Theology of Contraception

“Roman Catholicism believes in sexual intercourse not only for procreative but also unitive intents. Wife and husband surrender themselves to one another and come to a fuller knowledge of one another.Contraception, it follows, is wrong because it divides the procreative from the pleasure principles.”

The above quote comes from a thought-provoking post from Scot McKnight on Jesus Creed – “Augustine on the Protestant Sex Ethic”. So as someone who has never had to worry about potential theological implications of contraception in the past, but is drawing ever closer to a time when such questions become relevant; I wanted to hear what some of my very learned and wise readers believe on the issue. As McKnight pertinently asks: “In your community of faith is there any discussion about contraception — or is it either simply ignored or assumed as legitimate for the Christian? How realistic is the procreation theory of sexuality? the “unitive” or “communion” theory?”

In my experience we’re doing a pretty OK job of talking about a theology of sex outside of marriage, and we’re even starting to get closer to pre-marital sex is not God’s idea of a good thing, but I wouldn’t need to worry about a second hand to count the number of times I’ve heard any discussion of theology around contraception amongst protestants. I’m sure part of that has to do with the stage of life I’ve been at, but I’m also wondering if that’s a reflection of a wider trend.

So I’m after practical theology from the married peoples out there and completely theoretical thoughts from those of us who are single. Thoughts on contraception and what that says about your view on sex itself? Thoughts on “the pill”? I’d love to hear any of it; if only to spark some discussion in an area that I think tends to be a little bit neglected.

22 Replies to “Theology of Contraception”

  1. Well I don’t want to discourage the conversation. In fact I pointed my readership (albeit small) to your post. I am very interested in the conversation.

    I’m just admitting that I never gave it thought. I look forward to some good dialogue here.

  2. A timely discussion following an earlier conversation with the wife! I think my perspective is that ‘no conception is a mistake’ as I think God must have to will it for a soul to be created. However, we do still have free will, and I think that if (In the context of a married protestant couple) it is decided, prayerfully and with regular review in mind, to use contraception, I am okay with that at this point. Very stream of consciousness, and no real theological perspective, but hopefully something to kickstart discussion.

  3. Great question Geoff. I think it requires a few more though. Before addressing a theology of conception, one must consider a theology of sex. Is it primarily designed for procreation? Is recreational sex every bit as valid, or even part of the ‘plan’? How we answer those questions will shape what we think of contraception. Our own biological experiences would have to challenge the ‘procreate only’ stance. Cycles of procreation are somewhat disparate with cycles of ‘desire’. Unlike the animal kingdom. Also the experience of breastfeeding is a natural (although not entirely reliable) contraceptive (where used exclusively), and leads to natural breaks between childbirth. However, one could still manage to have very very many children before biology shuts the potential down. It is only a recent phenomenon for children to be less likely to die in childbirth or early infancy, and historically, having a great number ensured the viability of families. That was certainly the case in biblical times. This is not necessarily the case now. Not terribly theological comments I know, but I do think theology has to link with the practical, and in this case the biological.

    Um, I would like to keep pondering here, but I am at work so better get back to it! So this may be part one of my thoughts here….

  4. One incredible reference is Rob Bell’s Book “Sex God”….
    One line from it….”we are not angels, nor are we animals” in reference to sex.

    In my view, sex is for pleasure, spiritual union (we become one), relationship building…it is the ‘glue’ that binds a married couple together.
    It is intimate, vulnerable…and wonderful…..

    Oh.. and when you choose to have kids…a wonderful expression of that love.
    I believe it is primarily about relationship…..and even procreation is an expression of that.

    I have no problem with contraception, apart from those that abort a concieved foetus. God has given us brains and wills, and I believe we should prayerfully and wisely and responsibly plan how many kids to have.

  5. No idea from a biblical perspective on right and wrong with this, but for me it falls into the “God cares about the state of your soul” pile.

    I like Christina’s comments: if we rely on biology I think there’s a fair chance Jacqui and I would wind up with many more than the 2-3 kids we think we’re capable of raising.

    If we couldn’t use contraception (and I’m talking preventative – condom, pill, depo etc) I don’t think we’d be as intimate as often because we understand the serious repercussions of conception – that we want to avoid in all but either two or three cases: so in that regard it’s LACK of contraception that harms intimacy (and a great many other things too!).
    (Actually, that’s a cop out. All it NEEDS to do is increase frustration, or alternatively, the size of the wet patch.) But anyway, intimacy = God appreciation.

