We have so far considered the sexual life in its erotic and romantic dimensions, as an important aspect of the love of man and woman. But, of course, there is another side to sex, in some respects, even more fundamental. It is the means of procreation. Sex makes babies. The first reference to sex, to the sexual nature of the relationship of husband and wife, though somewhat veiled, we said was found in Genesis 2:25: “The man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.” It is an understated introduction – as anyone knows who reads the words for the first time – to the erotic reality of marital love. But, without reference to the means, we have already had reference to procreation in Genesis 1:28 – “be fruitful and multiply” – and soon have further references to it. The pain of childbearing is part of the curse of the woman and then chapter 4 begins with: “Adam lay with his wife Eve [literally, “Adam knew his wife] and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.” From that point we are off and running in the Bible with sexual reproduction. It is certainly not a coincidence that perhaps the world’s strongest passion is also the means by which human beings do their most consequential thing!
The question I want to raise this morning is that of the nature of the connection between love-making and procreation. It is a subject of longstanding in Christian ethical reflection but has become more pressing in our time with the advent of contraceptives that are uniformly effective. Birth control was known before, of course [Onan], but was of such a different order as not to pose the ethical problem that is posed by modern methods, which are so much more pervasive and so much more effective as to have changed the world.
Historians of the later 20th century will talk about the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the war between Islamic radicals and the West, but probably more important than any political development and more influential in shaping human life in our world was the introduction of the pill. Intercourse without the possibility of conception transformed the understanding of sex and severed its connection with marriage even for vast numbers of people who did not use the pill or condoms and even for large numbers who got pregnant anyway. I’m quite sure that abortion would not be the social reality in our land today had the pill not paved the way by reshaping the society’s entire understanding of sex. Sex needn’t have life-changing consequences; and if it needn’t, then it shouldn’t: hence abortion.
It is remarkable to me how thoroughly young Christian couples have taken to the world of contraceptives. I ask them in pre-marital conversations what their plans are and not only do they regularly tell me that they are planning to wait to have children until they have finished this or accomplished that, but it is perfectly obvious that they have no idea how utterly different there world is in this respect than that of previous generations. I tell them that one of my great worries is the way in which contraception can alter the way parents think about children, as something they plan to fit into their lives. In all of human history up to the present time, sex being what it was in marriage and in married love, the children inevitably came and parents had to alter their lives accordingly, like it or not. The children were first, and so it often meant that graduation from college had to be delayed, or a job begun instead of that masters program, or buying a house would have to wait. Now they are things we fit into a schedule of which they are but a part and they are fit in as things that, while they have benefit and importance, also must be viewed as burdens to calculate and as competition, in a certain sense, to what we also want to do with our lives. This is dangerous and Christian young people must see it for the danger that it is. So, often, I give them Robert Farrar Capon’s Bed and Board to read so that they hear at least one dissident voice on the subject of contraception. His argument is not that contraception must not be used on moral grounds – I haven’t heard such an argument that I could recommend to young Christians thinking the subject through; I’m not going to recommend them reading arguments that I believe are a misapplication of Holy Scripture – but it is a caution as to the wisdom of the use of aids to avoid contraception. [Introduce Capon]. Here is Capon’s paragraph.
For myself, by the way, I am mostly for the Catholic view, and try to act and teach accordingly. The idea that nineteen hundred years of moral theology have been wrong strikes me as just plain fishy. But while I think that holding out for the non-divorcibility of intercourse and procreation is the right principle, I am not pre— tending I know what to do with it. Let me punch holes in my own case. On the one hand, I think the use of contraceptive devices is ridiculous, not so much on the basis of unnaturalness as on the basis of love and the dance. Between the devices and the pills, it becomes a ballet conducted via an assortment of blocks and tackle, of jibs, booms and rigging. There is just too much fuss over equipment, and too many coy but urgent little trips. On the other hand, the so-called rhythm system is not much better. While it allows the ballet to go on without all that rigging, it doesn’t allow it to go on with much spontaneity. The dancers have to check with the timekeeper every time they want to go on stage. Furthermore, when he says “time” they feel obliged to dance whether they want to or nor. They can get awfully tired of living under the stare of that beady-eyed calendar. And The Pill isn’t going to solve any problems either. It would seem to me that anything that comes as close as the pill does to being the “moral” equivalent of a hysterectomy is going to be a pretty tricky proposition, romantically, morally and psychologically, even if it turns out to be just dandy medically. So the whole thing is a draw. Devices, pills or charts, none of it is about to improve the dance. I really think that abstinence is better than all that rigging. Seriously. I know that it sells like iceboxes to Eskimos, but sitting out a dance really can be more in the spirit of the affair than trying to lug all that armor around.
