Saturday, July 28, 2012

What About Birth Control?

Most of Protestant Christianity has taken a laissez faire attitude towards birth control in modern times, giving individuals freedom of conscience to decide for themselves whether or not to use it.  But in recent years, movements like "Quiverfull" have begun to preach decisively against birth control.  They say that the Bible says we are to receive as many children as God blesses us with, and that birth control is against His plan.  Using a question-and-answer format, I'm going to take a close look at the Scriptures they use, and also at the whole of the Bible, to see if their restrictions on freedom of conscience in this area actually hold up.

I'll start with the passage on children being a blessing, Psalm 127:3.

Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

Children are indeed a blessing from God!  This is not the real question, however.  The question is, does the Bible teach that if we just let nature take its course, the amount of children we will have will be God’s plan for us?

Look at the curse that comes upon Eve after the Fall, in Genesis 3:16: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. . .”

The King James Version here brings out very well what the original language actually said. A Hebrew interlinear, which gives a direct, word-for-word translation, reads this way: “I am increasing grief of you and pregnancy of you; in grief shall you give birth.” (Emphasis added.) There are actually two different Hebrew words translated “grief” in this verse (“sorrow” in the King James). They are synonyms, both meaning “labor, hardship, painful toil.” The first of these words is also used of Adam in Gen. 3:17-18, where God says to him, “in sorrow [painful toil] shalt thou eat of it [the ground] all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.” God is telling the couple that the result of their sin is hardship, labor and toil.

The words to Eve in Gen 3:16 comprise a Hebrew poetic structure in which the whole of the phrase, “multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” refers to the whole process of childbearing, from conception to birth. It is not just talking about “pain in childbirth,” as many other translations say. The hardship and painful toil includes the whole process. This would include everything that is difficult or goes wrong for women in pregnancy, from conception to childbirth. It would include pain in labor, certainly; but it also includes miscarriage, stillbirth, difficulty in conception, and even, naturally, the "multiplication" of conceptions themselves-- the ability of the woman’s body to conceive more frequently than is safe or healthy for her, sometimes before she has even recovered from the last pregnancy.

The writers of the Old Testament recognized children as a blessing—but they also recognized all of the different hardships of childbearing (and of course, these are different for different women). “Multiply thy sorrows and thy conception” can mean pain and hardship in conception is increased, but it can also mean that conceptions themselves are increased. The fact that some women cannot conceive is part of the curse. But the fact that some women’s bodies can conceive more often than they can bear in safety and health, is also shown in the Bible to be a result of the curse; it was not God’s original plan.

But Christ came to bring justification to us from the sin that brought death and sorrow to humanity (Romans 5:12). And even before Christ came– through the ages, in fact– men have invented tools to help them deal with the toils and sorrows of tilling the ground. There is no passage in the Bible that says God, in His mercy, ever forbade men to use those tools. Neither does the Bible say God has forbidden women to decrease the toils and sorrows of their particular struggles with conception and childbirth. God does not forbid women to decrease their pain in childbirth through the tools of medication. Neither does God forbid women to decrease their conceptions through the tools of birth control.

Q:  But there was no birth control in Bible times except for coitus interruptus, and in Genesis 38:9-10, God struck Onan dead for “spilling his seed on the ground.“ This must have been about Onan’s crime of birth control ~ since the penalty for simply not giving your brother’s widow a child was only public humiliation, according to Deuteronomy 25:7.

Actually, there were many other kinds of birth control used in Bible times. The Ebers Papyrus of Egypt, which dates from 1500 BC, lists a number of barrier methods. Here is a translation of one of them: “To make a woman not become pregnant for one year, two years or three years, acacia leaves are ground fine with honey, lint is moistened therewith and placed in her vulva.”  Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible places the Hebrews’ time in Egypt (between Joseph and Moses) from 1700-1300 BC. It is impossible, given the Israelites’ presence in Egypt during the same period that the Ebers Papyrus was written, that the Israelites could have been completely unfamiliar with the methods set forth in this papyrus. And yet the Bible says nothing whatsoever about any of these Egyptian remedies. The only time a method of birth control is mentioned is the story of Onan. I'd like to take closer look at that story.

