Is Voluntary Childlessness a Christian Option?
Intro: Many conversations over the years have reminded me of an article I wrote 21 years ago and found again recently. I occasionally bump into people who read it in the Irish journal where it first appeared. I’m unleashing it into the digital sphere for a different audience in the hope that it might stimulate thought and discussion and above all prove helpful to those who are childless, whether voluntarily or involuntarily and those who journey with them.
“No children? Oh well, there’s plenty of time yet”.
“Don’t worry, you’ll know all about it when you have yours”.
“Pick up Sally’s baby and get a bit of practice in!”
Couples who find themselves unable to have children regularly speak of the added heartache caused by the insensitive comments of other members of the family or church. If, on the other hand, the couple state that their childlessness has been a matter of serious, prayerful and rational choice, the reaction tends to be one of incomprehension or even rebuke. While the infertile are thought of as unfortunate, the voluntarily childless are regarded as odd. One group needs prayer and understanding, the other, it is thought, needs therapy!
With more space being given in Christian counselling manuals to the issues and problems surrounding childlessness, and with the increase of, and improvement in, contraceptives over the past decades, thereby making voluntary childlessness more of an option, it is intriguing that little or no thought has been given to the validity or otherwise of remaining childless by choice. It appears that there is still an almost universal presupposition at work within the Christian community that childless marriages are in some way incomplete.
While the infertile are thought of as unfortunate, the voluntarily childless are regarded as odd. One group needs prayer and understanding, the other, it is thought, needs therapy!
I Childbearing and Childlessness:
Continuity and Discontinuity
Presuppositions such as those mentioned above are partly due to an insufficient grasp of the discontinuity between the Old and New covenants, particularly with regard to the issue of ‘seed’. While there is a unity to the purposes of God, and the Old Testament is still authoritative Holy Scripture, nevertheless we submit to its authority in Christ . As Christians we have no choice but to understand and read the Old in the light of the New, if we are to apply it properly to our lives. Whereas the substance of the covenants are the same, the way in which they are administered is radically different.
there are no genealogies after Christ because now God’s people are established through regeneration rather than procreation.
The key areas in which the Old Covenant has been fulfilled in Christ are well-known: the role of sacrifices, the law, the temple, ethnic Israel etc.. However, what is not often emphasised as much is the issue of ‘seed’. In the Old Covenant the bearing of physical ‘seed’ was essential for the perpetuation of God’s people. For God to work out his plan of salvation, the nation of Israel must be preserved until the advent of Messiah. Genealogies are prevalent in the Old Testament, but there are no genealogies after Christ because now God’s people are established through regeneration rather than procreation. His people are ‘spiritual seed’ born “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”. (Jn.1:13). Under the new covenant we ‘procreate’ through the proclamation of the Word of God and by becoming spiritual fathers and mothers to those whom God graciously brings to life through our proclamation. Spiritual barrenness is now the way in which God’s blessing is withheld.
So, although the desire to bear children must be seen as good and natural, it is not as spiritually significant as it was under the Old Covenant. Infertility should not carry the stigma it once did, for now nothing is at stake other than the personal happiness of the couple in question. Childbearing is no longer necessary as a sign either of God’s blessing or as a means of continuing his redemptive purposes.
It is in the light of this ‘bigger picture’ that the command of Gen.1:28 needs to be understood. Gordon Wenham believes this verse shows two things. Firstly, that God was giving his blessing to the sexual act and showing that the production of children was within his will. Secondly, he was warning his people against participation in the various fertility cults which were prevalent in the Ancient Near East. In this case, God was saying that he would enable his people to be fruitful and that resorting to other fertility devices was unnecessary and a form of faithlessness, a fact borne out by the story of Sarah (Gen.16:1-4).
That God was true to his promises in the Old Testament, and yet many godly Christian couples suffer childlessness today, should be evidence enough that a radical change has occurred
It is therefore significant that the Old Testament records no instances of perpetual infertility among the people of God (a fact bemoaned by many Christian counsellors). That God was true to his promises in the Old Testament, and yet many godly Christian couples suffer childlessness today, should be evidence enough that a radical change has occurred in the status of child-bearing within the purposes of God. In the New Testament, the emphasis is on the church as the family of God and little is known about the natural families, and even the marital status, of prominent early Christians. While advice is given in the NT on how to rear children and on some basic aspects of family life, and while covenant theologians have correctly shown the importance of the whole family unit to God, nevertheless it is clear that no one state, single or married, childless or otherwise, is more ‘holy’ or acceptable to God (1Cor.7). This is in marked contrast to the status of the single and childless in the Old Testament.
