By Robert Pate
There are a number of issues to consider when discussing contraception. These include biological infertility, the mother’s health, financial stewardship, God’s will, adoption, sex for pleasure vs. procreation, masturbation, abstinence, relationship status, and ministry opportunities, to name a few. Before jumping in, I should note that when using the term contraception I am referring to all methods of preventing conception and pregnancy, such as condoms, intrauterine devices, hormone-based oral contraceptives, coitus interruptus, etc. I do not include elective abortion in this same category.
First and foremost, we must consider Scripture. In several places, biblical authors address issues of sexuality, procreation, and infertility, but no biblical text specifically prohibits the use of contraceptives. So in keeping with the Restoration Movement tradition, “Where the Bible speaks we speak, and where it is silent we are silent” (a reference to, among other passages, 1 Corinthians 4:6), it may be best not to derive a specific mandate regarding contraception.
One passage regularly examined when discussing birth control is Genesis 38:8-10. In this account, Judah instructs his son, Onan, to fulfill the duty of providing children to Onan’s deceased brother’s widow. This practice of yibbum, or more specifically in this case, levirate marriage, was an arrangement entered into by choice by both parties. This practice was meant to provide protection to a childless woman who could marry her brother-in-law to receive security and a continued family lineage for her deceased spouse. The brother-in-law-turned-husband of the widow then became the sole benefactor of his deceased brother’s estate.
In the Genesis 38 narrative, Onan follows through with the marriage and agrees to the obligation to attempt to provide heirs for his brother, rather than choosing to pursue a less-favorably viewed halizah, in which the brother declines the new marriage arrangement (and sole rights to the inheritance). However, not wanting his new wife to bear children who would not be considered his own, he used the oldest known method of contraception, withdrawal. When he “spilled his semen on the ground,” Onan behaved wickedly in the eyes of God and was subsequently killed by God.
Many have argued that this is reason enough not to use contraceptives. Some interpret the text as indicating that all sexual acts should end with the possibility of conception. There are several problems with this, many of which are related to the issues mentioned above. Are infertile couples sinning when they have intercourse because there is no chance for conception (save for a miraculous pregnancy)? What about missionary couples who either live in environments hostile to children or serve in ministries that would suffer greatly if they spent several hours a day caring for their children rather than focusing on their work on the field? Is it altering God’s will to deprive him of the opportunity to knit together a new child in a mother’s womb?
These are certainly important issues to consider. Ultimately, however, we should refer back to the biblical text to determine the problem with Onan’s behavior. In short, Onan behaved selfishly. He accepted his brother’s estate and sought sexual pleasure from his new bride without providing her an opportunity to become pregnant and further her first husband’s lineage. Onan also would have been obligated to share his brother’s inheritance with any children he produced. Onan broke the terms of the yibbum, and this brought on the anger and wrath of God. It was Onan’s selfishness and dishonesty, not the “contraceptive” behavior, which was seen as sinful in God’s eyes.
Fruitful and Multiply
For those concerned with the Genesis instruction to be fruitful and multiply, I would urge consideration of the context in which God gave that command to history’s original couple. It was early in the history of humanity and, since then, we have done quite a thorough job of filling the earth with people to enjoy our inheritance from God. Looking at the New Testament, we see that Jesus neither married nor had children, yet he lived a life without sin. The apostle Paul specifically stated it is preferable, for those who are able, to remain single (and thus childless) so that one may better serve God without the distractions of sexuality and children.
So what are we to conclude? With no explicit biblical commands about birth control, perhaps it is wise to consider Paul’s recommendation that couples “do not deprive each other [of sexual relations] except perhaps by mutual consent,” and then only for a limited time that the couple may focus on their relationships with God (1 Corinthians 7:5).
In addition to Scripture, Kenneth Samples of Reasons to Believe (www.reasons.org) directs couples to consider the following authority sources before making a difficult faith-related decision: prayer, reason/logic, conscience, church tradition, and whether the action to be taken reflects love. In the absence of direct biblical advice, any theology of contraception should include all of these elements and reflect a thoughtful, prayerful, and personal decision.
Robert Pate is a clinical psychologist and serves as associate professor of psychology and counseling with Hope International University, Fullerton, California.