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Happy Friday! Today marks three years since I started my PhD. I’m setting an ultimatum.

Dear PhD, We’ve been together for three years now, it’s been a great journey, but I think it’s time to end things between us. What? You’re not ready for this? You’re disappointed I haven’t spent enough time on our relationship? I’ve worked hard, but yes, I admit, I could have done more. You want to give things another chance? I’ll give it 6 months. 9 months? Ok, 9 months, but that’s it. Then we’re done.

As you see, it’s complicated.

ecclesiastesMore ‘theologygrams’ here.

On introversion

Caroline Gregoire 23 signs you’re secretly an introvert

On refugees

Shaun Crowe The failure of the refugee lobby

Julian Burnside Temporary protection visas won’t work

On the Bible

Michael Bird Romans 3:1-20, a paraphrase

“There is not one righteous man or woman, not a single one to be found. Nobody has any clue about God, there is a drought of spiritual seekers. Everyone has deserted God, they have become as worthless as stock options in Lehman Brothers; there are no good Samaritans; good people are more scarce than twinkies at a 7/11.

“Their throats are like a graveyard during a zombie apocalypse; their tongues practice more deceit than all the Governor of Illinois combined…

Matthew Barrett Dear Pastor, bring your Bible to church, and a response, Michael Bird Dear Presbyter, bring your scroll to church.

On progressivism

Nick Cater Progressive intolerance and the allure of righteousness

On bodies

David Berreby The obesity era

And so the authorities tell us, ever more loudly, that we are fat — disgustingly, world-threateningly fat. We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you dothis to yourself, and to society?

Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite.

Hebel The body of liturgy

On submission

I’m looking forward to this series by Rachel Held Evans Let’s talk about submission.

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forgoing the blessing of children 5 (final)

In this post I’m going to make some conclusions, engage with readers’ comments, ask some questions and respond to Christopher Ash’s book Marriage: sex in the service of God.

Concluding remarks

Of course children are a blessing! Of couse raising and nurturing children to love Jesus is an important ministry, equal to any other! My purpose in writing this series has not been to diminish the ministry of parenthood, but simply to argue that as Christians, we are free to choose wisely on this matter.

Why are we free? Firstly, the purpose of marriage is not to reproduce but to become ‘one flesh’ and so to witness to the coming heavenly reality of Jesus and his Church. A marriage without children is not deficient. Secondly, the purpose of childbirth in terms of God’s redemptive plans for the world has already been achieved through Jesus. Thirdly Jesus has transformed the meaning of fruitfulness and of family  – both these are blessings open to anyone regardless of their marital status and fertility. These blessings are ultimately experienced only through him. It’s Jesus who makes all the difference. Although it is good to have children for many reasons, the ultimate purpose of childbirth is already accomplished. Therefore we’re free to choose whatever may be wisest, most loving, most beneficial for God’s people.

Responses to readers’ comments

Does the Old Testament teach salvation by childbearing?

Yes and no. I think this is one of those things where there’s a tension which is finally made clear in the gospel. Children are certainly a sign of being blessed by God, you could even say they’re a reward for faithfulness in the Old Testament, a sign of salvation. So the promise to the eunuchs of something even better in Isaiah 56 would have been a bit of a mystery – “what could be better than children?” they must have asked.

There’s a sense that salvation will come to Israel through corporate childbearing (ie not I’m saved because I had a baby but God’s people are saved through their multiplying as this led to the Messiah’s birth). They are God’s chosen nation in his plan to redeem and bless the world and so salvation came through their being perpetuated as a people. If you were unmarried or infertile, therefore, you couldn’t participate directly in bringing this salvation.

On an individual level however, no, the Old Testament doesn’t teach salvation through childbearing. God has always wanted faith. The confusion comes in when God blesses faithfulness in the Old Testament by giving people children. Part of the reward for faith was to participate in the procreation of God’s people and hence the redemption of the world. So it became very easy for ancient Israelites to put their hope in procreation (just as they also did in the Law) rather than in God himself.

What about women being ‘saved through childbirth’?

I deliberately avoided this passage because it’s so fraught! As someone almost completely unqualified to interpret one of the most contested passages in the Bible, I’ll just tell you which interpretation I lean towards, but sorry, I can’t give any strong conclusions.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But she will be saved through [the] childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

To me it makes sense that ‘she’ refers back to Eve. Eve’s childbearing was cursed, but God used it, redeemed it, by using it to bring the birth of the Messiah. So those who continue as faithful Christians will be saved because God used women’s childbearing to bring Jesus. Obviously this reading fits best with how I already understand childbirth in salvation history, so there’s probably some confirmation bias operating. I like Tony Escobar’s take on it here.

