The Bible and Birth Control

Jameson Taylor
Permission Granted

Many Christians struggle today with decisions regarding child spacing. On one hand, some maintain that any form of “family planning,” whether by contraception or periodic abstinence, is sinful because God alone has the right to “open and close the womb” (cf. Genesis 20:18; 29:31). Others dismiss altogether the practical application of Genesis’s mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” by asserting that the command was given to Adam and Eve alone, or by claiming that the precept has already been fulfilled such that the world is now irresponsibly overpopulated. What guidance does God’s Word provide?

The conclusion that married couples are not obligated to have any children is clearly un–Biblical. If children are not the only blessing that God gives, they are among the most important. The Scriptures repeatedly affirm that children are a “gift” and a “reward” from God.1 While it is true that God’s command to “be fruitful” cannot be understood to apply to every single human being, it is also clear that Genesis 1:28 is intrinsic to God’s plan for marriage.2 The command, which is also a blessing, is an archetypal marital vow by which God joins Adam and Eve together as man and wife: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply….'” Christ, in Matthew 19, thus understands the teachings of Genesis 1–2 to apply not only to Adam and Eve, but to every married couple. Pious Jews also “married as a matter of duty in order to fulfill the command to 'be fruitful and multiply.'”3 Even were it true, the myth of “overpopulation“ would thus not justify a refusal to have children.4

Arguments against any form of child spacing defy Scripture and common sense. The Bible praises prudence, learning and skill and recognizes wisdom as a gift from God.5 That such prudence is to be used in providing for one's family is attested to in both Proverbs (31:10–31) and 1 Timothy (5:8). The fact that the command to be “fruitful” is immediately followed by God's decree to “subdue” the earth indicates that human fecundity is inseparable from responsible stewardship. Finally, that married couples are to intelligently discern when to conceive is specifically suggested in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season… a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (3:5).6

So, what is the appropriate “time” for the marital embrace? To answer this question a couple must first determine if it is “time” to conceive a child. Second, and most obvious, the couple must embrace during the appropriate “season” — i.e. when the woman is most fertile.

Although no precise number can be given as to how many children a couple should have, prayer and a firm adherence to Christian charity must guide the decision. If God's command to be “fruitful” cannot be divorced from responsible stewardship, God places the priority on human fertility. Indeed, the command to be fruitful and subdue the earth is followed by a divine reminder that God Himself provides for His children.7 This is not to say childbirth may not be delayed in cases of dire poverty or crisis, but given the choice, for example, between buying a new car or a new house and having a baby, the blessings of children are to be preferred.8 Proverbs 30:8 suggests the model of frugal comfort applicable in most situations, “give me neither poverty nor riches.” The safest rule, as with tithing, is to give until it hurts.

As regards the second point, the context of Ecclesiastes 3 suggests that “embracing,” like planting and harvesting, properly occurs in a cyclical pattern. The pattern, like that of the four seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter, is discernable by man, but not subject to his dominion.9 As with any type of seed, the planting of human “seed” has its proper season. As Paul teaches, there also exists a “season,” even within marriage, for abstinence (1 Corinthians 7:5). What is this “season”?

For one, Leviticus required abstinence during and for seven days after a woman's menstrual period (15:19). Rabbis still commend such abstinence as a non–sexual means of strengthening the marital bond, and fertility experts have found that adherence to the Levitic rule reduces a woman's risk of vaginal infections and cervical cancer and substantially increases a couple–s chance of conceiving. While Christians are no longer bound to observe Leviticus– teaching, the Jewish law reminds us that a woman–s cycle follows a predictable and natural pattern of fertility and infertility. Following Ecclesiastes' counsel, a couple–s understanding and use of their own fertility should parallel that of the natural order. If a couple wishes to conceive, they should “embrace” at the proper time — i.e. when the woman is fertile. If a couple has discerned that they are not now being called to have children, they should submit to Paul's advice and abstain until the fertile “season” has passed. God's providence thus already provides for both fertile and infertile times that married couples can observe in order to intelligently plan their families.

