Dear Mentor: Can a Christian couple choose to not have children?

Dear Mentor,

I have noticed writers at The Well discuss their struggle to balance life with children and a career but have not heard from those who may have decided not to have children. Is there a place for Christians to choose to not have children?

In response to this question, The Well mentor Hillary Lum (see In Focus: Considering the Call to be Childless) sought out two Christian women who, with their husbands, had made the deliberate and prayerful decision to be childless. In addition to interviewing them for her article, she asked them to respond to a number of questions for our mentor column. We thank guest mentors Susan Bruch and Ruth Jeffries for their responses posted here.

Guest Mentor: Susan Bruch

Susan Bruch earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Pomona College followed by a master’s in education from Stanford. While teaching elementary school and continuing coursework at Stanford towards a PhD, she met her husband John who became a professor of engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Turning her energies towards university life, she started and guided a bible study among professors’ wives for 15 years, and, along with her husband, was an integral part of the campus IVCF’s undergraduate ministry for 30 years.



When John and I were engaged, we would occasionally quote a song lyric that was in vogue at the time, “A boy for you and a girl for me.” Having children in our era, the late sixties, was a definite given. After a few years of marriage, we felt settled in enough to begin to have children. I even had a vaccine in preparation for pregnancy.

However, I was brought up in a family with a strong emphasis on daily meditative prayer which often included bringing before God decisions to be made. John wholeheartedly embraced this practice. We felt very strongly that bringing a child into the world should be a serious matter determined by God’s will for our lives and not ours.

John had an upcoming three-month sabbatical in Wales, and I was staying home. We decided to use this time for each of us to consider having children before the Lord, with no communication between us on the topic until he came home.

Each of us experienced God’s guidance in a different way. I took several weeks struggling to cultivate a genuine heart and mind of surrender to the Lord. I knew that until I was truly willing not to have children, I would be unable to discern his will. To my great surprise, the more I prayed and the more I listened, the more it became clear that God’s decision for our lives was not to have children. When I realized this, I must admit that for a week or two I was a bit feisty with the Lord. Nonetheless, my confidence in his guidance was greatly confirmed when John came home and, to his admitted surprise as well, shared with me that God had guided him likewise!

It took time for this “out of the mainstream” direction for our lives to truly settle in but God gave us further confirmation of His will not only then but also over the years that have followed.

Have there been any challenges regarding your choice?

John and I have been blessed to have had very few, if any, serious challenges regarding “our” choice not to have children. Maybe it is because we live in the more relaxed state of California where lifestyles are more varied. Here are a few examples of the few we have had:

Fortunately, my parents, as deep Christians, never put pressure on either me or my two sisters to have children or even to get married, for that matter. John’s family from the Midwest would have been disappointed if they knew our lack of children was intentional but they, thankfully, never brought the subject up in any serious fashion.

I remember being horrified when I told my Grandmother that John and I were not going to have children and she responded, “Who will take care of you when you are old?” This thought had never crossed our minds and I told my Mother that this question appalled me because having children was being viewed as a means of long term care insurance! My Mom’s response was that despite this motivation for some people to have children, there is absolutely no guarantee to parents that their children will end up doing so.

As we ourselves are now getting “older” we do see children helping their aging parents as we did ours. When any concerns for ourselves pop up in this regard, we are strongly affirmed by our knowledge that God will continue to honor our willingness to follow his leading in regards to our lives by providing for our needs until the end even though we have no children.

Often people like us who decide not to have children are viewed as being selfish, wanting to live their lives totally for themselves. For some childless couples this may be true. It all depends upon how each of us views the purpose of our lives on this earth — either to serve God or to serve ourselves no matter what the circumstances of our lives. As evidenced by my Grandmother’s response above, one could make a case that for some, having children can be a decision of self-centeredness.

Sometimes we have been viewed as either not liking children and/or not understanding them. However, the fact that I obtained a master’s degree in Education and have taught elementary school and that John chose to be a professor working with students usually dispels this judgment.

