This topic is one that can get into the weeds and can get confusing, so I’m going to try to address it with my usual logical clarity and I might end up offending someone in the process. Please know upfront that I don’t intend to offend, all I intend to do is try to present the truth from the Bible as clearly as I can. You might go listen to the lesson “A Biblical View of Abortion, Contraception, and In-Vitro Fertilization” in conjunction with this post for some good resources or clarification.
The question to be addressed is this: Should Christians use contraceptives (birth control)?
You might be a reader thinking, “Do any Christians really think contraception is wrong?” You might be thinking the exact opposite. Some might be surprised about the views their close Christian friends hold about this topic, were they to ask. For the majority of conservative Christians the answer usually comes down to the question of, “When does life begin?” Most conservative Christians would say that life begins at conception, that is, when a sperm meets an egg and creates a complete and unique set of DNA.
Types of Contraceptives
Usually when Christian ethicists are trying to answer this question they immediately have to ask a clarifying question: “Do you mean abortifacient contraceptives or non-abortifacient contraceptives?” An abortifacient contraceptive is any method of “birth control” (more on this term later) that disposes of a fertilized egg. If a sperm has met with an egg, then many Christians would argue that a human life has begun, and so a method of contraception which causes that life to end is actually an abortion (thus the name “abortifacient”) and is morally wrong, because abortion is morally equivalent to murder. Examples of abortifacient methods of contraception would be some forms of the pill, the morning after pill, and any abortion procedure. Non-abortifacient contraceptives are those that prevent a sperm from meeting an egg to fertilize it. Many Christians would argue that this does not end a human life and so they are okay for Christians to use. Examples of non-abortifacient methods of contraception would be condoms, diaphragms, some forms of the monthly pill, or various types of spermicide. That is how many conservative, bible-believing, Christians would answer this question.
That is not how I answer this question.
Before I explain my view, I have to make a few disclaimers. First, I’m unmarried and believe in and practice abstinence until marriage, and so I don’t really have to worry about the personal practical realities that accompany my answer to this question. Since I’m not currently having sex with anyone, I am a lot more free from the “consequences” (if you want to call them that) of having “unprotected sex” (if you want to call it that… more on this topic later). The view I’m about to express is a lot easier for a single man to hold than for a married man or woman to hold. Second, I don’t think you have to hold my view to be a true Christian. I do think my view is the best and most biblical one out there, otherwise I wouldn’t hold it, but I love and respect many Christians who hold the view I just explained in the “Types of Contraceptives” section. I might change my view when faced with this question in a more immediate sense one day in the future when I am married, should God see fit to grant me a wife. I doubt that I will, but I recognize it as a temptation and possibility.
I think that it is wrong for Christian couples to practice any method of contraception, with one exception. That exception is if a pregnancy could seriously harm the health of the mother, then contraception is acceptable.
To first explain the exception, this is a pretty common moral standard across the board. Even in the case of abortion, most of the very ardent pro-life contenders will still say that if a baby must be “aborted” to save the life of a mother, then an “abortion” is acceptable. “Abortion” is in quotation marks because in these cases, “abortion” is really just life-saving care that inadvertently ends the life of the baby. It’s not intentional actions taken with the purpose of ending the life of the baby. Furthermore, for the most part, this situation doesn’t exist in real life. There are rare cases where this happens, such as an ectopic pregnancy, but any OB/GYN will tell you that the vast majority of pregnancy complications that would actually endanger the life of a mother are best solved by inducing labor and delivering the baby, not by aborting it. In the same way, while I view contraception as morally wrong, it is acceptable if it saves the life of the mother in question.
But to answer the question you’re probably actually asking… why do I think contraception is morally wrong to begin with? Or at least, why do I think non-abortifacient contraception is wrong? Well, to answer your question, there are two main reasons: (1) my theology of sex (2) the cultural/philosophical imports of wide-spread effective contraception.
