NLQ FAQ: The Bible & Birth Control

Note:  Before reading this, please read the “Quiverfull and the Bible” FAQ.  Like the “nobleminded Bereans” (Acts 17:11), we are entitled to study for ourselves, so that we may read the Biblical text in an informed manner.  That FAQ provides the background for the method of informed Bible reading used here.

faqs20questions2001

by Kristen Rosser ~ aka: KR Wordgazer

Q:  Doesn’t the Bible say we are to receive as many children as God blesses us with, and that birth control is against His plan?

Let’s look at the passage on children being a blessing, Psalm 127:3.

Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is his reward.  As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of the youth.  Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

Children are indeed a blessing from God!  But does the Bible teach that if we just let nature take its course, the amount of children we will have will be God’s plan for us?

Look at the curse that comes upon Eve after the Fall, in Genesis 3:16:  “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. . .”

The King James Version here brings out very well what the original language actually said.  A Hebrew interlinear, which gives a direct, word-for-word translation, reads this way:  “I am increasing grief of you and pregnancy of you; in grief shall you give birth.” (Emphasis added.)  That word “grief“ (“sorrow” in the King James) is the same word used in the next verse for Adam, and means, “hard labor, painful toil.“  In Gen. 3:17-18, God said to Adam, “in sorrow (painful toil) shalt thou eat of it [the ground] all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.”  God is telling the couple that the result of their sin is difficulty, labor and toil– including not just difficulty in childbearing, but an increase in the frequency of pregnancy.  The fact that a woman’s body can conceive so many children in the course of her life (often more than she can bear in safety and health) is shown in the Bible to be a result of the curse; it was not God’s original plan.

But Christ came to bring justification to us from the sin that brought death and sorrow to humanity (Romans 5:12).  And even before Christ came– through the ages, in fact– men have invented tools to help them deal with the painful labor of tilling the ground.  There is no passage in the Bible that says God, in His mercy, ever forbade men to use those tools.  Neither does the Bible say God has forbidden women to decrease their pregnancies through the tools of birth control.

But there was no birth control in Bible times except for coitus interruptus, and in Genesis 38:9-10, God struck Onan  dead for “spilling his seed on the ground.“  This must have been about Onan’s crime of birth control ~ since the penalty for simply not giving your brother’s widow a child was only public humiliation, according to Deuteronomy 25:7.

Actually, there were many other kinds of birth control used in Bible times.  The Ebers Papyrus of Egypt, which dates from 1500 BC, lists a number of barrier methods.  Here is a translation of one of them: “To make a woman not become pregnant for one year, two years or three years, acacial leaves are ground fine with honey, lint is moistened therewith and placed in her vulva.”

Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible places the Hebrews’ time in Egypt (between Joseph and Moses) from 1700-1300 BC.  It is impossible, given the Israelites’ presence in Egypt during the same period that this papyrus was written, that the Israelites could have been completely unfamiliar with the methods set forth in this papyrus.  And yet the Bible says nothing whatsoever about any of these Egyptian remedies.  The only time a method of birth control is mentioned is the story of Onan.  Let’s take closer look at that story.

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.  And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.  And the thing which he did displeased the Lord, wherefore he slew him also.  Genesis 38:8-10

The context of this passage is Onan’s unwillingness to fulfill his duty in that culture to his brother’s widow.  Onan married his brother’s widow and “went in unto“ her as a husband to a wife– but then  emitted on the ground, “lest that he should give seed to his brother.   This is sometimes compared with Deuteronomy 25:7, where the consequences of refusing to take a brother’s widow as wife are not death, but only public shame.   But the situation in Deuteronomy 25 involves only refusing to marry the widow. What Onan did was much worse. He went ahead and married her, but then selfishly refused to raise a child that would be considered legally his brother’s and not his own.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want children; it’s that he wanted children only for his own profit!  But the woman could not marry anyone else.  His act consigned her to childlessness whether she liked it or not. And it was a great deception for Onan to pretend to do his duty to his brother outwardly, but then to go back on it in the privacy of the home. It was not for simple birth control that Omar was judged by God.  It was for fraud, greed, deception and covenant-breaking.  The birth control was the means by which the crime was committed.  The birth control itself was not the crime.

