Is this the best long-term church growth strategy?

There are three questions which come up in relation to the growth of religious movements, particularly the Christian faith. How would you answer each of these?

a. Why is Islam growing in the UK and in the world at the moment?

b. What was the primary reason for the growth of the early church?

c. Why in the West do conservative churches generally resist the decline that affects more liberal ones?

Now these are big questions, and the answers are bound to be complex. But generally in answer to (a) most people will reach for an explanation around the rise of fundamentalism and a global rejection of Western liberal values. In answer to (b) many will think about the cultural and religious distinctiveness of the early Christian movement, and its appeal in relation to the cruelty and fatalism of much pagan religion. And in answer to (c) many will reach for ideas of commitment and discipleship which resist the corrosion of modern individualist and consumerist culture.

But there is a good case to be made that all three have the same explanation: childbirth.


Let’s consider Islam. Although the Muslim population is set to increase because of immigration, a much more powerful longer-term factor is differential rates of childbirth compared with the indigenous UK population.

The Muslim population of the UK is set to triple in 30 years, according to projections from the Pew Research Centre. Under the model which assumes median migration levels, the number of Muslims in the country would rise from 4.1m in 2016 to 13m in 2050. It said the research followed a “record influx of asylum seekers fleeing conflicts in Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries”.

The UK also has one of the largest gaps in fertility rates between Muslims and non-Muslims, with Muslim women having an average of 2.9 children compared to the 1.8 had by non-Muslims. This means that even if migration were to stop completely, the group’s population share would rise by more than 3 per cent in the UK, as well as in France, Italy, and Belgium.

In contrast to growth through migration and birthrates, only 2.9% of UK Muslims consider themselves to be ‘converts’. The same is true globally; the primary reason why Islam is growing around the world is that predominantly Muslim countries have a lower average age and higher fertility rate than non-Muslim countries.

In 2006, countries with a Muslim majority had an average population growth rate of 1.8% per year (when weighted by percentage Muslim and population size). This compares with a world population growth rate of 1.1% per year. As of 2011, it was predicted that the world’s Muslim population will grow twice as fast as non-Muslims over the next 20 years. By 2030, Muslims will make up more than a quarter of the global population.

Secondly, what about the early Christian movement? Rodney Stark, in his The Rise of Christianity, offers some fascinating analysis of what we can discern about the way in which growth happened, including the nature of their message, the integrity communicated by martyrdom, and the difference that care and compassion made when disaster struck, especially in the form of plagues. But childbirth is a significant contributor. Tim Chester, in his critical review, summarises:

Chapters four and five are more compelling. But what is striking about these chapters is they offer more historical evidence, both from Christian and pagan sources. Here Stark argues that Christianity grew because of its response to epidemics (more of this below) and because it gave women higher status and produced higher fertility rates. Men outnumbered women in the Roman empire, largely due to female infanticide and mortality during abortions. In the church, however, women outnumbered men because Christians rejected infanticide and abortion, and because more women converted. (Stark provides plenty of compelling historical evidence of these claims.) As a result, fertility rates among Christians were higher, contributing to an increase in the proportion of Christians in empire.

It is interesting to note here that ‘women outnumbering men’ has often been seen as a challenge to the church, with concerns about potential feminisation of church culture and the possible implications of that. But as Stark points out, it is women who have children (!), and if those children grow up in the faith, then that will have a significant impact on intergenerational church growth.


Thirdly, why have conservative churches generally been better at resisting decline than liberal churches in the West, including the UK? I would want to argue on several fronts: those who proclaim a faith that is more distinctive from surrounding culture actually have a message which might draw people; there is strength in drawing people together with a shared belief; consistency provides a welcome refuge from the unending changes and challenges of the world around; and the message might actually be true! Deep down, people are drawn to what they perceive is true. So I was rather taken aback to read Steve Bruce’s argument about the power of social-scientific research in relation to religious belief, to promote his book summarising a lifetime of such work Researching Religion: why we need social science. He begins with challenging some fondly-held beliefs:

Consider four common assertions about religion in Britain.

  • People become more religious as they get older because their approach to death makes them mindful of their souls.
  • Wars and other social crises provoke religious revivals.
  • Religion is not declining; it is just changing its shape. Traditional Christian churches may be in trouble but Pentecostal, charismatic and independent evangelical churches are recruiting the religiously indifferent and the New Age spirituality milieu is attracting large numbers of seekers.
  • The British have stopped belonging to churches but they are still believing. What has declined is not religious sentiment but the willingness of people to associate.

Each of these assertions sounds plausible and might well be true. We could draw on our own experience, on biographies, or on small-scale ethnographic studies to demonstrate their validity.

They are actually false. And we can prove that with large-scale statistical data.

In amongst the assumptions he challenges are the ones about conservative churches resisting decline.

I began my career as an ethnographer, scornful of conventional social science and rude about statistics. I only gradually converted as I repeatedly made mistakes. To explain just one, I and many others spent a good part of the 1980s arguing about why conservative churches were growing while liberal ones were declining. We debated just which features of ‘strong’ religion explained its appeal. Turned out we were wasting our time. Demographers demonstrated that the most significant difference between conservative and liberal Protestantism was not their relative appeal to the unGodly but the typical family size of existing adherents. Conservatives had more children. Even if both sides had been equally good at recruiting their own children, the liberals would have declined faster. An ethnographer who studied a conservative and a liberal church might just have spotted that (though none did!) but it took the statistical analysis of large-scale data sets to show we were not just barking up the wrong tree but barking in the wrong forest.

That is not to suggest that the other factors are completely unimportant in contributing to church growth (after all, the big ‘if’ here is ‘if both sides had been equally good at recruiting their own children’ and there are all sorts of factors at play here), but that rates of childbirth and family size are significant—and usually feature nowhere in the discussion.

So it appears that, from the contemporary growth of Islam, from the historical growth of the early church, and from recent experience in Western culture, one of the best long-term strategies for church growth is to encourage Christians to marry and have children, and have more than average.


There are a number of serious objections to adopting this as a church growth strategy.

The feminist objection argues that focussing on childbirth affects women more than men, and taking this approach will push us back into a patriarchal culture in which inequality between the sexes grows again. Taking time off to have children is in fact the biggest factor in the so-called ‘gender pay gap’—but what if women do actually want to have children? In what way is it ‘feminist’ to deny them this—or create a culture in which they have the double pressure of parenting and working, rather than being rewarded for taking time off for the family? And why do we assume that fathers should not also be involved? We had three children, and my wife continued as a partner in her GP medical practice because I worked part-time from home and her parents also provided support.

The pastoral objection is that many churches already focus too much on the nuclear family, to the point of appearing to proclaim salvation by childbirth and parenting, in which the single, the infertile, and the divorced are hurt and marginalised. I think that is a serious danger, and needs to be addressed at every point.

The environmental objection is that there are already too many people in the world, and we are destroying the planet by exhausting its resources. If anything we should be having fewer children, not more. But that simple claim omits four important facts. First, as the late Hans Rosling graphically illustrated, population growth is primarily caused at present by the bulge in young people, and this settles down as populations escape poverty, so that the global population is already set to level off. Secondly, Western countries already face a major challenge in their declining fertility and declining indigenous population, which will lead to the demographic ‘time bomb’ of an elderly population with insufficient resources in the working population to support them. Why would we want to contribute to that problem? Thirdly, the primary issue in population is the differential rates of population growth around the world. And finally, if we all cut our eating of meat, and were more vegetarian, many of the resource challenges would be dealt with.

Fourthly, there is the theological objection. Where there is death, there needs to be marriage and procreation, since there is no other way to preserve one’s name for posterity. This is the theological and anthropological assumption behind the first commandment that we find in the Bible:

So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1.27–28)

But for Christian, we are living under the (re)new(ed) covenant in Jesus. We worship a single saviour, and the apostle who wrote much of the New Testament was also single. Our new task is not simply to procreate, but to evangelise; our new family is not simply those we are related to by blood, but those we are related to by discipleship; growth comes less by having physically children, but by having spiritual children, which explains some of the extraordinary language in the New Testament.

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12.48–50)

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you… (Gal 4.19)

To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. (1 Tim 1.2)

But the reality is that we are not simply inhabitants of the age to come; we are also at the same time inhabitants of this age. So, although we live under the dynamics of the kingdom of God, we also continue to live under the dynamics of the created world. We are not yet completely free from the obligations set out in the creation narrative. Only when there is no more death will there be no more marriage and procreation.


