Birth Control and the Church: Part 1

There was a common theme among the comments to my article on Vasectomy. That theme was that essentially there is no difference between sterilization (vasectomy/tubal ligation) and other forms of birth control.  Perhaps you are right that there is no difference. In my readings it is very clear that the history of the church has shown that to intentionally prevent the conception of a child is a sin against the Sixth Commandment. This includes any intentional abstention from sexual intercourse for the express purpose of preventing conception like the rhythm method , or any intentional wasting of the seed for the purpose of preventing conception like coitus interuptus, condoms, IUD’s, the pill/patch/ring  or sterilization.  This has only changed in the past 100 years or so, with the advent of postmodern philosophy.  Perhaps it is a gray area as some readers have suggested…but why has it become a gray area only now and not for the previous 2000 years? I am not going to take a position here, I just want God’s people to really think about these things and not do them simply because “this is how it’s always been done”…I can assure you that argument will not hold up when Christ asks us to give an account.  I am simply going to show you what the church has historically said about birth control.

Let’s first look at what God in his Word says about birth control. Genesis 38:9 speaks of the sin of Onan and it is the only place that speaks of any form of birth control.  Until about 100 years ago, it was widely held that Onan was killed by God for intentionally spilling his seed upon the ground in order to prevent the conception of a child…essentially the belief was that he was slain for practicing birth control.  But in the church, birth control has become tolerated and accepted in the past 100 years. As we see in pre-marriage counselling courses in our churches we are even encouraged to use birth control.  Is this not interesting? It is to me, but I am different  🙂 And not surprising, along with this recent acceptance of birth control within the church has come a different interpretation of Onan’s sin… that he was really slain for having refused to raise up seed for his deceased brother. So all this begs a question in my mind. Would God still have slain Onan for simply refusing to raise up an hier for his deceased Brother, had he not spilled his seed and performed birth control?  Deuteronomy 25:7-10 tells us the penalty for refusing to raise up a legal heir for a deceased brother is not death, but shame.  So I think the answer would be no, he would not have been slain by God for simply refusing to raise up an heir.  But what do I know, I am just One Christian Dad.

Let’s take a look at the history of the churches view of birth control:


For it is illicit and shameful for a man to lie with even his lawful wife in such a way as to prevent the conception of offspring. This is what Onan, son of Judah, used to do; and for that God slew him (De adulterinis coniugiis ad Pollentium 1b.IIc.12 (PL 40 [1887]479).


The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring. This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the  offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides in this he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman ejects a fetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth by his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth (Calvin’s Latin Commentary on Genesis 38:10)


Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment…. He preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.


In 1618 the Synod of Dordt commissioned annotations to be written for the whole Bible. In The Dutch Annotations Upon The Whole Bible we read the following comments on the Onan incident wherein Onan‘s sin is likened to premeditated murder: This was even as much, as if he had (in a manner) pulled forth the fruit out of the mother’s womb, and destroyed it.


Two terms have been mentioned so far, family Planning and birth control. Family planning occurs when responsible persons influence the number of children by determining the frequency with which children may be born. Family planning does not mean that one wants to limit the number of children to a certain maximum number. Family planning is based on the desire to have the optimum number of children -as many as possible, taking into account the health of the mother, the possibilities of the family, and one’s responsibility to the Lord.

Birth control means the wilful limitation of children for reasons that are not valid before God. It appears that the whole world practices birth control for the wrong reasons. (Marriage in Honour)

So we can see what the historical view of birth control is.  Next time I hope to figure out where the shift occurred from this view to the current one that is held in the church.  Obviously my wife and I use some form of birth control, I think that is clear, so  I am not judging anyone…but I may incriminate myself in this endeavour.  Why do I need to know?  That is a good question…I just do!  Stay tuned.

Read Part 2 Here

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  1. Miranda says:

    I fail to understand that birth control is ok! I don’t understand why we can’t just completely trust God in this. I know it’s a personal decision. God knows what is best for us and what we can handle so why not trust Him in this matter like we do in other matters!

  2. Geoff says:

    Very Interesting Ryan.

    I just wanted to point out that at the time when most of these commentators were writing the “science” of those days said the “baby” was in the man and needed to grow in the woman. It was called Preformationism.
    They didn’t know about sperm and egg. So I assumed they thought that Onan was in fact killing a baby.

    • doulanic says:

      That’s very interesting! And would also explain why the interpretation of Onan’s sin has changed over the years.

      • Garrett says:

        As interesting as it is, I do not thing that there would be a change in the punishment of Onan because of our advancements in science and medical knowledge. Remember God punished Onan not his family or local authority, and God knew where babies come from.

