Christians hold both sex and children in high esteem. All Christians agree that sexual intercourse within the confines of a lifelong marital bond is a blessed and holy act. Likewise, all Christians agree that children are a gift from the Lord, a blessing to be cherished. The capacity to share with God in the privilege of creating lifeprocreationis a great privilege and high honor.
However, Christians disagree over the exact relationship of sex to procreation. For some Christians, the meaning of sexual intercourse is drastically undermined unless every sex act remains fully open to the possibility of procreation. For other Christians, sexual union is a meaningful expression of covenant love even when the possibility of conception is negated through the use of birth control.
CHRISTIAN POSITIONS ON FAMILY PLANNING AND BIRTH CONTROL
The debate about the use of birth control stems from a larger debate among Christians concerning the propriety of family planning. If family planning is not permissible, then the debate about the use of birth control is moot. However, if family planning is morally permissible, Christians must then wrestle with the proper use of birth control.
In regard to family planning, some Christians believe that any attempt at family planning undermines Gods sovereignty over conception by placing human desires above Gods will. Consequently, any form of birth control is forbidden to the Christian open to Gods prerogative in giving or withholding children. Advocates of this perspective are few, but vocal, usually labeling any other perspective as satanic and anti-life for obvious reasonsattempting to thwart Gods sovereignty is certainly a sin of epic proportions! I will refer to this view as the no family planning perspective throughout the remainder of this paper.
Most Christians, however, agree that responsible family planning is consistent with the Christian faith. Disagreements arise in regard to the proper use of birth control in executing this plan. Advocates of natural family planning argue that only natural forms of birth control (namely, the rhythm method and coitus interruptus) are permissible methods of birth control. These forms of birth control are set in contrast to the use of artificial forms of birth control (e.g., condoms, the pill, etc.), methods that introduce a technological agent into the act of intercourse. I will refer to this perspective as contraceptive family planning for lack of a better term (artificial family planning sounds odd, to say the least). Ultimately, neither termartificial or technological is satisfactory for both are misleading, but in order to maintain the supposed contrast between natural and artificial I will use them. Later in the paper I will demonstrate the inadequacy of labeling the use of contraceptives as artificial or unnatural in contrast to the natural means of the rhythm method or coitus interruptus. Natural birth control is not nearly as natural as it purports to be, and artificial forms of birth control are not nearly as inhuman or as unnatural as the term may suggest.
In this paper, I will attempt to shed light upon this debate by considering the question posed by Stanley Grenz: Is it proper for a married couple to employ technological methods in an attempt to prevent conception while engaging in normal sexual relations? Grenz question limits the discussion to the propriety of contraceptive forms of birth control within the context of marriage.
According to Stanley Grenz, nearly every age and society has practiced some form of birth control, forcing Christians to grapple with its ethical validity. The debate has become more complex in light of new technologies. While only a few options for birth control were available in the past, medical advances have increased options. This new state of affairs has prompted several responses from Christians.
The Roman Catholic Position
The Roman Catholic Church allows certain natural birth control practices (rhythm method and coitus interruptus), but rejects as sinful the use of artificial contraceptives. This perspective did not develop in a vacuum, but has its origins in the theology of Augustine (354 403 A.D.) and Aquinas (1225 1274 A.D.). Even though neither theologian directly addressed the issue of birth control, both did much to influence the contemporary Catholic view of the meaning and purpose of sex within marriage.
Augustines profligate past prior to his conversion combined with his radically pessimistic view of fallen human nature caused him to be deeply cynical of erotic love between husband and wife. Because the sex act almost always involves sinful lust, Augustines view of sex within marriage is primarily negative. Only two factors redeem sex from completely being an expression of sinful lust: (1) marital sex protects ones spouse from seeking to fulfill their lusts outside of the marriage relationship, and (2) marital sex allows the couple to potentially conceive and thus share in Gods blessing of children. Thus, sex within marriage is not primarily for the purpose of expressing erotic love through physical union (since this is most likely an expression of sin), but it exists primarily for the purpose of procreation. In other words, lust is permitted for the duty of procreation.
Augustines rejection of the intrinsic goodness of sex within marriage is expressed in his teaching that the genital organs have become as it were the private property of lust It is this that arouses shame. Indeed, now our genitals are nothing more than parts of shame. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve experienced sex, not in the heat of passionate enjoyment, but in a state of controlled interaction as their wills, completely free from sexual desire, intentionally and rationally moved their body parts. Augustine describes how sex would have been experienced before the Fall:
The sexual organs would have been brought into activity by the same bidding of the will as controlled the other organs. Then, without feeling the allurement of passion goading him on, the husband would have relaxed on his wifes bosom in tranquility of mind and with no impairment of his bodys integrity so the two sexes might have been united for impregnation and conception by an act of will, instead of by a lustful craving.
If sex almost always involves sinful lust, the only thing that redeems the sex act is its potential for begetting children. If this potential is hindered, no completely pure purpose remains. It is only a small step to the conclusion that procreation is the only legitimate purpose of the sex act: [N]ecessary sexual intercourse for begetting is free from blame, and itself is alone worthy of marriage. But that which goes beyond this necessity, no longer follows reason, but lust.
Aquinas further developed Augustines argument, teaching that the primary (if not the sole) use of sex was procreation.
