Between Mariage And The First Child

May a couple marry and delay having children until their studies are finished?

by Rev. J. Moesker

In response to a two-part article on family planning and birth control which I wrote in the November and December 1993 issues of this magazine, a reader questioned my contention that it would not be correct for a couple to marry and to delay having children until both had finished their schooling or until they have saved up enough money to buy a house (see letter to the editor in the January 1994 issue, p. 5). 1 am grateful to the reader, Peter Holtvluwer of Ottawa, ON, for his response and for raising this issue. It gives me an opportunity to consider it more broadly in this article.
To orient the reader, let me once again quote from the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage in the Book of Praise, used in the Canadian Reformed Churches, where it says:
The Word of God also teaches us about the purpose of marriage. First, husband and wife shall live together in sincere love and holiness, helping each other faithfully in all things that belong to this life and to the life to come.
Second, by marriage the human race is to be continued and increased, and, under the blessing of God, husband and wife will be fruitful and multiply. If it pleases God to give them children, they shall nurture these children in the true knowledge and fear of the Lord (Book of Praise, p. 636).

In the two-part article on family planning and birth control I stated the following,


One of the two purposes of marriage is then to have children, and every couple that plans to marry should intend to have children. It follows therefore that a couple would be wrong to marry and decide to wait before trying to have children until one or both are finished their schooling or until they have saved up enough money to buy a house. Marriage and having children belong together. Whoever marries should be prepared to take on the responsibility for children, or else wait with marriage and make preparations first. In Proverbs 24:27 it says, "Prepare your work outside, get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house." The implication of this text for marriage is that you must get the necessary aspects like career and finances in order before you start a family (Reformed Perspective, November 1993, p. 13-14). Mr. Peter Holtvluwer disagrees with the statement above. He states,

In his argument concerning the delaying of children, Rev. Moesker nowhere considers the primary purpose of marriage. The Form for Marriage is chock full of descriptions of the institution and mystery of marriage as a union between man and woman. Children are a fruit and a blessing of this union, and, indeed, should be desired. However, there may come a time when a couple is indeed ready for marriage, but find themselves unable to have children in the immediate future. An example used by Rev. Moesker is that either or both partners are still involved in school. I would contend that, in a situation of that nature, it is justifiable to get married and, after careful, prayerful consideration, use acceptable methods of birth control to temporarily delay the birth of children (Reformed Perspective, January 1994, p. 5).

This is then the issue. What to say about it now?

Let me begin by stating that I still stand by my original statement. Mr. Holtvluwer has forced me to look again at what I said, which is good. Statements must be open to debate. And I do wish to amend part of what I said before. But my thesis remains unchanged, namely that it would not be right to marry without seeking to have children as soon as the Lord gives them after marriage.

I have a problem with Mr. Holtvluwer's main argument. In his response to the article, he divides the purpose of marriage in the Form for Marriage, quoted above, into a "primary" and "secondary" purpose. He says,
Yes, bearing children is a purpose of marriage, but, as the form states, it is the second purpose, not the first. The primary purpose of marriage is to bring man and a woman together, "in sincere love and holiness, helping each other faithfully in all things......

I find this a very interesting but weak argument. Since having children is listed in the second place in the Form for Marriage, it doesn't appear to be as important a purpose as the first. Therefore, as long as the "primary" purpose is emphasized, partners of whom one or both are students could delay the "secondary" purpose for a while. As long as they accept the first purpose of marriage as of "primary" importance, a student couple should be ready for marriage. They just find themselves unable to fulfil the "secondary" purpose of marriage at the present.

Maybe Mr. Holtvluwer was misled by my statement in the article, where I spoke of two purposes of marriage. I now see it would have been more correct to speak of the one purpose of marriage. That is how the Form for Marriage puts it too. It doesn't speak anywhere of two purposes, but only of "the purpose of marriage." This purpose of marriage can be divided into two parts: first, to live together in love and holiness and to help each other, and second, to continue and increase the human race. Those two constitute the purpose of marriage. In other words, they are inseparable. To accept the one means to accept the other.

It makes sense in the context of the Bible. Genesis 2:24 ("Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh") is not more important than Genesis 1:28 ("Be fruitful and multiply"). Can one text be more important, of more "primary" importance than the other? When the Form speaks of "the purpose of marriage" it evidently wants both together to be considered the purpose of marriage. They go hand in hand. Both belong to marriage, every marriage.

