An Exchange about Family Vocations: God’s Call in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood, co-authored by Gene Veith and his daughter Mary Moerbe, concerning Chapter 8: Parenthood.
My husband, Ryan, and I have the utmost respect for Dr. Gene Veith, having read his God at Work while we were dating and engaged. This book was a powerful influence in my life and our marriage from the beginning. We even had the chance to speak with him at a worldview conference. A year ago, Mary Moerbe and I became Facebook “friends” after I enjoyed her contributions to Eternal Treasures. Now, we’re crossing paths again as my church’s mom’s group reads through Family Vocations.
I’ve greatly enjoyed Family Vocations in general, and love the reminder that vocation is how God serves through me to others as a channel of His blessings. When I reached the sections in chapter 8 about birth control and IVF, though, I paused. These issues are part of Ryan’s scholarship as he teaches Bioethics and the History of Science at Bethany Lutheran College. Over the years, we’ve studied these topics thoroughly, attempting to keep up to date as technologies change. Because of this, I had several questions regarding the advice offered in these sections. I contacted Mary Moerbe, and she graciously consented to answer my concerns and generate an interview together. Thank you for joining us, Mary!
Mary: Marie, thank you for approaching me for some of the background of our Family Vocation book. The opportunity to write it came at a time when I was uncovering some culturally remarkable things. At the same time, I wish the deadline could have been pushed back to incorporate elements we learned about later!
Marie: Could you elaborate on that?
Mary: As a matter of fact, I had just read an entire book about Christian women with a very low view of sex. I was surprised to read so many accounts of women confused and afraid of sex within marriage after avoiding physical intimacy prior to marriage. That common expectations and realities of married life could catch these women so off guard made me especially pleased to work on a book that hopefully helps a lot of people—men, women, and growing children—have a starting place and really a few started conversations to help them in their Christian thinking and life.
There is a lot of cultural confusion, even within Christianity. We tried to be careful to write with many different starting points in mind. Thankfully, the comforting message and teachings of Scripture are applicable and helpful for all of us!
Marie: The book brought up natural law while talking about the Roman Catholic Church (pp. 109ff). The Lutheran Confessions speak about natural law, too. Was there a reason you didn’t address that more with its implications about sex and marriage?
Mary: Natural law is a big and admittedly important topic. We were worried, however, that we might trail off to a rabbit hole if we followed that topic within the narrow confines of our book. Natural law has definite implications for vocation, certainly, and there are now a number of excellent resources.
Our book’s emphasis remains very focused on serving the neighbor. It is the neighbor who shapes both the opportunities and forms necessary for our service. And, of course, it is the Word of God even more than our reason or instincts that have to shape our service in the relationships God has given us.
Marie: On p. 110, you write, “[A] biblical and vocational ethic approaches the issue [of contraception] differently [than natural law and reason].” Can you briefly explain that? It seems to create a false dichotomy.
Mary: The Lutheran Confessions teach that Natural Law is in accord with Scripture. We do not intend to pit the two against each other. Rather, vocation offers a different perspective or a different shine to the coin. Natural law concedes that both pleasure and procreation are built into the marriage act. Great! Helpful! However, is that all there is to the marriage union?
It’s almost a trick question. A point that my father and I tried to stress over and over again in the marriage section is that sex is also unifying. The act itself is and our God Himself unifies husband with wife through the act.
A vocational perspective is not a situational ethic, although it has been called such. Instead, by recognizing different callings that God has given us, we can be refreshed to also see results of God’s work and God’s ongoing presence within the office.
To get back to the practical point—and I’m sorry to be blunt—sometimes couples have sex that is neither particularly pleasurable nor procreative. God still works through that one-flesh-ness to work good within the marriage.
In Family Vocations, we emphasize the union of marriage, the one-flesh union, that exists visibly in children but also invisibly in those without children. While we love the beautiful revelation that two-become-one resulting in a two-made-one-new-life, we also tried to be tenderhearted to those who may never have children.
