What started as a seemingly small controversy – the government requiring employers to provide contraception to employees – has turned into a major can of worms.
Turns out it’s not simply about the Catholic Church and birth control. It has become a discussion about an employer’s conscience versus the government’s demands.
We’ll save that for next time. For now, let’s take a closer look at the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control.
The Bible is virtually silent on the subject of birth control. Not because it’s a modern invention; it isn’t. Records from more than a thousand years before Christ detail the use of sheep-gut condoms and various herbal spermicides that were effective contraceptives, as well as a whole host of methods that likely were not. So it’s not as if Bible writers were unfamiliar with the subject.
Further, just because the Bible doesn’t mention a subject doesn’t mean there are no Bible principles that apply. There is no mention of driving in the Bible, obviously, but Bible counsel on respect for God’s gift of life moves a Christian to drive safely, maintain his brakes, wear his seatbelt, and so on.
Respect for life would also prompt a Christian to avoid contraceptives that work by aborting a life after it’s begun. Barring those, however, are there Bible principles that apply to birth control?
The Church itself says it draws its ‘sex only for procreation’ thinking from stoic philosophers of the second century. (That alone should give a serious Bible student pause.) Birth control wasn’t officially banned until Pope Gregory IX made it so in the 13th century.
Modern Catholic apologists point to the story of Onan (Genesis 38:8-10) as proof that God disapproves of birth control. In that account Onan is ordered by his Dad Judah to father a son with Tamar, the widow of his dead brother Er.
This may seem bizarre in our modern world, but it happened in the very early days of the family that was to become the nation of Israel, Judah being only the 4th generation down from Abraham, to whom God had said that his offspring would become ‘like the sands of the sea.’ While pagan people may have cast a childless widow out, Judah considered Tamar part of his family; and he simply requested Onan to take her as a second wife, and that her first son would be considered Er’s son, and would receive Er’s inheritance when Judah died.
Onan went to bed with Tamar but used a birth control method now referred to as ‘coitus interruptus’ to prevent Tamar from becoming pregnant. God struck him dead. Does this account prove God’s disapproval of birth control, as the Church claims? No. What does the account actually say?
“But Onan, seeing that the offspring would not be his, whenever he went in to his brother's wife, he let his seed go on to the earth, so that he might not get offspring for his brother.” (The original Hebrew here translated “whenever” is more commonly translated “when,” but the word is open-ended, meaning it may be properly translated “whenever.” “When” would imply he did it once. “Whenever” could indicate that he slept with Tamar more than once, which would mean that God did not kill him instantly but gave him time to prove his intentions.)
Bible commentator Adam Clarke: “His crime was his refusal to raise up seed to his brother.” God did not strike him dead for employing birth control, (nor for “onanism,” as masturbation used to be called) but for being greedy and disobedient. Disobedient to Judah; greedy, because if Tamar died childless Onan stood to inherit more from his dad.
If Onan had simply said No to Judah would he have been killed? Likely not. There were other men in the family that could have fathered a child for Er. Deuteronomy 25:7-10 shows that a man did have the option to refuse to take his brother’s widow into his family, and Ruth 4:6-9 recounts an occasion when that happened. Onan was killed for the hypocritical deception of and disobedience to his father and because, without the proper motive of fathering a child for Er his sleeping with Tamar was simply adultery. He was not killed for practicing birth control.
Other Bible accounts contain clues that could be applicable to the discussion of birth control. For example, 8 people survived the Flood: Noah, his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives… no kids. We don’t know for how long the three sons were married in that pre-flood world. We do know that all three of them were married when the command was given to build the Ark, perhaps some 40 or 50 years before the Flood. (Genesis 6:18) None were incapable of reproducing – Shem fathered Arpachshad two years after the Flood, and the three families produced a total of 16 sons and presumably as many or more daughters.
Prior to the Flood, these three couples knew:
1. Their world was a violent, corrupt place.
2. This was a temporary situation – God had promised to correct it, soon.
3. They had a vital, difficult work to accomplish if they were going to save themselves, and raising kids in that wicked environment would be at best a distraction and at worst, devastating. And, with only 8 builders, work would have slowed to a crawl if some of them had to stop frequently to change diapers.