Does this mean marriage is also transformed in the New Covenant?

Yes! Marriage also changes with the gospel. It’s no longer all important. Marriage (and kids) is no longer how you contribute to God’s plans in history. This is why Paul is able to argue in 1 Corinthians 7 that although marriage is good, it’s actually better to be single. But marriage is not completley done away with because the ‘one flesh’ relationship points us to the future even more clearly than before. Whereas in the past procreation pointed Israel to the hope in a future redeemer, now marriage points us to the ultimate ‘one flesh’ relationship of Jesus and his church. So in the New Covenant, both marriage and singleness are good options and are witnesses to our hope in Jesus. Marriage because it’s an imitation of Jesus and his bride, singleness because it shows that we don’t need worldy families or heirs – we’re looking forward to our heavenly family.

Response to Christopher Ash

In the chapter ‘Children in the Service of God‘, Ash argues that ‘it is God’s general will and purpose that when a man and woman come together in marriage they should have children. The project… is natural and integral part of their service of God in marriage.’ But he is clear to point out that procreation in marriage is not ‘a goal of marriage in its own right’, it’s not an ends in itself but points to ‘the greater goal of the service of God’.

These are the main contours of Ash’s argument:

  • Part of the reason that it was ‘not good’ for the man to be alone in the garden was that he needed a woman in order to procreate. (I just don’t see any Biblical evidence for this claim.)
  • In the post-fall world, procreation of godly offspring is good. But since the world is fallen and only sinful children have been born, the blessing of procreation is ambiguous. (I agree.)
  • When Abraham was called, the universal blessing to humanity of fruitfulness and multiplication was transposed to his descendants. When Israelite couples had children, God’s purpose was that their offspring should carry on God’s task of bringing his rule to his world. (I agree with this too.)
  • The Old Testament is really pro-reproduction! (I also agree)
  • Having children is not just about procreation but also about nurturing them, a task which requires a righteous character. This means that procreation is deeply personal – it involves the couple, the child and God and all their relationships(once again, I agree)

So we’re mostly in furious agreement.

Then he goes on to critique Karl Barth. I had the pleasure of discovering that Barth somehow trickled down to me – what I thought I had come up with myself in this blog was actually just echoing Barth’s argument in Church Dogmatics III.

Ash argues against Barth that:

  1. Israelite reproduction was not solely directed towards producing the Messiah because some Israelites would not have directly contributed to Jesus’ line.
  2. The blessing to Abraham’s offspring is not directed exclusively to Jesus. Instead, the good of procreation in Israel was directed to both the Messiah and the people whom the Messiah will rule. He writes that ‘it is not persuasive that at the “Christ instant” in salvation history the people of God has collapsed into one man’ because of the presence of righteous Jews at the time of Jesus.
  3. Although Paul and Jesus are both silent on the procreational good of marriage, this is because they assumed it.
  4. We need to have babies physically first so that they can be reborn spiritually. We have an obligation to produce the next generation.
  5. Having children is a sign of the Christian hope that God is redeeming the world.

Our main disagreement is about Jesus, the scope of his work and the difference it makes. Here are my brief responses.

  1. I would say Israelite reproduction was directed towards producing the Messiah. It was, however, as a people rather than as individuals such that those who aren’t actually ‘in the line’ contribute through growing the people and the society from which the Messiah came (in Romans 9:5 Paul credits all Jews with the human ancestry of Jesus even though they weren’t all ‘in line’).
  2. The blessing to Abraham’s offspring is not directed exclusively to Jesus, but it is ultimately for Jesus and through Jesus (see the discussion of the ‘seed/offspring’ in Galatians 3). The people of God does collapse down into just one person – Jesus – in the Gospels. Everyone deserted him, he went to the cross alone, as the only faithful Israelite. Moreover, Jesus does not need a biological people or remnant to rule, he’s building a spiritual people (1 Peter 2).
  3. Whereas Ash presumes that Jesus and Paul are silent on procreation because they presume it, I would say they are silent because they are not concerned about it.
  4. I’m unaware of any Biblical evidence that supports the idea that Christians are responsible for producing the next generation so we can have people to evangelise. There seem to be plenty of people around to me.
  5. I agree that having children is an act of faith that God is redeeming the world, and have some sympathy for this argument. At the same time, however, I think that not having children is equally an act of faith that God will reward sacrifices made for his sake and that our family is ultimately found through Jesus and his Church, not procreation. Interestingly, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 7 is almost the opposite to the argument that we should procreate because we trust God’s good future for this world. Paul argues that since the ‘world in its present form is passing away’ we shouldn’t be too concerned about earthly things like family. We shouldn’t seek to get tied down because what matters most is our devotion to Christ.

