Not Just for Catholics
Natural Family Planning is not just for Catholics, and the time has come for Catholics and Protestants alike to put aside two misunderstandings and to realize how much some of us have in common. The misunderstanding held by many Catholics is that all Protestants accept unnatural forms of birth control. That is simply not the case. A misunderstanding held by many Protestants is that the teaching against unnatural forms of birth control is just a somewhat recent Catholic idiosyncrasy. That also is simply not the case.
The history of biblical rejection of unnatural forms of birth control starts in Genesis. In chapter 38 we learn about the sin of Onan, one of the sons of Judah. His older brother, Er, acted wickedly and was killed by God before he had children. The Near Eastern custom of the time, called the Law of the Levirate, required Onan to have children by the widow, and these children would be considered the offspring of the deceased brother, thus carrying on the family line. Onan clearly did not like the idea of raising children for his dead brother. While he engaged in the covenantal "marriage act" with the widow, Tamar, he defrauded it by his act of withdrawal and spilling his seed on the ground. The Sacred Author tells us that "what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also" (Gen 38:10). By the custom, Judah should have then given Tamar his third son, Shelah, but it seems he feared losing him too, so he failed to do his fatherly duty. Then Tamar played the harlot and became pregnant by Judah. When the out-of-wedlock baby was born, Tamar identified Judah as the father, and he admitted it, saying, "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah" (Gen 38:26).
The traditional teaching that contraception is a serious sin has a firm biblical foundation, but in recent years there has been a concerted effort to deny that the traditional teaching has this basis. The revisionists want us to think that the sin of Onan was only his selfish violation of the Levirate. This effort fails for three reasons, two of which are very apparent to those of us who are not specialists in the Hebrew text.
First, it is clear that there are three people who are all guilty of violating the Law of the Levirate: Onan, Judah by his own admission, and Shelah. Only one of them, however, was killed. Justice requires that we ask what Onan did that the others did not do. The answer is obvious. Only Onan engaged in the covenantal sexual act but defrauded it by his contraceptive behavior. The Levirate-only interpretation makes God to be arbitrary and unjust.
Second, there is another biblical text - Deuteronomy 25:5-10 - that clearly describes the penalty for a man violating the Levirate. The aggrieved widow could accuse him before the elders, spit in his face and take off his shoe-presumably quite embarrassing, but far from the death penalty
Third, Biblical scholar Manuel Miguens has shown that the key Hebrew verb generally has been mistranslated. The word "shichet" doesn't mean "spilled" but means "to act perversely." So the real meaning of Gen 38:9-10 is that Onan was punished for an act that was perverse in itself, not just for his selfish intentions. You can find more on this in Birth Control and Christian Discipleship and Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality. Both of these are shown on the Home Page.
The leaders of the Protestant Reformation did not accept contraception. In their commentaries on the Onan account in Genesis, Martin Luther called the sin of Onan a form of sodomy, and John Calvin called it a form of homicide. A Protestant author published the anti-contraception interpretations of 69 Protestant theologians who wrote on the Onan account. Then he added a list of another 35 Protestant theologians who opposed birth control. He stated emphatically that in his research he
"found not one orthodox theologian to defend Birth Control before the 1900's. NOT ONE! On the other hand, we have found that many highly regarded Protestant theologians were enthusiastically opposed to it, all the way back to the very beginning of the Reformation" (Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control, Monongahela, Pa: Zimmer, 1989, p 63).
When the American promoters of unnatural forms of birth control tried to import contraception from Europe in 1873, the Protestant-dominated Congress and state legislatures passed legislation against the sale and distribution of contraceptive devices. These were the so-called Comstock laws, named after the Protestant reformer who worked hard to get this anti-contraception legislation enacted all around the country.
On August 14, 1930 the Church of England became the first church to accept marital contraception as morally permissible. On March 21, 1931, a committee of the Federal Council of Churches also accepted marital contraception. The reaction of some leading Protestants was quick, sharp, and negative. One of the strongest statements appeared as an unsigned editorial in The Washington Post the very next day.
It is the misfortune of the churches that they are too often misused by visionaries for the promotion of "reforms" in fields foreign to religion. The departures from Christian teachings are astounding in many cases, leaving the beholder aghast at the willingness of some churches to discard the ancient injunction to teach "Christ and Him crucified." . . . Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee's report, if carried into effect, would sound the death-knoll of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be 'careful and restrained' is preposterous.
Birth Control, as popularly understood today and involving the use of contraceptives, is one of the most repugnant of modern aberrations, representing a 20th Century renewal of pagan bankruptcy:
-Dr. Walter A. Maier, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Louis
The whole disgusting movement rests on the assumption of man's sameness with the brutes.
-Bishop Warren Chandler, Methodist Episcopal Church South, 13 April 1931
Others attacked the Federal Council of Churches (the forerunner of today's National Council of Churches) for allowing the committee statement.
Its recent pronouncement on birth control should be enough reason, if there were no other, to withdraw from the support of that body, which declares that it speaks for the Presbyterian and other Protestant churches in ex cathedra pronouncements.