And just as the use of food is directed to the preservation of life in the individual, so is the use of venereal acts directed to the preservation of the whole human race. Hence Augustine says (De Bono Conjug. xvi): "What food is to a man's well being, such is sexual intercourse to the welfare of the whole human race." Wherefore just as the use of food can be without sin, if it be taken in due manner and order, as required for the welfare of the body, so also the use of venereal acts can be without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation.
Put simply, seeking venereal pleasure not in accordance with right reason [procreation] is the essence of the sin of lust. Marital sex must be consistent with the end of the venereal act or one commits a vice against nature, which attaches to every venereal act from which generation cannot follow.
If the sin of lust is present in marriage when the sex act is inconsistent with the goal of procreation, only sex performed with openness to the possibility of children is free of sin and divinely ordained. Even though neither Augustine nor Aquinas ever explicitly addressed the issue of birth control, their teachings provided the theological basis for the prohibition of artificial birth control later developed by the Church.
In the papal encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage) by Pope Pius XI, birth control is described as a criminal abuse by those who frustrate the marriage act by committing a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious. No excuse is valid including difficulties on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstance. Furthermore, no reason, however grave, may be put forward to justify the use of birth control. Those who feel overwhelmed by childrearing have no excuse and are guilty of sinful lust, wish[ing] to gratify their desires without their consequent burden.
In Humanae vitae (On the Regulation of Birth), Pope Paul VI teaches that there is an inseparable connection between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.  In Donum Vitae (On Respect for Human Life), it is clearly stated that [c]ontraception deliberately deprives the conjugal act of its openness to procreation and in this way brings about a voluntary dissociation of the ends of marriage. In light of this, [c]ontraceptive intercourse is, in short, an instrumentalist or pragmatic devaluing of the great human good of fertility and of openness to the goodness of human life in its transmission. It is thus an anti-life sort of act, one incompatible with a love for all that is good and with a love for human life itself.
Working from the foundation of Augustines thought, the Roman Catholic Church rejects artificial birth control, because it separates the sex act from its divinely intended goal. Sexual intercourse need not be for procreation but it must always be open to procreation, otherwise it descends to an act of mere lust or worse.
The Reformed Perspective
The Reformers understood sexual intercourse to have primary reference to the special dimension of companionship enjoyed by marriage partners. The Reformers expanded the purpose and meaning of sex so that it was no longer tied exclusively to the goal of procreation, thus understanding marital sex primarily from a relational rather than a generative perspective. Reformed ethicist David Clyde Jones contrasts this view with contemporary Vatican teaching:
The Vatican argument is that sexual intercourse need not be for procreation but it must always be open to procreation. This is based on an appeal to natural law. The idea is that Gods purposes are discoverable by right reason, and that purpose may be deduced from function. Since the sexual organs are by nature generative, to close off the possibility of transmission of life in their use is to go against nature. However, the function of the sexual organs is not exclusively procreative. They are a source of pleasure and a means of mutual self-giving expressive of the love and union of the couple. They are always relational, whereas they are not always generative.
Before the Reformation, the value of sexual intercourse was viewed almost exclusively through the lens of procreation. After the Reformation, the lens widened to embrace the unique joys and pleasures of the covenant companionship marriage provides. Thus, sex could be wholeheartedly enjoyed even if performed without the express intention of conceiving children. This view helped paved the way for acceptance of what are now known as natural birth control methods. Yet, neither the Catholics nor the Reformers could ever have fathomed the numerous other options that would arise in light of modern medical advances.
RECENT DEBATE IN CONTEMPORARY EVANGELICALISM
Contemporary life has brought with it a new openness to birth control. Technological advances have produced newer, safer, and more reliable birth control options. As with all technological advances, this has been a mixed blessing. Obviously, the same birth control methods that can be used responsibly by married couples are also available to decrease the risk of pregnancy and disease for those who choose to live sexually immoral lives. At the same time, our culture of death seems fixated on undervaluing and cheapening human life through violence and abortion and human sexuality through the objectification of people into sex objects. This complex state of affairs is the backdrop for the current debate among Christians concerning family planning and the means of family planningbirth control methods.
Evangelical Christians span the spectrum of available options. Some Christians object entirely to the concept of family planning altogether as usurping Gods authority in conception while others view family planning as a responsible means of honoring God through wise discernment and good stewardship. Those in the second campthose who embrace family planning as a legitimate practiceare divided between those who advocate natural family planning using natural forms of birth control and those who are open to using contraceptives to prevent pregnancy during intercourse.
No Family Planning
Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Mary Pride are two outspoken voices arguing against family planning. In her book, Lies Women Believe, DeMoss frames her argument with heated spiritual warfare rhetoric. In her opinion, women are caught up in a spiritual battle between God, the giver of life, and Satan, the enemy of life.
As a destroyer of life, Satan is definitely not into encouraging childbearing. Every child that is born has the potential to thwart his purposes by receiving Gods grace and becoming a subject of the kingdom of God. So anything that hinders or discourages women from fulfilling their God-given calling to be bearers and nurturers of life furthers Satans efforts.
According to DeMoss, Satan is not only interested in destroying the lives of presently existing people, but he is also out to destroy the potential lives of presently nonexistent people as well! Strangely, DeMoss fails to mention that every child born also has the potential to be a willing instrument of Satan and his evil purposes.
