Families, Children and Childlessness (Responding to Kevin DeYoung)

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The other day, Kevin DeYoung penned these words in an article for the Gospel Coalition

“Here’s a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: have more children and disciple them like crazy. Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle.”[1]

Kevin was writing primarily for a US audience. The concept of culture war is fairly North American specific and focuses on the battle between conservative and liberals across politics, education and the arts for the soul of a nation.  His argument was that by having and discipling children, Christians  could effectively breed a majority that would outlast current politicians and supreme court judges in order to propagate a Biblical world view.

I don’t really want to engage too much with the question of culture wars here except to say that children do not belong on the front-line in battle. We rightly protest the use of child soldiers in civil wars so let’s not press-gang them into our own battlefields before their time,[2]

What I do want to talk about here is how we think about and talk about children, childlessness and families.  I appreciate that in the article, Kevin state that some may not be able to have children and that having children does not guarantee that they will grow up to be believers.  However, a quick nod to those not included in your article can at times be as damaging as not mentioning them at all.

I got the impression that the article was one of those quick “let’s be witty, clever and provactive” articles that sometimes leap into blogging pastors’ minds. Usually there is a filter in the process where after a night’s sleep, our own minds tell us know, our editor (if we have one) or our wives (in my case) gentle suggest that the article wasn’t the bright idea we thought it was. Before publishing, we should remind ourselves that we are pastors first and that our role includes feeding people with God’s Word, protecting from danger and providing care and comfort to the hurting.  It is not that we never can be provocative but rather that our first calling should take precedent.  The filter seems to have failed to kick in here and the result has been that hurting people have experienced the painful sensation of old wounds re-opened and dirty hands plunged in.

In our churches are families with lots of kids and ones with a few. There are single mums (and dads) who have experienced divorce, desertion, or bereavement. There are single people at all stages of life, some who would have longed to be married and have children. There are couples who have not yet had children and some who now know they probably never will. It is important that we remember that when we talk about an issue like this.

So, here are a few thoughts

Children are a blessing from the Lord

In a helpful twitter thread[3], the other day, Matt Lillicrap both challenged DeYoung’s article and put in a defence for large families at the same time.  I appreciate his perspective.  He writes about how having a large family can lead to you being stared at, pitied and subjected to joking along the lines of  “have you learnt about contraception yet” and “have you tried watching TV).

My suspicion is that the real issue here is more to do with people not knowing how to handle situations out of their normal experience and not grasping the basic rules of small talk than some kind of ideological opposition to large families.  However, it is right at this point to say that having children is indeed described as a blessing in Scripture.  Children are a gift from God and we rightly celebrate the arrival of new babies.  Further, we are right to recognise that at creation, God told man and woman to fill and subdue the earth, child-bearing and raising was part of the creation mandate and is one of the purposes and benefits of marriage.

Blessings come with pain in a fallen world.

In Genesis 3, we see that one of the consequences of The Fall is that there is pain and grief that comes even with the joy of blessing.  One example is that pregnancy and labour can be difficult for many women and one of the objections raised by several people to DeYoung’s article is that it talks rather glibly about knocking out kids without consideration to the female perspective.

Not only that, but yes, children can be a handful. I love joining in with the Sunday Club team from time to time at our church. It can be such an encouragement to see them learning about Jesus and having fun at the same time. However, I know that just an hour can be exhausting and draining especially when they are lively and fractious (something that I now realise tends to coincide with bad weather and also over-running sermons).

If people ask parents of large families how they are coping, it is not a suggestion that children are a problem and it is not necessarily unprompted. Further it is not always a criticism.  The question arises because:

  • They may have experience of the challenges as well as the joys of bringing up their own families. After all, if blessing is multiplied with more children then surely the challenges experienced will multiply too?
  • They have seen a mum who is exhausted and struggling.
  • Believe it or not, but quite often parents of large families have themselves made the comments. I guess sometimes it is to pre-empt the inevitable. But also, and quite rightly, they are being open within the church family about the day to day challenges they face.

Not everyone experiences the blessing of children directly

As I have said above and as DeYoung briefly acknowledges, there are many individuals and couples who have not been able to have children. For some, the discovery of this will have included the further pain and grief of bereavement through miscarriage or the death of a young child.

Now, I recognise that this should not stop us from talking about, teaching about and celebrating the blessing of children. However, it is important that at the same time, we think carefully about how we talk about things in a pastoral way that goes beyond the quick nod.

Remember that for every large family that has experienced the pitying look or the crass comments, there are at least as many single people who have run the gauntlet of questions at church, weddings and family meet ups about if there is someone special.  Similarly, couples without children will have fielded their fair share of questions about “are you trying for a baby” and a good sprinkling of insensitive jokes and crass comments. 

Some individuals and couples may have reached the stage where they have learnt contentment in this area but it still does not mean that this hasn’t been without its fair share of pain and struggle.  Some will find that God enables them to enjoy the gift of family life within the church as they help with kids clubs, host and visit families for lunch and become aunties and uncles to many. However, others will find that this only increases the sadness.

Added to that will have been well-meaning words by some about how it is possible for God to miraculously intervene (and some families have experienced the miraculous gift of children when they had been told it was medically impossible). Even within non-prosperity circles don’t underestimate the additional pressure this creates, the implicit suggestion that if the miracle does not come then it is down to a lack of faith on their part or some other yet to be discovered deep dark secret.

A better way forward

We need to learn how to talk better about blessings and pain and how to enjoy those blessings together as church families as well as sharing the burden of suffering too. We are meant to be a body, connected together so we share in one another’s joy and hurt.

So, first of all, to reiterate, don’t use children and families as proxies in your culture wars. If you want to be genuinely counter-cultural, walk away from that fight. We are not called to a culture wat, we are called to bring the good news of God’s kingdom.

Secondly, we need to learn to see blessings given to individuals as actually blessings for the whole of God’s family through those individuals.  This links to the point that yes there are physical families but there is also the blessing of being part of a spiritual family.

Thirdly, we need to learn to love and fully value all members of our church family, recognising that individual family units come in all shapes and sizes.  We need to learn to walk with each other not just in the joys of blessing but in the pain and grief that comes of living in this now and not yet world.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/its-time-for-a-new-culture-war-strategy/

[2] I also note that DeYoung’s article reflects a particular theological understanding of church and covenant which I have discussed in the past and will no doubt return to in the future.  However, in this article my focus is primarily pastoral.  Stephen Kneale has however picked up on the theological issues in his article here https://stephenkneale.com/2020/06/19/a-culture-war-strategy-i-cant-co-sign-a-reply-to-kevin-deyoung/

[3] https://twitter.com/MHLillicrap/status/1273684419342106625

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