So far we have developed the Bible’s theology of marriage this way: 1) Marriage is a creation ordinance, God’s way of organizing human life in families; 2) Marriage is a relationship of love; more than simply functional it is to be deeply satisfying and full of personal pleasure; 3) Marriage is a covenant, a sworn set of privileges and obligations attended by divine sanction; 4) Marriage, therefore, as a relationship characterized by permanence can only be broken by divorce when serious sin has been committed against God and one’s spouse; and, 5) finally, last Lord’s Day evening, marriage is the divinely ordered context for the sexual relationship, all other sexual relationships being forbidden.
There remain two more parts of the biblical definition of marriage. Tonight we will take the first: viz. that marriage is for children, that it is the divinely appointed instrument for bringing children into the world. God so designed life that children should be produced by a marriage. When children are born to married fathers and mothers, they can be raised in a secure, wholesome, and loving environment, in a world in which they are, as it were, the overflow, the product, and the blessing of their parents’ own love for one another, in a world in which they share in the love that brought them into being.
It is a striking fact that, no matter all the propaganda that bombards us every day, virtually everyone, no matter his or her social ideology, understands how much better it is for children to be born to married parents, to a father and a mother who love them as they love one another. For years now we have been treated to the report of one study after another that connects a broken home or unwed motherhood to one form or another of childhood and then adulthood dysfunction. It is one of those cases, common enough in our modern world, in which so-called social scientists breathlessly announce the discovery of a truth human beings have known forever. I’m not going to talk about the importance of marriage for children this evening. I doubt any of us have any reservations on that score; the truth is so obvious that he who runs may read.
Tonight I want to emphasize rather the fact that marriage is for children. Men and women marry for several important reasons according to the Bible, but one of the reasons is to have children. As with so much else that belongs to the Bible’s definition of marriage, this fact is likewise front and center at the very beginning, in the Bible’s account of the creation. In Genesis 1:28 the first thing said to the man and woman whom God created is, “Be fruitful and multiply…” Still earlier in chapter 1, in v. 26, God had said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” The two of those fabulously fundamental statements, taken together, teach us:
- That “man” is not simply the first male, or even the first couple, but the human race as it would descend from them. At the creation of the world God was not merely giving life to two individual human beings, but to a vast multitude who would descend from them by sexual reproduction or by what our Westminster Standards call “ordinary generation.”
- That the descendants of the first marriage would likewise be bearers of the image and likeness of God is another inevitable implication of those two statements. It is the extraordinary thing that we take, you and I, far too much for granted that human beings can multiply the number of god-like creatures in the world!
- And that the commandment to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1 assumes the institution of marriage in Genesis 2. Who are those who will be fruitful and multiply? In chapter 2 we are given a more exact account of their creation and we learn that they are husband and wife; it is as husband and wife that they will be fruitful and multiply.
- All the rest that we read in Holy Scripture about the reservation of the sexual life to marriage assumes this basic truth: marriage is for children.
Now we are very likely to take that for granted and, to be sure, were I preaching on this subject thirty or forty years ago, I doubt it would have occurred to me to say what I think it is very important to say tonight in applying these basic perspectives from Genesis 1 and 2. For the fact is, marriage in much of the world is no longer thought to be the instrument of procreation. And that is true both for the unmarried and the married. We are well used to the dismal fact — a fact that portends so much human woe and social trouble — that between 70% and 80% of African American children in America today are born out of wedlock; 66% of Native American children, 53% of Hispanic American children, and more than 40% of all American children do not enter the world having a mother and father in a committed marriage, and many who do will lose a full-time parent, usually the father, to divorce in the course of their childhood. In the case of all American mothers under 30 years of age, more than half of their babies will not have a father who is married to their mother. Those numbers are the index of America’s social peril.
