Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

2202 words on birth control and the Christian

Posted by Chris on March 29, 2008

The following is a response to a fellow blogger in a back-and-forth conversation we have had about the moral rights of the Christian as it pertains to birth control methods. He often blogs on the topic at his Lawn Gospel blog, but I came across the blog recently and am addressing his posts and comments on three different posts. If you want to understand exactly what I’m responding to, read each of the posts and comments. (1, 2, 3)

It is important to understand that our positions are very close on this issue, when you compare us to the rest of the world, or even American Christian culture. So while it may sound like I’m trying to present some opposing viewpoint, that’s really not the case. Instead, we have been discussing very precise points of disagreement. What we agree on is the presumptuousness in the attitudes of Christian couples when it comes to birth control, and the need for more honest, biblical, questioning of the ethics of the whole business.

The response starts now.

BH,

I’m going to bring three posts’ comments under one head here. First, I enjoyed your response about the relationship between the church and pro-life ministry. Second, I will respond to your question about the moral use of birth control by a Christian couple. Third, I will respond to your reasoning about the Biblical context of birth control. Actually, 2 and 3 will be one response, and I am going to use a parallel between health/medical issues and birth control. This parallel is not intended as one of moral equivalence but rather literal treatment of each in the Bible vs. the current cultural assumptions about each one.

I cannot, with scripture, refute your assertion that we have no right to separate sex from procreation (an act from its natural consequences found in the Bible). That argument must come from a “culturally fashioned assumption.” Instead, I will attempt to build up a nearly as tight defense for a biblical argument against most uses of medicine today. By doing so, I will challenge your assumption that the cultural assumptions are “unfounded.”

Do you have the right to separate leprosy from suffering and death (an act from its natural consequences found in the Bible)?? Unless a prophet or Jesus intervened, the person faced separation and death. Thus, it was, at a minimum, God’s providential will that a person with leprosy suffer and die unless He intervened supernaturally. Similarly, unless the Lord willed that a woman be barren, she usually had “a lot” of kids.

In each case, I can think of one method outside of God’s intervention, which one could pursue. Birth control was present in abortion or infanticide. An ill person could pursue a pagan solution- visiting a healer or following an ungodly superstition—hardly what we would consider medical treatment, in the context of Western bio-medical thought.

In the last few centuries, we have obliterated all the old conventions of how to solve “problems” in the world—including, but not limited to, the treatment of disease and birth control that does not require killing. I will ask you to suspend your culturally-conditioned assumptions for the moment (i.e., you are not allowed to point to distinctions within medicine, such as we shouldn’t remove a feeding tube but we should have open-heart surgery). These choices were not available at the time the Bible was written. In the same way that you are using the phrase “biblical context” in a very strict sense, so will I. The biblical context of medicine is limited solely to what was available and what people did. “Is any one of you sick? He should call the ELDERS of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14) “When anyone has an infectious skin disease, he must be brought to the PRIEST.” (Lev 13:9) The only doctor whose diagnosis the Bible demands be sought is the Great Physician. There were doctors but I don’t know much about what they did. Hippocrates was ethical, but, in comparison to modern medicine, it seems that that was about his only contribution.

You said: “But I think we must first go back further and question our “right” to separate sex from procreation, our “right” to medically/chemical close the womb, and our “right” to wield power over the creation of the Imago Dei in the procreative process.” My point is that we do not accept medical advances based on our “right” to violate God’s sovereignty in the area of disease. There are other acceptable grounds, but they fall outside of the only acceptable means for fighting disease for God’s people in the scriptures.

In the arena of birth control, we are also presented with new means. Just as with medicine, that doesn’t mean we can just accept these new means without critical evaluation of two things: the methods and our motives. But I believe it does mean that the role of Biblical thought is not in the historical precedent of scripture, but in utilizing a biblical thought process for evaluating the new choices. Sex without procreation, aside from the intervention of the Lord, does not occur in scripture except for abortion and infanticide. Disease without death, aside from healing from the Lord’s anointed, has no clear precedent in scripture, and can only be pursued through fruitless pagan superstitions.

I recognize that one is much more of a moral issue than the other, but I draw the comparison as a way of saying that sex without procreation is not an idea we must accept exclusive of the realities of our culture and the new assumptions to which these realities have led. Just as the choices for resisting disease are no longer limited to fruitless superstitions, the choices for separating sex from procreation are no longer limited to the unethical ending of a life.