(ii) 1 Cor.7.
Single people within the church often face the same pressure and the same insensitive comments as childless couples. However, in their more reasonable moments, all Christians admit that singleness, as a valid calling from God, is clearly taught within the NT. Not least, we have the example of our Lord himself. It was he who spoke of being single for the sake of the Kingdom (Matt.19:12), and Paul in 1Cor.7 gives strong reasons for remaining single. It is instructive to look at these reasons and see if the same case could be made for remaining childless.
Paul’s main concern in 1Cor.7:17-24 is that Christians be content with their status. In an age when people were trying to give religious significance to their married, social, or ethnic status, Paul reminds them that these things are of no fundamental importance to God and that they can live a valid life of discipleship whether married or single, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. He is essentially saying “Do not change what you are, simply because you think one state is more acceptable to God than another.” This begs the question that if a couple are called together to a particular ministry, but for a variety of reasons, (medical advice, time, mobility, emotional energy, availability to others) feel that children would severely limit that ministry, can Paul’s arguments not be extended to permit these couples to remain childless?
Paul then tackles the difficult issue of ‘virgins’ in vv.25ff. In spite of the textual difficulties here, what is clear is that Paul is giving an opinion on the advisability or otherwise of marriage. Gordon Fee, in his commentary sums it up this way:
“Marriage or singleness per se lies totally outside the category of “commandments” to be obeyed or “sin” if one indulges; and Paul’s preference here is not predicated on “spiritual” grounds but on pastoral concern…… Our culture, especially Christian subculture, tends to think of marriage as the norm in such a way that singles are second-class citizens….That, too, misses Paul’s point. Some are called to singleness still: they need to be able to live in the Christian community both without suspicions and with full acceptance and affirmation.”
Again, there seems no valid reason for not extending this principle to include those who remain voluntarily childless.
However, the crux of Paul’s reasoning is found in v.29. The reason he expresses a preference is because “the time is short”. Paul is at pains to ensure that his readers are living with what Fee calls an “eschatological perspective.” That is, that they view their lives and everything touching them in the light of the end-times. Paul gives no indication as to the length of this era. His whole point is that with the advent of Christ, the new era, the Kingdom of God, has been ushered in and we must all live our lives in light of the fact that the consummation of the Kingdom of God is imminent. Therefore the things which concern the world: wealth, marriage, family, status, ambition, are not to be the prime concerns of the Christian (cf.Matt.6:31-33). “Being eschatological people is to free us from the grip of the world and its values”, says Fee. Nowhere in this chapter does Paul say that it is wrong to be married. He is making what, in his culture, was a radical statement that those who are single have their own particular advantages in Christian service. Similarly, while having children is good and natural, can we not admit that, in our culture, where pressure to have children is so strong, the arguments of 1Cor.7 apply equally to this issue and that the childless have their own advantages in terms of ministry?
(iii) 1 Tim.2:15
One verse which has been used by some to imply that childbearing is the specific calling of all married women is 1Tim.2:15. All commentators recognise the many difficulties that exist in interpreting this verse. A full exegesis of it is outside the scope of this article, but Douglas Moo has summarised the main positions in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (ed.Piper / Grudem; Crossway, 1991 p.192.). While not necessarily agreeing with all of Moo’s conclusions, I believe that he is correct in showing that the verse seems to be saying that the bearing and proper rearing of children in the Lord is a valid and important means by which women continue to work out the implications of their own salvation. Other readings such as ‘women will be kept safe through childbirth’ (NIV), or ‘saved through the childbirth (of Christ)’ are either linguistically forced or, in the case of the NIV, not borne out by reality, if physical or emotional safety is being implied.
If then, motherhood is a calling, as marriage is a calling, is not childlessness also a calling, as singleness is a calling?
It is one thing to affirm the important role of motherhood – even to assert that for those who have been called to be mothers it is their primary calling under God; it is quite another thing to assert that it is the role for all married women. This verse plainly doesn’t teach that only childbearing women can be saved! If then, motherhood is a calling, as marriage is a calling, is not childlessness also a calling, as singleness is a calling? Bearing in mind the many couples who are involuntarily childless (at least 1 in 6 in Britain), our answer must be yes. We are then left with the issue of whether Christian couples should choose this state, or whether it is up to God alone to decide how many children, if any, a couple should have. This brings us to the wider issue of sexuality and, particularly, contraception.
