Can Christians use birth control? What does the Bible say about birth control?
When Christians try to define whether an action is “sinful,” the authority most often consulted is the Bible. Unfortunately, layers of tradition added on to Scripture blur our understanding. If we’re not careful, we can end up thinking that God is a sadist, out to make our lives miserable just for fun.
This is especially true of sex. And when we start talking about sex, the issue of birth control isn’t far behind.
Some view birth control as an affront to God, his intentions for sex, and his command for us to "be fruitful and increase in number."1 Others have no problem reconciling their Christian faith with the use of birth control. So which is it? Is birth control a sin?
A Good Design
If we look at the earliest verses of Genesis, we read about God creating a beautiful, diverse world and declaring all things “good.” The only thing the Lord said was “not good” was for man to be alone: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’”2
God made man and woman for companionship; he made us to complement one another emotionally, mentally, and physically.3 Sex, by design, is good and intended to strengthen that union. Of course, sex is also the way we reproduce and perpetuate our species.
However, after sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, the process of childbearing was altered. We see this in God’s own words: “To the woman he said: ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to your children.'"4
While childbearing is natural and beautiful, giving birth is also tough stuff. It takes a toll on a woman—from the physical demand of pregnancy, to the pain of actual labor, to the emotional and mental impact of the whole process.
Now consider the biological design of men and women. From the time of puberty, men are physically able to procreate for the remainder of their lives. Not only that, but a male’s sperm is able to survive up to three days after it is produced—and millions are produced every day.5
With women, things are very different. A woman’s body has a season of fertility that begins at puberty and ends at menopause. Beyond that, women have a monthly cycle that includes a comparatively small window in which she might conceive—an average of three days. And even within that window, there is a specific 6–12 hour period in which sperm is able to meet with the female’s egg to make a zygote.6
A woman’s body, though made to carry children, is nonetheless worn down through the process.7 It was God who created woman with limitations to her ability to procreate.
Historically, the Catholic Church viewed procreation as the primary—even the sole—reason for sex. However, this view has changed over time. Now there are some Christians who believe that, though reproduction is the good fruit of a loving union, it is a secondary function of sex. As Professor Jarram Barrs writes, “The primary purpose of the sexual partnership that God has given to us is not reproduction but rather the expression, the consummation, of love and unity. . . . The joy of becoming one flesh is more fundamental to sex than is childbearing.”8
God designed us for intimacy—with built-in birth control—and said that it was very good.
A Broken Perspective
Now, this essay is not directly about sex, though the Bible has much to say on the topic.9 Of course, the subjects obviously intertwine, and our perspective on sex influences our perspective on birth control.
However, it is worth pointing out that our perspective, too, is broken.
After sin entered the world, a clear departure from God’s intention by individuals throughout all history can be observed. Both men and women abuse sex for their own broken purposes. Instead of enjoying it for that which it was intended in the beginning—the pleasure of a husband and wife—self-centered practices abound.10 So often, love of God and neighbor is completely abandoned for love of self.11
The Wicked Acts of Onan
One of the passages most frequently used to try to demonstrate God’s hatred of birth control and prove that it is sinful is found in Genesis 38. Unfortunately, it is also frequently misinterpreted.
In order to understand this story, we must look at its biblical context. In the books pertaining to the Hebrew Law, provision for women and children is described in full.12 Though women were not “heirs” in their own right,13 it was the duty of men—of husbands—to provide for them, often by providing an heir.14
If a woman was widowed and also left without a son, she was to marry again within her husband’s family in order to preserve her husband’s family line.15 The man who served the widow in such a way—who preserved her place among the people and ensured her physical provision—was called a kinsman-redeemer. The first son produced from the marriage of the widow and the kinsman-redeemer would “carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name [would] not be blotted out from Israel.”16
This brings us back to the story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis 38. Tamar’s husband, Er, dies, leaving her childless and without provision. Onan, Er’s brother and Tamar’s kinsman-redeemer, initially appears willing to take on his responsibility. However, Onan “knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.”17 The result? “What [Onan] did was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord put him to death.”18
Onan’s behavior was counted as sinful, and many have interpreted this to be because Onan was essentially using birth control. However, a closer inspection reveals that Onan’s action was sinful not because it was birth control in and of itself, but because it was selfish. Onan’s behavior was wicked because he was more concerned with himself than Tamar’s welfare. He loved himself more than Tamar.
A Matter of the Heart
Most Christians endeavor to live righteous lives in accordance with God’s word in the Bible. The Apostle Paul writes on keeping God’s law in light of one’s personal beliefs about what is “unclean”:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. . . . Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.19
The bottom line is this: The Bible does not specifically address birth control. The issue is a matter of the heart—as Paul discusses above. It is a personal decision to be arrived at through prayerful consideration of what the Bible does say about sex, parenting, and righteous living. Ultimately, you must decide if—in your own view and for your own life—birth control is “unclean.”