    This is a good topic. (and not just because I got to say wet patch)

    I think my attentiveness on the souls God’s placed ‘in’ my care matters way more than my ability to pop lots of them out; but that includes my wife. The more kids I have, the less time/headspace I have for her. I want to be a good parent, and a good husband. So more attentiveness = good; possibly more children = less attentiveness = not so good. Everyone’s different, I think my level is 2-3 kids + wife + friends + ministry + work.

    + cat.

    Medicine/latex offers me the opportunity to control my effect on that situation. And like I have the ability to control my effect in many other areas of my life, we choose to exercise that opportunity, and I’ve got no problem with it.

    By the way, once we’ve had the two or three children we’ve already discussed we’ll be happy with, I’ve got no problems going to get the chop: am I playing God with that?…I don’t think so – more in the class of false teeth, laser eye surgery or lanced boils.

    Great question though Geoff, if you just go with the flow, you’ll wind up in it: not always where God wants us.

  6. Hey Geoff – a very practical question…

    I have never heard it spoken about in my circles really, until Kate [my wife] actually wrote & presented a paper on “a theology of contraception”. It was well received, opened up some discussion about the topic, so she has thought through this a bit more than I – I’ll see if I can get her to comment.

    For me, I think this in part is related to fear and autonomy – we want to be able to choose when, where, how we have our children. Culturally, things are happening later in life more because of our ability to choose than not.

    Some will suggest that God is big enough to work around our efforts to control the situation (I’m sure there are many stories here), yet people won’t allow that God would be big enough to not allow contraception in other circumstances…?

    This can diminish the sense of “gift” and “blessing” that children are. For Kate & I, we know that Micah is a gift, because he wasn’t “planned” … but we don’t shake our hand at God because we take responsibility for “planning” to do the thing that can lead to babies 😉

    As Christina points out, there is a strong tie to a theology of sex here. In this, there is also a link (in my head) to the ideas of freedom and disciplines. In regard to freedom Eugene Peterson says:

    No, is one of the most impressive features of our language. The negative is our access to freedom. Only humans can say No. Animals can’t say No. Animals do what instinct dictates. No is a freedom word. I don’t have to do what either my glands or my culture tell me to do.

    Like the Rob Bell quote above, we are in a different place to the animals.

    This ideas ties to disciplines – as Christina points out above, there are cycles to our procreation and desire – are we creating patterns of yes and no here? do we deny ourselves at any point? Are we aware of the others desires? How do we as a couple go about working through these issues and choices?

    Many thoughts, but you asked…

  7. Great topic Geoff- We didn’t give this one much thought as a young couple because every we knew used contraception and as to the theology of that-we didn’t even consider that it warranted discussion-God had given as brains and a free will and within reason we expected to plan our family as intelligent beings and if we happened to slip up and have any unexpected blessings (hi Hannah!) then we would accept them as God’s blessing. After having 3 planned , one unplanned and another unplanned(miscarried) then deciding that for my sanity , health and lots of other reasons to call it quits at 4, Gerry had the chop .
    Several years later I can across a group of Christians (all protestants I might add!) who believed very strongly (and now I realise it had become legalistic) that you should let God plan your family and have however many he chose to give you. The basic theology went that children are a blessing from the Lord and who are we to decide how many blessings we should have -God knew what we could handle (that is pretty simplistic, but I won’t go into more detail as there is not space) .I read a lot about this time and was initially convinced that we had got it wrong and that it was God’s will for us to have more kids and not use contraception-even went so far as to try and talk Gerry into having a reversal ( a couple of our friends actually had this done) Thankfully-he was not keen and it was too darn expensive anyway! It certainly gave me a good guilt trip for several years and lots of discontent- because I somehow thought my worth as a mother/good christian women was tied up in having lots of children, home birthing and homeschooling them all and all that went along with that line of theology.
    That is not to say I think it is totally invalid either-I have several friends who I respect greatly who have followed this line(one has just had no 10 and the other has 8 and counting!) As I said -it is easy for our strong convictions to become legalistic and try and foist them on others as the only truly godly way and this is what happened to me-thankfully I saw reason before I had another 10 kids!
    This whole area is a bit of a minefield both theologically and medically. I have pretty negative feelings about the pill because of the bad side effects I had from it and concerns about effects on long term health and fertility, though I am sure current formulations are probably easier to take. IUD’s are out because they are abortifactants so that doesn’t leave too much except barrier methods which are fiddly, messy and not very conducive to spontaneous pleasure!!
    Well hope that is not too negative or anxiety provoking for you- I won’t be dictating what you two end up doing or believing-I’m sure you can work it out -meanwhile I will wait patiently for my quiver full of future Grandchildren! (only kidding!)

