Is having kids essential to marriage?

As I’m writing this, it’s ten till seven on a Sunday morning. The kids are playing in loudly in their bedroom. I’m on my first cup of coffee and trying to get at least three hundred words written before making breakfast, showering, getting the kids ready for church, and heading out the door.

I opened the tab on my browser where I store pages that I’d like to read later and landed on a post from Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics Blog, “The fruitful callings of the childless by choice.”

The post asks its readers to reconsider how the church treats those who choose not to have children. The deeper question is whether or not procreation legitimates marriage. Is marriage compromised by not having children? 


The Scriptural basis of the church’s teaching on procreation is found at the very beginning of the Scriptural canon:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” {1:28)

This passage is commonly referred to as the cultural mandate. It contains God’s command to Adam and Eve that they should begin their stewardship of the world God had created a part of which is filling the world with their offspring.

It was (is) believed that this verse creates in humanity a duty to have children as a response to God’s command. In arguing that not all marriages exist for the purpose of creating offspring, Emily Timbol cites the work of James Brownson of Western Seminary (Bible, Gender, Sexuality). He notes,

The command to “be fruitful and multiply” is not given merely to the man and the woman. It is also given to the animals (Gen 1:22) and is thus not a directive given uniquely to human marriage. This in itself calls into question whether the essence of marriage is in view here…

Does this vitiate the force of Yahweh’s imperative in 1:28? Possibly. At the same time, however, an equally plausible explanation is that Yahweh is commanded his creation to act according to its (their) nature(s). Both humanity and the animals are told to procreate because animals and human beings are creative and procreative beings. In fact, it is only the advent of “reproductive technology” in the form of the pill and condoms that allows for the separation of copulation from procreation. Certainly humans have a higher degree of volition than any other sentient being, but even humans could not stop from being procreative beings until fairly recently.

I worry that somehow by separating the act of love-making from procreation we somehow are feeding the already present gnostic tendencies of our culture. This gnostic tendency is present in the very atmosphere of our culture. It elevates internal, spiritual, self-referential over the external, material, and extrinsic. In this view the truest thing about the world is a first person, self-referential statement.

Echoes of this may be found in the post. Even in our Christian (sub)culture a first-person statement is sacrosanct.  Timbol writes:

“My purpose is not determined by my ability or desire to reproduce.”

“When my husband and I think of our passions, we also see multiple things–-but kids don’t happen to be one of them.”

“While we do see children as a blessing, we see them as a blessing that God gives to some people, not all. Some people don’t have kids because they never marry. Some have to face heartbreaking infertility and can’t have children. And others might not have kids because God blessed them with passions and gifts that give them the same sense of fulfillment and joy that their friends get from their children. There is nothing wrong with finding your main purpose in being a parent and raising children. But there also is nothing wrong with finding your purpose in something else.”

This last excerpt vexes me. According to Timbol the primary reason for having children has to do with purpose, passion, fulfilment, and joy. The experience of these things validates the choice of whether or not to procreate even as it drives the choice of what career or hobby to undertake.

While I understand her choice of these words and have myself used similar words to describe what I want out of life, it does somehow seem superficial. True to form, the superficial is more often easily discernible in the lives of others rather than in our own. Yet the concern remains because as long as things like purpose, passion, fulfillment, and joy validate something like marriage or parenthood those institutions will always be susceptible to collapse in the absence of those things. Inevitably purpose will become diluted, passion will falter, and fulfillment give way to frustration.

While I am not yet to the point of saying that procreation is of the essence of marriage, it seems a necessary conclusion that the absence of children somehow alters a marriage and makes it something different than it otherwise would have been.

11 Replies to “Is having kids essential to marriage?”

  1. I believe that you have hit on something that is profound and significant as it concerns marriage and its correlate, parenting, particularly within a Christian consciousness. I too read the linked article with a bit of unease, for at base what she suggests is that personal fulfillment is the primary function of the marital sexual union, which effectively makes it exactly like sex outside of marriage. Indeed apart from the (inherent) possibility of childbearing– which is intrinsic to marriage — there is no reason for marriage to exist at all except as a means for sexual expression under a semblance of legitimacy.


  2. The hard question for me is what do you do with those that are infertile or too old to have children? Should they not marry? Or for many, they don’t know they are infertile until after marriage.

    For me, marriage is the essence of marriage. There are enough depths of relationship, sacrifice, and experience in marriage by itself to fulfill God’s purposes. Some marriages involved children, others don’t.


  3. Jeff, this sounds like a conversation my son and I had about “gnostic sex”, sex that isn’t physical enough because it tries to deny the physical realities of intimacy where the conception of children is a possibility. While I agree with Ed that child-bearing is not always possible in marriage and that this not the “essence” of marriage, we have the reverse situation in many marriages today, where child-bearing IS possible (in terms of fertility and the health of the couple) and where couples have decided not to be open to that possibility. I think it is right to ask what are the implications for our own character and for the marriage bond when we close off the possibility of children as one fruit of loving intimacy. Good post, Jeff!


  4. We actually discussed this with some friends last night. The potential for idolatry is there in both situations. Some couples risk idolizing having a child and may go to great lengths of stress, time, and expense to make that happen through pregnancy or adoption. There are also some reports of very bad unintended consequences in the adoption “market”, where there is so much demand that kids get trafficked or families get fooled into giving their kids up for adoption. Others can idolize their freedom and lack of children, choosing perhaps to travel a lot or spend their time or money on various things instead of having children.

    Others of us are stuck in between, unsure if we can or should have children, and afraid of the consequences of having kids or not having kids…


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