Ash then goes on to attack Christian couples who think differently to him and have chosen not to have children. Although he is careful to mention that we need to avoid legalism and that only God knows our hearts, he insinuates that such couples are probably selfish and irresponsible. Such a marriage might not even be ‘real love’ according to him, because they are presumed to be unwilling to love the stranger. Those who choose childlessness for the sake of ministry he dismisses as probable liars. Couples who, for whatever reason, feel unable to have children apparently lack trust in God’s goodness.

Only in extreme circumstances (such as a rare medical condition) may a couple decide not to have children, but it must be a ‘reluctant’ choice such that they feel ‘frustrated in their yearnings’ to have children. This is a concession due to the brokenness of our world. To me this is confusing. He admits that choosing not to have children may be wisest for some, but insists that they should feel some kind of anguish about the decision (perhaps to signal that they weren’t being selfish). That is, they need negative feelings, despite it being the wisest, godliest option! To me, this model seems to doubt God’s goodness as it implies that we should feel conflicted when exercising wisdom in good conscience. That’s not grace.

Some questions

  • What have been your experiences on this issue? Have you chosen to have kids or not have kids as an act of faith?
  • How can we best support parents and infertile couples without implying parenthood is always compulsory?
  • Does this change how we think about sex? Can we dissociate sex from procreation without pornification and objectification? What does ‘one flesh’ really mean?
  • What can we learn from figures in the Bible who didn’t have children? I suspect Priscilla and Aquila had no kids, possibly also the Samaritan woman at the well (which might be why so many men rejected her).
  • What have I missed?

forgoing the blessing of children 4

This is my fourth post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. I’m working through these points.

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

I’m also going to add a final post after this one with concluding comments, responses to readers’ questions and still more questions. A reader introduced me to Christopher Ash’s book Marriage: Sex in the service of God which argues the opposite to me, so I’m also planning on making some comments on his argument.

Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions

Wealthy Christians in the 21st century have a lot more decisions to make than those in the first century. For most people throughout history, your work, your spouse, where you lived was not up to you to pick – so the Bible doesn’t give specific advice on making these decisions (except marry a believer if possible). Now many of us have more technology, more money, better health, better transport and can choose all these things ourselves. We also have very effective methods of contraception and have more control over whether and how many children to have. Obviously the Bible doesn’t consider a situation where you could be married and have control over whether or not to have kids – it’s not a first century question.  Like all the other decisions we now make, we need wisdom in this one too.

I argue that Christians are free to make this decision – wisely and lovingly – just as we make all our decisions in life. Firstly a general principle. Christians are never free to choose anything just out of self-interest. We always consider the interests of others as we seek to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. So being ‘childfree’ simply to pursue the DINK dream is not likely to be a loving option.  That said, it is ok to consider your own happiness in decision-making (1 Cor 7:40). Secondly, just because something is good, doesn’t mean that it’s always wise or loving to pursue it. We see this principle in operation with Paul’s arguments in 1 Cor 7 about whether or not to get married. Marriage is good, but singleness is really good. You can’t be both simultaneously but both options are fine, so we need to exercise wisdom.

If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honourably towards the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin – this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

(On a side note – singleness is also transformed in the New Covenant. To even consider remaining single, and therefore rule out having an heir, went radically against 1st century norms but Paul says it’s the better option. The Gospel has totally changed things for families.)

So the question is, can it be ‘good’ to be married without children. Could that be a good option?

I say yes. First, look at Genesis 2. It was ‘not good’ for the man to be alone, but when the woman was formed (a marriage without kids) it was good. I’ve already argued that having children is not the purpose of marriage and that in terms of God’s redemptive plans for the world, the purpose of childbearing is fulfilled in Jesus.

Second, following Paul’s logic about marriage, I would argue,  it can be good not to be childless. Paul’s logic can apply to the decision whether or not to have children. It’s the same factors which need to be weighed up. It involves choosing between good options – marriage or the freedom which comes with singleness, having kids or the freedom of not having kids. Paul’s principle is wherever possible to choose your relationship or family status with your personal situation, temperament and  what’s good for the Kingdom in mind. However, he does emphasise the benefits of being unattached.

