Why Evangelicals Need to Rethink Embrace of Contraception, Part One

I used to think like most evangelicals when it came to family planning. I strongly opposed abortion, but embraced contraception and thought Catholic objections to birth control were on par with praying to Mary.

Abortion, I reasoned, takes an innocent life and is clearly wrong. But contraception merely prevents conception. What could be wrong with that?

Sadly, I had never considered arguments on the other side. When I did, I discovered they aren’t flimsy or far-fetched. They’re solid and Scriptural. And they aren’t just Catholic either. 

Every Protestant Reformer opposed contraception. In fact, before 1930, every church – Protestant and Catholic – did as well.

Yet today, most evangelicals embrace contraception. In fact, we’re so enthusiastic about it, we’re promoting it worldwide.

“Every Protestant Reformer opposed contraception. In fact, before 1930, every church – Protestant and Catholic – did as well.”

The Christian aid group World Vision now works with the pro-abortion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help women in poor countries “time and space their pregnancies.” So does Christian singer Amy Grant. There’s even a faith-based organization whose main purpose is to promote family planning. Not surprisingly, Bill & Melinda Gates are contributing to this group too.

Today, Western nations spend billions to control population in the developing world. Supporters say the impetus for this is concern for women and children. But critics say that’s not so. The only reason the West wants to reduce population elsewhere is because it wants more resources for itself.

So now the issue of birth control isn’t just personal; it’s global. And the stakes don’t just concern the size of one’s family, but the fate of people worldwide and the witness of the church.

Over the last 60 years, evangelicals have promoted a view that earlier Christians would have thought immoral. We didn’t do this because we studied Scripture and found prior interpretations lacking. Instead, we were swept along by culture.

Most evangelicals are blissfully unaware of this sad history. Our pastors told us birth control was fine and we gladly accepted what we were told. But the stakes are too high for us continue in ignorance. We need to study our past and Scripture, and seriously rethink if using birth control honors God.

In this article, I’ll help us do that by explaining what led evangelicals to embrace birth control. In part two, I’ll describe the theology developed to defend this embrace. And in part three, I’ll examine biblical arguments for and against contraception.

Anglicans Break With Tradition

Though Reformer Martin Luther had no problem with natural family planning, he strongly opposed contraception, calling it “intrinsically evil” and “a grave sin.” Fellow Reformer John Calvin felt similarly. Referring to Onan’s sin, he wrote, “It is a horrible thing to pour out seed.”  This “quenches the hope” of one’s family and “kills the son . . . before he is born.”

In saying these things, Luther and Calvin were not expressing anything new. They were simply stating a position the church had held for more than a thousand years. Early Church Father St. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “(T)he seed is not to be . . . wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.”  Likewise, John Chrysostom lamented that some couples viewed children “as grievous and unwelcome” due to their greed.

“Historically, opposing birth control has not been a Catholic thing. It’s been a Christian thing. “

Historically, opposing birth control has not been a Catholic thing. It’s been a Christian thing. As late as 1908, Anglican church leaders officially resolved that “the use of all artificial means” of birth control should be discouraged. They added that contraception corrupted character and was “hostile to national welfare.”

Yet in 1930, Anglicans reversed course and became the first church to condone birth control. As author and scholar Allan C. Carlson said in a 2015 interview, the impetus for this change was not spiritual, but pragmatic. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had recruited Anglican pastors and convinced many to embrace eugenics, or “controlled breeding.”  The American Eugenics Society even sponsored a “Eugenics Sermon Contest” with cash prizes for the best sermons.

Evangelicals Succumb to Fear

Evangelicals, however, opposed birth control for several more decades. But in 1959, Billy Graham made a stunning statement. He told reporters that he found “nothing in the Bible which would forbid birth control.”

Like the Anglicans, Graham didn’t appear to be motivated by Scripture. Instead, having recently visited Africa, he cited concerns of overpopulation. “I do believe that some form of birth control is necessary in Asia, Japan, Africa, and other nations where population explosions are threatened,” he said.

“Like the Anglicans, Graham didn’t appear to be motivated by Scripture. Instead, having recently visited Africa, he cited concerns of overpopulation.”