My Theology of Sex
You can read my theology of sex in more detail in the post “Let’s Talk About Sex,” or listen to and follow along with the powerpoint of “The Biblical View of Sex” but in short, I believe the Bible clearly teaches that sex has three purposes given to it by God. One is a major or central purpose, and the other two are minor or sub-ordinate purposes.
The main purpose of sex is to promote oneness and unity between one man and one woman. Sex takes two individual beings, who are distinct and different in emotional, spiritual, and biological ways, male and female, and makes a singular being out of them: a married couple. The Bible describes this process as becoming “one flesh” (Gen 2:24). The Bible also says that husbands no longer have control of their own body, their wives do. The same is said of wives bodies (1 Cor 7:4). This major purpose of sex also gives insight into the mysterious nature of the Trinity. It teaches humans in a real and fantastic way how there can be both a unity of essence but a distinction of persons within the Trinity, because in a sexual relationship in the bonds of marriage there is a unity of essence, a unity of being, but a distinction of persons and personalities. Yes, I think the main purpose of sex, and of marriage, is actually to teach theology, to teach us about God.
The two minor purposes of sex are procreation and pleasure. The first of these is seen early in the biblical text. God creates humans, and he tells them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). This minor purpose for sex can also be seen in simple biology. It’s how the species continues and it’s what happens when a male and a female in a species have sex. They have babies. Even the most ardent atheist is hard-pressed to give an answer to the question “What is the purpose of sex?” that doesn’t, at least in part, include the answer, “to procreate.” Again, this teaches theology to those who procreate. The ability to create living beings is an attribute of God, and one that we learn about, in part, by creating our own living beings. He created mankind “in His own image” (Gen 1:26) and we create in our own, fallen, image (Gen 5:1-3). Nevertheless, it is an attribute unto God Himself to create. We learn about the power and might of God when we make a living thing in our own likeness and image. It is a powerful and glorious thing, and it is a thing done through sex. Again, yes, I think the first of the minor purposes of sex is actually to teach theology, to teach us about God.
The second minor purpose, pleasure, is seen in the biblical text most clearly in the Song of Solomon. Solomon writes an epic love poem detailing repeatedly how much he delights in the sexual exploits he experiences with his favorite concubine. Leaving aside the question of polygamy (an interesting topic to address from a Biblical standpoint) Solomon writes repeatedly, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that his “desire is for his wife” (SoS 7:10). Logic also tells us that pleasure is one of the purposes of sex. As I understand it (though I can’t speak from experience) sex is quite pleasurable, and even more-so when done properly, in the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman. Without the fear of abandonment, which mars the sexual experiences of those outside of marriage, the pleasure of sex is heightened. This makes logical sense to me. Beyond that, pleasure is a thing that God experiences. His actions are often driven by his own good pleasure (Col 1:19; 1Cor 1:21; Gal 1:15; Psalm 115:3; Is 53:10). All good and holy pleasures come from God. He made them and he wants us to experience them. So, yes, again, I think the second of the minor purposes of sex is actually to teach theology, to teach us about God. All three purposes are about God, not about us.
These are the three purposes of sex as I see them in the Bible. Another logical conclusion I reach is that God controls the effectiveness of all three of these purposes. God, for his own reasons, may prevent sex between a man and a woman from being pleasurable. That is His prerogative. But it would be wrong for either of the two parties to work against this purpose of sex. God, for his own reasons, may prevent sex from promoting unity between two persons. That is His prerogative. But it would be wrong for either of the parties to abuse sex in such a way that it does not promote that unity (as in the case of emotional manipulation or rape). And finally, God, for his own reasons, may prevent sex from producing offspring. That is His prerogative. But it would be wrong for either of the two parties to work against this purpose by actively preventing their sex from producing offspring.
Do you now see how I reach the theological conclusion that I do? I think that sex should, as far as a person is able, fulfill all three purposes of sex I see in the Bible, and since one of the purposes for sex that I see in the Bible is procreation, I conclude that I should not work against that purpose.
