Pagan and barbarian cultures had no problem with contraception and abortion. Christians always maintained strict prohibitions against such practices. This “Christ-against-culture” model reflected the Christian duty to “be fruitful and multiply” and respected the created order where sex, procreation, and marriage are bound intimately in one institution of holy matrimony. It also did something to attract pagans and barbarians to the Christian family form.
Few Protestants even know the Christian argument against contraception. I have never heard a sermon or even a mention of contraception in my very conservative Lutheran synod. Until I read Catholic books on marriage I never even thought of contraception as a moral issue. If surveys are to believed, nearly all Protestants think using contraception is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all.
Why? Scripture is silent on the issue. Therefore, many are tempted to think of contraception as nothing more than a “useful tool.” Pastor Doug Wilson illustrates this point, when he distinguishes between yuppies who use contraception to postpone procreation so they can “spend time surfing together in Argentina first” and a “seasoned married couple with six kids” who have their “covenantal hands” full. For Wilson, contraception is not itself a problem, but rather the selfish use of it. Or at least that is the Protestant lullaby, at its best.
Protestants have staked out a position that is pro-contraception and pro-marriage. Is such a position coherent?
Few in the tradition thought so. All thought of marriage as a deep communion between a man and woman, enduring for life. A deep communion on sex required, according to St. Augustine, an openness to offspring. A “baneful sterility,” he writes, enabled either through contraception or abortion, means that sex is carried on not “for honest wedlock, but for impure gratification; if both are not party to these deeds, I make bold to say that either the one makes herself a mistress of a husband, or the other simply the paramour of his wife.” Few dissented from this position prior to the 20th Century.
During the 20th Century, the idea that contraceptive sex produced relationships of mutual use instead of marital love became the sole provenance of the Catholic Church. It is found in encyclicals like Casti Connubii (1930) through to John Paul II’s works on the theology of the body.
Protestant nonchalance assumes precisely what is at stake in the debate over contraception. Does nonchalance plus availability make us the type of people who are not prepared to be mothers and fathers?
Technologies are hardly morally neutral tools. Social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat shape the minds of young girls—so they are not, simply speaking, just tools. They shape the moral environment. Electricity and clocks change our attitude toward time itself—and hence they transform the human experience.
The easy availability of contraception transforms the nature of sex and therewith the character of men and women by elevating the importance of sexual pleasure as a human good.
The earliest Christian advocates for contraception recognized that birth control shapes culture, but there was disagreement about how. Arguments concerning birth control (or nonchalance) show Christians caving to the zeitgeist. The result was that Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), later founder of Planned Parenthood, shaped the teaching of Christian churches more than the teachings of Scripture.
Sanger’s Pivot of Civilization (1922) made two separate arguments in favor of birth control. First, contraception would be necessary to prevent the reproduction of the “feeble-minded,” the impoverished and other undesirables so that the stock of human beings would improve. Such arguments inspired sterility laws across America in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, Sanger objected to “conscripted motherhood.” She hoped to increase sexual satisfaction and boldness among women once sex was divorced from procreation and ultimately from marriage itself.
The origin story of Protestant and non-Catholic denominations embracing birth control is, like a crazy uncle, normally kept in a dark closet for no one to see or hear. Many Christian denominations partnered with Sanger’s American Birth Control League to prevent Anglo “race suicide.” These early eugenics advocates were mostly from urban, northeastern, well established denominations like the Congregationalist Church (liberalized in 1931). The Methodist Episcopal Church (1931), the Presbyterian Church in the USA (1931), and the Protestant Episcopal Church (1934) also supported contraception for eugenicist reasons in the 1930s. Such arguments, for obvious reasons, disappeared after World War II.
Sexual liberationist arguments predominated after the war. The Anglican Church had become the first trinitarian church to bless the use of birth control at the Lambeth Conference (1930). While the Lambeth conference condemned believers who avoid conception from “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience,” it embraced contraception for those with “clearly felt moral obligations to limit or avoid parenthood.” No standards for such clearly-felt obligations were offered. No church discipline would hence be possible for those who used contraception from condemnable motives.
Denomination after denomination followed the Anglicans. All joined in believing that the link between sex and procreation was hardly necessary. Some found good lifestyle reasons for husbands and wives to avoid having children. Some found the unifying purpose of sex to be so important that abstinence or self-control in sexual matters need not be so inflated in importance. Nearly all denominations found reasons to sign up with the liberationist zeitgeist.
What is more, the worries from the Lambeth conference are nowhere to be seen among today’s Protestant churches. The Episcopal Church, for instance, as of 1994 advocates affordable “family planning,” without any worry about why one is seeking to avoid children. Episcopalians commend contraception for those concerned “to improve the quality of life for all.”
This is the pattern in nearly all Protestant denominations today. The United Methodist Church (1976) claims that “each couple has the right and the duty prayerfully and responsibly to control conception according to circumstances.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (1980) too hopes that “every conception would be mutually desired” and that both partners “should be prepared to provide emotionally, spiritually, physically, and socially for the child”—never considering whether the use of contraception encourages such preparation. It even adopts the language of avoiding “unwanted pregnancies.”
The Presbyterian Church in the USA (1981) waxed Shakespearean in evaluating the claims of contraception, musing “to parent or not to parent is a decision of the utmost concern” and contraception adds “clear intentionality” to the decision. Later, in 1985, its contraception stance would add be reaffirmed because it helped to “model a new openness to diversity of lifestyles.” The United Church of Christ too has seen “matters of reproductive health” as “matters of conscience” since 1969.
Southern Baptists have tried to stay out of the business of evaluating contraception theologically, so they just condemned distributing birth control devices to minors and against sexual permissiveness in 1977, but have not touched the issue of contraception overmuch.
Only Seventh-Day Adventists and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) offer complex analyses of contraception, but mostly within a “civil rights” framework. According to the LCMS’s Sanctity of Human Life Committee, since Scripture is silent on the question of contraception, it seems to be in the realm of human freedom; however, methods of contraception that come to mirror abortion undermine the unborn’s right to life. Other LCMS documents, products of official study but not official policy, suggest that fecund marriage and celibacy are both pleasing to God.
If we are to celebrate and praise God through all our actions, Protestant Christians must think through the place of sex within their marriages. It should be an object of preaching every bit as much as opposition to pornography, though it might prove more offensive to their flocks. Precisely this offense reveals how sacred our very secular approach to contraception has proven to be. Openness to procreation is an openness to the gift and responsibility that are our children. It fills up earth with charges and fills up heaven, eternally, with believers. It connects Christians throughout the ages to the Church writ large. Having children also seems to be a manifest duty for most.
One of the great shames of today’s Protestant churches is that few are bold enough to even think through how controversial the use of artificial contraception is. So afraid of being seen as Catholic, or so enmeshed in our secular culture, we accept the controversial use as a matter of course, without even thinking.
Christian Churches cannot thrive when they unreflectively accept prominent teachings from a decadent, dying world. The Christ-against-culture model of the early church may offer us more guidance than we realize for the good of our souls.
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