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.
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:
- Israelite reproduction was not solely directed towards producing the Messiah because some Israelites would not have directly contributed to Jesus’ line.
- 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.
- Although Paul and Jesus are both silent on the procreational good of marriage, this is because they assumed it.
- We need to have babies physically first so that they can be reborn spiritually. We have an obligation to produce the next generation.
- 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.
- 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’).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?