It also must be noted that DeMoss argument offers little hope to single women or infertile women. Is it not true that singleness and infertility both hinder woman from fulfilling their God-given calling to be mothers, thus causing them to unwittingly advance Satans efforts? DeMoss seems aware of this problem and writes, This is not to say that all women are called by God to marry and bear children, but simply that, generally speaking, this is the central role God has established for women. Does DeMoss really expect to encourage single women or infertile wives by telling them they are unable to fulfill Gods central role for women? Are they to be excited by the fact that they can fulfill Gods peripheral role?
DeMoss places the blame on Feminist theology that has influenced Christian thinking
leading to the legitimization and promotion of such practices as contraception, sterilization, and family planning. As a result, unwittingly, millions of Christian women and couples have helped to further Satans attempts to limit human reproduction and thereby destroy life.
For DeMoss, there is no doubt that birth control methodswhether natural or contraceptiveare tools of the devil. Furthermore, any attempt at family planning is to fall prey to wicked, feminist, and satanic deception. Either let babies happen or embrace Satans lie seem to be the only options DeMoss offers to Christians.
Mary Pride (who DeMoss quotes approvingly) ups the ante a notch by stating that family planning leads inexorably to the embrace of abortion: Family planning is the mother of abortion. A generation had to be indoctrinated in the ideal of planning children around personal convenience before abortion could become popular. This is strange logic, to be sure, but it typifies some of the heated rhetoric often exchanged by those convinced that any attempt to prevent conception is morally wrong.
Natural Family Planning
Sam and Bethany Torode argue for natural family planning and against what they call the contraceptive mentalitytreating fertility as an inconvenience, danger, or sickness[which] seems to go against what the Bible has to say about the goodness of creation and children. According to the Torodes, when married couples view children as something to be delayed or avoided, they oppose Gods purpose for marriage. Furthermore, they fail to completely share themselves fully with their spouse.
The Torodes place great emphasis on how [a]rtificial contraception appears to alter the language of the body. In order to fully be one flesh (encompassing the totality of man), bodily fluids must be exchanged with the clear possibility of procreation. If spouses fail to do this, [r]egardless of [their] intent, it seems to send a message: I am not giving myself completely to my spouse or I will not accept my spouse in his entirety. It is the naturalness of natural family planning that is its chief benefit. We ought to respect the integrity of our bodies, and to alter as little as possible the way they're intended to function.
It is only by remaining open to the possibility of procreation that God can bless the marriage with children. It's important to remember that married couples don't create childrenGod does, and they are a gift only he can bestow. We see our part as remaining open to children by being one flesh, and refusing to compromise that union.
The quote above demonstrates the Torodes unbalanced view of Gods sovereignty and human responsibility. While it is true that people dont create children, it is also true that God uses people as a vehicle to bring children to existence. Therefore, a couples decisions do play a part in the creation of children. In addition, the quote also reveals the Torodes assumption that true marital union is not possible apart from the possibility of procreation. Is it really true that marital union is compromised by contraceptive birth control methods?
The problem with Christians who embrace contraceptives is that they are far too obsessed with pleasure. The Torodes cite Ed Wheats book, Intended for Pleasure, as an example of this misguided focus. In subtly elevating pleasure to the place belonging to procreation and unity, we may be unconsciously buying into our culture's hedonistic pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself.To pursue this worldly form of pleasure is to miss the true pleasures of sex that arise from the knowledge that you are giving yourselves in your entirety, fertility and all, to each other. Without this full physical sharingbodily fluids and allspouses are guilty of merely using one another. As a married couple, we must always be on guard against treating each other's bodies as objects, or using them for purposes other than those for which they were created.
Aside from the redefinition of sexual pleasure to fit the Torodes convictions, their arguments assume that married couples purposely use contraception to indulge their selfish pleasures. But is this the only possible reason a couple may use contraceptive birth control? Is every use of contraceptives a subtle attempt to rebel against Gods design? Is it not possible that couples might use contraceptive birth control methods for selfless and commendable reasons?
As important as it is to the Torodes to fully share themselves with each sexual encounter, and as necessary as it is to not view children as something to be delayed or avoided, the Torodes do argue for a limited attempt at birth control through natural family planning executed through the rhythm method. This form of natural birth control has a built in benefit of foster[ing] communication between spouses as the husband learns the rhythms and cycles of his wife's body.
Not only do the Torodes assume that all wives have understanding husbands with thermometers and charts willing to forego sex, but they also naively assume that charting menstrual cycles is an intrinsically joyous exercise. Though it may appear strange to the Torodes, my wife and I have not found charting to foster communication and promote intimacy to the same degree they have. My wife has an extreme case of endometriosis, having had twelve laparoscopic surgeries in the last fifteen years. In light of this, it is no small surprise to discover we had trouble conceiving both our children. After numerous attempts to conceive (and two miscarriages), we tried (in vain, I might add) charting my wifes cycles, and planning sex in order to pinpoint the best time of fertility. This practice was not particularly enjoyable, nor did it necessarily increase communication or promote intimacy. Instead, charting brought great anxiety to our relationship as well as a mechanical feel to our times of lovemaking, reducing sexual intercourse to a mere task. In short, I can think of better opportunities for fostering communication and intimacy!
