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Image-Bearing When Not Child-Bearing

For the past 10 years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Mother’s Day. Ever since my brother died it’s become a very bittersweet day for my mom and our whole family, and it’s made me increasingly aware of how many women in my life experience some kind of struggle in regards to motherhood. I’ve recently written two pieces (Created #LikeAGirl and Periods, EW!) about women bearing the image of God in our ability to create life, and I also want to talk about the other side of this aspect of womanhood. Many women do not have children or are unable to have as many children as they desire. I know several dear friends who have grieved miscarriages, who struggle with fertility, who are unmarried, or who don’t have the heart’s desire to have children at all. There are many reasons why women may not be mothers, and I want those sisters to rest assured that they are equally loved and equally entrusted with the image of their Creator regardless of their parental status.

There are several barren women in scripture, and many of whom go on to have miraculous children. Sarah (Gen 21), Hannah (1 Sam. 1), the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4), and of course Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1 and 2) are among the top examples. These women show us that God is merciful to His daughters who are without children and does not treat them as broken or inferior. Rather, they are vessels for God’s power to be shown more fully and to show that God is the one who calls forth life, it is not a product of human effort.

Lest we think that God’s ultimate purpose is for every woman to have children, let’s look at some other passages on this topic. In the Old Testament, Esther’s story does not involve motherhood as she intercedes to save the Jews from genocide (the book of Esther). We see no mention of her going on to have children, the point of the story is her actions as a woman and leader, not as a mother. Ruth eventually has children and is an important figure in the lineage of Jesus (book of Ruth and Matt. 1) but her story revolves around her chapter as a childless widow whom God receives into His covenant community and eventually restores her to a family. Again, the focus is on her faith and life, her worth is not contingent on child-bearing.

In the New Testament, Anna the prophetess in Luke 2:36-38 is one of my favorite biblical figures. The text doesn’t give us absolute confirmation that she was childless, but it focuses on the fact that she serves in the temple full-time. The fact that Luke doesn’t mention her parental status at all but only talks about her ministry at least shows us that women have valuable roles and gifts to offer to God outside of bearing children. While we know that she had been a widow for decades and must have struggled with that loss, we see God calling her into vocational ministry and blessing her faithfulness with being one of the first people to meet and recognize the Christ child.

Priscilla is another woman whose motherhood is not mentioned and who is also active in ministry. We see Paul meeting Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, in Acts 18 and they are greeted in 3 subsequent epistles (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Timothy.) It is certainly possible that they had children, but Paul focuses on their work of church leadership and hospitality and always names them together as a team. Whether or not they are parents seems irrelevant to what they brought to the Body of Christ. Paul also talks about singleness (and by implication childlessness) as ideal in 1 Corinthians 7 and recommends it to both men and women as the best state in which to serve God. A clear implication for women is that they can fully reflect and serve Christ without having children.

My hope in all of this is to encourage the Church to affirm and value all of our sisters and to shield from shame or despair those that are not mothers or for whom this is a complex experience. While child-bearing is a unique office given only to women, we see that God endows us with creativity and productivity that extends beyond reproduction. Childbirth is a gift, not a right or conditional command. All women are daughters that glorify and honor the Triune God, which includes women who are single, full-time mothers, those that have dealt with struggle and disappointment, and those that nurture and create in other areas of the creation. Each has a valuable role to play in the Kingdom, and a glimpse of God to show to the world.

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