Since we have held God responsible for our not having children and not ourselves, we have had a special confidence that has enabled any negative words, pressures, or outright criticism to roll off our backs. Once I was asked by our InterVarsity students to give a talk on “Woman’s Identity” because, as the student told me, “they had heard that I had chosen not to have children and had observed that I was consequently a very happy person.” I responded, “It was not our choice but God’s for us not to have children and that my happiness was a blessed consequence of following his leading on this matter.” We have never looked back on our decision with regret or felt a “loss” that some childless couples feel. In fact, as strange as it may seem, we do not even think of ourselves as being all that different by not having children. God is good!

How has deciding not to have kids affected your life?

Once God’s will in our lives in regard to children was clear the major thought was that we would not therefore “live unto ourselves” as referred to above. John has been a professor of engineering and mathematics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When he was asked to be the faculty advisor for our campus undergraduate chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), we knew God was calling us both to this ministry. We were able to continue in this role for a wonderful 30 years (until his retirement in 2006) at a level of involvement that would have been impossible for us had we had children. Over the years, our IVCF chapter attendance generally ranged from 100 to 400 students a year and we found mentoring multiple students, having them into our home, attending frequent gatherings on campus, etc., to be extremely rewarding and meaningful. We ourselves have grown spiritually as individuals and as a couple from this fulfilling ministry.

As someone who chose not to have children, what are your thoughts on the question: “Is there a place for a Christian couple to make the decision to not have children?”

What theological, institutional, or cultural issues have become more apparent to you through your choice not to have children?

I find my answer to the first question above overlapping my response to the next question regarding theological, institutional, and cultural issues of choosing not to have children. Therefore, I will respond to them both as one.

The first question above seems to assume that if married couples are good Christians, they will plan on having children. Thus, if they decide not to, for whatever reason, they might be viewed as compromising the Christian walk. This “errant” behavior then earns them criticism and a demoted place in the church.

I am not aware of anywhere in Scripture where it is stated that it is God’s will that all his followers must have children. Adam and Eve were told by God to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen.1:28 NIV). It is a given that this command has already been fulfilled as our population statistics vs. natural resources will attest to. It is a biological necessity for all of nature to procreate. In the Bible, children are considered a blessing and the barren are made to feel less fortunate. None of these, however, is a statement of God’s dictating that all must have children if they are able to. Otherwise, Paul would have felt wrong choosing singleness, and in God’s wisdom barrenness would be nonexistent and the world would have enough resources to supply the needs of all the newborn, regardless of numbers.

It is those of us who have decided not to have children who often realize the powerful pressure to have children that can come from family, friends, society, or even ourselves emotionally and biologically. Such pressure has also been inculcated into some Christian thinking. As a woman, we are given the feeling that we are not fulfilled unless we are married and having children. This contradicts the Scriptural fact that we as individuals are only fulfilled by Christ himself. All else is extraneous and we should be “free” from outside pressures that dictate our so-called fulfillment. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36 NIV). It is God himself who fulfills us and to think and act otherwise is to greatly compromise our relationship with him.

What advice, words of wisdom or caution, or surprises have you faced in living out this choice that you would like to share with Christians considering not having children?

In a culture that on the one hand approves rampant abortion and on the other goes to outrageous extremes to achieve pregnancies, “the child experience” has become denigrated to a capriciousness that threatens the very fiber of our society.

Having children is the most important decision any couple will ever make. It is one that requires an awareness of the hours of investment needed on their part to effectively bring up a child spiritually, psychologically, physically, and intellectually in an extremely secular world. Having a child should not mean “fitting” him or her into a life already full of commitments and delegating crucial developmental responsibilities to day care centers or baby sitters just because one wants to “have it all” at the expense of the child’s best interests. Those of us who have taught have often seen the unfortunate consequences to children of such decision-making.

All this goes to say that I believe there are many people having children who might not if they were more thoughtful and prayerful about this serious decision. Those who believe that God is calling them to role in life other than dedicated parenthood have a God-given responsibility to seriously consider whether they should have a child if they are doing so merely because they desire one and/or feel pressured to do so.

There are many other aspects of this topic that come to my mind, but in summary I would like to say that the real essence of this subject is not whether one will have children or not. It is more importantly desiring what God wants for each of us in our lives and trusting his answer as we lay the decision before him and him alone.