II Contraception and Voluntary Childlessness
Although contraception was known and practiced in the ancient world, the increase in medical and technical knowledge has increased the contraceptive options open to modern couples. The main philosophical issue at stake here, is whether or not the unitive and procreative aspects of sex can be separated. In other words, is the possibility of procreation a necessary element in the sexual act of husband and wife? The Roman Catholic Church has consistently opposed the use of artificial contraceptives. In his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) Pope Paul VI argued that such contraceptive devices would lead to an increase in fornication, adultery and sexually transmitted diseases. He also feared that in such a scenario, women would be in danger of being reduced to mere sex objects. Recent history seems to have proved him right, but since the abuse of a device is not sufficient warrant for its non-use, criticism of it needs to be on more fundamental grounds if it is to carry any weight.
Traditional Catholic teaching stresses the unbreakable union between the relational (unitive) and the procreational aspects of sex. This may have arisen out of a desire to oppose sexual license and therefore deter people from extra-marital sex because of the perpetual potential for pregnancy. Nevertheless, it leaves the door open to the accusation that such a position regards sex purely as a means to an end and thereby undermines the pleasurable and relational aspects of sex. Pope Paul’s argument about the possible abuse of women works both ways: if they are liable to be treated as sex objects, are they not equally likely to be treated as baby machines? The problem surely lies with male attitudes not with contraception.
Essentially, the Roman Catholic teaching regarding the unbreakable union of the two aspects of sex is a presupposition without any fundamental Scriptural or philosophical basis. Even they acknowledge the need for responsible family planning and advocate ‘natural contraception’ (what a Catholic friend has amusingly called ‘John Paul 2 and the Rhythm Boys’!). This begs the question: if natural contraception is permissible, and responsible family planning is important in some cases for economic, health, or other reasons, why not benefit from technological advances and make use of more reliable artificial means? Catholic theologians, by advocating the ‘natural’ method, and acknowledging the impossibility of reproduction arising from every sexual act, have demonstrated the inherent weakness of the ‘unbreakable union’ theory.
if [women] are liable to be treated as sex objects, are they not equally likely to be treated as baby machines? The problem lies with male attitudes not with contraception.
Most Protestants, (and the majority of grass-roots Catholics), have had easy consciences about using contraceptives. They argue that making use of new reliable contraceptive devices to limit and space the number of children, is simply good stewardship both of medical technology and their own financial resources. This way they can ensure that each child is planned, loved and adequately cared for. D.B.Fletcher writes:
“The biblical injunction to reproduce must be taken in context with the NT principle that other concerns, particularly the demands of faithfulness to God’s call to service, can take precedence over both marriage and reproduction.”
If this is the case, then surely the path of voluntary childlessness is clearly open to the Christian. One must either adopt a strict Roman Catholic understanding of sexuality (which, as we have seen, has its own inherent contradictions), or one accepts that we are permitted to choose when to have children and how many to have. If the latter is the case then, logically, one should be able to respond ‘never’ and ‘none’, especially since parenthood is not an essential mark of Christian discipleship.
III Practical Advice
This article has sought to portray voluntary childlessness as a valid option for Christian married couples. Under the New Covenant, where Christian disciples are called upon to bear spiritual fruit, and where, in spite of cultural pressure or even natural desire, the concerns of the Kingdom of God must come first, parenthood must be regarded as a specific calling of God, and one which is undertaken in light of our other callings. This being the case, there is also a place for voluntarily pursuing the path of childlessness. However, let me conclude with some practical implications.
First a word to the church at large. There is no place within the family of God for constantly questioning young couples about when the first child is going to come along. This is their business, and we have no means of knowing what difficulties they may be having. Continual pressure, real or perceived, only causes more hurt to the infertile and frustration for those who have chosen to wait or remain childless.
There is no place within the family of God for constantly questioning young couples about when the first child is going to come along.
Over the years, Gwen and I have unexpectedly found ourselves appreciated and encouraged by those who are involuntarily childless. We wondered if they, more than most, might find our choice incomprehensible. On the contrary because their hurt was not our hurt, they understood that we were much freer and ideally placed to champion their cause, and call out the Christian community on its insensitivity. When faced with thoughtless comments we could say, with a degree of emotional detachment: “how do you know we haven’t been trying?” or “how do you think that would make us feel if we weren’t able to have kids?” and this may lead to a helpful conversation rather than to awkward apologies and embarrassment.