Many in Graham’s generation shared his concern. In 1952, the Population Council had warned that overpopulation was going to deplete the world’s resources. And in 1958, the Draper Committee reported that the “population problem” was the greatest obstacle to world progress.

A month before Graham’s statement, Christianity Today ran an article on the Draper Report. It suggested that the time had come for a “re-examination” of sex apart from procreation. Apparently, Graham agreed.

Over the next decade, fears of overpopulation continued to grow and exploded when Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. This best-selling book predicted that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation in the 1970s and 80s. Though Ehrlich’s predictions never came true, the fears he raised remained and impacted Christians and non-Christians alike.

Yet evangelicals couldn’t fully embrace contraception without a strong biblical rationale. That came seven years after Graham’s statement. And it led to major changes in Christian thought and action.

Many evangelicals began accepting and using contraception. And as I explain in my next article, some began to condone abortion, as well.


 

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

Sign Up and Get Chapter 1 of
Redeeming the Feminine Soul
FREE!

Keep in touch with Julie and get updates in your inbox!

23 thoughts on “Why Evangelicals Need to Rethink Embrace of Contraception, Part One

  1. j jones

    Julie, I think you may already know that CT has deep roots with Graham. His comments and their articles likely came from the same well.

  2. T. Stewart

    Many beliefs “Christians” uphold are unbiblical. Julie I’d really appreciate an in depth article from your perspective on the impacts that racism has made on the church in the USA.

  3. Carol

    Hi Julie,
    I haven’t found a biblical basis for or against birth control? It doesn’t matter what the church fathers in the past did. If you can respond with any scripture verses to the contrary, I’d really like to know.

    I totally agree that the unborn child is a human person and not in the equation for birth control, and strongly stand against abortion on demand. Why shouldn’t the emphasis be on those who are single to be chaste? That the marriage bed should be undefiled? and only sex is between an adult husband and wife in a monogamous marriage? It seems that if we follow basic bible principles like these, there would be no need for these debates as well as a lot less disease, overpopulation, (if a problem) and messed up people. I hope to hear from you. Thanks so much.

    • I’ll provide the biblical basis in the subsequent articles. But you are correct that if we followed the Bible’s sexual ethic, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

  4. D Burrell

    Birth control doesn’t prevent contraception. The baby is still conceived. Birth control causes a hostile environment so the fertilized egg can not implant and start to grow causing it to be aborted.

    • Rita

      Not all contraception aborts the baby.

  5. Danielle

    God uses marriage to describe the relationship of Christ to the church, a relationship that is intended to be spiritually fruitful (making disciples). Evangelicals have marred that marriage picture by making it unfruitful physically–we should not be surprised when we are unfruitful spiritually as well.

    Children and large families are a blessing to the church, but they are often met with unloving remarks and jokes. We should be rejoicing with those who embrace childbearing for the glory of God as they seek to raise disciples.

    Search the scriptures and you will find that childbearing is always equated with blessing. Never is it considered good stewardship to intentionally prevent children. Even in slavery, the Hebrews multiplied abundantly, so much so that pharoah feared them. Imagine the impact if Christians were multiplying like that!

  6. Sharon K Holland

    I agree with you Julie. When the scriptures are silent we should look to church tradition & the teachings of the church. Tradition gave us the scriptures. And contrary to protestant teachings, the church began 2000 years ago, not 500 years ago. They have been addressing issues since Christ founded the church. And I heard recently one say, God wants more souls!

  7. There is absolutely NO biblical warrant to say that contraception is wrong, that married couples can’t use birth control methods to plan out their families. NONE. Arguments from emotion are just assertions, not facts.

    Just because some people use birth control to facilitate fornication, or to push social agendas, that don’t mean birth control per se is wrong or unbiblical.

    I examined this question quite thoroughly in this article:
    https://watchmansbagpipes.blogspot.com/2014/04/is-contraception-unbiblical-ie-sinful.html

    • The Catholic statements you cite are awful, for sure. But they are radically different from what Pope John Paul II taught, for example. To equate all of Catholic teaching with those statements is building a straw man.

      I hope you read all three articles with an open mind. You may find there’s more to this issue than you’re aware of.

