by Phil Parshall
The caption, “A Small Family is a Happy Family,” is written on billboards in beautiful script beneath a picture of a lovely Bengali family of husband, wife and two small children. These ads are strategically placed in hundreds of locations throughout Bangladesh.
The caption, "A Small Family is a Happy Family," is written on billboards in beautiful script beneath a picture of a lovely Bengali family of husband, wife and two small children. These ads are strategically placed in hundreds of locations throughout Bangladesh. The message is clear: No longer is the norm of six children per family acceptable in the context of the harsh realities of life in one of the poorest nations of the world.
Perhaps I can be accused of taking "acculturation" too far by seeking to apply these exhortations to missionary families. However, my thesis for this article seeks to do just that. Is there not a place for voluntarily limiting the size of the family unit of those who have "forsaken all" to go to the ends of the earth to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ? Would not an objective and pragmatic evaluation of missionary life lead us to consider seriously the value of putting a "hold" on procreation at two children, or less!
Lo, children are an heritage from the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is his reward….Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of them (Ps. 127:3,5).
Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house; thy children like olive plants round about thy table (Ps. 128:3).
Records of parents with multiple children in Old Testament times abound. There is no exhortation toward small families among the children of Israel. Conversely, one uncovers statements like the above in Psalms that indicate "the more the merrier!" One rationale is that this small race of God’s chosen people was sorely in need of quantitative growth. Enemies were poised on the borders of Palestine ready to attack. A large standing army was crucial to survival.
In the New Testament we find a total lack of guidance on the subject. Jesus does express appreciation toward the wee world and even uses children illustratively to introduce a teaching regarding the Kingdom of God. Yet, we receive no command, explicit or implied, on the subject of a God-sanctioned numerical "ideal" for a Christian family.
Jesus does set forth revolutionary teaching on the subject of discipleship. Peter, James and John were so captivated by the overpowering presence of Jesus on the seashore that they forsook "all" (including families) and followed Him. Luke 10 describes the sending forth of the seventy without family, purse or even shoes. In Luke 14:26, discipleship is reserved for those willing to forsake even wife and children. Matthew 19:12 affirms the existence of a special breed of people known as eunuchs who voluntarily became so "For the kingdom of heaven’s sake."
Paul, in his unmarried state, expresses a desire in 1 Corinthians 7:5 for all men to be as himself. In verse 29 he continues the theme, "The time is short; it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none." Paul, in verse 35, summarizes by encouraging the Corinthians to remain unmarried so that they may attend unto the Lord without distraction."
So, scripturally, we find a measure of liberty in family matters. There are no clear commands regulating size of families. But we are confronted with the demands of discipleship that seem to move God’s called ones into a life of self-denial and some form of privation "for the Kingdom of God’s sake." The application of these principles will be extremely varied.
ADVOCACY OF LARGE FAMILIES
Children are a great joy and delight. Many parents have strong feelings that God desires them to have a large number of children. They look forward to the diversity of personality that comes from each new addition to the family. The family becomes a buttress against the harsh realities of mission field life.
Many missionaries anticipate the tranquility of retirement when they can be surrounded by the presence of a large number of children and grandchildren. At last they can experience a more normal Western type of existence in the presence of a host of loved ones.
There are a few missionaries who have strong convictions against the use of birth control methods. This is an issue of conscience and must be respected. However, I noted how one missionary’s "convictions" changed after the birth of his fourth child in five years of married life!
It has been a deep personal grief to me to see so many missionaries leave the mission field in their prime of life and service because of "family reasons." After gaining valuable experience in an alien culture and after finally becoming fluent in a foreign language, the missionary is forced to leave his area of expertise to return to his homeland. Generally, missionaries with larger families are the most vulnerable. The following are practical arguments against large families for missionaries serving on the foreign mission field.
1. Expense. In these days of inflation, it is not unusual to find families with support figures of $15,000 per year working in a country like Bangladesh, where the per capita income is less than $100 per annum. One missionary known to me is paying $6,000 per year just for the education of his children.
A large family creates a demand for at least a three-bedroom home with garden facility. In contrast, parents with one or two children can more easily adjust to a small apartment. This is a rather important factor in life style identification with the Christians of one’s host country. How overwhelmed these nationals become when confronted with our massive array of Western gadgets, toys, electronic goods, etc. Still fresh in my mind is the story of the enraged Thai Christian who found out that the foreign missionary was paying more for dog food on a monthly basis than he was paying the Thai for his work as a full-time mission evangelist!
It is staggering to consider what a round trip AmericaBangladesh fare costs for parents and four children. A quick calculation reveals this would pay the salary for one of Bangladesh’s top M.A. pass, foreign trained, pastors for a period of twelve years! There is no practical way to avoid completely this problem, but a smaller number of fares to be purchased would indeed be a help. Some years back, our mission was on a "Pool" system of all funds. A single lady of our mission, without bitterness or rancor, one day said to me, "Phil, many of us singles have given up any real hope of marriage to come out here and serve the Lord. Would it not be appropriate for couples to purposefully limit their family size as an act of dedication to Christ? Their work would be more effective and money saved would be very significant." A rather provocative observation.
2. Education. Apart from expense, there are other issues involved in the education of "M.K.’s". In Pakistan, almost all mothers of school age children go up to the hill station in Murree for four months so they can be with their kids. This leaves a difficult choice for the husband. He can fight it out in the intense 120-degree heat of the plains separated from his family, or he can spend an extended time in the hills each year. Even one child creates this dilemma-but for fewer years than if one has four children.
Separation creates real emotional trauma. A number of families have been forced by circumstances to send their children to schools in two different countries. One mother is trying to teach four children at home while one attends a local school.
More than any other cause, children’s education is the outstanding reason why missionaries leave the field during the most useful years of their lives. My observations lead me to conclude that the smaller the family, the less likely the dropout potential.
3. Inconvenience to others. Nothing is "simple" or "easy" on the mission field – at least not in an underdeveloped country. Life is complicated and frequently frustrating. For instance, having a baby almost certainly involves a family dislocation of one month in Bangladesh. Going to a reputable doctor will necessitate a day’s journey for people in the interior. At each step, it is seen that assistance from others is needed for accommodation, emergencies, purchases, etc. How much more difficult it is to feed and bed down a family of six compared to four.
It is a bit naive to think our family is no one’s business but our own. In countless areas our lives interrelate on the mission field. No one is an island unto himself.
A POSITIVE PROPOSAL
In Bangladesh, out of twenty-eight couples married fifteen years or longer, I find twenty-two of them have three children or more. Ten of these couples have four children each. For these couples and for the reader who finds himself in a similar situation, I have nothing else to say! But, for the newlyweds and the "contemplators" of matrimony, I offer the following postulate:
Is not a norm of two children an "ideal" for missionaries.? If these children are close together, they will provide fun and fellowship for each other. Their schooling needs will also be quite similar. Expenses will be minimized. There will not be great inconvenience caused to others in the mission. And, finally, the chances of being forced to return home because of problems relating to one’s children are reduced significantly compared to a family of four kids. My wife and I, in view of the above arguments, made a calculated decision fifteen years ago to limit our family to one child. Our 12-year-old Lindy has been a tremendous delight to our hearts over these years in this turbulent land of Bangladesh. I personally have had no regrets concerning our decision. However, I do see the value of the second child, particularly for families in situations where there are no other foreign children resident.
It is recognized that there is no way to be legalistic on this subject. There does, however, seem to be a need to rethink norms and consider alternatives seriously.
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