Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Theological Roots of Family, Part Two: Parenthood

Parenthood has fallen on hard times in today's world.  Children are no longer a desired outcome of marriage.  One need look no further than the local grocery store and see how people respond to mothers with young children: they are rude to them, and impatient - if not downright mean.  The attitude is that children are in the way.  In an earlier generation, the saying might have been that children should be seen but not heard - today, the platitude is that they should be neither seen or heard.

What is particularly distressing about this is that it is not just a phenomenon unique to the West, it is worldwide.  In a very thought-provoking article, Kevin DeYoung (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2013/06/21/what-to-expect-when-no-ones-expecting/) shares the findings of Jonathan Last's book, What to Expect When No One's Expecting:
  1. In 1979, the world birth-rate was 6.0; today, it is 2.52.
  2. The U.S. birth rate is 1.93, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.  The frightening thing about this statistic is that the U.S. has the highest birth rate among all the Western nations.
  3. Actually, despite what the overpopulation doomsday prophets predict, it happens that only 3% of the world's population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining.
  4. Economically, this is disastrous.  Last quotes Mark Steyn as saying, "[T]here is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital."  Last comments, "Countries like Italy, Japan, and Russia - whose populations are rapidly contracting - are in big trouble."
There are many reasons given for this, ranging from the increase of women in the workplace to mandatory car seats and a general cultural discouragement against child-bearing.  However, what caught my eye was that one of the causes given was the decline in church attendance.  In other words, this study indicated that there is at least some correlation between faith and fertility.  As Last puts it, "There's only one good reason to go through the trouble [of having a baby] the second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to."

For those of us who believe that the Bible is the Word of God, this should not surprise us.  God created family, and so if you divorce the Creator from His institution, you will inevitably get confusion and disillusionment with this "family" idea, and try to replace marriage and children with other things.  That is exactly what is happening in our day.

One of the things that has characterized the Church throughout history has been its care to gladly affirm the institution of family, the holiness of marriage, and the blessing of children, in spite of cultural influences to the contrary.  In fact, in the early days of the Church, it was a common practice for pagans to expose their children to the elements.  It was also common for believers to rescue them. 

Unfortunately, it seems that many believers in the Church today have imbibed the cultural distaste for children and family.  We may protest against abortion and infanticide, but the fact is that the attitude behind such practices - the attitude that children are a burden - has been gaining ground in the hearts of even Christians.  It is therefore time for believers to once again affirm this precious institution.  To that end, I offer the following thoughts:

1.  Children should be desired by Christian married couples.  I struggled how to word this because I know that there are couples that simply can't have children, and they aren't to be blamed.  Also, there are couples who can have children, but whose circumstances are so extreme as to make having children a very unwise venture.  Furthermore, I am not claiming that we should all be like the Duggers and have as many children as possible.  Nevertheless, it is to short circuit Scripture to pretend that God really doesn't care if we don't care about having children.  Why?

First, it is a creation mandate.  In Genesis 1:27,28 (ESV), we read,
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.” 
 Second, children are a blessing from the Lord.  The Psalmist writes,
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one's youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127:3-5, ESV)
Would you refuse a gift from a wonderful, wise, and wealthy friend?  Yet we do this very thing if we deliberately choose not to have children.  God has offered you a gift - children - and perhaps you have refused it for other things (and usually, they are just that, things).

Third, the reasons for deliberately choosing to not have children are usually not Biblically motivated.  If my reason to not choose to be a father or mother is rooted in selfishness, it is simply wrong.  If the desire for things, or fancy vacations and fancy cars, or advancement at work is more important to you than children, something is wrong.

President Theodore Roosevelt spoke these words to such people in 1905 to the National Congress of Mothers:
There are many good people who are denied the supreme blessing of children, and for these we have the respect and sympathy always due to those who, from no fault of their own, are denied any of the other great blessings of life.
But the man or woman who deliberately foregoes theses blessings, whether from viciousness, coldness, shallow-heartedness, self-indulgence, or mere failure to appreciate aright the difference between the all-important and the unimportant–why such a creature merits contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle, or upon the man who refuses to work for the support of those dependent upon him, and who though able-bodied is yet content to eat in idleness the bread which others provide. (Quoted in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, 174-75)
 A wrong view of marriage could also be a reason for refusing to accept the gift of children.  Does God really intend for your love to your spouse to be bottled up in a childless home?  Consider the Trinity: God's love shared in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity overflowed outward in the creation of a world inhabited by beings made in his image, and who could therefore share in the glory and joy of the Trinity (cf. John 17).  It is hard not to see how this reality is reflected in the family.

2.  We should invest in our children.  A friend of mine is wont to say that 30 years ago, though people didn't stop having children, they stopped raising them.  We should raise our children, and that takes time, effort, and a lot of hard work.  Why should we do this?  Let me give you four reasons.

(1) They are given to us by God.  And God has not only given us a gift in children, he has also given us responsibility.  One of the "talents" God give parents are children - and we should expect to give an account of what we have done with them.  God doesn't give his gifts to trifle away.

(2) Children are precious in the sight of God
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. (Matthew 19:13-15, ESV) 
 They have souls, they are made in the image of God, and carry the potential for eternal life.

(3) Our children are our first and primary mission field.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV)
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4, ESV)
In fact, such a view of parenthood not only makes a missionary mindset, but is the best mindset to make missionaries!  Consider the happy testimony of missionary John G. Paton, who acknowledges over and over again in his autobiography the debt he owed to his father in spiritual things:
Though everything else in religion were by some unthinkable catastrophe to be swept out of memory, were blotted from my understanding, my soul would wander back to those early scenes, and shut itself up once again in that Sanctuary Closet, and, hearing still the echoes of those cries to God, would hurl back all doubt with the victorious appeal, "He walked with God, why may not I?" (Autobiography, p. 8)
By the way, this shows us what  we should invest in our children: the gospel.  We should want, above all things, that they will come to know, love, and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  We should think of our children as a mission field.  We should seek to win them to Christ instead of forcing religion down their throats.  We should understand there is a time commitment involved, and not give up when discouragements come.  The best gift we can give to our children is what Timothy's mother gave to him, 2 Tim. 3:15. 

This doesn't mean that we don't invest in other ways, or that we neglect their overall education.  In fact, I would argue that investing the gospel in our children is the greatest reason for educating them, for the Bible is a book, the revelation of God given to us in words and propositions, in arguments, in story and song, in history and poetry.  Here is a full argument for teaching our children history, the arts, science and mathematics!

(4) But perhaps the greatest reason to invest in our children, why we should pour our time, resources into our children for the gospel, is that the Godly family is a picture of what the gospel brings to the believing sinner - a relationship with God as Father, with Christ as his Son, and with a family made up of a redeemed humanity, adopted into the family of God (cf. Rom. 8:15-17; Eph. 2:19).

How can we preach the gospel to our children - or to anyone else? - and tell them that God will receive them as a Father, in Christ, if our portrayal of parenthood has been one of harshness, impatience, rudeness, hardness, thoughtlessness?  What does this tell them about God?  About the gospel?  What if a child has a father who does not know "how to give good gifts to his children"?

I'm not saying the Holy Spirit can't reach people in broken homes.  He certainly does.  Yet, we should not use the sovereignty of the Spirit as an excuse for our poor preaching of the gospel in our families.

For these reasons, I think it is high time for the Christian church to reclaim a high view of the family, of marriage, of children.  They are the very gifts of God himself.  They are pictures of how God relates to us, and of the gospel.  Let us value them and go to God and his Word for wisdom, direction, grace and help.

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