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New Horizons

Before You Use Birth Control, Consider ...

James W. Scott

Why do we talk about "birth control"? This expression is a euphemism given to us in 1914 by Margaret Sanger, the leader of the birth control movement and the founder of Planned Parenthood. The real subject is contraception—that is, preventing conception.

We don't have space here to sort out all the theological arguments about marriage, sexuality, procreation, and human responsibility that pertain to contraception. But there are several texts in the Bible that may directly refer to contraception.

What Was Onan's Sin?

The first text is Genesis 38:6-10. Onan agreed to have sexual relations with his deceased brother's wife, Tamar, in order to raise up offspring for him. However, Onan prevented conception from taking place by withdrawing from her at the last moment. But "what he did" angered God, who slew him.

What was Onan's sin? Some have said that he sinned by refusing to carry out his duty to his brother. But this "duty" was merely a social custom (called levirate marriage), not part of God's law. Even under Mosaic law, a man could refuse to follow this custom and escape with only a bad name (Deut. 25:5-10). So if Onan had refused to have anything to do with Tamar, God would not have slain him.

But Onan was quite willing to have sex with Tamar. That would have been fine, if he had not prevented her from getting pregnant. It was his prevention of conception—his spurning of God's design for human sexuality—that made his sexual involvement with Tamar sinful.

What Is Pharmakeia?

In the Greco-Roman world of the first century, sensuality, perversion, and general decadence reigned supreme (often in connection with worshiping false gods). As a result, contraception (usually the drinking of potions to achieve temporary sterility), abortion (including the drinking of potions to destroy fetuses), and even infanticide ("exposing" infants to the elements and wild beasts, drowning them, etc.) were widespread, facing little moral objection.

The apostle Paul condemned the immorality of his day, but was strangely silent, or so it may seem, on the subjects of contraception, abortion, and infanticide. The reason for this apparent silence may be that these specific practices are included in broader categories. Surely infanticide and at least late-term abortion are included in his condemnations of murder. Does contraception likewise come under a broader category?

In this regard, we need to rethink Paul's condemnation of pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20. Most Bible scholars have uncritically assumed that this Greek word means "sorcery" or "witchcraft" (as translated in English Bibles). But pharmakeia (from which our word pharmacy comes) originally referred to the use of potions, drugs, and often poisons, generally for evil purposes. Since these concoctions were often thought to have magical properties, the word developed the secondary meaning of "sorcery." Both meanings were current in Paul's day; which one fits better in this text?

Galatians 5:19-21 presents a long list of "the deeds of the flesh." These are personal vices, which would be common in the general population. But sorcery was the craft of a sorcerer, not really a common personal vice. The use of potions and drugs for evil purposes, however, was widespread. It makes more sense to find such "drug abuse" listed alongside such things as immorality, idolatry, jealousy, and drunkenness, than to find sorcery on such a list.

This view is strengthened by the position of pharmakeia on the list. Between sexual sins (vs. 19) and sins involving disputes (vs. 20) we find "idolatry" and pharmakeia. Since pagan temples featured "sacred" prostitution, we should think of "idolatry" as attached to the first group of sins.

That leaves pharmakeia. It obviously does not belong with the sins involving disputes, but it, too, can reasonably be attached to the first group. What would then be in view is the evil use of potions and drugs, especially in connection with sexual practices. That would refer to the potions and drugs used to prevent conception and destroy fetuses.

Interestingly, the early third-century theologian Hippolytus, in the first clear reference to contraception made by a Christian in a work that has survived, condemns certain women who are "called believers," and yet use "drugs for producing sterility" (atokiois pharmakois, in The Refutation of All Heresies, 9.12.25).

The same term is used by the early second-century physician Soranos of Ephesus, in his book Gynecology, to refer to both contraceptive and abortive potions. And the first-century biographer Plutarch mentions pharmakeia (without any qualification) alongside other practices (furtive child substitution and adultery) by which a woman might thwart her husband's obtaining of a legitimate heir (Romulus, 22.3).

Thus, there is good reason to think that pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20 refers to the evil use of potions and drugs, especially contraceptive and abortive agents.

There is likewise good reason to find condemnations of contraception (and abortion) in Revelation 9:21, 21:8, and 22:15. In 9:20-21 people are said not to have repented of their idolatry, murdering (including abortion and infanticide), pharmakeia, immorality, and thievery. Once again we find pharmakeia in a list of popular vices centering around sexual immorality. And again we say, this arguably includes the use of contraceptive drugs. The same analysis would be made at 21:8 and 22:15. (At 18:23 there is probably a reference to sorcery, since the passage is not listing personal vices, but describing the evil influence of "Babylon" on the world; cf. Isa. 47:9, 12.)

What Has the Church Taught?

God has been teaching his church down through the ages. He has endued generation after generation of his people with wisdom. We should therefore respect the long-standing wisdom of our Christian heritage. We should depart from it only if Scripture truly forces us to do so.

It is therefore highly significant that the church down through the centuries—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant alike—held one view on contraception with remarkable unanimity until just recently. It was condemned in strong terms, and contraception was often made a criminal act.

The Westminster Standards do not address the matter, but the early laws of Presbyterian Scotland punished with death "the taking of potions to cause abortion" and also punished "the using such means ... to hinder conception."

However, under the influence of increasingly degenerate secular culture, the largely apostate Protestant mainline churches gradually embraced contraception, especially in the second half of this century. This was not an isolated development. The birth control movement was an integral part of a general cultural movement away from traditional Christian morality. In the pursuit of pleasure without consequences, moral objections to contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc., had to go.

This historical context alone does not prove that contraception is wrong. However, should we expect an immoral and hedonistic society to come up with genuine moral insight, contrary to nearly two millennia of consistent Christian teaching?

Dr. Scott is a member of Trinity OPC in Hatboro, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 1996.

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