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

For Paul, the downside of marriage is that it can distract from devotion to Christ, so getting married is a decision one should make with caution. How much more does having children present an opportunity for distraction from devotion to the Lord. A parent’s interests’ are divided again; it’s not just the other spouse and the Lord, but now kids too. If you want to be free from concern, having children is not the way to do it! I would say, according to the logic of this passage, that it might be good for some couples not to have children and so be freer to serve the Lord.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it is ‘not good’ for a couple to not have children. But even if it were ‘not good’, this would not mean it is out of the question for Christians. Jesus explicitly calls his disciples to put his kingdom before anything else. This could include giving up good things, blessings from God, including even a spouse or kids for the surpassing goodness of his Kingdom. See Luke 18:

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’

Why might a couple decide to go without children?

I don’t want to be too prescriptive here because I want to emphasise our freedom as people under grace to make wise and loving decisions.

What factors might influence the decision whether or not to have children? Children open some doors and close others in terms of ministry. Cross culturally they can help build bridges between cultures, but then again, children’s educational or health needs might put a limit how much cross-cultural ministry parents can do. Some couples may already have responsibilities as carers and not be able to take on parenthood in addition. Some couples may not have children for health reasons. I want to emphasise that their marriage has not failed to achieve its purpose if they feel unable to take on parenthood. Some may want to continue a ministry living an area which is not appropriate or safe for children. You also don’t need much money when you don’t have kids. For me, at the moment, not having children means that my husband are free to be a bit financially ‘irresponsible’ as he trains for ministry. There are many reasons why, for some couples, the wisest, most loving way to serve the church may involve not having children. Indeed, the way for them to be the most ‘fruitful’ might mean not reproducing! I think we can thank God for reliable contraception so that they can make this decision.

Finally, this is not to say that some couples ought not to have children. Having children is never selfish or wrong. I want to reaffirm that children are a blessing. Also, there’s every chance God will send ‘surprise’ blessings – getting married always means being open to the possibility of children. However, the choice to forgo the blessing of children is a valid choice for Christians – it still goes against the grain of our culture as it points to a hope in our heavenly family – so it is a decision we should support and respect.

forgoing the blessing of children 3

This is my third post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. I’m working through three points.

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

In this post I’m working through children in the Old and New Covenants. This is going to be a long post.

The need for offspring

Under the Old Covenant, the way you had ‘eternal life’ and ensured the continuation of your ‘name’ was through male offspring. This was how your ‘house’ continued forever. For example, the laws around Levirate marriage (where you have to marry your dead brother’s wife, see Deuteronomy 25) were all about ensuring the continuation of your dead brother’s name. That’s also why there’s such strict laws about kicking someone in the balls – you had to be able to procreate! If you failed to have children, it was like you were ‘blotted out’, deleted from history, as if you were never there.

It follows from this that women’s main role in the Old Covenant people was to be mothers. Being a mother of Israel was a high calling. Still, it put heaps of pressure on women to have lots of male babies. For a woman, to be infertile in ancient Israel meant you could not fulfill your social role, your main duty in life.

In addition to ensuring the continuation of your name, having children was the way that God’s people grew. That’s why there’s so many genealogies. So, in Malachi 2 we learn that God wanted Israelite marriages to produce ‘godly offspring.’

You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

The hope of a new covenant

Surprisingly, the prophets spoke of hope when not having kids no longer meant being cursed or ‘blotted out.’ The prophet Isaiah spoke of an everlasting name even for those those who did not have children.

Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

In Jesus, this hope has arrived

Jesus fulfills this hope. In the New Covenant, your children are no longer your salvation. Eternal life and a name that ‘endures forever’ is not found through baby boys but through Jesus. Our names will never be ‘blotted out’, in fact we are given new names, Jesus’ own name (Rev 2,3,14).

The people of God in the New Covenant don’t grow through childbirth. We are not a biological people, but a people born of the Spirit. John’s Gospel is pretty clear on this:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God…

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Jesus is now  building a spiritual ‘house’, a spiritual people.

So Jesus also gives family a radical new meaning – it’s not your earthly family which matters any more – real family is in the Church.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said,“Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

In Jesus’ Kingdom, being a infertile is no longer a curse. In fact, he teaches that people might actually choose this life for the sake of his Kingdom. This is something radically different!

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

So what why does the Old Testament talk so much about childbirth?

So if Jesus redeems us from a world where can only hope at eternal life through having children, if he actually gives us a name that endures forever and a real lasting family in his Kingdom, what was the point of having children in the Old Covenant? Why does the Old Covenant seem so pro-reproduction?

As I’ve already said, having children was the way that God grew his people in the Old Covenant. It was through Abraham, his offspring, Israel, that God would bless the whole world. Could it be that the point of childbearing in the Old Covenant was to bring the world our Messiah, Jesus?

Paul seems to imply as much in Galatians 3 when he says that Jesus is the ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ of Abraham.

