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Being Barren in Advent

Monday, 5 December 2011  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

It seemed like a great idea for an Advent sermon series: looking at how God answered the prayers of barren women in the Old Testament – Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, Elizabeth with the gift of a child, leading up to the gift of The Child at Christmas. The problem was, nothing was said about how a Christian couple struggling with infertility might deal with their unanswered prayers for a child. It’s very easy to get the impression from the Old Testament stories that God always gives faithful women who pray the blessing of children, even miraculously. So the struggles of an infertile Christian couple are intensified: why is God withholding his blessing?

“Barren” is the way the scriptures describe married women without children. We note men are not described this way. The human biblical writers shared their culture’s assumptions about human reproduction: the man provided the seed (sperm) which contained the whole of the new person to be and the woman was the soil in which the seed was planted. If the seed was sown but didn’t develop, it was because the woman had poor soil - she was barren. Unfruitful, sterile. What does it do to a woman to think of herself in this way? 

Of course, today we know that men also may be infertile. 35% of infertility is due to a female factor, such as obstruction of the Fallopian tubes, and 35% from a male factor, such as absence of sperm.  20% results from reduced fertility in both members of the couple, and the remaining 10% from unknown factors. The majority of couples with infertility report marital conflict, communication problems, disagreements over medical treatment, and differential investment in the infertility treatment process. Many infertile people fear rejection by their partner.

Despite changes in expectations of women’s roles in recent years, the primary role for many women continues to be that of wife and mother. Of course there are exceptions, perhaps most notably our own Prime Minister for example. Although the percentage of women working outside the home has increased, family responsibilities are still often seen as primary for women. Whereas men may be more willing to accept other roles as a substitute for parenting, most (married) women anticipate motherhood, and infertility prohibits achievement of what is seen as a major goal in life.  

Women have consistently been demonstrated to find infertility a problem of greater significance than men, and to respond with significantly greater levels of distress. The assumption of guilt and personal responsibility for the infertility seems to be more prevalent among women than men.  

For men, infertility may be viewed as a reflection on their virility. Knowing that he is, as it is said “shooting blanks” can threaten many men’s sense of masculine identity, apart from the question of parenting. It is the powerlessness and inadequacy of infertility that seems to affect men, rather than the frustration of fruitfulness and fatherhood.  

It has also been reported that the gender identity  of women is negatively affected in women in infertile couples, whether or not the woman is the one with the fertility problem. When a married woman cannot have a child for whatever reason, she feels less of  a woman. Throughout the world, adult identity for women is normatively organized around the milestone of motherhood, and the norm is particularly strong in non Western developing countries.   Psychological theories consider maternity the central milestone in adult female development. How do women construct gender identities when they cannot be mothers?   

And then  what happens when we add Christian faith into the mix? Church can be a hard place to be for the infertile. It is a community which often centres on families and children: family services, baptisms, Mothers’ Day Services, Fathers’ Day Services, and of course, Christmas. 

But what about the teaching of the church? As noted above, telling the stories of barren women in the Old Testament which all have a happy ending, together with the teaching of Psalm 127:3 that “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” can lead to infertile couples seeing themselves as not blessed, but perhaps cursed by God, adding a spiritual dimension to their pain. We need to teach clearly that the New Covenant is different to the Old. The Old Covenant depended on physical descendants of Abraham, the survival of Israel depended on biological reproduction. The blessing of children was a blessing to the nation, not to individuals. But membership of God’s people, the New Israel under the new Covenant is not a matter of biology. Jesus’ teaching shifts the primary allegiance of his followers from the biological family to the community of the church, the family of God. Indeed,  Whoever loves father of mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37). 

Another way that infertile couples can be hurt by church teaching is in the promotion of the idea that marriage is all about parenting, which has come to the fore in the discussion about  same sex marriage. One of the arguments that has been put, when reduced to a sound bite, is that marriage is all about children, so since gay/lesbian couples can’t have children in the natural way, they can’t be “married”. The argument is more nuanced than that, but the effect is unfortunately to seem to imply that any marriage which is naturally incapable of producing children is not really a marriage. This is not the intended effect, but it follows from making too strong a connection between marriage and procreation. 

Augustine had argued that the God-given purpose of marriage and intercourse is the procreation of children, and that without procreation, sexual intercourse is not ‘good’.  But Calvin concluded that procreation was not the primary purpose of  marriage. First, he acknowledged that marriage provides the means for sexual fulfillment for those who did not have the gift of celibacy.  Second,  he taught that the human condition is to long not just for physical but for emotional intimacy. The account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 shows that men and women are created for mutual love, support and companionship. Like Calvin, Barth thought of marriage as primarily about relationship. He strongly  repudiated what he called a relapse into an Old Testament mode of thinking that might imply that infertile couples have incomplete or abnormal marriages. Further, he strongly emphasised that for Christians, hope for the future is about eternal life, not in perpetuating generations of your own genetic offspring. 

Next we turn to various strands in Christian teaching about identity. What does it mean to be a man or to be a woman? There are strands in Christian teaching which reinforce the social expectation that motherhood is the norm and the primary role for women.            

In Catholic thought, it seems there are only two possible callings for women: virgin or  mother. Mary is presented as the model woman: she is both virgin and mother.  But a married woman without children is neither.  

Within Evangelicalism there are those also who teach that women’s God-ordained role is the domestic sphere, centred on child raising. This is how Andreas Köstenberger interprets 1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty”.  He does not consider the implications of this interpretation for childless women. He does have one sentence, more or less en passant to single women: “Moreover, if the reference to “childbearing” should indeed be understood as a synecdoche, even unmarried women are to retain a focus on the domestic sphere and all that it entails”. So childbearing is central to women’s role and identity. In this way Kostenberger reinforces, indeed baptises social expectations of women and it seems to me adds immeasurably to the pain and guilt which often accompany infertility.  

Single women and married women without children must construct gender identities around something other than motherhood.   Our primary identity, women and men, is to be found in Christ, in being a disciple of Christ and a child of God. Jesus had a very telling response to a woman of his day who thought that women’s identity was bound up in their procreative role. (slide 26) While Jesus was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”. But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11: 27-28).

Denise Cooper-Clarke is Researcher for Ethos, a medical ethicist, and Chair of Christians for Biblical Equality, Melbourne.


  1. Who are the counterexamples in the Old and New Testament: the women whose identity is not primarily depicted as centering on motherhood?
  2. Read Matthew 12:46-50 and Matthew 19:29. How does Jesus challenge “family values”?
  3. What do you make of 1 Timothy 2:15?
  4. Karl Barth said that the lack of a child “cannot be a true or final lack (for childless couples) … for the child who alone matters has been born for them too.” How could your church community make Advent and Christmas a season of hope rather than of grief for infertile couples?


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