It’s a little sad to me that Katie Schuerman was likely preparing He Remembers the Barren at the same time we were writing this book! I wish I could have read her book before ours came out.
Marie: Yes, the book sounds like a wonderful resource! I’ve enjoyed her many blog posts. I was rather surprised at how much you emphasized that the Bible addresses sex in marriage apart from children on p.110.
Mary: I hope that wasn’t too unclear. We specifically had in mind those who are unable to bear children. Admittedly, that might be a larger category in my mind than you may expect. I remember one girl in particular from college. She always felt called to be a mother, but she was unmarried. It hurt her so much to be, practically speaking, barren. Her body may have been able, but she was still unable to receive children in the way God typically sends them.
Marie: In the section on Controlling Birth, it states that many passages about marriage do not include children (p. 110). Could you expand on that?
Mary: Children very much belong within marriage! I think each one of us should gasp out loud when they realize just how far our cultural assumptions have gone, separating procreation from sex! With so many sad and damaging repercussions! At the same time, we shouldn’t impose our assumptions upon Scripture. I was surprised to realize that much Scriptural marriage talk is exactly, and narrowly, that.
We wanted our book to be a family- and multi-generational tool. We wanted those who approve of contraception to be able to read our book as well as those who have serious questions or concerns about current practices. We also wanted to be biblical about the topic and let God speak for Himself.
Again, in Family Vocations we wanted to emphasize what God does, how God reveals Himself in the family vocations, and how our individual neighbors affect what our opportunities and services may be within our own vocations.
Marie: Could you tell us how you understand Genesis 2:24: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Mary: Very happily! I actually addressed the passage more in another book I wrote, Blessed: God’s Gift of Love. Although I think children are a beautiful result of a natural union, I also believe that they are a special blessing, a gift showing favor from the Lord. Not because some couples are “more blessed” than others—barren families are blessed in many other ways—but because God actually delighted in the creation of mankind and mankind in general. He wanted more of them, encouraged them to become more, and Himself promised to provide the fruit that becomes fruitfulness!
Marie: Do you consider it a command?
Mary: People speak of it so. It is an imperative. Still, in an interesting linguistic twist, imperatives can also be “gift” language: “Take this!” “Have a seat!” I am concerned by people burdened by the law “be fruitful and multiply” when the Gospel answers that, too. Christ has come. The Holy Spirit bears fruit in our lives, even if those fruit are not visible or those we expect. Our God does multiply us, even if it is through the growth of His Church rather than the growth of our family.
I really encourage anyone who may be concerned with our comments on procreation and children in the parenting section to jump ahead to our section on childhood. Although it is shorter, we were amazed to find few had actually written on the topic! It is a blessed and high vocation to be a child, one that each of us—as well as the Son of God—holds eternally! I think it’s safe to say that my father and I both have very high views of God’s gift of children.
Marie: Because you suggest that “vocational ethics” add another perspective to reason and natural law, could you share with us your views on contraception?
Mary: With fear and trembling. Generally I think children should be welcomed into families with thanksgiving, and, if not thanksgiving, faith that God will provide. However, there are times when it may be an act of love and service for the husband not to get his wife pregnant.
I know that examples are not always persuasive, but these women and their situations have affected my view. Two wonderful, loving women have serious health conditions. Their medication could severely affect, or kill, a child. One has never married. One married.
I’m very happy to say that the married one went off medication temporarily, although it took her years to get to that point of healthiness, and now she and her husband have a wonderful child. Still, to have two good friends with medical conditions battling their own fertility and desires for children … it makes an impact. “Extreme cases” seem to be more common in my circles.
We can ask ourselves, are those with medical considerations never to marry? Are they to abstain from their early twenties until post-menopause? Contraception is not a perfect answer, but there are some who can’t rely on periodic abstinence. There are conjugal rights in marriage. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:3-ESV). [Editor’s Note: The NKJV translates this, “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her.”]
