The text below (with very minor corrections) was originally submitted to Tom Tyson, editor of New Horizons magazine in the late 1990s, during an ongoing debate about the legitimacy of birth control use for Christians. He later published it as an article, with revisions.
To the Editor:
With a certain trepidation, I enter into the recent debate about the propriety of birth control; it is among the most emotionally charged issues confronting young married Orthodox Presbyterian Church members today. The decision to use or not use birth control is likely to have a major impact on their lives. Many older members, from whom they would naturally seek counsel, long ago took a decision which is now, due to the process of aging, if nothing else, irreversible. For these brethren what is at stake is nothing less than a judgment about their fidelity to the Lord in this matter over a period approaching 25 years of their lives: have they treated their legacy for the Kingdom of God in the next generation as the equivalent of a Japanese bonsai tree?
On the other hand, those committed to using birth control for responsible parenting view the technology as a means of furthering the Kingdom of God by helping families produce a godly posterity without impoverishing themselves and failing to provide for their children’s welfare and for the church’s ministry. They may see a categorical rejection of such technology as similar to joining the Amish in rejecting electricity.
I believe that a firmer argument is to be made for the biblical case for unbridled procreation by Christian families than has been made on these pages in recent months. Obviously, there is not room here for an airtight case with rigorous biblical exegesis; I will try to highlight and further develop some points which may have previously been touched on.
First, the rejection of a specific technology as unethical does not equal an Amish attitude. Few members of the OPC, I trust, would argue that the development of RU-486 (abortion pill) means that we should be open to its use to enhance our service to the Lord. If birth control were directly forbidden by God’s (prohibitive) command, or if God gives us a positive command prolifically to bear children, then birth control is not a “matter of Christian liberty,” rather it is wrong.
Second, our church’s understanding of the unity of Scripture (OT & NT) fundamentally requires us to see both halves of Scripture as setting forth “what duties God requires of man.” (WSC#3; Cf. #2) Paul’s Bible in, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (II Tim. 3:16-17), includes at least the OT. The question of the ceremonial and civil laws notwithstanding, the fundamental position of our Lord, his apostles, and our secondary standards is that the Old Testament’s commands are binding upon uspart of the “duty which God requires of man.”
Third, and more specifically, the New Testament demonstrates a founational role in ethical thinking for the creation order. This is most prominently seen in our Lord’s dealing with the Jewish testing about divorce, where he appeals to creation: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” and “He who created them from the beginning.” (Mat. 19:8,4) In Matthew 5, Jesus is using the creation’s marriage order to focus his interpretation of the seventh commandment so that one could say that in ethics, the creation order is for him more fundamental than the decalogue (Cf. WLC#92). Elsewhere, too, the NT shows a tendency to go back to ‘pre-fall basics’ on various questions: male-female relations (I Cor. 11:8-9; I Tim. 2:13), the Sabbath (Mark 2:28; Heb. 4:4—see Dr. Gaffin’s article in Pressing Toward the Mark) and the propriety of eating various foods (I Tim. 4:4, Cf. Gen. 1:28-31). That certainly does not mean that the coming of the kingdom equals a return to the Garden of Eden—that the Sabbath was made for man means that the Son of Man (heir of Adam) is now Lord of the Sabbath. The NT recognizes in the Kingdom of Christ a fulfilment of the creation order that far surpasses the original (see esp. I Cor. 15:45ff.), yet the pristine creation order is seen as providing a normative theological-ethical foundation for the new kingdom, primarily because of its role as the original, unflawed and perhaps most comprehensive type of the consummation order. The Mosaic Law, while not flawed, is typological by means of its function as the constitution of an earthly and hard-hearted nation. Moses’s “permitting [divorce] because of the hardness of your hearts” was not possible in the creation so long as God’s pronouncement, “very good,” remained true. In the Kingdom of Heaven, as in its original prototype, it is not permitted at all. Thus, if our primary and secondary standards teach the abiding and binding character of both testaments, nowhere in the Old Testament should one expect to find this more true than in the precepts established in Genesis 1 & 2. Thus, with the NT, our presupposition must be that the creation order is indeed normative for the Kingdom of Christ.
Fourth, a fundamental precept of creation, repeated in the Noahic Covenant, is the positive command to be prolific in bearing children: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth!” (Gen. 1:27 & Gen. 9:1) This command sets forth man’s original purpose on earth. That it is a command, disobedience to which God considers a serious offense, is seen in the rebellion of Noah’s offspring at Babel. The stated purpose of mankind in building the tower is: “otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” That it was a failure to spread out and fill the earth, rather than to fruitful and multiply, which brought God’s judgment does not alter the fact that God prosecuted mankind for covenantal rebellion against a commandment which also includes the order to reproduce—fruitfully. Thus, abundant reproduction is not only a blessing (Psalm 127:5), but a fundamental God-appointed duty, a creation ordinance. Deliberate deeds to inhibit this portion of the command, “be fruitful and multiply,” must be seen as ethically identical to the deed contrived by mankind to inhibit the other part of the command, “fill the earth.” (It should be noted that even if one rejects the interpretation of Babel as primarily rebellion against this command, the command still stands as a fundamental duty in creation.)
