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What Do Christians Need to Know About Contraceptives? Dr. Ken Magnuson

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March 14, 2023
Faith Seeking Understanding
Faith Seeking Understanding
What Do Christians Need to Know About Contraceptives? Dr. Ken Magnuson
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Guest: Dr. Ken Magnuson | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Magnuson about the ethics of contraception. Topics of conversation include:

  • The difference between birth control and contraception
  • The church’s stance on contraception throughout history
  • Thinking biblically about various methods of contraception
  • Resources for further reading on these issues.

Dr. Ken Magnuson serves as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues (Kregel Academic, 2020).

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Intro (00:02):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:20):

Recently I had Dr. Ken Magnuson on Faith Seeking Understanding to talk about reproductive technology. Well, today I want to talk about the other side of reproductive technology, and that is contraception. And on this issue, there's a lot of assumptions that are made, but very little reflection as it comes to it. And I want us to frame this conversation around all reproductive technology—whether it's in vitro fertilization, or it's contraception in terms of birth control—from a biblical worldview standpoint. We need to think through—how does God want us to procreate in a way that honors him and honors our commitment to be fruitful and multiply? And there's no easy answers to these questions. And so I'm thankful that Dr. Magnuson is joining us again to talk about them. Dr. Ken Magnuson is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Seminary, and also teaches Christian Ethics at Phoenix Seminary, in addition to his full-time gig as executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is the author of the recent book, Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues. And I have always found Dr. Magnuson to be a well thought through person on these issues. Dr. Magnuson, welcome back to the podcast.

Ken Magnuson (01:33):

Thank you, Brian. It's good to be with you. And please—do call me Ken.

Brian Arnold (01:37):

<laugh>. You got it, Dr. Magnuson! All right. So we always ask our guests one big question, and that today is—what do Christians need to know about contraceptives? Or if we wanted to get a little bit more spicy, should Christians use contraception? Now, that is obviously a very big broad kind of question, as there are many different kinds of technologies, that go into contraception. But maybe we could set the stage by thinking through the difference between birth control and contraception. How do you differentiate those?

Ken Magnuson (02:05):

Yeah, so these terms are often not defined, but it is helpful to distinguish them. And they're sometimes used interchangeably. But I use contraception to refer to methods that prevent fertilization. And by the way, even there, some people will define contraception as anything that prevents implantation or earlier. So I'll use contraception to refer to methods that prevent fertilization, while birth control may be used to refer to anything that prevents birth, including methods that prevent fertilization—and those that act after fertilization occurs, either by preventing implantation, or even preventing birth later. So birth control may refer to contraception, as well as various forms of abortion. And, of course, this is really important, because whatever other issues we may talk about with respect to contraception—this is a great divide. You know, whether we prevent the beginning of life, or end life after it's begun.

Brian Arnold (03:13):

Well, and I'm always stunned by the animus that even Christians have on this issue. I mean, people really care about this topic—whether or not they've thought about it much, they still care about it a lot. One of the things, even just to set the stage in a different way, when I'm teaching my students through church history, one of the most important inventions, I think, in the history of the world, is the printing press. I think the printing press gives us the Reformation, the Reformation gives us even—and this is very...a hundred thousand foot, right—leads us into even places like the Enlightenment, because you have an explosion of information and things. But when I ask them about the 20th century, what is the single most important invention of the 20th century? Think about planes, and cars, and computers. I mean, lots of different things. I always press them that birth control is likely the most significant. And by that, I mean like oral contraception, the pill, is the most significant technology created in the 20th century. Because it fundamentally changes humanity and what global population looks like. And just...it has almost endless ripple effects to it. Would you agree that that is the significance of the topic we're talking about?

Ken Magnuson (04:21):

Yeah, I think that's huge. And it has had that kind of impact, by separating in a much more profound way, procreation from marriage. And so it has an impact on sex outside of marriage, as well as the way that people think about procreation—married couples think about procreation.

Brian Arnold (04:45):

Well, let's talk about that, maybe before and after something like the pill is introduced in the 20th century. How were people thinking through the issue of contraception before, and then maybe even after, the sexual revolution? What have you seen in...I know you're a modern ethicist, but you've done some work in the history of ethics as well. How has that shift occurred in the last hundred years?

Ken Magnuson (05:10):

Yeah. It's interesting, and a lot of students I've had haven't really thought about this. So I know a lot of other people haven't thought about this a lot. But prior to the 20th century, every Christian denomination—the Catholic church and every Protestant denomination—opposed the use of contraception, including for married couples. And the first denomination to open the door a crack to the use of contraception in marriage came in 1930, with the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church. And even there, while allowing for contraception within marriage, they condemn, and I quote here, they condemn the "use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience." And just think about how things are different today. But at any rate, in the following decades after that, every major Protestant denomination followed the Anglican church, and contraception was deemed permissible by the majority of Protestant leaders.