Sadly many churches are guilty of adding to the pressure people feel at stressful times by asking singles ‘when will you find a partner?’, courting couples ‘when are you going to be engaged?’, married couples ‘when will you start a family?’, and (as was the experience of some friends) couples with large families ‘when are you going to stop?’ This is nosiness not pastoral care and until it stops the single and the childless will continue to feel ‘second-class citizens’ in the church.
Now, regarding those who have chosen to remain childless. Firstly, this needs to be a mutual decision. There needs to be active agreement not merely acquiescence. Otherwise there will be the very real and sad possibility of one partner blaming the other later in life when the chance of bearing children has passed. Ideally this is something which should be aired initially in the days before marriage so that, if there is major disagreement on the issue, this is brought into the open and resolved. One partner longing for children while the other is intractably opposed to the idea, would be sufficient grounds for postponing marriage.
Secondly, it must be an ongoing and reviewable decision. Circumstances change – we change – and, as in any other area of discipleship, consideration of this issue should be marked by a regular seeking of the will of God. When Gwen and I were thinking this through theologically and emotionally in the early years of our marriage, we did so with some other couples who were of a similar mind and a few respected mentors. When we saw one of these couples a few years later, she was heavily pregnant! She came over to us sheepishly and said “We changed our mind”! We were delighted for them!
Circumstances change and consideration of this issue should be marked by a regular seeking of the will of God
So there needs to be an honest and open discussion of this between husband and wife, so that a decision made in the early days of marriage, when perhaps the wife felt she was not ready to become a mother, is not taken as binding for life. Again, unless this decision is reviewed and there is an openness to change as you seek God’s will together, the possibility of later regret and blame increases.
Thirdly, there must be an ongoing examination of motives. Much of the misunderstanding experienced by the voluntarily childless arises because it is presumed that their choice is made for selfish reasons. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that since Gwen and I first wrote and spoke on this subject over 20 years ago, the most common response we have had to face (real or perceived) has been that of being judged by other Chtristians who automatically assume that we are simply being selfish.
In fact, some of the reasons given for having children are equally classifiable as selfish
While there are those whose motivations are selfish and who do not want to make the career, financial or social sacrifices necessitated by having children, this is not always the case. In fact, some of the reasons given for having children (such as proving one’s virility, meeting the parents’ emotional needs, wanting company in old age, living out dreams through the children) are equally classifiable as selfish. While voluntary childlessness is an option for the Christian, it is only an option if it is undertaken ‘for the Kingdom’. Couples must therefore continually examine their motives and look for ways in which the money, time and energy which would have gone into caring for their children can be channelled into acts of Christian service.
Fourthly, alternative outlets must be sought whereby childless couples can enjoy the company or stimulation of children, and even contribute practically to their upbringing and development. Single people are often told to find good friends of the opposite sex whom they trust and in whose company they can relax and enjoy the benefits and complementarity of ordinary male-female social relationships. Similarly, it would be unhealthy for couples to shut themselves off in an entirely adult world where they deprive themselves of the benefits and insights which can be found uniquely in the company of children.
While the involuntarily childless often understandably find it painful to be around children, the voluntarily childless have no such excuse. Gwen and I have been greatly enriched through the experience of being the ‘go-to’ secondary parents, or godparents to children (now adults) in different parts of the world. Sunday-school teaching, youth work, or babysitting can act as useful testers of their decision to remain childless, while a financial commitment to the education and health care of a deprived child, at home or abroad, is a practical way of channelling some of their money towards helping the next generation.
It is unhealthy for couples to shut themselves off in an entirely adult world where they deprive themselves of the benefits and insights which can be found uniquely in the company of children.
Finally, if this is your choice, there must be an active pursuit of the ministry for which the childless life has freed you. This is not an easy option. It is, as we have seen, every bit as much a calling as parenthood. I think of John Stott’s higlighting of the three sacrifices he chose to make for the sake of his mnistry: ecclesiastical office, academic career and marriage. For all of us, there are scarifices, they will just be different from person to person. If you are not praying that God will grant you a child, pray that he will graciously give you spiritual seed; that through this sacrifice you will be able to use your extra resources to further the work of his Kingdom; that like the good ground of the parable, you would produce ‘a hundredfold’, and, like Abraham and Sarah, be the spiritual parents of many.