Saturday, 26 November 2011
As I listened to a sermon discussing the biblical purposes for marriage took notes on Twitter. My friend responded by asking about an absent purpose which was "to be fruitful and multiply." He was asking if bearing children was a universal command for all Christians who marry. I said no and my explanation turned into the following examination of that command.
There are many wonderful Christians who believe that the command to "be fruitful and multiply" is a command for all believers, or all married believers, or all married believers who are able to bear their own children. It's easy to see how this can get tricky right off the bat. I believe that this is a command for all Christians as well but not in the way these siblings do (and we'll get back to how I see things playing out for child-bearing at the end). In fact, I think their interpretation and application of this command demands that they miss a key element of the context of the command in scripture.
While the words "be fruitful and multiply" show up several times in scripture it is not always as a command. Often times the phrase is a promise from God or a blessing from a person towards a specific recipient. Some great examples of this are Genesis 17:20, 28:3, 48:4, Leviticus 26:9, Jeremiah 23:3, and Ezekiel 36:11. The words "be fruitful and multiply" show up as a command in three different situations in scripture. Let's take a quick look at these individual cases and then we can draw a conclusion from their similarities on how we are to understand this command and it's application for believers today.
So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day . . .
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Genesis 1:21-23, 27-28).
This passage is a piece of the Creation story. God creates the creatures of earth and tells them to fill the earth. God then creates mankind and commands them to be fruitful and multiply as well. In doing this mankind shall have dominion over all the other creatures. This passage has the notion that mankind will be where creatures will be. The planet is meant to house the creatures and mankind, so use the rooms of the house. That's the point of the command in this passage; to continue the beginning of creations by producing goodness and reproducing what God has produced so that the earth may be filled.
Then God said to Noah, "Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth" . . .
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered . . .
And you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it" (Genesis 8:15-17, 9:1-2, 7).
Though some verses have been omitted to highlight the specifics being discussed it is clear to see the striking similarities between the commands of God towards the creatures and humans in Creation and the commands for Noah in the Flood. Both passages first consist of a command for the creatures to be fruitful and fill the planet and then consist of God commanding the humans to fill the planet. So far we've seen God create the world and command those in it to be fruitful (producing good things) and multiply (fill the earth). Then God saw the wickedness of the inhabitants, sent the Flood, kept a remnant, and commanded the remnant to do what the original creations did. This is almost a second creation. Both accounts consist of an empty world needing to be filled with the good God has created which can reproduce themselves. The world is empty and thus should be filled. The world must be used, occupied.
- God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, "I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you" (Genesis 35:9).
This passage is a bit different from the previous two in that the earth is no longer empty of inhabitants. However, the earth does seem to be empty of people whom God has found favor in. The righteous are few. In other words, while there has been multiplication there has not been much fruitfulness. God came to a fruitful/righteous man named Abraham and made a covenant with him and his descendants. Jacob is the second generation of these descendants and Jacob, though troubling for a time, has come to God, wrestled with him, and found a new identity in doing so. He is now Israel and this renaming is part of a greater blessing. The blessing is that the Abrahamic covenant lives on through him, under the name Israel (this shall be the name of God's people). At this point in the story God is still looking for mankind to fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply and his catalyst is now the lineage of Abraham, because of Abraham's faith and fruit. Not surprisingly, God made Abraham and his wife bear children (multiply) after his covenant was made. This was quite the miracle since the couple was previously unable to bear children. It was imperative that this particular couple bear children now that the covenant had been made.
We see here that God is fulfilling his covenant through Jacob, now Israel, and fulfilling his desire for a world filled with his created beings that produce good fruit. Through Israel that fruit shall now come just as multiplication has now come. God informs Jacob that a nation, and a company of nations, and kings shall come from his line. This is why it is so important that Jacob be fruitful and multiply. Jacob will certainly multiply. God has clearly promised that. God is commanding that Jacob live into that and to be fruitful in doing so. In short, God is building his fruitful people so that the world which has seen multiplication may now also see fruitfullness! After all, the desire of God with Israel has always been to bless all people and bring them back to him through Israel (Genesis 18:18, 22:18, 26:4) and we see this being fulfilled in the New Testament (Romans 11).
In this article I have pointed to all the passages in which the phrase "be fruitful and multiply" appear. All of the passages exist within the Old Testament alone. Only three of them are actual commands from God. In all three scenarios it is easy to observe that God is starting something new. This command is not a common command. This is a special, unique, holy command. The command is given at three specific times and to three specific groups of people in order that three specific purposes may be fulfilled.The differences between the context in which these commands appear and the world in which we now live is that in the first two the world was empty of both good fruit and inhabitants whereas in the third the world was full of inhabitants but not fruitfulness and thus God promised inhabitants to come out of fruitful men and commanded that the coming inhabitants be fruitful as they multiply. God was starting creation, restarting creation, and restarting his people. After this endeavor the command never shows up again. We can conclude from this evaluation that the command to be fruitful and multiply is not directed at all people, all married people, or even all married people who have the ability to bear children. Thus, it is not wrong or disobedient to be married and to not bear children according to scripture.* However, there are the later passages in which God speaks his promise to make his people fruitful and to multiply. At the same time, that is God's doing and it is in the context of his workings with his unique people on the earth.
