Why marriage and procreation belong together

In the history of Christian theology it has often proved necessary to hold two apparently contradictory assertions together in order to express the truth about God and the human situation.

Thus we have to hold that:

  • God is one and yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God;
  • Jesus Christ was (and is) both fully divine and yet also fully human;
  • God is completely sovereign and yet human beings have genuine freedom and responsibility:
  • We are saved without works and yet good works will necessarily be performed by all who are saved.

In this post I want to add another item to this list. I shall argue that marriage is good in itself without children and yet the procreation of children is an integral part of the purpose of marriage.

In her paper ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed,’[1] Dr Meg Warner has responded to the argument I put forward in my new book for the Church of England Evangelical Council, Glorify God in your body. In this book I argue that same-sex relationships cannot be marriages because ‘a relationship between two people of the same sex intrinsically closed to procreation, cannot be a marriage.’[2] Her response to this argument is to say that it is unconvincing from a biblical standpoint because ‘Nowhere does the Bible say that procreation is an integral element of marriage.’[3]

There are two problems with this response.

First of all, throughout the Bible, it is either stated that marriage leads to the procreation of children, or it is assumed that it will. Time without number in the Bible people who are married have children and this is regarded as a normal and expected turn of events, and as the way in which God builds up his people.

We can see this for example, at the end of the Book of Ruth where Boaz states his intention to marry Ruth and the inhabitants of Bethlehem declare their hope that the marriage will result in children:

‘May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Eph′rathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12).

The story then continues by telling us how this hope was fulfilled through the birth of Obed, the grandfather of King David, and how this brings blessing to Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi whose own sons have died.

‘So Bo′az took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Na′omi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Na′omi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Na′omi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ (Ruth 4:13-17)

Conversely, when marriages do not lead to the birth of children, as in the case of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15:1-5), Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1-10), or Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7) this is seen as something problematic for the people concerned and as a potential impediment to the fulfilment of the purposes and promises of God.

Secondly, the Bible traces the expectation that marriage will be procreative right back to the creation of the human race. It says that the reason we should expect marriages to result in children is that the paradigm form of marriage instituted by God is one that leads to the birth of children.

Warner evades what the Bible says on this point by separating Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

On Genesis 1 she comments:

‘Procreation is foregrounded strongly in Genesis 1. In verse 28 God blesses the first humans and says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’. This is God’s first instruction and first blessing. It is tempting to interpret it as a special, central, divine imperative for humans. It is, however, made also to animals and birds (verse 22) and there is no requirement for humans to marry first, any more that there is a requirement for animals or birds to marry.’[4]

On Genesis 2 she states:

‘The ‘not good’ thing in Genesis 2 was that the human being was alone (Gen 2:18). So, after some initial false starts, God made another human being, a woman (ishshah), to be a ‘helper’ with the adam. Note that she was not created primarily to bring the adam (who only now is identified as a male human [ish], signifying the beginnings of gender) companionship or to have his children, but to ‘help’ him in his vocation of serving the earth. (Note, too, that the Hebrew word ezer [‘helper’] doesn’t imply subordination – it is often used to describe God as our helper, eg. Psalms 10:14, 30:10, 54:4.).

Even if Genesis 2 tells us something about marriage, it does not tell us that marriage is for having children. The first responsibility of men and women, says Genesis 2, is to care for God’s creation. We (anthropocentric creatures that we are) think the story is all about us. It is not. It is about the earth first.’[5]

For Warner Genesis 1 is about procreation, but not marriage and Genesis 2 is about marriage, but not about procreation.

The problem with this reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is that it ignores the basic rule of biblical interpretation that you need to read biblical books as whole entities. Genesis 1 and 2 are part of a much bigger continuous narrative that extends all the way to Genesis 50 and so they have to be read together, and read in the light of this bigger narrative.