The advent of the Pill makes it easy to ignore the simplicity of God’s design for marriage. In effect, the Pill and other contraceptives make it possible for a man and wife to come together without regard for their own fertility.10 The fact that the Pill can act as an abortifacient should be enough to prevent its use by Christian couples.11 Even if the Pill were not an abortifacient, however, both reason and faith argue against its use.

Reason easily discerns that human beings are not gods, but created beings subject to laws not of their own making. A truly pious approach to family planning must respect the fact that God has provided for a natural cycle of fertility and infertility. Paul reminds us of the necessity of revering God’s creative labors when he warns that the pagans should have clearly perceived “the truth about God” in “the things that have been made” — i.e. the natural order (Romans 1).

By contrast, the impious man assumes that he can create, as it were, ex nihilo — ignoring, or completely altering nature as he desires. Technology, like that which the Pill embodies, is inherently impious because it does not work with nature, but completely ignores the rules of God’s created order. By contrast, family planning methods, such as the Sympto–Thermal Method and the Billings Method, work with and according to a couple’s natural cycles of fertility and infertility.

Understood in this light, “natural” family planning methods are not “natural” because they are not made by human beings or not scientific, but natural because they work according to God's vision for human life. Indeed, the wise discernment and use of these rules is precisely what responsible stewardship requires. By contrast, the use of contraception subverts God's law by making man the lord and master — not the steward — of the divine gift of human fertility.

God's Word is also clear that human sexuality is not to be manipulated as man wills, but should conform itself to God's desire. God demands that the exercise of human sexuality occur exclusively within a covenantal marriage between a man and a woman. The violation of this law was often punishable by death, as in the cases of homosexuality, certain forms of incest, adultery and bestiality (Leviticus 18:22; 20:14; 20:10; 18:23).

Within the context of marital sexuality, the only offense that merits death was committed by Onan (Genesis 38:16). Today, many commentators deny that Onan's sin was in any way related to an abuse of God's gift of human fertility. The Tyndale Life Application Study Bible, for example, comments that “God killed Onan because he refused to fulfill his obligation to his brother and Tamar.” The New American Catholic Bible is even more explicit: “Éit is primarily Onan's violation of this law [the law of levirate marriage], rather than the means he used to circumvent it, that brought on him God’s displeasure.”12

The obvious objection to the above interpretation is that the refusal to adhere to the levirate (“brother–in–law”) custom by which a man married his brother's widow is nowhere else punished by death, but only a mild form of public humiliation (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Further, unlike the “unshod” brother in Deuteronomy 25, Onan cannot even be accused of having violated a divine command.13

Others argue that Onan deserved to die because his failure to perpetuate his brother's line was a form of fratricide. The same charge, however, would have to be made against the unfaithful brother of Deuteronomy 25. For what reason did Onan merit the harsher punishment?

It is also unlikely that Onan was killed for breaking his marriage vows to Tamar. Jewish tradition prescribes divorce, not death, for a man who refuses to perform the duty appropriate to a husband. And while a couple that does not fulfill the command to “multiply” may come under intense social pressure to have children or divorce, this author could find no case in either Scripture or tradition that punished such an omission with death. Finally, had Onan merely failed to fulfill the terms of his marital contract with Tamar, why does the Bible passage go into such explicit detail?14

Jewish commentators, not to mention plain common sense as defined by most dictionaries, have thus never ceased to understand the sin of Onan to consist of coitus interruptus and, by extension, masturbation. The Encyclopedia Judaica sums up the traditional teaching regarding Genesis 38, concluding that “the Talmud sternly inveighs against 'bringing forth seed in vain.'”15 For this reason, condoms and some uterine devices are not permitted under Jewish law.16

