Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Family Planning: The World's Way
by Brian Shilhavy
Family planning is a major issue in the world today. Social science "experts" point out that birth control is necessary today if we are going to solve the problems of over-population and poverty. Some countries in the world today have taken steps to deal with this apparent problem by legislating what is the proper size of a family. An extreme form of this kind of legislation can be observed today in China, where by law a Chinese couple can only have one child. Subsequent pregnancies are supposed to be terminated through abortion. Other countries are less severe, legislating that a family can only receive tax benefits for a maximum number of children.
Many American Christian families today are also practicing birth control and limiting the size of their family. It is often stated that the Bible is silent on the matter of birth control, therefore it is a matter of one's own opinion, a neutral issue. But is the Bible really silent on such an important issue as children and the size of one's family?
What exactly is family planning, and why are so many evangelical Christians practicing family planning today? In this chapter, I define family planning as it is used in our society today: birth control. Family planning is the decision a husband and wife makes to prevent conception and limit the size of their family. The reasons Christians want to prevent conception are varied, but they may include one the following: 1) delaying conception so that the couple may enjoy their first year or so of marriage without the interruption of kids, or so that the wife can pursue her career; 2) limiting the size of one's family because the couple cannot economically afford too many kids; 3) limiting the size of one's family because of the problem of over-population.
In seeking to interpret the biblical data related to family planning, we must start with the biblical doctrine of creation. The Bible quite clearly states that each child is a direct creation of God: "Thy hands made me and fashioned me and made me altogether" (Job 10:8), "For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:13-14). This point may seem a bit obvious, for most Christians accept the doctrine of creation. But many today have accepted some form of evolutionary thinking and tried to reconcile evolution with the biblical teaching of creation. This kind of theistic evolution sees God as getting the whole thing started, but then evolutionary processes take over. Childbearing is then seen as a natural process: controlled by human actions. However, the point is crucial: only God makes babies - no man or woman has the ability to create a child. God is in total control: "My frame was not hidden from Thee, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Thy book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them." (Psalm 139:15-16)
While some may have no objection to the fact that each child is directly created by God, they may argue that couples have the freedom to decide whether or not they will conceive a child. This is actually the concept behind "family planning." Couples decide when and how many children they are going to have.
I once overheard two young men talking; one was single and the other had been married for about two years. The married man said to his single friend, "Well, my wife and I finally decided last night."
"Decided what?" his friend questioned.
"We decided that we're going to have children," he replied.
As I listened to this conversation, I thought to myself, "Oh yeah? What makes you think that's your decision? What does God have to say about it?" Infertility rates today show that one out four couples in the U.S. cannot have children.
What does the Bible teach about conception? In Genesis 4:1 we have the record of the first conception of the first woman, Eve. "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, `I have gotten a man from the Lord.'" Eve quite clearly saw that her conception was by means of the Lord, and not her own personal choice.
Later in Genesis chapter 20 we have the story of Abraham and Abimelech. Abimelech had taken Abraham's wife Sarah, not realizing she was married. The result was that "the Lord closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah" and therefore "Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children."
Also, in the account of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, we read in Genesis 29:31: "Now the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren." Leah was able to conceive children because God "opened her womb." Notice Rachel's jealousy when she saw her sister bearing children, and Jacob's response to her: "Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, `Give me children, or else I die.' Then Jacob's anger burned against Rachel, and he said, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" (Genesis 30:1-2)
In contemporary Christian literature on marriage and the family it is common to find such statements as: "Since the average woman is capable of producing over 20 children in her lifetime, most families practice birth control." In a recent report that was published in the Manila Bulletin (1992), a business newspaper published in the Philippines, it was stated that of the developing countries in Asia, Turkey and the Philippines had the highest birth rates. It just so happens that these are the two countries that I lived in from 1986 to 1992. Many of the people in these two countries, especially among the poorer classes, do not practice birth control. And yet in all of my acquaintances in both these countries (and I have lived in very rural areas in both countries) I have never met even one family that had 20 or more children! The largest families that I have been acquainted with have had usually between 8 and 12 children, and these families are by far the minority.
But throughout scripture we see that it is God who gives the ability to conceive, by opening or closing the womb. Sarah had only one child, Rachel apparently only two, and Leah had at least seven. They did not plan their families, God did.
While some may think that over-population and birth control are recent developments, history dictates otherwise. In the biblical record, the first occurrence we see of over-population and birth control appears in Exodus chapter one. Apparently God blessed the wombs of the Hebrew women more than he did the wombs of the Egyptian women, as we read in verse 7: "But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them." The king of Egypt feared the Hebrews' large population, and sought to control their birth rate by having the Hebrew midwives kill all the new-born males. God was quite obviously opposed to this program of birth control, as the reward for the midwives disobeying the government birth control program was that God gave them large families! (Exodus 1:21). Thus the first occurrence of legislated birth control is quite negative, and is instituted by someone who was an enemy of God's people.