    • Hi Geoff i am aware of preformism or preformaationism. This theory was originally put forth by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. I have been reading up on it for a few days now and am trying to correlate how the church would have accepted this theory from a Greek pagan thinker and if it had anything to do with the churches view on this topic for 1900 years. I am dubious that this is the reason, as I stated in the post about God smiting Onan…the “new” way of viewing it does not add up with a thorough investigation of scripture and the law. Anyway…hang tight I will present what I find out next time 🙂

      • doulanic says:

        A great book to read is “Reforming Marriage” by Douglas Wilson – a strong Reformed writer. He speaks about the sin of Onan and has this to say: “Some have argued that the case of Onan spilling his seed on the ground in Genesis is an example of God’s judgment on the act of birth coontrol. And so it was – but here our point (about the primacy of motivation) is strengthened. The thing that was objectionable in Onan’s action was his deliberate attempt to rob his deceased brother of his posterity (Gen 38:9). In other words, judgment fell on him because his motives were evil. Consequently, those who practice birth control with ungodly motives are following in the footsteps of Onan. But it takes a good deal of ingenuity to make a connection between this evil motive of Onan’s and the motive of a godly couple who practice birth control to space their children in order to maximize the number of children they can have. So when there is no clear teaching in the Scripture on a subject of moral and ethical behaviour, it is necessary for us to be silent. We may not condemn something as sin in itself simply on the grounds that most people who do it are sinful in their motivations.”

        In his book he writes as if he and his wife don’t really practice birth control. He seems to believe very strongly in allowing God to “open and close” the womb as He wills. His focus is on what the Bible does teach about marriage, children and family. In that he is very positive. He doesn’t outright condemn birth control (other than the ones that abortive in nature) – and he seems to link it to MOTIVES – godly or otherwise. I like what he writes here: “The issue of birth control is not an area where the civil magistrate or the elders of the church have any business. If an ungodly attitude toward children and family is visible and apparent, then THAT should be addressed by the elders of the church. But they should deal with it the same way they would deal with an analogous situation (eg – someone who has an ungodly attitude toward alcohol – a substance not sinful in itself but which can be abused.)

        Finally, he ends the chapter with this: “Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the use of birth control is sinful. So it is wrong to say that it is. The Bible does consistently say that children are a blessing from the Lord. And it is a sin to say or act as though they are not.”

        Again, I would highly recommend reading this book for a good, Reformed, Biblical understanding of marriage, sex, pregnancy, babies, birth control and being good stewards.

        • I have read this book and a couple others by Doug Wilson. I admire the man and have quoted him before in this blog. He is a founding proponent of “Federal Vision” which has been declared heretical by the URC, OPC, and PCA among other churches, so I tread carefully when quoting him lol… His view on birth control is prevalent everywhere in Protestantism not just reformed circles. Hi view is not at all what I am attacking, I am simply trying to find out why this view has become so prevalent now, when it has not been for the history of the church.

  3. I would guess that everyone has decided in their own mind about birth control…Mime is that before a child is conceived birth control is alright. However using abortion as a method of ‘birth control’ is definitely wrong as the fetus is a child already formed. Right or Wrong …that’s how I feel….Diane

  4. Garrett says:

    I think the question is do you believe in the providence of God for all things or do you believe in this only for some things?

    • doulanic says:

      I would say that most devout Christians would say they believe in the providence of God. However, many of us purchase insurance, RRSP’s, etc …as a way of safeguarding our possessions, the future etc. Is this not trusting in God’s providence? There is always the matter of man’s responsibility. There is always more to consider. Yes, my husband and I trust in the providence of God. But we are called to also be good stewards – not just of our possessions ….but also things like 1) our health 2) our marriage 3) our other children etc.
      Believe it or not, people use birth control -permanent or otherwise – for reasons other than what many people perceive as “selfish” reasons.

      • Garrett says:

        Another way to ask the question is who knows best? Our all knowing God or imperfect and sinful man? By saying no to children because we do not want (not want does not include stopping for legitimate health reasons) anymore we are telling God that we know better then Him what we can handle.

        In regards to insurance a lot of the insurance that we get is required by authorities that the Lord has given us i.e you cannot drive that car without insurance, you cannot have a mortgage without insurance on your home etc. But further discussion on insurances and RRSP’s etc is another topic for another time if Ryan wants to open another can of worms when this one is done.

