Contraception and Theology of Marriage

 

I have several times in different forums expressed sadness that ‘our’ (which varies somewhat in its content depending on my context when making the claim, but usually implies NZ Baptists or more widely Evangelicals in NZ) theology of sex and marriage does not cohere well with our pastoral practice. In this post I am focusing on one such area, contraception.

Contraception

At the end of the last century Al Mohler, writing in a reevaluation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae three decades after its publication, made this point in typically forceful style:

Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of “The Pill” much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin-as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress and the conquest of nature.
R. Albert Mohler untitled in “Contraception: a symposium” First Things, 1998

Has this changed substantially in the first two decades of the 21st C?

Having asked this question in a number of places and received only louder and louder affirmations of the splendours of the imperial sartorial equipment, I would really like to be pointed to something better than the threadbare old trousers that her Imperial Highness only permits her husband to wear in private!

I am not aware of any readily available teaching by/for NZ Baptists that suggests limits on their use of contraceptive technologies. Mohler’s article made a strong distinction between contraceptive technologies that could have abortifacient effects and those which did not. I am sure that (insofar as they are aware of this issue) most NZ Baptists would share Mohler’s concern. Looking around at the number of children in the families in churches I visit it seems clear that (as is apparently true according to census data) family sizes are often higher than the current societal norm (with three and even four children being not uncommon) however families with more than five children are almost as rare in church as outside.1

Thus the pastoral practice seems to be that contraception as a means of ‘family planning’ is quite acceptable in our churches, and that the only firm restrictions on the methods used are those put in place by the medical establishment.

Marriage

Christian theological understandings of marriage have (at least since Augustine) presented the conception, birthing, and raising of children as (at the very least, one of) the ‘goods’ (in the sense of the good things that are inherent in the institution)  of marriage. For Augustine it was indeed the first good.

However, procreation cannot be a necessary condition of marriage. Infertile couples remain married even when their hopes of bearing children seem (possible miracles apart) dashed. Our approval (even if nuanced as Mohler suggests) of birth control measures makes this even more clear. Yet an ‘openness’ (whatever that is understood to mean and to me the phrase seems vague) to procreation by the bearing and raising of children has been understood to be a necessary part of marriage.

Inconclusion

This is an inconclusion not an ‘in conclusion’ because I have not clarified for myself these questions.

The bearing and raising (both and each) of children is a great ‘good’ of marriage and beyond that is part of what marriage is about. Yet, some remain childless and know that they will. Must such couples adopt? Or does anyone’s definition of marriage exclude the possibility of childless marriage. This seems to me an impossible and arrogant claim. For the childless couples I know simply are married.

Given the social2 and economic context in which NZ marriages are lived, birth control seems sensible. It is allowed, and by default (through the witness of average family size) encouraged, in our churches.

Procreation is a good, but not a necessary, feature of marriage.

Little of this is clear, or worked out in theologically consistent and biblical ways. None of it is much taught in churches. We do however in many ways devalue or exclude singleness. Even widows (those once, but tragically no longer, married, because death has intervened)3 find their position in church is somehow ‘less’ (less easy, less clear, even less esteemed).

So, finally, I return to the question I started with: Do 21st C Evangelicals in New Zealand have a clear and widely accepted theology of sex and marriage that coheres with our pastoral practice? My answer is: No, we do not. Yet each time I pose the question I am told forcefully (though so far without any referencing of such theological teaching) that we do, it is ‘understood’ by 90% of us!

Can anyone point me to a nice clear simple expression of this ‘understood’ biblical theology?

  1. In writing this I am thinking of the few such families that I know. They are exceptional, in every sense! []
  2. E.g. an assumption of nuclear family households, combined with geographical mobility. []
  3. I plan to write about divorce in another post. []

One comment on “Contraception and Theology of Marriage

  1. Heather

    I think it’s pretty commonly accepted that contraception is ‘fine’ and abortion is ‘bad’. So, being ‘open to procreation’ generally seems to mean ‘if you happen to get pregnant when you didn’t want to, you have to carry the pregnancy to term’.

    However, I find this acceptance of contraception strange, when held by people who are strongly against abortion. A couple of years ago I took quite some time to look into abortion – why are Christians so against it. The more I looked into it, the more I realised any theology of abortion kind of has to say something about contraception, too. People kept on citing things like ‘you knew me before the creation of the world’ to illustrate that abortion was wrong (as destroying a person God knows is clearly bad). That logic seemed to me to require a belief that contraception was wrong, too (as surely it’s just as wrong to prevent the person God already knows from coming into being?), yet very few people seem to make that link.

    However, in my own case, rather than turning me against contraception, my investigations led to me becoming less anti-abortion. I came to see the key question in that debate to be: “what is a foetus” (i.e. person, piece of tissue or something in between). People try to use the Bible to answer that question, but the Bible doesn’t have much to say on it, and so you end up drawing your theology on the matter from what world-view implications you can draw from metaphors used in the Psalms, which seems pretty shaky to me. Or they simply assume a foetus is a person, and focus on clear Biblical teaching on not killing people, but the most ardent pro-choice person tends to also believe killing people to be wrong (they just don’t think the foetus is a person), so that doesn’t seem like a hugely fruitful angle.