Blessing or Curse?
Throughout the Bible we see that the ability to conceive and bear children is a blessing, while the inability to conceive is seen as a curse. In 1 Samuel 1:10 we see that Hannah was "greatly distressed" because of her barrenness, and in Luke 1:25 Elizabeth, when finding out she was pregnant after many years, says, "This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace." Also, as was stated above, the wife and maids of Abimelech were prevented from conceiving as a punishment from God. In Leviticus 20:21 the punishment for a man taking his brother's wife is that they will be childless.
The Mosaic law quite clearly states that one of the blessings that God's people will receive is many children:
Then it shall come about, because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you His covenant and His lovingkindness which He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground... You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall be no male or female barren among you or among your cattle. (Deuteronomy 7:12-14)
The Psalms also echo this truth:
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 the children of one's youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them... How blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways... Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine, within your house, your children like olive plants around your table. Behold, for thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. (Psalm 127 & 128)
The Bible obviously has much to say concerning children and families. Whenever we do see birth control happening in the Bible, it is seen as something bad, as in the case of the Egyptians in Exodus chapter one, and in the case of Onan in Genesis 38:9 who was commanded to raise up offspring through the wife of his dead brother, but "when he went into his brother's wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother."
After reading this some Christians may ask, "Is it actually a sin for a Christian to practice birth control?" I think this is the wrong question to ask. The biblical teaching is not so much concerned with birth control as it is with the proper attitude toward children and families. If you have the biblical attitude toward children, birth control will not even be an issue. One of the few times where it is recorded that Jesus got angry is when the disciples tried to prevent children from coming to Him. In Mark 10:14 it says that Jesus was "indignant" with them because of their negative attitude toward children. He said, "Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." If Jesus had such a high view of children, so should we!
The Bible is silent about the people of God practicing birth control because they saw children as a blessing, a reward from God, a rich inheritance, and who would want to refuse the blessings of God?
The fact that many Christians are practicing birth control today shows that they do not believe that children are always a gift and a blessing from God. Instead, children are sometimes seen as an interruption, an inconvenience and an economicl burden. In the Bible, every woman wanted children, and the more the better! Why is such a view of children not accepted by most Christians today? Has the situation in the world today changed to such an extent that it is no longer a blessing to have many children?
As was mentioned in the beginning, over-population is seen as a major problem in the world today. "Experts" tell us that if the world population continues at its present rate, we will deplete the earth's natural resources. Therefore, birth control is seen as a necessity.
Is over-population really a threat to the human race? Most of these "experts" who are giving us these alarming statistics are basing their predictions on current observations of population trends, and not on anything the Bible says. These predictions of the future are often based on humanistic assumptions. They assume that man has developed science and medicine to such an extent that people are living much longer, because cures have been found for many of the diseases and sicknesses that almost destroyed entire populations in the past, such as bubonic plague, cholera, polio, etc. But, unfortunately, today we are seeing new diseases which man has yet to discover cures for, like AIDS.
There are many other problems with predicting the future simply based on current observations of our world system. For example, how do you predict future wars between nations and its affect on world population? With the current proliferation of nuclear weapons, the potential to destroy entire populations of nations within a matter of minutes is awesome. The world has yet to see an all out nuclear conflict between nations.
Fortunately, we do have a more authoritative and reliable source for predicting the future than current observations of the world system: God's revelation of the future in the Bible. The Bible quite clearly states that the order of things that we now observe will not continue forever; there is an end which is coming. In other words, history is not circular, but linear, with a beginning and an end. Peter stated this well:
Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying "Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation." For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But the present heavens and earth by His word are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men...But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. (2 Peter 3:3-7,10)
While the exact nature of events that are going to happen in the future is not easy to interpret because of the symbolic nature of biblical prophecy, there is so much written about the last days that there is much that is certain. There will certainly be an end of human history, there will certainly be a judgement, Jesus Christ will certainly return to the earth. It is interesting to note that of all the terrible things that are predicted to happen on the earth in the last days, that over-population is not one of them. On the contrary, many other things are predicted that would severely limit the world's population, such as "famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars" (see Matthew 24:5-7). In fact, Revelation 9:18 says, "A third of mankind was killed by these three plagues..."
So based on biblical revelation, over-population does not seem to be a valid reason for practicing birth control. On the contrary, it would seem to contradict the command given to Adam and Eve to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." It is interesting that this same command was given to Noah after the flood, when the earth's land mass was significantly reduced.
