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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Mongrel Ethics: John Piper Vs. David Bayly

My money's on the guy with the mustache
Few things are more compelling to me than a good old-fashioned theological dispute between solid Reformed preachers. So grab a tub of popcorn, turn on your satellite pay-per-view TV, and enjoy the match.

We do "do ethics" here at the Horde, so I thought we should tackle a sticky, contraversial topic that the Reformed community struggles with. "Is it sinful to use birth control?" is an issue that has no concensus within Reformed circles. To represent the "yea" side of this question, I have selected an article by David Bayly. For the "nay" side I've selected an article by John Piper. I have oodles of respect for both of these fine pastor/theologians, so I thought that even though their articles don't directly address the others', it would still make an effective matchup. OK, guys, I want a good, clean fight. No biting, no eye gouging, no hitting below the belt. All right, touch gloves and come out at the bell. DING DING!

David Bayly comes out swinging with three implicit biblical arguments. First, he points out that the Bible calls children and unequivocal blessing. No Christian who has skimmed his Bible more than once can dispute this. He also points out that the Bible never indicates that we should seek to limit God's blessings, except in regard to material possessions. Piper blocks this initial jab with the following:

In response, it can be pointed out that the Scriptures also say that a wife is a
gift from the Lord (Proverbs 18:22), but that doesn't mean that it is wrong to
stay single (1 Corinthians 7:8). Just because something is a gift from the Lord
does not mean that it is wrong to be a steward of when or whether you will come
into possession of it. It is wrong to reason that since A is good and a gift
from the Lord, then we must pursue as much of A as possible. God has made this a
world in which tradeoffs have to be made and we cannot do everything to the
fullest extent. For kingdom purposes, it might be wise not to get married. And
for kingdom purposes, it might be wise to regulate the size of one's family and
to regulate when the new additions to the family will likely arrive.

Bayly goes on to the biblical mandate to "fill the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28), which by implication entails the mandate to procreate. This is something everyone in the Reformed camp should agree on - whether Dominionist, theonomic, Southern Presbyterian, or even Reformed baptist. It is to Evangelicalism's shame that materialism and decadence has led to the widespread and manifest de-prioritization of raising offspring in the Lord. Piper, however, qualifies this by asking "how a farmer...knows how much land he should cultivate. The answer, of course, is that a farmer seeks to cultivate what he believes he can reasonably handle. He doesn't take this command to mean that he needs to make his farm be as large as is naturally possible. Likewise, then, it is right for a couple to seek to have the number of children that they believe they can reasonably nurture in light of the other callings they may also have on their lives."

The third implicit argument Bayly provides is from the Levitical laws concerning a woman's ritual impurity during and after menstruation, implying God's desire for sexual relations during the time of maximal fertility. Piper has no counter-argument on this point, but the counter-argument is obvious. Sexual relations are not prohibited by levitical law or any other Scripture during times of non-existent fertility, such as during pregnancy or after menopause. The Bible sets apart sexual relations as a means of building and maintaining marital intimacy, not just for procreating.

David Bayly's explicit argument comes from the case of Onan in Genesis 38. Piper does not address this passage, so Piper and I have arranged an illegal tag-team so that I can jump into the ring and address Bayly's exegetical argument here.

God smote Onan for spilling his seed and failing to impregnate his sister-in-law, Tamar, after his brother's death. Bayly contends that the sin for which Onan was punished was specifically the use of birth control. He argues that the sin for which he died could not have been the failure of his duty to provide an heir for his brother. The Mosaic law that required this duty (Deut. 25:5-6) did not exist during Genesis 38, the time of the patriarchs. Bayly writes:

All law prior to the giving of the written law to Moses was moral law. None of
it was ceremonial or civil. Ceremonial and civil law came down from the mountain
with Moses. If God held a man guilty of lawbreaking prior to giving His written
law to Moses, it was not for violating ceremonial law or civil law, but for
violating the moral law which He had written upon the human heart.

Thus, he argues, Onan's sin was a sin against the moral law and applies to New Covenant members as well. This is a very powerful argument. However, I think the above quotation contains the flawed assumption on which his argument turns. That is, I think it is a mistake to assume that all law before the Mosaic law is necessarily moral law "written on our hearts". Civil or ceremonial law in some form must have existed before the Mosaic law. The proof of this is in God's disdain for Cain's sacrifice, where he clearly violated a form of ceremonial law that Abel had not. The only precondition of non-moral law is special revelation, not necessarily written or Mosaic revelation. Therefore, we can conclude that Onan could have known that it was his duty to provide an heir for his brother before the Mosaic commandment was given. This is why Judah could expect of Onan that he "go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother."

