Marriage and Children: Idols?

Recently I was engaged in a discussion over on The Gospel Coalition about “child-free” marriages. The general thrust of the topic is that people who elect to be married but not have children are selfish and in sin (a pass is given if you are unable to have children). I realize this is a debatable topic among Christians, and I respect those who disagree with my position peacefully, but I believe that the decision to have children is a choice, like many others, in which we should seek the will of God. I laid out my reasoning many times in the comments if you dare dig through them, but essentially I believe this is another “bolted on to the Gospel” idea that is harmful to many people (especially when taken to the extreme view of “Quiverfull” that means you have as many children as nature/God allows).

But that’s not the thrust of what I’m writing about today. What concerns me is a comment from another person as we were discussing this topic. I’d specifically called out the plight of many singles in church who are treated like second class citizens because they are not married. This is related to the arguments regarding childless couples because I believe the church has turned marriage and children into an idol. Here is my original comment:

Every page of scripture drips with the truth of the Gospel, pointing toward or pointing back to the life of Jesus and what he did for us. By comparison, the scripture says very little about families and how they ought to be conducted, and even less about children’s place in them. The central person of our faith and the greatest evangelist/theologian in Christianity both remained unmarried and without children, further suggesting that marriage and child bearing are not central to what it means to be a Christian; yet those who are unmarried and/or without children find a difficult place in the church today.

The church needs to repent of this idolatry and re-focus back on the core mission: making disciples of all nations.

Here is her response:

. . . to suggest that those who urge married couples to keep to the procreative pattern that God created at the beginning of marriage are being idolatrous is kind of ludicrous, really.

This really bothers me. I completely understand that she and I are coming from different perspectives on what we believe is a “procreative pattern that God created”. She believes that marrying and having children is a prescriptive command from scripture and I do not. I can agree to disagree there. However, I think she goes too far by calling my position “kind of ludicrous”. By doing so, she’s declaring that family can never become an idol. The very idea is appalling in her mind.

So what about it? Can something like a family that is a sure blessing from the Lord become an idol? Can it become an idol to an entire evangelical subculture? I think it absolutely can. Not only can anything that is not God become an idol for us, I think Jesus DIRECTLY addresses this issue:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26, ESV)

Now just about everyone agrees that Jesus is not telling us to hate our spouses: if he meant that it would create a huge contradiction in scripture. What we generally understand him to mean is that he MUST come first. We must count the cost and be willing to put Jesus before absolutely everything, including our families. If we don’t, we are putting our families above Jesus; in other words, making them our idols.

But the second question is: have we done this? Are families idols in the evangelical world? This is a bit more debatable, especially since we’re talking about something as fuzzy as a trend. But I would come down on the side of “yes”.

In evangelical churches, talking about families is the norm, not singles. Events are structured around families, not those who are unmarried. If you are not married, it’s a little harder to fit in, and if you ARE married but don’t have kids, people are going to be asking when they are coming. The pressure is immense and intense. Is this true everywhere? No, and I can’t cite statistics, but I’d invite you to find the single adults in your church, or the adults without children, and ask them. Ask them if they feel included as a part of the community and welcome at church. If they are not, we are showing partiality, and that’s NOT a good place for the church to be.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9, ESV)

It’s true that in this passage James is talking about personal wealth, but clearly what is in view is not to set up divisions within the church. Single or married, children or not, we should feel welcome in the house of God. If we are not seeing singles over the age of 30 in our congregations, we are not doing a good enough job of “show no partiality”. All believers should feel welcome, without division and segregation.

