Today the Church seems to have forgotten that, until the Lambeth Conference of 1930, the vast majority of orthodox Protestants agreed with the Roman church that contraception was, certainly in general, morally wrong. Today, things could not be more different. In arguing against abortion, seeing the greater need to promote life, we have dropped the matter of sexual intercourse, reluctant to say unpopular things about what people are to do with their bodies.
The Apostle Paul had no such qualms: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. It is clear that this general command, to submit our own bodies as a sacrifice to the will of someone higher than we, demands more specific teaching, not least in sexual matters. To decline to persecute people for their views is one thing, but to decline to articulate a teaching is quite another. And positive teaching about chastity in marriage, not just negative teaching against adultery (though that, too, is often neglected), has fallen by the wayside.
We are guilty of having created a contraceptive culture hostile to the natural connexion between sexual pleasure and procreation. I am still unsure whether periodic abstinence is meant to cover all bases to avoid health problems for the mother or the child, but I do think Protestants need at least to retreat from the undisciplined contraceptive attitude for which they are known. The heathen make sport of the Romanists for their official stance against contraception; in this matter, we too should be the target of their scorn. One might be forgiven for thinking today’s Protestants supported contraception mostly to capture a part of the parishioner market which the Roman church did not.
Here I am interested not in arguing that all use of artificial contraception is wrong, but in opposing the notion that the bond of holy wedlock sanctifies all. For it is all too commonly believed that any consensual act between husband and wife is morally right. But the very concession that consent is necessary belies the idea that marriage sanctions all – and no one, I wager, would be so barbaric as to suggest that consent was dispensable. Thus there is at least one constraint to the pleasure of the marriage-bed, and another easily added is that one may not use contraceptives that take a human life (abortifacients). Of course, the former has become the sole moral constraint in much of our society – we hear some state legislatures making noise about it – and the latter is grudgingly accepted among Evangelicals, who are often still debating whether a child exists after fertilization and before implantation. As even Evangelicals are uncertain in their support for disciplined marital use, it is all the more important that the Roman church stand up for it and that the Protestants offer any biblical correctives they can.
It is entirely possible, for example, to practise the Romanists’ vaunted ‘natural family planning’ and all the while lack a chaste attitude toward children. It is for this reason, I believe, that people think it artificial to distinguish natural and artificial methods. Indeed, different methods imply the same end. As long as this is so, the widespread use of ‘natural family planning’ is only the appearance of holiness. Though thankful that Rome has done something to oppose the culture of contraception (really an anticulture), Protestants should do more. Whereas the Romanists may have only form, we have the theological resources to get at the heart as well, and this is what we have often done best. So what if it earns us the enmity of the secularist? The Lord commands us to offer our bodies as a reasonable sacrifice, holy and one with him our living Head. Bold we approach the æternal throne, as Wesley says, and claim the martyr’s crown through Christ our own.