So what would it look like to adopt this church growth strategy?

First, it would require explicitly countering our cultural narrative that we find fulfilment in success, in career development, and in the acquisition of stuff. As Will Jones points out, there are all sorts of cultural reasons behind the decline in family and childbirth in Western culture. But for me, the main ones are around the fact that having children is expensive and inconvenient if your goal in life is material prosperity.

Secondly, it would need positive teaching about the value and reward inherent in Christian teaching about family and sexuality. This would need to include teaching on the importance of parenting for both men and women.

Thirdly, it would need an essential both/and approach in relation to questions of family, singleness, and the healing of broken relationships. We live in the overlap of the ages, so family and parenting is important and to be valued, as is singleness. It is worth noting that having families has in the past been highly valued within Christian discipleship, but so has the example of singleness modelled in mission and leadership (think John Stott).

Fourthly, we need to provide for non-Christian spouses of Christians, and in particular for non-Christian men of Christian women in a positive and open way.

Fifthly, it would need to include a strategy of reaching young people in their teens and twenties, perhaps through culture change in the church effected by church planting. I find it curious to talk about ‘attracting children to church’, when in fact it is not children who bring themselves. Our churches will be full of children if and when there are young people in our congregations who get married and have families. That is how it has mostly happened in the past.

Sixthly, we need to take seriously the challenge of parenting through adoption, as exemplified by the remarkable work of Krish Kandiah and Home for Good (as well as others).

Seventhly, we need to provide patterns of discipleship for children which are integrated with, rather than disconnected from, family life. This is the best way to encourage children to grow in their faith.

However it happens, this doesn’t appear to be optional if we want to see the church grow again. There is even a name for it in the church growth literature: biological growth. The evidence strongly suggests that the future belongs to whoever takes this seriously.

You might want to raise further objections, or suggest other things that are needed. Fire away in the comments!


Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.


Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

109 thoughts on “Is this the best long-term church growth strategy?”

  1. Jesus said: “I will make you fishers of men” there’s a good strategic reason for that (who’d have guessed?!). Target men with the gospel and they will bring their wives and children to church. Target women and they’ll bring their children. (Gross over-simplification, but you get my point, I hope.) Churches which are growing spiritually and numerically appeal to men.

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      You quote Jesus (e.g. Matt 4.19) about “fishers of men”. The word in the Greek is (the plural of) ‘anthropos’, which can refer to both male and female. Hence the NIV ““Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

      However, your point is a good one. Actually, churches often target the children, in providing places for, e.g., mums and toddlers, to reach the mums through the children.

      A long time ago at Spring Harvest I heard a talk by an army chaplain who said that he reached people the same way as Jesus in reaching out to the men first.

      Having said this, Rodney Stark (him again) does say that a factor in the rise of Christianity is that women were the primary converts, and their men then became secondary converts.

      • Hi David…and Elizabeth,

        I’m pretty sure that Michael Bottings book “Reaching the Families”, published in the 1970s (?) covered this and had some statistical evidence. I don’t recall it being detailed but it was, essentially, that targeting the men brought the “better” numerical result. Certainly the statistical conclusion I recall was that targeting children brought a very poor long-term harvest.

        It was probably subconsciously influenced by the social norms of the day regarding men/women as keys to evangelism door.

        • As I note at the end, the really odd thing about the strategy of ‘targeting children’ is that children don’t bring themselves!

          I struck me like a thunderbolt to realise that, if you want children in the church, then you should target young people who will be getting married soon…who might then bring their children. I suspect that is how it has always worked in the past…

  2. How about adopting ‘unwanted’ children to model God’s adoption of us in Christ, and out of pure love for the kids themselves rather than seeking to procreate just to fill the world with more Christians and bigger churches?

    • But where, these days, are you going to find an adoption agency which doesn’t rule out conservative Christians as suitale adoptive parents?

          • A couple of things. First, in terms of the link you post, there will (by necessity) be a lot we don’t know so it’s hard to comment on specifics. Second, as I said above, it wasn’t an issue for us – and nor has it been an issue for anyone I know who’s adopted/fostered (and I know a lot of people in that position). Third, it’s not really a substantive response to the idea as an alternative to the rather strange one Ian is suggesting.

          • Second, as I said above, it wasn’t an issue for us – and nor has it been an issue for anyone I know who’s adopted/fostered (and I know a lot of people in that position).

            The website linked to by your name suggests you don’t live in England; could things be very different where you live? I can well imagine that the anti-Christian animus among the social work professions is particularly pronounced in England and Scotland.

          • David,

            Thanks for the comment about adoption. I had meant to include a line about that, and have added it in as an edit.

            But I think you will need to explain your comment that mine is a ‘strange’ suggestion. As a matter of fact biological growth was a major contributor to the growth of the church in its period of fastest development; as a matter of fact other religious groups are growing and gaining influence in the world in this way; as a matter of fact family life was seen as distinctively important in the early Christian communities, as testified by the NT; as a matter of fact, we are in an odd period of history in the West where we seem to pay so little attention to this, in contrast to many cultures in the world and in contrast to the Church in previous generations.

            So why is my proposal ‘strange’?

        • David…I’m still puzzled by your calling S response “strange”. It sounded dismissive…it may not have been meant that way.

          My only point was/is that some people have been ruled out by their conservative convictions. It’s a truth observed. Whether or not it’s common is another issue, as are the details.

          I’m glad it was not so for you.

          • I don’t see what’s dismissive about saying something is strange when I find it … strange. S’s response doesn’t engage substantively with my point. Nor has Ian Paul.

        • S – regarding your 2nd comment below (I can’t seem to reply directly); I’m not based in the UK at the moment, but I am British and am connected to many British evangelicals who are fostering and adopting in the UK, both now and over the years. I’ve never met or come across anyone who has been excluded from adoption for those reasons (there may be other issues that we are, as I said, unaware of that mean someone isn’t allowed to adopt). I also know a good number of evangelicals in social work in the UK who do not believe there is an anti-Christian biased.

          • DM…so going on the offensive ?

            “I don’t see what’s dismissive about saying something is strange when I find it … strange. S’s response doesn’t engage substantively with my point. Nor has Ian Paul.

            1. It’s strange that you seem only to count as evidence your own experience when, evidentially, there’s evidence to counter it. There’s nothing new in this.

            2. The blog was posted today…I expect Ian Paul might do other things now and again. It’s strange to me that you seem to believe he’s delaying or avoiding.

            3. But I’m not clear that there is much of a point to engage with. Seriously, reading the blog, how do you reduce the article to “more Christians and bigger churches” ? That’s strange.

            4. Well done on the adopting though. I have friends who are terrific in this caring.
            ?

          • Ian, please read my point carefully. I’m not going on the offensive. I’m pointing out that with extensive experience in this area I’ve not received or heard or read irrefutable evidence that people have been excluded from adoptions solely (that’s the key word) because of conservative Christian views on adoption. I didn’t say Ian Paul was delaying or avoiding: I just pointed out he hadn’t replied (please assume the best in what I actually say, rather than read into it what I don’t say). And on point 3 … because, well, that’s the point of the article, it seems to me. It’s a very strange – at the kindest interpretation – thought experiment (if that’s what it is).

          • I think you might get an authoritative answer to this from Krish Kandiah founder of ‘Homes for Good’. I’ve not heard him suggest there is a problem with British evangelicals being rejected for that reason.

            Of course being rejected is going to be very hard and so the people who are rejected will look for reasons. They are likely to be complex and difficult to explain to people.

            There are elements within conservative evangelicalism that have built up, what I believe is an unhealthy narrative of being discriminated against. There are those who would therefore jump to that assumption (and those who would ascribe it as having happened to others) as it is easier for them to accept than anything in them and because it fits this narrative.

            Of course I cannot rule out it being true in a very few cases.

      • I would think that if word got out to the agencies that Christians were adopting or fostering in order to get the children into the Church, then the doors would quickly close, even if they are not closed now.

  3. You say:

    “It is interesting to note here that ‘women outnumbering men’ has often been seen as a challenge to the church, with concerns about potential feminisation of church culture and the possible implications of that. But as Stark points out, it is women who have children (!), and if those children grow up in the faith, then that will have a significant impact on intergenerational church growth.”