The other contests are a draw too. Rhythm is a worry: It is, in spite of claims, not effective enough to form the basis for a moral choice for the general run of people. There are just too many women with disorderly menstrual cycles. But contraception (device or pill, it matters not) is a worry too. It will never be infallible. At the very least it has to be practiced by human beings—a notoriously undependable lot. There is no contraceptive that can be made love-proof, romance-proof, martini- proof—or proof against the kind of absurd sociological whim that in the postwar years led a generation that knew all about contraceptives to produce giant families. But to the degree that contraceptives are successful, they lead people, especially women, to count more and more heavily on not conceiving, and, obviously, to have a growing fear of the whole chancy business. The modern wife, rhythmic or rigged, thinks of herself as playing with dynamite. Beatrice is far from her thoughts, and so is Solomon’s Bride. It is not even plain pagan Venus whom she prays to in her bed. As far as she is concerned, the goddess she needs most is Lady Luck. Again, abstinence is more tolerable. [87-88]
You may be surprised to know that Christian theology and ethics have considered the issue of contraception from the very beginning. Many of the church fathers, such as Augustine, Tertullian and Jerome opposed it as part of their general doctrine that the real, if not the only, virtue of sex was that it produced children. Cut off from that purpose it was of doubtful righteousness. In this sense the modern Roman Catholic linking of abortion and contraception as equally violations of divine law must be admitted to have an ancient and impressive pedigree, even if we judge the fathers to have been mistaken and one-sided in regard to their ascetic, anti-body doctrine of marriage and sexuality.
Calvin, in his comment on Onan (Gen. 38:9-10) rejects Onan’s practice in general as a matter of “killing before he is born the hoped-for offspring.” But, of course, the issue in Gen. 38 is not contraception per se but the failure of Onan to fulfill the obligations of levirate marriage. Interestingly, the English translation of Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, published in Victorian England in 1847, deleted altogether Calvin’s comment on Onan’s act of spilling his seed on the ground. Neither Calvin nor the Puritans, of course, shared the early Fathers’ view of sex in marriage as strictly for the production of children but generally they seem to have been in favor of husbands and wives letting the chips fall where they may when making love.
Still in all, despite these opinions through the ages, most discussion of marriage, children, and sexuality included only a brief comment on birth control – often, admittedly, to condemn it – if any comment was offered at all. Birth control methods were hit and miss and, even without birth control, the population grew slowly. In 17th century England the average woman had five children, but a fifth of them died in infancy, some died in childhood, some never married, and famine, war, and disease killed many adults. (Interestingly, we might have supposed the number would have been higher, but women were marrying later in those days – on average at about 26 – there was a shorter life expectancy, and breast-feeding spaced the babies.) In contrast, a woman today in the West who bears five children will, in all likelihood, see them all grow to adulthood. New methods and longer life expectancy have made birth control an issue in our day that it has never been before.
Among Christians there are broadly three views held and each is widely held.
The first strongly advocates or, at least, universally accepts, family planning, a few years ago was more inclined to take seriously the arguments of population theorizers who argue that over-population is a time-bomb threatening the welfare of the world but now – as that concern has faded over the past few years – assert the freedom of individual couples to choose the lifestyle they think best for themselves. This group leaves family size to the couple themselves and is even quite willing to see the church bless the marriage of a couple who have no intention to have children.
