Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Being Fruitful: A Biblical View of Birth Control
by Phil Lancaster
Within the family renaissance movement the issue of birth control has been one of the hottest topics. It is natural that those who are reevaluating their views of the family regarding such matters as education, roles of husbands and wives, socialization, immunizations, etc. would also grapple with the question of whether birth control is right for Christian families. And, indeed, the issue has been grappled with in books popular within the movement, most of which have at least seriously questioned the practice, some labeling it a great sin. Many families have come to view a former decision to sterilize either the husband or wife as sin and have obtained surgical reversals.
To properly evaluate an issue like this from a Christian perspective we need to ask ourselves, What does God in his Word have to say about it? But it may also be useful, first, to ask ourselves, What is the current consensus among Christians and how did they arrive at their point of view on this topic? We should always be ready to change our beliefs and practices if we find that they have been shaped by the world instead of the Word.
Most Christians today believe that the practice of birth control is OK, if indeed they have ever really thought about it. Safe to say, the average Christian who practices birth control could not give you a carefully reasoned biblical argument in favor of the practice. He just assumes it is a morally neutral issue. After all, it is just the Catholics who oppose any form of artificial birth control, right? Well, probably so, at least as far as major Christian groups are concerned. But the real question is, Where did the acceptance of birth control originate? Did it come from God and his Word, or is it another example of the world's perspective seeping into an unwary church?
The Abortion/Birth Control Connection
As we look at contemporary Western culture, one of its depressing characteristics is that it is pro-death. This should not be surprising. The Lord, speaking as Wisdom in Proverbs 8:36 says, all who hate me love death. Our society has been steadily turning from God and showing its hatred of him in many ways. Not the least of these is the popularity of abortion as a way to solve difficult personal problems. The slaughter of the unborn baby is preferred to the challenge of caring for an inconvenient child.
It is disturbing to realize, moreover, that the culture which created abortion on demand is the same one that is in love with birth control. In fact, abortion is actually just another form of birth control and arose out of the same mindset. Behind both practices is the attitude that children are an inconvenience and that adults have the right to choose when and if to have any.
Disturbing, too, is the realization that both birth control and abortion have exactly the same effect (though substantially different means), namely, the prevention of another human being. The one kills the product of conception, the other prevents conception; but both aim to prevent the birth of a person. The failure to prevent conception has led many to murder the mistake that results. Isn't it reasonable to conclude that commonly behind both acts there is the same love of self and hatred of God? Has not the birth control mindset been the mother of the abortion mindset? Certainly the two are connected in our culture. Whether it is possible to separate the two is another question, but the connection should give Christians pause.
Surely all true Christians would agree that abortion is wrong, but how many of them are influenced by the same mindset that resulted in the abortion holocaust? How many have unwittingly breathed in the foul moral air of a death-loving culture and concluded that children are an inconvenience and parents have the right to decide if and when they want any? Unfortunately, most Christians still shrink in horror at the thought of a large number of children; and you hear comments in the church like: Well, I know I've got all the kids I can handle, or I can't wait for summer to be over so the kids can get back to school. The same anti-child attitude that plagues secular society has infected the church. This is just one of many areas in which the church is almost indistinguishable from the surrounding world. Instead of setting a shining example of how things ought to be, the church mimics a dying culture, and then wonders why it is so ineffective (didn't Jesus say something about salt losing its savor?).
So before even considering the biblical data, we ought to be suspicious of a practice that is so much at home in the anti-child, anti-life 1990's. It would be reasonable to conclude that Christians may have been led astray on this issue—unless, of course, the Bible gives warrant to the practice of birth control.
What exactly does the Bible say that bears on our issue? You will look in vain in your concordance for any entries under birth control—the same holds true for abortion—but the Scripture certainly speaks to both. When consulting God's Word on a matter like this it is important to realize that there are several ways in which the Bible can shed light on the subject. It may address it with an explicit precept, a clear command that speaks directly to it. It may give a general principle that must be applied with wisdom under the Spirit's guidance. Or it may display a pattern of life to follow through good examples that are approved (or evil patterns that are disapproved). Though the words birth control do not appear in the Bible, there are precepts, principles and patterns there to guide us.
