Can Christians Use Contraceptives?
Note – this article discusses contraception rather than abortion. We’ll discuss abortion separately and subsequently.
Modern contraception is credited (or blamed!) with having transformed our western society. Since the introduction of oral contraceptives (“the pill”) for women in the 1960s, the ability of women to reliably and conveniently control their fertility is said to have been one of the underlying factors causing the growth of feminism and demand for equality at work and in all other aspects of life. The darker side of “sex without fear of consequences” may also have contributed to the hippy movement and “free love”, and a general rise in promiscuity.
We suspect that in part, opponents of contraception feel that way as part of a broader moral picture, believing that if children are not taught about sex, or if they are only taught that sex likely leads to pregnancy, then children will be less likely to indulge in excessive (or any) pre-marital sex.
If that is the reason for opposing contraception, it isn’t working. The distressing abundance of out-of-wedlock births in strongly Catholic countries which restrict access to contraceptives such as the Philippines (37% out-of-wedlock births in 2008-2009, the country has 80% Catholics) contrasts greatly with their neighboring Islamic countries of Indonesia (1%) and Malaysia (less than 1%), and other Asian countries such as India (less than 1%), South Korea, and Japan (both 2%).
Latin America is another poster-child for negative impacts and outcomes. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru all have over 50% of all births occurring out-of-wedlock, while also being predominantly Catholic (77%, 46%, 70%, 83%, 76% respectively).
Although some have tried to directly associate religion with out-of-wedlock birth rates, we feel the reality is much more complex and multi-factored. There are certainly many non-Catholic countries (some of the Nordic countries in particular) with very high out-of-wedlock birth rates too. In the case of western Europe and Scandinavia, our sense is that such births are not necessarily unintended and definitely are not the result of poor access to or knowledge of contraceptives (because they are freely available and taught about at schools). Instead, they are deliberately planned by couples in semi-stable relationships but who have decided not to get married, as a result of a major collapse of the concept of marriage in general. This unfortunate situation is clearly illustrated in the table here.
Perhaps the huge disparity between the Philippines and its neighboring countries, or between western and eastern Europe, is not so much access to contraception (after all, the Nordic countries have abundant unrestricted access to contraception) but rather social values. Of course, ideally, faith should be a part of a society’s values, but these days, in many countries, it is sadly playing a much weaker role than it formerly did.
With the preceding as introduction, how should a Christian approach the subject of contraception? For sure, the subject of contraception has been one that has seen the Roman Catholic church at odds with most other churches, so it is important we try to understand what is expected of us.
Contraception Was Well Known in Biblical Times
Some articles on this subject start off with the claim that because contraception (or at least, “modern birth control methods”) was unknown in Biblical times, the Bible is accordingly silent on that subject. That statement though is not only factually wrong, but also insults God by suggesting that he was unaware of the possibility of contraception in the future and so forgot to formulate guidance on that increasingly important topic for future generations.
Condoms made from such things as animal intestines (still used today), linen sheaths and fish bladders date as far back as 3000 BC. Other methods such as the use of honey, acadia leaves and lint date are recorded as far back as 1850 BC. The Greeks had a number of different approaches, and in Roman times, many methods were in use, including the use of the Silphium plant, a method that was so popular that the plant became completely extinct.
This Wikipedia article contains information on dozens of different approaches to contraception, all dating to Biblical times and even earlier, and here’s an even more extensive analysis, extending also to some commentary on various church attitudes.
Contraception wasn’t unknown. Quite the opposite – it was well-known, even if not always very effective. The Bible’s silence is more likely to mean that it was a non-issue and accepted in a matter-of-fact fashion.
The Reason For Onan’s Punishment in Genesis
The Bible has only one reference to contraception, in Genesis, when Onan “spilled his seed on the ground”.
Some people see this as an authority (albeit Old Testament based) to argue against birth control, because God killed Onan as a result of this deed. But it is necessary to read not just the very small part of the two verses that describe the act and the punishment, but the additional text before as well, so as to fully understand what Onan was being punished for. Genesis 38:8-10 tells us (AMP translation)
8 Then Judah told Onan, “Go in to your brother’s widow, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law [under the levirate marriage custom]; [be her husband and] raise children for [the name of] your brother.”
9 Onan knew that the child (heir) would not be his [but his dead brother’s]; so whenever he lay with his brother’s widow, he spilled his seed on the ground [to prevent conception], so that he would not give a child to his brother.
10 But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; therefore He killed him also [in judgment].
The key question is – what is it that was displeasing in the sight of the Lord?
We suggest that it was not the simple act of preventing conception, but it was the broader act of Onan refusing to perform his duty under the Levirate marriage custom and to give his brother’s widow a child, and in the specific circumstances that applied in this case.
To reason by analogy, if you murder someone with a knife, you are not charged with misuse of a knife, you are charged with murder. If you write out a check to pay a bill, but then don’t mail it, you aren’t charged with not mailing your check, you are charged with not paying your bill. In this case the clear transgression was Onan failing to give his brother’s widow an heir; the method of his failure being incidental rather than pivotal to the sin.
