Why Evangelicals Need to Rethink Contraception, Part Two

This is the second in a series on evangelicals and contraception. Click here to read part one.

Almost all evangelicals support contraception. According to Pew Research, only 3-percent think it’s morally wrong. Most (55%) don’t even believe it’s a moral issue.

“If you go ask any . . . evangelical pastor, they’ll say if a married couple wants to use contraception . . . that’s fine.” So says David Talcott, a professor at The King’s College and an expert in sexual ethics. “It hasn’t really been a moral issue within evangelicalism,” he added. “(Evangelicals) are going to use the Pill and not think about it.”

This is stunning, given that Christians opposed birth control until the early 1900s. But as I wrote in part one of this series, Protestants soon gave way to cultural trends – first eugenics and then fears of overpopulation.

However, it wasn’t until 1966 that a thorough theological argument in favor of contraception was offered. The argument came in the form of an article published in Christianity Today by evangelical scholar John Warwick Montgomery. It proved extremely influential and swayed evangelical opinion on the matter. In fact, scholar Allan Carlson termed it a second “bombshell.” (The first was Billy Graham’s statement endorsing contraception seven years earlier.)

The article thrilled advocates of contraception and convinced more evangelicals to embrace birth control. But soon, many embraced abortion too. And they began thinking more pragmatically and less biblically.

A Birth Control Theology

In his landmark article, “How to Decide the Birth Control Question,” Dr. Montgomery presented a middle ground between two views – Catholic and liberal Protestant.  Catholics opposed birth control based on “natural law” and the command in Genesis to “be fruitful.” This, Montgomery argued, reduced marriage to merely a means of producing offspring.

But Montgomery also rejected the liberal Protestant view. He said this view saw sex as “the fulfillment of human aspirations” and made it “an end in itself.” This turned sex into an idol and led to “permissive sex ethics.”

So, Montgomery argued for a third view. This view upheld the marriage analogy in Ephesians 5 as the “focal center of scriptural teachings on marriage.” It suggested that marriage was not simply “a means” of producing offspring as in “be fruitful and multiply.” Nor was it “unqualifiedly . . . an end” as in “They shall be one flesh.” Instead, it viewed marriage primarily as an analogy “of the relationship between Christ and his Church.”

“Was God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ no longer valid? Was achieving ‘a better relationship’ enough to justify sterilizing something God clearly designed to be fertile?”

This new understanding meant that marriage isn’t just for procreation. It also exists to foster a love relationship like Christ has with His church. So, Montgomery reasoned, birth control is okay if it helps a couple “achieve a better human relationship.”

Montgomery’s article drew from Scripture and made some valid points. Yet it also raised new questions. Was God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” no longer valid? Was achieving “a better relationship” enough to justify sterilizing something God clearly designed to be fertile? And do Catholics really believe that sex and marriage is merely a means to an end?

Also, the context of Montgomery’s article was clearly fear of overpopulation, suggesting that pragmatism may have driven this new doctrine, not merely Scripture. Several times, Montgomery cited population concerns. He suggested, for example, that couples consider “the population picture” when deciding family size. And, he said in places with “rapidly growing populations,” adoption may be better than having children.

Nevertheless, evangelical leaders were thrilled with Montgomery’s article and frequently cited it as the definitive commentary on the issue. In subsequent years, most evangelicals embraced birth control. But they also embraced abortion.

Abortion and a New Ethic

Two years after Montgomery’s article published, Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society hosted a conference that produced “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction.” This stunning document affirmed abortion. It stated, “(A)s to whether or not . . . induced abortion is always sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for (abortion) under certain circumstances we are in accord. . . . When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life . . . may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life.”

The Southern Baptist Convention acted similarly. It resolved in 1971 to support laws allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest, and “clear evidence of severe fetal deformity.” The convention also said abortion is okay when “damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother” was likely.

This was a shocking development. And one that Montgomery apparently did not foresee. Two years after his groundbreaking first article, he wrote another. This one argued that life begins at conception and condemned abortion.

“Historically, there’s never been a culture that’s condoned birth control, but then somehow managed to keep abortion illegal. When you get one, you always get the other.”

Fortunately in the late 70s and early 80s, many evangelicals returned to their pro-life convictions. This was largely due to the influential book by Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop called, “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” This book revealed the shocking implications of degrading human life. And it “changed abortion from being a Catholic issue to a Christian line in the sand.”

Yet today there remains a significant number of evangelicals (33%) who think abortion should be legal. And 13% of women who get abortions are evangelical Protestants.

This shouldn’t surprise us. As scholar and author Allan Carlson notes, “Historically, there’s never been a culture that’s condoned birth control, but then somehow managed to keep abortion illegal. When you get one, you always get the other.”

