This article on family formation looks at the purpose of marriage and receiving children from the Lord, what it means to seek the kingdom of God with regards to having children, the blessing and importance of having children and descendants in the Old Testament, fruitfulness in the New Testament, and children as a blessing today.

9 pages.

Family Formation

We can make only a few fundamental remarks about the topic of family formation. In doing so, we shall listen closely to what Scripture says about the matter, for we are convinced that Scripture is able to disentangle more knots than many a pointed and intricate human argument can. Our problems can be very complicated. But more often than not we find the solution in what Scripture teaches us, even though that appeared unlikely at first blush.

The Purpose Of Marriage🔗

Often people will argue that the primary purpose of marriage is for husband and wife to support each other and only secondarily do they have the task of forming a family, at least if God allows it. In support of this argument people appeal to the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage. On the topic of the Purpose of Marriage, the Form says: ‘First, husband and wife shall … [help] each other faithfully in all things that belong to this life and the life to come’. Only then does it speak about the continuation and increase of the human race. And so, the argument goes, a marriage is no less a marriage if there are no children. Otherwise you would have to say that a childless couple does not have a real marriage.

In conversations and discussions such an argument is sometimes used to justify a deliberate, though temporary delay in having children. The couple deem themselves not yet ready to establish a family for the time being. But they do want to get married. And marriage is then justified by the proposition that entering into marriage does not necessarily imply the readiness and the willingness to have children.

It is terribly painful for childless couples to be ‘used’ in this way by couples who do not want to have children for the time being. Childless couples experience very strongly how natural the desire for children is. They know that childlessness is not something to be desired, but something that they must come to terms with. So when their sorrow is used to justify the position of others, they experience the cruelty of the argument made by the others.

When we speak of a natural desire for children, we are using the word ‘natural’ in the sense used by Paul, for example, in Romans 1. Thus, it means: according to the order of the beginning, according to the normative creation order.

This reminder of creation and paradise brings us immediately to a second consideration. The appeal to the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage seems clever when it is used to support the proposition that receiving children is but a secondary purpose of marriage. But the argument is not nearly as strong as it appears. For in opposition to it, we could in a similar way point to the order in which marriage is discussed in Genesis 1 and 2. Already in Genesis 1 human beings are commanded to be fruitful and increase in number. The role of the woman as suitable helper for the man is only addressed in Genesis 2.

We shall not waste our time on such unimportant considerations. Instead, we shall reflect on the nature of marriage and take into account that God gave marriage to human beings so that they can work together as one in his service. The marriage of a man and a woman is not, in first instance, to support each other and then to have children. For they marry in the Lord. So the purpose of their marriage is the progress of God’s work in this world in the place and with the opportunities God gives them for this purpose. The Son of God is busy gathering his church and bringing it to its completion, and a husband and wife may know that they are involved in that process! It is for that purpose that they help each other. And it is also for that purpose that they have children if God allows. Those two reasons are inseparable! Husband and wife stimulate each other in the service of the Lord. And they cooperate in the increase of the church of Christ.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves in this context that working with an eye on God’s kingdom is not in first instance a matter of appealing tasks outside the home. You have to start in the home! Couples may think that they should have no children, or only a small number, in order to tackle all kinds of important projects in God’s kingdom. But if so, they ought to ask themselves whether they are not like the people in Christ’s day who said of their property: it is Corban, i.e., a gift devoted to God, in order to avoid their first responsibility, namely, caring for their families (their parents in the case in question). The Lord Jesus condemned such a seemingly pious attitude by saying: ‘you nullify the word of God’ by your actions (Mark 7:9-13)!

In our opinion, the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage used in Reformed churches rightly proceeds from the proposition that the desire to have children ought to accompany marriage. We base this not only on the rather general considerations that we adduced, but also on what Scripture specifically teaches about receiving children.

