A Review of “Pastoral Considerations of Contraception” in From Taboo to Delight: Ethics of Sex
A Message from Pastor Hale
Theology, that is God's will revealed in Scripture, is clear-cut. It is not open to interpretation, no matter how much man fumes and foams at the harshness or unfairness of what he despises. Dealing with people pastorally does require tact and understanding, but a book dealing with timely issues from Concordia Publishing House by LCMS professors, pastors, and laymen should be held to a high doctrinal standard. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with this book and this essay on contraception in particular. While this response is partly a polemical piece, it is intended to correct on the basis of God's Word. Therefore it is a loving service, because God's Word is being publicly distorted. Those who trust in Christ's good and loving will can do so in all things, especially in the creation and care of the children He makes.
Dr. Stuckwisch authored a convoluted essay entitled: “Pastoral Considerations of Contraception.” He displays some real insight, which one would expect since his marriage has been blessed with ten children. However, it is far too accommodating to the culture and shockingly unscriptural at key points. So much so that that he deforms the Gospel itself and fails to take a firm Christian stand in regard to life.
Pastor Stuckwisch introduces his article with a disclaimer that indicates he will not take a stand on Scripture regarding the view of children in general: “Every particular situation is different, and in this fallen world there are no pat and easy answers for all the questions and challenges confronting husbands, wives, and families in their life together” (105). Right off the bat, the issue is declared uncertain in God's Word, which is not the case at all. Marriage and children are quite simple according to God who makes every marriage and every child. Frail sinners and worldly, pagan understandings make dealing with the blessings of children, or the sin-stained lack of fruitfulness, the real scourge. It is assumed by the pagan world that having children is a mere biological process under our scientific control, not holy creations of Christ worth suffering for. The problem is never Christ and His Word. It is always the individual who is fleshly and unspiritual who fails to love God as the law requires. This is primarily a matter of the heart, not methods or actions. Wherever any matter of God's will in natural creation is compromised, the Gospel becomes a license to do whatever sinners want. That is the reason the paganism tolerated in this essay must be resisted.
The essay contains some insightful and admirable statements, which would have made excellent starting points for the discussion, but they merely serve as decorative backdrops to the generic theme of “do whatever you think is best (in faith and love, of course); God does not really care, nor is He always involved in the creation and preservation of life.” Since the pagan view of parenting is not denied, nor fears assuaged by the true Gospel, we are left with moralism, tedious legalistic pokings, and vague sentimentality: “What does this [issue of family] confess concerning the Church and her fruitfulness in making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, in giving birth to the children of God” (106). But children and marriage are natural things. The pagan must deal with them as well as the Christian. There is nothing explicitly Christian in them. A Christian confession (contra many phrases throughout the book) is not in doing these acts, but in accepting our vocation as divine, whether we are married or not, in a full house or an empty one, in godly fear, trusting in Christ's forgiveness for our hatred of life and God's holy will.
The Gospel has nothing to do with birthing, raising, or parenting children. Children do not bring forgiveness or cause a neighbor to repent of sin. This is purely outward and physical. Christian couples are not blessed with more children than the pagan who prostitutes herself out to many men for the sake of “love.” Faith does not act, it passively receives from the Lord who died for all sin. It does not change biology or make parenting fun. Neither will the Gospel enable you to make correct decisions for your life. Christ gives His righteousness to us to cover our sin, not to grant the ability to play God.
The main distinction made in the essay is between contraception and birth control. While useful, it is hardly a defining dividing line. After all, the distinction between fertilization and implantation has been known less than 150 years. How can this modern scientific description be more important than God's eternal Word, which does not care one whit about this “fundamental distinction” (108). The truth is that pagan thinking is the root of both. For they have the same purpose as abortion — to not have a child to care for and raise. Casuistic moral judgments, like “birth control pills are not a morally acceptable option,” replace theology (109). The human heart and its lack of trust in God's goodness is bypassed. The Gospel of Christ's care for sinners and their weakness is what we need, not detailed descriptions of the embryo's implantation or the scientific names of the hormones that are involved in procreation. After all, babies have been successfully made by God through man and woman without instruction manuals, text-books, or any knowledge of how this happens for millennia. Christ Himself, who made us, impels man and woman together to marriage and the marital act, and He takes care of its fruitfulness. It is all His work and the Gospel affirms His basic goodness, not our ability to think wiser thoughts than God.