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord, wherefore he slew him also. Genesis 38:8-10

The context of this passage is Onan’s unwillingness to fulfill his duty in that culture to his brother’s widow. Onan married his brother’s widow and “went in unto“ her as a husband to a wife– but then emitted on the ground, “lest that he should give seed to his brother. This is sometimes compared with Deuteronomy 25:7, where the consequences of refusing to take a brother’s widow as wife are not death, but only public shame. But the situation in Deuteronomy 25 involves only refusing to marry the widow. What Onan did was much worse. He went ahead and married her, but then selfishly refused to raise a child that would be considered legally his brother’s and not his own. It wasn’t that he didn’t want children; it’s that he wanted children only for his own profit! But the woman could not marry anyone else. His act consigned her to childlessness whether she liked it or not. And it was a great deception for Onan to pretend to do his duty to his brother outwardly, but then to go back on it in the privacy of the home. It was not for simple birth control that Omar was judged by God. It was for fraud, greed, deception and covenant-breaking. The birth control was the means by which the crime was committed. The birth control itself was not the crime.

Since this is the only place in the Bible that a method of birth control is even mentioned, and since the Bible is silent about all other then-known methods of birth control– how can we say that the Bible, implicitly or expressly, forbids birth control? The vast majority of details about individual life and choices are neither commanded nor forbidden by the Bible. God permits people to decide where to live, what kind of houses to build, what to do for a living– there are no commands, explicit or implicit, forbidding these choices. Where the Bible makes no command regarding an issue of personal choice, then to take a certain position, insist it is God’s will, and expect everyone else to follow, is unfairly adding to the Scriptures and curtailing others’ freedom in Christ. (Romans 14:2-4, Galatians 5:1.)

Q:  But Psalm 127:3 still says children are a blessing! Even if we don’t have to have more than our bodies can safely bear, shouldn’t we seek to bear as many as we safely can? Isn’t the use of birth control for any other reason than the woman’s health, willfully rejecting the blessing of God and therefore choosing instead the curse of barrenness?

If “A” is a blessing, it does not necessarily follow that “Not A” is not a blessing. The apostle Paul makes it clear that choosing not to marry or have children is a lifestyle blessed by God just as much as marriage is. “I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.” I Corinthians 7:7-8. Paul’s use of the word “widows” here makes it clear that by “men” he means not just males, but both sexes. It is a gift of God for both men and women to remain unmarried and childless, as he was. This too is a blessing from God, for “the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit.” I Corinthians 7:34.

Also, if something is a blessing, it does not follow that an unlimited amount of that something is an unlimited blessing. The Bible says nothing like this– and it is contrary to plain logic. In Genesis 13:6, it tells of how Abraham and Lot were blessed of God with wealth, including sheep and cattle– but when “their substance was great” to the point where the land could not support all their flocks and herds, they were forced to separate from one another. Clearly the sheep and cattle were not an unlimited blessing, when they became too numerous for the land to support them.

We must also ask ourselves: are we being good stewards of the resources God has given us, when we have more children than we can financially support? Is it loving to the children we already have, to keep having more, beyond the point where we can give adequate attention to them all? Romans 8:14 says that those who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God. Rather than laying down a law for ourselves about never preventing conception by any means, perhaps we should prayerfully seek to be led by the Spirit as to when we should conceive, and when we shouldn’t. After all, Paul counseled in I Corinthians 7:26 that in times of distress, it is better not to make major changes in our lives. It is not always God’s best to have more, and more, and more children.

Q:  But doesn’t Malachi 2:15 say that the primary purpose for which the Lord created the institution of marriage was to “seek a godly seed”?

Here's Malachi 2:15 in its immediate context.

Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god. . . And this ye have done again, covering the altar of the Lord with weeping, and with crying out, inso much that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously; yet she is thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Malachi 2:11-15.

The context in Malachi 2:15 is about how the men of Judah, upon returning to the Promised Land following exile in Babylon, abandoned their wives in order to marry younger women from the peoples who lived in the Promised Land, who served idols. The passage makes two main points: 1) they were being treacherous to their wives: “She is thy companion and the wife of thy covenant,” and 2) they were profaning the holiness of the Lord by marrying “the daughter of a strange god.”