Briefly, I will answer some obvious weaknesses of this reasoning and its consequences, and try to maintain the parallel with medicine. 1: The abuses of widely available birth control– I acknowledge this, but more and more we are seeing the abuses being accepted under the umbrella of biomedicine thought. 2: The overall negative social consequences of the “contraception culture”– The same response as before (and indeed, here, the two issues begin to converge). 3: The potential of birth control to end human life- This only applies to certain forms of birth control and should be treated separately. 4: The danger of moral ambiguity– if we judge the morality of decisions based on the motives, “everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial.” This frustrates me too. But it’s a necessary part of the already/not yet struggle of the Christian pilgrim. We don’t have all the information that God has.

The usage of the following passage is probably somewhat out of its specific context but I think within the context of Pauline thought:

“My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Cor 4:4-5)

Paul repeatedly judges the sinful actions of believers in his letters. But I think he willingly condemns easily identifiable sins like stealing, sexual immorality, and laziness but only recommends conscience on the ambiguous issues. When it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul commands Christians not to be present at a feast to pagan gods—obvious idolatry—“you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too.” (1 Cor 10:21). But Paul concedes that eating meat sacrificed to idols (according to my study bible, this was most of the meat sold in the market at Corinth) was not only a matter of conscience but also culturally conditioned (do not be afraid to accept the invitation to a meal, or conversely, do not offend the weak brother).

So my argument comes down to saying that if using birth control can be an immoral participation in an ungodly tradition, but can also be a matter of conscience. And now, I will finally answer your question you posed to me: “when is it moral for a Christian couple to use birth control?”

1-A: it is not moral when it is an attempt to circumnavigate God’s sovereignty. Not in the strict/literal sense, but in the sense of motives such as: more kids will mean we can’t have the lifestyle we prefer; a dislike of children; choosing career advancement over family because of a love for personal gain; and the most common would be what you identify as the your biggest frustration: people passively ignoring the issue.

1-B: it is moral to make decisions for which a one subsequent action is some form of birth control (Driscoll makes this point); more kids will mean we cannot have the vocation God calls us to (a female professional athlete for instance—haha, I just thought of that); a love for abandoned children who need adoption; choosing to pursue overseas missions.

2-A: it is not moral to abandon childbearing because of fear of social or governmental repercussions. Many people will publicly insult us because of our large family. The government will fine us (a reality in China at one point, and a distinct possibility in the US if some get their way).

2-B: it is moral to take some measure to limit family sizes because of real threats. (This is dangerous, because, Moses may have never been born if you take this to its logical conclusion—but I will appeal to God’s sovereignty over the continuum of history and His grand plan of redemption to call that an impossibility). So a Christian family in China 20 years ago, when your second girl might be forcibly taken from you and killed, could make a moral decision to use birth control.

3- some more specific instances, and, a personal example, of the moral use of birth control. I believe Driscoll uses this one: a sick parent. What if a parent is terminally ill and should die within 2-3 years? Should they continue to pursue a course of action that would naturally lead to more children? I’m not saying it’s wrong if they do—only that they could make a moral decision to use birth control. Or what about a dad in the Marines going to Iraq? Might they deny each other for that time?
(an aside—I think you took liberties with that passage—I believe Paul’s point is about the sexual relationship between parents without any bearing on procreation)

A personal example: genetic disease. There is a history of genetic disease in my family. My parents took a course of action that both separated sex from procreation and ensured that I would not inherit disease (turns out, there would have been a 50% chance I had it). Huntington’s Disease is terrible, in fact there was a recent profile in the Washington Post of a couple who dealt with it for a much longer period than my family did in the case of my dad (an excellent and moving article- the caretaker husband is a model of Christian devotion in marriage). If, through “birth control” techniques, we can erase Huntington’s Disease, I’ll be thankful.

Does this mean my parents made a moral decision? No. It just means that it’s possible. Not all the alternatives are morally equivalent. The motives for any action, including this one, will always be tainted somewhat by sin.

I mention this last because I don’t want to use it unfairly to induce guilt against one who would disagree. I also am able to remove the personal nature—I have no problem considering whether or not the method of my conception was perfectly in line with God’s moral will (puts me in pretty good company). And what’s the point of what-if’ing about my own nonexistence?

