Monday, February 6, 2012

Mistaking the Symptom for the Cause

Again, I have been pondering the shift against Contraceptives that I am seeing in Lutheranism... and I have just had a bad feeling about it -- the argumentation, the approach, the tact that has been taken just hasn't sat well with me. I don't like how Scripture isn't cited directly - how there are moves that just don't quite logically have to follow.

I can be all in favor of people having large families without saying, "You can't use birth control ever" -- just as someone can be opposed to violence and murder while still supporting the right to gun ownership. It seems to me that the focus has always been upon the tool - that if we can just eliminate a tool we will eliminate its abuse.

I was pointed to a sermon that Pastor Esget wrote for the Right to Life march in Washington, and I was in particular directed to the following section:

Have you been unwittingly part of that war, on the wrong side? It’s taken me a long time to figure out that while our church says all the right things about abortion, little is done to address all the scaffolding of the abortion culture. Where are the Lutheran crisis pregnancy centers? Where are the Lutheran adoption agencies? Birthrates among Lutherans have drastically declined along with the general population. For the pro-choice mindset has already been adopted when contraception is embraced. The use of contraception says, “We will decide when to have children, and what number is convenient for us.” Thus we make ourselves out to be God, and children are viewed as the result of our choice, decision, and will, instead of received as a gift from God. Until we as a church become a community that welcomes the unwed mother, the unexpected child, the unwanted child, how can we expect others to welcome the children growing in their wombs? (Emphasis Mine)

I love Pastor Esget dearly - he's one of the major reasons I am a pastor today... but there is something about this that I think is off (and this isn't an attack or anything, just something I have noticed). Abortion is the great issue of the day - for many "Planned Parenthood" is the great enemy -- and so anything associated with this must be tarred. Okay, I can understand that - however, is this how the Scriptures speak.

Oh, I know that the Scriptures speak of children being a blessing. Oh, I know that they speak of children being a gift of God, of God opening the womb. Without a doubt this is true. But... does that mean that there is no place or part of man's will involved. The verse that I keep thinking on is this: But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

The contrast is the birth of faith, the creation of faith as opposed to human birth. We get that we cannot by our own reason or strength come to Christ Jesus -- so what's the other side, physical birth. "not of blood or of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man..." Man's will is placed right there in with procreation.

Man's will being involved in childbirth is not wrong. Are we going to condemn the couple who wishes to have more children - who takes temperatures and looks at calendars and the like to make conception more likely? That's an exercise of will and choice... no one would say to them blanketly "just accept what God gives you and worry not about trying." Of course, there might be times when you say, "Okay, your desire for children is going too far in your attempts to have 10 frozen embryos made"... but the basic question of will or desire isn't in and of itself bad.

Back to what was meant to be my main point.

See - I think we see fewer and fewer kids being born, even in Lutheran Circles, and we want to find a villain, a terrible cause for this that we can correct. And I think many have set their eyes upon Contraceptives and their availability. And thus the assumption is that if we just get people to not have or use these, then everything will be better.

But that's just eliminating a tool... that's not the cause, the source of the problem.

We have pictures of some of the founding families of my congregation, and 100 years ago you see these farm families with 8, 9 kids. I thought of my home church in the Chicago Suburbs... and even 100 years ago, the families weren't that big. In the city, you had 3, 4, 5. On the farm, you more often had 5, 6, 8, 10.... And it made sense -- you had more help with the farm. But in the city (even well before the advent of Birth Control) you didn't see that nearly as often.


I posit this: Wealth. As you have an increase in wealth, you see less kids. As you move from an Agricultural set up to an urban one, you see less kids. As your agriculture gets industrialized, you see less kids. As you get more wealth and luxuries and less chores that need to be done... kids become more and more of a financial cost and less of an economic benefit to the family.

And so folks have had less. And it's been that way for a long, long time.

Why are Lutherans having fewer and fewer kids -- money. Greed.

So, we see that money and greed thing popping up anywhere else in the Church? Do we see tithing and good donations to the Church like we used to?

