In August, The Interim ran a review of a booklet by Randy Alcorn, a U.S. Protestant evangelist, on the abortifacient function of many so-called contraceptives. Alcorn’s concerns reflect those of an increasing number of pro-life Protestants, showing that contraception isn’t just a “Catholic issue.”
In the following article, regular Interim contributor Tim Bloedow offers arguments against contraception itself – not just the abortion-causing kinds – based on his understanding of the Bible, from an evangelical Presbyterian point of view.
It’s hardly a secret that Protestants who oppose birth control or “family planning” today are a rare breed. Apparently, however, this has not always been the case. John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and many other early Protestant Reformers, including the Puritans who moved to America, had nothing good to say about contraception. I want to add my voice to the opposition to contraception and “family planning,” and I hope to add some constructive thoughts and arguments to this important debate.
Being committed to the historical Protestant view of the Bible’s exclusive authority and infallibility, my necessary focus and starting point is what I understand the Bible to be teaching, rather than, for example, the scientific and medical issues surrounding the safety of chemical conception, or the possible relationship between the contraceptive and pro-abortion mentalities.
I first want to talk about what I think is the overarching principle for those who support contraception—the idea that since responsible people must plan in other areas of life (rather than just sitting back and letting things happen), it is only reasonable that we should plan the size of our families.
One secondary point worthy of note here is that almost without exception analogies are immediately brought into the discussion to argue this point. Any student of logic, however, will tell you that an analogy can only supplement an argument, not prove it. The existence of a principle does not automatically justify its use wherever we find it convenient. Also, an analogy can be made to say almost whatever a person wants it to say.
For example, one critic of birth control recently said a friend who supports “family planning” used the example of a farmer, saying that a godly farmer has to plan and act (for example in setting up an irrigation system), rather than just pray (for example, that God would send rain). This birth control opponent, however, argued that the illustration actually serves his own position better.
“The farmer seeks to add wise and diligent means … to his labour to make his land more productive,” he notes. “Birth controllers, on the other hand, seek to prevent the multiplication of productive seed—children. For the analogy to hold, the farmer must seek to limit his crop’s productivity—perhaps by praying for drought or simply refusing to plant seeds likely to grow!”
Getting back to the main point: If we are to be involved in planning the size of our families (and the spacing of our children), then we must take our direction from the Bible in order to plan according to God’s will. When we go to the Bible, we find that it does teach us what to do in terms of “family planning.” The problem though (for those who argue for limiting the number of children we have) is that the Bible’s plan takes us in the opposite direction.
The Old Testament taught God’s people that women, because of their monthly period, were “unclean” during this time and for seven days afterward. It teaches that they are not to have sexual relations during this time. Because of what we know about human biology today, we know the period of time during which husbands and wives were permitted to engage in intercourse includes the woman’s most fertile period.
I confess that I have strong reservations about making this principle binding in the New Testament era because most, if not all, other areas of teaching about “cleanness” and “uncleanness” refer to the sacrificial system set up to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the final sacrifice for us. Therefore, at least within historic Protestant teaching, these commands were fulfilled in Christ and, therefore, are not binding on New Testament believers.
Nevertheless, binding or not, this model clearly reveals that God in His grace and sovereignty ordained that his people enjoy sexual relations over the period of time when it is most likely to produce offspring. I see no evidence in the New Testament that this larger principle has been reversed. Christ did not dismiss the law, he fulfilled it.
The passages about “cleanness” and “uncleanness” do not state that couples have to engage in sex during the period of the woman’s “cleanness,” but the New Testament certainly warns against abstaining from sex for more than a short period of time. I Corinthians 7: 3-5 says abstinence by married couples must be with consent, and for specific reasons: “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer.” This is a very serious command because it is made so that “Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Exceptions should only include situations over which we have no control such as illness or geographical separation.
By the way, this principle must also be faced by those (primarily Roman Catholic) who advocate so-called “natural family planning.” “Planning,” whether through man-made chemicals and products or by way of other methods, is not natural if it contravenes God’s will.
I am surprised at the extent to which I have heard even very credible Bible teachers caricature those who oppose birth control as hyper baby-makers. From their entrenched view that birth control is normative, they caricature opponents as people who spend almost all day in bed, not exercising their other responsibilities in a balanced fashion.
Actually, this criticism usually comes in response to the observation that children are a blessing. Critics will agree, but argue that you are not necessarily supposed to thirst after every blessing in unlimited amounts. The point is also made that many other things, including prosperity and good health, are also identified in the Bible as blessings, but we aren’t called to pursue them to the exclusion of everything else.
First of all, those who oppose birth control are not feverishly trying to have as many children as possible. They simply refuse to set up obstacles to conception during their times of sexual intimacy. One’s position on birth control does not determine the frequency of sex. In fact, it may be that the more children they have, the less frequently they set aside time for such intimacy (without more conscientious “planning”).
Also, it should be noted that the comparison between children and other blessings is wrong. Those who make the comparisons rightly point out that excessive pursuit of blessings such as material prosperity is wrong—but it is not wrong because they said so, it is wrong because the Bible calls greed sin. On the other hand, I have yet to find a Scripture passage calling an “excessive number” of children a sin.
Actually, one proponent of birth control I read recently argued that Psalm 127, where we are told that the man whose “quiver” is full of children is blessed, is to be interpreted as referring to a community, not a single “nuclear family,” because a quiver included 30 to 50 arrows. “Are we supposed to pray for 30 to 50 children?” he asks.
God’s perfect standard of righteousness, however, is also impossible to achieve in this life, yet God still commands us to “be perfect, as I am perfect.” Therefore, one could just as easily argue that, since it is all but impossible for one woman to produce 30 to 50 children, what God is telling us in this passage is that we should continue to desire and welcome as many children as He will give us with the understanding that each child is a blessing and that we are looking towards the ideal number of 30 to 50.
It’s interesting that people want to argue that there’s nothing wrong with not having children. On the contrary, biblical morality is antithetical in nature (i.e., the opposite of right is wrong), and the Bible clearly teaches that barrenness is a “curse.” The anguish that Old Testament women felt over their barrenness was not simply a culture-specific response, it was an appropriate response to the teaching of Scripture.
Some people may argue that barrenness is the lack of children, so once a couple has at least one child, they are free to stop. Barrenness as depicted in Scripture, however, appears to be the state of being unable to have children, regardless of whether or not one already has a child. If barrenness is a “curse,” then Christians who voluntarily choose barrenness must ask: “Why do you prefer God’s curse to His blessing?”
Dr. Ian Taylor, a well-known Ontario evangelical in creation science and home schooling circles, draws people’s attention to the command to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis I. He observes that the word used is “multiply,” rather than “add,” and argues multiplication requires a minimum of three offspring (while addition implies just two children to maintain the population).
I should note that the Bible certainly lacks any specific, indisputable command not to obstruct conception. At the same time, however, the lack of explicit biblical command or revelation does not in itself make the issue “secondary” in importance—the Bible does not explicitly define God as a Trinity either. We discover that truth by comparing Scripture with Scripture to discover the complete counsel of Scripture on this point. That is what I have attempted to do here, at least in part, on the question of “family planning.”
(Part two of this article will appear in the November issue of The Interim.)
Tim Bloedow, an evangelical Presbyterian with a BA from Ontario Bible College, is married and lives in Ottawa, where he works as a journalist and Campaign Life Coalition lobbyist.