Family Planning and the Christian Couple

I regularly get asked questions about whether it is acceptable for a Christian to use birth control or family planning.  Within Reformed and Evangelical circles there is a perspective or a movement even, sometimes called “Quiverfull“, that teaches against any form of birth control.  I believe this movement to be contrary to Christian principles, primarily the principle that only God is the legislator.

The “Quiverfull” movement describes a belief that Christian couples ought to be open to having very large families.  In particular, those that describe themselves as “quiverfull” people usually mean that it is sinful to use any method to limit the number of children that the couple has.  There are a variety of expressions of this belief; some hold to the position that artificial methods like chemical or mechanical means of preventing conception are forbidden; others simply state that a couple ought to engage in intercourse naturally at all times without concern for whether it will produce a pregnancy or not.  So some might think that timing intercourse around fertility cycles is acceptable while others would deny it.

The Catholic position on this subject rests on natural law arguments and the belief that the primary purpose of sex is procreation. The Roman Catholic Church has always viewed sex with suspicion, and for understandable reasons (at least a long time ago), due to the great depravity of the Roman Empire in which the church originally rose.  Attitudes toward sex developed early in that depraved environment and then got locked in place later due to unbiblical theories of the infallibility of church tradition.  So the Roman Catholic Church has always viewed sex as a necessary evil, really only acceptable for procreation, and is seen in its insistence that the holiest and most spiritual men and women will be celibate.

Within Protestant Evangelical circles the argument tends to take a different form.  Here is one example of such an argument.  The argument rests on the very Biblical idea that children are a blessing from God.    The “quiverfull” name comes from a memorable passage from Psalm 127: “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; They shall not be ashamed, But shall speak with their enemies in the gate. (Psa 127:4-5 NKJ)”  Though it starts with a Biblical principle, it makes unwarranted applications of that principle, applications which run afoul of other Biblical principles.

The argument goes that since the Bible frequently describes children as a blessing, we ought to be open to receive as many of them as God will give us (which is of course true).  Therefore it is sinful for us to do anything that would prevent that from happening (and here is the unbiblical and unwarranted inference).  God commanded Adam and Eve in the garden to “be fruitful and multiply” and repeated that command to Noah after the flood.  In 1 Timothy 5:14-15, the apostle expresses his desire that young women marry and bear children.  In 1 Timothy 2:11-15 the apostle even says that the woman will be saved by childbirth.

Since all of these passages promote childbirth and procreation, therefore it should be taken as a Biblical command to procreate freely, to do nothing to prohibit or delay it, and consequently in most cases to have very large families.

Christian Liberty

My major counterpoint to all of this is the principle of Christian liberty.  One of the strongest criticisms that Jesus leveled against the Pharisees was the charge that they set themselves up as lawgivers for other people.  He said,  “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” (Mat 15:7-9 NKJ)”  In particular, the Pharisees were fond of making rules for others based on logical inferences from Scriptures, inferences which were often quite tenuous.  Many of Jesus’ Sabbath disputes were based on this kind of reasoning, as were the purity rituals of the Pharisees.  They complained that Jesus’ disciples did not fast, for example, when their fasts were imposed by the Pharisees, but nowhere commanded in Scripture.  The Scriptures said in different places that fasting was a good thing to do, and therefore the Pharisees decided that fasting twice a week is something any good Jew ought to do.  Or the Old Testament taught that eating certain foods were polluting, and therefore the Pharisees would not even eat with a Gentile for fear of this pollution, something not required in the Law of Moses. Even though Jesus was perfectly obedient to that law, He freely ignored these rules.  It was their “tradition”, meaning the body of law that had arisen as application of the Law of Moses.  Jesus constantly criticizes the Pharisees for teaching this tradition as if it were the same as the Law of Moses.

This is a great temptation that the church has continually failed to see.  As another example, the Scriptures teach that drunkenness is a sin, and something to be very careful about.  Therefore, many Christian groups over the century have taught that a Christian ought not drink at all, simply to avoid the danger.  We all must make applications of the Scripture to our own lives and circumstances.  But when we then take those applications that we have made, and teach them as law for others, then we have usurped God’s sole right to be the Lawgiver, and set ourselves up as the Lawgiver for others.  This is a great offence, as Jesus’ words in Matthew 15 and many other places show.

