You may want to send your kids into the next room for the next couple of posts, I’m going to talk about sex. In particular about birth control. Is birth control a sin? Is it wise? Can it harm you?
Personally, we do not use hormonal birth control, but ours is less a conscience issue and more of a personal experience issue. I’ll discuss later in this series, but first I want to address a common objection to birth control often thrown around in Reformed circles: The story of Onan.
And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the 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.
According to the Onanists, the mere spilling of a man’s semen outside of a woman’s body is a sinful thing. The birth control methods of coitus interruptus (stopping before orgasm), pulling out, or even vasectomy are ruled out as violating the principle found in the story of Onan.
Just reading the story of Onan is not enough to find these principles. One has to dig into commentaries and discussions written centuries ago.
Before one questions my Reformed credentials, old commentaries are helpful when studying the essentials of our faith. They are helpful for learning Godliness and how to live a Holy life. But, sometimes even the men of the past show their fallibility.
“….the third [murder], in that there is a seminal vital virtue, which perishes if the seed be spilled; and by doing this to hinder the begetting of a living child, is the first degree of murder that can be committed, and the next unto it is the marring of conception, when it is made…” -Westminster Annotations and Commentary on the Whole Bible (1657), Genesis 38:9.
“Most Hebrew and Christian commentators conclude [from the grammar] that the sin of Er was of the same type as the sin of Onan, which they call effeminacy. Augustine in book 22, Against Faust Chap. 84, concluded that this Er had sinned in this offense severely because that sin impedes conception and destroys the foetus in its own seed….” – Lutheran minister Johann Gerhard (1582-1637)
“The rabbis interpreted Onan’s transgression as birth control through coitus interruptus. In an illustrative euphemism, the Jewish commentator Rashi calls this “threshing within, winnowing without.””
Given the terminology used by the commentators I think it is safe to assume that the interpretation of past generations was based on a belief that the man’s sperm was a fully formed seed. In fact, the KJV translates verse 9 as:
And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
This seed was planted into a woman’s body, much like planting a vegetable seed in a garden. To spill the seed was murder as the spiller was denying the living seed the opportunity to sprout and grow.
The 6th commandment requires us to protect life. Even potential life should be protected. If we assume that a man’s emission is a fully formed seed it is reasonable to conclude that wasting this emission is in fact ending a potential life.
In order to answer the question “do spermicidal or barrier birth control methods violate the 6th commandment?” we have to answer this question: “is sperm in and of itself ‘potential life?’”
My answer to this is “no”.
Semen is not a seed, sperm is not a seed. Without an egg present there is no chance that the sperm will survive. Unless the sperm fertilizes an egg it will die. Yes, the sperm is a living cell, but it does not carry by itself the potential for new human life.
Unless a woman is ovulating there is no potential for that sperm to grow into a life as it will never contact an egg. It will simply swim around inside the woman for a few hours or days and eventually die.
If we had to ensure sperm survived sex (the logical conclusion of Onanists), we would limit sexual union to only the time in which a woman is ovulating. Any sex outside of that time of fertility would be denying that “seed” a real opportunity to grow into life. You would be robbing that sperm the opportunity to meet and fertilize an egg.
We are commanded to give our spouse their conjugal rights, surely our spouse wants this fulfillment outside of the ovulation period, are we therefore being commanded to commit murder every time we do it any other time?
God would not command us to violate His own commandments. He knew that eventually we would know the science behind ovulation and understand the cycle of fertility. He allowed us to discover these things. The logical conclusion of the Onanists would have us use this knowledge to limit intercourse to those fertile times, otherwise we are “wasting” our “seed” just as Onan did.
Whether or not you believe barrier methods of birth control are sinful or not is not an indication of your salvation. This is a matter of conscience and I don’t hold it against anyone if they come to the conclusion that they personally cannot use barriers, coitus interuptus, or vasectomies in good conscience.
But for the reasons above, I don’t consider them sinful.
Stick around for the next post when I discuss why I believe hormonal birth control is sinful.