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,”meaning one person, who is Christ.

Throughout the Old Testament there is a hope that perhaps the offspring of Adam and Eve will redeem the world. The very first mention of childbearing in the whole Bible is a reference to ‘offspring’ fighting with the serpent. Cain was a disappointment. So we have genealogies, lists of male children. Enosh gave us hope. Noah might have been a fresh start, then we get to Abraham and the promise to his ‘offspring.’

At significant points, God gives a miracle to an infertile woman, providing a child of the promise: Sarah and Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob, Rachel and Joseph then latter Hannah and Samuel. These reinforce the idea that God himself is building his people and it is God who will bring future redemption through the continuing line of offspring.

As Christians we believe that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. God used the labours of all those Israelite women through the generations to bring us the Messiah. The genealogy in Luke, going all the way back to Adam and God, gives a hint that this was where all that childbearing was directed – to Jesus.

So when we read in Malachi 2 that God desired Israel’s marriages to produce ‘godly offspring’ how do we interpret Godly offspring as New Covenant people? God’s desire to see Godly offspring has actually been fulfilled. We know him. Jesus is the godly offspring.

Jesus fulfills everything for humanity

In Jesus the purpose of childbirth in God’s plans for redeeming the world has been fulfilled. Not only is he the fulfillment of Israel’s hope in ‘offspring’ which would bring God’s redemption. Jesus has fulfilled every requirement and purpose for humanity. He is the new Adam, those who are in him are the new humanity.

So he fulfills the command that humanity ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.

What about ‘fruitfulness’? Yes, that now happens, not by having babies, but by being in Jesus, the source of all fruitfulness.

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

The ‘fruit’ in John is Love – but Jesus is the vine, we’re just branches. He is the source of our fruitfulness.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul brings together the ideas of fruit, filling the whole world, multiplying and having dominion, showing us that all this accomplished in the gospel of Jesus.

The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world …. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God…

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

A final note about infertility in the New Testament

It’s no accident that the final miraculous birth to a ‘barren’ woman recorded in the Bible is Elizabeth and her baby John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant. When a baby is born to the virgin Mary, it’s like a new beginning.

Women are much more prominent in the New Testament than in the Old. In the old, most of the women’s stories have to do with childbirth and contributing to a genealogy, but in the New Testament, after the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, there’s no interest in fertility or genealogies at all. The trope of the miraculous birth to the ‘barren’ woman abruptly ends. Jesus alludes to plenty of Old Testament miracles, but he doesn’t miraculously enable any women to get pregnant (ok maybe the bleeding woman, but the narrator doesn’t mention that she bore her husband a son – it’s not the point of the story). This is something new and different.

Instead of producing offspring, we hear about women’s responses to Jesus, their discovery of the empty tomb, their faithful service, their work proclaiming the Gospel. Women’s purpose in life is no longer to produce offspring for Israel, but to be part of Jesus’ Church.

Conclusion

Of course, having children has many good purposes – children bring great joy, they teach us many things about ourselves and about God, and they show God’s kindness across generations. But in terms of God’s redeeming plans for the world, the purpose of childbirth has already been fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the purpose of children in the Old Covenant – he is the offspring – as well as the command to humanity to be fruitful and subdue the earth. We’re fruitful too, not through childbirth, but through growing in love, in Jesus.

forgoing the blessing of children 2

This is my second post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. Here’s an outline of my points:

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

Marriage is not about kids, it’s about being ‘one flesh.’

The argument that God made marriage for having children often comes from Genesis 1:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.

This passage, however, tells us nothing about marriage. In Genesis 1 God addresses humanity as male and female. Humanity is to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’. For teaching on marriage, we need to go to Genesis 2.

God said it was ‘not good for the man to be alone’ and so he made ‘a helper suitable’ or a ‘fitting complement’ for him. They are equals in every way. God slices the man in half and makes a woman so that in marriage, the two are (re)united as ‘one flesh.’ They’re made for each other; Genesis 2 teaches that God made man and woman so this ‘one flesh’ union could be possible. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.’ Why? So that they could have kids? No. It’s so that they might ‘become one flesh.’ Adam and Eve’s marriage is fulfilling its purpose in the garden. There’s no sign of any babies yet, and it was good.

(In fact the first mention of childbirth is after the fall – the woman’s ‘offspring’ will fight the serpent – but more on that in the next post)

Let’s jump to Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19 in the New Testament.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’

Jesus also teaches that God created humanity male and female so that the two could become ‘one flesh’ in marriage. Divorce is a terrible thing, not because of anything to do with children and the need to produce them but primarily because it violates the ‘one flesh’ relationship. Then Jesus goes on to something more radical: family is no longer of paramount importance in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In 1 Corinthians 7, however, Paul does bring children into the question of divorce.