Fifth, The counterargument that Genesis does not specify maximum fruitfulness and so man is free to define (=limit) what it means in accord with his wisdom is bad exegesis which utilizes an anachronistic hermeneutic. Sound biblical interpretation requires that we first look at the words of this command in its original contexts, Genesis 1 & 8. In the first passage, birth control technology was certainly not present, and I would hate to have to read a case for its presence with Noah on the Ark. Thus, in its original contexts, the command to fruitfulness would have to have been read as a command to marry and vigorously pursue conjugal relations. “For this cause a man shall leave. . . and cleave to his wife,” is then a more specific and focused form of the same command to fruitfulness (Cf. I Cor. 6:16). With abstinence (apart from the infertile periods and times of prayer) clearly in conflict with later Scripture, in the original context of the command, Adam’s and Noah’s sons must be understood as commanded to marry and to be most fruitful. To simply transfer the words of the divine command to our technological context where birth control is possible and read the lack of a modifier such as ‘utterly’ before the word fruitful as implying warrant to do anything less than zealously seek to fill the earth with a righteous seed, is an anachronism.
Even if the tower of Babel had been successful, man’s great city would have continued to grow and spread out, but very slowly (unless he also discovered birth control). The sin was that man wilfully used his new technology (brick making) to place an impediment and hinder the fulfillment of God’s command. Our use of new technology to hinder fruitfulness is similarly rebellion.
Some have seen in the Law’s code on the practice of conjugal relations a rule designed to maximize the procreation of children and so fill the promised land quickly. The Law was a shadow of Christ’s kingdom, but does that not imply that in the reality of Christ’s world-wide kingdom a similar urgency exists? The proper contextual reading of the imperative, “be fruitful,” is to “be fruitful as possible.”
Sixth, nothing in the New Testament changes this command to be fruitful and multiply. We have already seen that the New Testament’s approach to the creation order is to return to it for pristine norms for the pattern of the Kingdom. The Great Commission complements the command to be fruitful and fill the earth by adding, as it were, a second dimension to the kingdom expansion. Now the kingdom grows not only by our families being fruitful, multiplying and filling the earth with a ‘godly seed’, but by new families and individuals become godly seed through baptism and preaching. This principle is presupposed in our presbyterian interpretation of the development of the Abrahamic promise in Acts 2:38-39 (Cf. I Cor. 7:14). Thus, until the full number of the elect, of Abraham’s innumerable seed, has been produced—by either means, both commands remain in force. Christians must see the use of birth control (including abstinence except for prayer) to limit the size of the family as against the command of God and as contrary to the purpose of the church on earth as it would be for her to limit the numbers of unbelievers permitted to be present to hear the word of God. None would hear an excuse such as, we can’t disciple more than two converts per month, as anything more than attempting to overthrow the wisdom of God by the wisdom of men. The use of birth control to limit the number of children God gives us to a ‘manageable’ number is a similar use of human wisdom.
Seventh and last, the New Testament not only lacks any indication that the command to be fruitful is abolished, it also gives positive indications that the command is still in force. Despite our Lord’s assertion that singleness for the Kingdom of God (Mat. 19) can be a means of serving the Lord (and the apostle’s similar statement I Cor. 7), the apostle still sees the woman’s creation role as child-bearer (I Tim. 2:15; Cf. Gen. 2:18ff. & Gen. 3:16) as her norm, and thus he commands young widows to “to get married” and “to bear children” (I Tim. 5:14). By implication the man, too, is still covered by the general norm, “it is not good for the man to be alone,” which led to the creation of the female enabling him to begin to fulfill the creation mandate.
In conclusion, the use of birth control to limit the number of children that God gives to a Christian family stands in opposition to the fundamental order and command of God which remains binding so long as this age endures. While this does not deal with the most difficult cases (E.g. Dr. warns that your wife will die if she bears another child), it does mean that all human wisdom such as family-economics or arguments based upon supposed scientific study of the ecology of the earth are irrelevant. ‘Planned Parenthood’-thinking was not born in heaven. Like the cross, the Christian couple’s duty to be fruitful may be ‘foolishness before the wisdom of men’ but it is God’s wisdom, and like the cross itself, it will prevail and be vindicated in the end. Those who have practiced birth-control heretofore should stop; those who are older and whose wives have passed menopause should teach the younger families to reject the wisdom of this world in favor of the wisdom of God. May the Lord give each family in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church a full quiver, and may we reject the notion that the existence of technology gives us the prerogative to help determine how many arrows constitutes full-fledged fruitfulness. And, may we not fail to raise each one in the fear and the admonition of the Lord!