Ken Magnuson (06:14):

Not all, by any means, but by the majority. And there was even some talk that the Roman Catholic Church would reverse its position on contraception at Vatican II in the 1960s. And they were encouraged by a good number of Roman Catholic scholars to do so. At the end of the day, they didn't, and so the Catholic position has remained opposed to the use of artificial methods of contraception. But that's how profound an impact that we have seen in the 20th century. And then, you know, as you say, in the sixties, things changed dramatically with the advent of the birth control pill, and it shaped cultural values—especially with regard to sex outside of marriage, and sex apart from procreation. That produces a radical change. And this is one of the reasons why I think this is an important issue—it didn't take long for Christians to follow our culture into an embrace of contraception.

Brian Arnold (07:15):

Yeah, I was going to ask you the why question. Why is it that in the 1930s, even, you have this statement from the Anglican Church saying—not even for reasons of luxury or lifestyle—whatever it is—that if we're honest today, that's what happens. People get married, you know, especially if they're in their younger twenties, and they are saying—hey, let's put off kids for five years. They don't really think much about going onto a pill, and then in their own timing want to have children. I mean, that was very prevalent, even when I was a student in Southern Seminary. I mean, that was...it almost just went untalked about.

Ken Magnuson (07:53):

I think it's the assumption and expectation, isn't it?

Brian Arnold (07:56):

It is.

Ken Magnuson (07:57):

When a couple gets married.

Brian Arnold (07:59):

Absolutely. Okay. So let's get into some specifics about this, because we might say—I'm not sure if you'd say this or not—but something like Natural Family Planning. Is that an okay approach to having, you know, some sort of—I don't want to call that contraception—but you're trying to avoid having children, right? By using that. Or do we need to really think through—every sexual act needs to be open to procreation?

Ken Magnuson (08:31):

Yeah. So you're raising, largely, the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant thinkers on this, in some ways.

Brian Arnold (08:42):

Yes, I am. That's exactly what I'm doing.

Ken Magnuson (08:43):

So...and as you indicate, the Roman Catholic perspective is that each and every act of sex within marriage must be open to procreation. You can't block off that possibility. And so they have turned to Natural Family Planning as an acceptable approach to limiting the number of children. And by that—most people probably have an idea of that—but by that, is you do the best that you can to identify the woman's fertile period, and avoid coming together during that time. And then you wouldn't use any form of contraception when coming together. And what's interesting to me on that, Brian, and as a historian, you might appreciate this—is that I think most Catholics would see this as the most consistent view, as consistent with Augustine's understanding. It's kind of an Augustinian perspective. Because Augustine was opposed to sex outside of an openness for procreation. But in fact, Augustine would roundly reject the Roman Catholic view, because the entire marital life can be organized around having sex without an openness...without wanting to procreate. And Augustine's view was that your intention ought to be...not just that you're not blocking the opportunity, but your will should be that you come together to procreate. So the Roman Catholic Church has come far from that.

Brian Arnold (10:20):

Right. And I'm sure some people might already be doing the math, and although he had a—in essence, like a concubine, right? Earlier on in his life. If you know the story of Augustine—I know you do—for our listeners who know that story, he did have a son named Adeodatus, but then he was single the rest of his life. And so I think that always comes into play, especially as you're talking about the Roman Catholic position. How often single men, and men without children, are making determinative statements. Do you run into that? Is that something that you see as part of the argument?

Ken Magnuson (11:00):

Yeah, I mean, I...

Brian Arnold (11:02):

It may be irrelevant, but I'm just saying like—it seems to be part of it.

Ken Magnuson (11:05):

Right. I mean, it's not that we can't speak to things that are outside of our own experience, or something. But that is definitely a criticism and a concern. And I think we have to put it in a perspective of a theology of marriage and procreation, and, you know, all of these things. And not just, you know, our own experience, or the leadership of the church's experience, or something like that.

Brian Arnold (11:40):

So, okay. Now let's kind of move down the line a little bit. What are some other...so from Natural Family Planning, and then kind of moving into contraceptions of like condoms or the pill, things like this—how do you think through those things biblically?

Ken Magnuson (11:57):

Yeah. I mean, I think I'd want to back up just a little bit to think in general terms—what kind of an issue is this? Is it a moral issue? Is it merely a pragmatic issue? And I say this because I think it's treated like a pragmatic issue by many—maybe most—people. And by that, I mean that we have forgotten that there are moral questions related to contraception. And secondly, that it's assumed or expected, as we've already talked about. But then third, that the primary questions about contraception are pragmatic, such as—which method is most effective? Or even, you know—do you want to have children now? If not, then you ought to use contraception. It's that kind of pragmatism. But I would argue that it is a moral issue, because it involves significant questions that are central to a robust Christian view of morality.

