I often hear murmurings in my Christian circles that bearing multiple children is a Christian virtue and duty. At my brother’s wedding, he was told by the minister to ‘have as many children as [he] can’. I’ve been advised to have lots of children by an older woman in our congregation, because the Muslims are having lots of children, and so Christendom needs to keep up. And in Tim and Beverly La Haye’s … er … seminal work on marital sex for Christians, The Act of Marriage, they say,
‘In city after city, after my lectures I am set upon by the younger generation because I advocate a family of four or five children… [A couple] made it very clear that I was “Neanderthal” in my approach to family planning because I reaffirmed God’s first commandment to man, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28). They had been so brainwashed by the humanistic family planners of our educational system that they considered avoidance of a family a patriotic service… Who says Genesis 1:28 is obsolete? God is the only one who can nullify his commands, and I know of no verse in the New Testament that negates Genesis 1:28.’
So, seeing as I’m about 0,4 children behind the average, allow me to tell you why I think it’s both right and important for Christians to plan their families and to aim small.
Doesn’t God Command That We Multiply?
The most important issue is whether or not a command to procreate regularly remains in force. Both Adam and Noah are given commands to fill the earth, and, as La Haye says, there seems to be no direct revocation of that command. So how can we disobey?
What is so remarkable about Biblical theology is that God’s commands rarely if ever come to us without justification or motivation. God doesn’t say ‘Because I said so!’ nearly as often as we do. It is not only appropriate to ask why God commands, but it is dereliction of our duty as responsible exegetes if we do not. The intention of the command is all important.
In the case of the command to multiply, it is only given to two groups of people: Adam and Eve, and Noah’s family. Furthermore, it is given with a clearly stated purpose, i.e. to ‘subdue’ the earth. This command in Gen 1:28 is bookended by two statements from God that man is delegated ruler of the earth, and in chapter 2 we learn than man was placed in the garden for the purpose of caring for it (2:15). In other words, the command to multiply is given to man in a world in chaos that waits to yield to his care, and he is radically short-staffed.
So to Adam and to Noah are the only occasions on which the command to multiply is given. Well, no, actually that’s not true. There is another. Before man is ever given the command, it is given first to the animals (Gen 1:22 — I assume that land animals are included by association, though it is not explicit). They too have the command to multiply.
The purpose of the command given to the animals might well be multiplication for its own sake, but when given to humans, it is particularly with the goal of creation care. But what do we see today? Human population is not only more than adequate to tend to the surface of the globe, but our numbers are so large that we are in fact a serious threat (in our current modes of living) to its well-being. And not only are we doing the opposite of the purpose for which the command was given to us, but we are also standing in the way of the animals performing their fulfilment of the command to fill the earth. [I would urge you to remind yourself of just how much of the world’s creation is under immanent threat of extinction. About half of the world’s amphibian species, for example, are on the verge of being irradicated].
So, I completely agree that the Gen 1:28 command is in force. And we are failing dismally to keep it. The quickest way that we can prevent further damage and begin keeping the command is to limit and then reverse population expansion, i.e. to stop multiplying, and exercise a little subtraction.
But The Command Is Clear!
Ideological breeders may need further persuasion that not multiplying is far nearer to their Christian duty. Pay careful attention to what Paul says about marriage (and the somewhat inevitable, in those days, bearing of children):
- It is good for a man not to marry. (1Cor. 7:1 — admittedly open to some variance in translation)
- I wish that all men were as I am… Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. (1Cor. 7:7-8).
- For this world in its present form is passing away. I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided. (1Cor. 7:31-34)
In these two or three instances, Paul is clear that not only is it not required of Christians to breed, but in many instances, it is wise and right to not to breed. Even in Paul’s day, with the vastly smaller world population, it was more important to be engaged in working for things eternal as undividedly as possible, rather than birthing personal sports teams. As Paul would no doubt have said to the woman advocating a population race with Muslims, your family may or may not be saved in the end (1Cor. 7:16), but you can guarantee that your future family will (and ought to) divide your loyalties. Far better are people working for the salvation of Muslims and others without family encumbrances.
Clearly, Paul himself regards the command to multiply to be subject to more important concerns, and not generally in force.
If having loads of babies is your desire, fine. Desire on. But it is not a Christian duty for the rest of us to desire likewise. The kind of multiplication that we should desire is brought about by evangelism and the work of the Spirit (see Mark 4:8 for a possible NT allusion to the Genesis command).
However, we do all have a Christian duty that we often neglect, which is to exercise wisdom. Not everyone can afford five or ten children, even if they wanted to. Even those who want to and can afford it should still be paying attention to what the environment can afford. Family planning is wise. ‘Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are.’