Rather than justify more liberty for Christians considering what to do, I would join you in challenging presumptions. However, I will accept certain cultural assumption. I hope that a combination of my theoretical view and personal life experience will give me credibility to state my case and get people to listen. Similarly, I hope the same for you, with the addition of your credentials as a minister of the gospel.

BH, I ask the following of you (or anyone) if you choose to respond. I know that my logic is not perfect. I may not always have the correct word usage either– my apologies, I am neither a wordsmith nor naturally-adept at being concise. I have no doubt you could point out flaws. If there is something that is so blatant that it renders my point irrelevant, by all means use in your response. Otherwise, I’d like to know: what is your reaction to the specific examples I gave of justifiable birth control use? Do you give any credence to the idea that birth control choices can stem around primary factors other than separating sex from procreation? And how do you make the distinction between birth control and medicine comparison as far as what is morally acceptable on the basis of God’s sovereign will?

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8 Responses to “2202 words on birth control and the Christian”

  1. I appreciate your thorough comment on this subject especially after listening to the sermon linked on the post you are commenting on. I really think the scripture that is being cited from Corinthians 7 is taken out of context as an argument for reason for birth control.
    I personally believe there are countless reasons why people should not have children. I don’t believe some couples who are mentally handicapped or emotionally unprepared should embark on such a journey. I’m not saying that as an absolute statement.
    I won’t get carried away. But I really value and agree with your corner of thought. The principle of conscience does apply here in my conviction. You know, I think its dangerous to make certain absolute statements on matters that God has not made an absolute statement on. We can arrive at certain absolute statements after we have substantially stated our position from the Word of God.
    I’ll visit your next comments soon. God Bless You. :)

  2. Brother Chris-

    The promised comments:
    1) On leprosy’s relationship to suffering and death –
    Separating these is exactly what a redemptive view of history should encourage us to do. And that purpose is a proper (and I believe, biblical) ends to medicine. The distinction (as I mentioned more at depth in my response post) is leprosy is a disease, and pregnancy clearly and biblically is not. The fact that we moral creatures can affirm that suffering and death is “evil”, actually places an onus on us to do what we can to overcome that evil with good. Hence, when Jesus heals the sick, he is not separating something that should not separated; rather he is doing what we are called to do – only perfectly and supernaturally.

    2) This leads me to the assertion that you made that there is no biblical support for medicinal healing, in addition to your quoted verses such as James 5:14, and Lev 13:9. My mind goes immediately to the Southern Baptist’s favorite verse, 1 Timothy 5:23 where Paul instructs Timothy to “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” It doesn’t take a lot of wrangling to see that Paul had in mind a medicinal use of wine, did he not? In addition to that, we have the clear reference in Colossians 4:14 to “Luke the beloved physician…” — which reminds us that for the divine title of “Great Physician” to have any meaning at all to the Ancient Israelites, there must have first been some foundational understanding of the place and purpose of a regular physician. (Mark 5:26 is another telling example, not to mention Proverbs 17:22 – “A merry heart doeth good like a…..medicine.” No elders, no prayer, just, evidently, merry heart.)

    3) Moral ambiguity –
    Your comparisons of birth control to eating meat are lacking in one crucial area – conception is not a culturally conditioned state of mankind, therefore it is not open to the purview of a 1 Corinthians 4 matter of personal discretion (or Christian liberty, if you will). I will quote Dr. Helmut David Baer here at length:

    “We can approach the question of contraception from within one of two fundamentally different frameworks. Either we consider the decision to use birth control a matter of conscience, or we consider the decision a matter of personal discretion and choice; and these two approaches are mutually exclusive. If the decision is a matter of conscience, then it is a moral decision subject to objective considerations. Whether or not we should make use of birth control in this difficult and troubling situation is a question for which there is a right answer. That does not mean the answer is immediately perspicuous; indeed, to find the right answer will be a cause of concern for the well-formed conscience. But the right answer exists, and the only moral choice will be the correct choice. Thus, insofar as using contraception is a moral matter, to that extent it ceases to be a matter of mere choice and personal discretion. Or to state the proposition conversely, to the extent that using contraception is a matter of personal discretion, to that extent the decision not to have children lies beyond moral consideration, which is to say, the decision is morally indifferent. Having children will just be one of those things some people do, like going to the opera, that others do not.”

