The (im)morality of contraception is something the majority of Christians are either uncomfortable discussing or, in some cases, simply not interested in addressing. But they should be, especially if they’re truly invested in building a culture of life.
It’s easy for an assenting Catholic like myself — despite the widespread dissent among Catholics on this issue — to harp on the intrinsic immorality of contraception and its inseparable connection to abortion. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that an Evangelical Christian, Bryan C. Hodge, has given the issue serious treatment in his book The Christian Case against Contraception: Making the Case from Historical, Biblical, Systematic, and Practical Theology & Ethics.
Below is the full Introduction (minus footnotes) to Hodge’s book. I should mention that while I don’t agree with his assertions regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on natural family planning, I do agree with him on the importance of teaching the immorality of contraception to all Christians. Many thanks to Tyler Stewart of Wipf and Stock Publishers for obtaining permission for me to reprint this material.
[CE editor’s note: We wish to reiterate Matt Abbott’s comment above to the effect that what is presented below differs from Catholic teaching and is even — very explicitly — critical thereof, and exhibits serious misunderstandings of the Catholic position. We are presenting it because 1. it is prudent for us as Catholics to be aware of significant movements among our separated brethren 2. many of you have relatives and friends who might be open to considering this issue as presented by a fellow Evangelical 3. as with so many issues, you will see that this Evangelical is ultimately reliant (albeit unknowingly) on Catholic authority for his position leaving us Catholics in a unique position to strengthen them in what is right and true 4. for us to be allied with Evangelicals on this issue is a natural outgrowth of the current — and very fruitful — alliance we have with them on the abortion issue and is yet another avenue for us to pursue in the goal of Christian unity.]
The Christian Case against Contraception
by Bryan C. Hodge
It was in a college dorm room where our current subject originally caught my attention. Until that point I had never thought ill of the practice of contraception, largely because I never thought of it at all. But when a couple of my fellow freshmen were talking about the subject, I was suddenly brought into the debate, and I had sort of an epiphany. This illumination came when one of my classmates said something to justify the Christian use of contraception, and his line of reasoning struck me as a bit off. I pursued the question, but his answer still didn’t address my inquiry adequately. In fact, even though I could not put my finger on it at the time, there was something very unchristian about this Christian’s reasoning concerning the issue. I pursued it further and further, and as I did so, I suddenly realized something about an issue I had never thought to be of any relevance to me: I no longer believed the use of contraception to be an acceptable Christian practice. I, like most people, had assumed that there was nothing wrong with the practice. In fact, the assumption was so strong that it took this incident to even put the issue on my ethical radar screen. Not only had I assumed its correctness, I had considered it as relevant a question as asking whether eating bread was acceptable in the sight of God. In others words, it was not a question of whether contraception was morally acceptable because it was not a question for me at all. It was, therefore, quite a shock, to say the least, to discover otherwise. The change of my mind, of course, started out more like a doubt than a dogma. After this conversation, and others that would follow, I simply no longer had the blind faith I once had that this common practice among evangelicals existed among them because it had been well thought out by those who employed it.
It has been many years since that day, but the issue has never left me. The conviction concerning the practice, along with all that it has brought, has followed me every step of the way; and to this day I continue to be humbled by this very Christian idea that eluded my thinking for so much of my early Christian life.
This book is largely the result of two motivating factors: (1) the desire to put forth the Christian case against the practice as a type of smelling salts to a culturally intoxicated Church and (2) the desire to leave behind a Christian witness of the subject to my children. The first led me to think deeply about the subject over the past fifteen years; but it is the second that led me to capture it in writing. As such, this book is not written to cover every topic as thoroughly as I would like. It is written as an introduction to certain Christian arguments against contraception, and it by no means goes into the depths of meaning and implication of our present conclusions — though the riches of such are many and far reaching. The book functions well, however, as an introductory book for Christian ethics courses, as well as for pastors and college-educated laity who may have probing questions concerning our subject matter. It is further my hope that the average layperson will make an effort to digest the book and its subject matter in a thoughtful way, even though the style and language of the book may at first be offputting.
As a preface to this subject, I ought to point out its very controversial nature. It is controversial in that the amount of hostility that arises from the mere claim that there may be something wrong with it pales in comparison to any other subject I have ever encountered.
