STUDIES IN BIBLICAL ETHICS No. 5
March 31, 1996
We have been speaking about the role of the law as a rule of life for God’s people, their love’s eyes, by which to see what is good and right and pleasing to the God they wish to serve. And we spoke last time about casuistry, the application of the law to the many specific ethical questions or cases of conscience we face each day.
We pointed out that the law provides only general principles that then must be applied by the individual believer every moment of the day. The first commandment forbids greed but which purchases for how much money for what reasons and under what circumstances constitute greed. I came back from Connecticut with several hundred dollars of books. Now I can certainly claim that every one of those books will make me a wiser man, a more faithful and effective teacher and preacher of God’s Word, but, I am by no means unaware of how susceptible ministers are to making idols of their books, to care more for having them on their shelves than for reading them carefully for their congregation’s sake. How do I know whether those purchases, or any one specific purchase, was greed or idolatry and not, in fact, a responsible stewardship of my money for Christ’s sake. That is the problem and the challenge, and not only for the first commandment. For every commandment. One can certainly admire the physical appearance, of a man or a woman, even the figure of a woman, who is not one’s own spouse, for the Bible does. Exactly where, and under what circumstances does admiration become lust? And so on.
I argued that the Bible’s own examples of casuistry and its explicit teaching, and the Lord’s own teaching in particular, laid primary stress on the motive of the heart. The man who wants to keep the law truly, the man who wants to love God and his neighbor with his obedience, the man who genuinely hungers and thirsts for righteousness is the man who will find the true application of the law and obey the law in both heart and action. As John Newton put it, “love is the best casuist.”
Now, before leaving this point, I wanted to give you one more example of biblical casuistry as an important part of Christian ethical living. If we are going to live righteously, do the right thing, then, obviously, we must be able to figure out what the right thing is. This is what we have been speaking about. But, what if the question concerns a matter that the Bible does not address at all? We can apply the law about not muzzling the ox to many new situations, as Paul shows us. But what about an ethical questions for which there does not seem to be any guidance in the Bible? How are we to proceed then? How are we to find our way?
I thought I would take for our consideration of such a question the issue of birth control, because it is peculiarly modern issue, with new forms of birth control, made available in the last generation, making possible what was not possible before. (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.) I’ve spoken on this subject before, but my thinking has advanced by several sources unavailable to me before (Dan Doriani; Henry Krabbendam; etc.)
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 virtue of sex was that it produced children. Cut off from that purpose it was of doubtful righteousness. In this sense the modern RC 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.” 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.
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 to condemn it — if any comment 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 family planning, is more inclined to take seriously the arguments of population theorizers who argue that over-population is a serious problem in the world, leaves family size to the couple itself 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 and contrary to God’s intention, argues that family planning is God’s prerogative, and that large families should, therefore, be the norm among Christians. Mary Pride is the most visible of the advocates of this viewpoint.
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.
Returning to the general point with which I began, our view of how the principles of the law of God and of Holy Scripture are to be applied to cases of conscience, I want to argue tonight that, though position No. 3 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.
1.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.
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 old; 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 so has children 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.
2. 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, Absolom are just some examples of the children of believing parents who brought grief and harm to their families and to the world. Proverbs warns of this often enough (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, raised, 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.”]
3. 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 and that we absolutely must have them is clearly in violation of the Bible’s plainspeaking.
4. Many modern notions that effect Christians too are plainly anti-Scriptural and can be held only in violation of some biblical teaching.
1. 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 — 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 a dramatic 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 has 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.
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 are 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.” I’ve noticed, even in the few years of my pastorate, how easily Christian young people have adjusted to the notion of waiting for children until they have done other things: finished school, got on their feet in a career, had a few years together in their marriage, etc. Even to put it this way, however, suggests a different attitude about children — an attitude one hopes that in the case of most Christians changes completely when the babies arrive — but clearly they are not as fundamental to our lives as they once were. 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.
5. 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.
a. 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 as many children as we can. 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.
b. 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 of the world are not righteous for having had many such children.
c. 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 sovereignty! God asks us to be wise and discerning in many ways 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. Now go back to the general approach we have already identified. 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 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]