  8. I wonder if we can divorce culture and society from this discussion. If not using contraception leads to many children, how does our biological capacity marry with our cultural and economic capacity? I had not even thought of spiritual capacity, as Matt pointed out in an earlier comment. Imagine putting ten children through high school! Our culture is one that is not conducive to very large families. Nor are our expectations for standards of living, desires for convenience etc. In another culture or social era attitudes around this might be different. I am not saying that I think we should conform to these expectations and restrictions, but never-the-less, we do not live in a sociological vacuum. On the other hand, if we wait to have children til we think we can afford it and all of life is in its right place, we will never get there. That is an illusive place, where satisfaction keeps on wandering further away. If I waited til I was’ ready’, I would never have had my daughter Jemima. I think I am too selfish. To be honest, I think that is a big factor in why people wait so long. Our bodies are happiest to do the deed in our youth. Not the thirties and beyond. Maybe part of the issue of contraception is to do with the place of self. Parenting squarely dethrones the self.

    I don’t know if there is a clear ‘right or wrong’ in this. I do believe that children are a gift from God. I don’t know if I therefore believe that I need to have as many of them as possible before my body is worn out to fully appropriate the blessing! And quite frankly, I reckon intimacy would always have a tinge of dread without some degree of planning in that department!

  9. Hi Geoff,

    In response to Rohan’s suggestion, I have posted my paper, a theological reflection on natural fertility control as a PDF on my blog – (note there seems to be a problem at the moment with the website – should be fixed shortly)

    My main assertion is that I believe all the evidence points to the fact that God designed us (women) with regular cycles of fertility and infertility so that we could enjoy sex for both unitive and procreative purposes. I go into a lot more detail about the historical views on contraception, modern day practice, and what I believe Natural Family Planning methods can offer in my paper.

    In terms of our story, a quick summary: When we first got married I went on the Pill. (cause that’s just what you do these days). I did think about it at the time, but my only applied theology was to avoid the low-dose pills that actually have an abortificent effect as part of the way they work. But I became increasingly discontent about artificially changing my hormones and natural cycles. I like my body and its rhythms – to me, embracing my body in its natural state is an act of worship – gratefully accepting and enjoying how God has made me.

    So after 2 years I just decided one day: that’s it. I reckon there’s another way. And I came across a book on The Billings Method. yep, it’s based on recognising physical signs of fertility and at the most basic level: avoiding sex at the times you’re fertile if you don’t want to get pregnant. Rohan and I have been using this approach, happily, enjoyably, satisfactorily, fantastically ever since – 3.5 years now.

    Granted, Micah (our 15 month old) was a “surprise” but that’s what you get when you bend the rules and take risks! But you know what, although the timing was unplanned, we have had such a strong sense of God’s blessing and will that I don’t regret it for a moment. And there have been SO many other benefits that we have enjoyed, in particular the fact that we talk about this stuff, we communicate, we respect each other, we get creative with intimacy, we feel like our values are integrated into every day life and we believe we are glorifying God in the process.

    and let me tell you, there is nothing better than a feast after a fast…. 🙂

  10. haha 🙂 argh! Its quite disconscerting trying to write a reply to this post with that sentance just ^^ there looking down at me, and all the implications of it echoing in my head while I try to think clinically and rationally about whatever it was I logged back on to your site to try and add to this conversation.

    I think all I really wanted to do is point out how difficult it is to use any derivative, relative, or friend of the word ‘liberal’ to describe anything you might wish to believe about sexuality, without feeling as though people will immediately assume you’ve joined a swingers club, and are planning to run naked through the streets of jerusalem with a burning upsidedown crucafix painted on your right buttock.

    And yet surely a Christian theology of contraception, fitting as a part, into a Christian theology of sexuality should ultimately be a liberating thing!

    Things it might be nice to be liberated from:
    > Cultural Expectations
    > Social (where they differ) Expectations
    > Religious Traditions (cultural expectations that claim spiritual authority)
    > Spiritual Obligations (well now there’s a paradox… but things can be spiritual without necessarily being Godly…)

    Its a juicy topic Geoff, and its certainly got a lot of people thinking and writing which is nice to see! You have a knack for drawing these things out which I really admire.

