Thursday, January 24, 2013

Contraception and the Christian Church

*The content of this article will be controversial.  Reader discretion is advised.*

Contraception, often euphemized as “birth control,” is a fairly common practice in contemporary society. People of all stripes and economic conditions utilize contraceptive and sterilizing methods for the purposes of “family planning.”  The result of this prevailing use is that the average number of children in American families is between one and two.  This made growing up in a family with three children seem “large.”  In a world where commercial “family deals” are geared toward families of four, having that fifth member always made things a bit more challenging (but not overly so). Nonetheless, even the parents of my “large” family practiced “family planning,” making the conscious decision to cap the number of children at three.

Most people claiming to be a part of the Lutheran Church don’t make much of this “planning.” It is just seen as another adiaphoron, something that Scripture neither commands nor forbids - open to the discretion of the parents at hand. In this light, I was shocked to discover that, prior to A.D. 1930, all major Christian groups stood in total agreement in their rejection of artificial contraceptive measures. This was shocking due to the simple fact that very few matters of dogma have favored such universal concord in the history of the Church (after all, even a fairly ubiquitous confession like the Nicene Creed has that pesky Filioque clause, which in no small way contributed to the Great Schism, not to mention the many sects that would likely raise an objection to that “one Baptism for the remission of sins” bit).

So what happened in 1930 that changed this supposedly unanimous opinion? The Anglican communion, more recently known for approving the consecration of men (and women!) in same-sex relationships as “bishops,” held its Lambeth Conference (a conference of bishops somewhat equivalent to a Synod Convention). At this conference, it passed an unprecedented resolution, stating that: “in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience” (Resolution 15).

While this pronouncement seems innocuous enough, it was the first time that any major Christian group had even hinted at the acceptability of contraception. Soon after, in March of 1931, a committee of the United States Federal Council of Churches, an ecumenical group comprised of a multiplicity of denominations, also issued a report affirming the use of contraception in marriage. By the 1950s and '60s, nearly all Protestant denominations had defected from teaching that it is wrong for married couples to use contraception.

Okay, so suppose one cedes the point and recognizes the 20th Century as the first time that any Christian sect publicly endorsed the use of contraception. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Reformers and Church Fathers prior to the twentieth century really addressed the topic, does it? After all, contraception is really a modern thing, meant for a world that is already full of people, right? To examine the historic counsel of the Church on this topic, let’s begin with the Blessed Reformer himself, the great Doctor of the Lutheran Church. Following the lead of other Church Fathers and Doctors before him, Luther expounded on contraception in the context of the Biblical story of Onan:

“Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord killed him. And Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.’ But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; therefore He killed him also” (Genesis 38:6-10).

Under Hebrew law, Onan was required to marry his brother’s widow and produce an heir for him in what was known as a “levirate marriage.” However, Onan didn’t want the responsibility or hassle of raising what would be considered his brother’s son. Still, Onan did not seem to shy away from the other gifts of sexual intercourse, namely the pleasure derived therefrom. So he performed a primitive measure of birth control (coitus interruptus) as a means of ensuring the pleasures of sex without the obligations of procreation. As a result of this action, God slew Onan just as He had killed his brother Er.  While historical critics would argue that the displeasure Onan caused the Lord was due to his disobedience and failure to live up to levirate obligations, patristic testimony argues that the Lord was also incensed by Onan’s use of contraception. It is in this context that the Blessed Reformer writes:

"Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment. He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. Therefore he did not allow himself to be compelled to bear that intolerable slavery. Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him (Luther's Works: Lectures on Genesis, p. 21).

This is pretty heavy stuff. Not only does Dr. Luther condemn contraception, but he calls it a “Sodomitic sin,” placing it in a category even more heinous than adultery and incest.  That sure doesn't sound like the realm of adiaphora.  But let’s be honest: the Blessed Reformer sometimes said things that are less than germane. Surely his views are anomalous among Lutheran theologians.  

