3 days into VBS this week and I can’t help but have children on the brain. Many wonderful things go on at the typical VBS. Young children get an “out of the ordinary” opportunity for social development. Young Christians meet new friends. Most importantly, children are introduced to their Lord and Savior, Jesus.
Although VBS has a multitude of wonderful aspects, one thing I would not necessarily describe it as is a “procreation motivator”. After several hours of VBS, ask any one of our adult helpers if “having more children of their own” is a strong desire, and I can almost guarantee, at that moment, it is not.
Children are cute. But their antics are not always cute. Children can be a LOT of fun and provide a beautifully innocent perspective on life. But children also can be very demanding, and sometimes, very naughty. So, after 4 days of supervising over 60 children………”VBS daddy” is tired.
Recently someone sent me an interesting article regarding our country’s seeming rise in deliberate birth control, i.e. married couples simply choosing not to have children. The article argued that our country, much like the Roman Empire, has seen the destruction of the family unit (traditionally the basic building block of society) and that this is in large part due to viewing sex as something simply for our pleasure and not for procreation. Socially, the concern is that America is eventually going to “birth control” itself out of its global prominence. Spiritually, the concern is the question of whether or not this defies God’s “be fruitful and multiply” statements of the Old Testament, and, if Christians follow the pattern of our culture, what does this mean for Christianity in the future (particularly as birthrates in Muslim cultures continue to remain strong)? Speaking once of the declined birth rates in Europe and the possible effects its had on religion, a professor I had in school once described it as “Europe doing to itself what the Turks tried and failed to do to it for hundreds of years.”
I find this whole issue to be quite fascinating. As a childless Christian pastor, I also feel that I’m in a somewhat strange position. A generation or two ago, it seems as though the assumption was that a pastor would have a “large” family, in accord with God’s Genesis “be fruitful and multiply” decree. Not only was this seen as godly obedience, but also as an opportunity to bolster the Sunday attendance numbers. Okay, so I’m kidding about the last part, but pastoral families with a more than average number of children was considered commonplace. As with farming families, children (and in many some cases, lots of them) was assumed.
And so today, partially because I am a pastor, partially because I’m married, people regularly ask my wife and me when we’re going to start having our own little ones. Now, I’m certainly not offended by the question. Outside of something that directly mocks my Lord or what he stands for, I’m not easily offended. So please understand that I am by no means upset when someone asks. It’s a fairly natural question. Nonetheless, with the amount of couples today who, for a variety of reasons, try but are unable to have children, it surprises me that people still ask this question. Much like asking a woman “So, when are you due?” without being 110% sure that she is indeed pregnant, this is one of those questions that social etiquette probably encourages us to steer clear of.
That said, the question still remains, what about married couples who are indeed able to procreate and yet, for one reason or another, choose not to either have children, or, have any more children? In other words, what about this “be fruitful and multiply” business?
Well…..the truth is, I cringe a little when I hear people (occasionally including pastors) talk about God’s mandate for procreation. I think this could perhaps be an example of biblical quoting without careful biblical contextual scholarship. Satan quoted Scripture when he was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, but he was distorting God’s Word in the process in attempts to promote his agenda. “Proof texting” as it’s called, stating phrases from Scripture to make your point appear more authoritative or divine, without carefully grasping the context in which it was originally stated, leads to overstatements or even false doctrine.
Let’s look carefully at the 3 times in Scripture where God specifically makes the command: “Be fruitful and increase in number.” The first occasion is in Genesis 1:28. This is the most commonly thought of instance. God had just created a perfect world. The crown of his creation was mankind. He handed over the keys of the world to Adam and Eve and said, “Take good care of it. This is my gift to you.” It was a big planet. There was a lot of unoccupied space and untapped blessing. A worthwhile and simple question for our consideration of “fruitfully multiplying” would be “How many people were on the planet at this point?” The answer: 2.