    Fortunately, since you don’t appear to be planning on being liberal in any of the non-endorsed senses of the word, you will have many happy years of marriage to play with all of these ideas (although I don’t necessarily recommend trying the spirit lead birth control after visiting uncle chop-chop… the results might be predictable)((but then I almost definitely don’t recommend it before visiting uncle chop-chop either… which renders my advice somewhat tortological and useless)).

    And now I remind myself of the stupid clever guy from the princess bride… which might be the only thing I can say to justify the double perenthisis I indulged in above.

    As a reader of your blog Geoff, I am really greatful to you, and to the others who have shared so openly, and in some cases really movingly, (is that even a word?) for giving my brain another good reason to clunk and whirr back into action, however briefly… regardless of the fact that I have no likely use for any of what I have learned here in the easily forseable future. (In otherwords I’m just an opinionated git 🙂 )

  11. And now I remind myself of the stupid clever guy from the princess bride…


    Seriously, the stuff Kate mentioned lead me to think a little about the reverse: the theology of Trying.

    I like what Ro & Kate have done re eb & flow – I think there’s an assumption in us that if/when we want to get pregnant, we will, which makes it especially tough if we have problems conceiving. Their method would probably avoid this preconception (there’s that word again!), taking a little more of a c’est la vie view that’s probably a little more in tune with the whole God’s Will thing.

    That said, given we were married when I was 22 I would have been ready for some time with DrChopp by my 25th birthday…

  12. The theology of sex thing has pretty much been covered already, so I won’t wade in from that angle. I’ll just add a few random thoughts/reflections/comments…

    1. Given that our planet is overcrowded already, we probably have a responsibility to practice birth control. This would come under a discussion on the theology of creation – Paul Collin’s book “God’s Earth” discusses this in some detail.

    2. We could also talk about it from the ‘theology of fun’ perspective. A friend of mine, when speaking in conservative churches, takes great pleasure in saying “God created the orgasm!”. And it’s true. God created sex for pleasure and procreation. But there’s nothing about having to procreate every time we enjoy something (fortunately!).

    3. My church discusses this all the time, but rarely from the pulpit. It’s not relevant to enough people to warrant a sermon, but in small group/couple settings, birth control and faith is a good topic for discussion.

    4. And don’t forget, it’s not just the womans responsibility. It doesn’t have to be the pill. There are many more options now and the guy can do just as much stuff as the girl.

    Anyway, at the end of the day, I think we can take the ‘theologizing’ a bit too far, and make a big deal out of something that is simply a personal choice. It’s certainly not addressed directly in Scripture, so in my mind it’s one of those things where you make a choice that your comfortable with.

    PS: If you’re after a really good form of birth control, be a youth leader. That way, you’ll see how these cute little babies turn out and it will scare you away form sex for life…:)

  13. I believe God gave women cycles for a reason. Most healthy women, all things being equal, have some signs of fertility which menstruation plays a part in.

    I don’t believe sex is only for procreation

    i don’t believe the sin committed with the spilling of the seed was related to procreation, it was a sin of disobedience (i have a whole article on that one if you’re interested)

    Ideally, no child would be “an accident” or “unwanted” or born into the wrong circumstances but the reality is that we live in a world affected by the fall – we are all sick and our world is sick and it’s not always a good time or situation for a child to be born. So while that child is precious to God, I don’t believe that it’s always his will for a child to be born just because the woman happens to get pregnant because she wasn’t using birth control.

    thus, like most things not clearly legalistically spelled out by God, I think husband and wife need to come together and pray and thoughtfully consider their choice – laying it all at the altar.

    I have used birth control and now that we have 2 kids (and desire to adopt in the future), my husband has had a vasectomy and we have always thoughtfully and prayerfully considered each step and are confident with our choices.

    I personally don’t think this is an issue to get obsessive about but also not be mindless about. I also don’t think it’s appropriate for anyone to put “law” in something that doesn’t have a law.

    The accusation of birth control being selfish is extremely unfair and unfounded. Many of us have chosen to use some form of birth control because we don’t want to be selfish.

    Finally, I think the attitude of “we’ll have as many kids as God wants us to have” is actually being too spiritually minded and is more in lines with fatalism than submitting to God’s will…but saying that we’re submitting to God’s will sounds a lot more holy and makes us feel self righteous.

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