In the absence of clear teaching in the New Testament on birth control, we must rely heavily upon our knowledge of the social context of Judaism and Hellenism in which early Christianity existed. Wherever Christian faith did not pronounce against the norms of the non-Christian society in which it existed, and wherever its own general teaching does not stand in contrast to specific social practices, we assume that Christianity maintained those practices. In New Testament days, Old Testament marriage laws and practices were still in force in Judaism, with strong emphasis upon the family and procreation within marriage. Judaism generally frowned upon birth control, certainly upon sterilization and abortion, though general famine was seen as a legitimate reason for limiting reproductive efforts and contraceptive devices were allowed for medical reasons.

The Gentile world held a theoretical view resembling that of Judaism, but in practice it followed a lower standard. Although the declared purpose of marriage was procreation, contraception and abortion were widely used. Still, a large number of pagan writers speak of abortion as evil. Not surprisingly, then, very early Christianity, as represented in the Didache and other writings separated from the New Testament by only a brief time, also presented abortion as unlawful.

So we turn to the New Testament with the presupposition that primitive Christianity maintained Judaism’s reservations about birth-control practices and paralleled both Judaism and Hellenism (at its best) in the disavowal of abortion. This does not at all mean, however, that such practices are eternally contradictory to the heart of the New Testament faith and practice.

In the past, it was considered self-evident that the New Testament limited legitimate sexual relationship and human reproduction to marriage. Now even within the Church this view is widely challenged, or abandoned. But still the New Testament is stringent and clear in its rejection of adultery and fornication. There are direct words against such illegitimate sexual relationships (e.g., Mark 10:19; 1 Cor. 6:13 ff.), and they are included in listings of specific sins (Mark 7:21; Rom. 1:29; 1 Cor. 6:9 f.).

On the positive side, marriage is identified as that instrument by which God intends to create “one flesh.” The New Testament emphasizes “one flesh” or “one body” (Mark 10:8; Eph. 5:31) as not only the symbol but also the actualization of the enduring oneness within the marital bond. This underlies a point already present in the Old Testament: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Neither the Old Testament nor the New speaks of procreation as the end of sexual union. The end is the one flesh, which is the generally indispensable presupposition of the marital union. One must suppose that in the matter of procreation the New Testament simply takes over the Old Testament teaching, in which fruitfulness is a divine blessing added to the one flesh. This, at least, does not close the door on the idea of birth control.

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Two Pauline texts are of particular value in the search for a foothold in this matter: First Corinthians 7:1 ff. and First Thessalonians 4:3 ff. The two texts differ somewhat in their development. In the First Corinthians passage, Paul moves out from the affirmation that temptation to immorality comes to each man and each woman and that therefore sexual intercourse is the normal practice within the marital relationship. Since these passions are not confined to husbands and wives, those who are unmarried are advised to marry in order not to live in the flame of passion, which is temptation. He then goes on to observe that there is sanctifying virtue in the married estate—an unbelieving mate is consecrated (sanctified) through the partner. Paul can make this affirmation only on the basic biblical teaching of the one flesh.

First Thessalonians 4:4 is translated in the RSV, “that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor.” Although the meaning of this verse is disputed, the passage seems to offer a clear parallel to the teaching of First Corinthians 7, especially in its assignment of sanctifying value to the sexual relationship within marriage. Paul’s point of departure here is the sanctification of the believer, which is the will of God. He goes on to develop this with a negative and a positive statement. Sanctification involves abstention from immorality as it is manifested in the pagan, who moves in a passion of lust and transgresses even against his brother. Positively, each man is exhorted “to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor.” The sanctification of the Christian occurs in the honorable and holy—i.e., responsible—enjoyment of the sexual relationship, rather than in the lustful “breaking into the marriage relationship of a brother.” By confining the natural disposition to sexual union, marriage helps to fulfill God’s highest purpose for us—our sanctification. That is to say, the sexual relationship within marriage is assigned a redemptive significance, for one can never think of sanctification without giving attention to the justification that makes it possible and that makes possible our ultimate redemption. However, we are forcefully reminded in the New Testament that the sexual relationship is by no means free from demonic misdirection; Romans 1 is clear proof of that, as are the stringent sayings of Jesus in Matthew 5.

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In studying the matter of contraception in the light of the New Testament, then, one is impressed by three factors: (1) the decisive teaching about one flesh, (2) the absence of any teaching that would bind the sexual relationship within marriage to the bearing of children, (3) Paul’s affirmation of the sanctifying value of marriage. Although these factors appear in a social context generally opposed to birth control, on balance they seem to leave the door open for its responsible use.

When we move from the question of contraception to sterilization and abortion, we find two New Testament texts in which these practices are mentioned. We must determine whether or not these give direction to our present quest.

Eunuchs are mentioned in the Bible; the one in Acts 8 is well known. The statement of Jesus given in Matthew 19:10–12 is not so well known. After he said that “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery,” the disciples replied, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” But Jesus answered, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”

Four points are important here:

1. It is a historical fact that castration was forbidden in the Old Testament and was fundamentally alien to the Greek mind. However, it did enter into Greek life, particularly in the cults of Asia Minor (Cybele, Attis, Artemis).

2. There is the saying of Jesus in Matthew 5:29, 30, which speaks of plucking out the eye or cutting off the hand for the sake of the kingdom righteousness. On the basis of 5:28 and such sayings as Mark 7:20 ff., literal meaning is rightly denied to Matthew 5:29, 30.

