Three(ish) Views of Contraception

Genesis 1:28 records God’s first command to the first human couple, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  Since God first gave this command (sometimes called the “cultural mandate” by theologians) the earth’s population has blossomed from one couple to billions of people around the globe.   The vast majority of this growth has taken place in the last two centuries alone, a fact which has caused many to call for more aggressive forms of population control to limit the exponential growth of recent history.[1]  For the majority of modern Westerners, contraception has been touted as one important tool in addressing the public health “problem” of population growth.  Alongside of a desire to promote public health, many have encouraged the use of contraception as a means of enabling and maximizing personal choice.[2]

All of this raises serious questions for the Christian.  Should concerns about population growth compel the church to rethink the “cultural mandate”?  Can personal preferences decide whether or not a Christian couple chooses to use contraception?  Is contraception permissible for the believer?  If contraception is permissible, does that mean that all forms of contraception are equally acceptable?  What attitude should Christians have towards contraception?  As will become clear shortly, contemporary Christians answer these questions in a range of different ways.  It will be argued in this paper that the Christian use of contraception is only permissible when biblical principles of human flourishing are applied within the context of the biblical paradigm of marital fruitfulness.  Before this view is defended, however, it is important to first survey the various views of contraception which are current in our culture today.

Surveying the Various Views

The Collapse of the Christian Consensus

While Christians take a variety of stances on contraception today, this diversity of opinion and practice is a relatively recent historical development.  The majority report in Christian history has been overwhelmingly vocal in its opposition to birth control.  The Early Church fathers condemned the use of contraception,[3] leaning heavily on the negative example of Onan in Genesis 38 as evidence for their position and arguing that procreation was the primary purpose of sexual intimacy.[4]  This same basic stance was reiterated and reinforced by the Medieval monks and theologians.[5]  Even with the sweeping changes which the Reformation brought to Christians’ views of marriage and family, leading Reformers (such as Luther and Calvin) maintained the church’s historic opposition to contraception.[6]  Up through the 19th century, both Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic church stood united in their condemnation of contraception.[7]  The first official break with this view came with the 1930 Lambeth Conference, in which the Anglican Communion cautiously opened the door for Christian use of contraception.[8]  Within a few decades, the Christian consensus on contraception had collapsed and a range of attitudes and approaches towards contraception began to develop.

The Contemporary Cultural View: Contraception is Absolutely Permissible

What caused this dramatic shift in the church’s views?  Part of the answer is found in the radical shift which took place in the culture’s views in the first half of the 20th century.  Increasing concern over population growth, loosening sexual mores, the rise of the Feminist movement, and an increasing commitment to individual autonomy and personal choice[9] all pushed contemporary culture towards an embrace of contraception.[10]  By the 1960s and 70s, one could safely say that the contemporary cultural view of contraception was overwhelmingly positive. 

Today, the common assumption is that contraception is absolutely permissible.  Indeed, contraception is not only viewed as something that modern people can use, it is often hailed as something that modern people should use as a means of both controlling population growth and expressing their own authority over their bodies and sexuality.  Children are a choice, and contraception is one important way for people to maintain that freedom of choice.  The twin pillars of public health and personal rights are the foundation on which the contemporary cultural consensus regarding contraception rests.[11]  This embrace of contraception is absolute because no one except the individual couple (or at times, the female partner alone) is allowed to determine if and when contraception should be used.       

The Roman Catholic View: Contraception is Absolutely Prohibited

The starkest contrast to this contemporary cultural consensus is found in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  While it builds its understanding on the historic witness of the church, the official view of Rome is best captured (and most authoritatively stated) in the 1968 papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae.[12]  This document emerged out of a period of tremendous debate within the Catholic church over the legitimacy of contraception.  In the decade leading up to Humanae Vitae, numerous voices (both from within and without the Roman church) urged the Pope to loosen the church’s historic stance.[13]  These calls were frustrated, however, by the firm decision of the Pope to maintain Rome’s opposition to birth control in 1968.  According to the Magisterium, contraception was absolutely prohibited for Catholics.[14]

Humanae Vitae roots this absolute prohibition of artificial contraception in a radically counter-cultural understanding of sex and procreation.  While the assumption of contemporary culture is that man is autonomous and therefore has a moral right to determine when (or if) to conceive, Humanae Vitae teaches that God controls conception and thus, any attempt to use birth control is an attempt to usurp the place and plan of God.[15]  While pleasure and intimacy (what Humanae Vitae calls, “the unitive significance”) is part of the purpose of sex, it can never be divorced from the procreative purpose of sex – a purpose which is not only commanded by God in the Scriptures but is also “written into the actual nature of man and of woman.”[16]  From this flows the conclusion that marital intimacy must always leave itself open to new life.  Thus, Humanae Vitae teaches that: “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”[17]  While modern culture feels free to divorce procreation from pleasure (even going so far as to freely encourage voluntary “childless marriages” the Roman Catholic Church sees this as a misunderstanding of the purpose of sex.

Evangelical Protestant Views: Absolutely Prohibited? Or Conditionally Permissible?

While Mainline Protestants have historically embraced the contemporary cultural consensus that contraception is absolutely permissible, Evangelical Protestants have wrestled over this issue.[18]  Some have adopted a view similar to that of Rome, though they articulate their reasons more from Scriptural reasoning than natural law.[19]  Wayne Grudem suggests that the three most common arguments presented in support of this view are that: 1) children are a blessing, therefore we should have many children; 2) We should trust God to decide how many children we should have; and 3) birth control is unnatural.[20]  According to these arguments, Christians who use contraception are rejecting God’s blessings, rebelling against God’s sovereignty, and replacing the beauty of natural intimacy and conception for artificial means designed to short-circuit God’s good design.  These arguments lead them to conclude that contraception is absolutely prohibited. 

