Rev. Griess is pastor of the Calvary Protestant Reformed Church in Hull, Iowa. He and Lael have been married for 9 years and have 5 children.
God calls the Reformed husband and wife to bear children. Just as marriage is a creation ordinance, so God’s calling to bear children is a creation ordinance. Strikingly, the first thing God says after He creates the woman for the man is that together in their marriage they must bear children: “Be fruitful, and multiply” (). This command necessitates a link between marital intimacy and the begetting of children if God in His providence grants that possibility.1
For the Reformed couple, this calling intensifies as they see from Scripture that God is pleased to carry on His covenant of structured fellowship also with the children of believers (; ). Due to this promise, the Scriptures lay further weight upon God’s people to bear children: “And did not he make one?…And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed” ( ; see also ).
Not only is bearing children a calling, but the Reformed couple also gleans from Scripture that children (many!) are a blessing from God (). When the Lord grants little ones to His church, their presence stands as a reminder of His love and favor and covenant promises.
This does not mean that the bearing of children is easy. God’s curse for sin affects all things, and this aspect of life in particular (). While God has not made bearing and raising children itself a curse, His curse affects the bearing and raising of children. God has, due to sin, greatly increased a woman’s sorrow in bearing children, and at the same time increased her ability to bear them. The curse has also affected the husband’s calling to support those children. The creation from which he must derive their support works against him instead of with him.
Regarding the Use of Birth Control Generally
The first two truths (that bearing children is both a calling and a blessing) almost put the issue of birth control to rest for God’s people. Indeed, some couples will conclude it is best never to prevent or plan the conception of children. If these couples faithfully raise all the children they bear unto the Lord, then the whole church is thankful for their godly example and prays for more of their kind.
However, as much we want to caution against its use, we would argue that the reality of the curse of God for sin may allow for the careful use of some forms of birth control in some cases.2 But because selfishness can quickly exploit even that statement, we begin discussing this matter by addressing the heart.
Birth control broadly defined is anything that can prevent the birth of children.3 There are ethically legitimate and ethically illegitimate methods of birth control. However, even if one allows for the use of ethically legitimate methods of birth control in some cases, he must recognize they can be and often are used wickedly. The issue begins in the motives of the heart. The great question everyone has to ask—including newly married couples who are expected by so many to wait at least a year or two to have children—is: “Why? Why would I prevent the birth of children into my covenant home?” And the Reformed couple must answer this question honestly, for we easily deceive ourselves ().
As the Reformed couple engages in this heart-probing, consider that the very origin of chemical birth control was the constant push for sex without responsibility in society. It is not just necessity but the desire for pleasure that is the mother of invention. Google a chart of birth rates in United States history, and you will see that the line plummets after 1960 when chemical birth control went on the market, and that the line continues to drop steadily until it arrives at its lowest point in 2015.4
The ever-increasing desire for pleasure combined with the ever-decreasing desire for responsibility in the world can affect us as Reformed Christians too. So as you answer “why would we prevent the birth of children?” consider the following kinds of questions: Do we seek a standard of living that far exceeds even that of our parents and grandparents in their child-bearing years, not to mention that of the vast majority of the rest of the world? Have materialism, worldly comforts, and extravagant vacations clouded our thinking? God does not desire that His children be at ease, but that they joyfully and self sacrificially serve Him by raising children, all the while detaching themselves from the things of this world. Are we selfishly guarding a worldly notion of marriage? Are we stingy with respect to our time? Children require a tremendous sacrifice of time and energy—often around the clock. This sacrifice means less time fishing, hanging out with the guys, or sitting in front of the television or computer. For a woman the sacrifice involves not only her time and personal desires, but also her very body. After several children, she may look in the mirror and feel embarrassed about the dramatic changes she sees. Wives, is your view of physical beauty defined by the world? Husbands, do you assure your wife that she has not been “ruined” as the world would say, but that she is beautiful with a beauty that the world cannot see?
That said, there is no biblical rule as to when each couple’s quiver is full. Due to the reality of the curse upon life in this world, there are factors that a couple may legitimately consider in thinking about family planning. A mother may face health issues, even ones that can endanger her life and lives of future children. Just a few examples include multiple C-sections, extreme diabetes, and cancer. The mental and emotional health of especially the mother may have to be considered (taking care not to cover up selfishness). Postpartum depression is a real issue. In addition, some women are simply physically and emotionally frailer than others. Maybe there is a child (or children) with special needs requiring a great deal of time and energy. Maybe the house is full and teetering on the edge of mom and dad’s ability to rear the children faithfully. In these cases and perhaps others, we believe God’s people have to make judgments with much prayer and soul-searching.