I must admit that, although my wife and I did not hide our views of the subject from people within the Church, neither were we ecstatic when people found out what we believed. Ironically, believing what the Church has always believed about the subject of contraception in the evangelical Church today is much like being the sole Trinitarian at a Jehovah’s Witness convention, or worse yet, a pork vendor at a rally for Islamic jihad. Suffice to say, friendliness and openness have not typically followed the revelation of our beliefs regarding the morality of the issue. Regardless, we have sought to be honest with those who would ask us, and we have tried our best to live out those convictions under the grace and power of God amid a currently closed evangelical Church.
But what are the reasons for such an unwillingness to pursue the subject openly? Perhaps it is that this subject is not some high and lofty idea that has little effect on the life of the listener. Heated discussions may ensue because of egos on any issue, but the fact that this issue demands a complete change in thinking and lifestyle, as well as an admission of guilt for any past practices if deemed wrong, causes an individual to have a gut reaction that seeks to protect the self. This “survival mechanism” is really what separates the discussion surrounding this subject from one in which the individual has nothing to lose by the outcome. It is for this reason that this particular subject has a great value in testing an individual’s humility, as well as his or her claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” If Christ is Lord, then surely the individual who makes that claim will want to know if he or she is following Him in this area of thought and behavior, and perhaps, approach the subject with both greater humility and less enmity.
Nonetheless, the fact that this subject may bring unwanted hostility cannot be our main concern in pursuing it. The prayer and hope of any shepherd of God’s people is that they will hear, repent, and have joy in the truth. I present this subject for discussion, then, not for the unbeliever, but for the believer — not for the one who seeks to justify and please him or herself, but for the one who seeks to justify and please God in all things. With that sentiment it will be wise to proceed with the Spirit of God, who commanded us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; because the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:19–20). I pray now that we who fear the Lord will enter the discussion accordingly.
Why This Discussion is Important
Of course, it must be stated at the get go that this subject is often neglected largely because most evangelicals assume it is a personal issue and not important, or at least not the business of the Church, to discuss. As one person put it, “The Church should stay out of our bedrooms.” Of course, it would be the hope of this author that any dedicated Christian would understand that God should be glorified through the truth He has revealed even in the bedroom. In fact, the primary sin that is combined with idolatry in Scripture is that of sexual immorality. If in fact the use of one’s sexuality is connected to one’s claim that one has a relationship with God, then the bedroom is far from the last place we should evaluate, and indeed, it seems rather to be the first area that God desires us to scrutinize.
This is often seen as a secondary issue either way, and it is felt that one should not divide the Church over secondary issues. Leaving for another time the discussion of the fact that the Bible does not divide itself up in such a way, the subject should be seen as a primary/essential issue to discuss. I say this because the historic arguments that Christianity has always leveled against birth control carry with them severe consequences for its practitioner if true.
For instance, the first historical argument leveled against the practice is that contraception is a form of murder. The second is that the practice is a type of sexual immorality. The third and fourth arguments perceive the practice to be rebellious acts of idolatry. The unrepentant practice of any one of these individual practices brings about condemnation both from the Bible and consistently by theologians throughout the Church’s history.
If someone desires to make the argument that this subject is not important, he or she will have to answer the question, Which one of the sins listed above is not important if one’s eternal destiny is on the line? Is the practice of sexual immorality or idolatry, which evidences that a person is going off to eternal punishment (1 Cor 6:9–10; Gal 5:19–21; Rev 21:8), that which we should consider “unimportant”? Or murder, which displays the same non-salvific relationship with God (1 John 3:15; Rev 21:8)? This is not even to mention the host of other arguments brought against it from other avenues that hold the practice of contraception to be a non-Christian one.
One can say that he or she does not believe that the practice of contraception falls under any of those sins, and therefore does not believe that the discussion is important; but that is something he or she will have to prove in discussion of the subject — thus acknowledging the importance of that very discussion. It is easy to say that an issue is not important in order to honor Christ in the Christian life. It is an altogether different thing to prove it as such. Let us therefore move away from the patronizing idea that this is a secondary discussion to have, since if the Church is right on any one of those points, the destiny of the one who fails to heed its warning, according to the Scripture, is in grave peril. Such a prospect ought to lead Christians to acquire a greater enthusiasm for the issue at hand, especially those who have not thoroughly engaged the subject.
It Doesn’t Matter, Because I’m Saved by Grace Anyway
Of course, there are those who feel that the arguments against such a practice don’t matter. They are going to live as they see fit, because they are saved by grace, regardless of whether they are committing egregious acts of sin or not. These individuals fail to realize, however, that grace comes through a means. That means is biblical faith.