    ‘BH

  3. Ed Nace said

    Brother Hank touched on this a little bit already, but I’ll throw in my two cents. Your comparison between medicine and birth control is like comparing the Orkin man to the IRS man. The Orkin man intends to rid my house of pests and termites. The IRS man intends takes a portion of my income. One exterminates a curse, the other limits a blessing. The two can not be lumped into the same category.

    When Jesus began His ministry, He told people that the Kingdom of God was at hand. He raised people from the dead, delivered them from demons, and healed them of their diseases. Before the Fall, disease was not present. In the new heavens and new earth, there will be no disease. Disease is not welcome in the Kingdom of God.

    The King’s heart does not desire to give us more disease (although He can and does use it and work it out for our good). But Scripture shows that His heart is to bless families with godly children. As Hank said, pregnancy must never be seen as a disease, and so the morality of birth control can not be decided in light of it being a medicine. Medicine is for healing or preventing disease. Birth control is for limiting or controlling the blessing of children.

    One prevents disease, which God hates. The other prevents children, whom God loves.

    These are good thoughts you’ve written. I have thinkin’ material for the coming days (:
    Blessings,

    Ed

  4. Chris said

    Ed

    Based on your reaction, I am surprised you say they are good thoughts!
    I hope that the following will clear up what I think are misconceptions.

    “Your comparison between medicine and birth control…”
    As I said, it was not a comparison, but: “a parallel… [not] of moral equivalence but rather literal treatment of each in the Bible vs. the current cultural assumptions about each one.”
    If you think that I err’ed in the way I presented the literal treatment of each in the Bible, or that what I consider to be cultural assumptions are incorrect, please say so.

    For instance, I could use your explanation of the kingdom as a representation of my point. Just as Jesus healed disease (justifying our efforts to do the same?), God closed Sarah’s womb. I wouldn’t use that parallel to make my point, but, all I was saying is that people at that time had little capability for control in either scenario. Therefore, there is at least a debate as to whether their assumptions at that time extend to us in the same manner.

  5. Chris said

    Phil

    thanks for the comment.

    I’m not sure how you meant “should” in the following quote:
    I personally believe there are countless reasons why people should not have children. I don’t believe some couples who are mentally handicapped or emotionally unprepared should embark on such a journey. I’m not saying that as an absolute statement.

    There are many voices in our society saying should and wanting to use laws to enforce it. You certainly don’t agree with that, but, I think it would be very very dangerous to say should at all. There might be a situation but personally I don’t think I could ever feel confident enough to take such a risky position.

  6. Brother Chris,

    Thank you for this excellent post. I really loved your defenses, but I do have one question…

    What about a couple that chooses to use birth control because their marriage is headed through trouble? Say they already have a couple of children and do not feel it would be right to bring another child into the scenario until their issues are worked out?

    Also, what about the case where one spouse is a believer while one isn’t? Would it be wise of them to have a large family or would it be wiser to just prevent children?

    Just curious to your opinions,

    MW

  7. Chris said

    BH & MW,
    I want to continue this conversation, but i’m starting a second job tomorrow and will be AWOL until Friday. I’ve got a response started in my head but I’m already up later than I intended to be so please bear with me until then.

  8. umpch said

    Militarywifey,

    I really don’t like to think about this or anything else in terms of “cases”, i.e. exceptions. I like black-and-white. So my belief does not extend from exceptions but an effort to define a moral thought process, instead of defining moral actions.

    There are some things we all readily accept in these terms (morality is measured by motives, not actions) and areas where actions are not justified by any motives. (more to be said on that in my next post).

    That being said, here are my quick thoughts on your 2 questions.
    1. What is a marriage “headed through trouble?” Obviously to some extent this is outside the will of God. The number of children they already have should have no bearing on whether or not they can use birth control, if the reason is the troubled marriage. I would not call it “bad” but I’m more concerned about the marriage than whether or not to use birth control… So I’d give that as counsel to the couple. What if you could say the marriage troubles are the fault of the man and the woman is asking you individually about birth control? that’s a really tough question and shows how BH’s position certainly provides much clearer guidance. it also is related to your second question…

    2. I do not have a lot to say about this, because I have not thought much about how the Biblical teaching on marriage looks for us in the 21st century. In other words, I need to think more about the marriage thing by itself. They would not have a large family because of their concern for God’s sovereignty– at least one person in the relationship is not buying into that.

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