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So What About Birth Control . . . ?

Douglas Wilson

In one sense, the fact that birth control is an issue in the church again is a good sign. No longer are Christians automatically assuming that a practice which is widespread in the world must be okay.

At the same time, just because multitudes of non-Christians are doing something does not automatically make it unlawful either. So how are we to approach the question?

The first step is to see if the Bible teaches directly on the subject. And at this level it is clear that certain forms of birth control are expressly prohibited in Scripture. Beginning with the most obvious, we may exclude infanticide and abortion. The Bible excludes all such practices in the most direct way possible — “Thou shalt not kill.” What many may not realize is that this commandment also excludes certain birth control devices, such as “morning after pills,” or the IUD. These are devices which prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, and which consequently are unlawfully interfering with a human life after it has begun.

But what about other birth control devices? Does the Bible say anything about the lawfulness of a husband and wife limiting the number of children they have, or spacing them? The answer is both yes and no. There is nothing in Scripture that says the act of using birth control is unlawful in itself. At the same time, most birth control as practiced today is sinful in its motivation and application. To understand this we have to look at a related subject first.

While the Bible says nothing about birth control, it teaches much about children and family. So before we can ask whether the practice of birth control is lawful, we have to ask whether or not it springs from an understanding of, and submission to, the Bible’s teaching on the blessings of family. And because situations vary, sometimes it does and much of the time it does not.

Let us start with an example of a situation where the use of birth control would not be godly. Suppose a couple is thinking this way: “You know, kids are a hassle, both our careers are going well right now, the world is really overpopulated, and besides, we can always go off the pill later.” Nothing is more apparent than the fact that this couple has been drinking in worldly assumptions from a fire hose.

Now a counter-example: “The Lord has graciously given us six children, and they are all a delight to us. But we have recently been thinking about using birth control because it is getting harder and harder to feed them all — and the tuition costs for a biblical private education (or the time costs for a biblical home education) really add up.”

Now the second couple may be mistaken in their assumptions (about their ability to care for seven children, for example). But this mistaken assumption is not the same kind of thing as the sinful and rebellious attitude exhibited by the first couple. In contrast, we see a family which believes that children are a blessing, and they have been acting accordingly.

Because the Bible says nothing about birth control itself, we must evaluate the action based upon whether the action is motivated by a biblical attitude toward children and family.

Some have argued that the case of Onan spilling his seed on the ground in Genesis is an example of God’s judgment on an act of birth control. And so it was — but here our point (about the primacy of motivation) is strengthened. The thing that was objectionable in Onan’s action was his deliberate attempt to rob his deceased brother of his posterity (Gen. 38:9). In other words, judgment fell on him because his motives were evil. Consequently, those who practice birth control with ungodly motives are following in the footsteps of Onan. But it takes a good deal of ingenuity to make a connection between this evil motive of Onan’s and the motive of a godly couple who practice birth control to space their children in order to maximize the number of children they can have (e.g., because she has to deliver by Caesarean section). So when there is no clear teaching in the Scripture on a subject of moral and ethical behavior, it is necessary for us to be silent. We may not condemn something as sin in itself simply on the grounds that most people who do it are sinful in their motivations.

But this does not mean that a Christian husband and wife practicing birth control are free to assume they are doing right. It is true, as was argued above, that this entire issue must be understood in the light of our motivations. It is also true that in the area of motivations, we are answerable to God and Him alone. The issue of birth control is not an area where the civil magistrate or the elders of the church have any business. If an ungodly attitude toward children and family is visible and apparent, then that should be addressed by the elders of a church. But they should deal with it the same way they would deal with an analogous situation (e.g., someone who has an ungodly attitude toward alcohol — which is not sinful in itself but which can be abused).

Parents are stewards before God, and it is children which are entrusted to them. Some parents receive the resources which God gives and bring up many children to serve Him. They are greatly blessed. Other parents may limit the children they have but believe the children they have to be a great blessing, and they also bring them up to serve the Lord. These parents are also blessed by God. When Jesus told the parable of the talents, He did not refer to any quarrel between the man who had ten talents and the man who had five.

The one who got into trouble (with his master, and not with his fellow-servants) was the one who feared to be entrusted with any responsibility. He buried what he had in the ground and was condemned by his master. And this is what many Christian couples have done and are doing. They don’t want the responsibility of parenthood, but God has said that He made them one for the purpose of godly offspring (Mal. 2:15).

So our modern debate about birth control has unfortunately gravitated to the methods used — as if the lazy servant could have justified himself by pointing out that the action of burying money in the ground is not inherently sinful. True enough, but beside the point.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the use of birth control is sinful. So it is wrong to say that it is. The Bible does consistently say that children are a blessing from the Lord. And it is a sin to say or act as though they are not.

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