The type of faith Scripture tells us leads to salvation is the type that seeks to please God in all things and produces actions accordingly. For instance, James states that “faith without works is useless” (2:20). The book that discusses grace and faith proportionately more than any other in the New Testament is Galatians. However, it is in the book of Galatians that we find the closest parallel to the teaching concerning the nature of saving faith in James. Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Gal 6:7–8)
The Church Father Irenaeus summed it up nicely when he was discussing the reason why Christians pursue obedience to Christ in all areas of their lives: “The more extensive operation of freedom implies that a more complete subjection and affection towards our Liberator had been implanted within us. For He did not set us free for the purpose that we should depart from Him . . . but that the more we receive His grace the more we should love Him.”
Likewise, Calvin long ago stated the biblical and early Church’s view of faith reclaimed in the Reformation: “It is not our doctrine that the faith which justifies is alone; we maintain that it is invariably accompanied by good works; only we contend that faith alone is sufficient for justification. The Papists themselves are accustomed to . . . presenting it out of all shape and unaccompanied by love, and at other times, in its true character. We, again, refuse to admit that, in any case, faith can be separated from the Spirit of regeneration.”
Luther, in agreement, stated: “Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever.”
In his Treatise on Good Works, Luther interprets a verse in Ecclesiastes 9 as follows: “‘Let thy garments be always white,’ that is, let all our works be good, whatever they may be, without any distinction.” In fact, it was the “easy believism” inherent within the medieval practice of selling indulgences that led Luther to deny the validity of that practice, because he proclaimed that salvific faith was through repentance, not through an easy, ritualistic gesture made to the church. It is through this that we see that the biblical view of faith contains a genuine submissive and loving attitude toward Christ, which then produces acts of grateful submission to Him as Lord. Faith and the desire to do what is pleasing to God go hand in hand. If one were to argue otherwise, one would have to conclude that his gospel is not the biblical one.
The irony, therefore, is that the individual who argues that, since one is saved by grace, what one practices does not matter is in all likelihood the very person not saved by grace at all. Grace comes to the one who seeks the kingdom of God and His righteousness through faith. Apart from such faith there is no grace.
Therefore, if there is even a slight chance that a follower of Christ might be guilty of one of the sins of murder, sexual immorality, or idolatry, that person will surely want to explore the claim of this book’s truthfulness in order to worship and seek God’s pleasure. The one who casually dismisses the discussion without consideration evidences that he or she has no such desire as that found in the Psalmist when he cried, “Search me, O God, and know my mind; scrutinize me, and know my assumptions; discover if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way ” (139:23–24).
Therefore, I say again, the importance of this topic cannot be overestimated. To be concerned about whether one is living in God’s pleasure, or in the absence thereof, is to be concerned with either the truth or falsity of the conclusions of our present discussion.
Defining the Terms
It is important, before we begin, to define our terms, so that there will be little room for confusion. When we speak of “contraception,” or the broader term “birth control,” certain images of pills may come to mind. However, as we will see, birth control is a mind-set, an intention, more than it is a device that is used. In fact, it will be argued that the use of a device is not necessary for a practice to fall under the category of “birth control,” or “contraception.”
I have also purposely interchanged the terms “birth control” and “contraception,” even though the former terminology is broader than the latter. I have done this mainly to remind the reader that the two familiar terms both have the same ultimate goal: the former “to control whether someone gives birth to a child” (and thus in our present discussion to control whether a child is conceived) and the latter “to counter the conception of a child.” The goal of both commonly used terms then is to prevent a child, whose existence would normally result from a sexual act, from coming into the world.
By “birth control,” or “contraception,” I mean: Any practice, with or without a device, that is intended to be used by an individual involved in the sexual act, in an effort to prevent the climax of that act from creating an opportunity for God to bring forth a covenant child through the natural, created means of the biological processes that He has set in place.
Breakdown of the Definition
Let us now pursue the meaning and implications of each phrase more closely.
A practice, using a device or not . . .
Many who are adversarial to the use of foreign drugs or mechanisms to prevent conception seem to do so upon the basis of pragmatism. It is argued that such foreign bodies can harm the body in some way, have adverse effects on one’s married life, and be financially costly. Some have even argued that what is called “natural family planning” (NFP) is as effective as the most effective form of artificial contraception. Such a practice, however, has as its goal the same outcome of artificial contraception. Hence, it is not for God-centered reasons one refrains from the use of artificial contraception, but from concern of self. It is an ethic of self-survival and self-benefit rather than purely a conviction that one is doing something wrong apart from its pragmatic effects. The contemporary Roman Catholic position, as opposed to the traditional position taken by the historic Christian Church, is to argue that, although it is wrong to try to prevent conception when fertility is at its height, a natural family planning method, employed in order to “naturally” avoid conception, is morally acceptable.