The most offensive passage is this one: “In contrast to birth control, the use of contraception in itself is neither sinful nor immoral, but neutral and free. ...there is no word of God commanding martial relations or the forbidding of the avoidance of conception at any given time or under every and all circumstances” (110). What is free does not matter to God. But the essay later backtracks and imposes some burdens on this “freedom”: “contraception is not the rule but the exception.” It even references 1 Cor. 7:4-5: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another [of marital relations], except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Scripture, therefore Christ Himself, says that the marital act is not to be legislated against or avoided for any reason except prayer. He was not cursing married couples, but preserving weak sinners. The act that leads to children is intrinsic to marriage by design.
In truth, there is no good way to avoid children for the married. The essay seems to promote the Roman method of “natural family planning,” which is about as natural as undergoing a science experiment before every marital uniting. It institutes a mini-monastic vacation during a specific part of a woman's cycle for the sake of avoiding life. While Roman Christians have an authority apart from Scripture, Lutherans do not. And this method contradicts the already cited 1 Cor. 7:4-5. It harms and divides the union and invites deadly sexual temptation for the sake of impure motives. No method, after all, can address the heart. It may not physically harm unborn children or use man-made materials, but it certainly does not promote life or the one flesh union Christ created and has ultimate authority over.
The essay backwardly ascribes correct conduct to faith itself. But faith is passive, it does not remove sin or guarantee holy living. Because faith is subjective and cannot be diagnosed by another, it provides a deceptive cover for the pagan illusion that people control life, assuming it is simply a biological process in which God is not involved. Fruitfulness is a curse, not a blessing, to the world. After all, they even speak of abortion as “birth control,” because only murder ensures that what is trying to be prevented (life) is not allowed. Pagans actually see all of these methods and practices which have as their goal to prevent a life as of one cloth, but today even conservative Christian theologians make scholastic moral distinctions so sinners can justify themselves. God forbid that children, before they come into being, are considered “free and neutral” to the Christian. Christ uses means to create, just as He does to save. To despise the means is to reject the gift. Thankfully, few hate life so much (and consider it so completely neutral) that they try to permanently prevent children before they are married.
Promoting the “criteria of faith and love” is a farce (112). Faith receives and our love is not divine this side of heaven. “As the pressures of the world's way of thinking and acting increase, Christians stand fast and boldly confess their faith and love in Christ by their speaking and their way of living” (113). That is not true — just look around. Christians look just like the world, for the most part. Do we truly love without selfishness and rejoice in life more than the pagan? Do they not feed, clothe, and educate their 2.1 children also? Christians do not become holy or sanctified in their decision making process. They remain frail and must be corrected by the Word of Christ continually. In the “realm of life ... we do have freedom and ability to make choices and decisions” (114). That is true, but it is the source of all problems and evil. The world tells us to worship our will and reason, but Scripture says you do not know what will happen tomorrow. Laying the cherry on top of “proceed in the fear and faith of God” is meaningless (116). Faith does not make our actions or will right. It receives forgiveness for those filthy things! The essence and only characteristic of faith is that it relies on the promises of Christ.
What sounds godly and should be the case is not, since forgiven sinners remain sinners: “Normally, within marriage, faith and love will remain open and receptive to the likelihood of conception” (120). Thankfully, true faith has nothing at all to do with our actions. It relies solely on the power of Christ, revealed in His death for all sin. Do you want great faith? Try trusting God in letting Him determine your family and trust that He will take care of it, even if it seems too big of a mess for you. Fruitfulness is always a blessing, but a marred one today that entails a cross. Only the most spiritual would dare to trust Jesus with so personal a matter. “Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor. 7:28). Yes, trusting in Christ will bring real suffering. Inspiring Christian imagery and compelling analogies are no substitute for the Savior who died for those overwhelmed by sin — the cursed, suffering, and dying.
