In this series, I have argued it is bad for committed Christian couples to intentionally refrain from having children. What prompted this series was a notification about some possible topics of theological discussion for the month of August. One of the topics had to do with a “holiday,” “International Childfree Day,” which is celebrated on August 1st. This “holiday” apparently celebrates couples, or singles, who intentionally choose not to procreate. I will say more about the day itself at the end of this post. But it is safe to say my initial reaction was one of shock. I was bewildered that such things even existed. Still I wanted to reflect more deeply and theologically on the question of having and raising children.
So far, I have provided some theological and biblical arguments for why Christians should have children if they can. I also argued that Christians who choose not to have children, are not fully living up to their Christian calling. In doing so, they are failing to take seriously the call to sanctification and Christ-likeness that is upon each of us. I suggested the reason for this is likely motivated by selfishness, the sinful disposition most common to us all. I then dealt with a few possible objections (but certainly not all of them), i.e., attenuating circumstances that might make the choice to not have children more tenable on a Christian worldview. I argued that those objections were not good ones.
To conclude this series, I will engage with some good reasons for why a Christian couple might choose to not have children. These are morally complex situations: serious mitigating circumstances that would justify not having kids. Conditions like these would make the choice to avoid children not one born of selfishness but of self-regard.
Genuine Physical Impoverishment
In the first post, I mentioned that I was primarily speaking about Christian couples who had the physical, financial and mental and emotional capacity to have and raise children. I qualified that, arguing one did not have to possess these capacities to a very high degree in order to successfully have children. For example, one need not be a Simone Biles physically to have and raise kids. What follows, therefore, are really conditions that would exclude a basic physical capacity to bear and raise children. These are instances where someone might technically be able to have children, but where there are overriding health concerns that justify one or both spouses choosing not to do so.
For example, a woman suffering from severe spina bifida may be able to have a child. However, her physical impoverishment would clearly count as a good reason not to have one. A husband’s proneness to heart attacks or some intense form of bone defect might also be good reason for him (and the couple) to avoid having children. Examples like these could be easily multiplied, and they would make the choice to not have a child clearly more understandable.
Severe or chronic physical issues can therefore mitigate the admonishment which might otherwise be levied against a physically healthy, Christian couple. For people struggling with severe physical ailments like these, or other neurological conditions like early dementia or Alzheimers, there is already an ongoing process of sanctification just in virtue of bearing the burden of the ailments themselves. This would include the kind of sanctification that might occur as each spouse helps each other through their respective ailment.
There might be other kinds of physical disabilities, however, that would not prevent a couple from rearing children, but still might give them pause about procreating. For example, a parent with severe Type 2 diabetes, a diabetes that has a high chance of being genetically transmitted to a child, might choose to not procreate. This is slightly different than the scenario I mentioned in the previous post about the parent concerned with bringing their child into a dangerous world. A genetically transmittable condition passed on to a child is something the parent would be (more) directly responsible for. Bringing a child into a generically dangerous world, where something bad might happen to the child, does not make the loving parent responsible for the bad occurrence. A genetic condition that could be easily passed down to children, however, places the parents, or parent, with the condition into a different causal relationship vis-a-vis the child.
While it seems one could, in good conscience, still have a child even under such conditions; nevertheless, in cases like these, maybe the conceiving and bearing of a child could be properly avoided. For this couple, adoption clearly presents itself as a noble and sacred alternative– an alternative, yet equally sanctifying, good work. After all, if God is “Father to the fatherless” (Job 29:12; Psalm 68:5) and if Jesus desires to gather us in like a hen gathers her chicks (Matt 23:37), then it is irrelevant to His love that His children are ontologically distinct from Him, and that necessarily so. Thus, per analogy, children do not have to be biologically related to their parents to properly be their children and to be properly loved by them.
In this sense, the couple that chooses not to have biological children due to some genetic medical condition, yet chooses to adopt, has practiced what I would call “self-regard” in a responsible and Christ-like fashion. They have rightly considered something about themselves that makes their choice to not have their own biological children the right choice. Just as the person with severe spina bifida has practiced self-regard, knowing they could not really raise a child given their condition.
Financial Impoverishment And Mental Health
Of course, one thing many married couples worry about is finances. But as with the example of Simone Biles, one need not be Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk before one can reasonably raise children. That said, it should be the case that most, perhaps nearly all, Christian couples in America should be financially able to raise children at some point in their lifetime.
However, although there is not much deep poverty in America, there is some. In these areas and under such extreme conditions, compassion for the already impoverished couple would mitigate any demand on them to raise children. Their burden to care for each other will already be quite great. Further, as with the couple with Type 2 diabetes, a couple that is living in abject poverty would be more directly the cause of their child living in poverty, than the couple that can have a child financially but is merely worried about the general character of the world.
As such, Christian couples in places with higher rates of abject poverty, like India, would certainly be justified in refraining from procreation. Again their burden already being the great weight of the poverty under which they serve Christ. Moreover, this kind of poverty is often accompanied by other issues, like severe physical and medical concerns or intense emotional trauma, that would compound the reasons to refrain from having children. One key issue in this moral calculation, however, is that the severely impoverished couple knows that they really are impoverished in this way. The severe poverty is not just a potential one, it is a known and actual one.