  1. The Bible teaches us about the difficulties of pregnancy and pain of childbirth (Gen 3:16; 35:16-19). It also speaks of the difficulties we can encounter in raising children (Gen 26:35); of rebellious children (Dt 21:18-21; 1 Sam 8:3); of parents who fall short (1 Sam 2:22-25; 3:13); and of fathers who are ill and die young (2 Kgs 4:1). But when Scripture describes a happy marriage, a marriage as God intended it, it does not fail to mention the children of the marriage. Sons are a heritage from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward (Ps 127:3; 128:3). Children belong to a marriage!
  2. The Bible always speaks in a very positive way about fruitfulness. And so it is Scriptural to speak about the blessing of children. It is part of the flourishing of life as God intended it when he grants his blessing of ‘the fruit of your womb’ (Deut 28:3, 4). In contrast, childlessness was not part of that life from the beginning. It dates from after the fall, just like all fruitlessness. The Bible sometimes describes childlessness as punishment for sin (Lev 20:20, 21), but not always. Childlessness also happens to people whom God himself calls righteous (Luke 1:6, 7). Then it is a trial, something that is less than ideal, but a difficulty that people must learn to cope with. It is something that leads to perseverance only if one learns to cope with it in faith.
  3. The Bible describes the gift of children not only as part of the flourishing of life, but also as an aspect of the continuation of God’s work. For example, numerous descendants are often described as a consequence of God’s promise (Gen 12:2; 15:5; 22:17; 28:3). And the Lord builds his church also by giving children to his people (Exod 1:7, 20; 1 Chr 1-9. Cf. also Matt 19:13-13, after 19:1-12!).

We concur with J. Douma, who points out that marriage is both matrimonium and coniugium. The first accentuates the mother role; the second the mutual mission in life of man and woman (J. Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, Nelson D. Kloosterman, transl. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1996), p. 250). When you marry you do not have a choice about starting a family, but a calling to do so with God’s blessing. And when you have a calling then you may well have to give up other things or set them aside.

But do you have to sacrifice a career for children? Does the calling to form a family then not become a sacrifice of intellect and ability? We don’t think it does. That’s not the kind of God we have. He does not make a demand without giving us what we need. And he does not make this demand to tie our hands, but to lead us to our destination and make us flourish. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:15: ‘But women will be saved through childbearing.’ It is in that framework that we may speak about the formation of a family. As mother a woman does not sacrifice much at all. She receives a great deal. From her position in the family, she may share and cooperate in the great salvific work of God. And she will receive a hundred times as much for what she has perhaps had to give up (Matt 19:29).

It is sometimes said that a couple that decides to delay marriage because they are not yet ready to have children, are no different in principle than a married couple that delays having children. The only difference is that they do not postpone having children, but their marriage. In fact, so it is said, by not marrying they also practice birth control, for they too are not fruitful and do not multiply.

In our opinion, this argument is very unjust. A couple that does not marry for this reason acknowledges that God has laid a connection between marriage and the desire for children. And they respect this connection. If having children is impossible, then so is marriage. When you delay marriage for this reason, you are not postponing your marriage. Instead, you wait until you can enter into marriage responsibly.

A couple that marries but intends to prevent having children for other than medical or equivalent reasons does not marry at the right time, but too soon!

If it should become necessary for a couple to marry because of their sexual relationship during their courtship and engagement (1 Cor 7:9), the couple must recognize that they have been unwise in their pre-marital relationship. When their physical relationship with each other is such that they come to the conclusion that further postponement of their marriage is irresponsible, their priorities are wrong. For then marriage depends upon the physical relationship during their engagement instead of the reverse!

A couple that is not yet married may never be accused of disobedience to God’s command to be fruitful and to increase. For that commandment in Genesis 1:28 is directed at those who are married.

See First The Kingdom Of God🔗

In his recent booklet, To Count or to Weigh? Responsible Family Formation, J. Borgdorff raises questions about the Reformed assumption that the calling for married persons to form a family goes without saying in light of Genesis 1:28. In this context he asks the question: ‘Can we, as people who live after the fall, have a clear understanding of God’s Word as it was addressed to the human race before the fall?’ Or to put it another way: ‘As we listen to God’s Word, can we go back to before the fall and hear his Word in the same way as Adam heard it in pristine paradise?’ (pp. 14ff). He also asks a second question: ‘The Lord Jesus Christ points back to “the beginning” (Matt 19:4), but is it legitimate for us to conclude from this that we can and must do the same as he?’ (p. 15).