In point of fact, Luther was not alone throughout the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy in condemning contraception. Sts. Chemnitz and Gerhard, often lauded as the second and third in that great counsel of Lutheran theologians “of which there is no fourth,” also have interesting things to say on this topic.  In the Second Volume of his Loci Theologici, Chemnitz offers commentary on the fifth commandment, specifically mentioning contraception in his discussion of the evils of abortion:

"In the Decalog it simply says, 'Thou shalt not kill,' without mentioning either the instruments or the circumstances of the crime. In Judg. 20:5 the wife of the Levite who was ravished by a mob of Gibeanites was said to have been murdered. Pertinent here also are those things which hinder conception, Gen. 38:9. Likewise, the matter of destroying the fetus in the womb, Ex. 21:22, 'If a pregnant woman is struck. . . .'”

Likewise, in his commentary on Genesis, St. Gerhard opines:

 “Most Hebrew and Christian Interpreters conclude that the sin of Er was of the same type as the sin of Onan, which they call effeminacy. Augustine in book 22, Against Faust Chap. 84. concluded that this Er had sinned in this offense severely, because that sin impedes conception and destroys the foetus in its own seed. God detests and punishes shameful acts. Shortness-of-life for the wicked is the punishment of sins. The sin of effeminacy and voluntary pouring out of seed is contrary to nature: this in itself is compared by the Hebrews to homicide. Thomas argues that this is more serious than homicide.”

These citations from the three greatest Lutheran theologians seem to unequivocally demonstrate an early Lutheran paradigm that viewed contraception in very sinful terms - as something almost worse than murder.  But the paradigm goes back even further.  The quote from St. Gerhard alludes to the following citation from St. Augustine:

"And why has Paul said: 'If he cannot control himself, let him marry'? Surely, to prevent incontinence from constraining him to adultery. If then, he practices continence, neither let him marry nor beget children. However, if he does not control himself, let him enter into lawful wedlock, so that he may not beget children in disgrace or avoid having offspring by a more degraded form of intercourse. There are some lawfully wedded couples who resort to this last, for intercourse, even with one's lawfully wedded spouse, can take place in an unlwful and shameful manner, whenever the conception of offspring is avoided. Onan, the son of Juda, did this very thing, and the Lord slew him on that account. Therefore, the procreation of children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marraige. Whence it follows that those who marry because of their inability to remain continent ought not to so temper their vice that they preclude the good marriage, which is the procreation of children."

I could pad this post with paragraph upon paragraph of Church Father after Church Father demonstrating a clear and unabridged condemnation of contraception in the history of the Church, but other sites have done this already. The venerable blog Lutherans and Procreation summarizes a helpful list of Fathers and their works:  “St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (c. 339-397), Hexameron, 5.18.58; Athenagoras of Athens, Letter to Marcus Aurelius in 177, Legatio pro Christianis ("Supplication for the Christians"), page 35; St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430), De Nuptius et Concupiscus ("On Marriage and Concupiscence"), 1.17; Barnabas (c. 70-138), Epistle, Volume II, page 19; St. Basil the Great, First Canonical Letter, Canon 2 (A.D. 374); Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (470-543), Sermons, 1.12; Clement of Alexandria, "The Father of Theologians" (c. 150-220), Christ the Educator, Volume II, page 10. Also see Octavius, c.30, nn. 2-3; Ephraem the Syrian, De Timore Dei, page 10; St. Jerome, Letter to Eustochium, 22.13 (A.D. 396); St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 24 (A.D. 391); Letter of Barnabas 19 (A.D. 74); Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies (A.D. 228); Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6:20 (A.D. 307); Minucius Felix, Octavius, 30 (A.D. 226); Origen of Alexandria (185-254), Against Heresies, page 9; Tertullian, Apology, 9:8 (A.D. 197), and The Soul, 25,27 (A.D. 210).”

One could spend months examining each of these passages and finding others like them, but the point of this post is to simply prove to the reader that the Church - indeed, believers even before the birth of Christ all the way through the Reformation - have always taught against contraception.

This will likely be shocking to individuals raised in a society where contraception is almost as common as chewing gum. After all, how can something be wrong when pastors not only fail to condemn it, but routinely advocate it as “good stewardship” and utilize it themselves?

Ultimately, in this author’s opinion, all of this stems from a societal paradigm that does not value children. We value ease, convenience, comfort, and self-obsession. If having another child means I have to have a few hundred less channels on cable, well, that is just a sacrifice I am unable to make.