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3. There is a complete absence of any data showing that Jesus or any one of his chosen disciples actually subjected himself to castration. The maintenance of this teaching and practice by Jesus and the primitive Church would have brought them into violent conflict with Judaism, not to mention the Hellenistic society; one would certainly expect to encounter traces of this conflict either in Christian or in Jewish literature. He does not.

4. On occasion Jesus could move from a physical to a figurative meaning (Luke 9:60).

Against these considerations one may weigh the fact that the first two classes of men described in Matthew 19:10–12 are physical eunuchs. However, as point 4 above indicates, this is not enough to require such an interpretation of the third class mentioned. The very fact that the Matthean community preserved this saying in the absence of the practice is additional evidence of its figurative meaning; in addition, the nearly unanimous figurative interpretation of the Christian community for two millennia has to be given some preference by the Christian interpreter of Scripture.

What does the text mean? The Roman Catholic exegete Josef Blinzler has pointed to the likeness of its thought with that in other teachings of Jesus regarding the kingdom of heaven, in which the kingdom is portrayed as a magnificent find or gift, for the sake of which a man should be willing to give all he has. There are those who are so grasped by the kingdom of God that they are not fit for marriage. The cause of the sacrifice in the three classes of man is the important thread binding them together; in the last case, the cause is the kingdom itself. The result is that he too is unfit for marriage, like those who are physically unfit. This reminds us of Jesus’ statement that discipleship in the kingdom may lead to the abandonment of even the marital relationship (Mark 10:29, 30). And this again is wholly parallel to the sayings of Paul in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians.

What is important for us is that the New Testament offers no ground at this point for physical sterilization. In this passage, the matter is not birth control but being controlled by the gift of the kingdom. Perhaps Jesus’ use of the word “eunuch” reflects a historical situation. His opponents who called him a glutton and a winebibber may also have named him “eunuch,” for Judaism demanded that a rabbi be a married man, and Jesus, who functioned as a rabbi, did not meet this requirement.

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The term ektroma, meaning “abortion, abortive birth, untimely birth,” appears only once in the New Testament; the Apostle Paul used it to describe his own position among the apostles. It has been suggested that Paul’s opponents used this term of him derogatorily, and that Paul takes it up in First Corinthians 15:8 as a positive presentation of his apostolate: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Perhaps Paul was nicknamed ektroma, because of his small stature. The Latin equivalent of ektroma, abortivus, was used of dwarfs, whose condition was believed to result from premature birth. It could also be used of an immature or childish person. In any case, the use of the term here hardly permits any inferences for current practice.

The New Testament, as we know and have seen, does not specifically direct every relationship of life. Faith is a prime characteristic of the Christian life, and its corollary in practice is that we do not walk by sight. Therefore, a central determination of New Testament ethics is testing. The Christian is not bound by a legal code; he is free to walk in the Spirit through the world and to take the measure of all possible practices from the norm that is in Christ, and then from all other revealed norms. As new medical discoveries occur, they may call for new freedom in practice. The layman—uncertain whether today’s standard method of contraception, the pill, is safe—looks to the medical profession to tell him the truth, based upon its scientific testing. Is not such testing also a part of our Christian vocation?

A corollary of the Christian’s freedom from a legal code is apparent in Paul’s example and teaching. He did not always do what he was free to do; he practiced restraint, because he did not want to weaken the faith (and practice) of his brother. The time when the practice of contraception would offend my brother is generally past; but this is not so with abortion. However, we also must reckon with the fact that there are those within the Christian community who can see no final offense in abortion when entered into responsibly by a woman in consultation with a physician. Jesus did many things that cut right across the norms of Jewish practice, and the Christian doctor may recognize that a woman or a family is truly in distress because of a new pregnancy and feel called to go against even the religious norms of his society.

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Sin shatters the God-created wholeness of man, and sin in the sexual sphere affect his whole person. We have no reason to suppose that the human attitude toward practices that control the reproductive process is free from this sinful disposition.

Here, as much as anywhere, man can deceive himself. A doctor whose main practice for fourteen years has been obstetrics said that during those years there have been many women in his office who affirmed that they simply could not “go through” with their pregnancy. But wise counsel and care led all of them through. It is easy to deceive ourselves about our own limits, whether mental or physical. We can equally well deceive ourselves about the rightness or the wrongness of a given practice in a particular situation. The factor too should create a disposition to caution where the issues are more or less unresolved.

Man exists in community; Christian man exists in a special community. The New Testament concept koinonia, which stands behind our term “community,” designates a common participation in a common lot.

Is it not a tragedy, then, that most reflection upon abortion has been a wholly private matter? Because the lay community has not been able to discuss this matter freely, the ethical focus is removed from the community and placed solely with the more or less isolated individual. The doctor is there, or a pastor, or a friend. But the full force of community vitality is not available. Where the full resources of the Christian community are made available before needed, many calls for abortion will be eliminated; and if that community ever comes to take seriously its unity with every member of the body, then no members will be cast out from the community’s love and care just when they need it most.

In the beginning God ordained that men should be fruitful and multiply and have dominion upon earth. But man’s dominion does not extend to man in the same measure as it stands over other created things. One problem of ethics is to try to determine the extent and nature of man’s dominion over himself and mankind. Just as pain is multiplied in childbirth, so anxiety is multiplied in decisions affecting reproduction. Perhaps that is good. Here, as everywhere, we are dependent upon every channel of grace. In the midst of all our endeavor, we are called to test every practice by these instruments of grace, so that we may ourselves become men approved of God.

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