Artificial or Contraceptive Family Planning
Advocates of contraceptive use as a means of birth control believe in responsible family planning and the use of artificial methods to lower risks of unwanted pregnancy. This is the position that I will defend in the remainder of this paper. I will do so by arguing that: (1) the distinction between natural and artificial birth control is fuzzy and unhelpful, (2) Gods sovereignty encompasses and promotes human responsibility rather than negates it, (3) the sex act within marriage retains divine meaning and purpose even when no possibility of pregnancy is present, and (4) there are legitimate and godly reasons for preventing pregnancy while maintaining normal sexual relations in marriage.
NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL BIRTH CONTROL METHODS
Natural family planning advocates argue that only natural birth control methods such as the rhythm method (avoiding intercourse when the chances of conception are high) and coitus interruptus (withdrawing the penis from the vagina prior to ejaculation) are acceptable to God. They contrast these methods to the artificial methods of contraceptives, such as condoms, foams, and the pill. The difference between these two positions rests on the distinction between natural and artificial forms of birth controla distinction that is fuzzy, forced, and ultimately, unhelpful.
In what sense is the rhythm method or coitus interruptus natural? Only in the sense that neither method uses artificial means or introduces a technological agent into the act of intercourse. In all other senses of the word, both the rhythm method and coitus interruptus are truly unnatural.
The rhythm method forces the couple to include the calculation of the wifes pregnancy risk as a constant component of the sex act, while, at the same time, prohibiting normal sexual relations for almost half a month in order to prevent the possibility of conception. Is this truly natural? Doesnt this practice introduce numerous unnatural aspects that prevent the sex act from being a consistently natural expression of marital intimacy?
Coitus interruptus forces the male to unnaturally ejaculate outside the wifes body, making it unable for him to give full expression to the meaning intended in the sex act. Eric Johnson highlights further unnatural components in this method:
A rational point of view would seem to be that to rely on coitus interruptus as a contraceptive method adds tension and anxiety to the sexual act, that it deprives the partners of the natural gradual subsidence from climax, that it requires great skill and awareness especially in the male partner to bring the wife to orgasm and still withdraw in time to prevent ejaculation of some semen within the vagina.
Is this truly natural? Doesnt this practice introduce numerous unnatural aspects that prevent the sex act from being a consistently natural expression of marital intimacy? And if this is the case for both the rhythm method and coitus interruptus, why distinguish these practices from birth control methods that use artificial means or introduce a technological agent into the act of intercourse?
A further unnatural component is introduced by the unarguable fact that the so-called natural methods do not offer the same degree of protection as artificial means. Coitus interruptus still leaves open the possibility of the male depositing a small amount of sperm in the vagina. Likewise, uncertainties concerning the consistency of the wifes cycle and the risk of possible mistakes in monitoring increase the margin of error.
In contrast to the so-called natural birth control methods, artificial birth control devices reduce the risk of pregnancy by preventing conception (hence the term, contraceptives). A condom places a barrier between the penis and vagina. Spermicidal foams kill sperm after it is deposited in the vagina. Birth control pills alter the females natural body functioning in order to prevent conception. Like the natural methods above, these methods also have an unnatural component. The condom and foam interrupt foreplay in order to place the devices in their respective places. Likewise, the pill interferes with a womans natural body processes.
When viewed in this light, it is plain to see that the distinction between natural and artificial or unnatural birth control methods is forced and unhelpful. All methods involve some unnatural element intruding into the course of marital union. What is natural about imprisoning couples in a casuistry of methods, and forc[ing] them to discover tricks in order to dodge and escape the letter of the official doctrine? Isnt it obvious that the distinction between natural and artificial almost disappears, becoming very imprecise and blurred? The act that becomes safe by means of a computation of days or by mastery of the will is in every instance not natural, unless one plays with words. Therefore, both practitioners of natural family planning and users of contraception are engaged in planned procedures to avoid pregnancy that require communication between husband and wife.
The unspoken assumption behind the use of natural in contrast to artificial is that things that are natural must be more godly. Yet, this assumption is simply unwarranted. If one carried this argument to its logical conclusion, one would have to discount any procedure that altered the natural processes of the human body, including treatment for sickness, disease, and ultimately, death.
The argument against the pill on the basis of interference with normal body functioning is not to be lightly discounted. Nevertheless, this assertion would by extension eliminate many procedures of medical science procedures that seek to regulate or alter body functioning for medical reasons ought not be eliminated categorically.
In conclusion, the distinction between natural and artificial birth control methods can only be maintained by playing with words. Those who argue for natural family planning are the ones who usually make much of this distinction. The use of the negatively weighted word artificial to describe the opponents view is purposefully meant to highlight the sterile and inhuman component of contraceptives. However, contraceptives are the product of human medical advances and not simply sterile, inhuman, impersonal machines. A birth control method should not be rejected on the grounds that it is artificial as opposed to natural. What is called artificial means might just as well be called human means; it is an application of the art of medicine to enable the couple to carry out their morally legitimate intent.
The use of technological methods to prevent conception is not a form of playing God. It is simply responsible use of the benefits of contemporary medical science. As in other areas, Christians can accept the benefits of modern technological advances while remaining aware of the potential dangers. This is not to participate in artificial or inhuman procedures, but rather, is to benefit from the use of human ingenuity in regard to a common human experience.
GENERAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE USE OF CONTRACEPTIVES
Not every opponent of contraceptives uses every one of the following arguments in their defense, but the following arguments are generally representative of no family planning and natural family planning advocates.
