Tuesday, September 23, 2008

how many children should I have?

I never imagined the interest and debate my post on less children, more ministry? would raise! It's time to offer some follow-up thoughts, tie up loose ends, clarify what needs clarifying, and share some of the helpful points made by people who commented (thanks to you all!).

So, how many children? Here's what I'd like to say, starting with the big picture God's purposes for marriage and children:

1. God's purpose for marriage
The purpose of marriage is to work together in the task God has given us, to govern and care for his creation; and, after the fall, to help restore God's creation by proclaiming the gospel. The woman was made as a "helper" not as a solution to loneliness, but because the man needed help in his task (Gen. 1-3).*

2. God's purpose for children
We have children for the same reason: not to meet our needs, or because it's expected of us, but to help fulfil God's task for humankind, by "multiplying" those who will govern and care for creation, and share in God's work of redemption. (Louisa rightly calls motherhood "multiplication ministry".) Children are a "blessing" from God, to be received with thanksgiving (Gen. 49:25).* (See welcoming children.)

3. The "calling" of motherhood**
The ministry of motherhood (and fatherhood) has immense significance. Our primary "calling" as wives and mothers is, after loving and helping our husbands, to raise our children - through teaching, example, love, nurture, discipline, and prayer - as fellow-workers in God's kingdom. All other work or ministry should be considered in the light of this question: does it help or hinder my primary responsibilities to husband and children?

4. Marriage and children
That's why children should be an intended part of every marriage (acknowledging that some couples will sadly be unable to have children). Christians rarely admit to having no children for selfish reasons: because it's too much responsibility, or because they are protecting their lifestyle. But they sometimes have no children in order to "serve God". This ignores the fact that one of the primary ways married people serve God is by having and raising godly offspring.*

5. Under- and over-valuing family
It's possible to undervalue the place of family. I recently heard the sad story of a mother so absorbed in ministry outside the home, that she didn't raise her children as Christians. It's also possible to overvalue the place of family. We can idolise our family to such an extent, that we fail to reach out to, and serve, people outside our home, which isn't biblical or a good example to our children (see Nicole's post). Both may have an unhelpful impact on how many children we decide to have.

6. Contraception
Any children God gives us should be welcomed as blessings from him, even the unplanned ones! But this doesn't mean that it's wrong to use contraception (as long as it doesn't potentially cause abortion). We are in the unique and privileged position, historically and geographically, of being able to decide (to some extent) how many children we will have. The decision of "how many?" is a matter of freedom and wisdom.

7. Freedom to choose wisely.
Each couple will make this decision based on many factors: their personalities, context, work, ministry, financial resources ("need not greed" as Simone points out), to name a few. We shouldn't judge others about when they have children, or how many they have: we don't know all the reasons, and this is a decision they make before God in freedom.* (This doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss what godly wisdom looks like in practice, as Nicole points out.)

8. The impact of feminism
We need to be aware of the hidden assumptions influencing our decisions. It's no accident that the birth rate in Western countries falls every year, and the age at which women have their first child increases. Because we often value work, and ministry outside the home, over the ministry of motherhood, we may decide to have less children for the sake of "ministry", forgetting the importance of motherhood as ministry (thanks Cathy for these observations!).

9. Not deciding for all the wrong reasons.
Which was why I wrote my post: to point out that we shouldn't have less kids because we devalue motherhood as ministry. Raising children to serve God is our primary, vital ministry as mothers. This doesn't necessarily mean we'll have more children. But we shouldn't have less children because we see motherhood as a hindrance rather than a privilege.

10. Deciding for the right reasons.
The decision about how many children to have looks different for each of us: but let's make it prayerfully and wisely, in the context of a life of ministry and service. As Louisa says, "Some people for a whole host of reasons will be better suited to having a large family and ministering effectively to said family and their community than others will be."

For a great example of what this decision may look like in practice, see Sharon's story (thanks for sharing it with us!).

And thanks Nicole for reminding us that, this decision having been made, God may surprise us with another blessing!

*These points owe much to Christopher Ash Married for God; the quote is from pp.60-61. By the way, if you're going to read only 1 book on marriage, this should be it!

**I am using the word "calling" in the sense of career not divine impulse. Louisa asked an interesting question: what if we're called to ministry outside the home? I wouldn't use "calling" in this sense: see called to ministry. If we're going to use the language of "calling", remember that the moment you became a wife, and then a mother, you received your primary "calling" from God. Which doesn't mean we won't have other ministries on our heart as well, but they will always be secondary.

Thanks to all those who commented on less children, more ministry?. Sorry if I didn't have space to discuss your comment here.

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