Why Evangelicals Should Rethink Embrace of Contraception, Part Three

This is the third in a series on evangelicals and contraception. Read parts one and two.

“My parents had five kids and I was always embarrassed about it. All my friends came from families with 10 to 12 kids. They were always asking me, ‘What’s wrong with your mom and dad? Don’t they like each other?’”

That comment cracked up the entire newsroom at Fox 32 News Chicago where I used to work. It came from a reporter who grew up in a staunchly Catholic, Chicago neighborhood. Like most of my colleagues, I intended on having two, maybe three kids. And like them, I thought the Catholic view of sex and contraception was ridiculous.

That was about 25 years ago.

Since then, I’ve discovered Theology of the Body (TOB) – Pope John Paul II’s biblical analysis of what it means to be human. This has radically transformed my view of the body, human sexuality – and in turn, birth control. And now, I don’t think the Catholic view is ridiculous.  I think it’s biblical. And though I’m not dogmatic about it, I no longer feel comfortable with contraception.

A New Paradigm

TOB presents a very different view of the body than the one I was taught as an evangelical. I was taught the body is merely a tent for the soul. And though I believed marriage had spiritual significance, I never considered that sex might.

But John Paul taught that the body is much more than a tent. We are created in God’s image. And our body is a symbol revealing truths about God. As popular Catholic theologian, Christopher West, put it: “(T)he body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”

“I realized the the body is not merely a ‘tent’; it is a symbol with deep, spiritual meaning.  And I realized that birth control not only prevents conception. It also alters a profoundly spiritual symbol.”

First, the body reveals God’s Trinitarian nature – how multiple persons can exist as one essence. This is profoundly reflected when husband and wife become “one flesh” as described in Genesis 2:24.

When I first encountered this idea, I was skeptical. I was older than 40 at the time. And in all my years in the church, I had never heard anyone articulate this idea.

Yet when I checked with a theology professor at the Moody Bible Institute where I used to work, he said this was accepted Trinitarian theology. Similarly, when Dr. John Jefferson Davis appeared on my radio show, he affirmed this understanding, as well. Davis is a leading evangelical ethicist, so his opinion carried a lot of weight.

But Trinitarian life and love isn’t the only mystery the one-flesh union reveals. John Paul also taught that it reveals the mystery of Christ’s relationship with the church.

The idea that sexual intimacy would reflect our relationship with Christ seemed somewhat scandalous to me. Yet, that’s precisely what Ephesians 5:31-32 says: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

TOB elevated the human body and sexuality to a whole new level for me. I realized the body is not merely a “tent”; it is a symbol with deep, spiritual meaning.  And I realized that birth control not only prevents conception. It also alters a profoundly spiritual symbol.

Sex, Symbol, & Sterilization

In his 1966 article credited with shifting evangelical opinion on birth control, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery argued that Catholics view sex merely as a means of having children. But as TOB makes abundantly clear, that’s not so, though Montgomery can’t be faulted for not knowing that. His article predated TOB by 15-20 years.

Interestingly though, Montgomery’s view of marriage is actually quite similar to John Paul’s. Both see the marriage analogy in Ephesians 5 as the “focal center of scriptural teachings on marriage.” But for Montgomery, the analogy justifies contraception. For John Paul, it makes it unthinkable.

Montgomery argued that “Christ’s relation with His church is a love relation.” So if a couple is using birth control to “achieve a better human relationship,” it’s legitimate.

Montgomery also argued that God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue the earth” gives people license to control their fertility. He added it’s “bizarre” that Catholics teach that man can control plants and animals, “yet cannot without sin control his own numbers.”

However, John Paul argued that contraception profoundly distorts the marriage analogy. Christopher West explains:

“For too long, evangelicals have embraced contraception without truly thinking of its implications. We claim to be biblical. But we’re often just thinking like the world. That needs to change.”

Christ did not sterilize His love. When we sterilize our love, we are changing what is happening in the sexual act itself to the point that we are no longer imaging Christ’s love for the church. We are no longer imaging the Trinity. In fact, it becomes a counter-image . . . of Christ and the church.

West’s point is well-made. Clearly, Christ’s union with the church is one that’s intended to be fruitful – to make disciples. So, too, is the Trinitarian union. It is always life-giving and never sterile.