The second opposes all use of birth control as contrary to God’s intention, argues that family planning is God’s prerogative, and that large families should, therefore, be the norm among Christians. A few years ago Mary Pride was the most visible of the advocates of this viewpoint. You also find strong support for this viewpoint among conservative Roman Catholics.
The third holds that marriage is, by divine intention, for the producing of children and that the Bible is pro-child. Therefore, sizeable families should be the rule among Christians, but birth control and family planning are not for that reason forbidden and, in some cases, may be used wisely and well.
I will argue that, though the third position comes closest, it is not the best way to put the point. Rather than attempt to define a position, or, in other words, to develop a casuistry that, at least in general, describes all cases, we are better to show what principles apply and how love will direct people in the way in which they should go. Let me explain.
In the first place, it must be admitted that there is no text in Holy Scripture that settles the argument. The ancients knew how to prevent pregnancy but there is in the Bible neither approval of the practice nor prohibition of it. This is the first reason why Roman Catholics argue against contraception on the basis of the so-called natural law. Let me say briefly that I regard the Roman Catholic position as spectacularly unconvincing. I believe there is a natural law and that what it requires and forbids may be known, indeed is known to human beings. But I don’t follow the logic and am unpersuaded by the case laid out in Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical issued during the pontificate of Paul VI and still law for Roman Catholics today. Here is the conclusion as found in the document itself.
“…every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible, is intrinsically evil.” [HV, 14]
But what is the proof of that? How does that appear in the natural law? This is a ruling that has concerned many serious Catholics precisely because it is so widely ignored in the church. They are rightly concerned that the Church’s authority is undermined when it speaks and everyone ignores what it says. As I said, I don’t think and, apparently either most Roman Catholics don’t think that the natural law forbids contraception, or, if they do, they don’t care.
The case is further weakened by the Roman Catholic acceptance of the rhythm method as an acceptable form of contraception. As the encyclical reads:
“Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom.”
None of that is at all obvious to me or to most of the world for that matter. It appears frankly that the most fundamental consideration of biblical ethics – viz. motive – has been forgotten and some entirely dubious considerations put in its place. Fact is, it is either permitted or forbidden to have sex with the intention of preventing conception. That is the ethical issue, the case of conscience. It is very hard to see how by natural law or by the application of Scriptural principles one could argue that the question of intention is not germane, only the question as to which forms of contraception one employs. Obviously the couple that employs the rhythm method is having sex with the explicit intention of not conceiving children, in the same way that a couple does that uses a condom or the pill. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the only clear moral principle detectable in the position of the Roman Catholic is to favor those forms of contraception that don’t work very well and disapprove of those that do.
But we are going to rest content, as Roman Catholics do not, with the teaching provided for us in Holy Scripture. And summarizing that teaching, we come, not without controversy, but in my view quite clearly, to these conclusions.
- The Bible is consistently pro-child. They are God’s blessing to parents. Barrenness is a curse or a tragedy in the Bible. And, of course, in the context of the covenant, the children of believers are the primary source of servants and warriors for the kingdom of God. We could look at many texts making this point and those texts are familiar to you. Some argue that there was a great need to increase the population in biblical times and we shouldn’t read a perpetual obligation into the blessedness of childbearing, but the considerations that the Bible advances in asserting the blessing of children do not seem related to such temporary considerations. The covenant itself trades on the Lord’s interest in the rising generation. Marriage is required to be within the covenant precisely because “the Lord desires a holy seed,” and so on.
Now many today have children simply because it is the natural progression of life, others have them to satisfy some longings of their own: they want the “experience” of motherhood and fatherhood; they want someone to love and to love them; they want someone to carry on the family name; to care for them when they are old; to remember them when they are gone; in some cultures still, children represent more workers for the family business.
But these are not the blessings the Lord has chiefly in mind when he speaks of the blessedness of children. They silence the enemies of a man when they contend in the gate (Ps. 127:5) because well raised children are the proof a man’s (or a woman’s) character. They are fruitful vines around a parent’s table and so continue the line of faith through the generations. What is more, the task of nurturing children, laid so solemnly on the shoulders of parents by the Lord, checks selfishness in parents, holds up to them, as in a mirror, their own defects, and proves, over time, to be one of the most important engines of spiritual growth and the life of prayer in any spiritually minded man or woman.