Now it is true that the usual punishment for failing to give one’s brother’s widow children was public humiliation, rather than death, in the circumstance of a man outright refusing to marry the woman (Deuteronomy 25:7–10). Some people have used this to support their view that it was the “spilling of the seed” which causes Onan’s death.
Perhaps the deceit of marrying the widow but not going all the way to give her a child was an aggravating circumstance in Onan’s case, but as we reasoned above, surely the key part is deliberately not giving her a child, rather than the way in which the sin was committed. Another aggravating circumstance is that in this case, the death of Onan’s brother was at the hands of God, and so God wished to compensate the widow for the loss of her husband, and through Judah, instructed Onan to give her children.
It seems much more likely that it was Onan’s refusal to comply not with a general societal norm, but the will of God, that caused his punishment.
To try and test this with a thought experiment, what do we think God would have done if Onan refused to “sleep with” his brother’s widow at all? Would God have said “Oh well, at least you didn’t spill your seed so that is okay”? It seems most likely that God’s displeasure was with Onan deliberately avoiding complying with his command, not the manner by which he avoided compliance.
Our reasoning is supported by other analyses, for example here is an excellent explanation about why Onan’s offense was so grave, and what the punishment was for.
Even if the primary reason for Onan’s punishment was the “spilling of his seed”, that has to be viewed in the context of a special situation where he was commanded to get his brother’s widow pregnant. That special situation is clearly very different to the ordinary situation of a husband and wife, with no direct command from God to them requiring them to have children.
If there was a command from God to have children, that raises a series of new issues. How many children must a couple have? That is nowhere stated. Would failure to engage in sufficient acts of intercourse to ensure pregnancy then be a sin? That too is nowhere stated; indeed, church doctrine eventually ended up that by 800 AD there were so many times when sex was forbidden that in total five months of each year were blocked out, making pregnancy difficult at the best of times (page 4 of this document). We suggest there is no such command (although God does like couples to have children, see below).
One last point about this passage. If Onan’s primary sin was a primitive attempt at contraception, rather than disobeying God’s command, and if the punishment for using contraception, in all circumstances, for all people, was death, why is this not more prominently stated, either in this chapter of Genesis, or anywhere else? If it was important and a deadly sin, surely we’d have a very clear statement to that effect, rather than an unclear oblique mention.
God Likes Couples to Have Children
In general, it is plain that God likes couples to have children (Psalm 127:3-5). Without children, humanity would of course die out within a generation and the desire to populate the earth was clearly part of God’s original instruction to “be fruitful” (Genesis 1:28 and then again after the Flood, Genesis 9:1).
But the instructions in Genesis were at times when the earth was almost empty, not now with 7.4 billion people, more people than ever before, and were specifically directed to specific people.
There is a difference between a general love of children, a desire (need) to populate an empty world immediately after Creation or the Flood, and a specific obligation on the part of every couple to have the maximum number of children possible.
It seems the maximum number of children a woman could anticipate having is about 20, although Wikipedia cites examples of much larger numbers of children (due to multiple sets of twins and also just being the far end of the curve). Well prior to that point, the medical risks involved become substantial – in medical terms, a woman who has had five births reaches a state of ‘grand multiparity’ which implies more complicated future births with elevated risks, and while there are indeed plenty of examples of women who safely have six or more children, the health of the mother and indeed of the children too is thought to decline. See, for example, this article and this article.
If couples were to strive to have the maximum number of children possible, the earth would have collapsed centuries ago from over-population and insufficient resources. Our restraint, assisted by contraception, has helped the planet to survive and allows us all to lead reasonably decent and sustainable lives.
If it is God’s will that we should have additional children, then he will of course cause that to happen, and it could be argued that perhaps on occasion, the failures of contraceptives to work are examples where his will in a particular case has triumphed over contraception. But we see no evidence that he wishes us to have the maximum number of children possible, or to risk over-populating the planet, or our local region, or to risk our health and wellbeing.
The Silence of the New Testament
We don’t see any commentary in the New Testament on the topic of contraception at all, even though it was a known practice at that time.
On the basis of “that which is not expressly disallowed should therefore be allowed” the silence on this subject is a permissive silence that allows contraception.
Evolving Church Policies
Most people are aware of the Roman Catholic Church’s continued and vociferous opposition to all forms of birth control. This has created a terrible conflict among people who follow that faith (with studies suggesting, in the west, that more than two-thirds of Catholic church-goers use contraception, and more than 90% believe contraception should be allowed) and their church.
Of course, Christianity isn’t based on what is popular, but rather on what is right, so the lack of public support for the Catholic church, while interesting, doesn’t mean the Church is wrong.
Not so many people appreciate that most other churches were also historically opposed to birth control too, although that opposition has largely disappeared over the last 85 years or so since a Church of England announcement in 1930.