If we accept the standard evangelical interpretation, we must accept this symbolic distortion. Similarly, we must accept that the marriage analogy negates, or trumps, God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.” We also must accept that subduing the earth can mean contracepting. This, despite the fact that God’s command to “be fruitful” directly precedes His command to “subdue the earth.”

But if we accept John Paul’s interpretation, we embrace a consistent message from Genesis to Revelation.  Marriage is meant to be a joyful, fruitful expression of God’s life and love into which we, as His bride, are called to participate. There is no contradiction. There is only a powerful, compelling, and counter-cultural message of divine love.

Must Couples Have Maximum Number of Children?

Rejecting contraception does not mean couples must have as many children as possible. There are valid reasons to avoid pregnancy. And there is a way to do that without violating the spiritual significance of marital intimacy. It’s called natural family planning (NFP).

NFP works with our God-given body, rather than against it. It’s also 99-percent effective when used properly. Most importantly, it doesn’t distort the symbol of marital intimacy. It simply submits sex and fertility to the direction of a married couple.

There’s much more that could be written on this matter. I didn’t intend this series to provide the definitive answer on contraception, but simply to spur thoughtful, biblical reflection.

For too long, evangelicals have embraced contraception without truly thinking of its implications. We claim to be biblical. But we’re often just thinking like the world. That needs to change. If it means becoming more Catholic in our thinking, then so be it. Truth is, Catholics are simply adhering to a theology that’s consistent with the way Christians have thought for centuries. Perhaps it’s time we returned to that.


 

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!

14 thoughts on “Why Evangelicals Should Rethink Embrace of Contraception, Part Three

  1. Lisa

    Julie, you did say you would address my concerns for reasons of health and other good reasons, that one should not have a baby in your part 3 article.

    I found this article to be quit a disappointment.

    Natural Family Planning can be a way for some. But I am finding it hard to believe it is 90% effective. My daughter is in her early 20’s and before she was married, her periods were totally messed up. They were never regular enough to think that she could do NFP. Now that she is married and on the pill, she gets headaches, gained weight, and her blood pressure has risen too to boarderline. She’s been on several different pills to see if she would not react to them so severely. I wish you had more than this one answer for her other than the Catholics have it right. I don’t care who gets it right. For some people, this is a real struggle. If they do not use contraception, then their only two options are have multiple babies or become steril.

    • Did you mention why your daughter is trying to avoid pregnancy? Multiple babies is not a horrible thing. That is how God designed our bodies to work, and in Scripture, it’s seen as a blessing. I am sorry for the complications your daughter is experiencing with the pill, though. That sounds awful.

  2. Lisa

    Avoiding pregnancy right now, not all together. Children are a blessing. NFP still means you are trying to control when you get pregnant, is it not?

    My daughter is an example of many. Her reasons are many actually. Most for health, and some for income. It isn’t like when we were kids and another mouth to feed wasn’t a big deal financially.

    I was and am still looking for answers for her and many girls, where natural family planning is not realistic for them and their bodies.

    Since there are lots of girls with wacked out periods, I would say some of the 99% effectiveness must be due to those girls (like my daughter) not even attempting NFP.

    It is still birth control, as I wrote earlier. Just not the spontaneous abortion with hormones or tricking the uterus into thinking it’s pregnant and still allowing pregnancy.

    Thank you over your concern over my daughter being on the pill or even off of it… as well. My daughter has said many times, it is the pits being a woman. So I will keep looking for answers for her.

  3. Thank you for the article, Julie. After having read your book Redeeming the Feminine Soul, and hearing you speak at a Lutheran church in Wheaton (and enjoying lunch with you :)), my daughters and I are still exploring the topic of “family planning”. As a former Catholic and now an evangelical, I’m going to continue searching and praying about this. I just ordered an analysis of the Theology of the Body. Thanks for inspiring me to read more on the topic!

  4. Sharon K Holland

    Wish I had learned all this sooner. So disappointed that my church(es) was silent on this when growing up. This is a great resource as well. http://www.janetsmith.excerptsofinri.com/

  5. Your whole ideology about contraception is not based on Scripture, rather it is based on Catholicism and the “TOB.” There is no such thing as a theology of the Body. Spiritualizing sexual relationships and childbearing is just man-made ideology looking for biblical support.