The Christian-sounding argument of exercising stewardship over creation in “planning” a family is the modern canard and grenade to explode any theological drivel about God wholly making life, that is babies, directly. First of all, it is an impossible argument historically. No one had this technology until very recently. Children simply went with marriage. The power and goodness of our reason has seemingly grown, but sadly all the technology in the world cannot make a barren womb fruitful. We can only exercise “stewardship” or “control” one way — rejecting life. No one can have a baby without God's most intimate action. Hannah and Sarah did not open their own barren wombs. Dominion over life is a false idol that should be destroyed. Animals and plants we do have dominion over, but human life is God's domain, not something in the hands of sinners, according to the fifth commandment.
We should not take the possibility of rejecting God's natural intention and action in marriage as implying that we have power over life and may decide (as a god!) how many people should enter this world and populate His church. To not choose for yourself will reveal your sin and helplessness in an entirely new way. Sinners are full of excuses for abstaining from godliness. Most of them are wishy-washy sentiments, which change hour to hour, not firm confessions of God's good will rooted in Scripture. Rather they are the regurgitated paganism of the world — that we deserve time to be selfish (to take a break from new life), we must have money which is the source of true life, my health is vastly more important than my potential neighbor's very being, and a host of others, some too unseemly to even mention. The lie that we may determine our own fruitfulness is a powerful delusion, but one that must disappoint. Worse yet, not “planning” (actively frustrating the means that Christ uses to make fruitful) one's family with fleshly, pagan wisdom is considered recklessness and enthusiasm! But only one approach to children can accurately be called Christ's holy will, without any doubt whatsoever. But you will suffer for this: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Is. 55:8). Christians must acknowledge, if sin is more than an outmoded relic, that no human decision or impulse is without guilt and lovelessness before the holy Lord. Only God's will can be truly called good. Yet your comfort is not in children born as sinful, dying mortals, or in an easy, burden-free life on earth, it is in Jesus who receives you as a little child and forgives you in heaven.
It is stated in the essay that God “conceives children where and when it pleases Him.” But clearly sinful man can and does reject that gift quite easily. So the two wills, divine and human, collide, because we either do not think children are from Christ or fully believe that Christ is good. Jesus, while loving and good, does not coerce the unwilling. Maintaining that any action done in human love is OK, does not actually make man's will to be better than God's. Saying that faith and love will fix everything is to say “do whatever you want, God will bring good through my sin.” This is testing God, not the “foolishness” of receiving more divine children from Christ when it seems idiotic to the world. No parent has enough money, patience, time, or goodness for God's holy will, nor His creation of life. But these fleshly sacrifices of parenting become light and momentary compared to the glory awaiting the Father's baptized children. Luther encouraged women, who until recently faced the very real likelihood of death with every child, to the divine vocation of childbirth: “If you were not a woman you should now wish to be one for the sake of this very work alone, that you might gloriously suffer and even die in the performance of God’s work and will” (LW 45:40). Christ is not a discretionary idea to flippantly debate, He is the Creator and Preserver of this world, marriage, and all bodies.
In our modern era the individual's will must be given equal weight with God's. “A man must also consider the needs of those children the Lord has already entrusted to his care and to his wife” (119). Being steward over life itself is an invitation to play God. Will not Christ who makes children consider what is best for husband and wife? Does He fall asleep in heaven and forget how hard it is to go without sleep and care for a newborn? Does He mistakenly create even one too many babies? No, but His holy will is not what fleshly sinners want. It is not surprising that there is no clear cut right or wrong, or any true hope, in playing God. What is the right number of children? We can only decide to reject God's working, though many buy into the false promise that we can choose to have a baby exactly when we want. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone chooses to create life and His choices are always good. But our choices? Even our best and most holy reasons are stained by sin and our lack of trust in God's care. How many of our excuses are more love for the self than love for God? To avoid suffering is not loving. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Christ dared to suffer all for you.