This matter is intensely difficult, especially because the old man of sin can be so deceptive. Even sincere Reformed believers may disagree. We must all use sanctified wisdom and live coram Deo (before the face of God). The rule we believe to be biblical is that we ought to have as many children as we are able to have, understanding “able” to mean not merely as many as we can have without cramping our lifestyle, nor meaning necessarily as many as we are able to produce physically. Rather, “able” means, able to raise faithfully in the fear of the Lord.5 Each couple must stand before God. If a couple’s honest answer to that is three, so be it. If it is fifteen, or as many as we are physically able to bear, so be it. The key principle is that we are honest with ourselves before God and are vigilant for selfish motives hiding under the pretense of spiritual ones. And we ought to pray that the preaching ever warn us of that possibility.
What Forms of Birth Control Are Ethically Permissible/Impermissible
If a couple before the face of God honestly believes they ought to use birth control at a certain time in their life, what forms are ethically acceptable? All Reformed couples ought to personally research the matter in order to make God-honoring decisions. Here is what we have discovered in our own research.6
First of all, we must begin with the conviction that life begins at conception.7 So many doctors (some Christian ones too), speak of life beginning at various other points in the growth process of the fertilized egg. What one says about when life begins will determine what one says about what forms of birth control are ethically permissible.8
All forms of chemical birth control that are taken after intercourse, such as the “morning after pill,” RU-486, and others, are abortifacients (drugs which induce abortion). Using these drugs after intercourse, and if you have conceived (which one does not know), is no different from going into an abortion clinic to kill your child a few months later. It is murder.
Regarding chemical birth control one takes regularly, such as the birth control pill (whether combined or progestin only), shots, and IUDS, the Reformed couple must be aware of the facts. According to the recently published God, Marriage, and Family9 these common forms of chemical birth control work to prevent the birth of a child in three ways. The first is by preventing an egg from being released. The second is by thickening the cervical mucus so that the sperm cannot reach the egg, if an egg is released anyway, which some experts estimate happens as often as 50 percent of the time. The third is by making the lining of the uterus incapable of supporting the life of a newly conceived child, given the possibility that the first two methods fail.
There is no ethical issue in itself with the first two actions of the pill. But the third causes an abortion. So the question becomes, do the first two methods of the pill ever fail? We quote from the book mentioned above:
Statistically speaking, when taken as directed, these various types of hormone based birth control methods are effective [in their first two lines of defense—that is preventing conception, CG] 99.5 percent of the time….From this fact one can know for certain that while “the pill” is effective in preventing ovulation and preventing fertilization, it does not prevent all fertilization. While there is no statistical data to indicate how many births are terminated by the third mechanism, one can be assured that it does occur.”10
Though admittedly, the possibility of breaking the sixth commandment here is small, it is still a possibility, and therefore chemical birth control ought not be used by the child of God.11
This leaves only three ethically legitimate methods: natural family planning, barrier methods, and surgical sterilization.12
As with every matter in the Christian life, obedience begins in the heart. A heart that responds to the gospel of redeeming grace is filled with gratitude. Gratitude needs a riverbed in which to flow. That riverbed is the law of God. We hope we have given some help in determining what God’s law is and is not in these matters, and in setting forth the principles by which we may live in godliness. May God bless us as we live before His face as husband and wife, and as we bring up the godly seed He so graciously gives us.
1 This is not the only purpose of marital intimacy as the Roman Catholic Church wrongly teaches (among other passages, seeand The Song of Solomon). Otherwise a couple who could not bear children would be required to abstain from marital intimacy. Neither does this imply that every act of marital intimacy must have the possibility of conception. However, it does mean a couple must seek to bear children in their marriage.
2 The argument to the contrary from the case of Onan in Genesis 38 does not take into consideration the issues of levirate marriage involved in that passage.
3 This includes everything from the prevention of conception to the murder of children conceived but not yet born.
4 1.8 children per woman, and it is only that high because of the Hispanic population.
5 We understand even the question of what it means to raise children faithfully in the fear of the Lord will garner disagreement. This aspect too bears serious consideration and discussion as each couple stands before God.
6 It would be worthwhile to read a portion of the book God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation. 2nd ed., by Andreas J. Kostenberger and David W. Jones (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010. Pages 123-129 are germane). Another worthwhile resource is the book Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? by Randy Alcorn. In addition to those sources, we have conferred with believing doctors we know personally.
7 This subject is another article, but the main reason for this position is conclusive. At the moment of fertilization there is a complete genome (determining gender, eye color, height, body type, etc.) in the new being. Therefore, the new being is another individual life separate from that of the father and mother. If an individual being with a complete genome, separate from the life of the mother and father is not a separate life, then what is it?
8 If you ask a doctor (even some Christian ones) if a particular form of birth control causes an abortion, he may say no; but that may be because he believes life does not begin at conception. He may also further confuse the issue by stating that this particular drug cannot terminate a pregnancy. This is because he may define pregnancy as beginning later than the moment of conception.
9 The authors cite their credible medical sources.
10 Kostenberger and Jones, God, 337 (footnote 29).
11 There are some Christian women who take birth control pills as medicine for other physical maladies. If that is your situation, then you ought also to use barrier methods of birth control to prevent the possibility of breaking the sixth commandment.
12 We are not now saying anything about whether or not these should be used in any individual case; we are merely stating that these are the only ethical forms to use.