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Birth Control

August 21, 2002
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The question...

Dear Rev. Schlissel,

Would you please address the topic of birth control? Do Scriptural principles teach that it is always categorically wrong for Christians to practice any birth control? Permanent forms of birth control? Is it a denial of the Lordship of Christ to say: “Lord, I love the children you have given us and praise you for them, but physically and emotionally and all around, I just can’t handle any more”? My husband and I have been fruitful and have more than “multiplied.” All our children are under thirteen. We also homeschool. Each day I rely on God’s grace, but the thought of yet another little one terrifies me. If controlling birth is okay, is a “permanent” solution permissible?

Quivering with a quiverfull in California


The response...

Dear Quiv,

First, a Jewish story from the 13th- century. “A poor man complained that he could not afford to support any more children and asked a sage for permission to prevent his wife from becoming pregnant again. The sage said: ‘When a child is born, the Holy One, blessed be He, provides the milk beforehand in the mother's breast; therefore, do not worry!’ But the man continued to fret. Then a son was born to him. After a while the child became ill and the father turned to the sage: ‘Pray for my son that he shall live!’ ‘To you applies the verse,’ exclaimed the sage, “Suffer not thy mouth to bring thy flesh into guilt”’ (Eccles. 5:5 [verse 6 in Christian versions—sms]; Sefer Hasidim, ed. R. Margoliot (1957), no. 520).

Now, on to an answer—or rather, the beginnings of one, for this is a big question, isn’t it? But let me give you my bottom-line answer at the top: Christians must begin their thinking with an anti-birth control sentiment. From that starting point exceptions might be made for compelling reasons. “Compelling” would be defined in concert by husband, wife and the collective wisdom of our Christian history and heritage. Based on the description you’ve provided of your circumstances, I do not believe birth control is warranted or desirable, however much you may be tempted to think to the contrary.

1) The Bible always and everywhere regards children as a blessing from God. The very first commandment issued in Paradise was to procreate: “God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’” (Genesis 1:28). I find this significant: the command is the blessing.

In Deuteronomy fruitfulness is put forth as Jehovah’s choicest temporal blessing, along with promised food to nourish one’s family. The first specified blessing promised for covenant obedience is this: “The fruit of your womb will be blessed” (Deuteronomy 28:4). All other promised blessings are subordinated to this one. In Leviticus the promise of food is found first, followed by this: “I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers.”

This attitude toward children is ubiquitous and uniform throughout Scripture. Psalm 127, far from describing an exceptional attitude, is rather a summary of God’s mind on the matter: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from Him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” When we are told that “God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters,” we are informed explicitly that they “were given him through the promises of God to exalt him” (1 Chronicles 25:5). And in telling us of Obed-Edom’s eight sons, the Scripture adds the comment, “For God had blessed Obed-Edom” (1 Chronicles 26:4-5). Children are always regarded as blessing—the more children, the more blessed.

Surely abundant blessing might bring the need for “abundant” management. But that is the way to approach the matter—not “How can I limit the blessing?” but “How can I better manage the blessing?”

2) The historic testimony of the Christian church, and even of orthodox Judaism, has been, overall, pretty uniform in opposing birth control. Many people are of the mind that only Roman Catholics oppose birth control. In his book, The Bible and Birth Control, Charles Provan, a Lutheran minister, has shown that the case is otherwise. Let me say clearly that while I agree with Mr. Provan in substance, I nevertheless find certain of his arguments unconvincing. Also, the book depends too much on the Onan incident recorded in Genesis 38.

Nevertheless, it is at least suggestive that the only Biblical text which provides an instance of what might be called “birth control,” views it in an emphatically negative light. The Encyclopaedia Judaica comments: “The sole explicit reference in the Bible to what may be considered as some form of birth control occurs in Genesis 38:9–10: the Lord punished Onan by death because he had ‘spilled his seed on the ground’ to prevent the birth of a child from the levirate marriage to his deceased brother’s wife Tamar. On the strength of this passage, and as constituting a deliberate violation of the first commandment to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen. 1:28), the Talmud sternly inveighs against ‘bringing forth the seed in vain,’ considering it a cardinal sin (Nid. 13a).”