    I’ll stick to the Bible, thank you. Contraception (except the kind that kills what is conceived) is not a sin and not unbiblical. The REASONS for contraception CAN BE unbiblical, but just to plan out one’s family it not a sin. “Natural family planning,” which is permitted by Rome, is just hypocrisy because it is still contraception — which is not very reliable overall.

  6. Sabrina

    Julie, thanks for explaining your position. Ephesians 5:31-32 immediately shows the sacredness God built into marriage and marital intimacy—Yes, our Lord wants to know us THAT intimately, the Church after all is Christ’s bride!

    That also said, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the book “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” by Toni Weschler.

    Some links:

    https://www.tcoyf.com

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22693240-taking-charge-of-your-fertility

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/cr/0060881909/ref=mw_dp_cr

    It’s like NFP but more focused on helping any woman understand her fertility pattern by charting her cycle, and paying attention to her body’s signs as she goes through it.

    Many women who have tried it find it empowering and fascinating to understand how their cycles work, and it gives honor to the beautiful way God has fashioned women!

    It is written from a health perspective but is still useful for believers—any woman in her fertile years, really.

  7. Joe Smithe

    Thanks for your thoughts on this issue. I think my main question after reading the three posts concerns the conclusion related to Natural Family Planning. While I can certainly see how TOB and the Pope gets to his conclusion regarding contraception (I don’t know that I agree, I just see how he gets there), I’m not seeing how that wouldn’t also preclude NFP. If the argument is about the wasting of seed and the like, why wouldn’t any preventative practice be a problem? I’m not seeing that there is an argument against the use of substances (I.e. drugs) per se, but against intentional, active prevention of pregnancy on the part of married couples. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see a fundamental difference outside of modality of course that differentiates NFP from other forms of conception.

    Any thoughts on the difference?

  8. Joe

    First, thanks for your thoughts on this matter. Having read all the parts, I’m missing how NFP is fundamentally different from other forms of contraception. All of them, including NFP, seem to be intentional, active attempts to avoid pregnancy and, to one extent or another, waste seed. Ultimately, I appreciate much of TOB. I think there is a theology of the body that needs to be highlighted. It seems to me, however, that NFP isn’t a biblically authorizes option (in so much as it is not found in Scripture) or a theological option different from other forms of contraception (in so much as all forms represent human attempts to preclude pregnancy). Perhaps I’m missing a dynamic with the use of substances (e.g. medications) or technologies (e.g condoms) that make these forms of contraception problematic. It just seems to me that NFP is just as manipulative and invasive as other forms of contraception.

    All that said, I’m not uncomfortable with contraception. I’m simply trying to get clarity on how suggesting NFP as a viable option is consistent with the overall argument you’ve presented.

    Any thoughts?

  9. Laura R

    Julie…normally I agree with most everything that you write. But truly these articles are stretching God’s Word. And like a previous believer commented, TOB is a man made Catholic teaching.

    • It would be helpful if you could be specific. I don’t understand how using the very analogies the Bible uses for sex and marriage could be construed as “stretching” it. But it is true that theology always draws conclusions based on Scripture, which involves interpretation. The Trinity, for example, isn’t in Scripture, but can be inferred from the multiple references to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

      There are other people in the evangelical world who agree with Theology of the Body:

      “It would be hard to argue that there is a presentation of human sexuality that is more beautiful or more faithful to Scripture.” John Paul II “illuminates for all believers … that [our creation as male and female] … connects us to a mystery that is far larger and more profound than each of us can fathom.” John Paul II’s teaching “helped me see how profound Christianity is in answering the deepest questions we all have about who we are and how we are called to relate to others and to God.”

      Glenn Stanton
      Focus on the Family

      “Evangelicals desperately need … an ordered account of how Scripture informs our understanding of the human body … Probably the work that stands readiest for evangelical dialogue is John Paul II’s Theology of the Body … it manages to merge theology, pastoral reflection, and practical teaching in a way that orients the reader toward genuine transformation … without lapsing into moralism.” It also “provides a way of speaking about sexuality that avoids both profanity and prudish silence.”