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

This passage is a tricky one. What do you mean ‘I, not the Lord’, Paul? But what is clear that Paul is not at all concerned that by getting divorced the opportunity for a marriage to produce children is lost. If children were the primary purpose of marriage you would think Paul would instruct them to stay together to keep having kids. No, Paul is concerned that the children of divorce will miss out on being part of the church and receiving the gospel. It is still the gospel which saves them.

Moving onto a more famous (and cheery) marriage passage, Ephesians 5.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Here Paul teaches that the unity of ‘one flesh’ is actually about Jesus and his church. Marriage is a shadow of the ultimate reality of our unity with Christ. It’s like married people point to the real ‘one flesh’ relationship. But again, what about the children? Where are they? It seems to me that being ‘one flesh’ is actually an ends in itself.

Finally Revelation 21.

 ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God.

In Revelation 21, the wedding is the culmination of history. God’s purposes aren’t completed when the ‘bride’ finally has a baby! It’s the wedding! It’s the reunification of heaven and earth, of God and humanity. If our earthly marriages are a witness to this great future, having children, as far as I can see has little or nothing to do with it.

Two gold rings - reflected candlesThere is another passage about the purpose of marriage which often gets brought up in this debate. Malachi 2.

The Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

There we have it: apparently God wants marriages to produce ‘godly offspring’. I’m actually going to leave this passage for now and deal with it in the next post where I talk about children in the old and new covenants. I’ll just say, now that we need to interpret Old Testament passages as Christians, not ancient Jews, and in the light of Jesus’ gospel.

Children are a blessing of marriage, but not the purpose of marriage. The purpose is to be ‘one flesh’, a foretaste, a living breathing metaphor of the union God has planned for himself and humanity.

Forgoing the blessing of children

Can Christian couples be ‘childfree’ to God’s glory? Can we choose not to have children for the sake of the Kingdom?

Time the Childfree lifeThe issue has been rebounding around the internet in the last few weeks after Time magazine published a piece on the ‘Childfree’ life. It generated a lot of discussion; the decision not to have children (especially when made by women), is still considered a little subversive. The ‘childfree’ feel judged but, increasingly, people are opting not to have children anyway.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time. Five years, actually, ever since a popular American preacher came to Katoomba and told us that Christian couples who choose not to have children are selfish.

I disagree.

Moreover, the failure of evangelical leaders to speak out clearly correcting fundamentalist Christian fertility movements such as Quiverfull (Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement is worth a read), I find very concerning. And it’s not just an American thing.

But I haven’t blogged about the issue until now because a lot of people, much wiser and more experienced than me, think otherwise. They seem to believe  Christian marriage involves always having children if possible:

  • Kathleen Nielsen from the Gospel Coalition posted on The Problem with the Childfree Life last week, teaching that ‘children are God’s merciful means of growing his redeemed people, generation after generation.’
  • Andrew Cameron & Megan Best write, in The Briefing that ‘God generally calls married people to openly welcome children, and the welcome of children remains inherent to the purpose of a marriage, even if not to every sexual act within it. We suggest, then, that for most married couples, it is an abuse of contraception always to remain closed to having children.’ See also Cameron’s The Joined-up life for a more detailed argument.

When people older and wiser think otherwise, I’m a bit hesitant to put forward another view. But I just can’t agree with arguments that Christian couples are obligated to at least try to have children. If I am wrong, hopefully by putting myself out there like this, someone will tell me where I’ve gone wrong (if this post is mysteriously deleted, you’ll know that’s happened!).

These are the main points I’ll make over the next few days.

  1. Marriage is not about kids.
  2. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  3. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

MadonnaI do want to affirm, however, that children are a blessing from God and that the Christian choice to have children in a broken and suffering world is an act of faith: God is redeeming the world! But the decision not to have children for the sake of the gospel can also be an act of faith, so I’m simply going to argue that we are free in regards to this decision.

And finally, if my in-laws are reading this, don’t panic, this is not an announcement that grandkids are off the cards! Though parenthood terrifies me and I think it’s wisest my husband and I remain ‘childfree’ for now, I do hope to have children one day, God willing.

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Happy Friday again. Sorry, there’s not much material this week. I must have spent a lot more time with actual people (rather than the internet) this week. Enjoy your weekends!

On politics

To my shame, this had never occurred to me. Sandy Grant Thanking pollies

Less seriously, the Guardian lets you mix and match your own PM.