    Can I ask you to clarify, are you suggesting Christian polygamy (where the fewer numbers of Christian men would be able to impregnate more women), or sex outside of marriage (where single Christian women could go and get themselves pregnant outside of the Christian community), or marriage to non-Christians, on the condition that children are raised Christian (which would seem to be in contradiction to 2 Cor 6:14)?

    • Stark points out that exogamous marriage (marrying outside the Christian group) was a consistent feature of the early church, necessitated by the proportions of men and women, and that this was a significant statistical element of church growth.

      I have been nurtured in a context which, on the basis of 2 Cor 6.14, argues against exogamous marriage, but I am not sure that is a good strategy, and it needs rethinking.

      • I remember that teaching in my own teenage Church – that you should only ever date Christians, let alone marry them. I’ve never forgotten the graphic illustration in the youth group where somebody was asked to stand on a low table and pull another club member up: the one on the ground was then asked to pull the other one down. Our sinful nature apparently and inevitably plays the role of gravity – and it didn’t need a detailed exposition to know what fallen urge was *really* meant…
        The fact that such a relationship, in the free-love heat of the early Seventies, meant either celibacy or hypocrisy rendered the instruction as futile as you might expect among hormonal teens – and utterly off-putting to any outsider or potential convert who might have fancied one of us enough to “come and see”. I don’t think many of us managed to find another Christian to marry from that day to this – which might bear out some of your workings above on both conversion rates and births!

      • Firstly, 1 Cor 7.39 seems to rule out exogamous marriage. If it does, then it doesn’t matter whether it might seem good strategically or not.

        Secondly, I acknowledge this is only anecdotal (though how would you get reliable stats on this), although I have heard the same thing from many pastor-teachers, that the most significant cause for people to turn away from Christ is dating a non-Christian. That is of course not to undermine many Christians I know who are persevering with Christ whilst in an exogamous marriage.

        Thirdly, I recall seeing statistics of church attendance of exogamous marriages: the majority of non-believing spouses don’t attend church, which has significant knock-on effects for the attendance and subsequent profession or not of their children.

      • Thanks Ian, that’s helpful. I think my discomfort with considering producing more human lives as ‘strategy’ also extends to considering marriages a ‘strategy’, however worthy the cause might be.

        For me, there’s a number of factors and a lot at stake for Christians and non-Christians who choose to marry, and I wouldn’t read 2 Cor 6:14 as a blanket ban either. For some couples, it clearly works well and brings great joy. But it also seems unwise to actively promote – purely for the sake of childbearing for numerical growth – marriages which for some people come with myriad issues to navigate, which are brought all the more sharply into focus by having and raising children.

        • Thanks–but I am not sure that I want to talk of ‘strategy’ in such a reductive way.

          Would it help to put it like this: ‘Family life, marriage and parenting has always been an important part of Christian life, teaching and discipleship. As a church in the West, we appear to be reflecting our culture in not attending to this; and this will have a negative impact on future church growth. We need to address it’.

      • I think that counsel against exogamous marriage is, or should be, based on a lot more than one proof text! If I was going to reach for a ‘proof’ text, though the first I’d think of would be 1 Cor 7:12-16 – ok, I know it’s a chapter over which much ink has been spilled but it seems very clear to me that this particular bit is addressed to believers who have become believers while married to unbelievers. It only makes sense if the underlying assumption is that believers should not choose to marry unbelievers on the grounds of holiness. Right through scripture the theme of God’s holiness is clear and his people are called to be holy. If I am ‘in Christ’ I am not my own but I belong to him. I don’t see how I can give myself in marriage to someone who doesn’t acknowledge that Jesus is Lord without compromising that. Flowing out from that would be issues about how a couple spend their money, their time, how they bring up their children. I’m sure these are contentious issues at the best of times but surely a Christian couple would start out agreeing that all their resources are from God and ultimately belong to him and would be united in praying for their children and desiring to see them grow into mature believers. Incidentally, while we’re talking statistics, I have seen it reported that statistics suggest that children whose fathers don’t go to church are less likely to go on to be churchgoers than others which would suggest caution before suggesting christian women marry outside the faith as a means to church growth…

        • I agree with all that. But the gender disparity is a real problem for many young women in search of a husband. Do you think any who can’t find a Christian man should stay single?

          • Hi Will, yes I do – short answer!! I am aware that that is costly. I’m single myself and conscious of the gender disparity. As I said I feel the issue is holiness and, I guess, faithfulness – as a Christian and part of the body of Christ in a very real sense I am engaged to Christ. Holiness is costly but I can never pay a price that comes close to the price Jesus paid to make me holy. Also I am conscious that I have a freedom to live as a single woman that many women in other cultural contexts don’t have. Additionally as someone who believes that the Bible is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman I think it would be a bit rich of me to suggest that holiness for my brothers and sisters who are not opposite sex attracted involves saying no to same sex marriage but that because I find men attractive the call to holiness doesn’t really apply to my decision whether or not to marry.

          • As the father of two daughters, I think that is a problematic solution.

            We need to think much more about the tension between ‘creation’ mandates and ‘covenant’ mandates.

            Covenant might counsel such women to stay single. But creation urges marriage, and I think is manifested in the desire of many to marry and have children.

            I would much rather we ask some questions about church culture, teaching and ethos which makes church less congenial to those on the margins, including husbands of Christian women. What would it take to change that?

          • Hi Ian,

            I agree heartily when you say we should “ask some questions about church culture, teaching and ethos which makes church less congenial to those on the margins, including husbands of Christian women. What would it take to change that?” I would love to see more men in church. I don’t doubt in any way that the desire for marriage and children is good and right. I can’t see, however, that in the absence of a godly choice of husband a woman should marry someone who is not under the lordship of Christ in order to fulfil the creation mandate. I’m not saying staying single is a solution to the problem of the gender disparity in church but I am saying that if there is no godly choice of husband a woman should remain single and the church should be supporting those women well and should be reaching out with the good news to men, women and children and looking to address under reached groups including young men.

          • Thanks Elizabeth. I still think there is a difficult. Here are the factors.

            1. Christianity has *always* had more women than men.

            2. The early church appeared to think that exogamous marriage was the solution to this.

            3. This contributed significantly to church growth.

            4. The prohibition on this is based on few verses.

            5. Our nervousness about this is because much church culture is not very amenable to men on the fringes *who might stay on the fringes*.

            I guess I am not convinced that simply staying with point 4 is the way to go on this…!

            I don’t think that this need undermine the embrace of singleness. But in the light of the above the prohibition on exogamous marriage has to bear a lot of weight..and I am not quite convinced that it can do that.

        • I also agree with your comment, Elizabeth. I have known both men and women who have married ‘out’, and very often there is at best a real heartache and at worst it proves detrimental to either the marriage or the Christian’s faith.

          I can remember a good friend at my previous church who announced that her husband wanted to divorce her after 20 years of marriage, basically because she was a Christian. I can hear her saying, “nobody told me that I should not marry a non-Christian.”

      • Do you know if this would this have been marriage by choice, or might it have been (possibly non Christian) parental choice? I’d also love to know if the evidence differentiates between those who married a non Christian after conversion, and those who became a Christian after marriage.

  4. If by church growth we are thinking not of saving lost souls but bringing more human beings to life, is (such) church growth an *intrinsic* good (the merits of a higher birth rate in Europe etc etc notwithstanding)? Would a church that was keen to evangelize but declining on the basis of birth rates be a bad thing?

    • Thanks Patrick; that is an interesting question which was also asked in a Twitter discussion.

      First ‘is (such) church growth an *intrinsic* good?’ I think it is possible to say ‘yes’ to that. Churches which are growing, even by biological growth, are (in principle) growing as a proportion of the population, increasing Christian influence in culture, nurturing more people who will bless their communities, and raising up more who can share their faith.

      ‘Would a church that was keen to evangelize but declining on the basis of birth rates be a bad thing?’ No–but why would it? Why is it either/or? I have nowhere suggesting biological growth as an *alternative* to conversion growth, but as a supplement to it…and historically a vitally important one that we are in danger now of missing out on.