I don't know if this match was exactly a TKO, but now that the dust has settled I conclude that it is an error to make a blanket condemnation of all uses of birth control in the Christian church.

Now the reader should not read into my conclusion, about my own feelings concerning having a large or small family. For now, this is an intellectual exercise for me that I can enjoy from my detached ivory tower on the internet, as I am not married. By God's grace my quiver will overfloweth one day, but I do feel compelled to urge my Reformed brethren not to put undue burdens on other brethren when I do not believe the Scriptures have done so.

Category: Theoblogia


  • Dear David,

    I must admit I was a little alarmed when I read the heading of this post on Technorati....

    I would urge two further considerations, one an extension of a point I made that you address, the second one that you don't address.

    First, the argument from Cain is, at best, an argument from silence. In fact, God warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door when rejecting his offering--certainly something that should keep us from hastily dismissing his sin as a violation of ceremonial law. The non-existence of ceremonial law prior to the Mosaic Law is actually rather universally accepted. Further, Scripture itself talks of the law being written on man's heart before the Law of Moses.

    Second, the argument from historical interpretation of Onan is so powerful it's routinely ignored in negative responses to my sermon. The fact that my interpretation of Onan was the universal interpretation of the Church for thousands of years should weigh very heavily on those who wish to dismiss it in a day of sexual license.

    Blessings on you brother. I have no qualms with your summation of my argument, but I obviously differ.

    Your brother in Christ,


    By Blogger David Bayly, at 8:37 PM  

  • Mr. Bayly,

    Thank you for taking the time to elaborate on your argument a little. Since you did not de-link me on your blogroll, I took your disagreement to be of a friendly nature :)

    No one should come to a conclusion on this issue without reading your article and wrestling with it. It was the best article I had read on the subject, which is why I used it here.

    Thank you for blessing us saints in your ministry, in all its forms.

    David Gadbois

    By Blogger David Gadbois, at 11:26 AM  

  • David,
    Great summation of the arguments. I appreciate your comments on an issue that can sure stir some emotion.

    I am going to post you on my blog, come by and visit and see if you remember me. Say what up to Garret, and tell him the Laura (Shea) and I just had a little girl on January 22.

    Man, you never know who you will find when you search the blogs for John Piper.

    Jon Owings

    By Blogger Jon Owings, at 1:23 PM  

  • Jon,

    Of course I remember you. How could I forget my Ocean City boys? Especially you USC-types.

    Congrats on your daughter! Say 'hi' to Laura for me.

    By Blogger David Gadbois, at 1:31 PM  

  • "Man, you never know who you will find when you search the blogs for John Piper."



    One thing I've been pondering about Onan... could there have been greed/covetousness issues involved as well? If an heir is produced for the firstborn, wouldn't that heir have received the "double-portion" blessing? Thus, a lack of an heir would lead to Onan receiving the double portion, natch?

    Certainly not a researched idea on my part, but if it holds up to scrutiny it would lend weight to the anti-b.c. argument, in that Onan would be seen as "using birth control for financial reasons"...

    By Blogger Travis, at 9:15 AM  

  • I believe that birth control is not correct (with exceptions for medical conditions that require its use), and given a rather small number of proof texts, my belief is based simply on the fact that it is what the church has always believed (plus the birth control argument seems foreign to the whole sense of scripture that the idea is to get married and bear a lot of children). I am suspicious of things which no one believed for the first 1800 or 1900 (?) years of the church, especially when it is something that happens to be agreeable to the current cultural climate. The historic communion of saints is a powerful hammer.

    By Blogger, at 9:08 AM  

  • Travis - interesting thought, but that would have to be an argument from silence. Judah's words to Onan, however, should be our exegetical guide here.

    Jack's Pipe - the historical argument would be more effective to me if there were better reasons for such concensus on the issue. Bad exegesis and mystical "let God plan your family" mentalities are BAD reasons to oppose birth control.

    I disagree that the "whole idea" of marriage is to have children. That is the idea, but not the "whole" idea - the other reason being that it is not good for a man to be alone.

    By Blogger David Gadbois, at 1:24 PM  

  • Unfortunately i do not have any Scripture to back this up...only personal experience (sad thing about the Scripture because I like to always have some scriptural proof to back up my opinions)...

