This can be a sensitive and controversial topic among Christians for a variety of reasons. As practical and important as the question is, it’s not an essential of the Christian faith, nor should it divide Christians or churches. Here is how I’ve worked out the answer in my own thinking.
1. Children are a blessing.
The Bible teaches that children are gifts from God. Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Therefore, Christians must not harbor negative attitudes toward children. They are images of God, who are blessings from His hand.
In the Noahic covenant of common grace, God commands Noah and all his family (believing and unbelieving) to “be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth, and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). That is not a command of the original covenant of works, but of the Noahic covenant, which applies to all humanity as a whole, but not to each individual human being, since not every individual is called to be married. This is nothing other than natural law, which shows that a multiplying society is a good thing, since when societies are not growing, they’re collapsing. I believe this command implies that within a marriage, couples should plan, unless there are extenuating circumstances, to have more than two children, since they’re not multiplying unless they have at least three.
Couples who refuse to have children because they want to minimize expenses and selfishly live the American dream are violating this good commandment. Their desire is to spend their time in recreation and personal entertainment with as few responsibilities as possible. This is not a Christian attitude.
2. Birth control is a Christian liberty.
The Scriptures teach that “where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15; 3:20; 5:13). And the Bible does not forbid birth control. In a moment, we’ll see that there are biblical arguments against birth control, but there simply is no command against it, which means it falls in the sphere of Christian liberty. The Word of God is sufficient to reveal God’s will to His people. Psalm 119:1 says, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith agrees with these biblical teachings and says that good works are defined by the Bible alone. Chapter 16, paragraph 1 reads:
Good works are only such as God has commanded in his Holy Word,1 and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions.2
1 Mic. 6:8; Heb. 13:21
2 Matt. 15:9; Isa. 29:13
Thus, it would be wrong to say that refraining from birth control is a good work, since that is not commanded in the Bible.
Nevertheless, only some forms of birth control are morally acceptable. Any birth control method that causes the death of a newly conceived child is forbidden because it is murder (see Abortifacients: An Overview). Acceptable forms of birth control include the use of the rhythm method or natural family planning, a condom, a diaphragm, a sponge, spermicide, and most birth-control pills.
3. The number of children in a family is part of that family’s calling.
In 1 Corinthians 7:17, Scripture says, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” Not every family is in the same situation, and not every parent has the same gifts. Wise couples think about these matters when having children. Calling involves your present circumstances, and the work you’re doing to serve others in your life.
Birth control is used at three times in a couple’s life. It is used before they have children, while they are having children to put spaces between them, and when they stop having children. For example, when a couple is newly married, they might decide to delay having children for a limited amount of time, maybe until both spouses finish school, or until they have a bit more financial stability, or to firmly establish the marital relationship before adding children. Christ gives us a principle which teaches that we need to take our responsibilities seriously and plan for our choices. He says, “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).
That having been said, couples would be wise not to wait too long to have children. Sometimes a wife finds out she has difficulty conceiving and she deeply regrets waiting at the beginning of their marriage. Also, husbands would be wise not to ask their wives to wait too long, since in general, God has put it in the heart of women to desire children. Barren Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I die” (Genesis 30:1).
Nevertheless, it is wise for couples to consider their calling when having children. Scripture says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for the members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). That verse certainly refers to financial provision, but many scholars believe it applies to financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Thus, when couples are deciding whether to have additional children, they are wise to account for their present life situation and make sure that they are able to provide sufficiently for one another in their marriage, for all their current children, as well as for another child.
ANSWERING SOME OBJECTIONS TO BIRTH CONTROL
1. If children are a blessing, couples should have as many as possible.
This argument says that you should never limit the blessings God gives you, and if children are a blessing, then you should seek as many as possible. The problem is that this is not true of all the blessings that God gives us.
