The just-released United Nations World Fertility Report reveals that the United States has one of the highest rates of childlessness of any country in the world. Last month the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2012 the United States birthrate reached a record low.
Some might view these as hopeful developments, positive signs that the socio-economic circumstances of more women now allow them to make prudent choices about having children, and that there may yet be hope for further stretching the Earth’s limited resources.
Biologist Paul Ehrlich, in his now infamous 1968 book The Population Bomb, predicted the cataclysmic results of runaway population growth. For Ehrlich, humans are just like any other animal species: when we exhaust the resources of our environment needed to sustain us, we will face a precipitous decline in population:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate …
This bleak view of the future was countered by economist Julian Simon, who advocated a more cornucopian view of population growth, arguing that humanity would continue to flourish thanks to our ingenuity and technical resourcefulness — we have, he argued, the means to bypass the limitations of other species.
Time has proven Ehrlich’s catastrophism false (at least for now), but his premise continues to reverberate throughout contemporary culture. Though a wide variety of factors contribute to dropping birthrates it is surely true that, when it comes to children, for many people more is not necessarily better.
Except for Christians.
Many Christians decry declines in the national birthrate, attributing it to abortion, anti-family secularism, the “homosexual agenda,” and self-absorbed narcissism. For them, having children is practically a requirement for the Christian faith. This viewpoint is exemplified by the Duggar family and the Quiverfull movement, who take Psalm 127:3-5 as a God-given command to reproduce:
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them;
They shall not be ashamed,
But shall speak with their enemies in the gate.
But not all Christians view children as so central to the Christian life, calling attention to the danger of such an unbalanced and potentially idolatrous focus. Pastor Timothy Keller, in a 2011 interview with Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly, defined idolatry as being:
anything you love more than God, anything … . You may believe in God, but frankly if your job — if making money, or even your family — I shouldn’t be saying this to Focus on the Family … anything that’s more important to you than God [is idolatrous].
Keller went on to say:
Ironically I wonder whether people who are very pro-family, and therefore fairly conservative in their values, may be more conformed to the world than they think. I don’t think two generations ago we built our entire life around our children the way we do now. They have to be in the perfect school, they have to be perfectly happy, they have to have all the best things. I think that’s a consumer kind of thing — it’s a very contemporary secular approach to raising children. And weirdly enough, we in the more Evangelical church very often can be sucked into it and think that we’re being pro-family when actually we’re being conformed to the image of the world.
Just because something is a gift from the Lord does not mean that it is wrong to be a steward of when or whether you will come into possession of it. It is wrong to reason that since A is good and a gift from the Lord, then we must pursue as much of A as possible. God has made this a world in which tradeoffs have to be made and we cannot do everything to the fullest extent. For kingdom purposes, it might be wise not to get married. And for kingdom purposes, it might be wise to regulate the size of one’s family and to regulate when the new additions to the family will likely arrive. As Wayne Grudem has said, “It is okay to place less emphasis on some good activities in order to focus on other good activities.”
The most extraordinary thing that is pretty clear that the the early Christians did that distinguished them from the Jews is they didn’t have to marry. You’ve got to remember, Jesus was not a good Jew. He was single, he walked around with twelve guys — it makes you wonder whether he really understood his sexuality. So, Christians — followers of Jesus — didn’t have to marry. You may think that was because they had negative attitudes about sex. They may have had negative attitudes about sex, but that’s not why they didn’t marry. The reason they didn’t have to marry was because you don’t have to have a child to be a Christian — you don’t have to have a child to be a Christian. Because we’re an apocalyptic sect that grows by witness and conversion. Just about every time that Christians make a fetish of the family, you can be sure they don’t believe in God anymore. They don’t want to witness to anyone about the truth of the gospel. They just want to make sure their kids grow up thinking their kids don’t have an alternative other than to go to the Reformed church.
Declining birthrates may be a positive sign of society’s progress; humanity’s ability to creatively overcome the limitations of our environment may continue to stave off a crisis of scarcity. Evaluating and responding to developments in these matters will certainly continue to be the ongoing task of biologists, economists and sociologists — of, in fact, all of us.
As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus in whatever we do. For some that may mean marriage and having many children. For others that may mean an entirely different path in life. Decisions about marriage and family are not one-size-fits-all. Christians who insist upon making procreation a paramount Christian value are missing too much of what Jesus said and did, and ignoring too much of the example he personally set.
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and cares for two cats.