      • David Holland

        They are not what the Church said, St. Augustine was a member of “The Church” the Roman Catholic church did not exist as an entity until later. It is not wise to look at one person for doctrine, what did the world wide church pronunce with one voice.

        Perhaps the question should be addressed on a deeper level, as you do Juie, than “show me the verse”. What is the purpose of intercourse? Why did God design it the way He did?

        The philosopher Thomas Aquinas looked at the “is-ness” of things. For example, why is marriage between a male and female? There is an is-ness to them, they fit, they complete each other.

        The “is-ness” of intercourse is mainly procreation, why interrupt that? I would also argue that vasectomies and tubal ligation, are mutilation of God’s creation.

        Good article Joy. Thanks

      • The point is that there are no biblical prohibitions against family planning, and contraception is not sinful

  8. keith greenberg

    I find this article very timely–today is my birthday! Julie I look forward to learning along with you. I have had simlilar thoughts ever since becoming a follower of Christ 23.5 yrs ago, however sadly never synthesized them. I want to learn how God sees this utmost important topic!!!!! Keep on keeping on sister–we love you!

  9. Lisa

    Maybe I am jumping what you might write in part 2 but what is a Christian supposed to do when they do not want children at this time(and there are good reasons such as health reasons, etc, but need to keep their marriage bed without oral birth control or condoms?

    Thank you.

    • Actually, I deal with that in part three. I know that’s a while to wait, but it’s takes some explaining.

  10. Lisa

    Look forward to hearing that. Thank you.

  11. Joe

    Julie, I’m not sure I follow. I assume in parts two and three you will cite scripture that supports this? Using tradition only cannot support this argument. We cannot necessarily take the views of Martin Luther as gospel, as he thought the Jewish people were evil! I’ll be the first to say he had some bad ideas. The opinion of a Pope in 900AD means nothing to me. What Jesus said means everything.

    Point being, in today’s world our knowledge has drastically increased. We now have a much better understanding of how fertilization occurs and when life begins, so we can base our views around factual knowledge. Of course, a fertilized egg should be protected as life, but the Bible speaks very highly of sex with your spouse as a healthy part of your relationship (see: Song of Songs).

    If I’m planning on having 3 kids with my wife, but waiting until we are in a financially stable position to give them the food and clothes they need, should I abstain? What is the responsible thing to do here?

    A lot of questions around the population control argument…not sure how to even begin that. I won’t say these are your words as your referenced another article, but the thought that the West is giving poorer countries birth control to hoard more resources for them is laughable at best, so citing that source is dangerous. I’ll stop there.

    Looking forward to hearing how you address this.

    • My main point in this article is showing that evangelical embrace of contraception was driven by pragmatism, not theology — and that our current position contradicts previous Christian consensus. If that were sufficient to support my thesis, I wouldn’t write two more articles. ;) I give the full biblical basis for my view in article three. Rather than cherry-picking Scriptures as is often done, I will present a theology that takes into account why God created male/female and human sexuality — and then how contraception distorts that purpose. There are ways to control fertility without contraception. I don’t know why more evangelicals don’t explore that.

  12. Joe

    But why does it matter if there are different ways? If it is a good thing to have healthy sex with your spouse without the intent of pregnancy, does the method of that matter? If God intends for you to have a child when you weren’t planning on that, it’s still going to happen.

    • You’ll have to read my last article. But yes, it matters a great deal. Also, the reasons for not wanting a child matter too. Unless there’s a very compelling reason, we should always remain open to life imho.

  13. Sheri

    Julie, thank you for discussing this topic. I am looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

  14. Jon

    Years ago when studying for a Sunday School lesson I was teaching, I struggled with this issue and eventually came to the conclusion that the Catholic teaching was correct, and we were wrong. Saying so in my Baptist class did not make me any friends, to say the least. Sadly, I had practiced our wrong teaching and didn’t learn this until after my wife need to have a hysterectomy, so we will remain childless. Now I take every opportunity I can to celebrate those with large families!

  15. G7

    Onin’s sin was not spilling his seed on the ground per se, but not fulfilling his obligation to father a child.

Leave a Reply