And even fewer people appreciate that the Catholic church’s strident opposition to contraception is a relatively modern development, – centuries earlier they were much more permissive.
The Catholic opposition to birth control is explained on the website Catholic.com, which describes itself as the largest organization of its kind (that answers questions about what the Catholic church really teaches).
A careful read of their explanation reveals a range of reasons in support of a ban on contraception, from “it is against natural law” to “because historical church leaders said so, hundreds of years ago”, to “it is an infallible decision of the Church”. None of these arguments have any Biblical support at all, which leaves only the one Biblical citation they can summon up, the story of Onan that we discuss above and deem not to support a ban on contraception.
While it is true that church doctrine dating as far back as 195 AD has opposed contraception to varying degrees, church doctrine is man-made, and sadly is sometimes wrong, as is even shown by how the Catholic church sometimes reverses itself, and/or makes major changes to prior doctrine. The third of our three core beliefs states that the Bible’s plain language is the key and ultimate source of all Christian understanding.
Church doctrine alone can’t create new rules or requirements out of nothing; if there is no Biblical support, there is no authority, and in the case of contraception, we see no Biblical support.
It is also significant that the earliest cited examples of opposition to contraception are well past the Apostolic era, which massively weakens any claimed ties to the original Church and its teachings. A lot started to change after the turn of the first century, and the original pure teachings of Jesus and the Apostles started to become overlaid with church doctrine and dogma that appeared out of nowhere.
Back to the Bible Again
As we explained above, it is a reasonable interpretation that Onan’s death was not due to his “spilling his seed” per se, but his refusal to follow the Lord’s wishes to get his slain brother’s widow pregnant.
But, let’s also ask ourselves, as unlikely as it is, what say that Onan was killed for the specific act of spilling his seed rather than for the broader disobedience and refusal to follow the Lord’s wishes. Does that bind us today to not use any contraception, ever? (Even the Catholic prohibition has some ‘fine print’ around its edges that narrowly allows contraception in some cases, and if they claim Biblical support for the ban on contraception, it is even harder to then see the further Biblical support for the exceptions they sometimes allow.)
God’s grace and our salvation through Jesus Christ has lifted us from the law of the Old Testament (Luke 16:16, Acts 13:39, Romans 10:4). We no longer have to slavishly follow every element of the laws set out in the Old Testament (Ephesians 2:15). Jesus told us what we should do now – love God, and love each other (Luke 10:25-28). Elsewhere Jesus enumerated many of the Ten Commandments too (Matthew 5 and elsewhere), but nowhere has he said “Oh yes, and also, please, no contraceptive use”.
So, even if the story of Onan may imply a prohibition against birth control in the Old Testament era (and we don’t believe it does) that prohibition has not been carried forward into the New Testament.
The Old Testament is full of laws that formerly applied and which no longer are observed by the Roman Catholic or most other churches – for example, a prohibition on eating pork, shellfish, and various other animals, birds and insects (Leviticus 11), the death penalty for all sorts of acts ranging from disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) to failing to confine a dangerous bull resulting in death (Exodus 21:28-29) and neither do we observe the various feast days (the Feast of Lots, for example, see Esther 9:28), and neither also do we conduct animal sacrifices (Leviticus 4:27-35, Exodus 12:3-11). We are truly puzzled why this one issue – contraception – and on the vaguest of foundations, is claimed to remain fully in place in the New Testament.
The example of Onan is nowhere enshrined as a law against contraception, and is ambiguous in meaning. In any event, why should this be extended to a blanket ban on contraception, when clear laws in the Old Testament are now accepted as no longer applying?
God loves us and wishes us to have children. Indeed, in the Old Testament, he commanded Adam and Moses to procreate to fill the earth. But we are now in New Testament times, the earth is much closer to being full, and his commands were directed to Adam and Moses.
We accept that God still likes us to have children, but it is nowhere stated as an imperative command in the New Testament that we must have children. Similarly, the New Testament is silent on the subject of contraception, even though a wide variety of contraceptive practices were known and in use, dating back to at least 3000 BC and of course, carrying forward during the time of Jesus and the Apostles and the early Church.
The New Testament’s silence on this point seems deliberate rather than accidental. Our Principle that, in general, that which the Bible does not forbid should generally be considered to be permitted would therefore suggest that contraception is permitted.
The Old Testament refers to Onan “spilling his seed” so as not to get his brother’s widow pregnant, even though God through Judah had commanded him to do so. Onan was killed by God as a result, but our interpretation is that he was killed for his disobedience in general, not for the specific manner of his disobedience.
We further note that now we live in a state of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which, as Jesus himself told us, spares us from the need to follow the Old Testament teachings and laws, so even if the Onan example could be interpreted as implying a prohibition on contraception (we don’t think it does), it was not affirmed in the New Testament and so would no longer apply today.
Therefore, we conclude there are no Biblical prohibitions on contraception. As for abortion, that is a different topic we’ll turn to at another time.