The parent who wishes for some satisfactions and has children to fulfill them usually finds that the constant work, the drudgery, the wearying mental and spiritual concentration required is steep price to pay. Selfish dreams about children soon disintegrate under the pressure of reality. We are seeing this everywhere in our culture today.
In any case, the Bible is consistently pro-child.
- On the other hand, the Bible does not hesitate at the same time to say that children are not a blessing no matter what. As John Robinson, the pilgrim father, put it: “children are a blessing, but dangerous.” Wicked children, children who throw off the yoke of Christ when they are older, are not a blessing but a curse. Cain, Esau, Hophni and Phinehas, and Absalom are just some examples of the children of even believing parents who brought grief and harm to their families and to the world. Proverbs warns of this often enough.
“A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother.” (10:1; 17:25; 19:13)
Nothing can so surely break a Christian man or woman’s heart than a rebellious child. It is not reproduction, in general, that the Lord seeks, but a holy seed, born and raised in covenant faithfulness, and finally mature and bearing fruit for the kingdom of God. Populating hell is no blessing for anyone and no pleasure to God, who does not desire the death of the wicked.
What is more, the Bible recognizes that at certain times, and in certain circumstances, bearing children and having babies is, or can be, a bane not a boon. [Matt. 24:19: “How dreadful it will be in that day for pregnant women and nursing mothers.”]
- At the same time the Bible clearly recognizes the calling of some Christians to remain unmarried, or, if married, to remain childless. There is no indignity in this and the proof of that, of course, is that our Savior himself lived such a life. This modern notion that has surfaced in the church, perhaps especially in response to anti-family sentiments in the culture, that children are everything, the be all and end all of life, and that we absolutely must have them is clearly in violation of the Bible’s plain speaking.
- Many modern notions that affect the way Christians think nowadays are plainly anti-Scriptural and can be held only in violation of some biblical teaching.
American women had an average of 7 children in 1800; 5.2 in 1860; 3.6 in 1900. Over the past generation the rate has dropped from 3.45 in 1960 to 1.93 in 1988, where it remains today for non-Hispanic white Americans – a rate that does not reproduce the population. Only immigration and longer life spans are increasing the population. Lying behind this is not nearly so much a conscience about overpopulation. What drives the lower rate of reproduction are ideas that children are a burden because they interfere with the pursuits of their parents; that children should have all the benefits of suburban, middle-class lifestyle (his own room, his own organized activities, etc.) – how often do we hear that the cost of raising a child to 22 will be x 1000s of dollars, or that by such and such a year the cost of college will have mushroomed to x 1000s of dollars, as if we are to do cost-benefit analysis with regard to our children – that parenthood should wait until all education is completed for both spouses and both careers well and truly begun, resulting in women beginning to have children later in life, and the fear of divorce. Abortion, of course, has had an effect on family size as well. The freedom to terminate pregnancy together with the removal of the social stigma has vastly increased the number of abortions. Perhaps, in the long run, the greatest pressure on childbearing will prove to be feminism. Obviously, if the goal is an egalitarian world in which both men and women have equal opportunities in the marketplace, large families will not find a place in such a philosophy of life and values. The woman is more encumbered by children than men, having to bear them and nurse them and, like it or not, having the primary duty of caring for them. The only solution is to discourage the bearing of children, or, at least, to reduce it to a minimum. This is now happening widely, of course. The ideologists of population control and environmentalism have added a dimension of political correctness and virtuousness to what were already strong tendencies in our culture. Large families, in some circles, now bear the odium that our society also bestows on smokers, polluters, and the like, though that is not nearly as true as it was a few years ago, before we began hearing of non-replacement fertility rates in Western countries.
