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Issues and Interchange

The goal of this regular feature is to provide our readers with opposing arguments on topics pertinent to the Christian life. Due to the power of party spirit, personal credibility, credentials, etc., we have asked all the authors writing for this feature to publish their brief statements anonymously. By doing this, we hope to encourage the reader, in some small way, to focus on the arguments involved in each position rather than on personal factors.

The authors selected for the respective sides in the debate are outspoken supporters of their viewpoints.

The burden of proof in the interchange is placed on Advocate One. For that reason, Advocate One opens and closes the debate.

ISSUE: Is Birth Control Morally Permissible?

ADVOCATE 1: Some Forms of Contraception Are Morally Permissible

Contraception has become a volatile issue among many Christian groups because it involves the issues of life, such as sexuality, and child rearing which our culture often distorts in ugly ways. Many Christians simply offer blanket condemnations of almost any practice which is even incidentally related to these distortions. We must realize, however, that emotions which arise from such concerns may often cloud our ability to think through an issue clearly. As Christians, we want to be sure to decide any issue by the standard of God's Word alone.

Contraception, in short, is the practice of preventing a conception from taking place. A proper Biblical evaluation of contraception requires us to understand some foundational ethical issues (1- 2 below). After this foundation is set, we can then deal with the more particular concerns and objections raised in regard to contraception itself (3 - 4 below). The conclusion will be that certain forms of contraception, when used under proper conditions, are morally permissible options for the Christian married couple.

1. Freedom of Conscience and A Biblical Affirmation of Creation

The first foundational issue concerns the standards by which the Christian is to order his or her behavior. A Biblical understanding of this point will alleviate many of the confusions that enter into the discussion of contraception.

Legalism has often distorted the Christian ethic. From earliest times, many deceived persons have attempted to use God's law as means of salvation, though God obviously never intended the law for such a purpose. Other forms of legalism characteristically add to and/or subtract from God's Word, though God condemns this as well (Deut. 4:2). Yet such additions and deletions are central to Legalists from the Pharisees to modern fundamentalism. The Christian must sternly reject any such practice. Christ Himself condemned those who "set aside the commandment of God in order to keep [their] tradition...thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition" (Mark 7:9,13). Any humanly contrived commandment (such as the familiar fundamentalist prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and other social activities) added to the Scripture is sinful in God's sight. Paul also condemned legalism in the most stringent terms. Those who taught these things were proclaiming another gospel --they were under a divine curse (Gal. 1:6-10) and were teaching "doctrines of demons" (I Tim. 4:1-3). No one is to tamper with the word of the sovereign God.

The Christian view of freedom of conscience is to be understood in light of the above context. The Christian is free to do anything that is not contrary to the word of God. Scripture alone is the ultimate standard of ethical activity. God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Human commandments which are contrary or additional to God's word have no authority over the Christian conscience. Moreover, the Christian is free to do anything (not contrary to the word of God) because he or she knows that God's creation is good (I Tim. 4:4). Paul declares that "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself"(Rom. 14:14). Scripture rejects all pagan notions which describe the human body or the physical world in general as evil or inferior to spirit. The Christian ought to rejoice in God's creation to God's glory. As this norm is applied to the question of contraception, then, the Christian is free to use contraception, unless it is forbidden by Scripture.

2. Cultural Mandate: Stewards of God's Creation

A second foundational concern in this discussion regards Christian stewardship. At the creation, God laid certain responsibilities upon the human race (Gen. 1:28). Two aspects of this cultural mandate bear directly on our discussion.

a) Man is to act as a ruler (controller) over creation. We are commanded to subdue creation as God's stewards. This means that we are to act as organizers and controllers of creation under God in every area of life -- we possess a Biblically limited stewardship over creation. We may not serve as passive creatures who blindly allow creation to "order" itself or assume that God will carry out the responsibilities He has given to us. Many Christians claim to "trust the Lord" for events that God has given humans authority over. To live this way is to live irresponsibly; it is to act contrary to the cultural mandate. This mandate is given to men and women as image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:27). God exercises absolute sovereignty over all things, and we, as those made in His image, are to exercise faithful stewardship over the world. If we add this foundational issue for Christian practice to the Christian understanding of freedom discussed above, we see that we are to exercise authority over creation in obedience to God, not man. We are forbidden to exercise control over our families, businesses, nations, or churches, in a way that is contrary to the word of God. Stated positively, we are directed to actively and responsibly order our families, etc., as faithful stewards in accord with Scripture.

b) We are commanded to "be fruitful and multiply." Part of the cultural mandate is to raise children. This is one form of subduing the earth. We are to train our children faithfully in God's ways and thus extend the covenant generation by generation. Much of our culture views children as inconvenient objects (the most heinous expression of this is, of course, abortion). The Bible views children as a gift of God that we ought to desire. "Behold, children are a gift of the LORD; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are children of one's youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them" (Ps. 127:3-5). We read in Psalm 128:3,4 that "Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; Your children like olive plants around your table. Behold thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD." God promises to bless those who keep His covenant and "turn toward you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm My covenant with you" (Lev. 26:9). The Christian ought to desire and actively seek this blessing from God.

