We sat at the church function at one of those big round tables that can fit four couples around it. My husband and I listened in silent horror as the other three couples at the table freely and unashamedly bashed childless people.
“Childless people have no idea what it’s like to be a parent,” they reinforced to one another, amidst furious nods and murmurs of agreement.
I could hardly believe my ears. These are Christians, I told myself, and adults, what is more. They were behaving like. . . Ok, I’m not going to use the word I’m thinking of, but suffice it to say I was appalled.
When the conversation (finally) moved on, one of the couples turned to me and said, “So, do you have a family?”
I chose to misunderstand.
“Yes,” I chirped, wrapping my arm around my husband, “I have a wonderful husband!”
“No,” she ploughed on, “I mean, do you have children?”
Even in the church, people can be insensitive.
This is not the only occasion I have felt less-than because of childlessness. When I got engaged to my husband, we attended pre-marital counselling, which was great – until we got to the topic of children and parenting.
At that point in time, I was not convinced on the subject of having children. What astounded me was the pastor’s response to my ambivalence. “If you don’t have kids,” he warned, “You will be in sin.” Also, my lack of desire for children was sinful. Or so I was told.
Besides being incredibly upsetting and hurtful at the time, this experience raised questions for me about worthiness in Christian circles. Was he right? I did not think he was, but it was enough to make me doubt myself.
It raised questions for me about worthiness.
Since that incident, I have discovered there is a definite ranking system when it comes to Christian worth and “success”. Here are the five rules for what you have to do to be a worthy Christian:
1: get married. It doesn’t matter what unsuitable person you marry or how long you stay married before getting divorced. As long as you have the golden ticket – err, marriage certificate.
2: have children. After all, the primary reason for marriage and sex is procreation – isn’t it?
3: go to bible college. This may help you toward rules 1 and 2, and will definitely get you on your way to rule 4.
4: take on a ministry position at your local church. Paid ones are better because they have more power and status attached to them. Men can be leaders and preachers while women can – wait for it – run the children’s ministry.
5: maintain these rules for the rest of your life. Make sure your spouse and children adhere to Christianity, and it is preferable for your children to enter ministry too. Never burn out, never quit your ministry job, and above all, never question the validity of rules 1-4.
While you and I may find these arbitrary rules laughable, some folk earnestly and genuinely live by these rules – and criticise those who do not.
Nonconformists in the church are automatically less acceptable, less popular, less worthy.
Nonconformists are automatically less acceptable, less popular, less worthy.
If that wasn’t enough, childless Christians get subjected to a swathe of religious advice-peddling. You know what I mean:
– Have you tried prayer? (No, been a Christian most of my life, but thanks for that.)
– You need more faith. (Cool, I’ll just swing by the faith store on the way home.)
– God’s on the throne. (Cheers, Captain Cliché. How does that help me right now?)
– Maybe God doesn’t want you to be a parent. (Right. . . but child abusers, serial killers and American presidents make the cut?)
– Maybe God is protecting you from the heartbreak of parenting. (Ok, one more platitude like that and you’ll be the one in need of protection…)
I wish this were not so. Childlessness can be lonely enough in the church without being ostracised and patronised and guilt-tripped about it. By the very people who are meant to be your spiritual family.
Christians seem infected with this strange idea that the nuclear family is God’s will for all of us. But many of us lead lives that do not conform to this model. Does this mean we are missing out? Does it mean we are somehow more sinful? Does it mean we will never live in God’s will?
Not. At. All.
Many of us lead lives that do not conform to the nuclear family model.
God’s will is simpler than that. God’s will is living for Jesus in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. That means living for Jesus in our jobs, in unemployment, in prison, in hospital, in church, on the bus, mowing the lawn, in our local shops, overseas – in fact, wherever we are.
Less than worthy? No. Childless Christians are no less worthy than anyone else in the church – or anywhere.
Do you experience less-than-worthiness? Are you treated differently because of childlessness? How do you respond to unhelpful remarks and advice from Christians? Share your story – let’s have a countercultural conversation.