Clearly, the mentality that drives abortion, drives contraception. And when evangelicals embraced contraception they began thinking like pragmatists. Children became liabilities, not blessings. Marriage became a means to personal fulfillment, not family and sacrifice. And birth control became essential to personal health, as though our natural design was somehow defective.

Evangelical Pragmatists

Posted to the website of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is a shocking quote by Pastor Joel Hunter. “Unmarried sex with contraception is not God’s plan,” he says. “(B)ut unmarried sex without contraception is not a plan at all. If holy living is not the choice of some in the near term, contraception can at least reduce some potentially devastating results (including abortion) for all in the long term.”

It’s hard to believe an evangelical pastor would make such an unbiblical argument. Scripture says we’re supposed to expel the immoral brother, not give him condoms! But this thinking has become common among Christians.

“As Christians, we need to examine our assumptions in light of Scripture, not the wisdom of the world. We need to be driven by the Bible; not the spirit of the age.”

Similarly, Jenny Eaton Dyer of Hope Through Healing Hands argued that Christians need to promote birth control in Africa. This was not based on Scripture, but naked pragmatism. Spacing pregnancies promotes women’s health, Deyer said. So, “Condoms, oral contraception, injectables, implants, and natural family planning: these are necessities for the health and flourishing of . . . developing nations worldwide.”

Is this really how God wants Christians to think? Does Scripture teach that sterilizing sex is key to human flourishing?

As Christians, we need to examine our assumptions in light of Scripture, not the wisdom of the world. We need to be driven by the Bible; not the spirit of the age.

In part three, I’ll equip us to do that. We’ll examine Montgomery’s view more. But we’ll also consider the Catholic view, which relies heavily on the same marriage analogy Montgomery cited. These two views are actually quite similar. Yet one consistently affirms God’s design and is consistent with all of Scripture, while the other is not.


 

I discuss these issues further in “Redeeming the Feminine Soul: God’s Surprising Vision for Womanhood,” available at Amazon.

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11 thoughts on “Why Evangelicals Need to Rethink Contraception, Part Two

  1. “Be fruitful and multiply” was a command only for Adam & Eve and Noah and his family. The reason was plain: unless they were fruitful and multiplied, the population would take forever to grow. And they needed lots of kids so the kids could intermarry. To use this command as being for all people is an abuse of the passage.

  2. Joe

    You do a lot of good work on your blogs. You’re not afraid to tackle difficult issues and I appreciate that. I don’t want this to come off as harsh, but if you are making a claim that a majority of married Christians are practicing something immoral, you need to back this up with scripture and evidence, not just state that our views have changed. Two important things:

    1. Saying that having contraception leads to abortion is factually incorrect. Increased access to contraception drives down the abortion rate. A simple google search will show this to be fact. By limiting contraception, we can see statistically that the abortion rate will go up. I think we are all strongly opposed to abortion here, so we do not want that to happen.

    2. As Glenn stated above, “Be Fruitful and Multiply” does not simply mean have as many kids as you possibly can. Having kids is pleasing to the God, however, we can clearly see through scripture that it is okay to stay single and serve the Lord.

    Here is the scripture that supports the counter argument to this article and I am curious to see how you respond to it:

    1 Corinthians 7:

    Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

    8 Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

    • Joe,
      Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. My summer schedule has been incredibly busy. But point number one is actually quite contested. I encourage you to read this article in the Federalist:

      http://thefederalist.com/2015/08/18/does-contraception-really-prevent-abortions/
      “I use studies and statistics from the abortion industry to give a detailed account of how our culture’s reliance on contraceptives has counterintuitively led to our culture’s reliance on abortion. These statistics and others reveal that the reality is probably closer to the inverse of what these politicians and pundits claim, at least when we speak of abortion as a nationwide phenomenon. The bottom line is this: contraceptives do not work as advertised, and their failure is at the heart of the demand for abortion.”

      To point number two . . .
      I’m not sure the point you’re making. I affirm that celibacy in noble. I’m not sure why that would be in conflict with anything I’ve written. I’m not saying that everyone needs to marry or have as many children as possible. That’s not the point at all. I encourage you to read part three. That will make my position more clear.

  3. Glenda Cloutier

    Thank you for reminding me about Hope through Healing Hands. I was trying to remember them recently as an example of an organization that is truly bipartisan in its efforts especially on behalf of women in poor countries. How you could see fit to use them as a negative example really bothers me, and makes me think, not for the first time, that your analyses don’t take a full enough perspective. If you could at least acknowledge that menstruating girls forced to bear children at the age of 11 destroys their ability to vacate waste products from their body for the rest of their lives unless surgically corrected, I could perhaps continue to respect you. But you mention them only in a negative framework to bolster a very thinly defended argument. I abhor abortion, and I understand the idea that one thing leads to another, i.e. contraception promotes abortion. Yet there is a long long way between one and the other, and Hope through Healing Hands is standing in that gap in an amazing and effective way. Be careful of being so legalistic about any issue such that compassion fails. If being right on this issue is the only thing that matters to us, then we are not obeying the first and greatest commandment. Hope through Healing Hands is a tremendous organization bringing hope and healing to the least of these. I call upon you to acknowledge your narrow mischaracterization of their invaluable minstry without delay.