Onan Displeased the Lord
The story of Onan (Genesis 38) and his refusal to fulfill his obligation of levirate paternity (his duty to provide offspring in his brothers stead) to his dead brothers wife Tamar has a long history of being connected to everything from masturbation to birth control. However, Gods obvious displeasure with Onan was not in regard to Onans birth control practices, but in regard to Onans contemptuous disregard of Tamar and his disobedience in fulfilling Gods law. To invoke this text as an argument for or against birth control is to make an exegetical blunder and to be unmindful of the context of ideas of the epoch about the sacred and the taboo, of the Law, and of the messianic expectation. If anything, the only thing regarding birth control that this text demonstrates is the antiquity of the withdrawal method.
Children Are Gods Blessing
Most advocates of no family planning or natural family planning argue that the Scriptures are clear that children are a blessing of the Lord (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 127:3; Matthew 19:13-15). The implication is that their position maintains this truth while the artificial family planning position fundamentally denies it. But this is an unfair and illogical conclusion.
[A]cceptance of the importance of children does not in itself necessitate a rejection of birth control, nor does it imply a total ban on the use of all forms. What it does demand is an openness on the part of married couples to the coming of children into their relationship.
An overemphasis on the blessing of children also unwittingly undermines the many other blessings that come with the covenant of marriage. Otherwise, we must assume that childless couples are without Gods blessing in their lives.
God Commands Us To Be Fruitful and Multiply
One subtle mistake often made by natural family planning advocates is in their assumption that God has commanded the conception of children in Genesis 1:28. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen exposes this faulty assumption by demonstrating that be fruitful and multiply is a blessing and not a command.
Genesis 1:28 is not a commandment, but a blessing. It does not refer to what humans must do to please God, but to what God does for and through humankind. The text says, "God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply'" (RSV). Fertility is not a command but a blessing that God gives to his creatures, to animals as well as humans (Gen. 1:22). The filling of the Earth is a gift of God's wisdom and shows forth his glory as Creator (Ps. 104:24, 31; Isa. 6:3).
Genesis 1:28 is not a cultural mandate (implying command) but a cultural blessing (implying gift). When compared with the blessing given to Rebekah in Genesis 24:60, it becomes obvious that the gift of children is not a divine right given in response to obedience but a divine blessing given out of grace. Later, when Rachel is unable to conceive, Jacob recognizes this by saying, Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:2).
Because this is a cultural blessing it is not given to any one individual but to the whole human race: God gave this blessing to the human race as a whole. He does not give it to everyone. Some couples are barren, and their earnest prayers for children are not fulfilled. Others, like the apostle Paul, are called to life without marriage.
If the blessing were truly a command then single Christians would be guilty of disobedience in this area: If Genesis 1:28 were a command that applied to every individual, then Paul would have been disobedient in his apostolic singleness. Paul and everyone else would be obligated to pursue marriage and to order their marriages to produce many descendants. Indeed, if the blessing were truly a command then even those advocating natural family planning would be in disobedience to this command to the extent that they in any way hindered conception. Why not enjoy Gods blessings to the full? Why hinder Gods blessings through natural birth control methods? Why not have as many blessings as possible? And why waste one moment in pursuing this end? In short, if the cultural blessing is really a cultural command, then the no family planning advocates have the most consistent position.
The Genesis narrative clearly distinguishes Gods blessing in Genesis 1:28 from Gods clear command in Genesis 2:16-17. This distinction carries through after the Fall. Adams sin consists in transgressing Gods command, not in transgressing the blessing. After Adam disobeys Gods clear command, he forfeits eternal life, but Gods blessing continues in full force. Yet now it is accompanied with pain, sorrow, conflict, and strife, so that what was once to be experienced as complete blessing is now necessary for survival and thus becomes part of the mankinds universal frantic effort to preserve individual life at the expense of others. John Walton writes, The need to secure survival adds an urgency that did not previously exists. What was enjoyed as blessing now becomes essential to stave off extinction. The blessing has not been lost, but the climate has changed considerably.
Contraceptives Usurp Gods Sovereignty
One of the most common arguments used against contraceptives is that they interfere with Gods purposes by usurping his sovereignty in regard to conception. As with the argument above, this argument, if logically held, could also be used to condemn those who practice natural birth control methods to hinder conception. Furthermore, consistent practice of this argument would necessitate refraining from any medical practice or procedure that would hinder Gods natural processes from achieving their intended endincluding death.
[T]his argument could be (and has been) used to reject human action in nearly every area of life. Death, for example, also belongs to the divine prerogative, and therefore by extension of this argument all attempts to heal sickness or forestall death would constitute meddling in matters which belong to God.
The problem with this argument arises from the unspoken assumptions of natural family planning advocates concerning Gods sovereignty. For natural family planning advocates, God can only be sovereign if we let nature take its course, come what may. However, is this how we normally understand sovereignty? Does an understanding of Gods sovereignty overrule any responsible human effort or participation?
In Scripture, Gods sovereignty is rarely used as a motivation to do something, but rather as the comforting backdrop to all we do. Gods sovereignty is meant to comfort us in our decisions rather than exempt us from responsibly participating in discernment.
Advocates of natural family planning fail to recognize that Gods sovereignty is exercised in and through the responsible acts of free human agents. In other words, Gods sovereignty does not negate human responsibility and choice. This is obvious simply by considering the many areas where human decisions impact the potential for conception. For example, couples decide when to marry or even if to marry, and this certainly impacts their ability to have children. Also, married couples decide how frequently to have sexual intercourse; long periods of sexual inactivity also impact the possibility of conception.