My answer to those who advocate abstaining from sex within marriage is 1 Corinthians 7:5: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Can you abstain? Yes. Does the Bible talk about giving women a time of abstaining (unclean times) monthly and following childbearing? Yes. Can that abstaining have good, even positive disciplining results? Yes!
At the same time, we have to ask, “Is the 1 Corinthians 7 warning for all of us? Do we lack self-control, personally or in our marriage?” Just about every time I raise my voice at a child, I question my self-control. Every time I half-listen to what my husband says, I can question my self-control. Yet self-control is an advocated method of avoiding contraception when serious, severe ramifications are involved?
On the other hand, contraception isn’t really birth “control.” Only God controls birth and pregnancies. If my friend, whose condition has regretfully worsened from time un-medicated, becomes pregnant, her medical team’s orders could hurt a conceived child. All they can do is prayerfully consider their options and live in faith and forgiveness.
Marie: I can see that you and your father tried to be gentle to your audience. Can you share with us your perception of modern contraception methods? The book didn’t get into specifics.
Mary: Science these days is a funny thing. The pill for instance has new formulations all the time released before long-term studies can be completed. We tried to avoid dating the book.
There are complications and ethical dilemmas with just about every method of contraception, including, as I said above, abstinence. I can’t advocate anything as perfect. At the same time, maybe I can help in this way: life by faith isn’t life by a series of solutions. And, that’s ok. Our Lord knows our struggles, fears, concerns, and desperate attempts for control. He sent His Son for us. He continues to send His Spirit to us through Word and Sacrament!
The wide variety of medical interventions (the pill, insertions, etc.) can be abortive. There just isn’t enough known about how God weaves life. Think about it. How can anyone hope to study the creation of body and soul with such precision that it can avoid inadvertent side effects?
Then there are barrier methods. Keeping ingredients separate does prevent a new dish, although barriers aren’t 100% effective due to both human and manufacturing error.
There are no perfect solutions when we have fears and concerns about the size of our family. When we want solutions, maybe we are wrestling with God or our faith. I don’t know. I do know there isn’t a perfect solution in this imperfect world. No matter what you do, you may wonder later or have regrets. But our God doesn’t call us to live in our daydreams or our past. He gives us wonderful neighbors who draw us out of ourselves with all those midnight feedings or meal interruptions or occasional emails.
Our neighbors help shape the direction our actions take. Our neighbors help keep our minds on the right things (hopefully!). And, Scripture does not say that there are pre-conceived children. God knits them together as time goes by. We needn’t pit potential future vocations against where we are right now, in our call to faith in baptism and our calls in our family in whatever vocations that may be. (Love me some role modeling aunts and uncles!)
Marie: Can you further address contraception because of poverty, as briefly mentioned on p.111?
Mary: I think it is a terrible thing that churches and communities allow extreme poverty in first world countries. I also think our government offers far more handouts than people realize.
A friend of mine was pregnant out of wedlock. We offered to adopt, encouraging her that we could cover costs and she would have a goldmine of help from a pregnancy center. She aborted anyway.
Honestly, I don’t think people really avoid pregnancy because of poverty. They may because of money, but that isn’t the same as poverty.
Can there be financial reasons to avoid children? Maybe. When we owe debt, for example, we are called to fulfill that debt. I wouldn’t argue one should spiral into extreme debt in order to raise a large family. Nor can I say one has to know how to handle money before having children—God gives children all over the world in all sorts of circumstances.
Speaking personally, we have six children and my husband is pretty much our only income. He’s a small town Lutheran pastor and we’re doing fine. We’ll never have cable and are careful with our money, but family is worth some self-sacrifice and fewer meals out.
Marie: I was surprised to read, “[W]e want to stress that contraception should not be thought of as the norm in marriage” (p. 112), when you accept its use before mentioning this.
Mary: A lot of people live under assumptions of which they are unaware. We thought we were being gutsy to affirm the Roman Catholic practice early on in the section! But I can see how our message could be a little … subtle.
