Contraception And Conscience

Some thoughts in preparation for an ethics exam:

1. What makes this issue difficult to discern what is “right” or what should be normative?

Three factors make it difficult to discern what is what is “right” or what should be normative with respect to contraception. First, Scripture does not speak directly to the question of whether or not it is biblically appropriate to use contraceptive measures. There is no explicit biblical passage that mentions the term, and there are no plain texts that specifically address whether or not it is appropriate to use contraceptive measures.

Second, many people suffer from a lack of good information about the ethical choices that are inherent but hidden in their choices about contraception. For example, many people (Christian and non-Christian) are unaware that the third mechanism relied upon by combined and progestin-only contraceptive pills is to inhibit the endometrium (uterine lining), making it impossible to support the development of a newly conceived child. Thus, the pill has an abortifacient<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> property of which many people are unaware.

Third, the human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Jer. 17:9. Mankind’s constant struggle to discern the impact of the fall on particular life decisions and activities is fraught with the risk of self-deception.

2. What can we glean from the Bible to help Christians discern what is best regarding this issue?

First, Genesis 1:28 identifies procreation as a primary end of the marital union (and the Old Testament outworking of the Abrahamic Covenant is replete with promises of fruitfulnesss in procreation). In addition, Psalm 127 describes children as a blessing from God. Thus, at the very least, when considering whether to use contraception, one must start from the perspective that having children is the expected norm for marriage and should be understood as a good gift from a loving Heavenly Father.

Second, the New Testament allows for voluntary celibacy in marriage (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:5; other references to celibacy in Mat. 19, 1 Cor. 7:7, and Rev. 14:1-5),<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–> but does not envision permanent childlessness as a matter of choice for married couples. Importantly, Davis sees the combination of these passages as an important indicator that the burden of justification (proof) should be allocated to those who seek to use contraception.

The Roman Catholic position—prohibiting artificial contraception but permitting natural family planning—is consistent with this perspective and based in natural law and historical scriptural exegesis. However, it is unclear from the Bible whether every act of sexual intercourse must “be open” to conception (the phrase from Humanae Vitae). One of the fundamental bases for the Roman Catholic position is Onan’s case of coitus interruptus in Genesis 38:9-10. The Roman Catholic interpretation of that passage, however, seems  eisegetical – The Lord’s displeasure with Onan was not with the prevention of pregnancy per se, but with the particularly exploitative, abusive, and reprehensible way in which Onan avoided his covenant duty of levirate marriage. See Deu. 25:5-10 (punishment for refusal is shaming not death).<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[3]<!–[endif]–>

Other portions of Scripture are relevant to particular forms of contraception. For example, with respect to voluntary physical sterilization, one might ask whether it is ever right to remove a part of one’s body (see Lev. 21:20; Deu. 23:1; 1 Cor 6:19) simply for convenience sake, and whether this is the proper way to treat the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. While care for the physical body is not the overarching primary concern of scripture, the body should be treated with honor and respect (see, e.g., Gen 2:7; Ex. 21:22-25; 1 Cor 6:12-20). Davis says elsewhere (of Paul) that “the believer does not have the right to exercise unlimited dominion over his or her body but should view the body as a trust from the Lord, to be cared for in ways that are glorifying to God.”

3. How can we teach a particular perspective on each issue without binding the conscience of people if there is no clear position stated in Scripture and people disagree?

God alone is Lord of the conscience. WCF 20.2. In Scripture, the Lord has a lot more to say about the context in which the contraception decision is appropriately made (marriage) than he does about the environment, for example. Thus, as teachers we are seeking to develop in our hearers and those around us and accurate and full sense of the testimony of God through Scripture at the same time we develop an accurate and full understanding of the underlying facts to which the testimony of Scripture must be applied. Through these things the Lord will bind our consciences with His will, and though every choice of ours will be tainted with sin, he stands ever ready to forgive. For Christ “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Heb. 7:25.

Several factors to keep in mind (in order):

  • Scripture is authoritative.
  • Scripture is not silent on the issue of contraception, but it is indirect.
  • Because Scripture is indirect (on this issue), we must teach people to be attentive to the accurate data to which particular scripture might have application.
  • Generally, the truths of scripture are mediated truths, and the Spirit is a reliable applier of Scripture.
  • The Spirit (along with the Father and Son) works primarily through the ordinary means of grace experienced through the body of Christ (Word, sacrament, worship, fellowship, prayer, service). Attention to these things enlivens us in Christ and energizes us to pursue Him. The Spirit is a reliable guide in His personal attention to us, especially as it is experienced through these things.

Thus, when considering whether or not to utilize contraception, it is vital that believers submit their personal desires to a prayerful consideration of what is spiritually permissible in the context of the community of faith.

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> See also Davis’s discussion of Gal 5:20 and the word pharmakeia, whose contemporary meaning was broad enough to be applicable to today’s abortifacient drugs. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 54.

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–> This is important because it clearly demonstrates that God’s will for the Christian couple is not maximum fertility.

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[3]<!–[endif]–> That is, he didn’t simply refuse to enter the levirate marriage, but instead sought to have the sexual blessings of such a union without the corresponding covenantal responsibility.


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