WELS college president poses the procreation question

At a recent symposium on Lutheran schools, Rev. Mark Zarling (president of Martin Luther College) drew attention to the declining birthrate of his synod (Wisconsin) as well as others (Missouri and ELS). His data is drawn largely from a demographic study compiled by Dr. Ryan MacPherson, an ELS church historian. Zarling’s essay does not offer a definitive conclusion, but he does call for the church to examine its teaching and practice on the matter of procreation: “Has the Church watered down the Biblical testimony about the blessing of children, about the Lord as the author of life, about purpose and contentment in living a life of service to the Lord Jesus by serving another soul?” May the conversation Zarling has begun in the Wisconsin Synod continue, and may it bear fruit.

Here is an extended excerpt from Zarling’s paper (footnotes are omitted; most of them refer to MacPherson’s study):

You and I are concerned about the growth of the communion of saints, not the visible growth of an outward organization. At the same time, careful shepherds entrusted with flocks dare not overlook those statistics as a blessing from God that forces us to evaluate and analyze and PRAY. And as we turn over the data to expose some underlying causes, any minister of the gospel will be shocked at the realization that the worldview of death has infiltrated the homes and minds of so many people, including precious souls entrusted to our care.

Dr. Ryan MacPherson, a professor at Bethany Lutheran College, helps us to move the stones of the statistics around.92 His demographic study of the ELS showed a dramatic drop in birth rate during the history of that synod, from a birth rate of 3.77% in 1928 to a birth rate of 1.87% in 2008.93 Evidently other Lutherans also imbibed from the worldview that fewer children is better. The LCMS birth rate in 1961-2002 went from 3.34% to 1.33%, prompting a Missouri pastor to write, “Our church body has been complicit in its own demise by not emphasizing God's plan for procreation in marriage. We’re contracepting ourselves out of business.”94

Another partner in the old synodical conference had a similar history which resulted in a birth rate of 1.76% in the decade from 1999 through 2008.95 We WELSers are that partner.

Why such a precipitous drop in birth rates? Look at any population map and you will see birth rates plunging below replacement population in many continents. But why so among Christians, among people of the Word who believe children are precious gifts from God? They are taught that Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.96 Has the dominant cultural worldview convinced many people that an empty quiver allows one to substitute a heavier backpack of stuff for earthly life's brief journey?

One factor MacPherson identifies for this drop in birthrates is a thorny and emotional issue for many.97 I remember vividly the sometimes heated discussions in our dorm debates after a dog class that had any allusion to birth control. I commend to the reader MacPherson‟s study where he documents a clear shift among Lutheran theologians from equating birth control with sin to leaving it an open question and a matter of Christian freedom.98 His study gave me pause. Has the Church watered down the Biblical testimony about the blessing of children, about the Lord as the author of life, about purpose and contentment in living a life of service to the Lord Jesus by serving another soul? Neither time nor space allows us to explore other components of a culture of death in our country: abortion statistics that numb the mind;99 the crescendo of voices that raise the issue of euthanasia to the fore, whether discussing the terminally ill, or the weak and infirm, or simply the burden on society that a severely disabled person supposedly presents.

In an explanatory footnote (n. 97), Zarling calls for further introspection:

MacPherson outlines three possible causes for such declining rates among Lutheran bodies. First, the trend toward delaying marriage is identified. As more and more young adults aspire to college education, and then even a master’s degree, marriage and family are often postponed. Of special interest to this writer is an observation that MacPherson gleans from reading the work of Allan Carlson. “Today, college students typically graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in loan debt. The unanticipated consequences of this method for funding higher education become especially evident when we consider its effects on family formation, notably marriage and childbearing. Specifically, people assuming student loan debt tend to marry later, delay childbearing longer, and have fewer children during their lifetime.” Last May, 78.2% of the graduates from MLC graduated with debt. The average indebtedness was $22,176. This is of grave concern to me. Do we then unintentionally force our graduates into marriage and family decisions that don’t reflect the Bible’s priorities or a fourth petition attitude? Or have we unintentionally proclaimed a message to our students that the blessing of training to serve the Lord in gospel ministry is a greater or more important goal than the blessing of having and rearing children?
Thank you, President Zarling, for asking these soul-searching questions. May a renewed study of the pertinent Scripture passages bless your synod with a deeper appreciation for God's gift of children. And may the parents and pastors in your synod teach their little ones what a privilege it is to be made the children of God through Christ Jesus our Lord!

1 comment:

Gregory K. Laughlin said...

More good news. It appears the theological descendants of Martin Luther are returning to his teaching on procreation and family. May God bless WELS with great spiritual and biological fruitfulness.