So, is it possible that Shem, Ham, and Japheth made a conscious decision to use birth control to postpone starting families until after the Flood? It’s speculation, of course, but it can’t be ruled out. It certainly makes more sense than believing these three married couples abstained from sex for 40 or 50 years. The argument is bolstered by comments of Jesus and Paul.
First, Jesus: “And whoever has forsaken houses, or brothers… or children or lands, for my sake, shall receive many times as much and shall have as his inheritance the Life of the Ages.” (Mt 19:29) Bible commentator John Wesley defined “forsaken” in this passage as meaning “either by giving any of them up, when they could not be retained with a clear conscience or by willingly refraining from acquiring them.” That sounds a lot like birth control. Additionally, Jesus had warned regarding the coming attack on Jerusalem by the Roman army, “It will be hard for women who are with child and for her who has a baby at the breast in those days.” (Mark 13:17) While not an instruction to forego raising a family, the warning would have given a first century Christian reason to consider birth control, and is certainly counter to the Church’s teaching that every family should have as many children as possible.
Second, Paul: “Indeed, brothers, the time that remains to us has been shortened; so let those who have wives live as if they had none.” (1 Corinthians 7:29) Meaning? According to Bible scholar Thomas Scott: ‘As verse 31 says, “the fashion,” the whole scheme, form, and show of this world, is passing away, as a pageant or procession through the street, and will soon vanish as a phantom. So the spirit of a pilgrim or traveler ought in all cases to be maintained.’ And Adam Clarke added that this could mean a “husband will be dragged from the side of his wife to appear before the magistrates, and be required either to abjure Christ or die.” This agrees with Jesus’ “be prepared for flight” idea, and disagrees with the Church’s ‘never interfere with conception’ teaching.
What is really at the root of the Catholic teaching? Like so many of their teachings, it hinges on their twisted view of sex.
They teach that the ‘forbidden fruit’ in the Garden of Eden was sexual intercourse. (That’s absurd on the face of it as 1., Eve hadn’t been created yet when God gave Adam the command to abstain from the tree, 2., God commanded Adam and Eve to procreate, and 3., Eve was alone when she ate from the tree.)
They teach thatcelibacy makes their clergy holier and closer to God. (How’s that working out for you? Sexual scandals among the clergy abound; and the Bible not only speaks specifically to the subject of married bishops at 1 Timothy 3:2, “Abishop then must be blameless, thehusband of one wife,” it also says prophetically, at 1 Timothy 4:1-3, “In latter days there will be some who willfall away from the faith by listening to spirits of error and to teachings of demons, through the pretensions of liars, who forbid to marry, and command to abstain from meats which God has created.”)
They teach that Mary was “ever virgin,” even though the Bible is clear that she had other children. (Matthew 13:55,56) Since they view her as the ‘Mother of God,’ and as having herself been born via an ‘immaculate conception,’ there’s no way, they say, she could have engaged in something as icky as sex.
On the contrary, the Bible does NOT teach that sex between a man and wife is solely about procreation. Genesis 26:8 refers to Isaac ‘having a good time’ with his wife. While that is not a direct reference to sexual intercourse (Bibles translate it variously as “sporting with,” “Playing with,” “dallying with,” “fondling,” “caressing”) it does indicate that, whatever their intimate interaction, it was about pleasure, not about procreation. And Proverbs 5:18, 19 says, “Rejoice with the wife of your youth. Let her breasts ever give you rapture; let your passion at all times be moved by her love.” If sex is all about procreation, wouldn’t breasts be all about nursing?
Paul ordered: “Do not go beyond what is written.” (1 Corinthians 4:6) The Church has disobeyed that command in matters of birth control, and priestly celibacy, and food restrictions, and dozens of other teachings.
But what about this larger issue of an employer’s conscientious objection to something the government requires? Can the government require you to pay for your employee’s abortion even if you are opposed to abortion? What if an employer is a Christian Scientist and doesn’t believe in any medical treatment? What about a pacifist employer whose employee wants time off for National Guard duty? What if you’re an employer who believes, like me, that voting just encourages the morons – do you have to give your employees time off to go vote?
We’ll get into those things next time.
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