On toys

Lisa Wade Power, Mickey Mouse and the infantilisation of women

On mission

Damaris Zehner Missions 101: or how to be more like a soldier of an oppressive imperalist nation

My all-time favorite Bible character (yes, yes, excluding Jesus) is the centurion whose story is told in Luke 7.  I don’t know much about him, yet I’ve loved him to the point of tears since I was a child.  I suspect that one reason is that he, like me, was an expatriate.  Both of us spent years away from home, in a foreign culture, representing a richer, more powerful nation and surrounded by people who had every reason to resent us.

On the Trinity

Fred Sanders You, me and the heavenly three: what the Trinity can’t tell us about gender

On brains

Yuka Igarashi Why do we make mistakes? Blame your brain, the original autocorrector

The end of (un)certainty? – Guest Post

Thanks to my brilliant friend Sam Blanch for contributing this post.

————————–

An intriguing little piece of political jargon has been continually assaulting my ears over the last few years: “certainty”. It has been an assault not only because of its appearance in ubiquitous soundbites, but also because it questions assumptions that I had made about Australian politics. It was Paul Kelly, The Australian’s editor-at-large, who had argued in his influential book The End of Certainty (1994) that “the old order is finished. There is no returning to past certitudes”. He had identified a fundamental consensus across the major political parties. The real story of the 1980s and 1990s was “the embrace by both sides of politics… of the free market agenda and its gradual application as the solution to Australia’s underlying problems”. This “new philosophy”, in short, meant that politics had been irrevocably changed by economic rationalism. Australian businesses and workers alike were now to be subject to the ever-increasing efficiencies, deregulations, flexibilities, and market-based mechanisms demanded by a competitive economy. Certainty was out of bounds.

chance

But certainty is certainly back. Here are a few choice morsels of certainty and its cognates, from across the political and social divide and across political issues. I’m sure you’ll quickly get the picture:

Just try searching for “certainty” in the transcripts of any political leader, you will soon get sick of it. What explains the bombardment by this word “certainty” that we have all faced? Let me tentatively suggest a few things.

Firstly, certainty is an obviously useful word when comparing policy. And given the frequency of its use, certainty is probably a word identified by the ubiquitous focus groups that political parties make use of these days – “The carbon tax makes the future of my business uncertain”, “Tony Abbott’s character makes me feel uncertain about his leadership potential” – that sort of thing. Thus certainty becomes a useful political bludgeon, a tool of the political one-liner. But this is really just to defer the question. Why the prominence of certainty as a term and as an issue?

Well, secondly, it may suggest some ‘uncertainty’ about the economic rationalist consensus. Australians may be a little worried about the incessant focus on productivity gains through constant cost cutting and perennial political reform. Of course this might be just a practical demand for consistent rules in the economy. Thus certainty would partly act as a break on reform when it comes from business (changes to superannuation, for example, might deter investment by a business). But it has at least the potential to be an artefact of economic populism, a symbol of opposition to the constant change demanded by modern economics. Notice, though, that ‘certainty’ talk doesn’t actually offer a substantive alternative.

Instead, certainty’s third function may be to offer a convenient way to avoid substantive discussion. Certainty is raised with regard to change in circumstances or policies, but in itself it says nothing about the quality of a policy or circumstance. Like the very latest piece of electoral jargon (‘real solutions’, ‘positive plans’) it offers precisely nothing of use in any substantive consideration of carbon pricing, school funding, broad questions about the state of the budget, or anything of political substance. Paradoxically, this complete analytical uselessness when divorced from substantive argument may actually represent its very political usefulness. It offers a way to talk about economics without actually talking about economics. It enables pertinent questions, for example, about the redistribution of wealth throughout society, about the ownership and distribution of natural resources, and about appropriate levels of corporate taxation, to be effectively ignored. Like the political focus of people smugglers, it offers an agreed field upon which politicians can do battle on comfortable terms.

We could also discuss certainty/uncertainty in relation to the hung parliament, and the Byzantine affairs of the ALP. The former might reveal a national desire for easy answers and clear leadership rather than the perceived problems of the 43rd Parliament. The latter might lead us towards the ALP’s personality politics and obsessions with opinion polling. But let’s not go there…

Instead let me conclude with a few tentative observations. I suspect that the jargon of certainty/uncertainty indicates a lack of political consensus beneath current economic policy in Australia. At the very least, it reflects the current political class’s failure to articulate policy with any sort of philosophical or ideological rigour. Indeed, certainty seems to say little more than ‘we like making money and your political changes/lack of change potentially upset that’. And it is a term adopted across the political spectrum. In so in this vein, it also indicates what might be described as our pathological demand for a king or idol. As Willem H. Vanderburg puts it, it is modern society’s political beliefs and myths that “help cover over an abyss of relativism, nihilism, and anomie”. Perhaps then, the abyss threatens, and we crave certainty about what to put our faith in. While the economy remains the pantheon, we might be a little confused about the names and hierarchy of the new gods.