All of that is worrisome enough, though a predictable consequence of the sexual revolution, of the devaluation of marriage in modern western society, and of the collapse of American manhood. But while those numbers are ominous enough as the first glimpse of the descent of a cultural nightfall, they are not the true indication of our peril as a nation, and a society, and a civilization. It is a different set of numbers that portend our actual death as a people and a society. I have read a good bit about this over the past few years and one of the questions that fascinates me is why we aren’t hearing about it all the time. Is it because there is no point in talking about death when there is nothing one can do to forestall it? Is it a case of sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting “I can’t hear you” in the face of the grim facts? Is it because the statistics are so obviously the formal disproof of societal and governmental policies that have altered our public life in the western world that no one of influence wants to admit them? Or is it because intelligent, modern people simply can’t believe that this is really happening? Perhaps it is a combination of all these reasons, but you and I are not being treated to one article after another and one news story after another concerning what is undoubtedly the most momentous news of the early 21st century. Our politicians are not raising the issue constantly in respect to the choices we must make as a nation and this is not in our public discourse made to be the life and death issue that it is now frequently said to be by the leaders of other countries. I am speaking, of course, of the plunging birthrates in many countries of the world. You have heard some of the numbers, but even they may be rosier than the facts warrant.
As I mentioned last Sunday morning, by 2050, just thirty-five years from now, two out of every three Italians and three out of every four Japanese will be elderly dependents. 2050 is not that far away. Some of the youngsters in this room will still be comparatively young adults in 2050! By the end of the century — some of us in the sanctuary tonight may be alive in 2100 — Poland, Japan, and Russia will have lost more than half their current populations. Germany will have lost almost half. And in all of these countries a huge portion of what is left will be over the age of sixty. Do you realize how hard it will be for these countries to survive as modern states under such circumstances? Can you imagine the social ferment and dislocation, the violence and rebellion that will occur when these states can no longer provide adequate services to their people or defend themselves from increasingly desperate neighbors?
You may be thinking, “Well, what of it? Once people realize the problem they will begin to have more babies.” But that isn’t true. Quite apart from the fact that the fundamental changes of outlook that have produced these historically low birthrates, the transformation in what we should call the western philosophy or theology of life, will be very difficult, if not impossible to reverse, by the middle of this century the number of prospective mothers will have fallen by a third in Europe and by half in Japan. No matter what Europe and Japan do after that, their populations must continue to decline (absent immense numbers of immigrants) because there simply will not be enough women in the population to produce a sufficient number of babies. [David Goldman, How Civilizations Die, 198, 232-233] In other words, according to demographers, (and it is fascinating that this is not a controversial conclusion in the field), Europe and Japan have already passed the point of no return. “Population decline is the elephant in the world’s living room.” [ix] It will in all likelihood prove to be the decisive issue of the 21st century, even though no one, or hardly anyone, was thinking about it at the beginning of the century. Indeed, people were likely to be more worried about over-population!
Ah, but you say, won’t the Muslims simply fill the spaces left empty by Europe’s plunge in population. There have been those who have thought so. I read not so long ago that this was to be the case. But, the fact is, the Arab Muslim world is in the early stages of the most precipitous decline in population in recorded history.
“As Muslim fertility shrinks at a rate demographers have never seen before, it is converging on Europe’s catastrophically low fertility…. Iranian women in their twenties who grew up with five or six siblings will bear only one or two children during their lifetimes. Turkey and Algeria are just behind Iran on the way down, and most of the other Muslim countries are catching up quickly. By the middle of this century, the belt of Muslim countries from Morocco to Iran will become as gray as depopulating Europe. The Islamic world will have the same proportion of dependent elderly as the industrial countries — but one-tenth the productivity. A time bomb that cannot be defused is ticking in the Muslim world.” [x]
We hear little to nothing of this in the western media, but warnings of civilizational death through population decline permeate the Turkish and Iranian press and blogs. [Goldman, 7] Muslim political leaders are calling on Muslim women to have more children but have been no more successful at changing behavior than their European counterparts. All of this is the more significant to us because American birthrates are beginning to fall and, as we have learned over the past twenty years or so, once they begin to fall they can descend very quickly. Demographics are often relative to different groups in a society. In America today, the white population is still the largest section of our population. In 2012, the last year for which we have census data reported, for the first time in American history so far as we know, more white people died in the United States than were born. Demographers were not expecting deaths to exceed births in the white population until 2020. It happened eight years sooner than they thought it would!
