Breastfeeding in the Sanctuary: The Unpardonable Sin?

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While he 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.” (Luke 11:27 NRSV)

There is no doubt that breastfeeding in public is a controversial issue. We’ve all read stories about women being ousted from restaurants and stores for nursing their little ones. Both Target and Victoria’s Secret suffered backlash from kicking moms out of their stores for breastfeeding. Not too long ago, a breastfeeding mother was even ushered out of court. What should we do in church? What is the proper etiquette on Sunday morning?

Ironically, the Bible references breastfeeding in several scriptures.

Isaiah 66:10-11 (NRSV) says,

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her—that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.

Job mentions breastfeeding when he’s lamenting his life.

Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck? (Job 3:12 NRSV)

We know from scripture that Hannah breastfed Samuel (1 Samuel 1:24). There are many other references and none of them portray nursing as a lewd or salacious act. So why are we so uptight when it comes to breastfeeding in the sanctuary?

An impromptu survey on social media reveals a range of opinions from men and women.

Rev. Gareth Murray, Jr., Assistant Pastor at Hillendale Baptist Church in Woodbridge, VA, stated, “Someone wearing a nursing cover in church should be treated much the same way as someone wearing ministers’ garments—with high respect. Both are in the process of giving life.”

In contrast to Murray, some believe that if breastfeeding detracts from the Word of God or entices onlookers, then it should be done outside of the sanctuary.

Min. Serena Muse of Southeast Christian Fellowship Church in Washington, DC said, “It’s not about who is comfortable or uncomfortable, but more about respecting what is supposed to be going on in the service.”   “Mommies should step out of the service. Whatever you can do during service to keep one focused on God then do so.”

Elder Terry Johnson of Higher Ground Church in Ewing, NJ agrees. “This is somewhat of a tough call because I know it’s a sensitive social issue, but I am inclined to say that it is not appropriate to breastfeed in the sanctuary, even with a cover,” he said. “But I feel the same way about changing babies, feeding babies/kids snacks, and the like. The church should have a designated area for this—an area appropriate for both men and women to use.”

Breastfeeding mother Tara Murray responds, “I have breastfed during church service with a cover, but I wish our culture didn’t objectify women’s bodies in ways that required me to do so.”

Of course, our responses are rooted in cultural and societal norms. I bet women in remote villages in Africa or South America don’t have to worry about covering their breasts while nursing. However, since we’re in America, I think we should proceed with caution. As women, we don’t want to be a stumbling block for onlookers.

Romans 14:15 (NRSV) says,

If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.

Paul said this in response to arguments amongst Jewish and Gentile Christians regarding holy days as well as clean and unclean foods. He admonished believers not to be a hindrance or stumbling block to others. If breastfeeding in the sanctuary distracts others from worship or causes divisions in the church, then it’s best to nurse in private. We don’t want to destroy the work of Christ to prove a point.

We don’t want to destroy the work of Christ to prove a point.

My guess is that this will continue to be a controversial issue. Personally, I don’t breastfeed in the sanctuary. For me, it is a matter of privacy and decorum.

What are your thoughts? How does your church handle breastfeeding mothers?

 

Lauren Jones (@revlaurelj) is an Itinerant Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and serves in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. As a widow, she balances ministry and motherhood to two rambunctious children. She blogs about her adventures at www.throwupandtheology.com. When she’s not preaching, writing, or changing diapers, she raises awareness about epilepsy and the devastating effects of drunk driving as a volunteer speaker for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She self-published “I’m Singing This Song to You,” a letter to her children in honor of her late husband available for purchase on Amazon.

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