Borgdorff believes that we should speak about family formation only from a Christ-centred point of view. We can read the whole of the Old Testament exclusively from that point of view and that applies also to God’s speaking in paradise. Therefore, if you are going to speak about family formation, you must do so in the framework of the new life that Christ works in us by his Spirit. The commission for that new life is: Seek first the kingdom of God. And that command is also foundational in thinking and speaking about family formation. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and then the Lord will point us the way, give us the gifts and make things possible to live as Christians also in that respect’ (p. 21). More specifically this means (and for this purpose Borgdorff cites Answ. 123 of the Heidelberg Catechism) that ‘out of the close-knit unity with Christ we must more and more submit our lives to God, to preserve and increase his church’ (p. 22).

Borgdorff adduces another reason why it is illegitimate to conclude on the basis of Genesis 1:28 that each couple has the task in all circumstances to engender children. In Genesis 1 the human race is commanded to be fruitful and multiply and in Genesis 2 the Lord says that it is not good for the man to be alone. But in 1 Corinthians 7:1 Paul writes: ‘It is good for a man not to marry’. And his reason is service in the kingdom of Christ. Borgdorff concludes his chapter, ‘What the Bible Teaches Us’ as follows:

If the service to Christ governs the building of his church and if marriage is made subject to it, then in my view we may draw the conclusion that, by extension, having children is also subject to it. If marriage is not the only means of building Christ’s church, then neither is forming a family.

Paul’s assignment of a specific position to Christian marriage, for the reason he gives, makes it possible for us the assign the same position to family formation (p. 24).

Without going into great detail, we shall address Borgdorff’s argument in a number of points.

  1. We agree with Borgdorff that Christian family formation is a fruit of faith and, indeed, that also in this context we cannot do anything apart from Christ (John 15:5). It is distressing to see how irresponsible people sometimes are about family formation. In some cases there is not even a thoughtful discussion or prayerful deliberation between husband and wife. In other cases the parties think that they do something deserving when they have children. Therefore, it is good that Borgdorff emphasizes the need for a living faith in Christian family formation and that it must be part of the new life through Christ’s Spirit.
  2. When Borgdorff remarks that we cannot read Genesis 1:28 apart from Christ and that we must read it in light of the New Testament, he refers among other things to the Old Testament service in the tabernacle and temple, that is, the service of the earthly high priest and the sacrifices of animals (p. 15). And, as he says, we interpret that in light of their fulfilment in Christ. We agree with Borgdorff that also in respect of Gen. 1:28 we have to compare Scripture with Scripture. But we have difficulty with the way in which Borgdorff draws a parallel between Gen. 1:28 and the ceremonies of the law. He seems to disregard the fact that the ceremonies of the law belong to the shadows of the Sinaitic covenant, whereas Gen. 1:28 is concerned with a command from paradise. And that is a significant difference.

    When, in the context of the use of Gen 1:28 in Reformed circles, Borgdorff asks: ‘Can we, as people who live after the fall, have a clear understanding of God’s Word as it was addressed to the human race before the fall?’ we raise our eyebrows. First, we find the same command in Gen. 9:1, as well as an echo of it in Exod. 1:7. Both were made after the fall! Second, Borgdorff makes it seem as though only Christ could rightly understand Genesis 1: ‘He is the only one who knows what took place, what the words of God sounded like, what their intention and scope was in paradise’ (p. 15). But J. Douma rightly pointed out that the Lord Jesus was not the only one who knew what the words of God sounded like in paradise, for he said to his disciples, ‘“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’”?’! (Matt 19:4). Thereby the Lord drew his disciples’ and our attention to a text that could not merely be properly understood in paradise, but is also normative for us (Variant of Nederlands Dagblad, Saturday, 16 February 1991). Third, Borgdorff responded to criticism of his argument and clarified his intention (Nederlands Dagblad, Saturday, 11 May 1991). But we deplore the fact that he failed to reconsider the manner in which he formulated his questions in his book in response to the use of Gen. 1:28. In opposition to the questions raised by Borgdorff, J. Douma and H.J. Boiten (the latter in a review in Petahja) explicitly affirmed the confession of the trustworthiness, clarity, and authority of Scripture, including Genesis 1 and 2. But despite this, while Borgdorff clarified his remarks, he did not retract them, so that they continue to exist in a form that is contestable and capable of misunderstanding.

