wrong if a Christian couple deliberately chooses to reject something that is so close to their Lord’s heart and purposes.

  5. Hi Lionel

    you might add things like the ability of the parent to appropriately care for the child due to physical or mental illness etc.

    also I’d be interested in exploring the argument that has been used recently of not having children for the sake of particular ministries that might be considered too dangerous or inappropriate to take children into. (like the singleness argument i suppose )

  6. Hi Shane – thanks!
    With regards to not having children for the sake of a particular Christian ministry, I would go back to 1 Corinthians 7:32-35. If you [not you, Shane, I mean the generic “you”] want to be free to be single-heartedly devoted to the affairs of the Lord, and free from the concern of caring for a family, then the answer is simple: don’t get married. But if you do get married, you need to realise that you have chosen a package deal – children included, and therefore (at least for a time) you may have excluded yourself from certain areas of ministry because of your concern for your family. This isn’t evil – but it is a consequence of the choice you’ve made. I can see no biblical warrant for deliberately picking and choosing between certain parts of the family (e.g. “I want the companionship of a spouse but not the limitation of kids”).

  7. A couple of brief observations. As I read Genesis 2 it is clear that a family is therein identified as husband and wife, so that the couple without children cannot be described as “part of a family” – they are a family.

    Furthermore, Paul’s concession allowing marriage is given in 1Cor 7:9 and there he does not imply that marriage is inherently about having children. Indeed, even in 1Cor 7:32-35 children are not mentioned, but the principle seems to be what occupies you. Now in Paul’s day there was obviously little control over having children, but if the principle is extended then why is it invalid to note that having children inevitably further impinges upon your freedom to serve the Lord and so offer that as a legitimate reason for choosing to remain childless?

  8. Thanks for your thoughts Lionel.

    I have heard of another option which may meet both goals. ie that of children and not further adding to world population.

    A couple I know of have chosen to adopt from overseas without attempting to conceive naturally. To the best of my knowledge there is nothing known that would prevent them from having their own children. They have simply decided not to try.

    Without including this in any way with infertile couples (as stated earlier a different kettle of fish), what do you and others, think of this option?

  9. Hi Martin. Certainly I was not trying to imply that a husband and wife are just “part of a family”. But Genesis 2 has to be read in light of Genesis 1. The man and woman are indeed a “family” in their own right, but they are a family with a God-given purpose: to have children and to rule the creation. It’s what God has created marriage for. To use an analogy, to get married without planning to have children (extraordinary circumstances notwithstanding) would be like buying a car without ever planning to drive it.

    Granted, the analogy breaks down a little because children aren’t the *only* purpose of marriage. Marriage is also for companionship, which is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 7 (e.g. verse 3). That, I take it, is why he doesn’t talk much about children in this context. He does assume that children are in the picture (verse 14), but he doesn’t go on about it because he’s discussing another purpose for marriage here.

    But it would be illegitimate to take Paul’s principle of freedom w.r.t *whether* you marry, and use that principle to override one of the fundamental purposes of marriage itself, without some very clear Scriptural mandate. We are indeed free, but we don’t have the freedom to live in a way that contradicts God’s purposes for our relationships.

  10. Roman Catholic ethics are much simpler at this point. Take contraception out of the mix and marriage, sex, and children are a package deal.
    Contraception is o.k. – isn’t it?

  11. Hi Michael – while Roman Catholic ethics may be simpler, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re correct! A wise Christian ethicist I know once put it this way, which I think is a very brief but helpful summary:

    In Roman Catholic ethics, sex is for children and for companionship. Therefore, any sexual act must be open to both of these purposes. Therefore, contraception is wrong.

    In much Protestant (and, I believe, biblical) ethics, this is not quite the case. Sex is for marriage, and marriage is for companionship and for children. Therefore, any sexual act must be for the sake of building a marriage, and every marriage must be open to children. This means that contraception is not ruled out in individual circumstances. However, contraception can be used sinfully – that is, to close the marriage to the the possibility of children (again, notwithstanding extraordinary circumstances mentioned above).

  12. Another reason not to have one’s own children is to foster or adopt special needs chidren (which may require people without other children to care for them, because of the effort involved in their needs).
    This appears to be a godly option AFAIK.
    At present lesbians are disproprtionately represented in those caring for these children, a fact which should shame christians.

  13. Dear Phil – my gut reaction to your comment is that adoption seems to me a wonderful, God-like and sacrificial way of fulfilling the procreative purpose of marriage in the midst of a fallen world.

    Of course, given what I wrote in my post, I can see no reason to aim towards the goal of not adding further to world population. What we need to do is to teach our children—adopted or otherwise!—to be less greedy and more patient.

  14. Hi Lionel.

    I don’t think your car analogy is correct: unless the <i>only</i> purpose of marriage is procreation. Yet in Gen 2 the primary function of the creation of the woman is to overcome the problem of the man being alone. I know some argue that this itself is a problem because of the inability of the man alone to fulfil the command to fill the earth in Gen 1, but that doesn’t appear to be the focus in Gen 2-3 where the problem is solved with the arrival of the woman and does not await the arrival of children.

