Contraception, Homosexuality and Christian Ethics

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I want to pick up on a twitter thread I looked at recently.  The basis of the thread is that Christians strongly insist that same-sex attracted people should comply with traditional Christian ethics. However, the traditional Christian ethic was until the 20th century that contraception was also sinful. 

I have a couple of concerns with the approach in the thread. First of all, it weighs in quite heavily with emotional pressure. You will be angry and upset about being told you should comply with the tradition and relieved to hear that there is a get out of jail card because grace allows us to step free from the tradition. This type of technique closes down discussion. I’m not simply allowed to disagree. Any challenge on my part simply proves how upset I am. 

Secondly, I suggested in my response that there is a confusion and conflation in the argument of Christian/Biblical ethics with Roman Catholic theology and ethics. Now, I’m not saying that this is solely a Roman Catholic view.  The tweeter references a number of Christians throughout history that predate or come after Roman Catholicism, notably Wesley, Luther and Calvin. However, the issue is not so much with who is cited as with the approach to determining an ethic. I would argue that the contraception ban as historically seen is rooted in a Catholic Worldview both with reference to sex and sexuality and with reference to how we seek guidance.  Individual reformers may have had their view on the matter and different denominations their policy but that is quite different from the idea of a Magisterium setting out its binding, infallible decisions that become part of the tradition.

Thirdly, this means that I’m not convinced that they have engaged rightly with the Protestant tradition in terms of how it does function. So, as I read through the quotes given from notable non-Catholic theologians I noted that the quotes were not necessarily specifically to do with contraception. Take this one for example from John Wesley.

The issue is not about the use of condoms or medication but rather about an overall attitude towards human reproduction so that fascinatingly, Wesley has single people in his sights. Now that perhaps is something to pick up some other time, but it does give us a clue that something else might be going on. Indeed, this would suggest that he probably does have masturbation in mind.

This brings us to the final issue, the claim that the Bible is somehow unclear on homosexuality and clear on contraception.  What is the basis for this claim? Well, first of all, where is the clarity on “contraception.”  The basis of this appears to be the sin of Onan. You can read about this is Genesis 38.  There Onan’s brother dies and so he is asked to perform the Leverite duty of providing an heir for his elder brother with his wife Tamar.  However, he chooses to go through the motion of sexual intercourse but allows his semen to spill on the ground because he knows that the child will not be his. God considers this wicked and so Onan dies. 

Now notice two things. First of all, that we are told explicitly what the wicked thing is, it is the withholding of an heir for his brother. Secondly that the wider context shows us what the wider issue is. It is not just Onan that fails in his responsibility but also Judah, his father too.  So that the consequences of Onan and Judah’s sin is shame and dishonour upon Tamar.  The resolution to this is not just judgement on Onan but the restoration of Tamar when she is recognised by Judah as “more righteous.”

Genesis 38 is explicitly not about contraception just as it is not about masturbation.  So, is there anything is Scripture that explicitly talks about contraception?  The answer is a resounding “no.” It’s not just that there are unclear Bible passages. It’s not that Scripture possibly rules it out but is open to challenge. It is that the Bible is absolutely silent on this.  We are not even on the same ground as for example we might be if the concern was about Bible teaching and divorce (which I think would provide a stronger potential case study).

On the other hand, Scripture is explicit in its forbidding of sexual relationships between couples of the same sex. Whilst it has been argued that the concept of “homosexuality” as a particular sexual identity was not present until the modern era[1] this does not remove Scripture’s clear statements on the activity. In fact, those who suggest that because the concept of a fixed sexual orientation was unknown in Bible times, therefore the Bible itself could not have had homosexuality in view are downplaying the ability of Scripture as God breathed to speak beyond the cultures it was written into.

Finally, I would invite you to consider how the sexual ethic on contraception was reached.  This is where I would invite you to look at the quotes offered in the thread. Obviously, it is much better to have them cited with references so we can check things like accuracy of translation and context. However, even with what is on offer, we can draw some conclusions about the nature of the argument. It is clearly not based on just an interpretation and application of one verse.  Rather, the ethic is rooted in a broader understanding of what Scripture has to say to us about sex and marriage.

In Genesis 1-2, we see that God makes man and woman and charges them with filling and subduing the earth. Marriage is for the purpose of this, and so Eve as helper plays her role in assisting Adam to fill the earth.  Or, sex does have the primary purpose of enabling reproduction.  Therefore, anything that goes against that purpose is seen as rebelling against God’s command.  In fact, this is one factor alongside the concern for order and boundaries that combines with specific restrictions to build up the traditional Christian position on same-sex relationships.  This seems indeed to be the concern with Christian writers throughout history. It’s not just about one off sexual incidents but rather the broader concern about fertile as opposed to infertile relationships.

Therefore, we have two issues here. First of all, the foundational question is whether or not we agree with that understanding of Biblical teaching. Is Scripture arguing against the wilful pursuit of infertile relationships and the frustration of the command to fill the earth.  At this point, I would affirm that.  I would also want to point out that this does raise pastoral questions. What about those who experience infertility? I would suggest that the point is the wilful rejection of the Creation mandate. So, I would argue that there are cases where

  • Medically there would be complications in having children – not only through infertility.
  • People have found that they fulfil their calling in terms of the creation mandate by contributing in other ways to reproduction
  • For some, their calling in relation to the Great Commission will take priority.

Now, does this ethic rule of contraception and same-sex relationships. I would argue that this ethic combined with direct prohibition and other theological considerations does remove same-sex relationships from our range of relational choices.

What then about contraception?  Well, I certainly think that we need greater thought and caution in this area to what we tend to see in contemporary society including church culture.  A decision to use contraception should not be automatic.  However, we also need to factor in the consideration that within a marriage resulting in children that not every sexual act will lead to pregnancy and that a couple will continue to have sexual relations after they have stopped having children.  This suggests to me that whilst sexual union is about reproduction, it is not only about reproduction. Therefore, cautiously I believe that contraception is appropriate either because a particular point in time is not the right time to have children and/or particularly where there are medical factors (including physical and emotional health) issues that could lead to complications.

Now, I note that there are some evangelicals as well as Catholics who would continue to argue that birth control is always wrong. I disagree with them but I see that as a conscience matter. However, whatever your position on the matter of contraception, if you try to use that as an argument in favour of same-sex relationships then I’m afraid you are working with a red herring. 

[1] Something which I would suggest is debatable. It is not just about language or psychology.

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