    • Glenda,

      No doubt, Hope for Healing Hands has good intentions and aims to correct an important problem. However, the problem is not that young women’s bodies are fertile. It’s that the men in the community use the women like property with little to no concern for their health. Here’s what Dyer writes: “In Ethiopia, girls—on average—marry at age 16, and the bodies of young girls are not yet ready to have children. Arguably, the sex inside these marriages is not truly consensual. These young girls are often forced to please their husbands at will, and as a result, are often forced into pregnancy after pregnancy.”

      Do we really think we’re going to solve this problem with contraception? This problem is systemic misogyny. And rendering these women infertile may solve one problem, but create others. In some ways, contraception just further enables the rape and misuse of these women’s bodies. By the way, some of these same countries practice female genital mutilation, which renders women’s bodies incapable of enjoying sexual intimacy. That’s how the misogynistic men in these communities have “solved” the problem of women committing adultery. Both of these are unbiblical solutions. And both misdiagnose the problem as these women’s God-designed bodies, which need to be “fixed” in some way. Seriously, what message are we Western Christians sending these communities?

      The biblical solution is to teach the dignity and worth of all human beings, including women, and urge the men in these communities to love and respect women. That’s a tall order, I realize, but it’s the only true solution.

  4. Glenda Cloutier

    Thanks for your response. I appreciate it. I agree the problem is systemic. But I think Hope through Healing Hands is doing a marvelous work in bringing about the remedy you propose, that of respect for women and all life. I think they are in fact encouraging men in the communities to respect women and they are teaching the dignity and worth of all human beings. Their services include counseling of couples.
    If we don’t stand together with those who are more left leaning than we are on the issues we agree on, women and children will continue to be the victims of our ideological power plays. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t stand together, we shall all certainly hang separately.” It’s unnecessarily devisive to call out an organization like this one. While it may not represent all our conservative theological views, which I whole-heartedly support, we simply cannot afford to refuse to work with someone who disagrees with us in this way. They are doing good, God is using them in the lives of the people they serve. Who are we to lift them up as an example of what not to do? When we do that, aren’t we just sitting in the stands criticizing those in the arena laboring to provide help and hope? I think so, and it does not become us as Christians. Let us join hands and labor together.

  5. Glenda Cloutier

    I would like to leave here a quote from the Hope through Healing Hands website:
    “Today, staffed by World Medical Mission of Samaritan’s Purse, that hospital treats 60,000 people a year, many of whom walk for days to be seen and treated. There is still no running water in the hospital, but there is peace built upon the compassion and generosity of Americans, the trust established through the delivery of care, and the connections that come from the person-to-person intimacy of medicine.

    This is the power of global health diplomacy: empowering a community to achieve health, healing, and peace.

    Will you join me? Together we can change the world.

    Bill Frist Signature

    Senator Bill Frist, M.D.

    Chairman of the Board”

    • Glenda, Those are inspiring words by Senator Frist. And there’s no doubt that Samaritan’s Purse does some incredible work. But the clinic and running water Senator Frist references have nothing to do with Hope for Healing Hands. I encourage you to take a look at the organization’s IRS Form 990.

      https://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2016/450/529/2016-450529570-0e56f56d-9.pdf

      I’m hard-pressed to find any actual work the group does. Of the nearly $744K the group spent in 2016, only $37K went to assist domestic organizations doing the kind of work it supports. ($30K went to Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health. Vanderbilt, by the way, offers comprehensive abortion and contraceptive training to its nursing and medical students.) Zero-percent went to assist international organizations. The lion’s share — nearly $345K — went to pay Jenny Dyer’s salary & a few other employees, as well as pay for their travel. Then there were office expenses, legal, fundraising, etc. . . I wouldn’t give a cent to this organization even if I bought into its mission.

  6. Thank you for this bold article, Julie. But I have many friends who minister at the doors of abortuaries, and they will all tell you that the 13 per cent figure (the proportions of abortions that are performed on Evangelical women) is WAY too low. They see youth pastors bring their girls in to have their babies killed, on the grounds that God would never want them to suffer from an unplanned pregnancy. They see cars with pro-life bumper stickers drive past them into the forbidden grounds, and the women who get out blithely say that God will forgive them for what they are about to do. Men bringing in their girlfriends for abortions quote the Bible in the faces of those trying to get them not to go in. The proportion of Evangelicals, whose religion, in the end, offers little obstacle to child-killing, is climbing rapidly toward the majority of abortions in America.

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