Other Evangelical Protestants offer a different view.  In contrast to the contemporary cultural view that contraception is absolutely permissible or the view of Rome and some Evangelicals that contraception is absolutely prohibited, they argue that contraception can be conditionally permissible.  What those conditions are is disputed.  Virtually all Evangelical Protestants would agree that contraception is only permissible if it does not destroy human life, but others add a variety of other conditions as well. 

One helpful way of delineating these conditions is to say that the Christian use of contraception is only permissible when biblical principles of human flourishing are applied within the context of the biblical paradigm of marital fruitfulness.  

Fruitfulness and flourishing—these warrant further explanation, though we will save that until next time.

Ben Franks is an MDiv student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College and completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.

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[1] As one secular scholar describes it: “At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the total world population crossed the threshold of 1 billion people for the first time in the history of the homo sapiens. Since then, growth rates have been increasing exponentially, reaching staggeringly high peaks in the 20th century and slowing down a bit thereafter. Total world population reached 7 billion just after 2010 and is expected to count 9 billion by 2045.” Van Bavel, J. “The world population explosion: causes, backgrounds and projections for the future.” Facts, views & vision in ObGynvol. 5,4 (2013): 281-91. 

[2] Both of these concerns – public health and personal choice – are discussed in Saumya RamaRao and John Townsend, “Contraception and Public Health Ethics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Public Health Ethics, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[3] Augustine exerted a tremendous influence in this regard.  See for example Augustine, On The Morals of the Manichaeans (trans. R. Stothert, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 4; ed. Philip Schaff; Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1979), 86-87.  For a helpful historical discussion of what motivated and shaped Augustine’s views on contraception, see John T. Noonan, Jr. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 107-139.

[4] This text (and the debates about the purpose of sex) have played an important role in both historic and contemporary debates about contraception and will be addressed later in the paper. 

[5] Noonan, Contraception, 143-300.

[6] Martin Luther, On the Estate of Marriage in Helmut T. Lehman, ed., Luther’s Works, Volume 45 (Muhlenberg: Philadelphia, 1962), 45-46; and John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Trans. John King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 97-98.

[7] Helpful quotes and evidence for this can be found in Allan Carlson, “Children of the Reformation: A Short & Surprising History or Protestantism & Contraception.” Touchstone, May, 2007.  Accessed July 21, 2020,

[8] See in particular Lambeth Conference, Archives, 1930, resolutions 15-19 in The Lambeth Conference 1930, (London: S.P.C.K. 1930). 

[9] Each of these themes appear, for example, in Margaret Sanger’s speeches advocating for birth control at the beginning of the 20thcentury.  See for example Margaret Sanger, The Morality of Birth Control, (New York: Margaret Sanger Microfilm, 1921), S70:917; and Margaret Sanger, “The Case for Birth Control.” Woman Citizen, Vol. 8, February 23, 1924: 17-18.

[10] This is not to suggest that there was no debate – far from it.  The overwhelming strength of cultural Christianity was such that opposition to contraception was embedded in many Western laws and attitudes.  However, by the middle of the 20th century, most of these vestiges of the historic Christian approach had been swept away by the work of political activists, legal challenges, and shifting cultural opinions.

[11] Examples of these attitudes are abundant today.  For a few examples, see Sinead Morgan and Shreelata Datta, “Contraception and Its Ethical Considerations.” Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine 28:10, (2018): 320-328; Raanan Gillon, “Eugenics, Contraception, Abortion and Ethics.” Journal of Medical Ethics 24, (1998): 219-220; and Sophia Yin, “Contraception and Reproductive Ethics: Constitutional Right vs. Right for the Country.” Voices in Bioethics, accessed July 21, 2020,

[12] Pope John Paul, “Humanae Vitae.” July 25, 1968. Accessed July 21, 2020.

[13] Examples can be found in Louis Dupré, Contraception and Catholics: a New Appraisal, (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1964); G. Egner, Contraception vs. Tradition: A Catholic Critique, (New York; Herder and Herder, 1967); and Alvah W. Sulloway, Birth Control and Catholic Doctrine, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1959).

[14] Despite this official condemnation, there have been various church leaders and statements which have called for a reversal in doctrine.  See, “Statement on Contraceptives.” Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, accessed July 21, 2020,  Perhaps even more importantly, a significant majority of American Catholics do not follow the church’s teaching on this issue.  See, “Very Few Americans See Contraception as Morally Wrong” Pew Research Center, accessed July 21, 2020,

[15] “[T]he exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.  From this, it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decided…the right course to follow.  On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator.” Pope John Paul, Humanae Vitae, 10.

[16] Pope John Paul, Humanae Vitae, 12.

[17] Pope John Paul, Humanae Vitae, 11.

[18] For a representative argument in support of abortion and contraception from a liberal Protestant position, see Gloria H. Albrecht, “Contraception and Abortion Within Protestant Christianity,” in Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions, ed. Daniel C. Maguire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 79-103.  A more conservative approach is found in the “Affirmation of the Control of Human Reproduction,” in Birth Control and the Christian, Christian Medical Society, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1969), xxiii-xxxi.

[19] See for example, Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control, (Monongahela, PA: Zimmer Printing, 1989) and Mary Pride, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1985).

[20] Grudem describes and discusses these arguments in Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 754-758.  Doriani expands these arguments to five and gives a very thorough and helpful description and critique of them in Dan Doriani, “Birth Dearth or Bring on the Babies? Biblical Perspective on Family Planning,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 12 no. 1 (Fall, 1993): 30-33.