-The Presbyterian, 2 April 1931
The Protestant rejection of unnatural forms of birth control, however, gradually declined for the next 45 years after the statement from the Federal Council of Churches, or at least it became less and less visible. After the explosion caused within the Catholic Church by the encyclical Humanae Vitae and the organized dissent from it, the Natural Family Planning movement was born, and soon the Catholics leading the NFP movement were encouraged by the company of Protestant writers and pastors.
In 1975 a major secular publisher, Harper & Row, published The Joy of Being a Woman.And What a Man Can Do by Ingrid Trobisch, the wife of a Lutheran pastor. It thoroughly supported modern NFP, and both Walter and Ingrid soon became welcomed speakers within the growing NFP community.
In 1976, the Liturgical Press published the English translation of a 1974 work, Man: The Greatest of Miracles: An Answer to the Sexual Counter-evolution, by a German Lutheran physician and theologian, Siegfried Ernst, who strongly upheld the traditional teaching reaffirmed by Humanae Vitae
In 1977, Bethany Fellowship, a Protestant publishing house, issued The Christian Couple by Larry and Nordis Christenson who had previously authored the best-selling The Christian Family. In a chapter titled, "Contraception: Blessing or Blight," the Christensons told how they started their marriage in 1951 with barrier contraception. Somehow they got in touch with Dr. Konald A. Prem who taught them part of the sympto-thermal method of NFP. They stopped using contraception and testified in their book as follows.
"We believe that the years have confirmed and rewarded us in our decision to stop using a contraceptive device. Our sexual relationship has developed in a new way. We love and delight in each other more. Sexuality has become a more enjoyable, natural part of my life. We attribute this to our discovery of natural family planning. I would not go back to using a contraceptive device even if the alternative were having twenty-one children" (p. 74).
In 1982, Transaction Publishers brought out a new edition of A Preface to Morals by Walter Lippmann. This is the work in which the well-known secular humanist had noted in 1929 that it was an idle daydream to assume that information about contraception could be restricted to married couples.
"Now this is what the Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic, which oppose contraception as a matter of principle, instantly recognized. They were quite right. They were quite right, too, in recognizing that whether or not birth control is eugenic, hygienic, and economic, it is the most revolutionary practice in the history of sexual morals" (291).
Further, Lippmann argued that "the central confusion has been that the reformers have tried to fix their sexual ideals in accordance with the logic of birth control instead of the logic of human nature" (306).
A different approach was taken by certain Protestant authors who rejected not only contraception but also systematic NFP, or at least their understanding of it.
In 1990, Rick and Jan Hess published a Christian challenge to the NFP movement-The Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. They not only rejected contraception but the whole idea of any sort of family planning. The best thing they had to say about NFP was that for many couples it was a first step to adopting the full quiver approach.
In 1985 Crossway published The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality by Mary Pride. She also rejected systematic NFP, but there was so much good common sense in this book that we engaged the author in dialogue. In 1989 Crossway published her next book, All the Way Home: Power for Your Family to be Its Best. Here Mrs. Pride substantially changed her view about systematic NFP and agreed that when a couple has truly serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, it is permissible to use systematic NFP.
In 1989, as mentioned previously, Zimmer Printing published The Bible and Birth Control by Charles D. Provan. Most of this book was an extended argument for the full quiver approach, and the cover showed a hand holding nine arrows and the words, "Psalm 127:4," the full quiver verse. Of special interest to the NFP movement was that a Protestant had written such a book and had included an extensive collection of Protestant commentaries on the sin of Onan.
None of the above books gives any significant attention to ecological breastfeeding. In 2006, however, Above Rubies published Breastfeeding and Fertility by Jenny Silliman who recommends what she calls "responsive breastfeeding" for the natural spacing of babies. We have said since 1968 that ecological breastfeeding is an important part of natural family planning, and over the years we have thought it strange that those who, for religious reasons, promoted the full quiver approach have not advocated ecological breastfeeding as God's own plan for spacing babies. Thus we were pleased to see this work from a Protestant publishing house.
According to the NIH Family Growth surveys, there are probably more Protestants than Catholics who practice some form of NFP. The percentage in both groups is low, around 3% of those in their fertile years who are doing anything about birth control, but the application of that rate to the American Protestant population yields a larger number than its application to the smaller American Catholic population. (The modern versions of systematic NFP have been promoted primarily by Catholics in ways that reach primarily their fellow believers, and for this reason probably more Catholics use modern systematic NFP.) The number of those who practice ecological breastfeeding is low in each group.
The evidence is clear. NFP does not mean Not For Protestants. Catholics and Protestants have much in common. We share the unfortunate reality that only a small minority of Christians use any form of chaste natural family planning. We also share the privilege of helping our fellow Christians (and anyone else who will listen) to understand what is involved in the culture war between natural and unnatural forms of family planning Finally, we share the opportunity to help each other to accept the dominion of the Lord in our families, to be generous in having children and raising them in the ways of the Lord, to take care of our babies with ecological breastfeeding, and to use systematic NFP if and when we need additional spacing or family limitation.