    It is passing strange that on the one hand Borgdorff warns us to read Christ’s remarks about ‘the beginning’ carefully but not deduce too much from it, while on the other hand he expands Christ’s command to seek first the kingdom of God beyond the direct context of Matthew 6 (p. 21).
  3. H.J. Boiten has pointed out that Borgdorff’s approach is not really Scriptural instruction about family formation. Borgdorff’s fundamental principle for the new life through Christ’s Spirit is: seek first the kingdom of God. In his chapter, ‘What the Bible Teaches Us’, Borgdorff’s ‘intention is not to develop a Scriptural doctrine of family formation. Rather, it is to describe the office of the Christian to which the calling to form a family is subordinated. Seek first the kingdom of God. Does that not amount to a depreciation of the Scriptural doctrine about family formation? It almost seems as if, by not discussing Gen. 1:28 any further, the author feels free to disregard other Scriptural references in his book. One looks in vain for a Scriptural doctrine about family formation in this book’ (Boiten, Petahja, March 1991).

    That is indeed the Achilles heel of Borgdorff’s booklet. The one fundamental principle precludes a consideration about the actual Scriptural rules of conduct. The evil-minded can in fact eviscerate God’s actual rules by an appeal to that one fundamental principle. That is true not only with respect to family formation. An argument like Borgdorff’s with respect to family formation can in principle be applied to all areas of life. Over against that we maintain that in the rule of our thankfulness God not only demands that we are thankful to him, but also that he has made clear how we are to be thankful. The Lord did not say only that we must love him and our neighbour, but also how we must do so, namely by carrying out his commands (1 John 5:2). So also, he did not just say that we must seek his kingdom, while leaving it up to us to determine how we should do that. On the contrary, Christ made it known to us how we must seek his kingdom, namely by doing the will of his heavenly Father and putting his words into practice (Matt 7:21-7).

    Scripture says much more about the matter of family formation than that we, as citizens of God’s kingdom and as Christians, must serve the Lord with the gift of fecundity. And in support of this statement we are certainly not focusing solely on the command of Gen. 1:28. In our opinion, by discussing solely that text, Borgdorff dismissed the Reformed reflection on responsible family formation too quickly. As we demonstrated above, many more Scripture passages speak to the calling of family formation.
  4. Borgdorff’s appeal to 1 Corinthians 7 is unconvincing. He argues: If Paul explains Genesis 1 in such a way that you may reject marriage for the sake of service to Christ, why can’t you not also argue that a married couple may decide not to have children for the sake of service to Christ?

    Previously we tried to define what the correct relationship between Gen. 2:18 (it is not good for the man to be alone) and 1 Corinthians 7 is in our opinion. We pointed out that the apostle does not say that it is immaterial whether you marry, nor that in certain circumstances it is even better that you don’t marry. Paul is not speaking about those who have the option to marry or to remain unmarried. He is speaking about those who are unmarried. And he comforts them by pointing out the possibilities that the unmarried state offers. They do not have to strive to marry and be in a panic because supposedly the unmarried state has no value or meaning. They may remain unmarried. As we saw, Paul does not say that the unmarried state is one that you must aspire to, but one that you must and can accept if that is the portion God has assigned you!

    If you want to apply 1 Corinthians 7 to the question of family formation, you must not apply it to believers who have a choice between whether or not to have children. Rather, you must apply it to those who would like to have children, but have not received them. You must read it as a chapter in which comfort is offered to all those to whom God has assigned the state of a childless marriage despite their fervent wish for children. The message of 1 Corinthians 7 is that they do not have to feel inferior. God makes them fruitful in his service, gives them an everlasting name and uses them in the growth of his church.