The Cultural/Philosophical Imports of Contraception
It may surprise my millennial readers, since they don’t study history very much, but wide-spread and effective contraception is a fairly new phenomenon. Contrary to what many say, contraception is not a human right. Wide-spread and effective contraception wasn’t a reality until the 1950’s. There were ancient and largely ineffective methods of contraception involving condoms made from animal intestines, and other disgusting things, but contraceptives weren’t effective until vulcanized rubber was used to make condoms (first successfully done in the 1830’s). The sale, use, and transportation of contraceptives was actually illegal for large portions of history, and so contraception wasn’t wide-spread until after the Comstock Act of 1873 was progressively overturned and struck down making the sale and transportation of contraceptive material legal again. These realties, combined with Margaret Sanger’s commissioning of the group which invented “the pill” in 1960, gave way to the proliferation of other oral contraceptives and the widespread use of contraceptives in general. 1960! Think for a minute, and ask yourself what the sixties are known for, culturally. Answer? Free sex.
The invention and proliferation of birth-control was THE factor that has led to the sexual revolution we are now experiencing in our culture. You could now easily have sex with whomever you wanted without a serious or common fear that you would be “stuck” with a child after you were done. Contraception made the sexual revolution a possibility. The imports of the sexual revolution are almost too numerous to count. The sexual revolution operates by one basic principle: all consensual sex is good sex. The idea that consent is the only ethic to be practiced in sex has led to more pain and destruction in our society and culture than any other idea, and that idea was made possible by contraception. Regular pornography use is assumed among men ages 11-45, gender dysphoria and increased sexual misidentification is at record numbers, trans-genderism, the disease that brings with it a comparable suicide rate to the Jews in Nazi Germany, is supposed to be encouraged and indulged, polyamory is being argued for in courts, and worst of all, the family, the building block of every functional society in the history of the world, has nearly entered the realm of a “nice fantasy, but not realistic.” According to some studies, 40% of children born today are born to unwed mothers, compared to 8% in 1965. This can all be very easily traced back to the invention of effective contraceptives.
(To address a possible accusation of illogic, let me head you off. If you don’t care about this rebuttal feel free to skip this paragraph. You might say, “Wait, higher birth rates can’t be blamed on effective contraception. Effective contraception would lower birth rates. That’s the whole point of contraception!” There are two issues with this. First of all, from a purely mathematical standpoint, that argument is only valid if the total number of sexual encounters was a constant and unchanged. So, to use some example numbers, in year one, without contraceptives, there were 10 total sexual encounters and 9 of them resulted in births. Then when contraceptives came along it made people a lot more comfortable having sex all the time so in year two there were 100 total sexual encounters, all of them “protected,” but since that “protection” is not 100% effective, let’s say it works 90% of the time, there would have been 10 births the following year. The total amount of births went up, even though there was a lower percentage of conceptions compared to the number of sexual encounters. Second, my point was more one of culture, than of numbers. The invention of birth control undoubtedly made people more comfortable having sex prior to a binding contract like marriage which legally required a husband to support his children when they were produced. Since sex was now a lot easier to have prior to a marriage contract, it became more and more normal to have sex, “protected” and “unprotected,” prior to marriage. Without the binding contract of marriage which required men to stick around or pay financially for abandoning their children, when kids came along from their sexual exploits, dads took the opportunity to abandon their kids without consequence, leaving a higher rate of births to unwed mothers, as opposed to births to wed mothers. The comparison was not birth rates alone, but birth rates to unwed mothers. Contraceptive allows for more and riskier sex to be had prior to marriage, producing children at a higher rate than if contraceptives weren’t available and the sex wasn’t had at all.)