It is not as though this has not happened before. In fact population declines have been part of world history. Polybius, the Greek general of the 2nd century B.C., explaining why Greece fell to Rome, wrote:
“In our time Greece was visited by a dearth of children and generally a decay of population…” [Cited in Goldman, 129]
And scholars have long known that population decline was a if not the principal factor in Rome’s demise. In fact, one very significant ingredient of Christianity’s triumph over the Roman state was a superior birthrate. While the Roman population fell, the Christian population increased. While the Romans were exposing their children, the Christians were nurturing theirs in great numbers. [Rodney Stark in Goldman, 132, 157]
These statistics of population decline cry out for an explanation. And there are many. The more educated women are the fewer children they have. The wealthier a people become the fewer children they have. The more urban a population the lower its birthrate. But none of these typical and no doubt important explanations accounts for why some educated, relatively well-to-do, and urban people have more babies and others have less or none at all. Jews are wealthier and more educated but they are out-producing the Palestinians in Israel; American Orthodox Jews are far out-producing the rest of American Jews though virtually all American Jews are urban and well educated. And evangelical Christians are out-producing other similarly educated and similarly urban Protestant Americans. The Protestant mainline denominations have birthrates as low as the lowest in Europe. The most important factor, the nail in the coffin we may say, seems to be faith; some understanding of life that gives people a transcendent reason to see their lives as the continuation of those who preceded them and as preparing for those who will follow them. If we see our lives largely in isolation from the past and the future, then there is little to live for but our own individual physical existence and the increase of our pleasure as long as we may be able to enjoy it. Children lose under such a philosophy of life. They are work. They are noisome and distracting. They demand inordinate amounts of our time. They are expensive. They stand in the way of our self-fulfillment.
It is the secularism of Europe and North America that most profoundly explains its falling birthrates. It is a loss of faith. And it is a crisis of faith in the Muslim world that, more than any other factor explains the precipitous decline in its rate of reproduction. I had no idea, until I read this the other day, that the encounter with the modern world has so seriously undermined Muslim commitment in the Arab world. You would never gather this from western news reports, but only two per cent of Iran’s adults attend the mosque on Friday. [Goldman, 12] 2%! In Iran drug use and prostitution are pandemic, far worse than in western countries where they are bad enough. And according to last week’s Wall Street Journal birthrates have fallen precipitously in Thailand as well, almost certainly in some large part because of the encounter of the Thai people with western secular culture.
Here is the issue: do we believe that our lives have meaning beyond this world? Will what we do here, how we live here, and whom we serve here matter beyond the enjoyment of our own personal and very temporary existence in this world? Those who answer that question with a definitive “Yes” have babies in numbers. Those who answer with a “No” or even an indifferent “Perhaps” do not. It is not the only factor, to be sure, but it is a huge factor and, when asked, young people in the western world will regularly admit that they have or do not have children in large part because of their philosophy of life.
People can pretend that their life is an accident of natural selection, a moment of insignificance in a meaningless universe, and seek their own immediate fulfillment in the face of certain death and total extinction, but if they do, there is little reason to have children, still less to have a number of children. Secularism is toxic to childbirth.
But the Christian faith ought to be the reverse. We believe things that ought inevitably to lead to children and more children.
- We believe that human beings made in the image of God are the most valuable things in the world, the only supremely valuable things. It is their God-likeness that makes them so. They must be most valuable for they and only they live forever. They and only they have a life so important that its judgment endures forever.
- We believe that fundamental to our calling in the world is the building of the kingdom of God. It is our greatest privilege that we should be co-laborers with the Father, with Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit in the building of his kingdom. That kingdom, the church of the Lord Jesus, is the only community in this world that will exist in the next.