Against the philophy, Holy Writ offers plenty of passages highlighting the blessings - and command - of procreation. The most prominent of these is Genesis 1:27-28:

“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

The Augsburg Confession tells us that this means "God created man for procreation" (XXIII:5) and, in contrast to the papists who argued that this command is no longer valid since the earth has been “filled,” the Apology contends:
“First, Gen. 1:28 teaches that men were created to be fruitful, and that one sex in a proper way should desire the other. [. . .] The nature of men is so formed by the word of God that it is fruitful not only in the beginning of the creation, but as long as this nature of our bodies will exist [. . .]
Secondly, And because this creation or divine ordinance in man is a natural right, jurists have accordingly said wisely and correctly that the union of male and female belongs to natural right. But since natural right is immutable, the right to contract marriage must always remain. For where nature does not change, that ordinance also with which God has endowed nature does not change, and cannot be removed by human laws. Therefore it is ridiculous for the adversaries to prate that marriage was commanded in the beginning, but is not now" (XXIII:7, 8, 9).

In this light, the first chapter of Genesis marks the beginning of a biblical paradigm that not only promotes procreation, but commands it. The Genesis account shows that procreation was one of the primary purposes of the creation of man and an immutable command given to the same.

Another excellent passage showing the blessings that God ascribes to having children is found in Psalm 127, where the Psalmist writes:
“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.”

Passages such  as this confirm the Scriptural frame of mind instituted in Genesis, showing that children are one of the greatest blessings that God bestows on marriage. In a society of families with 1.8 children, the Church’s philosophy toward children is less than amicable. I mean, a “quiver full?” I could barely get by growing up with two siblings! What if I had four, or seven, or - heaven forbid! - ten!?

It is easy to point a finger at others. It is easy to recognize the widespread sins that plague other people. Homosexuality, for example, is easy to rally against for those who aren’t tempted by same-sex attractions. With St. Paul we can stand and condemn the sexual perversion and corruption highlighted in Romans 1, which seems almost prophetic in its description of the very sort of reality that exists in our society. But most are not wont to read on through chapter 2, where the Blessed Apostle warns: “Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?”

Yes, it is easy to condemn and abhor evil in others, because we think by judging the evil in others we are creating piety in ourselves. It is easy to judge those living in sexual perversions that the majority of people do not have to deal with.  It is easy to stand with the Church Catholic throughout the ages in condemning a sin like homosexuality.  But it's not so easy to stand with the Church Catholic and condemn a sin that far more "normal" people engage in without second thought.  Unfortunately, this kind of self-righteous hypocrisy will not justify us before God, and more often than not it doesn’t do a very good job of making us appear righteous before others either.

The only thing that will justify us before God is faith in the all-atoning life and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He had a human body with human desires and temptations. But He lived a life of perfect chastity in place of our sexual perversions. He lived a perfect life in every way that we could not, keeping the Law in all its finger-pointing totality. And for all His perfection, the sins of the entire world were laid upon Him - ever single act of extramarital sex, every abortion, every murder, every lie, and yes, every intra-marital case of unchastity.

This Great Substitution offers total perfection to those who have faith in Christ and His promises. But the story doesn’t end there. Those who have been justified are also sanctified. We are regenerate. The old has gone, the new has come! Shall those dead to sin live in it any longer?

We need to consider the witness of our Fathers in the faith as they confessed the Sacred Scriptures, the only authority over the Church. Can this authority have spoken one truth for over two thousand years, only to reveal another in the last 80?

Post-Script:  It should be noted, of course, that there are people for whom conceiving children is impossible or highly dangerous to mother and/or child.  This post is not written with the so-called "hard cases" in mind.  For more information concerning these cases, you should seek the counsel of your pastor.  I would also like to recommend to the reader the exceptional work of Fr. Heath R. Curtis, who has written an excellent treatise entitled "Should Christian Couples Use Contraception?", which in no small way provided inspiration for this post.

1 comment:

  1. Nice job addressing this all important issue. So many of the ailments of our society these days can be traced back to the women's suffrage movement. Rev. Paul Harris wrote a book called "Why Is Feminism So Hard Resist?". I highly recommend it!