    Turning to the NT, ISTM that Paul is willing to allow circumstances to render the problem of Gen 2:18 to be of secondary importance and so to allow those circumstances to override the command to fill the earth. If what underlies Paul’s argument is the opportunity to be free to serve the Lord as opposed to being tied to other responsibilities, why disallow the extension of this principle to the choice to have children or not? While this option was not open to married couples in Paul’s day, if you allow contraception then it is an option available today.

    That is, there has been a shift in focus of responsibility which should inform all of our decisions as Christians, including (as Paul says) whether we get married (although I’m not sure Paul would simply ascribe the decision as a choice we are free to make, depending a little on the meaning of 1Cor 7:7 and also in light of v. 9). By extension, shouldn’t this same principle inform decisions about having children?

    Finally, when would you say that the earth is full? You said that the earth can sustain more people, but that still leaves the question of how many people are too many. Does full really mean “as many as can possibly be sustained”? As I’ve argued in the discussion to which I previously linked, by any biblical measure of “full” the earth is overpopulated.

  15. Wow, interesting discussion. Thanks so much Lionel. We have only been attending an Anglican church for a relatively short amount of time and one of the things I have grown to appreciate (in the wealth of inherited blessings from the past) is the marriage ceremony; the vows and as you mentioned, the affirmation of children in a christian marriage.

    Just a few comments on our general attitude as Christian people to the blessing of children:

    I’ve heard couples (some opting for sterilisation) say “well, if God wants us to have more children, he will overrule”. Somehow something isn’t quite right about that attitude. (Isn’t it a bit like living on junk food assuming that God will give the blessing of health *if* He wants to?)

    If children are a blessing (like money and health are considered to be) then why don’t our attitudes reflect this? The wedding ceremony is the only place I think I’ve heard a prayer for the blessing of children. But I’ve heard many christians praying for their finances and health.

  16. Hi Martin; your use of Scripture really puzzles me. You’re using an argument from silence in one part of Scripture to overturn a clear teaching in another part of Scripture; and you’re extending a principle that applies to a specific circumstance to apply in another very different circumstance.

    Paul nowhere in 1 Corinthians 7 advocates overriding any command of God. God has never commanded every man to get married, and so we are free to remain single. Marriage is of course good, but in the light of the coming of Jesus, there is a greater good (proclaiming the gospel), and we are free to balance those goods in godly wisdom, given our particular circumstances.

    The situation with children is quite different. There *is* a Scriptural command to the man and woman to be fruitful and multiply. Now we need to realise that the idea of “commands” is a blunt instrument in ethics. Biblical ethics, especially in the area of children, is far deeper than looking for commands and when they can be overturned. The Bible is all about God loving children and delighting in family relationships – this should be our ultimate starting point. Nevertheless, the command to be fruitful and multiply is still there, and can’t be easily overridden without a very good Scriptural reason. I can’t see that you’ve provided one.

    I don’t agree that by any biblical measure of “full” the earth is overpopulated. The biblical measure of “full” is that the situation envisaged in Genesis 1 has been achieved – i.e., that there is a large number of human beings acting in obedience to God as his image, delighting in relationship with him and ruling his world justly and fairly. This will ultimately be achieved in the great multitude who worships the Lamb in the new creation (Revelation 7:9, 19:1-6, cf. chapters 20-21). Hence it is brought about primarily through gospel preaching. However, it can also be anticipated by Christian couples bearing children and teaching them to worship the Lamb, obey God, to be less greedy and put sin to death. Gospel preaching is not opposed to bearing and nurturing godly children – ultimately have the same aim. Indeed, for married couples, having faithful and obedient children will aid, rather than hinder, gospel preaching (e.g. Titus 1:6). It is not either/or.

    Also – I think it’s historically naïve to say that contraception was not an option in Paul’s day as it is in our day. Yes, we do have safer and more reliable means of contraception. I’m no expert here (perhaps there are some experts out there on this!) but I would be willing to hazard a guess that contraception is not a twentieth century invention and that it would have been known to Paul.

    Finally, I agree that the car analogy falls down at the point you raised (of course, no analogy is perfect). Let’s try a different one that might be closer to the point. I am a church pastor, and I have been given a rather nice house to live in. This house has two purposes. One is to provide shelter to my family. The other is to have a place to share in hospitality with members of the parish. Both purposes are important, and I must not neglect my duty in either. Of course, I must be responsible and manage the use of the house. But if I never use the house for hospitality at all, I am neglecting one of the purposes for which it was given, and I am being selfish and greedy.

  17. Could yet another analogy be used? what about food? Food has two purposes; it is to be enjoyed and it is to nourish the body. One without the other seems wrong and even tho’ we might try they can’t *really* be separated. But there is freedom for the christian to choose where to draw the lines.

    People do try to separate them but I think food with *no* thought of nourishment could lead to gluttony (and shocking health!) and food with *no* thought of enjoyment would be a drudgery and maybe even idolatry.

    Something won’t quite let me go there but I am quite sympathetic to the Catholic view mentioned by Michael above. smile

  18. Jean – thank you, this is a very insightful summary of these issues and well worth a read.

    Janelle – great analogy. And if you also consider that food has the the purpose of “fellowship”, the analogy may become even more apt.

  19. Lionel, thanks for this post. I have also learned from the way you’ve answered questions…

    I am sure Al Mohler will be glad to know he was on the right path when he made similar comments to yours here!

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