  5. Just a couple of thoughts, raising children in the faith where ones partner is either a ‘not yet believer’ or is actively antagonistic to the faith is not an easy situation to be in, it is no more likely to produce children who become steadfast believers than if a couple with faith raise children. I have many friends in both situations whose children have walked away from Christianity.
    Secondly, if we truly believe in family being the place of Christian Formation we need to do more than just ‘talk it’. Unfortunately the real world which we inhabit necessitates that both mums and dads work, not for the mere gathering of ‘stuff’ but to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. So what might church ‘investment’ look like if we believe that parents should raise their children together in faith? Pay rent, provide meals or free childcare? I ask these questions seriously, because I believe in intergenerational ministry. Unfortunately my experience as a mum with kids in church has been more ‘please keep them quiet’ than, ‘how can we help you?’

    • Pauline, thanks for commenting.

      ‘Unfortunately the real world which we inhabit necessitates that both mums and dads work, not for the mere gathering of ‘stuff’ but to put a roof over their heads and food on the table.’ For society as a whole I am not convinced that is actually the case.

      I know many Christians who have seen child-raising as important, and in order to do that have taken a cut in their standard of living by not having both parents working full time. In our household we are relatively well off, but we are a lot less well off than our peers in similar occupations, precisely because we have made decisions about pressure, lifestyle and family. For much of our married life we have actually been involved in some form of community living, which is actually economically much more efficient, and it has meant benefitting from things we might have otherwise missed out on.

      I don’t think this question can be divorced from wider issues of radical lifestyle. I was influenced by Ron Sider and Richard Foster–but it is ironic that, as we have become richer as a whole in the West, the Christian interest in radical living and simplicity appears to have died away. I am not sure why.

      • Unfortunately Ian, for those in low paid work the option of not working isn’t there if they would rather not live on benefits. Like you, Frank and I were able to make a choice when we had children, I did bank nursing on nights when Frank was home to be with the children. But he was a police officer. My daughter is now working part time after trying to be a mum at home, which she loved. Reality was that they struggled to pay bills and feed the family. They are not ‘stuff ‘ people, their furniture is all charity shop and hand downs. Life is complex.
        However; the earlier comments about the churches lack of real thought and consideration about ministering with and to families is hugely important. So many people recognise the need for this ministry and yet it is frequently sidelined, under funded and ignored.
        Family Ministry is messy, like families are and so often the Church wants order. I worked for many years developing a Family Ministry Strategy and resources for a Christian organisation, so that there were ideas available to families and churches but when there were cuts, it was the first thing to go. It’s hard to package this sort of work and even harder to break thro the barriers of what Church looks like when you work together as family amongst and with families, even writing it is messy!!!

  6. To clarify my comments above, I find this article at the least bizarre; at words disturbing. Having children – be it biologically or through fostering/adoption – as a church growth strategy is not loving to the child (nor is it is especially effective – children take years to grow up, and may well decide against faith as a result of being born in order to grow a church). It’s a peculiar idea; one that seems in danger of reducing women to baby machines (dismissed by Ian as ‘the feminist objection’). I’d be laughing at its absurdity if Margaret Atwood hadn’t prophesied this in 1985.

    • Hi David,
      I have significant sympathy with your comment. “Our strategy is to out-breed the opposition.”

      I first became aware of some of the reasons for the low birthrate in Western countries 25 years ago as a result of a conversation at the sailing club with a sociologist (read Will Jones’ article which Ian links). Basically, children are expensive and time-consuming, which conflicts with our materialistic, consumer oriented society.

      Perhaps we should start with a greater emphasis on the deficiencies of our surrounding culture, and seek to model the alternative in our church communities. Then, amongst the benefits of this, we might bring more children into the world, but as a consequence of our strategy, rather than its aim.

      As someone who married for the first time very late, I would also say that this community building answers Ian’s pastoral objection. This kind of community includes and honours single people as much as the married.

    • David, I am really interested in your response here. I repeat what I say above in relation to another comment of yours:

      As a matter of fact biological growth was a major contributor to the growth of the church in its period of fastest development; as a matter of fact other religious groups are growing and gaining influence in the world in this way; as a matter of fact family life was seen as distinctively important in the early Christian communities, as testified by the NT; as a matter of fact, we are in an odd period of history in the West where we seem to pay so little attention to this, in contrast to many cultures in the world and in contrast to the Church in previous generations.

      I think I would go further and note that in Romans 1 to 4, Paul contrasts the bodily fruitlessness of pagan culture with the bodily fruitfulness of Abraham and Sarah resulting from their faith in God. In the light of Stark’s fairly robust analysis noting that it was the distinctive, symmetrical and child-protecting sexual ethic of Christians that led to greater fertility, I don’t think the early Christians would have been surprised by this.

      I don’t think that it would be going too far to offer a theological reading of contemporary culture in this way: we have sought the fruitfulness of the earth through a humanist industrialising of agriculture, and the result is heading towards sterility with the extinction of so many forms of life. And we have sought the fruitfulness of abundant life by material prosperity, and it is resulting (for us as a culture) in sterility of family life, and birthrates below ‘replacement level’.

      Important note: I am not applying this to individuals, to suggest that the inability to conceive is a judgement. But Christian marriage, as consistently understood, includes within it the expectation of having children as a normal outworking of the blessing and fruitfulness that comes as a gift of God.

      • Thanks Ian (I can’t seem to reply directly to your other comment, so I’ll just do so here). I’m not denying that the early church seemed to grow through population growth – but I just can’t see a justification for seeing this as a deliberate approach to church growth. If couples have children, then they have children – and receive them as a gift from God.

        But I see your proposal as ‘strange’ because, simply put, the purpose of having children is not , surely, as part of some strategy to out-breed other religions, but as an expression of love . Children are not building blocks in a strategy, but individuals made in the image of God, who (after a number of years) are free to reject or accept the Gospel. If they find they’ve been born so they can grow a church, I rather suspect they’re likely to turn their back on the church. I’d far rather see adoption (thanks for adding that line) as a 1st option for Christians seeking to have children – an agenda free adoption rather than part of a desire to swell church numbers or ‘Christian’ population through biological birth (which is not necessarily, in my view, the same as Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples’). Our adoptive children (it was our 1st choice, not a fall-back) do not (in 2 out of 3 cases) come to church, for different reasons. But we didn’t adopt them to ‘grow the church’ or the Christian population in the city, but out of love for them. Their choice regarding faith and how they express is up to them.

        Equally, I see your proposal as strange because it does seem to be at risk of reducing marriage in general and women in particular to being baby-producing machines; I know you’ve been dealing with this objection on Twitter, but I’m concerned by your surprise at the strength of some of the reactions to it. This is a serious pastoral and theological issue – there is more to marriage, and women particularly, than having children. Children are not the purpose of marriage, but a blessing that (may) come from it (in my view) – yes, a blessing that God seems to have designed marriage for. But that’s different to ‘promoting marriage in order to get more children’. Surely we promote marriage because we think it’s intrinsically good, not for the sake of any blessing God might seek to give as a result of that? Unless we really think that marriage is simply an evangelistic tool, rather than a good thing in itself? We seek God’s face, not his hand. Meanwhile there are plenty of ‘unwanted’ (I hate that phrase) for us to offer love to.

        • Hi David.

          Having children is a basic purpose of marriage, as it is a basic purpose of sexual intercourse, and of the existence of the sexes themselves. Marriage is the legitimate context for sexual intimacy and its natural fruit ie children.

          Having one’s own children in marriage isn’t really a choice – (mostly) reliable contraception only makes it seem that way. Bringing forth children is a basic purpose in God’s design for sexual intercourse and marriage. So it doesn’t really make sense to speak of couples adopting as a first choice.

          • Well, it does make sense to talk of adopting as a first choice (as opposed to biologically), because that’s what some couples do – including me and my wife. I’d also disagree that having children in marriage isn’t a choice – it is clearly a choice; it is one we are free not to take. I don’t agree with those who say that married couples should by default seek to have children. In terms of adoption, it seems to me hard to argue that adoption as a first choice is a bad decision for a Christian couple when the need is so great.

          • Hi David.

            To choose to get married and not have children is to misunderstand one of the basic functions of sexual intercourse and marriage in nature and God’s purposes. For most of Christian history Christians prohibited contraceptives for this reason. This now seems an unnecessarily rigorous response to this principle. However the principle remains: it is a moral mistake to get married (and therefore engage in sexual intercourse) without the intention, at some point, to have the children which flow naturally (were one not to intervene) from that.

