Lately, we have been working our way through frank questions from married couples. And we have an email from a husband: “Pastor John, my wife and I are a happy and healthy couple, thank God. We live in Mexico City and we are in our late thirties. We have been Christians since adolescence. We have two kids and one more coming next month — a great blessing for us. We would like to know what the Bible teaches about birth control, especially permanent surgeries like vasectomies and other options out there for men. Are permanent birth control decisions aligned with God’s will?”
Let me walk through the principles that have guided me in this, having been married for 46 years. We have used various methods of what I like to call conception control. Now, it will be clear why before we are done. Abortion is birth control, and I don’t like that.
I don’t claim infallibility here, of course. And we must talk so carefully when there are not very direct instructions in Scripture. So, I am going to go back early in the Bible now. This may not make sense at first, but it will start making sense shortly.
Creation to Fall
In Genesis 2:18, the Lord said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Now that makes marriage normal and good. And then if you add, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28), now the normal, good reality of marriage is strengthened with the normal rightness and corporate obligation of humanity to have babies and fill the earth with faithful image-bearers.
Then comes the fall. So, we have marriage and baby-having as virtually normative before the fall. Then comes the fall of man into sin, and what was normal and good and to be expected and a corporate obligation on humanity — what becomes of it?
Singleness and Marriage
Astonishingly, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:7 that he loves his singleness and he wishes everybody could be in his condition. He says, “I wish that all were as I myself am.” But he knows that is not going to happen and it is not God’s will.
“Each one has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another,” he says (1 Corinthians 7:7), as though singleness might be a gift from God. But what happened to “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18)? Paul explains what he means. In 1 Corinthians 7:32–34, he says,
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.
“If we decide to have children or not to have children, let it be because we have said yes to God’s radical call on our lives.”
That is amazing. And here is what I infer from it: There are realities that came into the world after the fall that make life more complicated than it was before the fall regarding marriage and having children. If there were no sin, if there were no need for a world mission of sacrifice and martyrdom and suffering — in other words, if we lived before the fall — then everybody marrying and everybody having children would be virtually an absolute. But we don’t live in that world, and other factors determine how we live.
So, Paul is not driven by Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” He is not even driven by Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth [by having babies].” He is driven to reach all the nations. Pour out your energies “to present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Be ready to go to prison in every city you visit. Be ready to be in danger on every road, in every river, in every city. Be ready to die at any moment, Paul.
That is what is driving Paul — that call of God on his life in a fallen age to be a unique instrument to spread the gospel. For him that meant singleness, which is very effective birth control, if you are chaste.
Five Contraception Principles
I infer from this pattern that the post-fall order of redemption qualifies the pre-fall order of creation that applies to both marriage and having children. Having them, I would say, is not an absolute command anymore. What principles, then, should guide a couple? That is what was really asked, I think. And here are five principles I draw out of that reflection.
1. Sex is not just for procreation.
Sex is not just for procreation, but for Christ-exalting delight, as it says in Song of Solomon. And it’s for protection against “the temptation to sexual immorality,” as 1 Corinthians 7:2 says. I don’t think a Christian couple is obliged to aim at procreation each time they have sexual relations. That’s principle number one.
2. Do not use any form of birth control that acts as an abortive agent.
Not killing a conceived child is a top-level Christian commitment, which means not getting an abortion or using a contraceptive that works as an abortive agent. From the little reading I have done, I think most oral contraceptives run the risk of functioning as abortive agents. I have no authority there. I can’t say that. Reading what Randy Alcorn has written on this topic has given me much pause, because Randy is very vigilant on this issue, and I respect that a lot.
I think one of the things I most tremble about from 45 years ago is whether Noël and I may have inadvertently aborted a baby because of a pill. I wasn’t even thinking in those terms — that some of these pills worked that way. That is principle number two. Whatever method of guarding against conception that you use, don’t go the route of aborting fertilized eggs, which have become human beings.
3. Consider with caution any permanent sterilization.
Don’t make long-term commitments to sterility when you don’t have enough information to know if it is wise. That is getting at the vasectomy and tube-tying question. Unless you know that these operations are affordably reversible, tying the tubes or getting a vasectomy may be presumptuous in the mind of God — not pleasing to God. I have told couples many times over the years during premarital counseling and afterward, “What if your spouse dies?” So, say you are 30 years old. What if your spouse dies and two years later, healed in measure, you remarry a woman or a man who really wants to have children with you? And you have already made that impossible.
Those are the kinds of circumstances I mean when I say you may not have information to tell you that it is wise to take permanent action now. And there are other situations that I could think of as well. I would just caution against that kind of permanent sterilization.
4. Be an instrument of God’s sovereignty.
Principle number four to guide us is this: Avoiding conception may or may not intrude upon the rights of God to decide the number of your children. A lot of people are concerned and wonder, “Do I have any right to do anything here? Isn’t that God’s prerogative?”
It would intrude, I think, if you pursue contraception for your own selfish ends and not his priorities. But I don’t think it would presume or intrude on his rights and priorities if you humbly submit to biblical principles and guidelines like these that I am trying to develop here. Then you become, I think, an instrument of God’s sovereignty, not an intrusion.
5. Contraception and procreation exist for worship.
And the last principle to guide us is this: Don’t decide against children because they are a burden to your lifestyle of travel and free evenings. In other words, everything I have been saying assumes a radical commitment to kingdom purposes, not worldly conveniences. If we decide to have children or not to have children, let it be worshipfully (because we have said yes to God’s radical call on our lives), not selfishly (because it spares us some discomfort).