Culture At Large

Why not having kids is more than a lifestyle choice

Branson Parler

In a recent Time magazine article on childlessness, Lauren Sandler notes that the American birth rate is at an all-time low and asks: “What happens when having it all means not having children?”

Sandler notes Jonathan Last’s argument that the low birth rate will have devastating long-term economic effects. And Ross Douthat contends that this is not merely an economic concern, but the result of a culture that is so focused on itself it has no room for sacrifice and no ability to think about the long-term effects of refusing to have children.

Christians need to tread carefully here. Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 are instructive. He emphasizes that some Christians are called to remain single and without children, a point missed by a Christian subculture that often holds up non-Biblical ideals regarding romance, marriage, children and family. The message that marriage was optional was even more radical in Paul’s day than ours.

But Christians need to think deeply about the rationale behind not having children. As the Time article notes, many prefer to use the term “child-free” rather than the term “childless,” which seems to imply lack rather than fulfillment. The danger here is that the term “child-free” underscores freedom from obligation. As one interviewee puts it, “What makes you happy? That’s what you do.”

Christians should have a problem with a logic that makes subjective happiness the criteria for what we do. When Paul talks about the freedom that single or childless Christians have, it’s not freedom from obligation, but freedom for different sorts of obligation to the kingdom of God (which is one reason why religious orders of single Christians still use familial terms like “brother,” “mother,” etc.). From this angle, the question is not whether to have kids or not, but whether we’re living lives of self-giving love and service or not. Of course Christians without kids can live fulfilled lives, Paul would argue, but if by “fulfilled” we mean a self-centered focus on our own happiness, then we need to challenge how we think about fulfillment.   

Let’s return to that earlier quote: “What makes you happy? That’s what you do.” This is simultaneously a summary of our culture’s approach to having children and to human sexuality. Those of us who are married need to reconsider the theological connection between bearing the image of God and our willingness to bear (and bear with) children. Is there an objective and theological meaning to our sexuality and reproductive ability beyond doing whatever makes us subjectively “happy”?

If God has made marriage (including sexual union) to be an icon of Christ and the church and to participate in and point to the love, creativity and hospitality of the Trinitarian God, then intentional childlessness raises the question: what God are we imaging? If we refuse to be open to the ultimate stranger, our child, are we imaging the hospitable God who brings us into existence? If we close down the fertility and creativity with which the God of life has made us, are we imaging the Creator God? If we refuse the self-sacrifice that comes with having children, are we really imaging the God who sacrificed Himself for us?

If the invisible God’s hospitality, life-giving creativity and self-sacrificial love are “understood and seen through the things He has made,” then married Christians capable of having children need to ask whether they are clarifying or obscuring the nature of God when they refuse to bear His image.

Christians need to think deeply about the rationale behind not having children.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Home & Family, Family, Sex, Parenting