In our self-absorbed culture, children cost time, money, a huge amount of effort and emotional pain. They are one vast need that we must meet at the expense of our own pleasure and the pursuit of our own interests. No wonder we are having fewer of them. They have become a hobby for people who have other interests as well. Christians are not immune to these pressures. Though Christian families remain larger than those of society at large, they are shrinking too. And, often, the pressures are very subtle on Christians who would, of course, never admit that babies are merely an option, an extra for those who wish to have the parenthood “experience.”
- The view that we should procreate with abandon and eschew all forms of birth-control as contrary to God’s design reacts to the above-mentioned attitudes with a vengeance. It seeks a distinctively Christian viewpoint of children and life in the world that is founded not only worldly motives and materialistic desire for gain and ease but upon the Bible’s view of children as a blessing from God. Do you want less blessing from God? That is their challenge to the church. Do you want more of the world’s blessing and less of God’s?
But, clear and straightforward as this position is, and as right as it is to condemn the thinking about children now abroad in our culture, this position does not do justice to the Bible either. Its advocates claim that it is the only biblical position, but in this, I believe, they are not correct.
- Gen. 1:28 is not a command but a blessing, as it is when the same words are said of the animals and the fish — “Be fruitful” or when said of Rebekah (Gen. 24:60) – “Our sister, be the mother of thousands, of ten thousands…” – [also in the imperative form!]. By itself it cannot be made a command to have as many children as we can. We receive many blessings from God – food and sleep are mentioned in the Bible – but we are still free to limit the amount of them. In other words, there is no command in the Bible to have children per se. There is the expectation to have children and the teaching that they are God’s blessing and a most important part of the advancement of the kingdom and the fulfillment of human life. But nowhere are we told that we must have as many children as we might.
- Children must be planned for. 1 Tim. 5:8 says that one who does not provide for his family is worse than an infidel. The one who makes no effort to be sure that he can provide for his family is not righteous for that reason, but unrighteous. The parents who raise children poorly and send them out into the world are not righteous for having had many such children.
- The often heard argument that family planning usurps God’s sovereignty should not impress any of you! God uses means. We might as well say we shouldn’t use doctors because that interferes with God’s sovereignty. Besides, if you can interfere with it, it is not sovereignty! God asks us to be wise and discerning, to make decisions ourselves in many respects without surrendering his control.
Now, can we come to a conclusion? Is it right to limit family size and for what reasons. Well, you have the principles before you. The motive of the heart will be the most important ingredient in your application of the law to your own case.
That is to say, if you do have the spirit of the Bible about children, you know they are God’s blessing, a heritage from him, much more important than career advancement or material comfort; if you women really do believe that childbearing will be the sphere, more than any other for you – at least for most of you – in which you work our your salvation, as Paul says in 1 Tim. 2:15, if you really wish to be fruitful for the Savior’s sake, and you want to be rid of every attitude in the culture that is contrary to the law of Christ, then I will trust to you make the right decision about family size – how many children you should have and for what reasons you might have fewer than might otherwise be possible: knowing what you know of yourself and your situation, you can only handle so many, you can only raise so many as they need to be raised, you can only provide for so many, your other callings from the Lord also must be fulfilled and you can manage a household only so large and still meet these other demands, etc.
The man of legal cast of mind wants to know: “how big is a quiver?” And I’ve actually heard people trying to answer that question with one silly argument or another designed to show that in the ancient Near East a quiver would hold so many arrows, etc. No, that is not how the Scripture teaches us to proceed. It does not teach us all to do exactly the same thing, but it requires us all to have the same spirit, the same hunger and thirst for righteousness and for Jesus’ sake. And we should not care if someone else does exactly as we do or does not if he or she has this spirit. The same spirit may well lead to larger families as a rule, but it will lead different Christians to different results. That is a certainty and that is exactly what the Bible teaches us to expect.
As Dan Doriani well puts it: “So, refrain from legislating a correct family size or from determining one method of establishing family size. But affirm that it is good to have children, indeed, to have as many as the fabric of your life under God allows.” [“Birth, Dearth, or Bring on the Babies?” p. 35]
Sex is for the procreation of the race as well as an instrument of romantic fulfillment and the pleasure of love.