This passage is not about the primary purpose of marriage, but about the sins of covenant-breaking and idolatry. But if a “primary purpose” of marriage applies at all here, it is stated to be “companionship.” The original wives of the men of Judah are spoken of as companions to their husbands– not as mothers of their children. The Lord views this covenant made with a woman, for companionship, to be just as holy and binding as any other covenant.

As for “a godly seed,” the emphasis here is on “godly,” not on “seed.” God made men and women of Judah one in marriage so that their seed might be godly– as opposed to the seed that might come from marriage to a “daughter of a strange god,” who might choose to serve the idols of their mother’s people.

Q:  But modern birth control methods are dangerous and can be abortifacient! And natural family planning isn’t very effective. Besides, the Bible says it is God Who opens and closes the womb. Shouldn’t we trust Him with our family planning and not take matters into our own hands?

Modern birth control methods are actually pretty safe when used with a doctor's advice.  It is my understanding there is no actual medical support for the idea that hormonal birth control is abortifacient.  But even if it were, there are non-hormonal methods that work very well instead. The diaphragm, for instance, is a barrier method that has been around for decades, is safe and effective when used carefully, and is completely non-hormonal.  A woman's doctor can help her find the type of birth control that is safest for her and that she feels most comfortable with.

And as for God opening and closing the womb, there are only a few Bible texts that speak of this. Genesis 20:18 says that God “closed the wombs” of all the women in Abimilek’s household because Abimilek had taken Abraham’s wife Sarah (thinking she was his sister). Then in verse 20, Abraham prays to God, and God heals them so that they can conceive again. Genesis 29:31 and Genesis 30:22 refer to God opening the wombs of women who had previously been barren (Leah and Rachel). Afterwards they both had more than one child. The text does not say God had to reopen their wombs each time. Finally, 1 Sam 1:5-6 says that God had closed Hannah’s womb, but when she prayed, God “remembered” her and she conceived (verse 19). Later the text says God “visited” Hannah so that she had three more sons and two daughters (1 Samuel 2:21).

Reading these texts together, they do not indicate at all that God opens every woman’s womb each time she conceives, or that He closes every woman’s womb every time she does not conceive. These texts are not about normal female fertility at all. Instead they speak specifically of barrenness and God’s specific acts to cause or heal barrenness at certain times, in certain women, for reasons unique to each situation. The human writers of the Bible texts knew, as we know today, that conception occurs after sexual intercourse and is based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. As with many other physical laws of our world, God set it up to work this way.

One other verse speaks of God giving conception to a woman: Ruth 4:13, in which God causes Ruth to conceive Obed, the source of David’s line of kings. This verse is speaking about a specific birth to a specific woman for a specific purpose in God’s plan. Again, Bible simply doesn’t say that God directly acts to give conception to every woman who conceives, or directly acts to stop conception in every woman who does not conceive.

As I said, there are many things in our world that God designed to work on their own. In Matthew 4:6-7, when Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, the devil suggested that Jesus cast Himself down from the top of the temple, trusting in God to send angels to bear Him up. Jesus answered, “It is written, thou shalt not tempt [test] the Lord thy God.” Jesus knew that the Father had set up the world so that gravity would cause anyone who threw himself off the temple to die. It was set up that way, and it was going to work that way unless God directly stepped in. It was wrong, Jesus said, to force God to do a miracle.

In the same way God has set up normal female fertility so that a woman’s ovaries will release an egg to be fertilized once a month. If a fertile woman has sexual intercourse with a fertile man during a period when an egg is in her fallopian tubes, she is going to conceive. It’s not unlike the game of “Russian Roulette.” In Russian Roulette, two people will put a bullet into one chamber of a six-shooter gun, and then take turns to point the gun at their own heads and pull the trigger. If the bullet is in the right chamber when the trigger is pulled, that gun is going to go off. If you play Russian Roulette and want to live, you are certainly “tempting God”!