Calvin, commenting on the Onan passage, says, “The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring. This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb…If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment…”

Luther agreed. “Onan, unwilling to perform his obligation, spilled his seed. That was a sin far greater than adultery or incest, and it provoked God to such fierce wrath that He destroyed him immediately.”

The Dutch Annotations upon the whole Bible, ordered and appointed by the Synod of Dordt, 1618, compare Onan’s sin to abortion: “[T]his was even as much, as if he had (in a manner) pulled forth the fruit out of the mother’s womb, and destroyed it.”

3) More recently, and one might say more moderately, the Christian Reformed Church offered a timely, though largely unheeded, testimony. Article 176 reads, in part, as follows:

In view of the increasing sensualizing of marriage in our day, the steady decline in the birth rate not only in the world at large but also in the Church of Jesus Christ, and the alarming prevalence of practices which are contrary to the ordinances of God and violate the Christian ideal of marriage and parenthood, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, assembled at Grand Rapids, Michigan, June, 1936, feels constrained to address the following testimony to the churches.

According to the teaching of Holy Writ marriage is a creation ordinance instituted by God with a twofold purpose: the loving companionship of husband and wife in a lifelong physico-spiritual union, and the begetting of children in and through this marital love life. Scripture expresses both these aims in solemn words of the Almighty Himself. The former in Gen. 2:18 and 24, where we read, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him . . . Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh. And the latter in Gen. 1:28, where, following the statement that God made man male and female, we read the divine injunction: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth . . .” Implied in the former passage are the duties and privileges of marital love, companionship, and mutual helpfulness; and in the latter those of reproduction, fatherhood, motherhood, and Christian nurture.

In a fallen world the sinful inclination of the human heart is to trample upon these ordinances of God and to pervert the functions of holy wedlock to selfish and unholy ends. In this way the sacred marriage union may deteriorate, and in many cases has deteriorated, into a life of sensuality and selfish indulgence. One such form of perversion of the marriage ordinance of God is seen in the refusal on the part of physically normal married people to beget children, or in their failure, when able to do so, to reproduce the race adequately. Many look upon childbearing as an incidental instead of a primary function of marriage. And the idea that the size of one's family is to be determined by mere considerations of personal preference, instead of by the ordinances of God, is apparently making headway even among Christian people.

In the face of conditions and practices occasioned by these perverted views, the Synod desires to re-assert the Christian, the biblical view of marriage and parenthood. In the light of the twofold scriptural principle stated above there can be no doubt that it is the duty as well as the privilege of normally endowed married people to produce as large a number of children as is compatible with the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of the wife and mother on the one hand, and of the children on the other. To be sure, the mother may at no time be sacrificed to the production of a numerous progeny. She is a spiritual personality and, together with her Christian husband, a joint heir of the grace of life (I Peter 3:7). But it is equally true that her supreme glory as woman lies in motherhood. In the words of the Apostle, she shall be saved through her childbearing” (I Tim. 2,15).

The Synod has no desire to define the specific duty on this score of any given husband and wife. This is, in the last analysis, a distinctly personal matter, which husband and wife must settle in the presence of their God and in the light of the best medical advice—Christian medical advice—available. Living as we do in a world suffering from the ravages of sin, certain conditions and circumstances may demand of Christians that they forego parenthood, or that the voluntary limiting of the number of their offspring becomes their duty before God. While making full allowance for this personal and medical angle of the matter, Synod is convinced that it is the solemn duty of the Church to bear testimony against the growing evil of a selfish birth restriction and to hold up the sacred ordinances of God and the Christian ideal of marriage and parenthood, which are increasingly being ignored and flouted in our day. Childbearing and parenthood are to be held up as a basic aim of marriage. The glory of fatherhood and motherhood, which Scripture stresses so repeatedly, should be made real upon proper occasion in the preaching and teaching of the Church, and especially in the thought, the conversation, and the life of all who name themselves after Christ. Disparaging remarks about large families as such should not be heard among Christian people. Lo, children are a heritage of Jehovah; and the fruit of the womb is his reward (Ps. 127.-3).