We conclude this section with a call for a collective reflection, within the framework described above, about the consequences of the ‘measure of 1990’ of the Dutch government. Its purpose is to drive childless women born after 1972 and women with children older than 12 into the workforce. Let us not capitulate too quickly to this measure, accept it fatalistically, or let ‘the theory’ be eroded by ‘practical reality’. In practice more things may prove to be possible that seemed likely in the political debate. Besides, there have been many adjustments to the policy, because practical necessity dictated it. God’s ordinances dovetail with practical reality more that politicians suspect.

The Blessing Of Children in the Old Testament🔗

As a result of the fall of man in paradise, life on earth was subjected to frustration (Rom 8:20), although not immediately and not totally. God tempered his curse for the sake of the continuation of his work in Christ. Human beings had to work very hard and the earth produced thorns and thistles. The woman was told that she would have difficult pregnancies and suffer painful childbirths. And human beings will ultimately return to the dust from which they were made (Gen 3:16-19).

After the fall life could develop in a meaningful way only ‘in Christ’. Apart from him, life ends in death and is ultimately vain and meaningless. Although the wicked spring up as grass, they will be forever destroyed (Ps 92:7; cf. Ps 37:1ff, 16ff). God can make their lives flourish and bless their work and make it serve the progress of his work. But the place of the wicked is actually insecure. You can’t see that when you focus on their temporary fortunes, but you can when you understand their final destiny (Ps 73:16-20). All the prosperity and refinement they enjoyed in life do not help them in the end. In death they are like the beasts that perish (Ps 49:12). Their way of life turns out to be empty (1 Pet 1:18). Even their thoughts are futile and their understanding is darkened (Eph 4:17, 18). Because of sin and God’s curse, their lives are ultimately meaningless and a chasing after the wind (Ecc. 1:14 and passim).

Only in the Lord is our labour not in vain (1 Cor 15:58). He redeemed us from the empty way of life of the world (1 Pet 1:18). That is why Psalm 128:1 says that everyone who fears the Lord and walks in his ways is blessed. He will, in the words of Psalm 128, and in contrast to the curse of Gen. 3:16-19, eat the fruit of his labour, his marriage will be harmonious, his wife will be like a fruitful vine, and his sons will be like olive shoots around his table. Psalm 128 shouts out with joy that in Christ the frustration of Genesis 3 has been overcome! In Christ life develops again in accordance with its original intention and is illuminated in its original splendour.

The Lord demonstrated that on more than one occasion in the old dispensation. For in the time that Israel was still a child, the Lord gave much visual instruction to his people. Among other things, he demonstrated his blessing by making women fruitful and granting many children.

That did not always happen. In the Old Testament we read also of destitute believers and of the prosperous wicked, and of righteous persons who are childless and enemies of God who have many children (1 Sam 1:2; Luke 1:6, 7).

In the new dispensation God’s people are no longer like an underage son and therefore God abandons visual instruction more and more. He no longer directs his people to the earthly security of his blessing, but to the Spiritual (note the capital letter) blessing itself.

The blessing of children meant a great deal to the Israelites. They did not expect the Messiah to be born of them, for they knew that he would be born of the tribe of Judah and of the house of David.

The Israelites also did not long for children because children would be so useful in times of trouble and when they became old. Their longing went much deeper. Behind the longing for children was God’s promise of Gen 3:15. According to God’s disposition, after the fall a tremendous struggle took place and still takes place between the woman and her offspring on the one hand and Satan and his adherents on the other. Every birth in the church means a (future) reinforcement of the ranks of God’s people. It is new ‘ammunition’. This is the background to Psalm 127:4, 5: ‘Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate’.