I was blessed to be a part of this book a year into my marriage. (Because Lutheranism isn’t just about personal experiences! Lol) I was pregnant with my first child and was only beginning to wrestle and come to terms with … well, actual fertility. I had no idea that years later I’d have six children under six (now under nine).
Family Vocations is the start of a conversation, but certainly not a definitive word. We hope it blesses people and encourages them with all that God does as Father, Husband/Son, and Holy Spirit, especially in the realms and vocations of marriage, parenthood, and childhood.
Marie: Could we talk about one-flesh union a little more? I’ll quote from p. 114:
“The [medical infertility] treatments should be in accord with their one-flesh union. IVF, in which conception happens outside the womb, may not violate this union as long as the genetic material that is combined comes from both parents.”
Do you mean to imply that IVF practices are fine as long as the DNA is from the married spouses? Could you elaborate on that position, since later you advocate “snowflake” adoption?
Mary: Our book acknowledges that IVF “may” not violate their one-flesh union. We do not believe that medical intervention is sexual, which would also then affect yearly visits, prenatal care, etc. We were trying to delineate a difference between IVF within a marriage and two parents and a couple seeking IVF with essentially an uncalled third party.
God calls people into parenthood with a child. It is far less clear whether God calls people into parenthood by donating sperm or egg.
In our section on marriage, we affirmed that the one-flesh union is the result of God forming something new in marriage. Marriage creates a new whole so that husband and wife are not a separable 50%. Applying that to IVF, the husband/wife are to be in agreement about IVF and not under pressure or force. They are to understand that they must be in this together. It is not something to be entered into lightly, and it will affect each of them in different and weighty ways.
We also immediately followed that quotation with concern for the unborn. Those left unborn are not an afterthought on our part. They are, right now, our neighbors, and it seems to me that they are neighbors in need! Our Lord calls us to help the needy and those littlest of ones are included.
Marie: Do you worry that snowflake adoption promotes the creation of even more neighbors in need?
Mary: I do, but, once again, I just don’t see a perfect solution. In order for those babies to be born, they need to complete the IVF process with either their own mothers or adoptive parents.
Shortly after our book was released I learned that sometimes snowflake adoption is promoted as a “cure” for problems of infertility. Barren women were led to believe IVF could solve all their fertility problems. I don’t know that it does and I worry the little ones those women hope to serve are put at additional risk.
I’d very much prefer the little ones be in as little risk as possible. Unfortunately that means either another woman’s womb or trying to trust untested science. Length of viability under such conditions is as knowable as conception, as far as I can tell.
Marie: Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Mary! Any closing words for us today?
Mary: Thank you, Marie, for asking me to do this interview and working with me so that it could happen. There are many views about the topics we discussed, and, frankly, many temptations. Thanks be to God that we don’t need to save ourselves! Thanks be to God for all He provides and gives as our heavenly Father, all He covers and cleanses as our Groom, all He takes upon Himself as our Keeper and Brother! May He keep us in His forgiving care and His living Word forever.
Mary J. Moerbe is a stay-at-home Lutheran deaconess with six young children. She encourages Lutherans to write at www.maryjmoerbe.com. Her books include Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood (Crossway, 2012), How Can I Help? God’s Calling for Kids (Concordia Publishing House, 2013), Whisper, Whisper: Learning about Church (Concordia Publishing House, 2015), and Blessed: God’s Gift of Love (Concordia Publishing House, 2016). She also has a pocket booklet of 19 letters of Christian encouragement, Dear Mother: Devotions for New Mothers (Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, 2017), with more projects on the way.
Mrs. Marie K. MacPherson, vice president of Into Your Hands LLC, lives in Casper, Wyoming, with her husband Ryan and their children, whom she homeschools. She is a certified Classical Lutheran Educator (Consortium for Classical Lutheran Educators), author of Meditations on the Vocation of Motherhood (Old Testament vol., 2018; New Testament vol., 2023), and editor of Mothering Many: Sanity-Saving Strategies from Moms of Four or More (2016).