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Safe Sex for the Christian

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Sexuality continues to be the vanguard of our ever-expanding “Secular Age.” One of the most immediate questions for Christians, especially the newly married, is the use of contraception and birth control. May a Christian couple use contraception/birth control in their Christian marriage?[1]

 

This question is challenging because Scripture is almost silent, obviously on modern birth control, but on the topic itself. So as with most ethical questions, the Christian must employ the principles from Scripture to this specific situation. Historically, the Sin of Onan (Genesis 38:8-10) has been the locus classicus of anti-birth control theology, but today, most exegetes across the theological spectrum agree that Onan sinned by neglecting his duty to levirate marriage. While marriage in the ancient near east was limited to procreation, the Bible broadens this to include companionship and completeness (Gen 2:22-24), enjoyment (Song of Solomon), produce godly seed (Mal 2:15), and analogize his love for Israel (Hosea 1). In a 1968 Protestant Symposium, the Christian Medical Society (CMS) concludes that the Old Testament forbids infanticide, sterilization, and continence to avoid pregnancy, but does not prohibit contraception.[2] The New Testament offers even less explicit guidance, though the CMS concludes that the New Testament’s systematic view of marriage is 1) for one flesh 2) without discussion of marriage sexual practice and bearing children, 3) marriage as sanctifying to each spouse. Thus for Scripture overall, “The fact of the matter is that neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament speaks of procreation as the end of sexual union. The end is the one flesh which is the generally indispensable presupposition of the marital union…This, at least, does not close the door on some birth control practice,”[3] though the burden of proof does fall on those who seek to restrict birth.[4]

 

With Scripture quiet, the ethicist is left with “first principles,” godly faculties, and the Spirit’s lead to discerning how to act. “First principles” include: 1) the sanctity of all human life, 2) the command from God to multiply and fill the earth, 3) God’s design for marriage as the means to children, and desire to bless couples through children, 4) the mutual obligation of spousal satisfaction through sex, and 5) that fetuses are human and known to God within the womb on a mysterious, sublime level, and 6) marriage is a pinnacle of inter-human intimacy. Scripture attests to these strongly.

 

There is a robust tradition in Christian thought that forbids any and all forms of birth control. The strongest argument is the Roman Catholic Church’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Humanae Vitae assumes that marriage is essentially and inseparably a uniting, procreating institution, clearest seen in the “conjugal act.” To remove either of these from sex is to deny its created essence.[5] Thus anything that violates this nature is an act of destruction, and illicit. Thus, anything that hinders either union or procreation is contrary to nature and sinful. “[T]he Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law…teach[es] that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (483).[6] On the Protestant side, Sam and Bethany Torode argue the same: marriage is about total self-giving; sex is the ultimate expression of that; contraception means withholding a part of self, and is thus selfish; [7] withholding self in sex is wrong, and therefore, contraception is wrong. The Encyclical, in particular, has many strengths; it anticipates with chilling accuracy most of the problems with contemporary contraception use.[8] And its hard-line stance prevents many of the ethical conundrums that a pro-contraception Christian finds him or herself in. Instead, the Church endorses “natural family planning” (NFP) as an alternative.

 

But in the end, the argument is faulty. First, to say all contraception is categorically wrong is to wrongfully bind the consciences of believers on a topic that Scripture does not clearly (or obliquely) speak. Second, Humanae Vitae is self-contradictory. The point of NFP is to lower the probability of conception. This is contraception; it may not be artificial, but the intent behind it (a major factor in an ethical choice) is the same.[9] If the purpose of sex is union and procreation, it is not enough to “remain open” to the transmission of life; to complete the essence of sex and marriage, the couple should seek transmission of life. Anything less is incomplete sex. Of course, it would be absurd to say that a couple morally ought to accomplish each of these purposes in every sex act. If it is imprudent not to limit family size by some means, the question becomes, “By what means?”

 

The hardest question for the pro-contraception Christian becomes whether it is wrong to use contraceptives that prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the wall of the mother’s uterus. This opens a deep philosophical discussion about personhood and when a zygote gains a soul, deeper than I can delve here. The Bible is clear that a fetus at some point gains personhood.[10] When this happens is unclear, and the CMS symposium is tentative. Further complicating, between 30-50% of fertilized zygotes fail to implant even without contraception,[11] forcing the conclusion that the God allows natural abortions (a tough theodicy question) or that a fertilized egg is somehow not a person yet. Nonetheless, because we do not know if a fertilized egg is a person, it seems that the most cautious answer would be to not to impede implantation because if a zygote is a person, preventing implantation would be abortion.

 

For a working conclusion, it seems safest to say that contraceptives are at least not forbidden by Scripture within Christian marriage provided 1) the method cannot possibly abort a fetus,[12] and 2) the couple is receptive to children, either biological or adopted. The biblical vision presents sex is the climactic picture of marriage but does not need to accomplish every facet of marriage in every sexual encounter—nothing in scripture says this.[13] Christians who conclude not to use contraception should not carte blanche judge their brother and sisters who conclude otherwise. It is possible for all of the biblical imperatives and guidelines for sex and marriage to be satisfactorily met while the couple still uses contraception.[14]

 

[1] This post assumes opposite sex, covenantal, Christian marriage. It will not speak to the public policy of contraception/birth control, admitting that danger of dividing the private sphere from the public regarding sexuality.

[2] Spitzer and Saylor, 20.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 23. John Frame agrees, that the biblical weight overall places the burden of proof lies on those who support birth control (Frame, 785). But he also cannot find biblical evidence that every sexual act pursue procreation (783).

[5] Spitzer and Saylor, 476.

[6] Spitzer and Saylor, 483. Any two consenting adults implicitly admit the possibility of “transmission of life” whenever they engage in sex; the act implies the willingness to the possibility to impregnation. The question then becomes one of probability.

[7] The argument is logically consistent, but this proposition is contestable.

[8] Ibid., 487.

[9] Humanae Vitae admits that NFP is “licit” when “physical and psychological conditions” compel the need to “space out births” (Ibid., 486).

[10] Psalm 139:13; Psalm 51:5; Luke 1:41.

[11] http://www.babycenter.com/0_miscarriage-signs-causes-and-treatment_252.bc?showAll=true and http://www.unc.edu/news/archives/jun99/wilcox2.htm.

[12] But to knowingly abort a person (whatever that is) is a greater crime, one which should be prevented at all costs.

[13] Of course, this logic can cut both ways. If each sex act does not necessarily require procreation, then each sex act may not necessarily require the unitive purpose; it is conceivable that a one spouse desire sex, while the other does not. In this case, it may be loving for the undesiring spouse to die to themselves and have sex to love the other person. This should not be the norm; if a couple finds that one spouse consistently does not desire sex, they should both discuss it and probably seek external help.

[14] Of course, abuse of contraceptives and a whole Pandora’s Box of other questions flies open with this, ones that Humanae Vitae does anticipate.

 


Bibliography

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008.

Spitzer, Walter  O. and Carlyle L Saylor, eds. Birth Control and the Christian: A Protestant Symposium on the Control of Human Reproduction. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1968.

Torode, Sam and Bethany. Open Embrace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002

AUTHOR - Jonathan Clark

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