I Got It Wrong: Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry Part 1
In 1960 the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive. Within 24 months over 1.2 million American women were using “the Pill.” (AMA Journal of Ethics)
I was married in June of 1964 and my wife and I considered the pill to be a great option for us to postpone having children until we were older (we were both just 20 years of age). As I recall it, my wife’s mother approved and aided her in getting the prescription a couple of months before so that it would be fully effective by the wedding. The pill replaced the ancient “rhythm” method, more precisely known as natural family planning (NFP).
The joke from that era was, “Do you know what they call couples who use the rhythm method? They call them parents.” My wife and I had children within three years. As I now know about the high dosages of estrogen and progesterone that were prescribed in the early years and the health issues that ensued, I am grateful my wife did not continue using the pill.
Both as a husband and eventually as a pastor, it never crossed my mind that there was anything wrong with birth control. Neither in my church nor in my years of theological education did I even hear of a moral issue surrounding birth control. And so, for the next many years I went blithely along with the culture assuming birth control including vasectomies were a great option for married couples wishing to better plan the timing of the births of their children or to have no children at all. What NFP and prophylactics were able to do poorly, the pill could now do almost perfectly. The problem was that I, and many others, had separated what God had joined together. We separated the relational aspect of marriage from its procreative aspect.
In Genesis 2 and reiterated several times in Scripture (both OT and NT), God made male and female to be joined together to be one flesh with at least two stated results:
- The exclusive covenant relationship of a man and a woman in mutual affection and aid – consider the “helper fit for him” of Genesis 2:20, the “nourishing and cherishing” of Ephesians 5, along with the beauty of marital love in Song of Solomon. In that same Ephesians 5 passage, the Spirit makes clear that the marriage relationship is to be reflective of the covenantal relationship of God with his people. Those of us with healthy marriages, know that marriage is about more than sex; it is an exclusive relationship of affection and mutual aid built on trust and permanence.
- The other result tied to the first in God’s creative order is procreation – the birthing of the next generation of God-fearers, Christ-followers. God said to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1, “Be fruitful and multiply.” He reiterated it after the flood to Noah and his sons (Genesis 9) and Jeremiah did so as well (Jeremiah 29). In the New Testament God’s people are instructed to bring up children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
Our own self-centeredness along with the individual autonomy of our culture have led many of us to default to the idea that life including marriage, sex and even children are first about our happiness. I haven’t the space here to demonstrate how Scripture is replete with commands and illustrations that the truth is that we exist for the glory of God. John Piper, following Jonathan Edwards, said it well that we “bring glory to God by enjoying him forever.” The God-planned beauty of this is that we are most blessed when God is most glorified. When we understand marriage, sex, and children the way God designed them, God is most glorified and we are most blessed. Separate the covenantal-relational from the procreative and it opens Pandora’s Box.
On July 26, 1968, Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical letter titled, “Humanae Vitae,” on the subject of birth control. Most evangelicals ignored it because it was “Catholic.” “As the Pope warned, widespread use of the Pill has led to ‘serious consequences’ including marital infidelity and rampant sexual immorality. In reality, the Pill allowed a near-total abandonment of Christian sexual morality in the larger culture. Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.” (Al Mohler, May 8, 2006, “Can Christians Use Birth Control?)
Since the 1970s numerous Christian ethicists have drawn a rather straight line from the use of birth control to the sexual confusion and devastation of our day.
While I still would not attempt to say that birth control is always wrong under every circumstance, I would now make an even stronger case for sexual purity before marriage (the Scripture commands it), marital fidelity (the Scripture demands it), and much greater attention to connecting the purposes of marriage (the Scripture teaches it). I’d want parents to talk of it with their adolescent children, the church to teach it faithfully and seriously, so that it becomes part of the evangelical sub-cultural understanding that marriage, sex, and children are inextricably connected for God’s glory and our good. I got it wrong; I pray today’s parents and pastors will do better.