          • Will, I can’t seem to reply to your last comment, so I’ll do so here. I just don’t agree that entering marriage without the intention of having children is a ‘moral mistake’. I just don’t see that as justifiable from Scripture, Reason or Tradition so I guess we’ll just have to disagree on that. I see ‘fruit that may well follow from marriage’ as very different from ‘required intention’ of marriage.

          • it is a moral mistake to get married (and therefore engage in sexual intercourse) without the intention, at some point, to have the children which flow naturally (were one not to intervene) from that.

            While I generally agree, I think it is necessary to say that the one decent counter to this is the one made: ‘it seems to me hard to argue that adoption as a first choice is a bad decision for a Christian couple when the need is so great’

            People who adopt clearly aren’t avoiding having biological children for selfish reasons, because they don’t want the responsibility: in fact they take on what is arguably more responsibility by caring for the the children of others, who may have their own issues relating to their circumstances.

            It is a moral mistake to have sex while trying to evade the responsibility of raising children. But people who adopt are clerely not tryign to evade that moral responsibility. So actually you could argue that they are fulfilling their moral duty, as the point of having sex, to raise children. Just through a different mechanism. But morally, surely, it’s the assuming the responsibility of raising children that is morally important, not the mechanics of how you get there?

          • Hi David, S and Don

            If you make an exception for adoption then why not for other ‘non-selfish, morally responsible’ reasons? You are suggesting a dangerous precedent I think.

            Couples can adopt in addition to having their own children, and couples who cannot have children can also adopt. There is no reason to make an exception to the procreative principle of marriage to boost adoptions. As I said above, this choice, insofar as it is a choice, relies entirely on the efficacy of contraception, which is not a sound basis for moral reasoning (as wide church tradition attests).

            The need is great, indeed, but there should be no question of churches teaching Christians to use contraception to avoid ever having children of their own, which is to deny the primordial command (and blessing and purpose of sexual intercourse and marriage) to be fruitful and multiply. I know of no historic Christian teaching which counsels this.

          • Will, I think all I can say in response is that the book of Song Of Songs seems content to present sex as something that can be used for pleasure and mutual enrichment within marriage. Other than that, I really don’t know what else to say to you on this.

          • Couples can adopt in addition to having their own children

            And this is a good counter.

            Still and all, though, if we admit that it’s not morally reprehensible for couples to use contraception to choose the number and spacing of their children, provided they aren’t seeking to avoid children altogether, what is the moral difference between a couple which uses contraception to ensure they have three biological children, a couple which uses contraception to have no biological children but adopts three children, and a couple which mixes the two approaches in any combination?

            In each case you end up with a couple having decided how many children they want to raise and using contraception as a tool (which we’ve established is okay; we’re not for a blanket ban on all contraception) to achieve that.

            What is the morally significant difference?

          • Will: you say “To choose to get married and not have children is to misunderstand one of the basic functions of sexual intercourse and marriage in nature and God’s purposes.”

            Not according to the Common Worship marriage service:

            Marriage is a gift of God in creation
            through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
            It is given
            that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
            they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind,
            as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.
            The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
            in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
            and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.

            Now whilst it goes on to talk about children, it recognises that not all couples will make that choice.
            I think you are wrong, and I think your point of view is no longer morally defensible.

          • Hi Andrew,
            Common Worship is not authoritative for doctrine, as far as I know. It has shifted from the BCP, which does have some authority for those in the CofE, as it is one of the historical formularies which bear witness to the Faith. I suspect that shift has been in response to changes in society, rather than driven by a change in the understanding of marriage as rooted in Scripture.

            To me, the existence of some form of publicly recognized ‘marriage’ between men and women in most societies at most times flows from the basic fact that sex between men and women has this distinct tendency to produce children. Marriage is there to regulate and promote this.

          • Andrew ‘Now whilst it goes on to talk about children, it recognises that not all couples will make that choice.’

            That’s not correct. The discussion about this wording was specifically included to allow those marrying late who were past the age of child-bearing. The idea of choice not to have children didn’t feature, as far as I can recall.

            And Common Worship is an alternative to BCP in the C of E, and does not have the status of changing any doctrine expressed in the BCP, the Articles or Canon Law.

          • David W: ‘…flows from the basic fact that sex between men and women has this distinct tendency to produce children’

            That phrase made me laugh out loud! Thanks!

          • My recollection is that it was Ian.
            And whilst Common Worship is an alternative, how many BCP weddings do you conduct? How many have you been to

            The marriage preface in CW is clearly part of the ‘teaching’ of the C of E. Otherwise it would not have been approved and authorised.

          • One further point I’d like to add in is that I’m uncomfortable with any implication being made or felt that having one’s own children is somehow selfish or morally inferior to adopting. I fear this would be one result of churches generally teaching Christians to consider adopting instead of having their own family because of all the need. No Christian couple should be made to feel that there is anything selfish or second best about having children of their own, or any sense that they have a moral duty to adopt instead of having their own children. I fear this is where a line of thinking like David’s could quickly end up.

            I also note that while S considers this to be an exception to the principle of the inherently procreative nature of marriage, David himself regards this as an example of how marriage is not inherently procreative – and I suggest this is where such reasoning will quickly end up for most people.

          • while S considers this to be an exception to the principle of the inherently procreative nature of marriage,

            Not sure I’d put it like that; if I’m right (and I’m not sure I am, it’s not something I’ve thought about a lot, unlike other issue), it’s not an exception to the procreative nature of marriage but rather a fulfilling of the procreative nature of marriage just using a different mechanism to the usual.

            David himself regards this as an example of how marriage is not inherently procreative – and I suggest this is where such reasoning will quickly end up for most people

            But that’s not an argument against it. If the reasoning is sound it is sound and if the reasoning is unsound it is unsound, and that’s all that matters: you can’t object to sound reasoning on the grounds that people might misinterpret it.

          • Hi S

            I’d suggest adopting is not procreative. Though it is very good of course.

            I worry this movement to encourage adopting instead of having a family ‘because of all the need’ produces inappropriate moral pressure to abstain from having children, and the narrative it is part of (‘there are enough children already’) needs to be rejected.

          • I’d suggest adopting is not procreative. Though it is very good of course.

            Depends on what you think are the morally significant features of procreation I suppose. Legally, and I would say morally, your adopted children are just as much your children as your biological children; are they not, then, morally, your progeny?

            I worry this movement to encourage adopting instead of having a family ‘because of all the need’ produces inappropriate moral pressure to abstain from having children, and the narrative it is part of (‘there are enough children already’) needs to be rejected.

            Ah, yes, I would certainly reject that (self-hating, anti-human) framing. What was it Jedburgh said about the radical environmentalists? Ssomething like ‘you can’t appeal to their humanity, because they see humanity as something to be destroyed.’

          • Hi S

            Strictly speaking adoption is not procreation – it’s just not what procreation means.

            But in some ways that is just semantic, since as you suggest, what matters is whether it has a moral equivalence. You appeal to the legal situation to back up your argument, but I think that is a red herring as law cannot change reality. Adopted children may be made as much your children in law, but not ontologically: the biological connection between parents and offspring is a fundamental fact of nature and an inherent part of a person’s identity as an embodied being.

            So I guess my point is that what is proper and inherent to marriage is not merely ‘taking on responsibility for raising children’ (something which various people or organisations take on when tragedy befalls parents) but procreation as such: the producing of new human beings as the fruit of the parents’ sexual union. That is not something that can be substituted in marriage for some other non-selfish, morally responsible enterprise, including adoption (though adoption is obviously, done by the right people, a very good thing).

            The more I think about it the more uncomfortable I am with the idea of even suggesting to Christian couples that they consider forgoing having children of their own in favour of adopting. It simply isn’t an appropriate suggestion. It implies there may be something problematic or selfish about having children, and something morally superior about adopting, potentially depriving good Christian families of the joy and blessing of bringing into the world their own offspring, ‘a child in their likeness, according to their image’ (Gen 5:3), which is in any case the natural fruit of their sexual union. So I think the sentiment, while in some ways admirable, is misplaced. ‘Adoption as first choice’ should, I suggest, be rejected as Christian teaching.

          • But in some ways that is just semantic, since as you suggest, what matters is whether it has a moral equivalence. You appeal to the legal situation to back up your argument, but I think that is a red herring as law cannot change reality.

            Actually it’s not so much the legal as the moral argument I appeal to. For instance, it would be perfectly legal if you had both biological and adopted children to discriminate in your will between them on that basis; but I think we agree that would be immoral? Likewise it would be immoral to favour to one’s biological children over one’s adopted children, on that basis, while you were alive, I assume we agree.

