The Natural Family Planning
Information Site

A Biblical View

There are two documents on the site under this heading:

  1. Stan Martin's "Contraception - Why Not"
  2. David Aldred's "Scripture, Sex and Family Planning"

Birth control has been debated among Christians for centuries; until the early 1900s there was a more or less universal rejection of artificial contraception. Societal changes in the 20th century led to breaks with this tradition in some churches; the Roman Catholic Church remains opposed to artificial contraception but accepts natural means of family planning. Some other Christian groups also continue to reject artificial contraception, with varying stances on natural methods.

For Christians, the Bible is an important - in some traditions the only important - source of teaching. This section of the NFP Information Site examines the Biblical background to a Chrstian rejection of contraception.

Scripture, Sex and Family Planning

First let it be said that nowhere in Scripture will you find a blatant statement 'contraception is wrong', although:

  • the Onan reading (Gen 38:9-10) can be taken that way - what causes Onan's death cannot simply be his refusal to raise up sons for a dead brother, since the penalty for that offence is relatively minor (cf Deut 25:5-10): indeed his father and brother are as guilty of this but do not suffer death in the same dramatic fashion. There must be something about the manner of the refusal which is relevant. But I don't think it's convincing per se unless taken in the context of the whole argument below.
  • I have seen it argued that 'sorcery' in Gal 5:19-21 and one or two other places in the NT refers to contraception. The justification for this is that the sorcerers of the time were the purveyors of contraceptives, and that the inclusion of sorcery in a list of apparently unrelated matters must place some doubt on whether the usual 'magic' interpretation makes sense. Again, I'm not sure I find this convincing: certainly not in isolation.

What you do find in Scripture, though, is a developing theme of the sexual relationship between man and woman and its meanings: the question, then, is whether contraception falls in line with this Scriptural understanding, or whether it cuts across it.

The Beginnings

Let's start at the beginning - Genesis. Gen 1:26-28 deals with God's decision to create humankind, in his own image, to have dominion over the earth, and to be fruitful: as he himself is the Creator they too are to be creators through His commission. Term definition: they are to be procreative: creative in co-operation with God. It is in the nature of their own creation that they themselves shall be creative: and one way in which they image God as Creator is through that creative potential.

Gen 2: 21-24 puts this in a context. There is a relationship between man and woman: it is not just a question of difference but of complementarity. Together they form one flesh, bone of bone, flesh of flesh. Together they are a true unity: their relationship is unitive, building on and building up the unity between them. One plus one makes something rather different from two.

So right from the start of Scripture there is an imagery of man and woman, formed as procreative, and formed in unity one with the other. The imagery is plainly sexual: it is through sexual intercourse that procreation takes place, and it is in sexual intercourse that man and women become most physically one flesh.

Let's move on. I'm not going to list texts here, but it must be reasonably clear that the development of the relationship between God and His people is shown in acts of marriage and the conception of children. Sarah bears a son; Jacob engenders sons in profusion as his wives and their servants vie to show the blessing of the Lord; the comings of prophets and heroes of Israel are foretold by angels and in a man and his wife having a child, often when they are outside the usual childbearing age. Marriage becomes a monogamous thing. The Song of Songs is about the love of humankind for God, and about the love of man for woman - neither aspect alone can really describe what the Song means. Hosea and his wife are signs of the broken and mendable relationship between God and humankind. Marriage is certainly something more than a mere social construct - it is a sign of some sort.

The New Testament

In the Gospels, Christ speaks and acts about marriage. He answers questions with a clear statement that marriage forms an unbreakable unity. His first public miracle is at a wedding ceremony: the first open sign that God has joined his people is at the time when a man joins his wife. He makes it clear too, though, that marriage is for earth rather than in the resurrection: it is a sign for our times.

Paul (Eph 5:21-32) states what this sign is. It is the sign of the love between Christ and the Church - the unity which, because of Calvary, cannot be broken. This is what the unity of man and wife in becoming one flesh has meant throughout the ages: the fulfilment of the love between God and His People.

The Meanings of Marriage

From all this we can draw two principal meanings of marriage:

  1. It is unitive (that is, it builds on and grows from the unity between man and woman, and is a sign of the unifying love between Christ and the Church)
  2. It is procreative: by its fruitful nature, it shows the status given to man and woman together as the image of the Creator God.

Both of these meanings are equally applicable to the sexual expression of marriage - indeed it is only through the sexual expression that the two meanings are most fully expressed in becoming 'one flesh'.

So onto the question: where does contraception fit with this? The idea of birth control is to limit the procreativity of marriage (I'm making no statement here at all about the position of contraception outside marriage). That is not necessarily a problem: whilst the instruction to be fruitful and multiply cannot be ignored, it can be interpreted in line with needs and indeed capacity. What would be a problem would be a means of birth control which acted by removing one of the meanings of marriage from the sexual expression of marriage - these two meanings cannot (in faith with the Scriptural meanings of marriage) be put apart, any more than husband and wife can be put apart, or than God the Creator and God the Son in relationship with the Church can be put apart.

Right and Wrong in Ferility Control

There is a perfectly natural cycle of fertility in marriage which does enable couples to plan to achieve or avoid pregnancy simply by understanding their own bodies, as God made them (with effectiveness levels which over the last century have generally mirrored the developing effectiveness of artificial alternatives); in using this cycle there is no suggestion that anyone is changing the nature of the sexual expression of marriage in order to separate its meanings. The sexual expression remains exactly the same.

Where something is changed in the sexual act, or something is changed in one or other of the spouses to alter the potential of the sexual expression of marriage, though, something quite different is happening. The decision has been taken that the innate link between the procreative meaning of intercourse and its unitive meaning can be overridden or ignored; the sexual act is no longer all it is designed to be. It falls short. And that is one of the definitions of the word 'sin'.

Contraception, though, does exactly that: all contraceptive methods change in some way the nature of the spouses. Barrier methods close the spouses' bodies to each other; chemical methods change their bodies. On this basis, we can see that contraception is sinful, and out of line with a Scriptural understanding of marriage.

finally...

Two notes at the end:

  1. Much of my reasoning on this was in place some time before I started thinking about becoming a Catholic, so it's not a case of 'my Church said so'; the fact that the RCC agreed with me on the subject was one of the factors leading to it becoming my church. The RCC in its teaching does rely on this scriptural argument, but historically not as the main reasoning behind its anti-contraceptive stance. Perhaps, if the Scriptural background had had more prominence in the RCC teaching over the centuries, the Protestant churches which shared that teaching until the 1930's might not have changed their position on contraception over the last century!
  2. I've used the term 'procreative' in the above, and it may not be clear that there is a difference between being procreative and procreating. In fact, this is not that hard to understand: an artist is creative when he's not actually painting, or is asleep; in the same way a couple's sexual expression can be procreative without actually procreating. One key difference between the natural and artificial methods of family planning is this:
    • The artificial methods work by preventing procreation by removing the procreative nature of sex;
    • The natural methods recognise that the procreative nature of sex works though a cycle in which that procreativity will sometimes lead to procreation, and sometimes not: in other words that procreative does not mean the same as procreating.
    In this way, the artificial methods reject the procreative element of sex, whereas the natural methods accept and indeed embrace it.