This sexual revolution even affects the way we speak. In 1770, there was no such thing as “protected sex” or “un-protected sex.” Even in today’s vernacular, what do those terms mean? From what are you “protected”? Some would say you are “protected” from the natural “consequences” of your actions. I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say you are “protected,” or more accurately prevented, from experiencing the full weight and purpose of a sexual relationship. You are specifically thwarting or weakening God’s good purposes for sex. The idea of a couple “trying to have a baby” is again, a new and foreign misnomer. You would not hear such phrases in 1950. Couples would just have babies. No real “trying” was involved. The truth is, it’s not that you are now trying to have a baby; it’s that you are no longer trying to prevent a baby. You’re no longer expressly trying to hinder one of the purposes of sex. The idea of “birth control” itself seems harmless to our ears… but think about that for a minute. I often summarize the fall this way: Adam and Eve wanted to control their own reality instead of living in the reality that God controls. The fall, sin itself, in one sense, boils down to trying to control things over which you really have no authority, because it has not been given to you. You are trying to “control” a “birth” but it is God who really controls all life, all births. You don’t ACTUALLY have a say in it. “Family planning services” “safe sex” and “thinking about having another kid” these sorts of phrases were foreign to humans as little as 100 years ago. The language we use to describe realities will affect our perception and opinion of those realities. We must be careful how we speak.
Some Common Rebuttals
The most common reason Christians give for why they should use contraceptives is that they don’t want to be irresponsible and bring a child into this world when they aren’t financially or emotionally responsible enough to have it. They will then often cite Jesus’s words in Luke 14:28-30, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” The case will then be made that just like you should count the cost before building a tower, you should count the cost before you have a child, and so “plan” your family. The problem for these people, as is so often the case, is that Jesus wasn’t talking about “family planning.” And, also as is so often the case, you just have to read a few verses of context to understand. This point about planning to build a tower is made in support of a main point. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first…” So what is the main point? The point is that the first century Jews actually had to pay a hefty price to be a disciple of Jesus. We today also must be willing to sacrifice our own lives to follow Jesus if necessary. The only “family planning” he’s talking about is planning to give up a family you already have, if it comes in conflict with following him. He’s not talking at all about preventing the conception of a family before it happens.
A common rebuttal to my view and my argument about the culture is, “Well just because the invention of contraception is responsible for the cultural cesspool we’re in, it doesn’t make contraception itself wrong. It’s morally neutral, it’s what you do with it that’s right or wrong.” There is a grain of truth to this rebuttal. This reality certainly exists elsewhere. Guns are not evil, what people do with guns is. Ice cream is not evil, someone eating a half-gallon in one sitting is wrong. Money is not evil, the love of money is. Here’s the problem with this rebuttal: contraception isn’t really (or I might say only) a noun. It’s a verb. Contraception is an action in and of itself. Actions always contain a moral component depending on the motive behind the action and/or the context in which the action is taken. The action of firing a gun isn’t evil, unless you do it at someone with evil intent in your heart. Unfortunately, the action of contraception is ALWAYS in the context of thwarting at least one of the reasons for sex. It’s always there to stop a baby from being made. That’s the purpose of contraception. That’s what the word means: contra=against; conception=make a baby. That said, even if this rebuttal is accepted, the cultural import of contraception is not my main reason for disapproving of it, my theology of sex is. The cultural import of contraception merely reinforces my theological conclusions, but the theological conclusions would remain regardless of the cultural import of the action, so those conclusions must be addressed.
The fact is, God controls whether or not you conceive a child when you have sex. No contraception is 100% effective. (Not even abstinence! Ask Mary.) If God wants you to get pregnant, you’re going to get pregnant. As is always the case, God is ultimately going to get what he wants whether you try to work with or against him. I’m not so arrogant as to say that categorically everyone who uses any contraception is sinning in their actions. I’m not positive that it is a sin. (I’m also not positive that it isn’t a sin. I’m undecided.) I am fairly certain, though, that it is not the best course of action to follow. I think it better to trust God, that he will not give you more than he wants you to have, and he usually give you what is necessary for you to have faith in him instead of yourself. If you are earnestly seeking to follow Him, then he will equip you to care for any child that comes from your Godly and committed sexual actions within the bonds marriage. It may require you to make sacrifices, but things that are right often do. The question is, do you trust him to provide, or not? (Matt 6:26-34) I pray you might consider this question carefully and weigh the theological and cultural realities that accompany the question of contraception.