In this connection the Synod raises its voice in protest against the growing evil of the indiscriminate dissemination of contraceptive information, an evil against which even the American Medical Association has in its 1936 annual session gone on record on moral grounds, (Journal of the A.M.A., May 30, 1936, pp. 1911, 1912). Let Christian married people who are genuinely perplexed as to their specific duty at a given time rather consult their pastor, and, especially, some Christian physician of whom it may he expected that his advice will be not only medically sound but also in harmony with the demands of Christian morals in the light of the Word of God.

I do not share Synod’s somewhat optimistic confidence in physicians’ counsel. But then, a lot of water has passed under the medical bridge since this was written. Isn’t it a shocker to read that AMA opposed the dissemination (pun intended?) of contraceptive information on moral grounds?! It is obvious that we have experienced a complete, societal moral revolution since 1936. But many fail to give birth control the “credit” it deserves for its place in that revolution. It is safe, I think, to say that the technology of birth control made the sexual revolution possible.

Moreover—and I ask you to hear me carefully on this—while birth control and abortion are certainly not morally equivalent, it is nevertheless significant that the exact arguments employed to justify birth control were/are the arguments employed to advance “a woman’s right to abortion.” I asked to be heard carefully because I don’t want to be understood as saying more than I am actually saying. I know that birth control and abortion are not the same. But I do believe that when the arguments for the former led to widespread acceptance, acceptance of the latter became inevitable.

This is structurally similar to the case of “women’s rights” and “homosexuals’ rights.” Being a woman is not the moral equivalent of being a homosexual! However, when arguments were advanced—and accepted—which redefined a woman’s place in our culture, the way was paved for homosexuals to employ those very arguments with the very same success.

In all these cases there was a revision of values assigned by God. The domestic role of woman was denigrated; it was thought that, unless she does what a man does, she is not as valued. When God was no longer permitted to make gender and role distinctions, a third “gender” was added: homosexuals. And that was that. Similarly, in birth control, children were first redefined apart from God’s Word. They were no longer, in every case, a blessing. Only planned children qualified. Thus, in all instances (women’s rights, homo rights; birth control, abortion) the Word and will of God are rejected at the beginning. The Word is only brought in (if ever) after it has been reinterpreted and “tamed.”

To return to “the bottom line,” while I agree with Synod that this is a decision for you and your husband to make, you did ask me my opinion. So here it is: Children are a blessing, but they are also an investment carrying (to use the language of mutual funds) a front-end load. What I mean is, you have to pay up-front before you harvest some of the waiting reward.

Sure the burden can be great—on some days, seemingly unbearable! But the reward down the pike is even greater. If homeschooling is too great a burden, don’t blame your problems on the number of children you have: start seriously considering Christian school. It is better to have a dozen children in a good Christian school than less in a homeschool. But you can divvy it up. Perhaps homeschooling all for the first six years, say. There are many similar options. Your commitment to children should be greater than your commitment to homeschooling.

And while it would be presumptuous to say that you guys are doing something wrong—or not doing something right—in raising your children, I must admit that the thought has crossed my mind that your husband is not doing enough for you. He should be the establisher of an order for your home wherein your older children have taken upon themselves many of the burdens which seem to have fallen upon you. You simply should not be as distraught as you seem to be. There is no need. Your older children are old enough to be big assets in the domestic enterprise.

What I’m saying is that you are thinking of birth control out of an understandable frustration. It’s understandable, but not acceptable. If we lived in a God-fearing age, it would be easier to see that this is the case. But we Christians have been swept up in the philosophy of our time, a philosophy which reflexively chooses the short-term fix over the long-term blessing. There are many things which can be done in your home to lighten your burden. These should be done before thoughts of “birth control” are permitted entry, let alone talk of “permanent” forms.

One last thought: In an age such as ours, when the worth of children is measured by the plan of man, when the standard, the norm, for pagan AND Christian newlyweds is birth control, when half (and sometimes more) of the conceptions in numerous cities and states become abortion statistics—in such a time as this, surely no greater service can be rendered to the Kingdom of God than to populate it.

Reformed Christian families with many children should be looked upon as heroes of our time. Have as many children as God would be pleased to grant. That should be your starting point.

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