With this in mind, I wish to revise what I said about "the two purposes of marriage." I should have written instead, "the purpose of marriage" in order not to allow room for the idea that there are two separate purposes of "primary" and "secondary" importance.

This means, however, that I maintain that it is incorrect for a couple to marry with the intention to delay having children until the studies of one or both are completed. If they are ready to say "I do" to the marriage form, they should be ready not just to live together in love and holiness, but also to accept the responsibility for children, if it should please the Lord to grant them. I agree in this with Rev. W. Pouwelse, who states in his book Like Living Stones (Premier, 1985),

We have to remember that the LORD gave mankind the instruction, within the holy married state: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." The LORD laid the connection between marriage and having children. There can be valid reasons to delay the birth of another child. We have to consider the circumstances carefully. Not all cases are the same. But we should not separate what the LORD has joined together. If a couple is not yet ready to begin a family because they have no house, no money to provide for a family, or are not mature enough for it, they should not marry. It is not correct to want the privileges of the married state, without accepting the responsibilities that go with it... The sexual relationship between husband and wife is a beautiful gift of the LORD which can be enjoyed within the holy married state, also when the procreation of children is not the primary intention. But we should not separate the two and try to grasp the one without accepting the other.

In his book Marriage in Honour, Dr. W.G. DeVries speaks in a similar vein. He says that couples who marry and then delay having the first child undermine the very nature of holy marriage.

There are also other questions related to the issue of delaying the birth of a first child in a marriage in which one or both partners are students. I realize that, as Mr. Holtvluwer points out, students of both sexes spend more time in the education system than in the past. But in the past there were also times, for instance economic depression or war, when it was difficult for a couple to marry, and the marriage had to be delayed because it would be impossible to support and raise a family. If, today, studies and marriage with children cannot be combined, then the choice is between the two. And then you could also ask, why should the marriage with children be given up for studies, and not vice versa?

But when the decision is made to continue with studies, the question arises: doesn't that make it unnecessarily difficult for a couple who truly love each other have to wait with marriage for a year or a number of years? Of course, I fully realize that it can be very difficult to delay marriage for a year or more until it is possible to accept responsibility for children. It isn't easy to deny oneself for the sake of the holiness of the Lord, especially not in this situation. But it isn't bad to have to "fight the good fight of the faith" in this, is it? The fight itself means a growing process, a maturing in faith and self-control. Let's not forget that you are not alone when you fight temptation, including the temptation of sexual relations before marriage. Constant prayer is indispensable. There are also techniques a couple can use to reduce temptation: for instance, limiting time together, or going out with others more.

If all this sounds too difficult, then it is better to change the education plans, find a job and marry. Marriage and chil
dren will not prevent you from continuing studies at a slower pace, or from studying part-time. There are other ways and means; where there's a will there's a way. But the bottom line is that when you marry, you should be ready not only to live together as husband and wife, but also to accept the responsibilities of family life.

We must always be careful not to assume that having children is something that is fully in our control (compare James 4:13ff). You may plan to have a child in a year or two or maybe even three, but all your plans may be for nothing, since it may be that the Lord gives no children at all. Or, when you decide that the time is ripe, He may give twins or triplets or a child with special needs who requires a lot of your attention. Neither are our finances totally in our control. We have to decide and act responsibly with regard to finances and number of children, but we have to do that in the humble acknowledgement that ultimately it is God who has the future in His hands. We may never assume that it will all work out as we planned.

I find that a couple who say, "We're marrying now but waiting with having kids until Joe is finished his studies in two years and has a decent job," are assuming too much control over their own lives. Is it really such a sure thing that Joe will successfully complete his studies in two years? Is it really so certain that he will get a job? Can you be sure that once the nest is finally all in order that there will be children? Sure, you have to look ahead, plan ahead. I find, however, that a couple who marry now but who plan to have children in so many years when this and that are in place assume too much. If your plans don't work out fully, do you then add another year or so to the date when you will attempt to conceive and have children?

I believe that when the Form for Marriage is read and you answer "I do," you should accept the whole purpose of marriage, live together in love and holiness and be fruitful and multiply. How can you say "I do" on your wedding day while you actually hold one part of the purpose of marriage in abeyance? Marriage means to intend fully not only to love each other, but also to start a family, if it pleases God to give children.