Since this is the only place in the Bible that a method of birth control is even mentioned, and since the Bible is silent about all other then-known methods of birth control– how can we say that the Bible, implicitly or expressly, forbids birth control?   The vast majority of details about individual life and choices are neither commanded nor forbidden by the Bible.  God permits people to decide where to live, what kind of houses to build, what to do for a living– there are no commands, explicit or implicit, forbidding these choices.  Where the Bible makes no command regarding an issue of personal choice, then to take a certain position, insist it is God’s will, and expect everyone else to follow, is unfairly adding to the Scriptures and curtailing others’ freedom in Christ. (Romans 14:2-4, Galatians 5:1.)

But Psalm 127:3 still says children are a blessing!  Even if we don’t have to have more than our bodies can safely bear, shouldn’t we seek to bear as many as we safely can?   Isn’t the use of birth control for any other reason than the woman’s health, willfully rejecting the blessing of God and therefore choosing instead the curse of barrenness? 

If “A” is a blessing, it does not necessarily follow that “Not A” is not a blessing.  The apostle Paul makes it clear that choosing not to marry or have children is a lifestyle blessed by God just as much as marriage is.  “I would that all men were even as I myself.  But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.  I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.”  I Corinthians 7:7-8.  Paul’s use of the word “widows” here makes it clear that by “men” he means not just males, but both sexes.  It is a gift of God for both men and women to remain unmarried and childless, as he was.  This too is a blessing from God, for “the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit.”  I Corinthians 7:34.

Also, if something is a blessing, it does not follow that an unlimited amount of that something is an unlimited blessing.  The Bible says nothing like this– and it is contrary to plain logic. In Genesis 13:6, it tells of how Abraham and Lot were blessed of God with wealth, including sheep and cattle– but when “their substance was great” to the point where the land could not support all their flocks and herds, they were forced to separate from one another. Clearly the sheep and cattle were not an unlimited blessing, when they became too numerous for the land to support them.

We must also ask ourselves:  are we being good stewards of the resources God has given us, when we have more children than we can financially support?  Is it loving to the children we already have, to keep having more, beyond the point where we can give adequate attention to them all?   Romans 8:14 says that those who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God.  Rather than laying down a law for ourselves about never preventing conception by any means, perhaps we should prayerfully seek to be led by the Spirit as to when we should conceive, and when we shouldn’t.  After all, Paul counseled in I Corinthians 7:26 that in times of distress, it is better not to make major changes in our lives.  It is not always God’s best to have more, and more, and more children.

But modern birth control methods are dangerous and can be abortifacient!  And natural family planning isn’t very effective. 

Not all hormonal birth control methods are like this.  Expressing your concerns to your doctor will help you get the type of birth control that you feel most comfortable with.  Also, there are non-hormonal methods that work very well. The diaphragm is a barrier method that has been around for decades, is safe and effective when used carefully, and is completely non-hormonal.

But doesn’t Malachi 2:15 say that the primary purpose for which the Lord created the institution of marriage was to “seek a godly seed”?

Let’s look at Malachi 2:15 in its context.

Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god. . . And this ye have done again, covering the altar of the Lord with weeping, and with crying out, inso much that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand.  Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously; yet she is thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.  And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed.  Malachi 2:11-15.

The context in Malachi 2:15 is about how the men of Judah, upon returning to the Promised Land following exile in Babylon, abandoned their wives in order to marry younger women from the peoples who lived in the Promised Land, who served idols.  The passage makes two main points:  1) they were being treacherous to their wives: “She is thy companion and the wife of thy covenant,” and 2) they were profaning the holiness of the Lord by marrying “the daughter of a strange god.”

This passage is not about the primary purpose of marriage, but about the sins of covenant-breaking and idolatry.  But if a “primary purpose” of marriage applies at all here, it is “companionship.”  The original wives of the men of Judah are spoken of as companions to their husbands– not as mothers of their children.  The Lord views this covenant made with a woman, for companionship, to be just as holy and binding as any other covenant.

As for “a godly seed,” the emphasis here is on “godly,” not on “seed.”  God made men and women of Judah one in marriage so that their seed might be godly– as opposed to the seed that might come from marriage to a “daughter of a strange god,” who might choose to serve the idols of their mother’s people.

But a woman’s most glorious calling is to motherhood!  Is this not womanhood’s power, her best way to advance the kingdom of God?