The Apostle James says the same thing: “11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? (Jam 4:11-12 NKJ)”  James here says that if I judge my brother then I have judged the law.  James is talking about decisions I make myself about the rightness of my brother’s actions.  Telling people what the law of God says is never judging them.  All I am doing is speaking the truth that God has revealed.  But when I make up my own law and judge my brother by that law, then I have acted as if the law of God was insufficient (what he means by “judging the law”).  I’ve set myself above the law of God.  But there is only one Lawgiver.

The great question always comes over what God’s law actually says.  Those advancing the “Quiverfull” doctrine of course believe that their doctrines were not invented by themselves, but are derived from Scripture.  We need to determine whether they are right or not.  But I start with Christian liberty because that doctrine is not in doubt at all.  So clear is the Scripture on this point, so frequent the warnings, so strong the language, that it ought to teach the Christian to be extremely cautious before proclaiming what the law of God is to others.  If we proclaim that the Law of God prohibits or commands some behavior, we had better be very sure that we are right.  To fail to do so is to set ourselves up as the Lawgiver, and to usurp God’s exclusive right.  We must simply be very, very cautious before ever declaring confidently what other people must do or not do.  Who are we to judge another man’s servant?  When the Scripture speaks clearly, so should we.  Otherwise, we should be silent.  God will judge.

Responsible Hermeneutics

With that said, then we can examine the Quiverfull argument.  What we see in this argument is a consistent use of a very questionable hermeneutic (meaning, interpretive approach to Scripture).  It is a similar hermeneutic as that employed by the Prosperity Gospel, which will use examples of times when God made someone healthy or rich as proof that God wants all of us to be healthy or rich.

Just because something happens in the Bible does not mean that it is good.  Further, just because something happens which is stated to be a blessing does not translate into a command for all people in a wide variety of differing circumstances.  Saying that “children are a blessing” does not translate into a command that we ought to pursue having some number of children, or that it is always wrong to delay having children.In order to be on safe ground declaring that the Quiverfull principles are indeed law, an actual command or articulation of a moral principle needs to be found in Scripture.  It is true that part of the creation mandate was to “be fruitful and multiply”.  But this is a general command given to the human race.  Does it apply in exactly the same way to every individual?  Jesus never had any children, even though He was under the Law.  Paul remained single.  They both clearly thought that the command to be fruitful and multiply did not apply to them in their particular circumstances.  Further, does the command “be fruitful and multiply” imply anything about how many children I am to have?  The command says nothing about how specifically it is fulfilled.  It does not give me precise instructions, but is merely presented as a general principle.  We ought to regard children, and having children, as a good thing- true.  But it says nothing about how many children it may or may not be wise to have.

Paul expresses his desire for young women to marry and have children.  This is a good indication of what the normal life of young women will look like, and we ought to follow it.  But Paul also expressly allows and even encourages people in some circumstances to delay marriage for a time (1 Cor. 7) or even to remain single.  In Matthew 24:19 Jesus expresses the idea that during certain times of tribulation it might be undesirable to be pregnant or nursing.  In short, nothing about the general statements about the goodness of marriage and childrearing overrides all prudential or circumstantial concerns.

I Timothy 2:15 says that the woman “will be saved by childbearing.”  If this is taken to mean that bearing children is the way of salvation for women, meritorious for her justification, or anything of that nature, then our whole system of doctrine is overthrown.  This is a notoriously difficult passage, and difficult passages are never good grounds for doctrines which are not clearly taught elsewhere.  Salvation is often taken by some to mean “conversion”, “the way to get into heaven” or “the way to be forgiven of sins”, but often the Scriptures use the word “save” in the sense of the whole process of sanctification and perfection- an ongoing process throughout our lives.  If taken in this likely sense, then Paul is saying that childbearing will be one of the normal means that God uses to sanctify and grow women in their personal righteousness, an observation that rings very true to experience.  But again, nothing is said about women in every condition or circumstance.  Can infertile women then not be saved?  And nothing is said about how many children are necessary to make this process happen.  Is a woman with ten children more sanctified than one with five?  These are all unwarranted inferences from the text.

The hermeneutic approach employed by the Quiverfull movement is similar to that which would take warnings against drunkenness to be prohibitions against alcohol.  It is an irresponsible hermeneutic which twists Scripture to be saying things it does not say, to find commands where there are none, and to find specificity in commands when there are only general statements.  We have in the Scriptures a call to the human race generally to procreate, and to regard children and family life in general as a good thing.  We have instructions that teach that most people’s lives will be and should be characterized by marriage and family.  These are all principles that our selfish death-worshiping culture desperately needs to hear.  But none of them translate into a prohibition against a couple making decisions about when to have children and how many children they should have.