God promises victory to the offspring of the woman in that struggle between her offspring and the offspring of the serpent. It will crush the head of the serpent. Israel knew that that coup de grâce would be administered by the Messiah, to be born out of the tribe of Judah, out of the house of David. Every Israelite looked forward in great anticipation to his triumph. They all hoped that they would not only share in the triumph and enjoy the blessing of the Messianic kingdom, but also that they might take part in that triumph and the beginning of that kingdom. And if they themselves should die before then, they hoped that their descendants would in any event belong to the Lord’s victorious armies. The Israelites knew that they would share in the Messianic kingdom after the resurrection from the dead. But they wanted very much to be able to contribute, either themselves, or at least by their descendants to the Messiah’s triumph, and to experience the festive day. That is why they longed to have sons.

There was also another reason why children were greatly desired in Israel. Psalm 128 describes a woman who has many children as a fruitful vine.

A fruitful vine. That’s almost a redoubling of the image. In Israel there was no crop that received as much care and was as carefully cultivated as the vine. Because of the intensive care it received, it also produced much fruit and served as image of vigour and abundant fruitfulness.

A fruitful vine. It represents the height of fruitfulness. And the mother is compared to that peak. This means that especially in having children the Israelite recognized that the fruitlessness of Genesis 3 has been broken in the most pregnant way. For what gives more hope for the future and a perspective on motherhood than an expectant mother? She is the opposite of fruitlessness. The circle has been broken. There is a new perspective.

This is also indicated in the image of sons as olive shoots around the table in Psalm 128. An olive tree has enormous vitality. If it is cut down, the dormant buds of the trunk come to life, become new shoots, and form a garland along the circumference of the trunk. The psalmist compares a table surrounded by children to this image. When the tree is cut down, it does not cease to exist, but produces new life. So also, children give new perspective to your life. They continue your name and in them you continue to exist. That is why having children was so greatly important for an Israelite. Children break through the meaninglessness and the vanity of existence. In them you bear fruit on the earth that had been cursed with fruitlessness! Your name is not cut off (Isa 56:5), but it carried forward to the day of Christ.

Fruitfulness in the New Testament🔗

Clearly, receiving children constituted a rich blessing for the Israelite. Sons are a heritage from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is his reward (Ps 127:3 ESV). But does that apply to us too? Is the focus of Psalm 128 not almost exclusively that of the Old Testament?

It is true that the Lord does not always grant his blessing in this specific way anymore. A couple that is childless is not for that reason a couple that lacks blessing. Being blessed does not depend upon receiving and raising children, but upon faith in Jesus Christ. Although Christ does not give them children, he does bless the lives of singles and childless couples with radiance and brightness. And he does that, for example, by placing them in the family of his church (Ps 68:6). He gives them a name that is better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name that will not be cut off (Isa 56:5). Today we no longer have to hope that we will share in the dawn of the Messianic age through our children, for in Christ the Messianic age has dawned. He has already in principle conquered the serpent and his adherents. And we don’t have to experience his return in our children. When he returns on the clouds, we shall all, also those who have fallen asleep in him, experience that feast. On that day the Lord himself will open all the graves and will raise those who have died in him before he makes his glorious entry into the world. All of us, living and dead, will meet the Lord in the air, in a the twinkling of an eye and with festive shouts we shall welcome him on earth (1 Thess 4:13-18).

That is why in Christ the childless also have everything and lack nothing. To use the imagery of Psalms 127 and 128, those who did not receive children, may know that their quiver is filled with Christ. He is their vine too. He makes their lives fruitful and instrumental in the progress of his work. He makes them a model of life and the flowering of life. They are branches of his vine and even when he prunes them, it is so that they will bear more fruit (John 15:1-8). And the contribution they make to the building of the church has eternal significance (1 Cor 15:58).

Therefore, Psalm 128 does not describe the only way in which God’s children are blessed in the new dispensation. The Lord can also give us a happy and productive life in ways other than through a companionable family. God has blessed us with every possible spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3). But it is nonetheless true that a fruitful wife and a group of lively children are indeed a blessing of the Lord. They are a reward, an inheritance. It is indeed a blessing when the Lord makes us fruitful and allows us to have children for him (Gen 35:11; Ezek 36:11; 1 Tim 2:15; 5:14), children who do not shun the struggle against God’s great adversary. It is a marvellous thing when the Lord continues his covenant and builds his church throughout the generations (Acts 2:39; 1 Cor 7:14).