    Although one of God's original intentions for marriage was procreation, it SEEMS that He's left couples with the freedom to decide...well gee i wasn't hoping to bring doctrine into it but I sorta have to appears that people can and DO live outside God's will...God allows it to happen for whatever purpose....but it would appear that people do do things that are opposed to God's will (i.e. believers fornicate outside marriage and end up with a baby...e.c.t.). Although it's definitely not God's intention that His children would engage in such sins...they, nevertheless, do which proves they're walking outside God's will for their lives. for another issue. Not all birth control is used solely for the intent of not getting pregnant. Some women, me included, have hormonal imbalances which require outside artificial hormonal regulation...hence the bcps..although i dont use them because i hate the side effects.

    One last thing i want to discuss is permanent sterilization. Yes i am married and yes i have one son...but my husband has recently gone through a vasectomy (my son is only 7 months old right now). It appeared (while I was pregnant) that my body does NOT handle pregnancy well. I was sicker than a dog the entire 8 months (yes my body kicked my son out a month early) and my mom had to fly out from california and live with my husband and I in our house for 3 months because i was incapable of taking care of the house and myself (for those of you who is VERY DIFFICULT having a parent live with you and your husband if they still haven't learned boundaries yet [i.e. you're not under their authority anymore and are not obligated to obey them]).

    After the birth...I immediately developed mononucleosis, post partum depression (THAT was a whole other weird experience in itself) and severe panic disorder (my body was wacking out from the hormonal imbalance caused by the sudden absence of the placenta) I got thrown into a mental institution and almost died several times (no one knew i was sick with mono at the time and i didnt get any food and water for a few days...and i have an insulin problem so you can see how that could cause some issues). To top all this off...(boy doesnt satan just loves these types of opportunities to kick you when you're down? With the Lord's permission of course) my in-laws decided to get involved and caused such horrible problems during this's sad but their intention was to try to tear my marriage apart because they never liked me to begin with.

    Praise be to the Lord, that He willed me to be healed...because after only 3 weeks of my mom having flown back to Cali...she had to fly back out again and stay with my husband and i for another 4 months because due to everything that was happening i wasn't physically or mentally capable of taking care of my son. During this time, DHS got involved and i was dealing with having to go to court also (they were threatening to take our son away from us).

    So...due to all these dynamics...both my husband and I decided that we weren't going to have anymore kids of our own. That doesnt mean i'm opposed to adoption, because I'm not..but just that one pregnancy wreaked so much havoc on my body...i was told it would most likely happen again because that's just how i react to the pregnancy hormones...that i just cannot go through that again.

    Permanent sterilization is the ultimate form of birth control...but light of certain situations (i.e. the woman's body not reacting normally to pregnancy and pregnancy literally being dangerous to her health in the future)...I believe God, in His providence and grace, allows it.

    By Blogger Danae Zenor, at 9:05 AM  

  • Hmm..another thing...regarding the Onan issue...anyone who's done any research on "natural forms of birth control" would know that the "pull out method", as is obvious from Scripture Onan one of the poorest and most unreliable forms of birth control out there. Guys...i'm not gonna explain the anatomy of it...but i think u can understand why.

    So I do not think it was the "pull out method" itself which invoked God's wrath against him...but Onan's heart intentions/motives for doing so.

    By Blogger Danae Zenor, at 11:18 AM  

  • Symptoms of depression during menopause include sleeping disorders, hot flushes, loss of energy, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, excessive feeling of guilt or worthlessness, decreased interest or pleasure in activities, change in appetite, and two or more weeks of depressed mood that may lead to extreme restlessness or even suicidal tendencies.

    By Blogger D.Alexander, at 12:25 AM  

  • To give a female perspective that differs from Danae:
    First, in NO way am I in any position to pass judgment on Danae. I am not her husband, not in her situation, etc. I am just offering a different perspective.

    I was told fairly clearly, shortly after my husband and I were married, that due to a blood clot I had while on oral contraceptives, getting pregnant could be a huge health risk for me. Plus, I was always worried about HOW I/we would even handle having children, raising them, providing for them, etc. After sitting under Pastor Bayly's preaching for some time, my husband and I began to wonder if our actions exhibited a lack of faith in God's provision. We decided to stop attempting to thwart pregnancy, and we were soon blessed with a pregnancy. Certainly our OB, a wonderful, godly man, encouraged us to take medical precautions, but the pregnancy was fine, I was fine, and our daughter was, well, just lovely!
    For years we kept waiting for the ideal financial situation, or some change in my health until we realized that we simply needed to trust God to provide all we needed. Having our first baby was tough (it always is), but we saw God provide in miraculous ways through our families and our church. I would definitely encourage couples that want to wait or limit conception to consider God's constant faithfulness to those who love Him and trust in Him.

    By Blogger TaiPod, at 11:33 AM  

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