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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Contraception, Part I: A Quiverfull?

Well, I’ve already tackled the subject of sex here (Sept. 4); might as well take this one on too. LOL

But please be assured that I do not take it lightly. Not at all.

First, the preliminaries:

The dilemma of contraception and its ramifications have been kicking around in my head for a long time. Jeremy Pierce’s excellent piece on the subject recently brought it to the fore. I’ve since been trying to coax along a decent representation of my own thoughts, but it hasn’t been easy. Some of what I write seems so – radical. Not to mention rambling. Not to mention stumbling.

(I admit that I’m also running scared from the imaginary thought police. An awareness of the personal, highly-charged, and profound nature of the topic does this to my mind...)

Know that I am writing not because I have anything earth-shaking to add to the discussion, but because I want to honor God with my thinking. As with my entire life. But on my own I'm not worth much; I need the help of the community of believers. I Cor. 12:20-27. Therefore I will write this series (of questions as well as statements) as an open book, as a record of my thoughts worthy or faulty, and hope that fellow comrades in the faith will join in. Thanks in advance!

ultimate raison d’etre: Use of contraception is a private matter, as are decisions regarding its use. This does not, however, make the moral aspects undeserving of public attention or discussion. Insomuch as (absolute) morality is involved, there must be public discussion. So here goes.

Wait, one more thing: (Is the suspense killing you?) One of the reasons this topic is so hard for me to write about is that the ramifications are so far-reaching. The process of thinking through them has been mind-boggling. I’ve always been a sort of “all the pieces have to fit” kind of person; before I can accept something, it has to bear out under every kind of scrutiny I can come up with. Naturally, not every worthy thing passes this test, nor does the test work for everything. But I’m looking for a certain basic consistency. I came to believe in the truth of the God of the Bible because it was the one explanation that repeatedly seemed to ring true no matter what question I could throw at it.

Sometimes, however, this consistency or lack thereof is something I can only sense rather than articulate.

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you...) Now on with it:

There is a philosophy in Christian circles known as “Quiverfull”, based on Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it... Children are an heritage of the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is a reward. As arrows are in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” From this verse (and a few others), the Quiverfull philosophy finds that God does not desire those to whom He grants fertility to do anything to limit or prevent the blessings of this fertility (i.e., no contraception).

However, neither Psalm 127 nor any other part of Scripture states this explicitly (except in the case of Onan, in Genesis 38:9-10, which is not addressing contraception per se. Mr. Pierce has covered this already so I will not go into it further.) The verses on barrenness and child-bearing in the Bible seem to address those who have no children. The childless are reassured that God grants these blessings as a reward for Godly living. A response to that might be, “Then why do so many ungodly people have children?” But regardless, it’s clear that children are inherently a blessing from the fact that they are imbued with life. But of what sort is this blessing?

Children as referred to in these verses are not blessings in a sentimental or even instructive sense (as they may be viewed today) but rather are material blessings: the future of a family, community, tribe, or race. They are a defense against enemies, a help. In a parallel way, children can offer social protection and help in our current society.

My interpretation of Psalm 127: It is not by striving and building things in our own strength that we gain true prosperity; any worthwhile or necessary gain is granted (given as a gift) by the Lord. Likewise, the Lord grants children as a form of prosperity. A man with a “quiverfull” will not be put to shame when battling enemies because he has an “army” of children.

The point of the Psalm is to define true prosperity. Does this definition of children as prosperity hold true today? In some ways yes, and in other ways no. The issue is a societal one, not merely an individual one. But more on that later.

Along a similar line, another “quiverfull” response to the proposition of using contraception is, “if children are a blessing from the Lord, why would anyone want to limit the Lord’s blessings?” I would answer, "Well, because there are other blessings which also come from the Lord that may be 'withdrawn' when a family has more children than they can handle." But more on that later as well.

What of the “quiverfull” idea that the Lord “opens and closes the womb?” (Genesis 17:20, 20:18, 21:1-2, 29:31, 30:22) I agree that this is so (after all, He is sovereign), but I also believe that God has made woman’s reproductive system to work with a predictability nearly on par with, say, the ability of her GI tract to digest a meal. If a reproductively healthy woman has a reproductively healthy husband, her womb is pretty much guaranteed to be "open" several days each month. The exception would be if she’s ill or breastfeeding, but even then it may remain open.

Of course, I’m well aware that not every conception makes it to birth. But this fact does not affect my main point.

A parting question: Does the fact that a woman has an open womb mean that she is to accept its maximum potential fruitfulness (in marriage), regardless of other considerations?