Fruitfulness is God's Will for Marriage
The very first recorded words of the Creator to the man and woman he had made in his image were, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28). This precept was repeated after the flood to Noah and his sons: As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it (9:7). God's plan is that married couples multiply descendants to fill the whole earth.
Now, since we are (once again) infected with the world's perspective at this point, we are probably inclined to reason: Sure, God told Adam and Noah to multiply because the earth was empty of people in both cases and they had to populate the planet from scratch; but we have plenty of people in the world today (maybe too many), so surely there is no need for multiplying children any more. But who are we to conclude the earth is full and God's command no longer applies? The fact is that the earth is far from full [see Overpopulation: The Perennial Myth elsewhere in this issue]. When and if the earth ever actually becomes full, we can trust God to deal with the situation his own way. Our job is to obey his commands.
Marriage is a one flesh union of a man and woman (Gen. 2:24). While this expression clearly means more than mere physical union it does include the physical union, and this union will result in the multiplication of children. Having a number of children is the normal fruit of marriage, and it is God's will for marriage. In 1 Timothy 5:14 the Holy Spirit through Paul counsels younger widows to marry and have children. Malachi 2:15, referring to a married couple, says, Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. God created the marriage bond to populate the earth with God-fearing worshipers. Maybe the world will shirk the multiplication command; but Christians should seize the day, grasping the opportunity afforded by the abortion/birth control craze to fill the world with Christians!
Some may object that reproduction is not the only purpose for marriage. This is obviously true (marriage is also for companionship and ministry, for example), but it is also irrelevant. Multiplication remains one of the purposes for marriage, and the fact that there are other purposes does not negate this one. We must strive to fulfill all of God's aims for making us one flesh.
We should quickly grant that sex is for the pleasure and emotional bonding of the couple as well as for reproduction. But does not the very God-created design of the male and female bodies demonstrate that God intends for pleasure and fruitfulness to be united in the one act? What right have we to separate the aims of pleasure and procreation that God has built into sexual intercourse? Any sex act outside of marriage separates these two (masturbation, fornication, prostitution, etc.). On what grounds can they be separated within the marriage? Our dying world seeks pleasure apart from responsibility; hence the increase of birth control and abortion. The safest course for the Christian is always to obey God's command and act in a way that is consistent with his design. God's command supports his design: be fruitful and multiply.
The command to be fruitful is a straightforward precept that speaks directly to the issue of birth control. Following are three principles that, while not directly addressing the issue, have clear implications for it.
Children Are a Tool for Godly Dominion
Let us hear again the first words out of God's mouth to our first parents: Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Genesis 1:28). A couple verses earlier the Trinity had been consulting together: Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule...over all the earth' (v. 26).
Joined in this initial word from the Lord are the dual commands to be fruitful and to rule over the earth; have children and take dominion. God made man in his image, and this means, among other things, that man was made to rule. Just as God rules the universe, so he has delegated to man the responsibility to take dominion over this planet to God's glory. The man, with the help of his wife (Gen. 2:18), was given the assignment of working and taking care of the earth (2:15). Mankind's perpetual job description is to take all the resources of this earth (including human and spiritual resources), apply his labor, and offer the product as worship to God. A stone ax and an oratorio are both a form a taking dominion.
It is clear that there is a vital connection between the be fruitful command and the take dominion command. Adam would have had a hard time completing God's dominion mandate all by himself, or with just his wife. But God arranged that out of their one flesh union a whole army of additional helpers would arise to assist in the enormous task. That task is far from complete even today, and there is still a need to keep multiplying the number of godly workers.
The original dominion mandate has been supplemented with the mandate of Jesus to make disciples of all the nations, commonly called the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus now has all authority in heaven and on earth (v. 18), and under his dominion Christians are called to take the kingdom of God to every nation. It is only through the gospel of Jesus Christ that men can produce the dominion results that are pleasing to God; disciples implement the will of God as they obey everything he has commanded (v. 20).
Christians have been forgetting the most important means of seeing the Great Commission fulfilled: multiplying godly offspring. If a man has six children who each have six, and so forth through the generations, and if he trains them to be disciples of Jesus, that man will be the patriarch of a godly clan of 1,300 great-great grandchildren! If there were only two children per generation, the clan would consist of only 32 people. Would you rather confront your enemy with an army of 32 or 1,300?