In short, a balanced discussion of stewardship and responsibility are often missing from many arguments that give the appearance of exalting Gods sovereignty. To suggest that birth control is evil or perverse because it undermines God's sovereignty is to underestimate God's sovereignty and reject our responsibility to serve him wisely.
Contraceptives are Harmful to a Womans Health
One final, but increasingly less persuasive argument is that artificial birth control techniques are harmful to women. Medical advances now provide a diverse amount of options that are medically safe, posing little or no risk. This is not a compelling argument against contraceptives, but rather, gives reason to use caution with certain methods, weighing their potential risks against their positive benefits.
THE BIBLICAL ARGUMENT FOR CONTRACEPTIVE USE
The Bible does not directly address the issue of birth control and family planning. Thus it is impossible to directly prove the propriety of responsible family planning by means of birth control from the Scriptures. Therefore in order to gain insight from the Scriptures concerning these issues, we must pursue another course. To be specific, we must seek to understand the teaching of the Holy Scriptures concerning the meaning and purpose of the sex act within the covenant of marriage. Is it true that all sexual relations must be open to the possibility of children for them to be legitimate expressions of love and obedience to Gods command? If the meaning and purpose of the sex act were limited to procreation, then this would be cause to forbid family planning and birth control. However, if there is a higher meaning and purpose to the sex act than procreationa meaning and purpose that remains even when no possibility of pregnancy is presentthen family planning and birth control are permissible options for Christian couples.
In the book, Sexual Ethics, Stanley Grenz distinguishes three divine meanings of the sex act within marriage: the sex act is a statement of covenantal oneness, an expression of mutual submission, as well as openness to children. He notes that the sex act retains the first two meanings even if the last meaning is negated by the use of birth controleither natural or artificial. This is so, because, according to Scripture and contrary to no family planning and natural family planning advocates, procreation is not the primary purpose of the sex act. This is the clear and consistent testimony of Sacred Scripture.
Old Testament Passages
When Adam first receives his wife from the Lord, the author of Genesis inserts an interpretative comment intended to shed meaning on the divine purpose and meaning of marriage:
For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:24-25)
There is clearly no mention of children in this foundational passage. Instead, the comment underscores the radical loyalty and intense physical and spiritual union that lies at the heart of the covenant commitment of marriage. In context, this interpretative comment draws attention to the fact that the womans role as mans helper comprehends much more than her ability to bear children. This point is important to understanding the full significance of the sex act, and thus will be developed at length below.
The Book of Proverbs admonishes young men to delight in the sexuality of their wives in order to combat the deceptive wiles of adulteress women (Proverbs 5:15-20). No mention is made of children, but the delights of foreplay and sexual intercourse are graphically encouraged and celebrated.
The Song of Solomon celebrates the sexual attraction between a man and a woman in vivid detail. The delights and joys of lovemaking in the presence of the favorable oversight of God are presented as good, noble, and fulfilling. Again, the enjoyment of sex is not connected with procreation, indicating a greater meaning and purpose to the sex act than conception.
New Testament Passages
In the New Testament, marital intercourse is to be kept from defilement by outsiders (Hebrews 13:4) for it is a clean and godly act in the sight of God, whether it results in childbearing or not. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul warns against defrauding others through loose sexual conduct, thus grievously sinning against Gods Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
The giving of the body in sexual union is the way each spouse submits to the other, protecting each other from sin by providing pleasurable intercourse for the other (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). In this context, the union is for the purpose of maintaining purity and devotion in the midst of humble submission. The only time that this practice should be set aside is for the purpose of prayer. However, this should not continue for long lest Satan gain a foothold in the relationship (1 Corinthians 7:5). Once again, the purpose of sex is not directly connected to childbearing. Instead, it is to be regularly enjoyed for mutual protection, submission, and pleasure.
Contrary to Augustine and Aquinas, sex is not solely for the purpose of avoiding incontinence, nor is it solely for the purpose of producing children. Sex is the fleshly sign of covenant love, sealing the marriage covenant (in literally becoming one flesh), satisfying the covenants demands (in giving ones self completely to the other), and pursuing and maintaining true union throughout the course of the marriage.
Significance of the Helper
There is a clear connection between perceiving the purpose and meaning of marital sex to primarily revolve around procreation and reducing the females helper status to little more than her ability to help in childbearing and childrearing. This seemingly insignificant assumption developed early in church history concerning the role of the woman in Genesis 2 has had far-reaching negative impact on all aspects of official church teachings on male and female roles, including the purpose of these roles in the sex act.
God creates Eve to be a helper suitable to or corresponding to Adam (Genesis 2:18). In what way or ways is she Adams helper? According to Augustine and Aquinas, Eve was a poor help to Adam in every way except onein regard to her capacity to bear children.
According to Augustine, if God had created another man for Adam, that man would have been a greater help to Adam in every possible way except in regard to the womans capacity to reproduce.
