For my first post to the Eschewmenical blog, I have two goals: define my tradition (Evangelical) and explain our position on contraception. But the second task will require extensive work, so I will simply point to the definition supplied by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:
British historian David Bebbington … notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and “crucicentrism,” a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
For my purposes, “biblicism” stands out. My approach follows the (unofficial) motto of The Evangelical Covenant Church: “Where is it written?”
When it comes to contraception, we Bible-thumping Evangelicals are at a disadvantage. Until recently, contraception was unreliable, unscientific, and (among the ancient Hebrews at least) rare. Hence, there aren’t a lot of texts that address the issue. Men and women typically wanted children. (See Genesis 29-30.) The story of Onan might provide some insight, but interpreters are uncertain about why God condemned him.
Thankfully, however, we can apply Biblical principles to the problem at hand. For instance, we know that sex outside of marriage is forbidden by many texts, so contraception for unmarried people just doesn’t accord with the Bible’s way of thinking. As I shared with the high school group at our church recently, the Bible warns us to avoid pre-marital sex:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. —Song of Solomon 2:7 (ESV)I think we sometimes justify our actions by imagining the Bible didn’t really foresee reliable birth-control or social conventions that do not shame coming to the marriage bed as a non-virgin. But in Hebrew, this verse is an oath (repeated three times in the poem) with consequences so severe that the bride dares not say them. Given the delight the couple finds in enjoying each other, the bride seems intent on warning against premature sexual relations. God isn’t in the business of stealing our fun; He wants us to avoid ruining the good things He’s provided us. And that includes the deepening pleasures of sex within marriage.
When the Bible was written, the most common form of birth control (or more accurately, population control) was infanticide. Unwanted newborns were regularly exposed to the elements, sacrificed to blood-thirsty gods, or sold into slavery. What a brutal world it must have been when the most merciful option was involuntary slavery! But both Judaism and Christianity reject infanticide because of the high value the Bible places on human life and its prohibitions against child sacrifice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his role in the German plot to assassinate Hitler, was not the first to extend the principle to the pre-born:
Marriage involves acknowledgement of the right of life that is to come into being, a right which is not subject to the disposal of the married couple. Unless this right is acknowledged as a matter of principle, marriage ceases to be marriage and becomes a mere liaison. Acknowledgement of this right means making way for the free creative power of God which can cause new life to proceed from this marriage according to His will. Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.—Ethics (p.173-174)
For this reason, even Evangelical Christians who accept other forms of birth control, usually avoid any sort of abortifacient. Since some forms of contraception could act upon a fertilized egg rather than by preventing the sperm and egg from meeting, I’ve known Christians, who are otherwise uninterested in science, do serious literature reviews about how these medical interventions work at a cellular level.
Christians from other traditions might find it strange that Evangelical denominations don’t usually have an official position on birth control. The reason is simple: according to Genesis 2, the marriage covenant was instituted by God. The role of the church and of the state, therefore, is merely to stand witness to the agreement made between the couple before God. Thus, the church may advise, but not proscribe marriage practice. Each couple must be free to act on their own convictions when it comes to having children, which means anything from not limiting family size to refusing to have children at all.
The first two chapters of Genesis provide us with two important considerations:
- The first command God gives humanity is: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”—Genesis 1:28b (ESV) Since marriage is the only institution that allows that command to be fulfilled, it’s hard to justify purposefully childless marriages as a general pattern.
- Sexual intercourse is not just allowed, but assumed to be a normal part of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”—Genesis 2:24-25 (ESV) Except for limited periods of time and by mutual consent, abstinence is no more a natural form of birth control than the most invasive contraception.
Personally, this is not an empty, academic topic to mull over. Even before we were married, friends from all sides counselled my wife and I about whether and how we ought to manage our family’s size. Issues of ethics, medicine, church authority, finances, career, and so on entered into our discussions. Ultimately, we found ourselves in agreement with Bonhoeffer:
Human reproduction is a matter of the will to have a child of one’s own, and for precisely this reason it would not be right for blind impulse simply to run its course as it pleases and then go on to claim to be particularly pleasing in the eyes of God; responsible reason must have a share in this decision. There can, in fact, be weighty reasons which in a particular concrete instance will call for a limitation of the number of children. If precisely during the past hundred years birth control has become such a burning question, and if very wide circles of men of all religious denominations have expressed agreement with the principle of birth control, this is not to be interpreted simply as a falling away from the faith or as a lack of trust in God. It is undoubtedly connected with the technology in all fields of life and with the incontestable triumphs of technical science in the widest sense over the facts of nature, for example in the reduction of infant mortality and in the considerable raising of the average age of the population.—Ethics (p. 175)
In the end, it didn’t matter: our birth control method failed and we found ourselves with a son, who we love dearly, just 10 months after our wedding. God is in control! Since then, we’ve agonized, consoled, comforted, and rejoiced with our friends who have faced decisions about infertility, adoption, birth control, and raising children. Having children can entail both deep disappointments and pure joy, but it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life.
Next week, we’ll hear from Peter Turner on the Catholic Church’s view on contraception. I disagree with that view for the most part, but I (and many other Evangelicals) stand with the Catholic Church against any mandate by the US government requiring religious institutions to pay for contraceptives. Even when there is a clear and compelling public good requiring citizens to compromise their beliefs (such as drafting pacifists), the government must make reasonable exemptions for religious, ethical and moral convictions (such as conscientious objector status). The United States may have many problems, but access to affordable contraception simply is not among them. Unaccountably, the Federal government appears to hold that when it comes to healthcare, the First Amendment does not apply.