Here’s a question I’ve heard a number of times in a number of different contexts: Is it okay deliberately not to have children? Is it okay for a married couple to deliberately determine that they will not at least attempt to have biological children? My immediate response has always been no, it is not okay. But I have never put a lot of thought into why or whether this response is correct. Thankfully, I got an assist from Christopher Ash in his book Married for God. He teaches, as Christians have always done, that one of the foremost purposes of marriage is procreation, then provides his answer to the common question.
While he admits that some Christians align a little differently on the subject, he says, “I think the deliberate choice not to have children is nearly always wrong.” While non-Christians tend to make the argument based on their rights—“I have the right not to have children!”—he points out that Christians tend to frame it in terms of “serving God rather than having children.” But this is a false choice and one God does not call us to make. “Having children and giving years of life to costly prayerful nurture of them is precisely the distinctive means by which most married people do serve God. We do not serve God rather than having children; we serve God by having children.”
There is a temptation to downplay the significance of parenthood when compared to the significance of, for example, foreign missions in the world’s outermost or most dangerous reaches—anyone can have kids but not everyone is willing to go to those distant places. Or perhaps we can downplay parenting when comparing it to a great career in an important field—law, medicine, politics. But, he says, “Never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God! For many, especially (dare I say it?) mothers, what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering career in the eyes of the world. This is a question of lining up our values with God’s values.”
Here is what all Christians need to ask: “Do we agree with the Bible and face children with arms open in gratitude for the blessing of God, or do we turn our face away from children and count as a curse what God calls a blessing?” There is the reality that “a child may be an inconvenient blessing. A child will usually be an expensive blessing. A child may and often will be a blessing that takes us well outside our comfort zones and into the arms of grace. A child is usually a blessing that will be accompanied by sleepless nights and many tears. But he or she is a blessing, and we must not forget this. Parents struggling with a demanding or wayward child need to remember to thank God for that son or daughter, even as they pray urgently for grace to care for them faithfully.”
But why? Why are children such a blessing? One unique blessing is that, “they force us to welcome into our circle strangers we have not chosen. Husband and wife have chosen one another. But, however much they may have wanted a baby, they did not choose this baby with these particular characteristics! This baby comes into the family circle as a stranger, to be welcomed whatever his or her character and future. And therefore in parenting we learn to welcome the stranger, the one chosen by God for us to love. And we learn to love these children out of love for the God who has entrusted them to us.” While we may choose to have a child, ultimately conception, birth, and the unique characteristics of a particular child are exclusively in the hands of God. As parents, we have the challenge and the honor of loving the little stranger God has given us, of extending godly hospitality to him or her. “Someone has commented that the only home it is safe to be born into is a hospitable home that welcomes outsiders into its circle. Children challenge our self-centeredness and do us good.”
This is not the only reason not to deliberately avoid having children. A simple, honest reading of the Bible will show how God so commonly associates children with blessing and childlessness with curses or punishment (e.g. Psalm 127:3-5). That same reading will show that children are fundamental to God’s mandate to human beings that we “be fruitful and multiply” so we can “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). It will show that of all God has created, none has greater significance or worth than human beings (Genesis 1:26-27). Together they build a solid case that those who marry ought to attempt to fulfill all of God’s purposes for marriage. That includes having children.
Are there exceptions? Certainly there may be medical exceptions that would need to be approached carefully and prayerfully, yet also confidently, knowing that our status with God is not dependent upon our ability to bear children. As Ash puts it, “there may … be rare exceptions on medical grounds, where a couple would welcome children if they could, but recognize that it would be irresponsible to do so.”
Finally, here is how Ash concludes his case: “It seems to me that the lifestyle choice of never having children is generally not open to a Christian couple.” Having read his case, and having considered it, I think I’m largely in agreement.
On this subject, consider reading Al Mohler on Deliberate Childlessness: Moral Rebellion With a New Face (“Christians must recognize that this rebellion against parenthood represents nothing less than an absolute revolt against God’s design”) and Russell Moore on Should We Stop Having Children to Save the Earth? (“When we welcome children among us, we are reminded that we are not self-creating gods, and that our generation is not the only one that matters.”). For a slightly different perspective, consider reading John Piper on Is It Okay to Not Have Children for the Sake of Ministry? (“I don’t think the Bible mandates having children” but “you should consider that, though it may be not multiplied in effectiveness on the same pattern, your ministry could be multiplied in effectiveness in a different way if you were to have children.”).