Does the Bible permit birth control?
Desiring God and Bethlehem Baptist Church have no formal position on birth control, but John Piper and most of the pastors on staff believe that non-abortive forms of birth control are permissible. The Bible nowhere forbids birth control, either explicitly or implicitly, and we should not add universal rules that are not in Scripture (cf. Psalm 119:1, 9 on the sufficiency of Scripture). What is important is our attitude in using it. Any attitude which fails to see that children are a good gift from the Lord is wrong: "Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them" (Psalm 127:3-4).
There are, of course, some Christians who would disagree with this position on birth control. Some of the major theological objections that have been made to birth control can be categorized according to the following questions:
- Is birth control consistent with the truth that children are a gift from the Lord?
- Shouldn't we let God determine the size of our family?
- Should natural family planning be preferred to "artificial" contraception?
It is very important to delight in the reality that "children are a gift of the Lord." But some people go further and argue from this that since children are gifts from God, it is wrong to take steps to regulate the timing and number of children one has.
In response, it can be pointed out that the Scriptures also say that a wife is a gift from the Lord (Proverbs 18:22), but that doesn't mean that it is wrong to stay single (1 Corinthians 7:8). Just because something is a gift from the Lord does not mean that it is wrong to be a steward of when or whether you will come into possession of it. It is wrong to reason that since A is good and a gift from the Lord, then we must pursue as much of A as possible. God has made this a world in which tradeoffs have to be made and we cannot do everything to the fullest extent. For kingdom purposes, it might be wise not to get married. And for kingdom purposes, it might be wise to regulate the size of one's family and to regulate when the new additions to the family will likely arrive. As Wayne Grudem has said, "it is okay to place less emphasis on some good activities in order to focus on other good activities."
When I was teaching a summer course at a seminary in Africa, a student of mine made a perceptive observation along these same lines. He noted first of all that in the creation account the command to multiply is given together with the command to subdue the earth: "And God blessed them; and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28).'" He then asked how a farmer (he lived in a largely agrarian society) knows how much land he should cultivate. The answer, of course, is that a farmer seeks to cultivate what he believes he can reasonably handle. He doesn't take this command to mean that he needs to make his farm be as large as is naturally possible. Likewise, then, it is right for a couple to seek to have the number of children that they believe they can reasonably nurture in light of the other callings they may also have on their lives. In the same vein, Wayne Grudem points out: "We aren't required to maximize the amount of children we have any more than we are required to subdue the earth all the time—plant, grow, harvest, etc."
In reality, then, although it is true that "blessed is the man whose quiver is full of [children]," we need to realize that God has not given everyone the same size quiver. And so birth control is a gift from God that may be used for the wise regulation of the size of one's family, as well as a means of seeking to have children at the time which seems to be wisest.
Sometimes people also reason that if you really want to "trust God" to determine the size of your family, then you should not use birth control. The assumption seems to be that if you "just let things happen naturally," then God is more at work than if you seek to regulate things and be a steward of when they happen. But surely this is wrong! God is just as much in control of whether you have children when you use birth control as when you don't. The hands of the almighty are not tied by birth control! A couple will have children precisely at the time God wants, whether they use birth control or not. Either way, then, God is ultimately in control of the size of one's family.
The "trust God, therefore don't use birth control" thinking is based upon the incorrect assumption that what happens "naturally" reflects "God's best" for our lives, but that what happens through human means does not. Why should we conclude that the way to let God decide the size of our family is to get out of the way and just let nature take its course? We certainly don't think that way in other areas of life. We don't reason, for example, that we should never get haircuts so that "God can decide" the length of our hair. Farmers don't just let the wind plant their crops in the fear that actively regulating what is grown on their land somehow interferes with the provision God wants to give them. And a family doesn't just trust God to provide food for by waiting for it to drop from the sky, but instead goes to the store to buys it. God ultimately determines everything that will happen, both in nature and in human decisions, and He brings His will to pass through means. Human activity does not therefore interfere with his plans, but is instead itself governed by Him as the means to bring to pass His will. Hence, we should not conclude that what happens apart from our planning is "better" and more reflective of God's desires for us than what happens through our planning. God very often causes us to plan as the means towards improving our lives and advancing His kingdom purposes.
Further, God has revealed that it is His will for us to regulate and direct creation for His glory (Genesis 1:28). God has given us the privilege of being able to make significant life decisions because this exercises wisdom and thus shows the fruit that His word is bearing in our lives. When we rightly use the godly wisdom God has given us, God is glorified. He doesn't want us to simply think we have to take what comes naturally, apart from our efforts, because then our sanctified wisdom is not expressed. In fact, very often it is God's will that we not simply let things move along naturally. Going back to the analogy mentioned above, farmers don't simply collect whatever grain happens to grow in their fields, concluding "this is what God wants to provide." Rather, they go out and plant grain, realizing that God wants to provide not only through nature, but also through the means they employ to steward nature.
It does not work, therefore, to conclude that the use of birth control interferes with God's role in granting children. Birth control can be a way of wisely stewarding the timing and size of one's family. One might be able to minister more effectively for the kingdom, for example, by waiting 3 years after marriage to have children in order to enable the husband to go to graduate school. And one might be able to minister more effectively for the kingdom by deciding to have 4 children instead of 15, so that more resources can be given to the cause of missions and more time can be devoted to other areas. If such planning is done for God's glory and in wisdom, and if such planning continues to acknowledge that our plans are not perfect and that birth control does not absolutely ensure anything, it is pleasing to God.
Does birth control express a lack of faith in God?
Without regulating the size of their family, many couples would end up having more children than they can reasonably support financially. In response, some argue that we should simply have faith that God will provide the funds. However, we don't use the "God would provide" reasoning to justify going beyond our means in other areas of life. We wouldn't consider it wise, for example, to pledge twice our annual income to missions organizations in faith that God will supply the extra funds. God expects us to make wise decisions according to what he has given us, and not presume upon him providing from out of the blue. Reasonable financial considerations are a relevant factor: "If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8).
Some conclude that "natural family planning" is acceptable but "artificial" means are not. But this seems to overlook something significant: in both cases, you are still seeking to regulate when you have children. And so if one concludes that it is wrong to seek to regulate the timing and size of a family, then it would have to be concluded that natural family planning is just as wrong as "artificial" means. But if one concludes that it is appropriate to steward the timing and size of one's family, then what makes "artificial" means wrong but natural family planning right? Surely it is not because God is "more free" to overrule our plans with natural family planning! Perhaps some have concluded that artificial forms are wrong because they allow one more fully to separate intercourse from the possibility of procreation. But if it is wrong to have intercourse without a significant possibility of procreation, then it would also be wrong to have intercourse during pregnancy or after a woman is past her childbearing years. There is no reason to conclude that natural family planning is appropriate but that "artificial" means are not.
John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, chapter 7, "Birth Control."
Gregory Koukl, "Birth Control and God's Will," previously available from Stand to Reason.
Scott Klusendorf, "Why Pro-Life Advocates Should Not Link Abortion to Contraception in Public Debates," previously available from Stand to Reason.