In the beginning, God created a three-legged stool: marriage, sex, and children. The beauty of three-legged stools including God's is that they're solid and hard to tip over regardless of the uneven ground on which they stand. Observe the simplicity, wisdom, and stability of God's stool!
Though people regularly break the rules, in God's economy, the commitment of marriage comes before sex. The sacramental quality of sex is recognized in the notion of consummation. Sex seals the covenant between man and the woman physically: "the two shall become one flesh."
Babies are the natural and expected result of sex within marriage. Without artificial contraception, sex always carries the risk—or more accurately, the blessed possibility—of pregnancy. Even well into the twentieth century, a "barren" woman (not that people used that term) was looked on as an object of pity.
Sex then is reserved for marriage and produces children, the rearing of whom is a primary purpose of marriage to begin with. Couple's needs for companionship are taken care of. Aggressive male sexuality is reigned in. And the future generation enjoys the benefits of growing up with stability and love.
While revealed in the Scriptures and affirmed by the Church, this three-legged stool is also clear from natural law. With some variations, twists, and a great deal of dysfunctionality, the three-legged stool has been the foundation for nearly every human culture throughout the world from time out of mind.
So marriage, sex, and children go together. Or at least they did until what by historical standards is just yesterday.
Sex has been sawn apart from marriage, marriage from children, and children from sex. The result is the mess we still call "marriage," but marriage encumbered by abortion and "reproductive technologies," divorce and cohabitation, "hooking up" and pornography, out-of-wedlock births and blended families, the political and cultural war over same-sex marriage, and the subsequent damage to our children and the future.
For 1,930 years, Christian churches uniformly taught that artificial birth control was inherently evil. Martin Luther, to pick just one example, ranked the sin of birth control as, "far more atrocious than incest and adultery." As extreme as that sounds to modern years, Luther, who was never one to mince words, was in the mainstream of Christian belief and teaching.
But under social pressure that was already building, the Anglicans opened the door—just a crack—to artificial contraception at their 1930 Lambeth Conference. The next year the American the Federal Council of Churches followed suit and the Washington Post excoriated them: "Carried to its logical conclusion, [churches permitting artificial birth control], if carried into effect, would sound the deathknell 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."
The Post was right, but that didn't stop the tide it predicted from engulfing the country and before long Christian pastors were asking couples in pre-marital counseling what sort of birth control they intended to use and even making suggestions.
In 1968, a mere thirty-seven years after that Post editorial, Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae, a document that was consistent with 1,968 years of Christian teaching, sounded even to Christian ears as not only completely outrageous, but also as brand new, as if its contents had been conjured out of thin air for the occasion. Five years later abortion was legalized in the United States and the connection between sex and childbearing was completely severed.
New attitudes toward and the easy availability of artificial contraception—including abortion as an ex post facto method of birth control—democratized the sexual revolution that had begun at the end of the nineteenth century. Marriage could not help but be the victim.
At the same time, "reproductive technologies" beginning with in vitro fertilization separated childbearing from sex. Biological children were suddenly available not only to infertile couples, but to gay couples (through a surrogate), lesbian couples, and unmarried individuals. And many churches embraced in vitro without moral due diligence since it appeared to be the answer to the prayers of infertile couples everywhere.
This is the short version of how marriage, sex, and children became independent of one another. The three-legged stool is in pieces and, needless to say, no longer functions as designed.
In light of the ongoing judicial usurpation of marriage in the recent decision striking down Proposition 8 in California and other victories for same-sex marriage, we must, Christian leaders tell us, defend and fix marriage. Agreed, but defending and fixing marriage is a vast, long-term cultural project, not a quick legislative sprint.
Changing a few laws and winning a few court battles will accomplish little unless we address all three legs of the stool and begin reattaching them according to God's original specifications. This begins by with the difficult task of challenging the now conventional wisdom that birth control is not only a right, but a normal, wise, and even godly practice.
Jim Tonkowich is a Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. More of his work can be found at jimtonkowich.com.
Publication date: October 26, 2010