Until quite recently, most Christian theologians also disapproved of birth control in the harshest of terms. Augustine warned that contraception turned a wife into a harlot and the marital act into a “shameful union,” which “by changing the natural use into that which is against nature… is more damnable when it is done in the case of husband or wife.” Similarly, Martin Luther, calling Onan's sin “far more atrocious than incest and adultery,” reminds us that “at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.” John Calvin likewise described Onan’s deed as “doubly monstrous.” Modern theologians, such as Theodore Laetsch, Herbert Carl Leupold, Arthur Pink and John Skinner, are also critical of contraception. As Laetsch puts it, “Birth control by means of anticonceptuals, coitus interruptus, etc. is ruthlessly interfering with God's method of creating a living being.” To this Pink adds, “We do not believe in what is termed 'birth control,' but we do earnestly urge self–control.”17

“Self–control” or periodic abstinence is the only form of child spacing that is in accord with both faith and reason. If God did not pardon Onan — who, it must be remembered, was not party to the Mosaic covenant — how can we who have been blessed with the fullness of God's revelation continue to condone contraception? God himself has established the “seasons” and “times” appropriate to marital sexuality. Let us rejoice in the dignity of God’s creation by submitting to the goodness of His will.

(This article courtesy of Human Life International.)


1 Deuteronomy 7:14; Psalm 127:3; 128:3; Exodus 23:26; I Chronicles 25:5; Proverbs 17:6, 30:16, etc. [Back]

2 Cf. Matthew 19:10–12; 1 Corinthians 7:8; Revelation 14:4. [Back]

3 See For husband and wife, intercourse is a mitzvah or command of Jewish law and couples are bound by Talmudic law to have, at least, two children (ideally, one of each gender). [Back]

4 See Jacqueline Kasun's The War Against Population; also Julian Simon's The Economics of Population Growth. [Back]

5 Daniel 1:17; Proverbs 1:1–5; 12:16; 27:12, 23–27. [Back]

6 Cf. Proverbs 5:20; Song of Solomon 2:6; 8:3, where “embrace” has sexual connotations. [Back]

7 “Behold, I have given you every plant.. and every tree… you shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29–30). [Back]

8 This attitude is confirmed by Christ's warning that His disciples are not to be anxious about material things (Matthew 7:25). Christ suggests, however, that the most extreme of circumstances may justify the postponement of pregnancy (Matthew 24:19). Arthur Pink also argues that 1 Corinthians 7:29 allows conception to be postponed during “special seasons of 'acute' distress.” [Back]

9 Jeremiah 5:24: “Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest.” Cf. Daniel 2:21. [Back]

10 In this respect, contraception, such as condoms, that destroy the creative potential of male fertility are no different than the Pill. [Back]

11 While pro–lifers quibble among themselves about whether the Pill is an abortifacient, abortion providers and pharmaceutical companies long ago admitted that the Pill can cause abortions. See The New York Times, 26 April 1989 transcript of Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, where the counsel for Missouri's abortion industry argues that “the most common forms of birth control… IUD's, low–dose birth control pills… act as abortifacients.” [Back]

12 Granted, not all Catholic theologians adhere to this interpretation. Pope Pius XI's 1930 enclyclical, Casti Connubii, cites Genesis 38:16 as Scriptural evidence for the Church's teaching on contraception. [Back]

13 Scripture does not suggest that the custom of levirate marriage had, in Onan's time, attained the status of divine law. See Brian W. Harrison's “The Sin of Onan Revisited.” [Back]

14 Harrison demonstrates that the Bible only employs such graphic language when condemning illicit sexual conduct. [Back]

15 Referenced in Harrison, fn. 8. [Back]

16 The fact that coitus interruptus was the most common form of birth control practiced in the ancient world, and even in the United States until the 1930s, is further proof that Onan was punished precisely for using birth control. Orthodox Jews, however, are permitted to use the Pill. It seems that this inconsistency stems from an undervaluation of female fertility. [Back]

17 Luther, Calvin, et al. referenced in Charles D. Provan's The Bible and Birth Control. [Back]