World’s Population and the Church’s Response

2016 Book of Resolutions, #3361

Historical and Theological Statement

The population of the world was about 300 million at the time of Christ and changed very little in the next thousand years. The population of the world reached one billion in 1804, three billion in 1960, and rose to about 6.8 billion in 2010. It is expected to reach about 9.2 billion by 2050 (US Bureau of the Census, Population Division). From a finite globe, each human being consumes air, water, food, shelter and energy, and leaves behind waste to accommodate. Though there is no agreement on what earth’s capacity is, simple mathematics assert that at some point a growing population must reach the capacity of that finite globe.

Our Scriptures contain both continuous and time-limited commandments. The Great Commandment to love God and our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27) is continuous; it persists for-ever and its validity has no beginning or ending. By contrast, God’s commandment to the newly created man and woman, “Be fertile and multiply; and fill the earth …” (Genesis 1:28) is a time- limited commandment that ends when it has been fulfilled. For the first time in human history, humanity is faced with the challenge of determining if the commandment has been fulfilled, and if it has, whether human fruitfulness and multiplication is no longer mandated in the same way.

In Genesis 1:28, God goes on to command man and woman to “take charge,” meaning to exercise stewardship responsibility on behalf of God, the world’s creator and owner. As stewards of the earth, we now have the responsibility of identifying how our stewardship of human reproduction is fulfilling God’s will, and how it may be thwarting it. To assist us in this stewardship, God has provided humans with methods of contraception previously unknown. In clear distinction from faiths that reject use of such methods, The United Methodist Church believes effective, safe contraception is indeed responsible stewardship.

Our stewardship responsibility for human reproduction in the context of the population challenges of the world is in the service of God’s ongoing creative and re-creative concern for the universe was expressed through Jesus Christ, who has called us to find the meaning of our lives in dual love of God and neighbor. In our exercise of stewardship, we live responsibly before God, writing history by the actions of our lives. The imperative for the individual Christian and the Christian community is to seek patterns of life, shape the structures of society, and foster those values that will dignify human life for all in a world in which God’s love is infinite but the earth’s resources are finite.

Human Population Growth Impacts Many Issues

A review of today’s major problems, such as hunger, poverty, disease, lack of potable water, denial of human rights, economic and environmental exploitation, over-consumption, technologies that are inadequate or inappropriate, and rapid depletion of resources, suggests that all are affected by continuing growth of population, which is estimated to reach 9.2 billion persons by 2050.

  • Population Growth and Resources. While hunger, poverty, disease, injustice, and violence in the world cannot be simplistically blamed only on population growth, each is exacerbated by population increases, and swelling numbers of people makes addressing these issues more challenging. With each passing day we are discovering more and more connections between population and sustainable development. Population growth has an obvious impact on land use, water consumption, and air quality. Communities are called to be responsible stewards of all these resources. How can we protect God’s gift of the natural environment and at the same time provide a place of sustainability for humans?
  • Population Growth and Climate Change. Numerous world bodies—including the International Conference on Population & Development and the United Nations Conference on Environment & Development, as expressed in the Millennium Declaration and the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document—have affirmed the interrelationship of population growth and climate change. Environmental degradation, resource depletion, and climate change result from poverty and lack of access to resources, and also from excessive consumption and wasteful production patterns. Mountaintop removal for coal mining in Appalachia, destruction of the rain forest in Brazil, or fires to clear land in Borneo all result from population pressures, degrade the environment, and affect global climate. Slowing population growth can give countries more time to meet human needs while protecting the environment.
  • Population and Aging. Population growth combined with improved health results in growing numbers of elderly, many of them are among the world’s most poor. It is estimated that the number of people over 60 years old is expected to outnumber children by 2040 for the first time in history. As communities engage in sustainable development, it will be important for the needs of the aging to be considered, such as economic sustenance, health care, housing, and nutrition. We must also insure the elimination of violence against older persons and provide support and care for the many elderly who are caring for their children and grandchildren, including those affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. These concerns for the challenges faced by persons of different ages remind us that in our stewardship of human reproduction, parents must be concerned not only with their capacity to nurture an infant, but with the world’s capacity to sustain fruitful, fulfilling lives of increasing length.

Injustice Contributes to Population Growth

  • Oppression of women is a significant driver of population growth. Gender inequality in parts of the world exacerbates these complex issues. We know that in many nations, women are considered property and lack basic human rights such as protection under the law and access to education, housing, and jobs. Women comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor and many are captives (knowingly or unknowingly) within patriarchal structures, policies, and practices. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when women’s status is improved by the building blocks of equal rights—access to basic health care, adequate nutrition, proper sanitation, increased educational opportunities—fertility declines dramatically. (See Nafis Sadik, Population Policies and Programmes: Lessons Learned From Two Decades of Experience [New York: UN Family Planning Association, New York University Press, 1991], pp. 247, 267, 384.) One of the most important building blocks of equal rights is women’s full partnership in marital decision-making, including their expressions of sexuality. Meeting women’s unmet need for family planning would result in 150,000 fewer maternal deaths a year (Singh, Susheela, Jacqueline E. Darroch, Lori S. Ashford and Michael Vlassoff, Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Family Planning and Maternal and Newborn Health [New York: Guttmacher Institute and UNFPA, 2009]). Child mortality would decline by 13 percent if all women could delay their next pregnancy by at least 24 months. It would decline by 25 percent if women could delay their next pregnancy 36 months (United Nations [2009]. World population monitoring, focusing on the contribution of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development to the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals. Report of the Secretary-General. E/ CN.9/2009/3).

A Call to Action

As people of faith, we are called to educate ourselves about the interconnectedness of life’s critical concerns and live as responsible stewards. The church can address these complex population- related issues on several fronts. We call on:

  1. all United Methodists to access educational opportunities that focus on the issue of population and its inter-relatedness to other critical issues such as poverty, disease, hunger, environment, injustice, and violence, and to promote these opportunities in the local church;
  2. United Methodist medical and mission facilities around the world to provide a full range of reproductive health and family planning information and services;
  3. the General Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Women to advocate for legislation around the world that can help in upgrading the social status of women and that includes women in development planning and processes. Specifically, we call on them to continue advocating for the United States to ratify the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and to encourage all countries to take action to ensure equal rights for women;
  4. the General Board of Discipleship and the General Board of Global Ministries to develop and implement programs within The United Methodist Church that provide and/or enhance educational opportunities for girls and women, making it possible for them to achieve levels of self-sufficiency and well-being;
  5. governments around the world to give high priority to addressing the malaria crisis and HIV/AIDS pandemic and urge adequate funding to eradicate and prevent these diseases;
  6. legislative bodies of the developed nations to recognize the crucial nature of population growth and to give maximum feasible funding to programs of population, environment, health, agriculture, and other technological-assistance programs for developing nations. International assistance programs should be based on mutual cooperation, should recognize the diversities of culture, should encourage self-development and not dependency, and should not require “effective population programs” as a pre-requisite for other developmental assistance;
  7. governments and private organizations to place a high priority on research aimed at developing a range of safe, inexpensive contraceptives that can be used in a variety of societies and medical situations. Promote greater understanding of attitudes, motivations, and social and economic factors affecting childbearing; and
  8. governments to implement systems of social insurance and support for older persons to ensure adequate economic sustenance and housing, and quality health care and nutrition.


See Social Principles, ¶ 162K.

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