I don't think we can pin birth rates on contraceptives. I don't think vilifying them would change this pattern (it's an issue in Ireland too, where stuff is illegal). I think much, much more this driving to a simple truth:

We are rich in this country, and we are selfish, and we tend to think of how things will impact our pocket books, and spoiling your kids today is expensive.

We aren't going to fix things by saying, "Contraception is evil!" All we will do is put a terrible burden on people who have good and proper reasons for seeking to hold off or delay or even avoid pregnancy. (And these happen. If you think they don't, you are just wrong, and you don't talk to enough people in strange and hard situations -- learn some compassion.) And for what? Outlawing a tool won't fix the problem.

You want to see more kids? Delight in children. Delight in your own. Encourage folks, support them. Help out new parents. Argue against the overpopulation nutcases (this is probably the big one - there is social pressure against big families... support the families you see, whether they are big or small -- don't berate the small families and don't berate the big). Delight in the blessing that your own kids are and the blessing that your neighbor's kids are (even the difficult ones... both neighbors and kids).

And then... let people grow. The Law doesn't give growth. Beating people with a stick will not make them rejoice in the gift of children. Attacking a symptom will not effect a cure. It will only produce an artificial litmus standard that goes beyond the Scriptures, a crutch by which we might fall into a false and arrogant pride in our own self-made self-righteous decrees.

And yes, I still think Pastor Stuckwisch's approach is by far the most eloquent that I've seen on this issue as it is faithful to Scripture, considerate of the neighbor, and preserves Christian Liberty and Humility. Good stuff.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

You and I have debated this issue a few times before. the heart of our disagreement boils down to a difference in epistemology. I believe Pr. Grobien hit the nail on the head with one particular comment he made on the Four and Twenty Blackbirds blog post where we were debating this very subject back in 2009.

I highly recommend that readers of your blog read that entire post's discussion to understand how a radical change in epistemology during the Twentieth Century contributed to Lutherans accepting contraception as a matter of Christian liberty.

I have copied and pasted Pr. Grobien's comment below, followed by a related comment made by Rev. Robert C. Baker (of CPH) on Lutherans and Procreation.

I don't wish to debate you further here, Pr. Brown. The linked discussions below pretty much say everything we could here. Anything more would simply be redundant, so you can respond to my comment here without any concern that I will make any counterpoints. God's peace and blessings to you.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

"This leads to my second point, and the main point of disagreement between Rev. Brown and Dr. Heidenreich. Dr. Heidenreich is correct in his account of the history of interpretation of contraception, but Rev. Brown challenges the validity of this interpretation because he does not see the argument in Scripture. The two gentlemen thus have not merely different opinions about contraception or the interpretation of this or that passage of Scripture, but they demonstrate epistemologies at odds. The interpretation offered by Dr. Heidenreich is a classical interpretation that operates out of ontological assumptions: what a creature does is related to who or what it is, and who or what it is is not simply the observable properties and characteristics, but the purpose for which the creature exists and the relationship he is engaged in. When purpose and relationship is assumed, then attributes are less likely to be seen as independent and incidental, but integrated with each other attributes and with other creatures. In other words, for human beings, because semen is emitted through sexual excitement which deepens the emotional bonds between the male and female, sexual relations are for procreation, satisfying sexual urges, and building loving unity. They all go together, and cannot be separated in an independent way, as if each aspect was unimportant for the flourishing of the other aspects.

"The interpretation offered by Rev. Brown, on the other hand, even if he does not like it, is a modernist one. Yes, the skeptical aspect is postmodern. But what is fundamental is his move away from a holistic understanding of purpose that relies on ontology and relationship, to a subjective perspective that analyzes act and function as relatively independent from any metaphysical essence and purpose of the creature. Relationships and purposes may even be thought to be unchallenged presuppositions, and therefore should be discarded for a truly proper interpretation of a creature or action. From this perspective it is more difficult to make inferences and draw implications. So just because semen is emitted, and one is sexually aroused, and emotional attachment deepens in sexual relations doesn't mean that these cannot be sharply distinguished or even separated when it comes to consideration of the integrity of the act or the complementarity of the aspects. Thus one would also be in greater need of explicit commands or passages from whatever one's authority is (in this case, the Scriptures) for determining the integrity of the act and what is allowed or prohibited.