It is important that we keep reminding each other of these things in the church. We should not, in pity shake our head about growing families and make disparaging remarks such as: ‘that poor woman doesn’t have a life’, or ‘well, it makes them happy’. Instead we should support such families. Our society already disparages large families.

A Heritage From The Lord🔗

Children are a heritage from the Lord. They are a foretaste of the Messianic inheritance. The fruit of the womb is a reward. God uses the children of believers to build his church and to silence his great opponent (Ps 8:2; 127:4, 5). That determines how we should look at having children and at the desire to start a family. If instead we think of children as tying our hands and inhibiting or even preventing us from enjoying many fun things in life, we have sunk far below the standard that Scripture imposes on us in this context.

That is also the case if children become a social ‘must’ or a status symbol. They are a heritage from the Lord. That means that God’s people must make their decisions about starting a family in faith only. If you make your own desire for (more) children your focus, then you are no longer able to engage in Christian family formation. Indeed, then you can also not come to terms with potential childlessness.

We may also not think of receiving children in a legalistic or meritorious way. A text such as 1 Tim 2:15 (‘women will be saved through childbearing’) does not put a premium on having children and may not be interpreted in that sense. A large number of children is not conclusive, but whether husband and wife desire to make decisions about having children only in Christ. Christian family formation is also about thankful service.

Further, Christian family formation is a matter that cannot be undertaken without trust in the Lord. Children of believing parents are also God’s children (cf. Ezek 16:20, ‘your sons and daughters whom you bore to me’). We have Christ’s promise that no one can snatch his sheep out of his hand, so long as they continue to place their trust in him (John 10:27, 28; Rom 8:35-39). We can become distressed about the world in which our children are born, but it is the world over which God in Christ waves his sceptre. And we can have a firm confidence that all creatures are so completely in the hand of him who wants to be the heavenly Father of our children that without his will they cannot so much as move (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10, Question and Answer 28).

Official Task🔗

Scripture speaks about family formation in the context of office, the office to which human beings have been called. That means that we are not at liberty to think and speak about the topic as we wish. Indeed, the assumption that family formation is a matter that goes without saying is also excluded.

There is another consequence. The task is the task of human beings. It is not the task of the woman! Husband and wife are both involved in it and both are responsible for it. Therefore, they must speak about beginning a family together. A husband or wife may not force the other to have sexual relations, or to refuse to engage in them. They are obliged to perform their marital and affectionate duties to each other. Similarly, a husband or wife may not force the other to have children, nor prevent conception against the wishes of the other. In prayerful deliberation, they must make such decisions together.

Human beings have received the task, with God’s blessing, to be fruitful and increase in number, to fill the earth and subdue it, and to rule over the fish, the birds, and all the creatures that move on the ground (Gen 1:28). It is that task that governs family formation. Becoming numerous is not a goal of itself. God wants children to be born who are raised to fulfill their task as image of God. He does not want an earth filled with human beings, but an earth full of obedient children. He wants to have godly offspring (Mal 2:15); sons who have learnt to contend with their enemies in the gate (Ps 127:5); children who were taught to continue in faith, love, and holiness (1 Tim 2:15).

And so husband and wife are not finished when they generate and bear children. They must raise the children God entrusts to them as Christians who fear God. That too must have an important place in the discussions about starting a family. A couple should not ask themselves how many children they can have biologically speaking. Rather, their question should be: How many children can we raise in the power of the Holy Spirit?

For this purpose, an important principle is that the responsibility for the children you have received receives precedence over those you may perhaps yet receive. You need time and love for that after the birth of every child and you must make opportunity for it. This is especially true when a challenged child is born to a family. The parents must honestly consider the consequences of that and accept the accompanying task in faith. Until they do, it would irresponsible for others to urge them to enlarge their family further.

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