- What we are seeking in the building of the kingdom of God is the glory of God, our heavenly Father, and of Jesus Christ our Savior. We want there to be not fewer, but many more worshippers of the living God, many more to share in the glories of the world to come, many more to rejoice with us in the love of God and the triumph of his grace, and many more to bask with us in the wonder and pleasure of the eternal city. If we are really grateful to God, if we love him and others, if we are not selfish, we will crave these honors for the Triune God and for the maximum number of men and women. It is what Christians should always want — it is the inexorable logic of our faith — to see as many people as possible in the heavenly kingdom.
- The building of that kingdom on earth has never been only, it has never even been primarily by evangelism, wonderful as it is to see unbelievers become followers of Jesus Christ. As necessary as evangelism is, as principal a commitment as it ought to be for every one of us, the largest number of Christians has always been those who were born and raised as Christians in believing and faithful Christian homes. That makes childbearing a kingdom work, a work of eternal salvation. No Christian would ever say, “Well, I’ve had the honor and the pleasure of leading someone to faith in Jesus Christ. It was magnificent beyond words to see his or her life transformed as Christ came into it. It was wonderful to see him or her saved. But I need to stop now so that heaven doesn’t become overpopulated. I’ve done my part.” Never! If one, why not a thousand; why not ten thousand! Well, in the same way, why would we limit the number who will be invited to the banquet of life out of our own homes?
- It is not only “Be fruitful and multiply” that lays us under the obligation to have children, but “I will be a God to you and to your children after you.” A promise repeated scores of times in the Word of God, Old Testament and New Testament alike. Creation and redemption combine to make our children the most valuable contributions most of us will make to the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, because this is such a tender subject for many people, let me pause here and add several qualifications. I speak on this subject to inform and to inspire, not to offend; so let me remove some possible misunderstandings.
- First, I know full well that not every Christian marries. The Bible acknowledges this as the will of God. Every Christian will not be a father or a mother and that is according to God’s will. The Apostle Paul, so far from diminishing the contribution of the single Christian, seems in 1 Cor. 7 to admit that he or she, in a certain respect, may live a higher life. Still, in the Bible, as in the history of the church, most Christians marry and most will have children.
- Second, I know very well from the Bible and my own observation and experience that not every couple that wants to have children can do so. In the Bible the inability to have children is acknowledged to be a very heavy burden and we know it continues to be so. Adoption can be a solution for many, but for others even that does not work for one reason or another. The Lord in his wisdom has called some marriages to childlessness. We bow before his will. It is not the norm but it is certainly a feature of Christian life, always has been and I suppose always will be. People with that calling have likewise a service to offer the kingdom of God, one God himself has appointed for them.
- Third, I fully realize that the Bible never tells us to have as many children as is physically possible. There have been Christians who have argued that we should have children until the Lord closes the womb, but the arguments they have offered have, and rightly so, not persuaded the believing church as a whole. “Be fruitful and multiply” simply cannot be made to mean, “Have as many children as is physically possible.”
- Indeed, the Bible opens the door to prudential considerations that might lead Christian husbands and wives to consider postponing having a child or limiting the number of their children. When, for example, we read of the day of judgment the Lord describes in his Olivet discourse in Matthew 24, “…alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days…” we learn that having children is not always and in every case a blessing! In a similar way, having children who grow up in unbelief is, in the Bible, a horrible outcome. It is no credit to a Christian family if by having many children they end up populating hell instead of heaven! And that, of course, has happened far too often. A husband and wife who are struggling to raise their children in the faith of Jesus Christ should ask whether they ought to have more. In a day when Christian education is understood by an increasingly large number of believing mothers and fathers to be essential to the welfare of their children, this too is a consideration that might weigh with them in one way or another. And so on. Florence and I stopped at five after carefully working through the considerations that we felt should weigh with us, reviewing the purposes of our lives, our capacity to fulfill them, and so on. But, then, we stopped at five! We more than doubled ourselves. [Now, of course, some of you may be thinking, “Double the number of Rayburns? That may not be an entirely ideal outcome!]
- Further, I am well aware that the historically much larger families of Christian history were in large part the consequence of a high infant mortality. It is true that Susanna Wesley had twenty-five children, but nine died as infants and only eight were still living when she died.
