What does the Bible say about contraception? I belong to a church that forbids it. Can you please help me figure this out?
I would like to invite you to listen to the following podcast (26 minutes).
Below you can read the notes.
THE ETHICS OF CONTRACEPTION
Contraception: Intentional prevention of ovulation, fertilization of an egg cell, or implantation
of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall -- through the use of various drugs, devices, sexual practices,
or surgical procedures.
Contraception, any measure that prevents pregnancy, has a very long history. Contraception goes back many thousands of years, at least to the early 2nd millennium BC. Click here for A Brief [2-minute] History of Contraception.
The earliest Bible passage commonly referred to is Genesis 38. Believers are divided over the subject, some taking Gen 38 as an absolute prohibition, others denying that the passage has any bearing on the subject, or that it has any modern relevance.
In this article we will begin with the meaning of Gen 38, challenging the traditional interpretation that this passage forbids birth control. We'll then back up to early Genesis in order to examine the nature of marriage itself. The remainder of our study will take in a number of passages in both testaments, before settling on a workable conclusion that should commend itself to all Bible students. (I hope.) (It is not the purpose of the lesson to provide contraceptive advice.)
As with many complex issues, we begin thinking we're asking one question, soon to realize that multiple questions are involved. In this case, the issue of contraception entails such questions as:
- Is contraception permissible?
- Is procreation the sole purpose of intercourse?
- Does the Bible provide direct answers to our modern questions?
- Is family planning an area of personal liberty?
About Genesis 38
- Deuteronomy stipulated that one should be willing to marry his brother’s widow, in the event there had been no issue (Deut 25:5). This is called Levirate marriage. Yet instead of doing the right thing in obedience to Torah, Onan sought only to increase his inheritance (from 1/3 to 1/2) of Judah’s estate. For this reason he spilled his semen on the ground, despite a God-given mandate to build up his brother's line.
- Note: in some languages, onani (or something similar) is the word for masturbation (Swedish, Danish, German, Azerbaijani, Indonesian, etc).
- Onan was also willing to use Tamar’s body without meeting her sexual or emotional needs. He pretended to follow the letter of the law, but was not intent on true obedience to the command. He helped himself to her body — meaning that Er’s name would be forgotten and Tamar would be left destitute. Therefore God, who looks after the widow (Deut 10:18), raged against him. Did he think himself above the law? Did he imagine that the Lord would not see what he was doing, spilling the seed? Was Onan trying to deceive God and man? At the very least, he was defaulting on serious family responsibilities. At any rate, he paid for his sin with his life (38:10).
- In short, although the passage has much to teach us, it is not a scripture on contraception.
In the Beginning
- God provides for man’s needs. Unlike Gen 1, the Gen 2 account has no mention of procreation — and yet this is exactly the place one might expect to find it, since this is where God seeks to provide for the man's needs. Sex is a lesser priority than companionship.
- Note the wording in 2:24: “for this reason" — this is description, not prescription. Oneness is a vital purpose for marriage.
- Note also: Naked and “not ashamed” (2:25) — this extends beyond sexual interaction to emotional openness.
- In short, sex is not limited to procreative purposes. There is such a thing as (godly) sexual play.
Protestants & Catholics
- Most Protestants accept family planning, understanding Gen 1 (the divine commission to procreate) as a broad, collective command. Unlike Catholics, they do not turn to Gen 38 for support for the prohibition of contraception.
- Protestants and Catholics alike officially teach that procreation is the essential purpose of marriage, for example in the marriage vows. In fact, historically they have stood together against contraception, at least until a few decades into the 20th century. After all, through most of human history, families generally aimed to have as many children as possible.
- We may be surprised that the historical position of Protestants has not been to allow contraception, yet -- as with so many things -- our society has undergone multiple moral and ethical changes in the last half-century or so.
The Apostle Paul
- 1 Cor 7 — Marriage is about meeting sexual needs. Paul does not mention procreation anywhere in his reasoning.
- Eph 5 — "The two shall be one" = the climax of the apostle's argument. (“One” appears 14x!) The primary image of marriage is oneness. (Just as marriage reflects a picture of Christ and the church.)
- Interestingly, both Jesus and Paul turn from the Jewish value of marriage to a celibate path… Yet of course celibacy is a gift (Matt 19; 1 Cor 7), and the path of only a minority.
- Song of Solomon 1-8 celebrates sexual play, with no explicit provision for sex for procreation or parenthood.
- Ps 127 is about God’s provision of blessing and human flourishing. Thus “sons” in contemporary translation is inappropriate. Children is better, since one is at least as likely to be supported in his old age by a daughter. Ps 127 was written at a time when almost no one was unmarried. Things were already changing in Jesus’ day, though nowhere close to the situation in our own time. In the 10th C BC people understood family to mean more than the modern nuclear family unit (independent). Sons meant physical and economic safety. Polygyny was practiced. Villagers had no social security — only children. (No police force, or jail…) "Arrows" in the "quiver" meant security against one's enemy.
- Ps 139:13-16, although poetic, strongly suggests that life begins in the womb, from the moment of conception.
- Isa 56:4-5 — Children are not ultimate! Even eunuchs have a place in God's world. Spirituality, not procreation, is the highest good.
- Matt 22:30 -- marriage and, presumably, procreation have no part in the world to come.
- Priscilla & Aquila don’t seem to have had children (though this is a weak argument, because most of the apostles were married, but we don't read about their children).
- Nowhere does the Bible forbid infertile couples to have sex.
- The Bible never narrowly restricts sex to a single purpose (procreation). Our review of many passages has not uncovered any support at all for the Roman Catholic position.
- Contraception is, in fact, an area of liberty. Put otherwise, procreation isn't the sole purpose of sex. Recreation (to use a possibly too frivolous a word) is in God's plan.
- This is not to say abortifacients are permissible for a Christian!
- In marriage we commit to:
- Walking in the Spirit
- Recognizing God’s claim on our lives -- even in intimate areas.
- To return to our opening questions:
- Is contraception permissible? Yes .
- Is procreation the sole purpose of intercourse? No.
- Does the Bible provide direct answers to our modern questions? Not really, though there are principles that may help us to navigate these waters.
- Is family planning an area of personal liberty? Yes.
- A podcast (with notes), Abortion, Conception, & the Beginning of Life.
- Q&A 0762, The Morning After Pill = Abortion?
- Q&A 0719, In Vitro Fertilization.