Part II: "From Whence Shall My Help Come?" to follow.

edited for readability 10/7/04


  • In answer to your parting question, I will weigh in with a resounding "no." Imagine if we applied this sort of logic to everything--I'm too tired to provide examples right now, but what I'm trying to say is that God's will is sovereign yet he also gives us choices and wants us to take responsibility for what we can control. The very fact that women can study their own bodies and learn their fertility cycles is evidence that God wants to involve us in the process if we are willing.

    If artificial contraceptives (most of which have abortifacient properties) were the only alternative to the quiverfull theology, then I might have reconsider, but because the Lord has blessed us greatly (including during our scheduled times of abstinence) with this natural method, I believe he doesn't look down on family planning. On our first attempt after using this method, our second child was conceived (due 1/31) -- I actually ovulated a week later than normal but because I knew my cycles, we waited until just the right time.

    On the other hand, if a couple is conscientious (or even not) and a child "accidentally happens" (that's how we got our first--prior to using NFP), that child is still a blessing because God created that life and his promise in Romans 8:28 is unfailing.

    Bonnie, thanks for inviting me to be part of this discussion! I look forward to more...

    By Blogger Marla, at 1:08 AM  

  • Thanks for your comments, Marla! I like what you said about availability of choices and responsibility; I will be mulling that one over (since I have a choice ;-) )

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 6:02 PM  

  • It might be worth acknowledging that condoms have no abortifacient effects and significantly reduce the abortifacient effects of hormone-altering chemicals. Some women take those hormones for other medical reasons, and I know a couple who use condoms to reduce the risk of a conception taking place without implanting simply by greatly reducing the chance of conception below what it already would be.

    By Blogger Jeremy Pierce, at 9:59 PM  

  • Very interesting. I got here from Proverbial WIfe, and I'm probably one of those "quiverfull philosophy" people, but I may not believe what you think I believe. What I do think is that lots of people, Christians, don't think. I have heard people joke, several instances,about "getting my husband fixed." I also sat next to a fine Christian woman who told me, in the presence of her ten year old son, that she and her husband only wanted one child (older sister) and that the ten year old son was a mistake. But of course they loved him now.
    All this to say that I believe not that everyone ought to have all the children they can possibly conceive, but rather that we ought to submit this matter to prayer as a couple and at least ask God what He would have us do in this area. And I believe that we ought be biased in favor of life, in favor of allowing God to bless us with more children. I believe this because I believe that the Bible is biased in favor of children. (Disclaimer: I am not unbiased; I do have eight children. And none of them are mistakes.)
    I do agree with your statement that use of contraceptives is a private matter--to be worked out between a husband, a wife, and the Lord.

    By Blogger Sherry, at 11:04 PM  

  • Thanks so much for your comments, Sherry; I agree wholeheartedly that we ought to be biased in favor of children. It is refreshing to read what you have to say because I do happen to know some “quiverfull” believers who see the issue in black and white.

    Congratulations on your eight children! I admire you tremendously. I certainly am not against large families per se; I think that for those to whom it is given to have one, it’s fantastic. My husband has five siblings himself and speaks very highly of growing up in a large family. But he and I are also aware that our circumstances are a bit different from what his family of origin's were, and we must make decisions accordingly.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 5:33 PM  

  • Jeremy, I think that condoms are a viable alternative. I can't use NFP after I give birth, especially if I'm breastfeeding, so until my cycles return, that will be our method of birth control.

    Sherry, your insights hit home. I have been thinking that I don't want to have any more children after this (and my husband can go either way), but I've also known that I shouldn't shut the door on it completely, because as you said, if God wants to bless us with more children, I need to be open. Of course using a natural form of birth control is already a form of openness, though NFP is almost 100% effective when practiced correctly.

    By Blogger Marla, at 11:17 PM  

  • Thanks for the interesting discussion. This is one of my favorite topics so I hope you won't mind if I offer my 0.02 cents.

    I read and commented on Jeremy's thoughts regarding the Onan story, and I believe that he is wrong. I also presentd an article on his blog that shared the reasons why. Onan's act was contraceptive, and it was offensive to the Lord. He was not killed for any other reason. As I also pointed out on Jeremy's blog, all of Christendom believed that until 1930.

    As for condoms, how can you be "joined" to your spouse if there is an artificial barrier between you? The use of a condom makes the act then a lie.

    I do agree with Marla that God did give us a cycle. Everything in God's creation has a "cycle" and part of our having "dominion" is making use of the cycles that God gave us. That would exclude ALL artificial contraptives then that work despite the cycle, not with it.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    By Blogger Elena, at 9:46 AM  

  • Thanks for reading, Elena, your comments are most welcome.

    I will look into the Onan story again when I get a chance.

    As to condoms, their use certainly doesn't prevent the "joining" of the act of coitus itself. Nor does it prevent sexual response. (Actually, I have something to say about that in a future installment :-)) Or, put another way, I don't think a rape victim would feel non-violated if her assaulter wore a condom.