Another common reason given for birth control today is economics. Some Christians argue that God has given them the responsibility to provide for their children, therefore they should not have more children than they can reasonably provide for. 1 Timothy 5:8 is often quoted to support this reasoning: "But 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." While there is definitely a general principle implied here, the context has nothing to do with birth control. Paul wrote this verse in the middle of his discussion of the church's treatment of widows. Paul's point here was that widows should not be supported by the church if they had children or grandchildren who could support them (cf. v.4). Therefore, the passage deals with children supporting their parents, and not vice versa.
But to state that a Christian family is capable of having more children than they are able to provide for would contradict scripture. As was stated above, God is the one who gives the ability to conceive, and if every child is a blessing and a gift from God, why would God give a couple more children than they can possibly provide for? Psalm 37:25-26 states: "I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread. All day long he is gracious and lends; and his descendants are a blessing."
Of course, this promise, as all promises in scripture, are given to the people of God. Those who are unbelievers and do not live by God's principles cannot expect the same blessings. Verse 28 of the same Psalm goes on to say, "For the Lord loves justice, and does not forsake His godly ones; they are preserved forever; but the descendants of the wicked will be cut off." Psalm 21:10, also talking about the wicked, says, "Their offspring Thou wilt destroy from the earth, and their descendants from among the sons of men." Hence one reason why many children today are suffering.
For Christians, God has promised to always provide their needs. Philippians 4:19 says, "And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus," and Matthew 6:33 states, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." While these are favorite verses quoted by Christians for many situations, in context the promises refer to economics. The "all these things" in Matthew 6:33 refers to the basic needs in life: food and clothing.
Repercussions of Family Planning
Family planning as birth control is not taught in the Bible. My primary problem with it is that most of the reasons for it de-values children. The reasons used for family planning are also used to support abortion, the murder of unborn children. How long can our nation continue murdering its offspring before the wrath of God is poured out upon us? While most Christians would oppose abortion, the rationale behind family planning (that some children are inconvenient and unwanted) supports this terrible tragedy in our nation.
There are, I believe, some legitimate reasons for birth control, mainly due to the health and safety of the mother. But if we have the concept of "too many children" in our thinking, our thinking is not Biblical. Could it be that the typical American Christian family values their careers and comfortable lifestyles more than raising children? If so, we have another reason why our families are in crisis, and why we have a hard time fulfilling the mission of the Law to love our neighbors as ourselves, beginning with the members of our own family.
The second reason I believe birth control is wrong is that it limits the size of some Christian families by refusing Gods blessings. This refusal of Gods blessing has tremendous repercussions for our society as well. In the Jewish culture of biblical times, Gods mark of blessing upon the nation was demonstrated by the fruitfulness of the Hebrew women, as was noted above. (Deuteronomy 7:12-14)
Chuck Colson, a modern day prophet who airs a daily broadcast called "Breakpoint," recently talked about how a new Gallop poll showed that Americans in the 1990s are more religious than ever, and that nearly one half of all adults attend church weekly (November 18, 1996 broadcast). Chuck goes on to say: "Yet ironically the surrounding culture is racing towards secularism at a dizzying pace .Why is it that with so many Christians, we have so little clout? During the War of Independence, only 1 out of 6 Americans were church goers Yet that 17% exercised a disproportionate influence on colonial life and culture."
The Christians that helped shape early American society were mostly Puritans. As Colson reports, these Puritans were concerned about building an entire culture that would glorify God. The task of culture building requires a long term commitment, so they focused on nurturing Godly families through whom their world view would be mediated over generations.
One example from the Puritans is Jonathan Edwards, whose preaching, teaching and writing helped mold American culture in the early and mid 1700s during the Great Awakening. Jonathan and Sarah Edwards reared 11 children, and by 1900 the Edwards had 1400 descendants. Among them were 13 college presidents, 65 professors, 100 lawyers, 30 judges, 66 physicians, 80 prominent public officials including: 3 governors, 3 senators, and a vice president of the United States. The Edwards clearly did not believe in birth control. They gladly received the blessing of raising Godly children and passed on a legacy that positively affected our nation.
American Christians today need another Great Awakening! We need to return to the biblical value of children, and to fulfill the mission of the Law and make our families our first ministry priority to raise up a legacy that will survive us.
This article was written in 1999 by Brian W. Shilhavy, BA, MA. Brian is a conscientious Christ-centered author who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible/Greek from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and his Master of Arts degree in linguistics from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. He has traveled extensively around the world and lived in many Asian countries. He was the logistical director of Global Partners in Diyarbakir Turkey after the first Iraq Gulf war in 1991, coordinating the relief efforts among the Kurdish people in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Today he is the CEO of Tropical Traditions, Inc. Brian and Marianita Shilhavy are Co-founders of "Helping Traditions," which is a Biblically-based ministry started in 2000 in partnership with local believers from various churches and denominations in Quezon Province of the Philippines.