It seems that every year, new birth control technologies and pharmaceuticals become available. And sometimes they invite new controversies or reignite old ones. And often, churches and Christian organizations are found at the center of these debates.
So what do Christians believe about birth control? Is there a clear Biblical answer that can settle the controversy?
Christians of different traditions maintain a spectrum of perspectives on birth control. Some are staunchly opposed to all birth control, while others support many (but not all) methods of birth control.
Below, we will examine the Biblical interpretations and political dynamics that give rise to such a diversity of ideas.
Clearing Up Misconceptions
In the United States, in particular, society perceives Christians as being largely opposed to all forms of birth control. And while some branches of Christianity do oppose all artificial means of birth control, such opposition is far from universal within the church.
Before we begin to dissect the varying nuances of Christian perspectives, let’s first address some misconceptions.
The Politics of Birth Control
As we discussed in our earlier examination of the Christian opposition to abortion, the majority of Christians oppose abortion on demand. Even Christians who are open to abortion in limited circumstances (necessitated by a medical emergency or by acts of sexual violence against women), still object to abortion used strictly as a means of elective birth control.
Also previously noted, our public discourse speaks of abortion in terms of women’s choice and reproductive health. Birth control is also framed in similar terms in our socio-political debates.
So, observers often perceive opposition to abortion and opposition to birth control as interchangeable, particularly among evangelical Christians.
This view was reinforced by the highly-publicized 2014 US Supreme Court ruling in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, exempting Hobby Lobby from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to include birth control coverage in its employer-sponsored healthcare plans.
However, the court case was not about the merits or validity of Hobby Lobby’s position regarding birth control. Rather, the litigation addressed the question of whether or not an employer could be required to participate in (through mandated funding) an activity that it opposed on religious grounds. At its core, this was a constitutional question, not a scriptural one.
Defining a Key Term
Before we examine the different Christian viewpoints regarding birth control, we must first define birth control. For purposes of this article, we define birth control as any means, artificial or natural, of preventing conception.
Some methods of birth control (including those at issue in the Hobby Lobby court case), are in fact abortifacients (as opposed to contraceptives), which prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine lining.
Referring again to our earlier discussion of abortion, and the commonly held Christian belief that life begins at conception, Christians generally oppose using abortifacients as a means of birth control (whether done mechanically or chemically) because they terminate a life.
For this reason, our focus for the remainder of this article will be on birth control methods that are classified as contraceptives.
Three Views of Contraception
Among Christians, three distinct viewpoints emerge regarding contraception:
No methods of contraception are Biblical
This is the view that was articulated by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 work Humanae Vitae. In his book, Pope Paul VI held that reproduction was the primary purpose of sexual intercourse, and so all sexual union should be conducted in a manner that makes pregnancy possible.
For this reason, the Catholic Church continues to oppose all forms of birth control including barriers (such as condoms), surgeries (such as vasectomies), pharmaceuticals (such as birth control pills), or natural methods.
Only natural methods of birth control are permitted
Popular among politically conservative evangelicals, this view of contraception is almost identical to the Catholic teaching, but with one important distinction. This view allows for the regulation of procreation through the wholly natural method of engaging in intercourse only at certain times.
Commonly called the ‘rhythm method’, this practice calls for couples to time their sexual activity according to the woman’s ovulation cycle, and to abstain from intercourse at times when fertilization is most likely.
Natural and artificial means of contraception are acceptable
Underscoring our prior distinction between abortifacients and contraceptives, this is the view that most closely resembles society’s acceptance of birth control. Christian couples who hold to his viewpoint will generally employ whatever contraception methods make the most sense for their lifestyle.
To understand these different viewpoints, it is helpful to examine the scriptural support (or refutation) of each. In many cases, Christians of different perspectives are relying on the same scriptures, but interpreting those passages differently.
Before we proceed, readers may benefit from reviewing our prior post about Christians who don’t want kids. In that piece, we conclude that Christian couples should generally marry with the objective of reproduction in mind. However, we also acknowledge that the Bible provides God-honoring reasons for certain couples to choose not to reproduce. Which, if any, such reasons apply is for the reader and his or her spouse to discern.
Be Fruitful and Multiply
As discussed in the above-referenced post, God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), as a means of continuing His creative work of populating His creation with His image-bearers.
Similarly, God proclaimed that children are a blessing, likening them to a quiver full of arrows in the hands of a warrior (Psalm 127:3-5).
It is from these passages that a Biblical objection to contraception is raised. The rationale is that because we are commanded to multiply and that our multiplication is a blessing, we must not inhibit our reproduction, lest we disobey a direct command.
The first two viewpoints noted above rely on this simple, straightforward reading of these key passages.
Onan and the Spilling of Seed
Additionally, some opponents of contraception further cite the story of Onan, who was put to death by the Lord for spilling his seed on the ground (Genesis 38:8-10). However, most readers of scripture interpret Onan’s punishment arising not from his defiance of God’s command in Genesis 1:28, but from his failure to honor his deceased brother by producing offspring for him.
Differing interpretations of Onan’s story aside, proponents of birth control argue that the Genesis 1:28 mandate to multiply is a mandate to all of humanity, and not necessarily meant for each couple to maximize in practice.
This argument points to the fact that the mandate to multiply is given in concurrence with the mandate to subdue the earth.
A Call to Stewardship
As such, they argue that no individual farmer is required to sow as much seed as possible in as much land as possible. Instead, farmers exercise good stewardship, using what resources they have responsibly.
One farm might contain vast acres of a variety of crops, while another might be little more than a family garden. Similarly, not all quivers (referring back to Psalm 127) may hold the same number of arrows.
Some might counter by arguing that foregoing all artificial contraception allows God to fully regulate our harvest and determine the proper number of children for each of us. But in most areas of life, we do not rely wholly on natural outcomes. Instead, we seek God’s counsel in scripture, discernment, and prayer as we make decisions and act on them.
The farmer intentionally sows selected crops in the proper season and the proper manner. We manage our finances by budgeting and planning, instead of indiscriminately committing to expenditures and gifts, hoping that God will provide the funding.
And so, the judicious use of birth control is seen as a means for each family to regulate both its size and the timing of its growth in accordance with the plans, purpose, and lifestyle that each family is called to.
A Matter of Discernment
Which methods of contraception are (or are not) acceptable remains a deeply personal matter of sincere conviction. And while it is not important that Christians of different traditions agree on this matter, it is critical that married couples discuss, pray, and discern their boundaries together. In doing so, Christian couples are then free to live out their calling as parents of many, few, or none, according to life that God has uniquely called them to.