The next time we find God delivering the “Be fruitful and multiply” mandate is in Genesis 9:1. Noah and his family, by God’s grace, had been spared from the Great Flood that destroyed all other life on the planet. When he and his family and all of the animals stepped off of the ark, Noah built an altar of thankfulness, God promised through the sign of the rainbow that he would never do this again to the world, and God once again said, “Be fruitful and increase in number.” This time, the number of humans on the planet was 8 (Noah, wife, 3 sons, their wives). Again, there was plenty of unoccupied space and untapped resources.
The third and final time that God gives this command is found in Genesis 35:11. God had just changed Jacob’s name to Israel and informs Israel that through him God is going to produce his nation. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty ; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.” God is starting the nation of his chosen people in the Old Testament – the covenant nation – the Israelites. They are going to fill the land that God had promised to them and the Savior would come through this family.
What you see on the three occasions where God presents the command to “be fruitful and multiply” are three fairly specific situations. On one occasion, there’s only 2 people on the planet. On the next, only 8 people. On the last, God is desiring to turn a family into his chosen nation of people and fill the land designated for them. To take these commands out of their original context and say this is God’s divine baby-making mandate would be a little like ripping out of context Scriptural passages where God commands the Children of Israel to enter the Promised Land by force and destroy everyone and everything in it (e.g. Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16) and using these verses to promote global imperialism.
Careful Bible students can neither ignore the words God’s speaks nor the situations that prompt him to speak them.
At the same time, while we grasp the circumstances of God’s comments, we look to generate principles on the basis of his comments throughout Scripture. I would very much hesitate to use the phrase “be fruitful and multiply” to say that God demands children (and many of them) from us. But I would certainly include these passages in an enormous list of Bible references that establish the biblical principle that children are tremendous blessings from God.
It’s fascinating to me that children are one of the few things in life that almost everyone who experiences them has exactly the same opinion on – when commenting on their children, most parents will say they “wouldn’t trade them for anything” or “They’re the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.” Do you know how rare it is to have the unbelieving and believing communities universally agree on something? On this issue, almost everyone seems to be on the same page, i.e. children are a great gift. Clearly this is an obvious blessing from God.
Going back to the article that was sent to me……the point that many couples today willfully choose not to have children simply because they see them as obstacles to obtaining more material things is a worthwhile point to make. It’s true that some couples who struggle with worldliness indeed do this. The ones they are finally cheating, though, is themselves. In the end, finding joy in things rather than people is going to lead to a very lonely and painful existence. You won’t kiss a nice car goodnight. You won’t get visited by a lavish vacation in your old age. Those luxuries are enjoyable blessings, but they pale in comparison to true loving relationship.
Christians will see procreation not as a duty to fulfill, but as a chance to receive one of the greatest blessings that God grants to couples. And, as in many areas of our lives, God has blessed us with freedom in our choices. In the same way that the Apostle Paul freely chose to not get married, despite marriage clearly being a God-given blessing for humans (one that is also an essential step in God-pleasing procreation), couples may freely make decisions regarding the number of children that they have. Whether those decisions are motivated by selfish reasons or God-glorifying ones, only God knows and only God judges. And a Christian, searching his/her own heart regarding their motivation for anything in life, is going to ask their merciful God’s forgiveness for any and every impurity. And they, as God’s children, will know that he freely grants it in Christ.
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: upon the posting of this article, I’ve had the opportunity for several good conversations on the issue. One misunderstanding I guess I’d like to clear up would be this – I do believe (because there is plenty of biblical evidence) that it is God’s continued general will for mankind (particularly Christians) to procreate. My particular slant on the article was that although there are plenty of selfish reasons to not have (any or more) children, the issue of selfishness needs to be handled with Law, while God’s blessing of children is more accurately understood with statements of Gospel. Consequently, “be fruitful and multiply”, originally spoken before the fall, is probably not best used as motivation for a selfish world to have children, as it has sometimes been used. Rather, it is a statement from which God intends to bring blessing. In that sense, it’s no more of a law than Christ’s gospel exhortation to “Go into the world and preach the good news to all Creation….”. Hopefully that makes sense and clears up any confusion. If not, comment away.