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Friday once again! Hope you’ve had a lovely week. My week involved a day’s wine-tasting for a wedding anniversary. It doesn’t get much better than that!

On politics

Nick Evershed Three-word slogan generator. Now you can create your own banal slogan!  “Genuine on Emissions!”

On the parish

Stanley Hauerwas Does Anglicanism have a future? The priority of the local and the inevitability of conflict

On bodies

Hope Avenue How to talk to your daughter about her body

On the Bible

Morgan Guyon is doing a great series on Bible verses God has ‘tattooed on his heart.’ These are my favourites: Psalm 119:13 and Ephesians 2:10

To live as a Christian and as an artist is not an oxymoron. The degree to which Christianity has become
unimaginative and uninspired in Western modernity is the degree to which it has lost its soul. Our vocation as God’s poetry is to be beautiful.

On vulnerability

My favourite missionaries (are you allowed to say that?) are writing a series on ‘vulnerable mission’. It’s worth checking out.

Vulnerable Mission 4: African theology

Few would deny that ‘It is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.’ Too few have realized that it is the gods/spirits/powers of Africa who are cutting open the fishing net and allowing the fish to escape, and that it is the almighty God who can intervene and enable African people to fish for themselves. (Jim Harries)

Vulnerable Mission 5: becoming vulnerable

On refugees

Leanne Weber Asylum solutions: reinstating the right to seek asylum

Have you ever wondered why asylum seekers would choose to spend $5000 for passage on an overcrowded, dangerous, and potentially fruitless boat journey from Indonesia rather than spend it on a first class plane ticket to Australia?

Perhaps the answer seems obvious. Legally regulated travel into first world countries is reserved for those with valid passports and visas, which are out of reach for this group. But how and why this came to be the case merits closer examination.

On feminism

Emily Lindsay Jackson Feminism versus humanism: the vanishing politics of gender

On abortion

Emily Matchar In liberal Europe, abortion laws come with their own restrictions

In America, anti-abortion activists and politicians construe abortion as a clear-cut moral issue: “abortion is murder,” “I am a person, not a choice,” “It’s not right versus left, it’s right versus wrong,” etc. Exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother are political concessions, not morally consistent positions. If you believe fetuses are people and abortion is murder, why would you think the murder of a person conceived in rape is more okay than the murder of a person conceived in a happy marriage?

In Western Europe, abortion is viewed as part of a larger conversation about the collective good.

On kindness & happiness

Daisy Buchanan Have we forgotten how to be kind?

Belle Beth Cooper 10 simple things you can do today that will make you happier, backed by science

On music:

Trombones:

tromboneAnd finally, 21 painfully awkward band photos.

Gary

secret conversations

A funny thing happened this week. I was in a discussion with some Christian friends about predestination, hell etc. (you know that conversation, we’ve all had it). One of those friends works for a church. Afterwards, he took me aside: ‘I can tell you’ve been thinking about this and you’re not really satisfied with the traditional view.’ He was right. He was about to recommend a book to me, when we were interrupted. So, just as I was leaving, I asked him about the book. ‘I’ll let you know in an email,’ he replied.

The email came the next day and he explained that he wasn’t willing to recommend the book in front of others, but that I should read it.

On googling the book, I discovered that not even the book’s author would associate his name with it. It was written under a pseudonym.

(you all want to know what the book is now!)

Burning books

So my question is, what is going on? Why the secrecy?

I do it myself. I’d much sooner ask a tricky question of the internet than of my pastor. I’d much sooner post my ideas here than in a Bible study.

We can’t burn books anymore, but do churches have a culture of silence which attempts to achieve the same effect? If we did, can it succeed? Are people actually sheltered from dodgy ideas? Or do they just sit quietly in the pews with their own thoughts and questions, sharing them only with google?

Is it naive to think we should talk openly about our questions and our about ideas about Jesus’ teaching? After all, there is certainly a role for experts; ignorant discussion can take you to some very strange places. So is it better for some things to stay ‘hush hush’ until you’re absolutely positively sure you’re correct? But how can you be sure you’re correct unless you open your ideas up for discussion?

Should we challenge this culture of silence? What would healthy discussion look like?

(and the book is The Evangelical Universalist by ‘Gregory MacDonald’)