God bless those of you who are seriously considering his will in your life in regards to children!


Guest Mentor: Ruth Jeffries

Ruth Jeffries has a lifelong connection with InterVarsity — and not just because her parents met through InterVarsity when they were in college. She was involved as an undergraduate at Denver University and as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. She has an MA in creative writing and is ABD in English literature. She has taught and held administrative positions at the University of Minnesota and the University of Dubuque. Ruth and her husband are currently involved with students at Ripon College (Wisconsin), where Paul recently took a faculty position.



I am honored to be asked to share some of my thoughts and experiences on choosing childlessness. Almost 25 years ago, my husband and I wrote an article on this topic for InterVarsity’s undergraduate magazine, and we were not surprised when it provoked heated disagreement. Then, and now, this issue is not often thoughtfully discussed among Christians.

As my husband and I turn 50, we can truthfully say that we have not had any regrets regarding our decision not to have children. We continue to believe that this was God’s will for our lives personally and that it is consistent with the general biblical guidelines governing Christian life and practice. Although written many years after our article, and while not directly addressing the matter of choosing childlessness, Rodney Clapp’s book Families at the Crossroads expands on many of the ideas merely implied in our article regarding a biblical view of family. I would recommend Clapp’s book as essential reading on this topic.

As someone who chose not to have children, what are your thoughts on the question: “Is there a place for a Christian couple to make the decision to not have children?”

Yes, I believe a Christian couple has the freedom in Christ to decide not to have children. Many of the same reasons underlying a couple’s decision to limit the number of children they have (a decision that is rarely questioned in most Christian circles) also may influence a couple’s decision not to have any children. I have two friends who married for the first time in their mid- to late-forties; they chose not to have children because of their age. Another couple chose not to have children because their child would likely inherit a terminal disease from their combined genes and die before reaching adulthood. One couple was committed to living as simply as possible and believed that it would not be a just use of the world’s resources for them as Americans to have children. Personally, I have a disability that causes me to have extremely limited energy and to need 10-12 or more hours of sleep each night. It was one of several factors that led us to choose not to have children. I believe there are a whole range of legitimate, even selfless, reasons for choosing not to have children, often related to one’s life circumstances or calling.

Have there been any challenges regarding your choice?

I have often been treated differently, left out of things, expected to do things — all based on the fact that I do not have children. I have learned to ignore this subtle discrimination in some instances and to address it head-on in others. I have come to accept that some people simply don’t know how to respond appropriately to something beyond the bounds of their thinking or experience.

Sadly, over the years I have not only had fellow Christians say hurtful comments to me regarding our choice; I have ached for friends who have had other Christians make insensitive remarks to them as they have struggled with a wide range of challenges surrounding the issue of reproduction, including single women who feel their biological clock ticking; couples who want children but face infertility who then must weigh other medically and ethically complicated options; friends surprised by an unexpected pregnancy; friends who have had miscarriages; friends who left graduate school because they felt they were faced with an “either/or” decision between having children and having a career in academia; friends who delayed having children because of their concern for its impact on their achieving tenure; and so on. We also have friends who intentionally chose to have seven children and have been criticized by fellow Christians for having “too many” children.

Christians often seem to believe they have the “right” answers for someone else and are quick to tell others that the choice they have made is a bad or wrong one. I would urge fellow Christians to be slow to offer glib comments, slow to judge, and slow to condemn. Let me be clear: I am not calling for a form of moral relativism. Rather, I simply would like us to acknowledge that we are each faced with different circumstances and sometimes difficult choices that are not always black and white. God loves diversity, so why do Christians often want to make us all into cookie-cutter Christians? I believe the decision whether or not to have children is one where Christians have freedom in Christ.

I have learned, however, that life is often not in our control — despite our American tendency to believe that it is. Even when we try to make thoughtful, wise decisions, we sometimes find that our plans are derailed by factors beyond our control. In regard to having children, some people who have wanted children have found that they are not able to, while others who have chosen not to have children have unexpectedly found themselves pregnant. Thankfully, these various friends, as well as my husband and I, have come to see God’s sovereignty, love, and grace in our decisions and in the ways our lives have unfolded.

What theological, institutional, or cultural issues have become more apparent to you through your choice not to have children?