Finally, there are couples where one or both of the partners might suffer from severe mental or emotional illnesses. I hesitate to simply list a bunch of mental or emotional disorders here. A casual accounting like that could set off a hailstorm of criticism. Moreover, I am not a mental health professional, nor do I have a strong working knowledge about specific mental health conditions. The most I might say is that it seems reasonable to me that if it turns out one or both spouses have something like schizophrenia, or some other serious personality disorder or cognitive impairment, then obviously these should count in the evaluation of whether one should raise children or not. In all of these cases, I think there would be a proper sense of “self-regard” in a choice to not have kids.
Are There Overriding Christian Callings?
I foresee one more objection by committed Christians to this idea that aside from serious physical, financial or mental health concerns, one should have children. That is the notion that a couple could be so committed to a prior calling that the nature of that calling would supersede the calling to have children. For example, say a young couple feels called to evangelize in some rural part of Saudi Arabia or India or Afghanistan. The dangers from both man and nature are obvious, but the couple is committed to preach the Gospel. Should they refrain from having children, given that the danger to a potential child is not generic and vague, as in the prior example, but specific and concrete?
This is a hard question. However, to maintain consistency, I would still argue that even such a calling does not outweigh the logically prior call of having children. Thus, the couple should either refrain from taking the missionary trip until they feel the children are able to go with them, or are old enough to live on their own. Or the couple should, by the grace of God, be open to having children in the land of their missionary work and that regardless of the dangers. I have not read much on the history of missions, but it seems to me this is the way it has usually been done. The other option, of course, for those committed to a dangerous calling is to take the route of Paul himself, i.e., don’t get married. This is probably the best condition for such expeditionary evangelism anyway, since you may wind up in prison, or dead.
Conclusion: Regarding Genesis 1:28
Since I started this series, some have argued that Genesis 1:28 is not a command. I personally see no reason to think it isn’t. Grammatically it is in the imperative. Further, what is Genesis 1:28 if not a command to Adam and Eve to have children? Is it merely a casual suggestion of God to the parents of all humanity? Is it just a blessing? If so, there are other examples in the Hebrew where a blessing is also a command (cf. Genesis 24:60; Exod 4:18 and Deut. 33:18). Cannot God command us to be blessed? If yes, what to make of those who would reject God’s blessing? In fact, what would we make of those who reject God’s blessing, even if it were not a command? Why would this be commendable in the Christian life?
Further, if that command is to our “all-parents,” to Adam and Eve, from whom we derive so many of our most dogmatic Christian doctrines, e.g.,: the Imago Dei, the doctrine of original sin, the transmission of sin (given traducianism), the importance of sexual differentiation in marriage, etc., then why would we think this explicit statement to them is merely a contingent suggestion by God? Is God’s imperative blessing in Genesis 1:28 anywhere abrogated or lifted in the New Testament? Does Jesus negate this command? Why would we think that it no longer applies? Because we speculate there are now enough humans on earth to make it null and void? How do we know if there are enough humans on earth (or in the galaxy) or whether we have sufficiently subdued the planet? Who decides such things?
It seems to me that at face value, the more faithful position, and the one I notice my Roman Catholic readers quite rightly prefer, is that this is a command and that it is still in effect. Moreover, if God only commands that which He has also properly designed, then I further concur with my traditional Roman Catholic friends on this issue: God is commanding that which is already inherent in His design for human sexuality; the proper end of sex being the procreation of unique human beings. God is simply telling us in His command to “Be fruitful and multiply,” to use our bodies and the relationship of them as He has purposed them to be used.
PostScript: International Childfree Day
One final word about the August 1st holiday “International Childfree Day.” To me, a holiday like this is indicative of the kind of egoistical and infantile character of our culture in the post-modern era. We truly live in a culture where nothing commendable is commended. In this world, it is considered courageous to simply get up and go to work every morning, often to a minimum wage job that pays quite nicely. Flipping hamburgers or winning the Medal of Honer are treated as exemplifying roughly the same amount of courage. That is not to disparage faithfully performing one’s duties at In-N-Out. It is just to point out that the two are not equivalent, and the word cannot apply equally to both.
The same goes with personal responsibility (or pretty much any other virtue). It is a world where, as Thomas Sowell points out, every athlete or person of influence acts like a child, and does so quite openly. Public displays of childish, narcissistic behavior are the norm today, not the exception. Almost every athletic victory or accomplishment is accompanied by some infantile celebration, not with the self-abnegating stoicism of past generations. The relationships of public celebrities we follow are devoid of maturity, even in the most basic sense. Will Farrell was, at least for a while, one of Hollywood’s most noticeable stars. Today we have Conor McGregor, our grandfathers had Joe Louis. The contrast is stark.
I fear that a culture like this cannot survive. The fact that there is a social trend called “adulting,” is not some innocuous thing. It is not unimportant or trivial. We are becoming increasingly childish in every area of moral, social and political life. And so I would encourage everyone, not just Christians, to not dismiss or degrade one of the few things that can still challenge us to be better, more selfless and more mature creatures: don’t neglect the need for us as a culture to value the bearing and rearing of children. We need them, as much as they need us.