Part of the reason Christians are hesitant to have children is their fear that they will not grow up to be Christians. What if a man ended up with 1,300 pagans as posterity? This fear is encouraged by a common view that how our kids turn out is a matter of chance. This lie is a denial of Proverbs 22:6 and of God's consistent promise to bless faithfulness. The only question is whether we will be faithful in raising the children for the Lord.
We need to regain the biblical perspective on children. They are arrows in the battle for godly dominion in this world (Psalm 127:4,5). Why would we want to control the birth of these image-bearers of God, these workers, these warriors in the battle of the ages? We ought to desire as many as the Lord should choose to give us! Which brings us to the next theme of Scripture we want to consider.
God Alone Gives and Withholds Children
Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him (Psalm 127:3) The most abundantly documented truth in the Bible concerning children is that they come from God as his gift and that he, and he alone, has the privilege of giving and withholding children.
The story of Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah (and their handmaids) is an account of the Lord opening and closing the womb as he chooses—and this in the midst of human finagling to control the process of birth! (Genesis 29:31-30:24) When it was all said and done, Jacob would speak of his sons as the children God has graciously given (33:5). Refer also in this connection to these passages: Gen. 16:2; 20:18; 48:9; Lev. 20:20,21; Jdg. 13:3,24; Ruth 4:13; 1 Sam. 1:5,11,19,20; Job 42:12,13; Is. 8:18; Lk. 1:7,24,25.
In condemning his unfaithful people in Ezekiel 16:20-21, God says, And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food for idols....You slaughtered my children.... Our children are God's children. That ought to affect how we view conception and birth. God gives children and so they are his!
It is part of the arrogant presumption of our age that men and women believe they can control the process of conception and birth. Yet how many have we known who have become pregnant despite efforts to avoid it, or who have decided to have children only to find that they cannot conceive? God still opens and closes the womb, and he is still better at family planning than we are.
Who are we to presume that we know when a new human being should be born. Children are not trifles; they are eternal beings who have a purpose and significance in God's hands that we cannot even imagine. What audacity to think that we have sufficient wisdom to decide if and when another should begin his eternal sojourn! The Bible does not even hint that such a decision belongs in the hands of man; it is God's prerogative alone.
Children Are a Blessing
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord (Psalm 128:3,4).
Since God wants a marriage to result in multiplying children, since children are the necessary means to taking dominion, since it is God's prerogative to give and withhold children, it is not surprising to find that the Bible consistently teaches that children are a blessing. How could they be viewed otherwise? Not having children was considered a serious deprivation of blessing (and at times an actual curse) and the barren woman in Scripture invariably seeks relief from her condition. (Gen. 11:30; 15:2; 30:1; Jdg. 13:2; 1 Sam. 1:2; 2 Sam. 6:23; 2 Ki. 4:14; Hos. 9:11; Lk. 1:7; 20:29)
Only a people who lose God's perspective on life would come to see children as a burden, and that is where we have come in Western society. We have already mentioned how this anti-child feeling has crept into the church. Those who see children as a burden or a curse want to limit or eliminate them; hence birth control and abortion. Those who see them as God's blessing want all that God chooses to give them, and they receive them with joy and thanksgiving. Why would anyone choose to deprive himself of God's blessing?
Birth Control Is Severely Judged
While the term birth control is not mentioned in the Bible there is one example of its practice (this provides us with a pattern to be avoided): Then Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.' But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord's sight; so he put him to death also (Gen. 38:8-10).
Onan had an obligation, later codified in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 25:5,6), to give his dead brother's wife a child to carry on the name of the deceased and inherit his land and goods. He refused this obligation by practicing a form of birth control. His goal was to prevent his brother from having an heir, and his method succeeded as well as if he had murdered the heir. God killed him for his sin.
Did God punish Onan for his refusal to fulfill his brotherly responsibility, for practicing birth control by wasting his seed, or both? The text does not precisely identify for us the what that was so wicked in the Lord's sight. We know Onan sinned by refusing to father a child for his sister-in-law. We know he sinned by enjoying sexual relations with her and appearing to fulfill his duty without actually fulfilling it. Do we know what God thinks of the act of spilling his seed on the ground—taking the act apart from its context? We cannot separate the act from its context in Onan's case.