Motherhood is certainly a wonderful thing– to bring new people into the world that we can love in a special, unique relationship.  But Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).”  And Romans 14:17 says the kingdom of God is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  God loves new children, but God also loves all the people who are already alive.  He is seeking them to become “true worshippers” who “worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).”  Jesus did not differentiate here between male and female worshippers; in fact, it was to a woman that He told this truth!   The most glorious call for all believers is to participate in the pure love of God, which is what worship “in spirit and truth” is, for God is love (I John 4:8).  And His commandment is not that we should have more and more children, but that we should “believe on the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another (I John 4:23).”

Jesus never told the women who traveled with Him that because they were women, they needed to go home and bear children.  And He told Martha, who didn’t think Mary should get to sit with the male disciples and learn of Him, but should be doing women’s traditional work instead, that “Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:42).”

The New Testament is full of women who served God’s kingdom in other ways than motherhood.  Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla. Lydia, Euodia and Syntyche are all mentioned as having important roles– even leadership roles– in the churches in which Paul ministered.  See Romans 16, Philippians 4:23, and Acts 16.

Make no mistake– God is pleased by a heart of devotion to Him, and if you have been expressing your devotion through childbearing, He does not disregard your labor of love.  But your calling as a Christian is not primarily childbearing.  Revelation 4:9-10 says that those who are redeemed out of every people and nation are “kings and priests.”  It does not say that only the men are kings and priests.  Men and women alike are called to participate in God’s glory as a holy priesthood (2 Corinthians 3:18, I Peter 2:9). This is our highest calling.  God has given women the ability to be mothers, and men the ability to be fathers– but so much more besides.  His gifts are for His sons and daughters alike.  Acts 2:17.  If we have so many children that our lives, and the lives of our husbands and older children, become consumed with childcare, are we letting the good (the blessing of children) overtake the best?

Children were precious in the Old Covenant, but in the New Covenant, Christ shows them to be so much more than simply “arrows” for their fathers.  In Matthew 19:14 He makes it plain that He loves and calls them to places in His kingdom as individuals in their own right.  So if we already have  children, few or many, God desires that we should care for them and love them with all our hearts (Matthew 18:1-6).  But if we are feeling under pressure to have even more– Galatians 5:1 says, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”  Parenting is a high calling, but no one has the right to add to Scripture and claim there is only one way to serve God– not for men, and not for women either.  It is being “a new creature” that matters, says Galatians 6:15, not how many– or even whether– you have children.  Let us walk as new creatures, in the peace and mercy of Christ.

For more information see:

Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible, Lion Publishing.

Ancient Inventions, Peter James and Nick Thorpe

Household: Family and Household in Ancient Israel, by Michael Kruse:  http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/2007/06/household-famil.html

The Scripture-4-All Online Interlinear Hebrew Bible: http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/gen3.pdf

Discuss this post on the NLQ forum! Comments are also open below.

[Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based.]

Read all NLQ FAQs

Read all posts by Kristen Rosser / KR Wordgazer

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  • http://www.christianfamilyplanning.net Kristina

    “Not all hormonal birth control methods are like this. Expressing your concerns to your doctor will help you get the type of birth control that you feel most comfortable with. Also, there are non-hormonal methods that work very well. The diaphragm is a barrier method that has been around for decades, is safe and effective when used carefully, and is completely non-hormonal.”

    Coming from a health-care professional who has worked in women’s health, this is a poor response. Yes, all hormonal birth control can be abortifacient according to the QF/ fundamentally pro-life definition. Every. Single. One. Look up the mechanism of action for any HBC that you might have heard “doesn’t do that,” and you will find that it does, on fact, thin the uterine lining, decreasing the likelihood of implantation. This is openly stated in patient information sheets now (it didn’t use to be), but the industry has re-defined pregnancy as beginning with implantation, therefore preventing implantation of a conceived child isn’t “abortion” by current medical definitions.

    Additionally, Natural Family Planning (NOT ‘rhythm’) is quite effective, to the tune of 98% effective, regardless of cycle irregularities. It is also not that difficult, and is taught with high success rates among illiterate populations of third world countries. Condoms and the Sympto-thermal method of charting are both listed as 98% effective in the medical standard reference book “Contraceptive Technology,” but the diaphragm is 96% effective.

    The rest of this post I thoroughly enjoyed- thank you for taking the time and effort for this exegesis. As an infertile Christian woman, I give a hearty “Amen” to your last sentence especially.

  • http://www.katav.co.uk/ John P McKeown

    Thanks, this is a great article Kristen.

    Yes, Jesus and New Covenant lense is Christian way to read Old Testament verses.