Is there a simple way to talk about child bearing that is robust enough to move the church in the biblical direction of “fruitfulness,” but which also takes into account the deeply sensitive areas of life that hide inside the soul of each couple in our body? I believe there is. I want to direct any curious readers to glance at the end of the post; that is where my 2 suggested rules are found.
Between Scylla and Charybdis
What is really being looked for is the right path between the one error of legalism, and the other error of antinomianism. Legalism is making up rules that God has not made. Antinomianism is pretending he hasn’t spoken when he has indeed. And viewing the question about promoting fruitfulness in the church through this filter helps us to come to some simple but powerful answers.
Because the Bible really does send us the message of wishing for many children in the church, but the life of the church really does contain many exceptional situations that would give us pause from each man pressing his neighbor and his brother with inquisition over why they have less children than he has in mind as godly, therefore we need to take into account what God has said and what he hasn’t.
What the Bible Does Say
Let’s quickly get the sense of pleasure the Lord has poured into his words about the expansion of Christian families:
Humanity, back when humanity as a whole was also the church as a whole, was told explicitly this commission:
“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…”” (Genesis 1.28)
We do have it on good authority (from the wisdom of Solomon) that God blesses families that seek to expand with childbirth:
“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!” (Ps 127.3-5)
We do hear a general expectation that faithfulness is turned by God into growing families:
“1 Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,
who walks in his ways!…
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the Lord.” (Ps 128.1-4)
So it isn’t imaginary. But we must also keep in mind what the Bible doesn’t say, and what it does say about difficulties in this process.
What the Bible Doesn’t Say
- The Bible doesn’t tell us an ideal number of children.
- The Bible doesn’t forbid birth control, per se.
I am not giving verse references for these, since the Bible doesn’t command them. But we should take note.
What Else the Bible Says
Here is some other significant information to making a pastorally wise decision about how the topic is handled in church.
Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother (the wife of Manoah), Hannah, and Elizabeth all had something in common: They were godly and barren at the same time.
So the Bible’s generalized blessing about bearing fruit is not a categorical assertion that godliness begets large families. The Author (God) of the text is quite aware that women endure the pain of singleness, the pain of barrenness, and also in many of these cases the stigma and shame that comes with it. The Bible does not cast any shame from the Lord over these women who have been made to go without, rather it is the Lord’s compassion that hearkens to them in their prayers, and the prayers of their loving husbands.
- Gen 16.17 The Lord blessed Sarah.
- Gen 25.21 The Lord granted Isaac’s prayer for his wife.
- Gen 30.22 The Lord remembered Rachel, and God listened to her.
- Judges 13.3 The Angel of the Lord appeared to the wife of Manoah and spoke to her.
- 1 Sam 1.19 The Lord remembered Hannah.
- Luke 1.13 An angel appeared to Zechariah, and told him his prayer for Elizabeth had been heard.
But God Doesn’t Always Grant These Requests
Similar to Hannah who spent time at the temple asking to have a child, we hear about a prophetess in Jesus day, a woman named Anna (which is exactly the same name as Hannah), who had been married only seven years before she was widowed, and then had lived to eighty-four years old still unmarried. She was devoted to temple life, and the Lord heard her prayers as well, but the answer of provision had been to give her the temple, and the answer of new children for her had been to let her live to see the dedication of baby Jesus, come to save his people from their sins.
So What Overall Have We Found About God’s Word and Childbearing?
- God does want to expand his image and glory in the world through the fruitfulness of children coming out of Godly marriages.
- We can expect this to be a normative quality to the life of faithful churches, but this is far from saying it will happen to all godly church members.
- We can know along with scripture that many difficulties and challenges lie beneath the public surface of marriages in our midst.
THE REALLY NEEDED CAUTION
I think one more very efficient wise word is to be added in before we make a simple conclusion. Similar to the question in Romans of eating meat purchased in idol temples, the above findings would make us want to want the church to have fruitfulness, but might also make us cautious about messing with the conscience or the private motivations of other church members. So here is that biblical wise word to individual Christians:
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls,” (Romans 14.4).
My conclusion in two rules (yes rules):
Rule #1: The church must love fruitfulness.
The church as a whole should have a public attitude of desiring children, of loving and encouraging children, of not speaking negatively of childbearing, and not complaining about their presence in worship. It must be okay in worship to preach about multiplication. It must be okay in conversation to rejoice that someone is pregnant. It must be okay to rejoice with adoptions. This will challenge many, many couples to open themselves to God’s blessing. Mere inconvenience or a preference for the good life is always trumped by the prime directive in Genesis 1.28 given for the glory of God. This is good for all of us.
Rule #2: The individual must not judge his neighbor about fruitfulness.
The church should preach that we need to let people be free to have their ups and downs without being hounded by nagging do-gooders trying to stir up the fertility in the next pew. This doesn’t mean a good friend could not encourage a person he is close to about biblical fruitfulness. We are free to confront a brother about a truly known sin, but in this area it requires being privy to a lot of information that average pew neighbors don’t have about each other. We might run into a rare time to put a finger on Genesis 1.28, but we cannot go home with simple ideas about how other members are faithful or not in the private of their lives, just because they look more like Jacob and Rachel than like Jacob and Leah.
Remember that people in your church have gone through much without sharing it all publicly, and many have lived much life before joining your flock. Men have had testicular cancers. Women have been damaged by abortions. People have surgeries, and medicines, and sometimes deep psychological problems they only barely keep at bay, problems which may even have come from receiving abuse as a child.
Rule 1 guards against antinomianism. God has spoken. Children are an inheritance and a reward.
Rule 2 guards against legalism. God is judge. Children shouldn’t be a whip for casual use on other Christians.
If God is indeed the one who opens the womb, then pray to him that he be the one to pour out multiplication on the images of God in the garden of your church. And pray that God would give us all self-control in the way we speak, and wisdom in seeing the serious needs of all the families and couples in our midst.
The straightest, safest path is never denying what God has said, and never demanding what God has not.<>