Ken Magnuson (12:52):

So teleological questions like—what is marriage for? And what is the place of procreation within marriage? That's very much a moral question. So questions related to virtue, such as what is our motive for having or not having children? And then questions related to moral actions, like, you know, then considering different forms of birth control and whether some are acceptable to use and some are not. And when we get to those specific questions, which you're asking, then I think we might be able to...we can distinguish barrier methods that prevent fertilization, such as the use of condoms, diaphragms, things like that, and methods that act after fertilization. And this would be things like—an IUD may prevent fertilization, or it may prevent the implantation of an embryo. And avoid...definitively avoid those methods that may act after fertilization.

Brian Arnold (13:58):

And I think, yeah, beginning with even—what is the heart motive behind it? It does...it...you know, how do I say it? There is, I think, an intention for a lot of people for wisdom, right? They're...let's say they're 22 years old, fresh out of college, saying—hey, let's establish the career, and get some money set aside, and really prepare for a family. Now the reality is, I think most people who have had kids would probably say—there is no such thing as getting ready for children, right? <laugh> They're always going to be a little bit more disruptive than anyone can prepare for, which is okay. Like, we all have to go through that experience. And so there's never the full preparation of that. And I think even challenging that, these days—and I'm in a different place at almost 40 than I was at 24 when I got married—of thinking through what does it mean to be ready to have children?

Brian Arnold (14:51):

And what does it mean to just kind of jump right in, as, you know, God leads you to be married, you're open for family. Anyway, yeah. I think...yeah, setting it there with heart motives, but I think there could be...I guess what I'm trying to establish is there could be a sense in which the heart motive isn't necessarily, I don't think, wrong. But maybe not as helpful as it could be. And then that even raises the question that I want to be sure we get to in this segment is—can this just be open to Christian conscience on these matters?

Ken Magnuson (15:24):

Yeah. So a lot of good points there. And I might just follow up briefly with what you're saying, and agree that I don't think that even the assumption and expectation that a couple goes into marriage, that they'll use contraception, you know, perhaps so that they can strengthen their marriage in the beginning and things like that. I don't think that comes from a bad motive. I would simply say that our cultural, and our...there's been such a reset in the 20th century, that we might want to challenge some of those expectations. I think you're spot on thinking about like—are we ever really prepared for children? Well, in some ways, waiting and waiting makes us less prepared, because we develop certain patterns and things in our marriage that children interrupt more than if they come early in our marriage. So it's not always, you know...we need...I think we need to at least question some of those assumptions and begin to raise children who are ready for marriage and procreation. Whether those things occur or not, they are ready for them. Right? And then we can kind of move forward with some of the other questions.

Brian Arnold (16:47):

And that is totally reframing everything, isn't it? To say—this is what cultural expectations are today, but could we even raise our children...I mean, that's a convicting word for me. My kids are 11 and nine, thinking through—yeah, if they're going to be married in 10 to even 15 years, how do we start preparing them for the recognition that God's design for family is good? So okay. So go from kind of where we've been, now maybe into some specifics of contraception.

Ken Magnuson (17:20):

Yeah. So, in terms of how we might approach thinking about them? Is that...?

Brian ARnold (17:26):

Yeah, I think so. Because it's been my experience that, as we talk about these things, a little bit in the air, people kind of want the on-the-ground, is this in, is this out, what are the general principles that we're applying to these things? So if we go to the...maybe the other extremes. So if natural family planning is on one side, I would think anything that's abortifacient—so it causes an abortion, so there is a fertilized egg that cannot implant, or destroys it, like a Plan B kind of pill—would be outside the bounds on that side.

Ken Magnuson (17:55):

Yeah. Anything that acts after fertilization has taken place, I think we should clearly reject. And then there's other questions that are questions of wisdom. And so some things might be a matter of...well, you know, here's getting at thinking about the place of procreation within marriage, right? So developing a biblical view of marriage and procreation, seeing children as a gift that we ought to welcome, not a burden and an obstacle to our plans. We've kind of touched on that, you know, but that's really important. And once we do that, then asking questions such as why we may want or not want to have children, whether our motivation or attitude is in line with understanding children as a gift from God, how we may glorify God in our marriage, and those kinds of things.

Ken Magnuson (18:52):

Are we willing, you know, going back to the Lambeth Statement—are we willing to sacrifice some of our pleasures and conveniences and welcome children? And so I...you know, I think here, Brian, we ought to shift from something like a presumptive question, that there's an expectation that we would use contraception, and press the question of—why do you want to have children? Instead to ask—why do you want to use contraception? And, you know, I don't think I can answer the those questions for each couple, but it's the kind of thing that couples need to think about, pray about, be thoughtful about.