I think in many cases, this segregation is not intentional. I believe many married Christians really do WANT singles to feel comfortable at church, but in many cases simply don’t know how to relate. I get it: people are busy, especially when there are children with sports, piano lessons, school, and a myriad of other things going on. It’s not an attack on singles, but mostly just a different world. But that’s the catch: if we are the body of Christ, our worlds should collide. We should be known by our love for one another. The single life and the married life may be very different, but we can find communion at the table of Christ. Yes, it takes being flexible and bending for people who aren’t quite like you. They are in a different place with different goals. You may not even like some of their choices. But the body of Christ isn’t about finding other people like us, but about finding other people who are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

I’ve heard that the church is a collection of families, but this simply isn’t true. The church is a collection of CHRISTIANS, brothers and sister of Jesus, adopted into the faith. Some of those believers are married, some are single. Some have children, others do not. But if they are in Jesus, they are beautiful in his sight. And that’s the key.

Folks, we can do better, and it starts by reaching out and tapping into lives of others, wherever they are in their journeys. And yes, the idea that we would place families above God should be “ludicrous”, but sadly it is the reality in many churches for many singles or childless couples. Please, let’s tear down those walls and realize that God is not only for the married with children, and that to truly come to him he must be first in our lives, above absolutely everything, even the greatest blessings he’s given us.


4 responses to “Marriage and Children: Idols?

  1. Frankly, I would call the idea that there’s something on earth that can’t become an idol, “kind of ludicrous.”

    I have two thoughts on the required childbearing thing. First, the command to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1 and 9, is always followed by “fill the earth.” Thus, it’s intimately connected with actively populating the world, which has clearly already been done since there’s now 6 billion of us and counting. So I’m not sure we’re obligated to reproduce at the same rates we were when trying to “fill the earth,” esp. since we’re actually starting to run into resource constraints now. (Of course many of these people don’t actually believe resource constraints are possible, but that’s a different topic.)

    Second, another fallacy at the heart of this discussion is that if something is good, more of it must be better – i.e., if children are a blessing from God, we should want as many of them as possible. Except when we apply this reasoning to other blessings, we immediately land in the realm of obvious sins. If we eat too much food, we’re committing gluttony. If we want too much wealth, we’re materialistic and greedy. If we drink too much alcohol, we’re drunkards (and that one’s actually excommunicable according to the NT). So basically, the Bible holds up moderation and balance as good things, and I’m not sure why people refuse to apply this to children too. So if you ever hear me refer to Quiverfull and militant fecundity as “child gluttony,” this is what I mean. I’m pretty firmly convinced this is a real thing, based partly on behavior I’ve seen in real life. The idea would NOT be well received in most churches though.


  2. Pingback: February 2014 Newsletter | Steady On

  3. I have felt this way as a single/divorced woman. Being divorced (for cause) makes me outcast enough. I do have adult children but they all live far away. Church events are built around families. Adult event nights are designed around married couples. Midweek in house Bible studies are ONLY for married couples. Where is there anything for single individuals. How do we meet other single Christians for fellowship and support when everything is designed around marriage and family.

    I have no problem with couples having or not having children. That is a personal decision between the people involved. I know people who choose not to have children and I know a young couple barely 30 years old who have 7. God said to populate the Earth. I think it is pretty well populated. Saying it is ludicrous not to have children is ludicrous. Why should other people stick there noses in where it really doesn’t belong.

    Living through an abusive marriage, it did become an idol. I was constantly wondering how I could do things better, how could I make him happier, how do I keep the kids quiet so he won’t blow. Nothing worked. It was only when I turned him over to the Lord and left that I truly felt peace. Jesus is #1. It was ludicrous having the husband above Christ and fearing to have it any other way. Praise God for his deliverance.


    • Thanks for commenting, Brenda.

      It’s very perceptive of you to identify how living through an abusive marriage can be idolatry. I think that absolutely can be (though universally) true; that is, some people remain longer than they ought because they’ve elevated marriage to a place God never intended it: above the individuals it was meant to bless.

      As far as Bible studies for couples and such; this is one way my church has really blessed me. They don’t have any “couples only” activities. The men’s group I go to has both married and single men in it. My worship pastor tells me this is one of the benefits of the church remaining small: that they are forced not to break off into fractured little groups of married and singles. I’m grateful for that- I know other singles do not fare as well in other churches.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s