by Rabih Hasbany
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Every time my church celebrates Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, I automatically think of those who do not have children. I think of them too every time I hear about a family activity or family conference. In fact, in many cases, we organize church activities to suit the parents and children in terms of times, dates, places, and the nature of the activities themselves.
In our Middle Eastern culture, it isn’t long after one gets married that family and friends ask: When will we start calling you mom and dad? Everyone wishes for God to bless newlyweds with many sons and daughters. For many, having children is deemed a blessing from God, and the absence of offspring means the absence of a blessing.
As a church we are no different in this respect than the societies around us because we are often insensitive in dealing with the childless. This is experienced by many couples who have either been unable to have children or have lost their children. It is also a shared experience of many who are unmarried.
What helped me think about the topic of offspring was the book Redeeming Singleness by Barry N. Danylak, which he shared with me after I published a blogpost Why is the Church Silent About the Gift of Singlehood? It provides a helpful way of thinking biblically about having children and understanding childlessness.
The Old Testament starts with the creation story by establishing a relationship between offspring and blessing. In Genesis 1:28, God commands man and woman to multiply and fill the earth. The imperative immediately follows the blessing of God upon them.
The Old Testament narrative moves then to Abraham, whom God promised a blessing and established a covenant. From the descendants of Abraham nations and kings will emerge and they will bless the nations of the earth. To his children goes the inheritance of the land, and by them he will have a great name that propagates through the ages. Thus, the continuity of the blessing is linked to the continuity of the descendants.
The biblical context portrays the significance of childbearing in an honor and shame culture. There are numerous examples of pain we see in the face of childlessness: Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah, Jephthah’s daughter, Elizabeth, and others. Their accounts tell us a lot about suffering childlessness for women and their status in family and society. We see the dynamics of their marital relationships and how their households mistreated them. Though we usually see God “open the womb” in these accounts, their period of barrenness tells us a lot about the gravity of the situation. To what extent do childless women and men suffer in our communities, and how do churches contribute to their suffering?
This language of offspring reappears in the New Testament in a renewed way. The Apostle Paul explains in his letters how the theme of children relates to Christ. In Galatians, Paul notes that the inheritance is not based on the law but on the promise, therefore he was waiting for the promised offspring (3:18). The law was given at the time of Sinai as a condition for the coming of the promised offspring, that is, Christ (3:19). Now that Christ has come, we are in Christ children of God by faith (3:25-26). And any person in Christ is Abraham’s offspring according to the promise (3:29). Paul concludes that in Christ, who is Abraham’s descendent, by faith we become children of Abraham and heirs of the promises.
Paul links the blessing of Abraham to offspring. In Christ Jesus, Abraham’s blessing comes even to gentiles by receiving the Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:14). On the contrary, this does not imply that all Jews are true children of Abraham simply by the virtue that they are his physical descendants, but rather it is the children of the promise who are considered the true heirs. Paul asserts that Abraham’s true descendants are now not physical offspring at all but those who are his spiritual children through faith in Christ. God’s people in the New Testament are a spiritual entity rather than a physical one, in contrast to the physical concept of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.
Since God’s people in the New Testament are a spiritual entity, the propagation of God’s people in the New Testament does not occur through physical propagation as it does in the Old Testament, but through spiritual renewal. John 3 makes this point clear in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Jesus challenged Nicodemus’s Pharisaic conception of the uniqueness of God’s Jewish people. Thus, the regenerating work of the Spirit, not by human bodily propagation, is the means by which God builds up His people in the New Testament.
Jesus does not seek to undermine or destroy traditional family values of home. He announces that something greater now has come—kingdom values. Kingdom values mean that there is now a new bond of the spiritual family of God running deeper than even the traditional family unit. Our bond of mutuality to the family of God through Christ ultimately proves to be a greater bond than even the bond we have with our physical blood relatives.
Paul, the single and childless apostle, sets an example for us of how to be spiritual mothers and fathers. Paul describes his relationship with the Thessalonians as that of a gentle mother caring for her newborn baby (1 Thessalonians 2: 6). In verse 11 of the same chapter, he, as a father, encourages his congregation to excel in godliness while comforting them in their weaknesses.
It is time for us to reconsider our diverse unity. In the family of Christ, whether you are single or married, have children or not, are old or young, or come from a Christian or non-Christian background, we are all one in Christ. We must therefore seek to strengthen this unity given to us by the Holy Spirit who binds us together as a family. We must be considerate of each other’s feelings and be empathetic in addressing the needs of others. The reality of living without children is painful in itself and we should not overburden childless couples with unwise comments. The church should revisit its thinking about childlessness and look at it biblically. Sometimes, as churches, we propagate unwise thinking through demeaning questions, comments, judgements, and jokes that essentialize a physical offspring and neglect the spirituality of childbearing as raising up kingdom members. Being mindful of the feelings of other members creates harmony for us to live together as a healthy body. For this is what we are called to be: one family in Christ.
Since the family of Christ is a spiritual entity and not a physical one, it multiplies through spiritual renewal and not physical propagation. It implies that all of us in the body can be spiritual fathers and mothers with spiritual children. In the Great Commission, Jesus calls us to preach the gospel and make disciples, thus extending and expanding his family. Disciple making is not about Bible studies and programs but rather caring and loving our disciples as parents. It’s about nurturing with love and grace to our spiritual children growing to be more like Him. Together, we build the family of Christ. Thus, we are all spiritual descendants with a heavenly inheritance.
Rabih is the Certificate in Ministry Program Lead at ABTS.