      Christianity Today
      (Matthew Lee Anderson)

      I predict that Protestants, especially evangelicals, will embrace the Theology of the Body in greater and greater numbers in the years ahead … those who do will come to an understanding of sexual morality that is grounded in divine revelation … If the church can recover that kind of sexual morality, then I think the church will be in the position to launch the second sexual revolution that John Paul longed for and sought to prepare the way for.”

      Dr. Craig Carter
      Tyndale University College and Seminary

      • Joe

        First, thanks for your thoughts on this matter. Having read all the parts, I’m missing how NFP is fundamentally different from other forms of contraception. All of them, including NFP, seem to be intentional, active attempts to avoid pregnancy and, to one extent or another, waste seed. Ultimately, I appreciate much of TOB. I think there is a theology of the body that needs to be highlighted. It seems to me, however, that NFP isn’t a biblically authorizes option (in so much as it is not found in Scripture) or a theological option different from other forms of contraception (in so much as all forms represent human attempts to preclude pregnancy). Perhaps I’m missing a dynamic with the use of substances (e.g. medications) or technologies (e.g condoms) that make these forms of contraception problematic. It just seems to me that NFP is just as manipulative and invasive as other forms of contraception.
        All that said, I’m not uncomfortable with contraception. I’m simply trying to get clarity on how suggesting NFP as a viable option is consistent with the overall argument you’ve presented.
        Any thoughts

  10. Stuart

    I appreciate the discussion as usual Julie, blessings!

    https://biblehub.com/interlinear/hebrews/13-4.htm

    This seems important as the Holy Spirit has revealed in the Word when I searched on this topic.

    The translations of this greatly changes the meaning. The bed undefiled or the bed (is to be) undefiled. One seems state in marriage the bed (is) undefiled in marriage as opposed to outside of marriage. The other marriage (is) honorable and the bed ((is to be) suggesting to keep it so) AND anything outside outside God will judge.

    The Acts council specifically condemns fornication (anything ouside of marriage between man and woman) and I do not recall anything in the law forbidding contraceptives, although nothing like todays means were available. In the reading of the early church I have done, it did seem they viewed the purpose of sex in marriage to be for procreation and it is the natural result of the act, Lord willing.

    1 Cor 6:9 through 7:1-6 speaks on the topic but leaves out the details of for procreation or otherwise. Here in Hebrews and in the Acts council the forbidden act is fornication (as is done repeatedly).

    https://biblehub.com/greek/4202.htm
    https://biblehub.com/greek/4203.htm
    https://biblehub.com/greek/4204.htm
    https://biblehub.com/greek/4205.htm

    Search the Scripture for more on this. Read the passages and see how they used the related words that are associated with sexual sin. 1 Cor 10:8 references Num 25 as an OT example.

    Why the Holy Spirit did not reveal a more clear understanding for modern ears I cannot say but I pray for grace for both sides of the debate. I pray all of us search His Word, submit ourselves, and understand His will. God is good, all the time! Praise our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!

  11. Thankful

    Mrs. Roys, thank you for these three excellent articles. The Biblical basis for 19 centuries of apparently universal Christian opposition to birth control is to me, perfectly clear, and I pray the Church will recover her wits concerning this important matter.

    Regarding population control arguments, see Prov. 14:28; a number of analyses are available that attempt to measure the economic damage of deeply diminished fertility rates and the distorted population distribution that contraception & abortion produce. The social and spiritual damage of these practices is, alas, all too evident, and in forms too numerous to list.

    Generations now living see the entire function of the genitive organs of the human body as being the source of a particular type of pleasure, and they have never been taught otherwise. This is a shameful failure of the Church!

    God bless you!

    P.S.
    An interesting observation was pointed out to me long ago: regarding Onan’s sin and its punishment, compare Gen. 38 to the proscription in Deut. 25. Onan’s punishment was beyond what the law directed for refusal to raise up children for a brother. This supports the position that his sin was not a refusal to marry his brother’s widow, which he seems to have done in any event, but rather his denial of the marital act’s purpose, which view has been held, as you note, by reformers & church fathers alike. It seems the natural reading of the passage to me. This view is also found in classical Jewish commentaries.

Leave a Reply