3. Constraints on the Cultural Mandate--I Corinthians 7

The command to subdue the earth is the norm for the believer. However, we see in the New Testament, that there are limited circumstances in which this norm does not apply. In I Corinthians 7, Paul is writing to those who are facing persecution (Acts 18:1-18). He counsels them "that it is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is....If you should marry you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you" (I Cor. 7:26-28).

Paul advises the Corinthian believers to avoid taking on the responsibilities of family life due to the present (or impending) tribulation.[1] Our Lord Himself gave a similar warning to those believers inhabiting Jerusalem at the time of its judgment: "Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people." (Luke 21:23; cf. 2 Thess. 2:2). The concerns of family life are obviously compounded in a time of crisis, and Paul wanted to spare the Corinthians this kind of "tribulation" (v. 28; -- cf. Matt. 13:21; I Thess. 1:4). The Lord calls His people to suffer for righteousness sake (I Pet. 2:21), but we are not to compound our tribulations irresponsibly.

The Lord is merciful and concerned about our possible distress. Paul does not counsel the Corinthians in these circumstances to idly "trust in the Lord." They are to use Godly wisdom in ordering their lives; wisdom in this case is to avoid normal cultural responsibilities of family life, if possible. The principle, then, expressed in this constraint on the cultural mandate can be stated as: There are circumstances in which it is contrary to Godly wisdom to take on familial responsibilities.

Is persecution the only time we may forego normal cultural responsibilities? -- evidently not, according to Paul's reasoning. The necessary element in Paul's counsel is that we be spared the type of added familial distress found in times of persecution. For example, in a time of persecution: a parent would fear to leave the family alone at any time for security reasons; a parent's financial, sustenance, and shelter concerns must include several people instead of one; a family's ability to move or hide is more difficult than a single person's. The list could go on. These are the types of distresses that Paul wants believers to avoid. Since Paul is concerned with types of distress, the principle stated above will apply to all those circumstances in which such familial distress occurs--i.e. persecution is not the only situation in which we may temporarily forego taking on familial responsibilities. We can imagine numerous situations in which there is no persecution such as that found in the first century, yet the aforementioned kinds of distresses may occur (e.g. wartime, plague, famine). Nevertheless, Scripture presents yet further less catastrophic circumstances in which it is contrary to Godly wisdom to take on added familial responsibilities. We find the principle for such circumstances in I Tim. 5:8.

4. Providing for One's Own -- I Timothy 5:8

In the course of various directives regarding living above reproach, Paul instructs us that "if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever." Work is a natural and necessary aspect of the Christian life. Anyone who does not support or provide for his family is worse than one who hates God. This principle not only requires us to have a job (or some means of income), but it also forbids us to place ourselves in situations in which we cannot support our family even though we may have some form of employment; the outcome is the same. There are obvious examples: we may not gamble away our paycheck or spend it on relative luxuries when our children have no food. Furthermore, we are forbidden to take on obligations, no matter how well intentioned, which would lead us to fail to provide for our families. Hence, I Tim. 5:8 provides us with further circumstances in which our previous principle (3) would apply.

One common application of principle 3 to the circumstances of I Tim. 5:8 would be in initiating a marriage itself. We ought normally to marry in accord with the cultural mandate, but if the potential husband has no means of providing for his potential wife, then they ought not to marry in light of I Tim 5:8 (inability to provide might form the basis of her father's refusal of the marriage--Ex. 21:17;18). If we can see how these principles work together in these circumstances, then we should have no difficulty in seeing how they would provide a similar basis for temporarily delaying childbearing. The case envisioned is one in which the married couple desires a family (rejecting all humanistic rationalizations about convenience, career, etc.) yet under the immediate circumstances would not be able to provide for a child or another child (in violation of I Tim. 5:8). We can imagine other scenarios as well. However, every case is circumscribed by all of the principles above.

We should note that although the above Biblical principles demonstrate the permissibility of contraception in general, they also unquestionably rule out some forms of contraception. For example, abortifacient methods such as the Intrauterine Device would be strictly forbidden by principle (1) above. Similarly, a couple rebelling against the Cultural Mandate are using contraceptives in a sinful manner.

Though no attempt is made to answer all questions regarding contraception in this discussion, this account would be greatly lacking if we did not respond to some common objections made against contraception. We will consider only three.

A. Contraception is unnatural

Many object to contraception on the basis of its "artificiality." The general principle embedded in this objection is that we ought not attempt to hinder any natural course of events such as conception -- "Contraception is contrary to natural law."