            There may also be something here about how Christians are adopted children of God, but I can’t quite be bothered to put enough effort in to formulate it.

            The more I think about it the more uncomfortable I am with the idea of even suggesting to Christian couples that they consider forgoing having children of their own in favour of adopting. It simply isn’t an appropriate suggestion.

            Actually I agree here: I would be totally against making the suggestion to a couple, much less encouraging them to do so.

            However if a couple were to decide it for themselves, without it being suggested to them, then I don’t think I could bring myself to morally condemn them — not like I could morally condemn a couple who decided not to have biological children for selfish reasons.

            It implies there may be something problematic or selfish about having children, and something morally superior about adopting,

            Again, no one’s implying there is anything morally superior about adopting, just that adpting instead of having biological children is not necessarily morally inferior in the way that not having children because you don’t want to be bothered with the responsibility is morally inferior.

            So I think the sentiment, while in some ways admirable, is misplaced. ‘Adoption as first choice’ should, I suggest, be rejected as Christian teaching.

            I agree it should not be Christian teaching, in the sense that I agree it should not be encouraged or viewed as morally superior to having biological children.

            However I disagree that it is in itself, if decided on by a couple for themselves, a stance worthy of moral condemnation.

          • “To choose to get married and not have children is to misunderstand one of the basic functions of sexual intercourse and marriage in nature and God’s purposes.”

            In that case, I assume you believe it to be wrong for people (women specifically) over the age of 45ish to marry?

          • Hi Simon

            No – couples who marry late are not choosing not to have children, they lack capacity. Moral considerations are different when capacity is lacking, since morality is about how we ought to choose.

        • David,

          Most of what you say here I would have said myself. I’ll copy the first sentence or two of what I was about to say before I just read your comment here:

          I’ve certainly never gleaned any impression from the Bible that Christians should be about the business of biological reproduction in order to populate the kingdom of heaven. Is not the use of such tactics problematic wherever and whenever it happens? Not least, as a church’s policy, it must place women in a vulnerable position regarding the ‘authority’ of their church’s leadership – consider how things were (probably less so now) in the Roman Catholic church.

          Surely the words of Genesis 1:28 were uttered as a blessing rather than a command (that’s certainly what it says) and was the climax to the story of creation rather than a principle that would later be incorporated into the great commission.

          • In addition… I wouldn’t take a policy of another religion or group which appears to have produced numerical success as a reason for Christians to do the same thing. Are we forgetting that the Devil has a terrific track record of success and that, therefore, we cannot evaluate success without discerning who or what may lie behind it?

            And while we Christians should indeed be as wise as serpents, I’d suggest that there is no shortage of evidence that Christians who sincerely try to boost the Holy Spirit’s endeavours by their own human ingenuity can discover later that the Holy Spirit was wise enough already. But of course it should be a matter of discernment rather than a policy of inertia or no innovation!

          • Don, I don’t think I am suggesting that we should have children ‘to populate the kingdom of heaven’. I think that Scripture commands us (Gen 1.28 is actually an imperative) to have children to populate the earth, and that we should nurture them in the faith as part of our enabling the kingdom of heaven to come to earth.

            Detaching childbearing from marriage is a very recent innovation, and owes more to our culture than to theology. If you think we should never do a good thing because someone somewhere else has done it badly, then we would never do anything.

            And nowhere do I suggest we should adopt Muslim strategy. I am just pointing out the reality of demographics.

        • David, thanks for the response. I think you are projecting a utilitarian approach that I am not really proposing. Although I have couched it in terms of mission strategy (since the whole question of whether Christians have children, and whether those children grow up in faith has huge church growth implications), I might express it slightly differently it I were to write again.

          But my point is: we have lost a vision for marriage, parenting and nurture that I think is significantly present in every previous age; we have done so because we are shaped too much by our culture; and that is having big implications for mission and church growth.

          I think Will is right: the bearing and nurture of children *is* in Scripture and in Christian theology a prime purpose of marriage, and if we doubt that we have bought into our individualised culture. The idea that children are a blessing *to us* is even more utilitarian than the position you accuse me of.

          And my objection to the Twitter argument wasn’t that I was getting flak. It was that *one particular* person objected, and did so by insulting me and (wilfully?) misrepresenting what I said. Other women has very different reactions, on Twitter, here, and on Facebook. In fact women who have invested themselves in parenting feel demeaned and insulted by others who assert that parenting is inherently oppressive and patriarchal.

          • Thanks Ian. In terms of ‘losing a vision for marriage’, I think I’d disagree (if we’re speaking about the church). My observation is that the church tends to set the classic ‘nuclear’ family up as idol, in the name of which almost anything is permissible if it ‘keeps the family together’ or speaks to ‘family values’. At the risk of straining a gnat, I didn’t say children are a blessing ‘to us’; I said that children are a blessing that can (and often does) flow from marriage – blessing the couple, the church and the wider community. I wouldn’t see (any) blessing as a utalitarian thing, but as something that God is sovereignly free to grant. I’d agree that having children is a purpose of marriage, but not THE purpose of marriage (I don’t think that’s what you’re saying; I’m just trying to be clear). I’m aware that there was/is a divergence of opinion amongst women (and men) on this – my point was that I think it would be wise to expect the sort of reaction you got when you write something in the way you did. As you’ve just said yourself, you’d write it differently if you were to do so again. I know from what people have messaged me in private, that the views expressed so forcefully to you by one person yesterday were not limited just to her; I’m aware that there are some (mostly women) who are find it very difficult to express views counter to this sort of post. So – there’s a divergence of opinion.

          • Thanks David. I suspect we are closer on this than divergent comments suggest.

            But I think Will is right–that in Christian theology having children is a prime goal of marriage. I agree about not making the nuclear family an idol–and in fact mention that danger quite specifically in the article. But there is a general failure to recognise the extent to which much thinking by Christians about marriage has been shaped by the culture of individualism and self-actualisation, and not by a biblical theological perspective. We live in between the ages, in this age and the age to come, so we still embrace (even if interpreted through Christ) the creation mandate.

            Yes, there is a divergence of views. But several times my Twitter critic spoke as if for all women. ‘Women think this…women dislike that’. The truth is *some* women do, but (from the debate there and in other places) many women appear to think differently.

    • David Meldrum…

      For the sake of peace and clarity…. My writing “DM…so going on the offensive ?” was me going on the “offensive” . But the question mark was actually an emoticon of a winking face when my old iPad posted it.

      No aggression on your part was being assumed as there was no intent for my part. I’ll try a different icon…?

  7. It is true that 2 Cor.6:14 does not specifically mention marriage, but it would be odd if it was applied to lesser partnerships, for example, not entering into business with an unbeliever, but then to have an exception for the closest relationship possible for human beings. On that reading it would be wrong to have an unbeliever as your best friend/business partner/badminton partner, but fine to marry one – that seems to me patent nonsense. Also, Paul says that a Christian widow is free to remarry, but only to a believer (1 Cor. 7:39); yes, this is referring to a second marriage, but it would be strange if that meant Paul had no concern about mixed marriages if they were first marriages. (In Paul’s day many of his converts would have already been married to an unbeliever hence the instructions earlier in chapter 7.) And finally, we have the example of the Old Testament where God’s people were instructed not to marry unbelievers. Children are much more likely to follow the Lord if both parents are believers: “What does he [God] desire? Godly offspring.” (Malachi 2:15).

    • Thanks Trevor. I think it is interesting to make the connection with the OT prohibitions on exogamous marriage.

      But we need to note the overall ambivalence about this in the OT. The end of Nehemiah is in some tension with the whole story of Ruth!

      • The difference being that in Nehemiah the prohibition was because foreign wives were leading men away from Yahweh and in Ruth “your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”

        In most, not all, exogamous marriages I have observed, the believing spouse’s zeal for Christ cools noticeably over time. That is surely why the NT strongly discourages it.

      • Hi Ian, I’m replying to your reply to me earlier in the thread as well as chipping in on this point re the OT. Sorry this is a bit long!

        1. Christianity has *always* had more women than men.
        2. The early church appeared to think that exogamous marriage was the solution to this.
        I can’t engage very thoroughly with this point not having much knowledge of the early church beyond the epistles. That said, the epistles certainly do not specifically advocate marrying outside the faith. Are you extrapolating from the frequency with which it occurred or did the early church leaders encourage women to marry outside the faith in the absence of a suitable believer?