- Finally, there are so many personal and private factors that must be weighed by devout and thoughtful Christians that no one may make a law that other Christian parents are obliged to keep. No one is in a position to reproach a husband and wife for decisions they made after weighing considerations known to themselves. We have no interest in that. We’re not going to go there at all. There is no ideal number of children for the Christian home given us in Holy Scripture. The Christian church has always been and will always be a splendid variety of people and of their personal situations. The important thing is that every believer is seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. In the matter of bearing children, that is going to lead most Christians to have larger families, perhaps significantly larger families than others whose lives are not oriented to the future and the consummation of God’s kingdom as our lives must be.
Do you see, brothers and sisters that the West’s turning from confidence to despondency and finally to nihilism must in time doom its secularism and materialism to extinction. “[The forsaking] of child-bearing is the ultimate expression of nihilism.” [Goldman, 73] Our culture is willing itself out of existence! And it is doing so for reasons that Christians can never embrace for themselves; indeed, for reasons Christians must repudiate with might and main.
- Human beings are not mere animals whose lives have no lasting meaning because they have no moral connection with what comes after. Human beings are rather what this world is all about because they have been made in the image of God for fellowship with God and their existence, unlike the world’s, is eternal, whether in weal or woe.
- Children cannot be considered a cost, or an impediment, or a distraction, because everything else in one’s life is meaningful or morally justifiable only in its relationship to the eternal value of human beings. Christians are people-persons through and through. We live for people because they are what matters to God in this world.
- The world needs nothing so much and nothing gives so much glory to God as more Christians. The more Christians the better. Good grief, even the Chinese government has figured that out. It furiously suppresses a variety of religions within its borders, but it has over the last half generation grudgingly given rein to Christianity because anyone can see that real Christians are good for a country and its people.
- In general in the Bible we are taught to consider children a blessing from the Lord. “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” [Ps. 127:5]
The principle challenge we face in respect to this biblical emphasis and this part of the definition of marriage is the same challenge we face everywhere else in the Christian life: namely the need for a stronger faith. We can see that career path in front of us; we can see the dirty diaper and the cost of Christian education and the cost of college; we can see in how many ways children will change and complicate our lives. It is harder to see thirty or forty or fifty or sixty years from now the difference it will make to the fortunes of the kingdom of God if Christians continue to multiply and the unbelieving world does not.
Still less can we see into heaven and see the vast multitude there increasing our own joy by sharing it with us. We must believe that children are God’s gift to us and to the world, that they are the building of the kingdom of God, that they are the host of heaven, and that they are, according to their numbers, the hope of this present world. We can’t see that, but is it not the teaching of the Word of God and the inexorable logic of both “Be fruitful and multiply” and “I will be a God to you and to your children”? Our heavenly father has said both things to us. The facts are these: modern consumer secularist culture is slowly but surely affecting every society in the world and the effect of that culture is generally speaking toxic to child-bearing. But those facts are the church’s opportunity.
Godly, happy, kingdom-focused marriages are the presupposition of this triumphant war of attrition against the unbelieving world and its demonic rulers. The Devil never had a child. His numbers do not grow unless unbelieving human beings have children. His numbers are likely to decline over the course of this century. It is thought, now generally, that the world will lose a quarter of its population in the half century from 2050 to 2100. That could be a wonderful result but only if the numbers of the kingdom of God continue to grow apace. Christian husbands and wives, because they are also fathers and mothers, stand on the front lines of the spiritual warfare presently being waged in this world. And they fight the good fight by adding numbers to the Lord’s host and training them to be highly effective soldiers. It is what husbands and wives have been called to do from the beginning of time. By all means, let them enjoy one another’s love and rest happily in one another’s companionship. We have already said that marriage should be a comprehensive personal blessing to husbands and wives as husbands and wives. But marriage is for more than that. God made it a principal weapon in his battle for this world. The day when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea will come in largest part because Christian husbands and wives fill the earth with their children!