Responsible Childrearing

On the contrary, the Scriptures also give us commands about caring for children.  Paul says that he that does not care for his own, especially those of his own house, has denied the faith.  He also tells fathers to bring his children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  Both of these statements imply that parents have a responsibility to their children.  Children require resources- financial, physical, emotional and spiritual.  In this life the resources that God gives us are limited and we are called to make wise choices about the use of those resources.  To be faithful to the commands God gives us regarding our children requires that we make prudent decisions about time and resources.    The sixth commandment requires us to guard life and health, and that includes the life and health of our wives.  In a sin-cursed world, childbearing has health risks which should be considered.The financial costs of childrearing are often overblown in our culture.  Children do not require many of the luxuries that people seem to think they need, and in fact such luxuries often work contrary to spiritual formation in our children.  But they do cost money.  They need health care and dental care, not to mention food and clothes.  It is not illegitimate for parents to consider their financial state when making decisions about childrearing, especially given Paul’s commands to the effect that people should not willingly make themselves burdens on the church.

Even more importantly, however, is the time required to properly train and nurture children.  If older children are doing most or all of the raising of younger children, then parents are not truly discipling and nurturing their children.  We all only have so much time to go around, and it is not responsible for us to choose to have children that we cannot actually raise.  Certainly, sometimes God in His sovereignty overrides our plans and gives us challenges we did not think we were capable of withstanding.  He will certainly give grace in such circumstances.  But none of that excuses us from the responsibility to make wise choices as best as we can.  God’s sovereignty is never an excuse for recklessness or foolishness.  God’s sovereignty is never an excuse for failing to plan.  We are called to be in dominion, and being in dominion means being wise and prudent, laying up for the future, at the same time as we recognize and trust that God certainly holds the future in His hands and makes all final decisions.  God’s sovereignty also should direct us to prioritize the children that God has actually given us over future children that He may or may not provide.

Based on my own experience and observations, I believe it wise for most couples to delay children for some time when first married, to give them an opportunity to put their marriage on a very strong foundation.  I believe it wise to be careful about financial stability, though this is often abused in the service of selfish materialism.  I believe it wise for couples to space children out to a certain degree to give a wife time to recover from the rigors of childbearing.  I also believe that parents ought to consider whether they are being faithful in the Scriptures’ call to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, a call which requires time, individual time, for each child.  Children are not just commodities. They are not animals to be herded into pens and fed from troughs.  They are individuals, each one a spiritual being created in the image of God, each distinct and unique.  To be nurtured and trained, they must be treated as individuals.  That means the first and foremost concern needs to be the good of those people already existing- the good of the children and the wife that you already have, and not the hypothetical good of children the Lord has not yet provided.

There is also the service of the church itself to consider.  If it is Biblical for some to seek to stay single in order to serve God in unique ways (and it is- see 1 Cor 7), then it is also Biblical for a couple to seek to forego or limit children in order to free them to serve the church (always while also recognizing that raising godly children is a huge service to the church).  Again this should never be a cloak for selfishness or self-serving.  And yet, Paul chose to remain single so as to serve the church in the way God had called him to particularly, and he explicitly allows this choice to others as well.

The primary purpose of marriage in the Scripture is not procreation, but companionship.  The original reason for the creation of the woman is not said to be childbearing, but companionship.  The importance of this principle is the recognition that a married couple that has decided for prudent reasons to delay or limit the children they have are not contradicting or nullifying the purpose of marriage, since children are not given in Scripture as the purpose of marriage- companionship is.  “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

I believe it wise for married couples to consider all these things.  But because I am not the lawgiver and have not been given the role of judging my brother’s faithfulness, I would never try to issue any laws on this subject.  I love big families.  My wife and I each come from families of six.  We have four children ourselves.  But these decisions are to be made by Christian people themselves.  Where the Scriptures do not legislate, let us be silent as well.  Let the Spirit guide each couple in the way that they apply these principles to the size of the family they choose to have.  Let us not be driven by selfishness, nor yet by a legalistic desire to earn some favor from God by our works, nor yet by a hypocritical desire to set ourselves up as higher or more spiritual Christians by external and carnal measures like family size.  Let us be driven by a humble trust in God and a desire to serve others in love, including our own children.

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