The major theme of the narrative contained in Genesis 1-50 is descent (which is why Genesis is structured round a series of genealogies[6]). Genesis is about how the people of Israel was formed by the descendants of Abraham in accordance with the promise made to Abraham by God in Genesis 12:1-3, a promise which is turn related to the promise of salvation through the seed of Eve in Genesis 3:15, which is turn related to God’s command to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28. Genesis 2 has to be read in the light of this overall concern with the issue of descent.

In Genesis 1:28 God tells his male and female human creatures:

‘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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’’

In this verse having children and exercising dominion are not two separate commands, but two aspects of one command. It is by having children that the human race is able to fill the earth and subdue it and thus exercise dominion on behalf of God.

The story starting in Genesis 2 is about how this dual aspect command begins to be fulfilled in practice even in the face of human rebellion. The man Adam is put in the garden to begin to exercise dominion over God’s creation and verses 18-25 tell ‘the story of God’s creation of Eve as a suitable helper and companion for Adam.’ [7]

In these verses, as Warner suggests, the emphasis is on the companionate aspect of the relationship between Adam and Eve. Marriage is depicted as good in itself even though children are not (yet) on the scene.

However, the reader of Genesis who has read Genesis 1:28 is still left asking how the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ aspect of God’s command to his human creatures will be fulfilled, particularly since in Genesis 3:15 the idea that God’s purposes will be fulfilled through the begetting of children is once again emphasized.

Genesis 3:16 then supplies the answer by saying that it will come about through childbearing in the context of a relationship between husband and wife:

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’[8]

The situation outlined in this verse then comes to pass in Genesis 4:1-2, 25-6, 5:1-3 in which Adam and Eve (with the help of God) beget Cain, Abel and Seth (and then other sons and daughters 5:4) as the fruit of their marital relationship, with the line of Seth (which eventually leads to Abraham and his descendants) being the means by which the promise of redemption in 3:15 begins to come about after the murder of Abel by Cain.

What all this means is that in the bigger narrative concerning Adam and Eve running from Genesis 2:4 to 5-5 the first human couple begin to fulfil through their marriage both aspects of the dual command in Genesis 1:28. even in the conditions prevailing after the Fall. They are God’s image bearers exercising dominion and they are fruitful and multiply thus allowing God’s work to continue and expand even in the face of death.

As Jesus’ response to the question of divorce indicates (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12), the reason why we are told about Adam and Eve is not just out of antiquarian interest, but because they are the paradigm married couple who indicate how God created marriage to be.[9] It follows that the way in which Adam and Eve fulfil the creation mandate to be fruitful is to be viewed as a paradigm for all subsequent marriages (which is why, as we have said, Scripture views the begetting of children within marriage as the normal state of affairs – this is how God created things to be[10]).

To sum up: we need to read Genesis as whole and when we do we find that Adam and Eve, the paradigm married couple, fulfil Genesis 1:28 through their marital relationship and this establishes a God given pattern for human behaviour which the rest of the Bible (and the subsequent tradition of the Church) simply follows.

This being the case, even though a marital relationship between a husband and wife is a good in itself even without children because of the ‘mutual society, help, and comfort’[11] it provides, it is nonetheless the case that the procreation of children is an integral part of what marriage is for.

The case that same-sex relationships cannot be regarded as marriages both because they are between two people of the same sex and because they are inherently not procreative therefore still stands.

M B Davie 20.2.19




[1] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’ at

Elephants, Penguins, Procreation & Japanese Knotweed

[2] Martin Davie, Glorify God in your body (London: CEEC, 2018) p.154.

[3] Warner, art c it, emphasis in the original.

[4] Warner, art cit.

[5] Warner, art cit.

[6] See Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (Nottingham: Apollos, 2003), pp. 55-56.

[7] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (London: SPCK, 2006), p.16.

[8] For the interpretation of this verse see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp. 58-80.

[9] If we ask why Jesus doesn’t say anything about children this is because this was not the issue at hand.

[10] In Genesis and throughout the Bible children are born out of wedlock, but in every case where this happens there are explicit or implicit indications that this is not how things are meant to be. See Davidson for a detailed discussion of therelevant verses.

[11] Book of Common Prayer marriage service.