"So I suspect that you are at an impasse until you address this epistemological difference. Most people don't think the way Dr. Heidenreich is arguing, which I think was his point in the first place."
Thursday, August 27, 2009 9:57:00 PM CDT

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Robert C. Baker said...

" the turn of the last century many Christians were divided over the issue of evolution, the purpose, role, and authority of Scripture, etc.

"The world was changing. Because believers also use the language of the world, which brings with it ideas and concepts foreign to the faith, they begin to reflect and write on their faith in a different way. Some believers followed after the Princeton theologians and accepted Fundamentalism. Others, following Kant and Schleiermacher, accepted Liberalism. When you are accused of being a Fundamentalist, or a literalist, or a traditionalist, for example, most likely the person making such an exaggeration is operating from a Liberal set of beliefs, whether or not he or she is aware of it.

"In addition to Fundamentalism, another reaction to Liberalism came through the teaching of Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Barth denied natural law and taught a strong divine command theory ethic, which means that the only commands that are valid for the Christian are those that are recorded verbatim in Scripture. If you cannot find a Bible verse specifically condemning any activity, then you are free to do that activity.

"I find this line of reasoning being utilized, with no apparent credit to Barth, by Missouri Synod theologians beginning in the 1930's, about the same time as when Barth was having his famous debate with Emil Brunner.

"The strong divine command theory ethic is why, in my opinion, that modern Lutherans accept contraception (because it is not specifically condemned in Scripture), whereas orthodox Lutherans (Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Gerhard, et. al.) condemned it as violating the first, fourth, fifth, and six commandments. This method is also why "conservative" Lutherans are unable successfully to address current moral crises today. To wit, most current condemnations of the ELCA's decision to allow same-sex unions and the ordination of gays and lesbians highlight that these are condemned in Scripture.

"True, but same-sex attraction and activity also violates the moral law embedded in human nature. Even without Scripture, these folks should know better. If you don't believe me, ask St. Paul.

"For more about my views, log on to

Robert C. Baker"

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Thank you Erich for bringing that up in a quite respectable way - I appreciate it. It is clear that I removed myself from the discussion a few comments after this and hadn't read too much further past this.

Twp thoughts:

First, as to the Epistimological approaches and the like -- it is not so much that I deny natural purposes... it's that I see the fall everywhere shattering nature. If there had been no fall, there would be no situation that would ever bring about the possibility of wanting (or needing) contraception.

But the fall happened. It did. And in this world, things stink, and nature doesn't work right. I'll agree that ideally there shouldn't be any use of contraception... but we do not live in an ideal world.

Ideally there should be no reason why I should have to lock my door at home. Indeed, my Lord has even told me that if someone takes a bit from me I should give more... but that does not mean that I will then argue that door locks are unnatural, nor that anyone who locks his door "doesn't trust God" to keep him safe.

Second: I will put her a quote from another former Vicar at Trinity, Norman - Rev. Paul Beisel, who writes: What I find utterly lacking in these discussions, in whichever forum they take place, is any sense of compassion and mercy towards those who have not lived up to the standards that are being espoused, or those who out of ignorance have "taken matters into their own hands." That is what raises my ire. There is no acknowledgement of human weakness in a fallen world, and the way these precepts are presented almost always suggests that those who use contraception are going to hell for unrepentant sin.

Hell, even divorce (which the Lord hates) was permitted under Deuteronomic Law in order to avoid adultery. It wasn't ideal, but it was allowed because of the hard-hearts of the Israelites.

What irritates me to no end is how some folks make contraception the "article upon which the Church stands or falls." Do I think it is a blind spot in our theology and preaching today? Yes. But have some pity, for heaven's sake! I know someone who from their first pregnancy had to have a C-section, and subsequently had two more children like this. Would I want to have a fourth by C-section? Hell no. They might as well just mutilate the person's belly. Did she choose to have a C-section? No. It was a medical necessity. To tell someone like this that they are sinning against God by using contraception is to unnecessarily bind their conscience. This is pure and utter Pharisaism.

I think this speaks very adroitly to many of the frustrations I face.