Given all that we have seen in the Scripture about the purpose of the sexual act and God's view of children, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that Onan's act of birth control was itself an abomination deserving God's wrath. However, this account does not provide an iron-clad answer to the question. A reasonable conclusion is not by itself the basis for an absolute rule of conduct.
While the Onan incident is not the airtight anti-birth-control case that some writers make it out to be, it may well indicate God's hatred of such acts, and it is at least consistent with the rest of Scripture which offers absolutely nothing to encourage the practice of birth control.
Dealing With Doubts and Fears
Taking together all the relevant teachings of Scripture we are left with the conclusion that we should let God do our family planning. He will open and close the womb as it serves his inscrutable purposes, and we should accept with joyful thanksgiving all the children with which he chooses to bless us.
Easier said than done! Letting the Lord plan the family size is a frightful prospect for most who come to believe it is the right way to go. It is not easy to overcome years, yes perhaps generations, of conditioning. And how do you answer family members or church friends who asks, How are you planning to provide for all those children? Where will you get money for college, for goodness sake? Then there is the matter of your emotional health. How many children can you handle before you crack? Safe to say, most of us are full of doubts and fears as we contemplate letting God plan our families.
To help us here we need to consider yet one more teaching of Scripture: the doctrine of providence. Providence—the word sounds sort of austere and vaguely holy; what help does it give us? Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary defines the word in part as the care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures....A belief in divine providence is a source of great consolation to good men. Our problem is that we have been so infected with the spirit of the age that we often no longer believe the simple truth: God is in complete control of us, and he is good, so we can rest in his loving care. (Matt. 6:25-34; 7:7-12; Phil. 4:19; Rom. 8:28,32)
If we doubt that God is going to provide for us and our children then we will be afraid. If we doubt that he will give us the grace necessary to adapt to each new child, then we will panic. If we doubt that he will give us the wisdom we need to raise all the children he sends, then we will fear.
We need to learn to see our lives in God's hands and get over our delusions of self-determination and self-sufficiency. We do not provide for our families—God does. We cannot control the future—God does.
We must identify and confess the unbelief that infects our hearts. Let's just tell God the truth: we are afraid to let go of our control of the number of children we have because we do not trust him to give us what we need materially and emotionally. We are afraid that he will not take care of us. Isn't that what it boils down to? We simply need to trust God.
Your loving Father would never give you a child without also giving you what you need to raise that child for him. He sees every bird that falls. He knows the number of the hairs on your head. He will care for you and the children he gives you. A belief in divine providence is a source of great consolation to good men.
Abstinence and Stewardship
Is there any room for the exercise of stewardship and human responsibility in the matter of conception and birth? What about the man who fully embraces the Lord's plan to multiply godly offspring but believes that a measure of spacing between children is best for his wife's long-term capacity to have many children? (He could even point to the apparent design of God to space children through the natural inhibition that nursing is to pregnancy.)
The easy answer is: No, these folks just have to trust God like everybody else. No exceptions. It is true, of course, that there are no exceptions to the rule that we must trust the Lord in the matter of having children. But could trust and a limited exercise of control be compatible?
We must be very careful that in our desire to return the people of God to holy living we do not become Pharisees. That is, we have to be very sure that we do not add our rules to the Word of God and bind one another's consciences by these man-made rules. God says, Be fruitful. That we can enjoin on one another. But can we tell a brother with seven children he is sinning because he avoids pregnancy for six months after the latest birth?
Of course, this raises the question of methods of birth control. Let's quickly dismiss them all insofar as they physically alter the body (pill, IUD, sterilization, etc.) or physically block the man's seed and make it ineffective or kill it (condom, diaphragm, foam, etc.).
But what of temporary abstinence from sexual relations? This practice is required (Lev. 18:19) or approved (1 Cor. 7:5) for other reasons in Scripture. Might it be acceptable for a man and woman to agree for a limited time to forego sexual relations during the woman's fertile time of the month? Might that degree of stewardship in the process of conception and birth be compatible with a genuine desire for fruitfulness and joyful acceptance of all the children God sends?