    • Darren says:

      In the theoretical context of ‘providence of God’ you are completely correct. But as doulanic says, we are called to be good stewards as well. W
      When you discuss Insurance, many of the insurances are required by law, and others are to help when the unforeseen happens in your lives. Some people will take life/disability insurance in the event something happens to them so that their family does not suffer severe consequences. Now other’s claim that is what the church is for. But if you can support your family and ensure you have been a ‘good steward’ and done all you can with what God has given you to ensure your family is taken care of, why would you not get the life/disability insurance?
      This is NOT to say you should get the added insurance, rather, it is to shed light on the issue that while many things in theory are black and white, their is a host of grey within our lives.
      Merely believing in ‘the providence of God’ and doing nothing yourself could be argued to be just as much as a sin.

  5. Janneke S says:

    playing Devil’s advocate.. but if the theory is that birth control is wrong because it’s playing God… would abstinence in marriage (during opertune time) be wrong as well? because that’s still taking some form of control? just curious on your thoughts… I’m with Diane:) though above all I think whichever method you choose, birth control or not, it needs to be prayed about, and God does need to be central in the decision

    • This is what I wrote, “This includes any intentional abstention from sexual intercourse for the express purpose of preventing conception like the rhythm method , or any intentional wasting of the seed for the purpose of preventing conception like coitus interuptus, condoms, IUD’s, the pill/patch/ring or sterilization.”
      So yes, intentionally avoiding sex during that time would be seen as a sin as the church viewed it in the past…but who would know besides the couple and God? So it could not be enforced…

  6. Rob says:

    God tells his children over and over to trust Him. Do not worry about what to eat or wear, to have a childlike reverence and trust in Him. I just read: “…the motive of a godly couple who practice birth control to space their children in order to maximize the number of children they can have.” If we believe God to have complete control in every aspect of our lives, then how can we, lower than worms, try to wrest control from His capable hands and try to place it in our own? What good has ever come from man saying to God, “No God, we would not like to have your blessing right now, maybe once our life’s circumstances have changed in order that we might get the maximum benefit?” How can we know better than God what we need

  7. Heidi says:

    I have heard that what the drug companies don’t necessarily want us to know is that some forms of the pill do not prevent fertilization but it prevents implantation. Is this true? If so, does life begin at fertilization or at implantation?? This is a very scary thought to me that some Christians may have unknowingly aborted a fertilized egg because only implantation was prevented. I believe life begins at fertilization. On another note, what are your thoughts on IVF??

  8. Darren says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Only just stumbled across your website and find it interesting, may start reading everyday. One part of this I felt the need to comment on was:

    “Perhaps it is a gray area as some readers have suggested…but why has it become a gray area only now and not for the previous 2000 years? ”

    The answer to this could be that the roles of women in the past were to have children and be silent and do their due diligence without a word of concern or strife. Men ruled and women had kids, and to not be able to have a child was seen as a curse/sin upon the woman.

    The landscape of the family dynamics have greatly changed in the last 2000 years, even within the Reformed community. To say that because the issues were never brought up 2000 years ago and treat that as the barometer without looking into ‘why’ sells this point short.

  9. Lorelle says:

    I just found your blog today and look forward to reading more of your posts 🙂 Thank you for bringing up this subject. 🙂

    I have been looking at family planning in the Bible on and off for quite a few years. I have talked to a few people about it and studied it a little bit, but not near as much as I’d like. From the little bit that I have studied, these are some questions I have, and this is what I understand about Onan’s sin. Of course I am only human, and just like you, I can be wrong and have been before 🙂 I always try to be open to discussion and to be corrected if I am wrong 🙂

    – Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
    – Do not test God
    Is deciding to trust God with family size – not using any sort of family planning – testing or trusting?
    If it is trusting, how are we to trust him with our health (should we go to the dr. when we are sick? Use medications? Go for cancer treatment? etc)

    As for Onan’s sin…
    After reading the text in context and looking throughout the bible for other texts that support that this text is about family planning -I cannot find one- Onan I believe was punished for the sin of lying and deception.
    If he did not want to have children for his brother all he had to do was to say no, be shamed, and be on his way. By marrying his brother’s wife it showed to everyone that he was doing just as the law told him to do. But in secret, where no one but his brothers wife could see, he used his brothers wife for his own pleasure and by spilling his seed deceived everyone. Everyone except God who sees and knows all. So God punished him.
    I have a hard time using this text in family planning discussions, because I don’t believe this text is about family planning. What I get from this story is this – God sees and judges the intentions of man.
    Prov. 19:9 – A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who tells lies will perish.
    Prov 21:2 – Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the LORD weighs the hearts.
    God detests lying – Zech 8:17, Rev.21:8 (There are many more about God hating lying ) 🙂

    As for the multiple times the Bible says children are a blessing – we are forgetful and selfish people, Kids are not easy blessings, so we must be reminded again, and again