“Neither does faith put the Lord God to the test by preceding recklessly or foolishly into harm's way without cause” (117). Parents who have children simply because it is God's will, not because they selfishly “want” them, are foolish to the world. But children are God's divine creations, not ours. He has promised to care for them. Even if there is suffering and death (which is certain for sinners), we have the promise of the resurrection. Those redeemed in body by Christ's blood will be glorified in their own bodies. This is the Gospel, not that life will be easy or without troubles. There is true, heavenly comfort in difficult earthly situations. Abraham appeared very reckless in raising the knife over Isaac. Every baby that exists, even the frailest and weakest, is a divine miracle, not just the result of a normal, predictable, biological process. God wants that baby He made, and in Christ His will is known as good. Our Lord does not make mistakes or misjudge, though sinners do. That is why the husband is made by Christ to be the head of the wife. Her motherly fears and emotions are not to decide what is good. God's will is firm and sure in Christ, despite our struggles with it.
“So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Tim. 5:14). Letting God actually be God over all aspects of your life is not easy or fun. But the hope is not in controlling our own destiny, but in surrendering our sinful will to Jesus who was crucified for our guilt and fears: our sinful longing for peace and quiet without neighbors to love, our selfishness and lust for things and mammon to use as we see fit without interference, and our sick hatred of life. Turn and repent. After all, if God is involved at all, we should pray “Thy will be done,” not “I am free and neutral to do whatever I think is best for God.” A Christian must confess that he does not just make a few mistakes, he hates God's will — which requires much more than just not murdering. Luther speaks of the freedom of faith: “Let God worry about how [young married couples] and their children are to be fed. God makes children; he will surely also feed them. Should he fail to exalt you and them on earth, then take satisfactions in the fact that he has granted you a Christian marriage, and know that he will exalt you there; and be thankful to him for his gifts and favors” (LW 45:48-49).
The solution is not barbed moralism or twisting the Gospel into an earthly tool, implying that it will fix you and help you to do the right thing. No, it is trust in Christ as your God — the one who redeemed your very body and all its members and continues to make His institution of marriage fruitful. Faith trusts all of God's will as good, not just in regards to eternal life, but also His work in our bodies and in giving us our daily bread. Christ makes a promise to you, that you may count on: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt. 6:25-26). Are not you and the most fragile among us more valuable than birds? Do they agonize over how many eggs to lay based on their investments and existing progeny?
A husband may enjoy his wife in good conscience, leaving children and their care to the risen, all-knowing Christ. You are not God, you don't even know what tomorrow will bring. But Jesus who loves you more than you love babies will not cast you off. He will care for you, even giving you what is best for you in regards to family — for all things work for good in Christ for those who love Him. Children are not to be excluded by any means as God's immediate and direct creation. So it is not hard to state what God's will for husband and wife is, but this word is hard for sinners to hear who think they must fend for themselves in this cursed world alone, without a good God. Our problem is a lack of faith, not a lack of spectacular pastoral counseling.
Luther's famous quip can be modified for this issue: “For, thank God, today a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the saints, believers, and lambs, who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” Sadly, a seven year old neighbor once crassly told my wife to “get her tubes tied,” as if children were the main problem of her life. But my five year old daughter sincerely prayed to Jesus one night that we would have another baby, even though she was reminded that we had a four month old baby already (which made eight children under nine years old). Only one viewpoint can be authentically Christian. Sadly, even seven year olds today have imbibed the toxic fumes of paganism — a tyrannizing faith that human life is under our stewardship, and therefore our heartfelt will cannot possibly be sinful or wrong. Yet, the divine Shepherd who forgives you also created marriage and its union is not be trivialized, scientifically dissected, or made a pet project of our sinful will. It is holy and so is its fruit, bar none. All the excuses we use to justify ourselves in avoiding children, we also say implicitly about those children whom God might have made. What leads to children is also holy and to be respected.
God makes children, just as He graciously made you and gives you the Gospel. You do not need pastoral discretion or modern scientific knowledge to know that marriage is good and children are always a blessing. At least the little, believing child, if there is any faith to be found at all on earth, can apply the Lord's Prayer to all areas of life: “Thy will be done, not my sinful, disobedient, spiteful will.” Here is a clear answer which applies to all sinners, in whatever struggle their biological vocation entails: “Christ richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.” Amen.