        3. This contributed significantly to church growth.
        I’m sure you’re right. I would have some questions, however, as to how the cultural practices around marriage, might have differed and what impact that might have had on the likelihood that a woman marrying an unbeliever would end up as part of a believing family. For example in our culture the final decision to marry is generally taken after a long period of being in some kind of non marriage relationship. That may mean that an unbeliever marrying a believer in our culture is more likely to have made an informed decision not to become a Christian (I don’t mean they are anti-christian neccesarily but, having heard the Gospel and seen it in action, they remain unconverted) than one in the time of the early church (who may not have spent much time with the spouse prior to marriage).

        4. The prohibition on this is based on few verses.
        No I absolutely don’t accept that!!! The key point is holiness which is a key theme throughout the whole of Scripture. Part of that is the exclusivity of our worship of God and the totality of our belonging to Him. Themes that are mirrored in marriage and that seem to me to carry through the whole Bible. The ‘few verses’ which specifically prohibit exogamous marriage in the NT are in line with the overall witness of Scripture, They seem to me to be the obvious outworking of the logic of the whole. Biblical morality is based on the idea that we are called to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls and to have no other gods but Him. I cannot see how joining oneself in marriage to someone who does not worship God is compatible with that. In the Old Testament there are repeated warnings against marrying outside the people of God, notably in Deuteronomy when the law is reiterated prior to entering the land and again in Joshua in Joshua’s final exhortations to the people before he dies. The reason for this is that people will be drawn away from exclusive worship of God to worship other gods. Logic and bitter experience (as per some of the stories in this thread and also this piece from Kathy Keller https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dont-take-it-from-me-reasons-you-should-not-marry-an-unbeliever/) would suggest that the prohibition and the reason for it remain relevant and the ‘few verses’ support this. Malachi 2 seems to make vividly clear the connections between faithfulness of God’s people to Him and to each other and raising Godly offspring. It would seem that exogamous marriage was widespread during the exile and after reading the law the returned exiles saw this as grievously sinful and as unfaithfulness “Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered round me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.” Ezra 9:4 Surely Jesus’ fulfilment of the law on our behalf and his cleansing of us through his blood continue to call us to holiness and faithfulness?

        Re the ambivalence you mention in the OT, I’m not sure what you mean? I see no tension at all between Ezra and Ruth, The book of Ruth makes it beautifully and abundantly clear that the problem is not with foreign ethnicity it’s foreign gods and Ruth has clearly bound herself to follow the God of Israel. Similarly Rahab has joined herself to God’s people and the red cord identifying her as to be rescued seems to echo the bllood of the passover lamb and make clear that she too has been rescued in order to worship with the people of God. I suppose Esther actively tries to get herself picked to be Artaxerxes’ wife but I’m not sure there’s any suggestion we’re meant to see that as morally normative.

        5. Our nervousness about this is because much church culture is not very amenable to men on the fringes *who might stay on the fringes*.
        Is it? I’d like to see church culture be more amenable to men on the fringes but I don’t see that concern about the culture of church has made me counsel against marrying an unbeliever.

  8. Another great artical Ian
    I have read soemwhere that the main factor in the growth of Islam was economic both in the medeival period and more recently. With the predicted decline in the reliance on oil perhaps that factor will be reduced?

    I guess I sends me back to remembering that God is sovereign and we continue to pray for His will to be done on earth as in heaven, and preaching that folk will be obedient to his call.

  9. Hi Ian
    Thanks for this post – very thought provoking. Your comments about high birth rate amongst Muslim communities is right as a factor in the growth of Islam, but there is also the strong impact of the madrassah system, which the vast majority of Muslim children engage with, at least for the early years of primary school. This has a significant impact in encouraging children born Muslim to remain Muslim, and I think has much to teach the church – if you’re doing another festival of theology I could happily prepare a paper on this one…

  10. Regarding growing Islam and falling Christianity: is it possible that at least some of this is due to differences in methods of counting?

    For example, up until recently, everyone born in Britian would have been counted as a ‘Christian’ on the groudn that they were born in a Christian country, regardless of whether they ever went to church or not. That has changed to become much stricter, firstly by only counting those who tick a box on a census or in some other way identify themselves as Christian — which cuts out a load but still includes a whole bunch of ‘cultural Christians’ — and then by only counting those who are actually members of or (in the case of churches that lack a ‘membership’ concept, like Anglicans) regularly attend a church. this cuts the numbers further.

    On the other hand, I get the impression that Islam still counts its numbers on the ‘everyone in a Muslim country is a Muslim’ basis: so the entire population of Iran, for example, is counted as Muslim, and any population ground in Iran is counted as a growth in Muslims.

    Obviously these two methods are going to give wildly different results, especially in the period when Christianity was switching from one to the other, when you would get a massive fall without anyone actually changing their behaviour, that is just an arefact of the way the numbers are counted (like when there’s a recession and the average income falls, so loads of people suddenly find themselves no longer in poverty without actually having any more money).

  11. FASCINATING
    My son and his wife decided the Catholic church (the non-liberal arm) was the way forward for them and have just produced their fourth child in six years – and counting. The Catholic doctrine of family is central to them, in which God is the arbiter of the number of children they produce. Not sure what to make of that, and I’m not advocating minimal contraception, but thought it might be an interesting angle. In our evangelical churches, as mentioned in the article, we could do much more to promote the importance of children and family, without resorting to oppressive patriarchy.

  12. Wikipedia has an interesting article on marriage in ancient Rome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage_in_ancient_Rome). Here are some gleanings:

    1) Marriage is seen as primarily for producing children – our word matrimony comes via ‘matrimonium’ from ‘mater’ – mother. Other benefits were property and citizenship. (Companionship does not get a mention.)

    2) The Roman empire had a shrinking population. As a result, Caesar Augustus passed laws which obliged marriage. If you were in the right age range for your sex and were not married, you were subject to a wealth tax. These laws, with some mitigation, were only repealed or ignored at the time of Constantine and Justinian.

    When you add in the preference for male children, which resulted in the exposure of female babies producing an excess of men over women, you have circumstances which meant that in a way that brides were at a premium.

    This is not the state of things in our modern, Western society. So, I’m not sure we can draw the lesson from the success of the Church in the Roman empire and apply it today, here. There may be places today where it could be applied. Both India and China are places where men outnumber women.

    [Off subject, but it is interesting that the article asserts that Christianity took monogamy from the Greco-Romans. It puts 1 Tim 3.2 in an interesting light. Having only one wife is a matter of reputation.]

  13. Why is it unloving and wrong to have more children with kingdom growth in mind? Not that the two are directly linked, but they are certainly correlated and the bible itself gives us ample reason to expect that children raised in a Christian household would typically believe themselves (Prov 22:6, Eph 6:4, Titus 1:6 etc).

    I long for the day when we can rejoice at a great many “boring” conversion stories of children raised in Christian households. And why should we see the glory of God and the love of believers for their children as mutually exclusive? Why is love less meaningful when it is an outflow of a desire to glorify God? As believers we are to do all things for the glory of God and this includes decisions about having children.

    • The lack of affordable housing is one more harmful effect of the harmful sexual revolution.

      It becomes the norm that (in an age of labour saving devices) houses get 2 full time salaries and spend less time together as families.

      The average amount people are able to spend rises. Therefore so do house prices.

      The sexual revolution also makes the average UK native (not so immigrant) household much smaller on average than it was before. Many so-called households are just one or two people. So more houses are ‘needed’ to accommodate that social change.

      1999 Finance Act removed the Married Person’s Allowance. No financial incentive to be married.

      The present tax system is far more generous to the unmarried than to the married (research of Patricia Morgan).

      All these several factors mean it is not just a question of houses now costing a lot more than they did before. It is part of a bigger picture, and nothing will change unless the root is uprooted.

