Questions of Contraception and Birth Control
In many parts of the Church today there will be found doubts and hesitations about the Christian use of contraceptives, or certain types of contraceptives. The whole issue of birth control is considered suspect by some Christians. What light is thrown upon this issue from Scripture?
Seeing that in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 Paul has clearly shown the relational role of sex in marriage as quite distinct from the function of sex in procreation, then equally clearly it is legitimate for husband and wife to engage in sexual intercourse in fulfillment of its relational role while taking appropriate steps (viz, contraception) to exclude fulfillment of its procreational role. This is a direct and immediate application of Paul’s teaching which would have been as relevant in Paul’s own day when contraception, although rather less efficient than today, was widely discussed, accepted, and practised.
So what do we know about the attitude to, and practice of, contraception in the ancient world? An important expert in this field is John T. Noonan. In his major work, Contraception 9-18, Noonan sets out what is known of the contraceptive practices of the ancient world, particularly amongst the Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, and Romans. To quote some of his relevant comments: he says,
“The existence of contraceptive technique in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world is well established. The oldest surviving documents are from Egypt. Five different papyri, all dating from between 1900 and 1100 BC, provide recipes for contraceptive preparations to be used in the vulva. ... [Descriptions of the contents of the five papyri are given.] ... These prescriptions, aimed at blocking or killing the male semen, were rational ways of attempting contraception. ... The desire to prevent pregnancy by artificial means will be found even more characteristic of the society the Christians knew. ... Probably the effectiveness of these methods varied widely. ... How much was contraception practised? ... One possible limitation on diffusion scarcely existed: most writers do not speak of any moral objection to the dissemination of contraceptive information. The Hippocratic oath rejecting the use of some forms of abortion is famous; no similar pledge was made as to contraception.”
So similarly, Peter Fryer, The Birth Controllers 17ff.
The post-apostolic church came to condemn contraception, but there is no evidence of this attitude in Paul’s teaching, or indeed anywhere in the Bible. Noonan on pages 35f. discusses the Old Testament milieu and teaching, and in particular the story of Onan in Genesis 38:8-10, which is often adduced as a condemnation of contraception. His conclusions on this story and on the more general issue are:
“That contraception as such is condemned is unlikely. There is no commandment against contraception in any of the codes of law. A comparison between the provisions on other sexual matters and on contraception points up the omission. ... It is surely strange that ... the illegality of contraception [be] left to inference, if the compliers of the Pentateuch believed contraception to be unlawful. It can scarcely be surmised that there was no occasion to legislate on contraception. The story itself [i.e. about Onan] shows that coitus interruptus was a practice known by at least the first millennium B.C. The Egyptian documents reflect the practice of contraception in a country that had great cultural influence on the Jews. The people of Israel knew no immunity from the sexual customs of their neighbors. There is explicit post-Exilic legislation against homosexuality, against bestiality, and against temple prostitution (Lev. 18:22, 20:13, 20:15-16, Deut. 23:18). If these acts had to be prohibited by law it seems unlikely that, in the absence of clear prohibition, the Jewish people would have believed that coitus interruptus or the use of contraceptives was immoral.”
Similarly, the evidence given by Noonan and by Fryer shows the wide extent of the knowledge of and use of contraception in New Testament times. There are many sexual issues dealt with explicitly in the New Testament, and many wrong practices condemned, but contraception is not included amongst them.
To sum up: Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 about the place of sexual expression in marriage, in which procreation is never once mentioned, thus strongly indicates the legitimacy of fulfilling the relational role of sex in marriage while excluding the procreational, and thus the legitimacy of the use of contraception to this end.
The post-apostolic church, contrary to Paul’s teaching here, came to the opinion that (to quote Clement of Alexandria): “To have coition other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature”, so that “husbands use their wives moderately and only for the raising up of children”. (Noonan 76 gives these and similar quotations.) Within such a view there was obviously no place for contraception, and therefore it is rejected with varying degrees of condemnation, John Chrystostom going so far as to regard “contraception as worse than homicide, a mutilation of nature” (Noonan 79). These views are totally without biblical warrant.
For further discussion of issues of birth control, including contraplantives (which inhibit implantation) and sterilization and vasectomy, see Chapter 11 and also Appendix B of my book Marriage and Divorce.
Furthermore, we need to recognize the huge and fundamental difference between animal sex and human sexuality. Re this, see my same book, Appendix A, for a detailed comparison and contrast of the character of animal sex with human sex, highlighting the totally misguided, unchristian, nature of the use of animal sex, “the birds and the bees”, as a basis for teaching children about human sexuality.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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