The point of having children is to increase the number of the saints. In the 1979 Prayer Book—which in this regard sets forth a more traditional exposition than its U.S. predecessors—children are one of the three intentions God has for marriage. “The union of husband and wife . . . is intended by God . . . when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord” (BCP p. 423). It is significant here that God’s intention is not merely that children be procreated but that they be nurtured to know God and also to love God.
This is a profoundly counter-cultural claim. Children are not humanly optional; nor are they a project for the fulfilment of the couple; nor do they exist for the sake of their contribution to the good of society (through taking care of their parents and/or through Social Security contributions). The point of children is that there be more people who know God and who love God; and precisely in furtherance of those goals, God may give children to the married couple, the husband and wife.
Children are not humanly optional. It is perhaps most counter-cultural of all to think that whether to have children is not an option. It has surprised me to find socially conservative young Christian adults—men and women who, for instance, see sexual intimacy as belonging only to the marital union—who do not know this. They simply assume that whether they have children, once married, would be entirely their choice. They know, of course, that just because a couple tries to conceive a child does not mean they will be successful; they know about infertility. But whether to make the trial, whether to be open to the conception of children— this they think is their own decision to make.
Christian tradition says otherwise. The hope of having children is built into the structure of Christian marriage. In the marriage service, we ask God to “Bestow on them, if it is your will, the gift and heritage of children, and the grace to bring them up to know you, to love you, and to serve you” (BCP p. 429). This intercession is optional, as was a similar prayer in the 1662 Book that God “assist with thy blessing these two persons, that they may . . . be fruitful in procreation of children”; in 1662 the instruction is to omit the prayer “where the Woman is past childbearing.” (In my judgment, in addition to being past childbearing, the possession of dangerous genetic scenarios could render it licit for a couple to marry without intending to have children.) If it turns out that children, although desired, are not conceived, a couple has no obligation to seek out medical assistance. If doctors can find the cause of infertility and if that can be cured, well and good (provided the burdens of treatment are proportionate). But most of what is on offer, medically speaking, is not a cure for infertility but a workaround. And Christians need to be clear that there is no godly obligation to seek workarounds for infertility; to the contrary, many such paths are morally questionable. In vitro fertilization, for instance, does not cure infertility. (For further on this, see Oliver O’Donovan’s now-classic Begotten or Made? and a more recent and pastorally oriented book by his sometime student Matthew Arbo, Walking Through Infertility.)
Nor are children a project for the fulfillment of a married couple. If God gives you children, that gift is not for you! This means something hopeful for involuntarily childless marriages: they are no less truly marriages than any other. Divine Providence is often inscrutable and perplexing.
As a young priest, I visited a married couple who told me, “Children are not part of our lifestyle.” They saw some people as needing to have children in order to fulfill themselves. They were not such people.
But children are not about self-fulfillment. Yes, parenting can be deeply satisfying; I know a man who says that rearing his children is the most creative thing he has done in his life. But all of us also know people who are frustrated with their children. The place of Christian wisdom is to accept gratefully the joys and sit lightly with the frustrations, in both cases remembering that children are not means to our own happiness and fulfillment. We who are parents are for them; they are for God.
Children are not for the future good of society. It is true that society receives many benefits from children, including their contributions to society in all its manifold complexities. We need always to have new people joining in society to do old things that still need doing and to see new things that could be initiated. People age and die, and new people enter in to take their place. All this is true.
But just as children are not for the sake of their parents’ good, nor are they for the sake of society’s good. Sometimes children turn out brilliant, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they become good neighbors and encouragers of their friends, other times they don’t. I would say that on average or collectively, sure, children are for the good of society. But that’s not their ultimate purpose, and therefore we have a place in our hearts (in society’s metaphorical heart) for every child regardless of whether we can see social benefit coming from that child.
The point of children is that they know, love, and serve God. The most important thing parents do is to instruct their children in the truths of Christianity. We can do this through teaching Bible stories and prayers (that increase in complexity as the child grows). We do this also through being ourselves people who study Scripture and attend to prayer.
Knowledge of God is related in a circular, mutually reinforcing manner with knowing God himself. An amazing aspect of knowing God is that it is impossible to know him without loving him. Augustine famously begins his Confessions with just this question: Can we love God without knowing him? But can we know him without loving him? Knowledge and love enter and grow together.
And that leads to a certain quality of life, a life marked by service of God. Children can be taught to see the day-to-day things of life as ways of serving God—thus learning how to tie together Christian knowledge and Christian living.
The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, Texas. This column was published in The Living Church on October 17, 2021, and is reprinted here with permission (livingchurch.org).