By Peter Amsterdam
January 21, 2020
As we continue to explore the seventh commandment—“You shall not commit adultery”—in relation to the Christian ethical view of marriage and sex, we move on to the topic of birth control.
Throughout the Bible, having children is spoken of as a blessing from God. The very first command He gave to Adam and Eve was Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.1 In both the Old and New Testaments, Scripture offers positive views about children and their importance.
Children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.2
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.3
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.4
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”5
He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”6
Both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches agree that children are a blessing from God. They don’t, however, share the same view when it comes to birth control. In the Catholic view, all forms of birth control are morally wrong, with the one exception of periodic abstention from intercourse during a woman’s fertile period each month, known as the “rhythm method.” The Catholic Church considers this a “natural” form of birth control as opposed to “artificial” forms.
It seems that the general Protestant view was similar to the Catholic view until the 1930s, when the Anglican Church decided that certain forms of contraception were acceptable. Since that time, most Protestant churches have accepted the use of contraception, though certain forms are not considered moral, as I will address below. Today, the majority of evangelical Protestants believe that using contraception is a decision each couple is free to make, and it is up to them to decide how many children they will have. Because Scripture teaches that children are a blessing, it is generally understood among Protestants that they should plan to have children at some point in their marriage, but it is considered morally legitimate to limit the number and space the births if they so choose.
The Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant Christians who object to contraception often refer to the story of Onan in the book of Genesis as a precedent for their belief that birth control is sinful. In Genesis chapter 38 we read that Onan’s older brother Er was slain by God before having any children. In the culture of that time, when a man died leaving no children, his next of kin was obligated to marry the dead man’s widow in order to produce a child. Such a child was considered to be the descendant of the dead brother, and thus was able to eventually take care of his mother, continue the family name, and receive his father’s double share of any inheritance. Such a marriage is referred to as a levirate marriage, which comes from the Latin word levir, meaning “a husband’s brother.”
When Er died, Judah [the father of Er and Onan] said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also.7
The Roman Catholic view is that Onan died because he used withdrawal as a means of contraception. Their belief is that the contraceptive act was immoral and sinful, and therefore Onan was punished by death. They consider this passage as teaching that contraception is a grave sin and therefore forbidden.
Another interpretation is that Onan was not judged because he wasted his semen on the ground, but because he refused to carry out his levirate responsibility by doing so. This wasn’t a one-time act, as the passage said that whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, Tamar, he would waste the semen on the ground. Onan put his own interests ahead of Tamar and her potential child. If a man died without a son, his inheritance would pass on to his daughter; and, if he had no daughter, then the inheritance would pass to his brothers. Onan may not have wanted Tamar to have a child so that he would be in a position to receive his dead brother’s inheritance. In that case, Onan was not judged because he used contraception, but because he was selfish and deceptive. God was very displeased because of his actions and attitudes, and therefore took Onan’s life.
Modern methods of contraception give parents the option of choosing how many children they want to have and when to have them. A newlywed couple, for example, may not immediately be in a financial position to start a family, and may choose to wait until they are in a better position to raise children. A couple with a number of young children may not feel that they can manage another child at the time, and may therefore choose to wait until they feel they can. One Christian ethics book states:
Each member of a family has financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Parents should know whether those needs are being met, and they should also know whether the introduction of another life into that home would make it difficult or even impossible to meet the needs of all members.8
Contraception can be helpful in putting space between children. Having too many children too close together can bring unnecessary strain on the mother and on the family in general. While the Bible has a positive view of having children, there is no command to have as many children as possible. When parents have all the children they can reasonably care for, it may be acceptable to prevent themselves from having further pregnancies by using contraception.
While contraception is generally morally acceptable for Protestants, this does not mean that all methods of birth control are moral. Those that are considered moral are those that do not destroy any new human life. For example, methods which prevent the man’s sperm from fertilizing the wife’s ovum do not destroy human life. This would include the use of a condom, a diaphragm, a sponge, a spermicide, and most (but not all) birth-control pills. This also includes the “rhythm method,” which now has been superseded by the natural family planning (NFP) movement. If a couple decides not to have any more children in their lifetime, in the Protestant view it is morally acceptable for the man to have a vasectomy, or for the woman to have a tubal ligation (known as having one’s “tubes tied”).
The reason these methods of contraception are considered morally acceptable is that they prevent the sperm from reaching the ovum and therefore prevent pregnancy. There are other methods of birth control which work in a different way, as they allow the woman’s egg to be fertilized by a man’s sperm, but then prevent the embryo from being implanted in the mother’s womb. Once the man’s sperm fertilizes the woman’s ovum, a new living creature with its own distinct DNA begins to form; meaning that methods of birth control which cause the death of the embryo (known as abortifacients) would not be considered morally acceptable. These would include morning-after pills as well as intrauterine devices (IUD).
Children are a blessing, and those who have them have received a wonderful gift from God. Parents are responsible for the care and well-being of their children, and in order to do a good job of parenting, some couples may decide to limit the number of children they have and/or the timing of having their children. Contraception is a means to do so, and when prayerfully used, it can help parents to both space out the births of their children as well as limit how many children they have, in order to allow them to faithfully care for the lives God has entrusted into their hands.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Genesis 1:28.
2 Psalm 127:3–5.
3 Psalm 128:3–4.
4 Malachi 2:15.
5 Matthew 19:13–14.
6 Mark 9:36–37.
7 Genesis 38:8–10.
8 John F. Feinberg, Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway Publishers, 2010), 305–306.