Periodic abstinence is not part of the birth control game which separates the pleasure and procreative potential of sex. It is simply choosing not to have sex at a particular time; and there does not appear to be a biblical requirement for sexual relationships on some schedule. The couple is sovereign over when they engage in the practice (keeping 1 Cor. 7:3-5 in mind).
The key here is the heart attitude of the couple. They must not be avoiding fruitfulness in their marriage (regular abstinence on a long-term basis to avoid pregnancy would be wrong). They must be ready to accept a child as God's gift if he overrules their attempt at timing; they must acknowledge their limited perspective and willingly yield to whatever God does in their lives.
Any attempt to pronounce such abstinence sin would appear to be a Pharisaic extreme. (It is not more holy to be stricter than God; that is sin.) Since abstinence is acceptable for other uses, since the couple is not blocking God's design for sex, and since they are yielding to God's planning of their family and are not attempting to disobey his command to be fruitful, then the practice is not prohibited by biblical precept or principle.
Much more difficult to discuss is the occasional hard case wherein, for example, the wife almost dies in birth and is counseled by a doctor against getting pregnant again. Her husband, as an act of protection for his wife and an exercise of dominion over her health and his family's future, chooses to avoid pregnancy. Is this acceptable, or is this sin?
The following principles would seem to apply:
1) God is still in charge, and none of his children will die apart from his will. Doctors have often declared pregnancy life-threatening only to be proven wrong by a normal healthy delivery the next time around. It is not a foolish act to entrust oneself to a loving Father in the face of medical advice to the contrary. (Many physicians consider having more than two or three children foolish and find it easy to recommend avoiding pregnancy.) How much of God's mighty works on our behalf do we never receive because we don't take the risks that call forth his special grace?
2) God does have special grace for women in the process of bearing children. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love with sanctity with self-restraint (1 Tim. 2:15). The battle for the man and his wife may be in balancing medical counsel and God's promises.
3) Any measure of control the couple seek to exercise should be through abstinence (as above). Measures that alter the body or render the sex act sterile are never appropriate. By submitting to God's plan for sexual relations the couple will be within God's will and will be open to his plan if he should choose to overrule their efforts.
4) The couple must have a humble heart that is ready to acknowledge that any decision of theirs may be wrong and the Lord has a better way. If there is fear in their hearts, they should confess it and ask for grace to trust him and wisdom to know how he wants them to proceed.
There may be some cases where it appears that the commands to be fruitful and to take dominion are hard to reconcile. A man should always be skeptical of his wisdom and his ability to control his or his wife's life; yet he may conclude that he ought to try to avoid pregnancy to protect her. Surely no one else can judge that choice as sin even though there may be hidden sin in his motivation. As long as his outward conduct conforms to the Word of God, the rest of us should assume the best about his motivation and give him support, not condemnation.
It seems to this writer that God's Word is very clear. Christians should not partake of the world's birth-control mindset. They should embrace God's plan for marriage, including the procreative purpose of sex, and joyfully accept as blessings all the children that God sends them. Further, they should develop the long range vision that sees children as the means to advance the kingdom of Christ and defeat his enemies. The more children he gives, the better. They know that God is a loving Father who will provide for every child of his.
Within this larger framework the practice of periodic, temporary abstinence from sexual relationships is an acceptable exercise of godly stewardship in the process of building a family. Such a stewardship of the process of conception must be utilized very cautiously, however. The couple would have to examine themselves closely to be sure they are not resisting God's plan for children nor giving in to a spirit of doubt and fear. They will be judged by the Lord in this, but they should not be judged by others.
The bottom line is this: to the extent that Christians embrace a biblical view of marriage and children the people of God will grow greatly in numbers over the next couple of generations. Meanwhile the lovers of death in our culture will commit collective suicide through birth control and abortion.
As usual, the real question is whether Christians will do things God's way or the world's way.
How about you? Don't you like the thought of your 1,300 great-great grandchildren gathering to honor the memory of the godly patriarch who founded their Christian clan? It seems like that would please the Lord, too!
Philip Lancaster is the editor of Patriarch Magazine, and well known author of the book "Family Man, Family Leader," publisher and lecturer, and one of the most articulate and passionate defenders of biblical biblical manhood in the Christian Church. For more years than I can count, Phil has been teaching Biblical doctrines, instilling hope, and calling fathers to their rightful duties as family head, priest, protectors and provider.