For example, sleep is a blessing (Psalm 127:2), but it’s false that we should never limit our sleep (Proverbs 6:10-11). Food is a blessing (Ecclesiastes 9:7), but it’s not true that we shouldn’t limit our food intake (Philippians 3:19; Proverbs 23:20-21). Work is a blessing (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:13; 5:18), but it’s not true that we shouldn’t limit the amount of work we do (Exodus 20:9-10). Money is a blessing (Proverbs 3:16), but it’s not true that we shouldn’t limit the amount of money we keep for ourselves (Proverbs 23:4).
Therefore, the fact that children are a blessing does not prove that we should never limit the number of children we have.
2. The Lord opens and closes the womb.
This is an argument from the sovereignty of God, saying that the Lord, in His sovereign rule, determines when women should bear children (Genesis 30:22) and when they shouldn’t (1 Samuel 1:5-6). It says that couples need to trust the Lord to decide how many children they will have.
The problem with this argument is that God’s sovereignty over all His creation does not mean that we have no right to control His creation. In fact, our control of His creation is part of His sovereignty. This argument misunderstands that means are connected with the ends, and it misunderstand our responsibility to shape God’s creation.
Let me give you an example of how this misunderstands that means are connected with the ends.
If a married couple chooses to come together very often, and says they’re going to trust God with the number of children they have, then, unless one of the two is infertile, God has already sovereignly decided that they will have lots of children. It’s not simply leaving things in God’s hands at all. It’s working diligently for a particular outcome and ordinarily obtaining it. That’s how God’s sovereignty works. If doing something to creation is interfering with God’s sovereignty, then couples shouldn’t come together, and they should just wait for a miraculous conception, since by coming together, they are ordinarily causing a certain outcome.
Similarly, if I plant a garden in my backyard and work hard to water it, fertilize it and protect it from pests, and then say, “I’m trusting God with the outcome,” that is true. But I’m doing more than trusting God for an outcome. I’m working very hard for a particular outcome, and I will usually achieve it.
But let me also give you some examples of how this kind of thinking misunderstands our responsibility to shape God’s creation.
God has created the world to act a certain way when human beings don’t interfere. When I don’t cut my hair, it naturally grows. But it would be wrong to say that the fact that my hair grows means God doesn’t want me to cut it. There is nothing immoral about cutting my hair. It’s a liberty. I’m free to cut my hair when it’s necessary to do so.
Similarly, if I get malignant cancer, it will ordinarily grow and kill me. And if I get cancer, it’s because God gave me cancer. But does the fact that God gave me cancer mean that He does not want me to get treatment for cancer? Does God just want me to trust Him with the outcome of my cancer without seeking treatment? Certainly not. If I get cancer, or any kind of sickness, it’s good and right for me to try to shape the outcome of the disease and not simply accept the providences God has dealt me in the moment. If my cancer is defeated, through medical treatment, then God sovereignly determined that it be defeated through my actions of shaping His creation.
Therefore, the fact that the Lord opens and closes the womb is a true and biblical doctrine, but it doesn’t mean that human beings have no role in or right to shape what happens with respect to the womb.
3. It’s a sin for a man to spill his seed.
Some argue on the basis of the story of Onan that it’s a sin for a man to waste or spill his seed. Genesis 38:6-10 says that when Er died, Onan was responsible to give a child to Er’s wife. This was the Levirate law in Deuteronomy 25:5, which says, “If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.”
But Onan refused to obey this law, and Genesis 38:9-10 says, “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So when ever he went in to his brothers wife he would waste his semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD and he put him to death also.”
Many claim that Onan’s wickedness was his act of contraception. But it seems clear from the text that Onan’s wickedness was his selfishness, his unwillingness to have an offspring that was not his own, which would divide his property. The moral transgression Onan committed was theft (a violation of the 8th commandment). He stole from his brother’s widow by breaking the Levirate law, which was a law about protecting and providing for widows by ensuring that they have a family and property. That’s why the Lord put him to death, not because he spilled his seed. He horribly oppressed his own brother’s widow (Isaiah 1:17).
Birth control is a matter of Christian liberty. Christians who thoughtfully and wisely practice birth control are being faithful to Christ, but whether or not to use birth control should not be an issue of division among Christians.
See Christian Ethics by Wayne Grudem (746-761).