Tonight we began a natural family planning class. The instructors took the opportunity to discuss the evils of contraception, which was not surprising since the class is offered through a Roman Catholic hospital. What was surprising to me was that they said that until 1930 contraception was universally condemned by all Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant. They quoted Luther, Calvin, and Wesley as saying that it is a form of murder and sodomy, and that people who use contraceptives can lose their souls. Does the Bible implicitly or explicity teach that contraception is sinful, even for married people? If not, what did the early Protestant leaders make such bold statements?
It does appear that many, many Protestants wrote or spoke against the practice of birth control on the basis of the Onan incident (in Gen. 38:8-10 Onan “spilled his seed on the ground” every time he slept with Tamar). The traditional Protestant arguments based on this passage have been the same as those put forth by the Roman Catholic Church. Simply put, many Protestant exegetes have agreed with the Roman Catholic interpretation over the years.
This should not be surprising. After all, the Protestants didn’t hate everything Roman, but merely disagreed over some key points of doctrine. Calvin and Luther both had great affinities for the Roman Catholic Church. They rejected some of its teachings, but certainly not all of them. Their focus was on foundational doctrines, such as the gospel, and in lesser matters they did not do nearly as much study or reforming.
In any event, it probably cannot be substantiated that all Protestant Churches rejected all forms of birth control, or even of contraception, prior to the Anglican Church’s decision to permit certain forms of birth control in 1930 (at Lambeth). The fact (if indeed it is a fact) that church documents authorizing the use of birth control do not appear until 1930 does not prove that prior to that time birth control was disallowed. More likely, because the matter was neither central to the faith nor distinctive to any particular church, most church documents probably did not bother with the issue at all. This would leave most denominations not with a stand against birth control, but with no official stand whatsoever on the issue. This is not to deny that the majority of individuals may have objected to birth control, but only to contest that every church officially opposed it.
The change in 1930 must have reflected a sentiment which had existed previously in the church. It did not become an issue for the first time in 1930, and it did not begin to gain support for the first time in 1930. Rather, 1930 simply marked the first time a church bothered to make an official statement in support of the practice of birth control. Perhaps this change came in response to the growing political and social opinion that the poor ought to limit the size of their families (e.g. Planned Parenthood was founded in 1921).
Since the Protestant churches tended to embrace birth control so totally and rapidly after 1930, one is left with the distinct impression that the opposition to birth control could not have been so deep-seated prior to that time.
It may have been that certain representatives of churches opposed birth control, but these cannot rightly be interpreted as official denominational stances. Consider for example that many churches are “confessional,” having detailed official statements of faith or confessions that outline their doctrine. I know of no confession or catechism based thereon that mentions contraception, and many such confessions still in use today are hundreds of years old. It’s true that many confessional churches also have official policy stances that are not in their confessions (such as those contained in their books of church order or in position papers), but the likelihood that every Protestant church had such documents opposing birth control prior to 1930 would be incredibly difficult to prove, and I have found no research demonstrating that anyone has actually gone to the trouble to verify it. As far as non-confessional churches go, there is almost no way to prove that the entire denomination did nor did not repudiate contraception — their unity is identifiable primarily by their example in major doctrines. Then too we have the congregationalist churches, whose representatives lack the authority to speak for the entire denomination.
At any rate, sound biblical exegesis does not support the condemnation of many forms of contraception. Those forms of contraception that actually kill or cause the expulsion of a fertilized egg, by my account, fall into the category of abortion and should be condemned. However, there are many forms of contraception that simply prevent fertilization. Some of these involve preventive sexual practices, such as abstinence, the rhythm method, and coitus interputus (sometimes called “Onanism”). Others involve technology (condoms, diaphragms) or even physical sterilization (vasectomy, etc.). The Bible, however, contains prohibitions against none of these.
In Onan’s case, his sin was refusing to raise up a child to his brother, and spilling his seed on the ground was the means by which he prevented Tamar’s insemination. The Roman Catholic Church argues that his sin was spilling his seed, this on the bases that: 1) God killed Onan for his crime; 2) the punishment for failing to have a child by one’s brother’s widow was far less than death; 3) the punishment for failing to obey one’s father (Judah commanded Onan to fulfill the levirate dutues) was likewise not death; and 4) death was the appropriate punishment for many other sexual sins which were not designed to inseminate (homosexuality, bestiality, etc.). Based on these facts, the Roman Catholic Church makes its argument that Onan’s sin was not failing to raise up a child to his brother, but rather was engaging in a sexual act not designed to inseminate.
The problem with this argument is that it does not sufficiently account for many other facts. First, in the levirate situation, the purpose of sex was specifically to raise up a child to one’s brother. In fact, Genesis 38 does not even say that Tamar was Onan’s wife, but only that Onan was to lie with her in order to get her pregnant. The fact that Onan eagerly engaged in sex with Tamar but refused to give her his seed indicates that he was in effect committing adultery with her — not because it is wrong to prevent pregnancy, but because the only reason he was allowed to have sex with her in the first place was so that she would get pregnant. When the Law was later instituted, adultery was a crime punishable by death (Lev. 20:10).
Second, the Law contains no statutes condemning or even concerning contraception of any form. If sexual acts not designed to inseminate were really so heinous to God that they were punishable by death, it would seem that this would have been important enough to find its way into the Law, but the Law is silent here.
Third, there is no biblical evidence that the Israelites interpreted Onan’s actions as an instruction that contraception was punishable by death, or even that it was wrong at all.
Fourth, the Law does mention times when a man’s seed might be wasted, but never attributes anything worse than ceremonial uncleanness to it (Lev. 15:16-17,32; Deut. 23:10). It even mentions that when a man has sex with a woman and there is an emission of seed (i.e. in a manner not designed to inseminate), the two of them are unclean and must bathe (Lev. 15:18). There is no mention of death or punishment for anyone involved.
Fifth, the argument assumes that God is not free to punish people in ways that exceed the maximum penalty of the Law. But in fact, the Bible nowhere limits God’s authority in any way, shape or form. Besides this, the Law had not yet been given when Onan spilled his seed.
The Roman Catholic Church also argues against contraception on the grounds that men with crushed testicles were not allowed to serve as priests in the tabernacle (Lev. 21:20), claiming this was a form of contraception, and that the passage demonstrates the evil of contraception. However, the language about crushed testicles does not refer to contraception but to defects. Crushed testicles appear in a list which also speaks of being dwarfed, or hunchbacked, or lame, or blind, or disfigured, or deformed, or crippled in the hand or foot, or having eye defects, or having open sores. No other item in this list has anything to do with sin, or is the result of voluntary activity. This is a strong indication that crushed testicles in this context were not contraceptive, but rather were mere defects. Moreover, even in this text, those who had crushed testicles were not sinful, but only ceremonially imperfect.
Further, I have also heard a Roman Catholic argument that Hebrews 7:10 proves that sperm may be living people apart from a fertilized egg since Levi may be considered to have paid tithes to Melchizedek because he was seminally present in Abraham. However, the author of Hebrews spoke figuratively here (compare “so to speak” or “one might even say” in Heb. 7:9). Moreover, this would indicate that men lose millions and millions of children during the course of their lives — but the Bible never speaks about such a tremendous loss of life. In any event, the Bible never employs this type of argument to prove that human seed is equivalent to human life.
The other Roman Catholic arguments are based on things like natural law and the magisterium, which Protestants do not accept as authoritative.