Now suppose the woman was not made for the man to be his helper in begetting children, then how would she be able to help him? It would hardly be the case that she would be made to till the earth with him, for there was not yet any labor required to make her help necessary. In any case, if there were any such need, a male helper would be better, and the same could be said of the comfort of anothers presence if Adam were perhaps weary of solitude. How much more agreeably could two male friends, rather than a man and a woman, enjoy companionship and conversation in a life shared together. And if they had to make an arrangement in their common life for one to command and the other to obey in order to make sure that opposing wills would not disrupt the peace of the household, there would have been proper rank to assure this, since one would be created first and the other second, and this would be further reinforced if the second were made from the first, as was the case with the woman. Surely no one will say that God was able to make from the rib of the man only a woman and not also a man if he had wished to do so. Consequently, I do not see in what sense the woman was made as a helper for the man if not for the sake of bearing children.
Aquinas, following Augustine, shares the same sentiments:
It was necessary to make woman as a partner in the work of procreation; not indeed to help in any other work, as some have maintained, because where most work is concerned man can get help more conveniently from another man than from a woman.
Limiting Eves helper status to her ability to reproduce laid the foundation for limiting the purpose of the sex act to procreation. When ones wife is reduced to being merely a perpetual womb, the mystery of sexual love is reduced to reproduction. Once the meaning of the sex act is entirely determined by the end of procreation, any intercourse done without this intention is faulty.
But the help the woman provides goes far deeper than merely providing a receptacle for the males seed. The Hebrew word used for helper is found 21 times in the Hebrew Old Testament16 of 21 times it is used of God. The word does not imply inferiority or second-class status. Rather, the word implies that the woman will greatly aid the man in understanding himself and the meaning of his existence. The womans love will support, enlarge, and ennoble the man. In light of this, it would be a great tragedy to limit the help the woman provides to baby-making.
The womans love is capable of such heights, because she shares with the man in the high privilege of being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). It is this mark of dignity that elevates human sexual union above that of the animals. Animals have sex solely to reproduce because the capacity of expressing transcendent god-like love through the self-sharing of sexual intercourse is non-existent for them. Therefore, it is the capacity to enjoy sexual love without reproduction that is the very mark of sexual love among those who bear the image of God.
[I]n lower organisms, there is at once great reproductive power and a complete absence of sexual attraction, from the very fact that the sexes are not differentiated. With more advanced organisms, the sexual attraction increases as the reproductive force diminishes, until, at the summit, with man, the strongest sexual love becomes visible, even in the case of a total absence of reproduction. And thus, if at the two extremes of animal life we find, on the one hand, reproduction without sexual love, and, on the other, sexual love without reproduction.
Sadly, our sexual lives visibly bear the mark of mankinds Fall, reducing the meaning of sexual love to procreation alone, thus objectifying the woman.
Both the preservation of the species and selfish sexual pleasure reduce the partner to a mere tool and destroy his [or her] dignity. Love alone bestows a spiritual meaning upon marriage, and justifies it by elevating it to perceive the countenance of the beloved in God.
Indeed, it is hard to fathom the difference between animal sex and human sex if the priority of human love and its ultimate manifestation in the sex act is not placed as the highest and noblest purpose and meaning of sexual union. Reducing sexual love to procreation lowers it to the animal level. When my wife and I attempted to conceive by charting cycles and performing sex more as a task than as an expression of covenant union, our sexual intercourse lost this transcendent component that is necessary to distinguish it from animal copulation.
Even Pope Pius XIs encyclical Casti Connubii states this:
This outward expression of love in the home must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.
Simply put, procreation does not determine and establish the value of marriage.
To be in the presence of another humanwhether male or femaleis to be in the presence of an image-bearer of God. When that person is ones spouse, then reflecting Gods relational capacity within the Trinity through union of mind, purpose, will, and (for humans) body is a way of glorifying God. Moreover, in the mystery of marital sex, the couple spiritually and physically inhabit one another, further reflecting the divine mystery of mutual indwelling. Conception of a child may be the fruit of this union, but the fullness of the union is not depleted if this end is not sought after or achieved. Because the woman exists as mans helper, her role is much greater than producing babies. Her place is to share in the mutual self-giving of sexual union, and in so doing, to reflect the joy and delight of the Triune God.
LEGITIMATE REASONS FOR THE USE OF BIRTH CONTROL
Responsible use of birth controlwhether natural or artificialis a permissible ethical choice for Christians. Advocates of no family planning and natural family planning overly simplify the issue. The problem is not that people use contraception; the problem is that people use contraception for wrong reasons. The Christians goal ought to be to use all that God provideswhether naturally or through human meanswisely and responsibly.
There are illegitimate reasons for the use of birth control. The fear of the responsibilities of parenting or the inability to ultimately control the outcome of childbirth may keep some Christians from being open to conception. Furthermore, the inability to trust God may do the same. Perhaps the worst reason to refrain from conception is selfishness. However, much caution should be used in judging others if they refrain from having children, since it is impossible to accurately assess their motives and purposes. Just because all Christians should be open to children does not mean that all Christians must or should pursue bearing children. In other words, there ought to be good reasons for having children just as there ought to be good reasons for not having children. Our responsibility rises above merely causing babies to exist or letting babies happen.
In light of this, there are numerous reasons a Christian may responsibly refrain from having children through the use of birth control methods. Following are some reasons:
Insufficient financial means to adequately support a child. The cost of providing for children is increasing. Responsible stewardship of ones means involves discerning as best as possible how many children a couple can possibly rear. The responsibilities of a parent rise far above conception. The task of parenting is not fulfilled simply by giving children existence; they must be afforded intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation, as well as vocational skills. Some will argue that preparation and forethought undermines trust in Gods provision. However, this is to assume that the promise of Gods provision is sufficient warrant to recklessly pursue any avenue that happens to appear. Perhaps the balance is best expressed in this statement: We need not be overly anxious because of the providence of God, but also, we should not be overly presumptuous because of human responsibility.
