Why Evangelicals Need to Rethink Contraception, Part Two
The parts just don't add up to equal the Gospel message.
This is the second in a series on evangelicals and contraception. Click here to read part one.
Almost all evangelicals support contraception. According to Pew Research, only 3-percent think it’s morally wrong. Most (55%) don’t even believe it’s a moral issue.
“If you go ask any … evangelical pastor, they’ll say if a married couple wants to use contraception … that’s fine.” So says David Talcott, a professor at The King’s College and an expert in sexual ethics. “It hasn’t really been a moral issue within evangelicalism,” he added. “(Evangelicals) are going to use the Pill and not think about it.”
This is stunning, since all Christians opposed birth control until the early 1900s. But as I wrote in part one of this series, Protestants soon gave way to cultural trends — first eugenics and then fears of overpopulation.
Still, it wasn’t until 1966 that an evangelical offered a thorough theological argument in favor of contraception. The argument came in the form of an article published in Christianity Today by evangelical scholar John Warwick Montgomery. It proved extremely influential and swayed evangelical opinion on the matter. In fact, scholar Allan Carlson called it a second “bombshell.” (The first bombshell was Billy Graham’s statement endorsing contraception seven years earlier.)
A Birth Control Theology
Montgomery presented a middle ground between two views — Catholic and liberal Protestant. Catholics opposed birth control based on “natural law” and the command in Genesis to “be fruitful.” This, Montgomery argued, reduced marriage to merely a means of producing offspring.
Montgomery also rejected the liberal Protestant view. He said this view saw sex as “the fulfillment of human aspirations” and made it “an end in itself.” This turned sex into an idol. And it led to “permissive sex ethics.”
So Montgomery argued for a third view. This view upheld the marriage analogy in Ephesians 5 as the “focal center of scriptural teachings on marriage.” It suggested that marriage was not simply “a means” as in “be fruitful and multiply.” Nor was it “unqualifiedly … an end” as in “They shall be one flesh.” Instead, it viewed marriage primarily as an analogy “of the relationship between Christ and his Church.”
This new understanding meant that marriage isn’t just for procreation. It also exists to foster a love relationship like Christ has with His church. So birth control is okay, Montgomery reasoned, if it helps a couple “achieve a better human relationship.”
Montgomery’s article drew from Scripture and made some valid points. Yet it also raised new questions. Was God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” no longer valid? Was achieving “a better relationship” enough to justify sterilizing something God clearly designed to produce children? And do Catholics really believe sex and marriage is merely a means to an end? For that matter, is that what Protestants believed for hundreds of years until the change of mind in the mid twentieth century?
Also, the context of Montgomery’s article was clearly fear of overpopulation. Several times, Montgomery cited population concerns. He suggested, for example, that couples consider “the population picture” when deciding family size. And, he said in places with “rapidly growing populations,” adoption may be better than having children.
Did theology really drive doctrine in this case? Or, was it pragmatism, based on what turned out to be a misguided fear?
In any case, evangelical leaders were thrilled with Montgomery’s article and often cited it as the definitive commentary on the issue. In subsequent years, most evangelicals embraced birth control. But they also embraced abortion.
Abortion and a New Ethic
In 1968, Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society hosted a conference that produced “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction.” This stunning document affirmed abortion. It stated, “(A)s to whether or not … induced abortion is always sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for (abortion) under certain circumstances we are in accord. … When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life … may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life.”
The Southern Baptist Convention acted similarly. It resolved in 1971 to support laws allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest, and “clear evidence of severe fetal deformity.” The convention also said abortion is okay when “damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother” was likely.
This was a shocking development. And one that Montgomery apparently did not foresee. Two years after his groundbreaking first article, he wrote another. This one argued that life begins at conception and condemned abortion.
Fortunately in the late 70s and early 80s, many evangelicals returned to their pro-life convictions. This was largely due to the influential book by Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop called, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? This book revealed the shocking implications of degrading human life. And it “changed abortion from being a Catholic issue to a Christian line in the sand.”
This shouldn’t surprise us. As scholar and author Allan Carlson notes, “Historically, there’s never been a culture that’s condoned birth control, but then somehow managed to keep abortion illegal. When you get one, you always get the other.”
Clearly, the mentality that drives abortion, drives contraception. And when evangelicals embraced contraception they began thinking like pragmatists. Children often came to be seen as liabilities, not blessings. Marriage became a means to personal fulfillment, not family and sacrifice. And birth control became essential to personal health, as though our natural design was defective.
Posted to the website of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is a shocking quote by Pastor Joel Hunter. “Unmarried sex with contraception is not God’s plan,” he says. So far so good. “(B)ut, “he continues, “unmarried sex without contraception is not a plan at all. If holy living is not the choice of some in the near term, contraception can at least reduce some potentially devastating results (including abortion) for all in the long term.”
Similarly, Jenny Eaton Dyer of Hope Through Healing Hands argued that Christians need to promote birth control in Africa. This was not based on Scripture, but naked pragmatism. Spacing pregnancies promotes women’s health, Deyer said. So, “Condoms, oral contraception, injectables, implants, and natural family planning: these are necessities for the health and flourishing of … developing nations worldwide.”
Is this really how God wants Christians to think? Does Scripture teach that sterilizing sex is a key to human flourishing?
As Christians, we need to examine our assumptions in light of Scripture, not the wisdom of the world.
In my next article, I’ll equip us to do that. We’ll examine Montgomery’s view. But we’ll also consider the Catholic view, which relies heavily on the same marriage analogy Montgomery cited. These two views are actually quite similar. Yet one fits nicely with Genesis. The other does not.
Click here for part three in this series.
Julie Roys is an author, speaker, journalist and host of the former national radio show, Up For Debate. She writes about gender, sexuality and marriage in her book, Redeeming the Feminine Soul: God’s Surprising Vision for Womanhood, as well as at her blog www.julieroys.com.