However, as we will see, not only is this position contradictory to the historic Christian position, but also logically there is little difference in the intent when it comes to the method of avoidance, especially when an argument is merely pragmatically concerned about immediate effects upon the self. Any ethic that has its foundation in temporal concerns of mankind rather than eternal concerns of God must be seen as human-made, and produced for the sake of convenience rather than conviction and devotion. Ethics based on a human-centered conception of the world can have nothing in common with genuine Christianity, which by its very nature is God-centered from start to finish.5
Of course, the official Roman Catholic position differs from the more popular arguments made for NFP and instead argues from lex naturalis, “the law of nature,” which the reader will find purposefully absent from the arguments presented in this book due to its numerous logical flaws. However, the critique of the NFP position will be drawn out further in Chapter 7.
. . . intended by those involved . . .
This book is not really about whether or not one has sexual relations and must somehow be omnisciently aware of whether God will bring forth a child through it or not. It is not about accidents that are made during sex, or any other red herring often created to detract from the main issue. This book is about actions with intentions. It is about what one both believes and does acting upon those beliefs to bring about a desired result that is contrary to the desired result set forth in Scripture.
Therefore, the actions with which we are concerned here are more serious than those of Leviticus 15:3, where the spilling of the semen is unintentional and, in that particular text, is simply being used as an instructive picture illustrating the holy and profane and is not seen as an actual crime against God, as opposed to that which is intentional.
. . . in an effort to prevent the opportunity . . .
What is intended is that the opportunity for God to do His work, through the natural processes of the sexual act, be obstructed (other than God having to miraculously bypass the person’s obstruction). Now, of course, this is not to say that the person thinks to him or herself, “I hope to thwart God’s use of my natural biological processes so He can’t give me a baby.” Such an idea that people understand and use their depravity in such an exposed manner is absurd. We mask our rebellion with self-deception so as to maintain a standing in both temples of worship: one which is ours and one which is God’s. Rather the point is that the person intends to prevent him or herself from having a child, and pretty much doesn’t think about what he or she is doing beyond that point. This we may term “willful ignorance.” In this popular notion, the practice of contraception is almost always, if not always, seen as a purely natural act, where one is simply stopping a natural process, working independently of God, from producing an unwanted baby as the result of the sexual act. Therefore, the individual is doing nothing in his or her mind against God, but only against his or her individual benefit or lack thereof, which would be gained or lost by one’s use of the natural means.
. . . for God to bring forth a covenant child . . .
The goal set by God for the sexual act is not simply that a child be born into the world but that a child is to be raised as a person who worships and devotes him or herself to God and His people. As we will see, sexual acts that may lead to the conception and birth of a child but may also still lead to a child’s lack of participation in the covenant community (such as sexual acts like incest, which may lead to health defects, or pagan sacrifice that could end the child’s life early) are placed in the same category as our present subject in the Bible. Hence, the intention is for God to bring about a covenant child through the sexual acts of His covenant people.
. . . through the natural, created means of the biological processes which He has set in place.
By “natural means” I do not mean that the process of conception is purely natural as it is understood “atheistically” as it is within the larger, post-Christian culture’s definition; my use of this phrase is dualistic, where God uses the natural means, which He created, to bring about a supernatural work of life. In other words, the natural biological process is not the source of the life of a baby but the means used by God to produce one.
Contrary to this, atheism sees the natural biological process as the means for the individual human to create, and therefore it is subject to the desires of the individual, rather than the means of God’s work and hence subject to His desires of when and how it is to be used. This presupposition is central to many of those who argue favorably toward the use of contraception among Christians.
However, as we will see, such a mindset is far more the product of our cultural worldview than one gained from Christianity. Ironically then, the justifications supplied as reasons substantiating the use of birth control by Christians aren’t Christian at all.
(Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com. Bryan C. Hodge holds degrees from Moody Bible Institute and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he also taught as a Teaching Fellow in Hebrew Bible. He has served as a pastor for many years in the Presbyterian Church of America and currently resides in Pennsylvania with his wife and five children, as he completes a ThM in New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary.)