Having sexual intercourse without birth control is not “trusting God.” It’s more like playing Russian Roulette. If the egg is in the right place at the right time, conception will occur. For it not to occur, God would have to do a miracle. Jesus said it’s wrong to force God into doing a miracle. Tempting God is not trusting God. If you’re in a position where a pregnancy would be a hardship and a sorrow (though this isn’t to say you wouldn’t welcome the child if it came!), you don’t have to play Russian Roulette with your womb every month.

As I said before, trusting God actually means being led by the Spirit of God. Romans 8:14-16. God wants us to pray to Him for guidance on when it’s a good time to have a child, and when it’s not—just as we would with any other major decision in our lives.

So to people involved in Christian movements like Quiverfull, I would say this.  Children were precious in the Old Covenant, but in the New Covenant, Christ shows them to be so much more than simply “arrows” for their fathers. In Matthew 19:14 He makes it plain that He loves and calls children to places in His kingdom as individuals in their own right. So if we already have children, few or many, God desires that we should care for them and love them with all our hearts (Matthew 18:1-6). But if we are feeling under pressure from other Christians to have even more– Galatians 5:1 says, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” 

Parenting is a high calling, but no one has the right to add to Scripture and claim there is only one way to serve God– not for men, and not for women either. It is being “a new creature” that matters, says Galatians 6:15, not how many– or even whether– you have children.  Each Christian couple should be free in their own consciences to decide together when-- and whether-- to have children.

For more information see:

Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible, Lion Publishing.
Ancient Inventions, Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Random House, 1994.

Household: Family and Household in Ancient Israel, by Michael Kruse:

The Scripture-4-All Online Interlinear Hebrew Bible:


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It's amazing what an in-context reading of Scripture will do to enlighten a topic and to thwart the intent of those who wish to cherry-pick verses to support their own gospels.

In addition to the Quiverfull and other extreme patriarchal groups' intent to have as many children as possible is the connection to Dominionism. This idea perpetrates the lie that Jesus will not be coming back as prophesied, but believers will "take over" (if you will) the planet themselves. In that case, having as many children as possible would expedite the process.

I'd also like to underscore your point about the difficulty in conception/childbirth curse as related to Adam's difficulty working the land. Logically, if we are to endorse making it more difficult for women to have children (by insisting they have as many as is humanly possible, thus increasing their sorrow) we should also be supporting the idea that it's right to make earning a living as difficult as possible for men.
To do either, however, perpetuates the consequences of evil and obscures the Gospel message that the curse was put on Jesus on the cross thereby satisfying sin's debt for those who accept His offer of salvation.

I pray that many women who read your post and who are bound up in such extremist beliefs will find encouragement, comfort, and new boldness in Christ Jesus.

Anonymous said...

This is the most intelligent and informative treatment of this topic that I have ever read.

Even in churches that condone birth control, I'm often shocked at the lack of knowledge women have about how each method works and how that connects to their belief system. For example, the pill and the IUD both work almost exactly the same way, but you hear Christians all the time say that the IUD is an abortifacient even when they are comfortable with the pill. It's just strange. It seems like the topic of birth control leads to a lot of strong opinions, but never true information given to women. That's a shame, considering that they have to make the choices that will ultimately affect their families and their consciences.

For the record, I'm a conservative Protestant who has no problem with either hormonal methods or the IUD. I realize that others may think differently, and for very good reasons! I just get concerned when they make choices based on little to no information, just because their pastor (who doesn't have a medical degree) "told" them so.

At the extreme end of things, this produces Quiverfull situations.

Lori said...

Great essay Kristen. Agree %100! Interesting as I have a few "large family" friends. However these families want children AND can afford to support them.

Kristen said...

Thanks so much for your comments. I'm glad you all liked the post, and you make very good points!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderfully informative and well written post about this topic.

As a Catholic woman, I disagree with the stance on birth control and am amazed at how little knowledge we all have of 1)the various birth control methods and how they really work and 2) what the Bible actually says on these things. So many people take for face value whatever this book, that book, this priest or preacher says without ever investigating it for themselves. That is the part that hurts the most.

I keep hoping that the more knowledge we put out there the more women may be able to make the choices for themselves and not "be told what they are supposed to do."