      • Hi Christopher,
        I suspect things are somewhat more complicated than that. Poming about online I found this:
        http://www.lse.ac.uk/social-policy/Assets/Documents/bsps/events/Explaining-changes-in-family-size.pdf
        which has some interesting historical statistics regarding household size, although the numbers do not answer all the questions I might ask.
        The graph on household size shows that this started its decline in the 1920s. By the 1950s the number of children in a household had already fallen significantly from the turn of the century. It was still the case in the 1950s that the general assumption was that a woman would give up work when she married. Increasing longevity is one obvious reason for the reduction of the number of children per household.
        Other numbers show that the main effect on the number of households is population growth. The combination of fewer people per household but more people places an obvious strain on the housing stock. The graph of house building shows how this has fallen since 1970, and particularly the fall in the building of housing by the public sector and housing associations since 1980.
        Therefore, one clear factor in the rise in the cost of housing is simple shortage of supply. Therefore, the phenomenon of a couple both in employment (which seems to be current government policy) could be a result of the high cost of housing, rather than its cause.

        The phenomenon of the reduction in household size itself could be a result of the change from a more corporate understanding of human relations, to a more individualistic understanding (flowing from the ‘Enlightenment’?) The idea of the importance of my career is another outcome, contributing to later and less child-bearing. I would also suggest that the sexual revolution is also a product of the same shift. Sex becomes a means for recreation, which is self-oriented, rather than procreation, which is oriented in part to the future of the community.

        • Thanks – this gives further important dimensions to fill out and nuance the picture and make it more comprehensive.

          Shortage of supply – yes. Consequent need for more than one income – yes. The nation has during the period in question turned away from God, bringing all kinds of illogicalities: greater busy-ness even when there are more labour-saving devices; greater prizing of the workplace and money even though it is family and relationships that we know are better able to make us happy. Very many would love to have the option now of bringing up children at home instead of working, but cannot make ends meet if they do. In one generation neighbourliness has more or less vanished, and it is each for him/herself, yet all would admit that that does not make them happy.

          Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage chapter 12 gives a lovely parable of the two lifestyles and two worldviews showing how each is all of a piece, they are utterly incompatible, and one of the two (not ‘Divisia’) is far better in pretty much every way.

  14. Just two comments:
    Stark’s observation rather reminds me of the (unsourced often touted) Yasser Arafat quote that the Palestinian’s greatest weapon against Israel is the “Arab Womb” and that if they can’t defeat Israel in war, they shall “out-breed you, outnumber you, outvote you…”

    Does the NT replace the mandate to Adam & Eve of “go forth and multiply” with “go into all the world & make disciples”

    • Hi Simon

      The Arafat ‘quote’ reminds me of the aphorism: Demographics is destiny. Also: The future belongs to those who show up.

      On the mandate question: no I don’t think it does. If it did the church would have abandoned marriage completely. Instead, it just became more ambivalent about it – marriage is good, but so is remaining single for the kingdom. So the two mandates coexist; it was not a succession.

      What do you think?

  15. yeh
    I agree Will
    It is a mandate given to humankind to be fruitful and multiply and that was repeated to Noah. Procreation is God’s design and decree and within marriage should be encouraged.
    The living bring forth life. To intentionally not to have children (health permitting) strikes me as a strange if not very selfish life and a refusal to give to society in the way God has ordained. There can be reasonable factors in a couple’s not choosing where possible to have children – but very few: health being a primary one.

    Adoption is a beautiful thing – we must care for optphans and this is the best way – but most people I know who have adopted also have their own birth children.

    The great commission bringing spiritual life I think theologically echoes the Adamic mandate for natural life but does not replace it or qualify it. Two different things – both necessary and divine partnerships.

  16. “”ok, I know it’s a chapter over which much ink has been spilled but it seems very clear to me that this particular bit is addressed to believers who have become believers while married to unbelievers.””

    Or perhaps to believers whose spouses have since rescinded their faith?

  17. Ian, re your questions ‘a’ and ‘c’ you ask why both Islam and Con/Evo churches are growing in the U.K. and around the world. Is the answer that both are a desire for militant supremacy – in the old style of “Onward Christian Soldiers”? With militancy of any sort, there are always casualties. Sometimes the greatest of these is the deep-seated Truth of God Incarnate bringing the fullness of Life to ALL people – not just the ‘good and the holy’.

    I suspect it was the humility of Jesus that got him put to death by the religious authorities.

  18. ” To intentionally not to have children (health permitting) strikes me as a strange if not very selfish life and a refusal to give to society in the way God has ordained. ” – Simon

    So, Simon, ALL celibates (eunuchs, according to the description of Christ) are selfish?

    Why, then, did Jesus not have children? He was, after all, our paradigm of faithfulness to God.

    • Father R….

      Simon was speaking in the context of couples though. As the quote goes on; “There can be reasonable factors in a couple’s not choosing where possible to have children – “.

      I’m not sure , though, that I can forgive the split infinitive (“To intentionally not”) … 🙂

  19. Ian: TO boldly go 😉

    Yes, as you replied to Fr Ron, I was referring to married couples. Of course age, health, and perhaps a special divine vocation may preclude having a biological family but generally I see procreation as a main purpose for which God ordained marriage.

      • True- Dr Spock knew a thing or two – but I prefer Star Trek’s Spock whose “live long and prosper” combined with the Vulcan salute pinched from his childhood memories at his Orthodox synagogue of Rabbinical blessing (Deut5). I am intrigued that Spock universalised God’s blessing – if only people lived it to receive it

  20. I’ve just read through all these comments and the 166 on Facebook to see if this has already come up – exhausting!
    When you asked question (a) I immediately thought “fecundity”; so it was interesting to see the suggestion that this answer applied to all three questions. Of course, Islam is a faith which is easily practised in a nominal way especially with its strong connections in the local community’s life. It was like that for the Church after the War when being a church-goer was seen as a sign of trustworthiness and even worth mentioning on application forms.
    Our formative family years were spent in a community where large families were encouraged, partly on the basis you suggest, that these children would follow Christ: ‘bring up a child in the way it should go, and when it is old it will not depart from it’! Now a generation later it is interesting to reflect on the outcomes. From my many contacts with parents and children from that time, only a handful have gone on to actively practise a Christian faith. I do detect that many do have an inward faith in God and belief in Jesus, but their upbringing has made them afraid or suspicious of church commitment.
    Also there seemed absolutely no ‘spiritual algorithm’ as to whether or not children would follow their parents’ faith as measured by parental zeal, or commitment or whatever. Definitely a mystery.
    One thing no one has mentioned in the article context (and in light of the recent church statistical survey) is one reason why some churches have large congregations. I think that new parents looking at what happened following the Charismatic movement of the last 40 years, and noting that this faith did not automatically transfer to the children, have made the choice to drive to a church with an excellent children’s work even if it means ignoring their local church and its witness. This was an aggrieved feeling brought up by clergy during my Reader training but I fully understand why parents would put the best chance for their children to discover their own living faith as their priority. These churches not only provide the ‘atmosphere’ of practical Christian faith but allow children to make relationships with other children who are seeking faith too.

    • Hi Peter,
      Would one then propose that an answer to (c) is that large churches are better than small churches at keeping children and young people (and more conservative churches tend to be larger)? Such churches have sufficient numbers to provide a viable peer group for the younger generation.

      • I do favour the larger church environment as they create synergy through like-minded commitment as well as the chance of community and friendship. It’s eye-poppingly refreshing to go to a church where, when the children leave, they do so in droves. If I had my time again as a parent I would definitely go that route; especially in a society where the influences of the world extend even to the privacy of one’s bedroom.

  21. I know this is late in the day, and many will have moved on to Ian’s next article, but I thought these two resources worth mentioning: Christopher Ash’s excellent book on marriage, “Marriage: Sex in the service of God” (the title alone is germane to the discussion here) in which he has a chapter entitled, “Children in the service of God”. And perhaps it is time for Evangelicals to reconsider the morality of contraception, and a good place to start would perhaps be this article by Dr Allan Carlson:
    http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/be_fruitful_and_multiply_and_have_1.7_kids_…_and_a_dog

    • 1. “Sex in the service of God”? – maybe. But Jesus said “I no longer call you servants… instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15.) With that in mind, I would give a higher priority to “Sex, enjoying the friendship of God at the same time.”

      2. Dr Carlson quotes extensively from modernists and Catholics who, for their contrasting purposes, both equate contraception with abortion. He doesn’t really address the in-between position (probably held by most readers here) that says abortion is not OK but contraception is OK.

      3. It’s worth remembering that mothers who stop breastfeeding are more likely to conceive again soon. Breastfeeding isn’t a reliable contraceptive, but statistically a mum who continues extensive breastfeeding is likely to find that her body gets a much longer recovery period before the next pregnancy comes along.

Leave a Comment