    What you said about cycles and dominion is interesting, although I'll admit I don't quite follow. Are you saying that NFP is OK?

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 9:12 PM  

  • Hi Bonnie,

    We were discussing the sex act in the context of marriage, which is supposed to be a complete giving and joining of the couple. In that case, your rape argument is a total red herring as there is no intent for it to be a giving loving joining of two people.

    If, in the marital act, we are imaging God, it is to be a complete joining. The condom is indeed a "barrier" (it's even called barrier contraception). It is an artificial barrier between the husband and the wife in reality and metaphorically.

    By Blogger Elena, at 10:51 PM  

  • Here is an article on the Onan story.Yes, I believe that NFP can be a licit means of family planning for serious or grave reasons because it utilizes the woman's body in the way that it was created to work, it is not abortifacient and it does not put false barriers between the couple during the marital act.

    By Blogger Elena, at 10:54 PM  

  • Elena, thanks for the explanations.

    I certainly didn’t intend to toss in any red herrings; I was merely responding to what you said. You asked, “How can you be 'joined' to your spouse if there is an artificial barrier between you?"

    I was attempting to explain how I thought one could indeed be “joined,” quite essentially, even with a “barrier” in place. The barrier is a very specific one which bars only one (and possibly impacts a second) element of what is a very multi-faceted act.

    How does affecting only one to two elements of a multi-faceted act therefore make the entire act a lie?

    I do appreciate your awareness of metaphor as truth. Much under-apprehended in our current society, IMHO.

    And I have a question: how would you say we are “imaging God” in the "marital act" itself? I understand that marriage is the image of Christ and the church.

    Thanks for the discussion!

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 9:22 PM  

  • How does affecting only one to two elements of a multi-faceted act therefore make the entire act a lie? How can it be a total self giving if one or two elements are held back or altered. For example, a couple that can't stand each other but decides to have sex just to conceive is also making the act a lie only this time they are affecting the unitive and possibly even the pleasurable aspects of the marital acts, just for the procreative. Any way you look at it, that's a distortion and a lie.

    And I have a question: how would you say we are “imaging God” in the "marital act" itself? I understand that marriage is the image of Christ and the church. It's an imaging of the Holy Trinity, where the love of God the Father and the God the Son emanates the third separate person, God the Holy SPirit. However even in the metaphore with Christ and the church, that union is meant to be open and life giving too. Itis not a "self limiting" contraceptive type of union.

    By Blogger Elena, at 4:20 PM  

  • Elena, I see your point about the marital act not being "totally self-giving" with use of contraception, but, if you insist on such a requirement, then you must apply it to all elements equally. To be honest, if you're going to require that the act always be "totally self-giving," then I think it's gonna fail way more often than it succeeds, regardless of use of contraception. People are just not "perfect giving machines." And I don't think that's the point either.

    It's my view that marital sex is a relationship (and a complicated one at that) that's an integral part of the totality of the marital relationship, and is hopefully always growing and maturing.

    I also believe that NFP is another way of "holding back" in the marital sexual relationship, if you're going to claim that other forms of contraception are also "holding back. For many women there is an increase in, um, libido during their most fertile time of the month. Surely hormones are involved :-). Why, if a woman must not hold back any part of her sexuality from her spouse, would she then refrain from the marital act during this most, um, ripe of times?

    There is nothing Scriptural that I can find that would endorse this method over any other.

    And I apologize, you've lost me on the "imaging of the Holy Trinity."

    But I do appreciate the discussion, Elena!

    I've read the Onan piece; there's a lot there to comment on, some of which I touched on above. But essentially I don't think God was upset that Onan practiced "contraception" per se. It's that he wasn't honoring his familial obligation to his sister-in-law. He didn't want to father children that would "not be his." (Gen. 38:9).

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:33 PM  

  • Bonnie - Thank you for this post and discussion. I know I am, oh, 6 months late to the discussion, but I really appreciate it. I have been wrestling to find our answer to this issue. I see the logic of "fullquiver" but I don't have peace with it. I am 28, in my third pregnancy. Odds are full quiver practices would give me an easy 13 kids. I do not want 13 kids! I want to want what God wants me to have, but I cannot find peace on it. I have been searching for "the other side" of the issue, and until this post I haven't come across a scrap of reasoning that isn't basically "I don't want alot of kids and I am under grace. God give us choices." Well, since God gives us the choice to sin, that hasn't alone been very convincing. What you wrote about the social interpretation of Psalm 127 is the first I have heard of it. I will investigate further. Thanks!

    By Blogger Annie Crawford, at 5:47 PM  

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