Physically fatigued parent(s). Raising children is an exhausting, but rewarding, endeavor. It saps the strength out of even the most physically fit parent. This must be kept in mind prior to conception. Is the couple already taxed to the limits? They will want to simplify their life if possible in order to have sufficient strength to raise a child. Is a mother or father of a child showing signs of exhaustion? If so, the parents must consider this factor in light of the possibility of future children. Dont future children have a right to a mother or father who is healthy and able to give them sufficient attention? A woman has no obligation to bear as many children as she physically can, to the point of exhaustion.
Taking time to strengthen the marriage relationship. Almost every advocate of no family planning or natural family planning undermines the value of this. In so doing, they demonstrate that marital union and mutual love is not the priority of the sex act. A stable home is vital to grow a healthy and loving child. Taking time to strengthen a marriage partnership before the arrival of a radically needy child is a demonstration of responsible stewardship and marital love.
Dual careers. Most natural family planning advocates are conservative in mindset. Subsequently, their view of a proper Christian family is often patterned after the Victorian family of the industrial and post-industrial age. Therefore, the idea that both partners in a marriage may pursue a career that makes strong demands on their time and energy is often undermined as unbiblical. Yet, this is to pattern families after a dying cultural model of the 19th and 20th century, as well as to limit the rich diversity that can be demonstrated in marriage relationships. Obviously, the pursuit of a meaningful career could conceal a flight from the task of mothering, but not necessarily. It would be a greater tragedy for a woman committed to an honorable career to be forced to mother against her wishes when reliable birth control methods are available. Must the stresses and strains of two careers also be accompanied with the fear and dread of possible pregnancy because of unreliable birth control?
Health problems. If one or both partners in a marriage suffer from chronic health problems, then this may be good reason to forego childbearing. Parenting requires high amounts of energy. Serious health issues may make it difficult for one spouse to care for the other, much less care for children.
Fear of passing on genetically transmitted defects. More and more diseases and disabilities are being discovered that are genetically passed on from the parents. Although the fear of perpetuating defects may rise above the real risk of doing so, it should be accepted that this could be a serious hindrance to a couples desire to have children. Not only are they faced with the burdens that come from normal healthy children, but they must also face the possibility that their burdens may escalate should the defect be passed on.
Special calling. Christians have different callings. We should never assume that all married Christians must be called to parenthood simply because they are married. God could very well call them to deny the blessing of children for the greater blessing of service in another area. Such decisions should be rare exceptions, not undertaken lightly or for reasons of self-indulgence. They should say No to God's blessing of children only for the sake of greater good or need.
Concerns about overpopulation. Christians are called to personal righteousness as well as social justice. It is easy to argue for letting babies happen when surrounded by the comfort, ease, and abundance of American society. However, in other cultures, this is not so easy. A letter to the editor in regard to the Torodes natural family planning article puts it well.
The Make Love and Babies piece by Sam and Bethany Torode may have been more interesting if they had been writing from Sao Paulo, Calcutta, Tokyo, or Beijing. Writing from rural Wisconsin, Their views are more surrealistic than realistic.
In rural Wisconsin, viewpoints such as theirs probably will have no social consequences. Multiple reproduction would create little overall strain on resources or their childrens bright, unrestrained future. Unfortunately, this is not likely to be true in many other areas of the world.
In Beijing I have watched rivers of people on dense concentrations of bicycles migrate to work each day. I have seen the pain of a limited future, clawing competition for the few real opportunities, and other social consequences of the Mao era. Maximal expansion of families was seen as a personal duty to the communist faith.
In most other areas of the world, irresponsible family planning has resulted in disaster. Is this just let babies happen philosophy really Gods plan?
There are certainly other legitimate reasons for a Christian married couple to refrain from having children. These are offered only as a sampling. The tie that binds all these together is that they all apply to the different areas of stewardship and responsibility that each Christian has. God is honored by the wise use of our resources, strength, and gifts. God gives us all distinct callings. God calls us to love and serve our partners. God calls us to wisely consider the risks of spreading defects. Finally, God calls us to social justice and a concern for the well-being of others.
It is morally permissible for a married couple to employ technological methods in an attempt to prevent conception while engaging in normal sexual relations. Contrary to no family planning advocates, Christian couples do not thwart Gods sovereignty by responsibly planning for a family.
It is perfectly clear that one must avoid all complicity with decadent morals. But one must equally steer away from every attitude that renounces human responsibility and invokes divine Providence too lightly. Such an attitude has nothing in common with an act of genuine faith. God as given us intelligence and the freedom to choose and to perform conscious deeds, and this gift presupposes the spiritual duty of fully assuming the consequences.
If planning for a family is morally permissible (as both natural family planning and artificial contraceptive advocates maintain), then some form of birth control must be allowablewhether natural or artificial. In maintaining that only natural birth control methods are permissible for Christians, natural family planning advocates fail to see that the methods they employ are not as natural as they appear. Furthermore, they elevate procreation as the purpose and end of the sex act, thus diminishing the higher value of the sex act as a sign of covenant love and symbol of intimate communion. Procreation is no more noble in Gods sight simply because it is blindly left to chance.
© Richard J. Vincent, May 1, 2002