Brian Arnold (19:30):

Do you feel like they're even asking those?

Ken Magnuson (19:32):

I don't think they preclude the use of contraception, but they get us to think about it a little bit more.

Brian Arnold (19:38):

And that would be, I think, a welcomed hope for this even episode of the podcast—is just to get people thinking about it. Because I think there's so much assumption of this is just what you do. You get...if you get married a little bit younger, you wait to have kids, so you're going to go on the pill, and it's just a part of the process. And I don't even feel like, as a young man, when I was...I started seminary at 21, but I got married at 24, so I was thinking about these things somewhat, but to be honest with you, not in depth nearly at all. And so it's something that I think it would be interesting to even have the conversation with my wife about—if we could rewind the clock, would things be different?

Brian Arnold (20:19):

Because we were married four years before we had our first child. And it wasn't until, you know, probably 10 years after that, that I really started thinking through these questions. And so my guess is a lot of the people in the church aren't. And as soon as it does come up, it does seem to create a lot of strife with people that maybe haven't thought about it, that are assuming it, and saying basically—this is a matter of private Christian conscience. It shouldn't even be on the topic for discussion.

Ken Magnuson (20:48):

Well, and I'm glad you said that kind of thing, because I think there are couples who become very, you know, kind of upset that you raised this question and things, and that's not my intent. My intent is like—let's think more deeply about this. Let's think carefully about this. And part of my motivation, Brian, is that I've talked to numerous couples over the years who had these kinds of questions, who looked to resources to answer them, and couldn't find them among Protestant pastors and theologians. And so they turned to the Roman Catholic Church writing on these things, and feel like—well, there's some thoughtful, you know, approach. And they adopt more of a Roman Catholic perspective on this. And—which, by the way, has much to contribute to our conversation, right? I don't think it's quite right, but it has much to contribute. And lacking a lot of thoughtfulness from Protestants on those, couples have turned that direction.

Brian Arnold (21:50):

So maybe if you could summarize...because I do want to go into resources. I mean, there's so much we could say about this topic, and you segued it really well. But before we get to what resources are helpful for people, could you just maybe in a paragraph or so, summarize how you would encourage somebody to think about the topic of Christianity and contraception?

Ken Magnuson (22:12):

Yeah. And so, going back to—first of all, I would praise somebody for thinking about it, right? That this is an issue we ought to be thoughtful about. Secondly, I would...we've talked a little bit about Roman Catholic perspective. I do think that kind of a general Protestant perspective is something that we might call the principle of totality, which is to say that marriage, in general, should be open to procreation, but not necessarily each and every act of intercourse within marriage. So it's not required of each act, but our marriages...we should be thoughtful, and make sure that we are open to procreation, if God would bless us in such a way. And then just think through the kinds of questions that I raised earlier, you know—why do we want or not want to have children? Are we willing to sacrifice our pleasures and conveniences, and things like that?

Brian Arnold (23:09):

Okay. So now—what are some helpful resources that you'd point people to, who are really wanting to think through this question?

Ken Magnuson (23:16):

Yeah, good question. So there's a book that's...it's now going on 20 years old, but by William Cutrer and Sandra Glahn, called The Contraception Guidebook. And it's a helpful one, published by Zondervan in 2005. It goes through a number of issues, and I think it's just a basically helpful...provides some helpful perspective. And then there's two kind of discussions in journals or magazines. One is in First Things that a lot of your listeners would probably be familiar with. If they're not, they should be—from December of 1998. But there's a...it's a symposium on contraception. And I would have readers check that out, because you get people with different perspectives talking about this. Christianity Today has also done some things, interestingly, in November of 1991, and then in November of 2001. So if readers want to find that, there's some people discussing that. And I do want to serve the nerds that are listening to your program, and a historical survey—there's a massive treatment by John Noonan, who's a Catholic theologian, just called Contraception. It's a history of its treatment by Catholic theologians, and it is a very helpful read to try to understand how the Roman Catholic Church thinking on this has developed through the centuries.

Brian Arnold (24:46):

Those are excellent resources, I think, for people to look at. Well, this is obviously an incredibly important topic. On the very first page of your Bible, we're reading about God's hope for procreation, as he wants us to be fruitful and multiply. And it's something that Christians have thought about for 2000 years. And we need thinking Christians in this generation to continue to discuss how God's plan for the family is a beautiful plan. Dr. Magnuson, thanks for spending so much time on your own personal research of these things, and for taking the time to be with us today.

Ken Magnuson (25:16):

Thank you. It's great to be with you.

Outro (25:18):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online

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