So where does this lead us in terms of childbearing? We've already concluded that this is not a command to all married people. We can also conclude that the earth needed to be filled when it was empty and since the world is no longer empty the command no longer applies to us today. Must the earth remain filled? Yes. It is good to have children. However, from the third passage we see that the inhabiting the world is not the most important part of the command. Fruitfulness must exist as well. It's interesting that the command is not to multiply and be fruitful but instead to first be fruitful and then to multiply. This is exactly why God takes the route he does with Israel. Fruitfulness was lacking. As a result God went to where fruit existed and commanded the fruitful ones to multiply and they obeyed. This raises the question "If Christians are fruitful and this world is still filled with unfruitful inhabitants then is not the command to Jacob still the command to the Church?" It's a fantastic question but I don't think we can simply answer "yes" to it.
While the Church is still Israel she is different from the Israel of the Old Testament. Christ has come and he brought the kingdom of God with him, for he paradoxically is also the kingdom of God. Christ is the definitive answer to the rebellion and lack of fruit in the world. Israel was to bless the world but could never do it fully so Christ came to save everyone and to directly call all back to the God not only of Israel but all Creation, all of mankind which is in his image. Was Christ a quick fix for current unfruitfulness? No. He promised to return, judging all creation according to the fruit it has produced, and to renew the earth. In that renewed time God will be our all in all. There will only be fruitfulness in that time for all the fruitless inhabitants will be cast out for they proved that they were not God's people but not obeying him in being fruitful as they multiplied. Not only that but they multiplied without being fruitful and thus expanded the unfruitful creation. They rebelled and they grew the rebellion against God. Until that time comes Christ has established on this earth his body in the form of the Church, which is led by his Spirit whom he has sent to us. God is working out his promise to make his people fruitful (through Christ and the Spirit) and to multiply them (through bringing people to him). Where multiplication once meant mere childbirth it now means second birth into the family of God (John 3:1-15, Acts 2:47, 5:14). Conversion and salvation are the multiplication of God's people. Unfruitful creations becoming fruitful is multiplication. This means it is now possible for God's people, Israel, the Church to be fruitful and multiply without physical childbearing, though it is by no means outlawed or frowned upon. Multiplication through childbirth is still good and still a blessing. If called to childbearing, a couple is obedient to obey and thus worships well. However, we can now say confidently that adoption of children is a way to multiplication since it would consist of fruitful people multiplying fruitful people.
The spreading of the gospel into the hearts of people is now the form of multiplication God seeks. As Christians and nonChristians produce it is the duty of the Christian to continue loving and bringing all people to God, reconciling them (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). In this, God adds to our numbers, multiplying us, multiplying his people, multiplying his fruitful people and thus fulfilling his own command which we were never truly able to fulfill ourselves. It is through the Triune God that this work is fulfilled. So bear children (a lot of people need to), adopt children (a lot of people need to), be without children, or be single (if you can accept that calling). Whether you reproduce or not, be fruitful. Make disciples of Jesus Christ, reconciling men to God, raising the youth to know Him, and in that way know that you are being fruitful and multiplying. Peace be upon you.
What do you think? Have I misunderstood the context or how this command exists in scripture? Is my interpretation of how the current church is to be fruitful and multiply unsupported or a stretch?
*Some might argue based on the passages in 1 Timothy 3 and Ephesians 6 that because there is a command from Paul to treat children well it is assumed that all the Christian couples have children. It is also argued by some that since the list of credentials demanded for church leaders includes how one manages their children that only christians who have children are worthy of leadership and thus all should strive to be such leaders. Both of these assumptions are not safe to make. In the same letter (even chapter) that Paul instructs fathers how to treat their children he instructs slave owners how to treat slaves. Where there are commands for husbands ad wives in general there is never any command which implies they are to be procreating. When the single people in scripture are spoken of it's never said of them that they ought to get married so that they may have children. Children are great blessings but not great commands. This doesn't mean we should assume all Christians ought to have slaves or even employees. As for the lists of proving a good church leader, the list is about fruitfulness or character. The test is not what the person has done (multiplied) but who they are and how it is seen in their lives (fruitfulness). Besides, we know for a fact that those tests also speak only of married men and there were unmarried and childless men and women who were leaders in the Church (Paul included).