I can’t possibly include everything I would like to say on this topic, but several biblically-informed concepts should serve as guiding principles for deciding whether to have children: the family of God vs. the biological family; diversity within the body of Christ; and our accountability for personal and global stewardship.

The Bible provides us with a vision of what it means to be the people of God, based not on our biology but on our being adopted into the family of God. This family, not the “nuclear family,” is the fundamental, eternal reality. Jesus made this point clear when he was told that his mother and brothers were waiting outside. “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’” (Mt. 12:48-50, NIV). As Rodney Clapp summarizes, “There can be no doubt that Jesus displaced the biological family. For those who would follow him, family could no longer be paramount in the service of God” (_Families at the Crossroads,_ p. 73).

And yet many American churches suffer from “family idolatry,” putting unbiblical importance on — even giving preeminence to — the nuclear family rather than acknowledging the primacy of the family of God. One result of this family idolatry is that single people and childless couples are often made to feel as though they are less important to the church, despite the insistence in I Corinthians 12 that every part of the body of Christ is important.

Our various callings and ministries reflect that we each serve different roles in the body of Christ. Just as we serve different roles in the body, so God has gifted us in different ways. Some couples may believe their gifts do not lie in the direction of parenting. That does not mean, however, that any of us is exempt from being involved with children in some way, for the simple fact that children are a part of the body of Christ that we cannot neglect or avoid. I would suggest adapting the popular saying to read: “It takes a [church] to raise a child” — it takes more than just a nuclear family to adequately do so. Yet couples who intentionally choose not to have children often feel they cannot reveal their decision to people in the church for fear of condemnation, even though their decision may have been made prayerfully as they sought God’s will for them in light of their commitment to personal and global stewardship.

Personal stewardship requires us to seek God’s leading for the best use of what we have been given. We each have different interests, gifts and abilities, and God calls each of us to different ministries. One couple may sense a call to have and raise their own biological children as a part of their ministry. Another couple may see nurturing others’ children as their calling, e.g., by adopting children, serving as foster parents, working in a daycare or as a teacher, or reaching out to international students. Another couple may be called to serve the world through devoting themselves to particularly demanding careers, and so they choose to remain childless as a part of their larger calling. As we each seek to live out our calling, let us be loving and accepting of one another despite our different circumstances and choices. Whatever our calling, we share a common commitment to the Christian community (the family of God) and to serving Christ and his kingdom — the telos of the whole of our lives, including the decision whether to marry, whether to have children, what career to pursue, etc.

We also have a responsibility to global stewardship of the world’s resources. Some Christians have suggested that God’s command to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28 KJV) applies to each of us. The logical fallacy of this view is that if it were indeed a command for every individual, then couples who purposely limit the size of their families are in direct disobedience to God. Jesus himself failed to obey this “command.” In contrast to this literalistic reading of only the first part of this verse, I suggest that if we look at the entire verse we see that the purpose of God’s original generalized command was for humans to “fill the earth” and to be good stewards of it. Given the current world population, we have more than adequately filled the earth and have become poor stewards as we rapidly deplete the earth’s resources. In fact, we Americans disproportionately use more than our “fair share.” Although I am not suggesting that Americans should therefore not have children, as Americans we must consider the added consumption of world resources involved in how we choose to raise children in this country. Acting as global Christians who care about justice and the world’s poor (as Scripture commands us), some couples may choose not to have children as a fundamental response to God’s concerns for the earth and all of its peoples. These couples should be supported by fellow Christians in this decision.

In addition to the theological issues related to the decision of whether to have children, we must also examine the cultural and institutional issues that impact this decision, such as the continuing problem of sexism in its various forms. All Christians, whether single or married, with or without children, must more vigorously seek to reform our cultural and institutional attitudes regarding children, starting with the view that sees issues surrounding whether or not to have children as solely a “women’s” issue. So, as one place to start, I suggest that — although I am delighted The Well has chosen to begin a discussion of this issue — this topic also deserves wider discussion in a Graduate & Faculty Ministries (GFM) forum that includes both men and women. Men as well as women ought to speak out and engage people in churches, on campuses, and in the wider society on this issue.

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