Two points can be made in response. First, there are many things we do which go contrary to the "natural order" and yet are not immoral: e.g., shaving, airplane travelling, landscaping, driving, satellite transmitting, etc. Second, if we were consistent in following this prescription, then we would be forced to violate other commandments. For example, if we could not go contrary to the "natural order" of events, then we could not offer any medical assistance to those who are sick or injured, and we would be forbidden from aiding those who are starving. By omitting to do these things, we violate clear and constant Scriptural injunctions to care for the sick.

Furthermore, those who raise the above objection usually substitute some form of supposedly "natural" birth control such as abstinence or the rhythm method. However, it is absurd to refer to these practices as natural! Abstinence runs counter our natural sexual drives, and the intricate charting and scheduling involved in rhythm methods demonstrates that this form of birth control is far from "natural."

B. God condemned birth control in the case of Onan (Gen. 38:7-10)

Judah, son of Jacob, had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The Lord took Er's life because of his wickedness and "Judah said to Onan, `Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.' And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother's wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also." Many take this passage to be a clear Biblical rejection of any form of birth control.

One must ignore the clear statements in this passage in order to draw the conclusion that God forbids birth control. First of all, one must read such a prohibition into the text, since Scripture nowhere forbids such an act. Second, we do clearly see that Onan refused to carry out the Levirate institution of raising children to his brother as prescribed in Deut. 25:5-10. Though failure necessitated no civil penalty apart from humiliation, the Lord may bring His own death sentence at His holy discretion apart from any such civil restraints (cf. Acts 5). Thirdly, even rejecting the immediately prior argument, Onan not only failed to fulfill his Levirate obligation, but he also committed adultery. A brother-in-law could not choose to have intercourse with his widowed sister-in-law at their discretion, for this is simply adultery, which has a civil and final death penalty. Onan was guilty of this and deserved his death sentence on both counts. Hence, this interpretation offers at least two objective and concrete sins committed by Onan and does not require one to read a tenuous claim into the text (as opponents must do).

A clear disproof of the anti-contraception view is that if that view is correct in its analysis of actions, then we would be obligated to condemn other non-sinful actions. For example, a parallel misinterpretation can be read into Achan's sin. If we wanted to demonstrate that gold was wicked or that burying things was contrary to God's commands, we could point to God's judgment on Achan for seeking gold and burying it. But such a conclusion misses the sin at issue as much as those who use Onan to prove their point. Achan was judged for violating God's ban against taking any plunder from Jericho (Josh. 6:17; 7). Hence, the anti-contraception interpretation seriously confuses the sins of Onan.

C. Contraception shows a lack of trust in God

Opponents of contraception often claim that those who use it are simply acting out of a lack of faith. If they truly trusted God, they would allow Him to control this aspect of their lives.

Though this claim would apply in some cases, it would suggest a form of irresponsibility in others. When someone tells us that they are simply "trusting in God" in these circumstances, they often evidently mean "I am not taking any responsiblity for my actions." But it is absurd for a Christian to claim that he or she is not responsible for his or her actions; such an unbiblical attitude clearly shows the error in this objection. We are commanded to live our whole lives in obedience to and trust in God, and yet the Lord has given us certain responsibilities to carry out. When we trust in God for sustenance praying, "Give us this day our daily bread," we do not sit at home passively waiting for food to be dropped on our doorstep. Rather, we go out and work. If we were to ignore our God given responsibilities and carry the above objection (C) to its logical conclusion we ought not ever work, use locks on our homes and cars, save money for emergencies, use brakes in our automobiles, wear safety goggles or sun screen, support the police or national defense, etc., but failing to do these things would be irresponsible. Such actions are Biblical, and so they cannot be contrary to trusting in God. The principles laid out in the main body of this discussion are an attempt to show that in some circumstances contraception can at times be another one of these areas of responsibility.

None of the above objections stands up to simple scrutiny. All of them fail to demonstrate that contraception is forbidden by the word of God. Many in our culture do abuse contraceptive measures (even some Christians), but, analogously, we need not refuse to print books just because the enemies of God use books also. Abuses of contraception need to be properly distinguished from a Biblical understanding of the issues so that we may make a proper evaluation of the practice. The principles outlined above give us a start on this question, and so in light of the above Biblical principles, we can indeed conclude that certain forms of contraception under certain circumstances are morally permissible.


[1] Though Paul refers only to marriage in this passage, we should not limit the reference of his remarks to be the concerns of a married couple alone as we might given contemporary usage. Paul, in accord with the overall understanding of marriage in Scripture, would have a wider range of responsibilities in mind. Marriage would naturally include child rasing. This is evident from Paul's instructions to widows in ITim. 5:!4: "I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach."

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