by Monnica Terwilliger
Terwilliger's article is identifiably Evangelical in the centrality it gives in ethical deliberation to the words of the Christian Bible and to the example and teaching of Jesus, considered the Son of God and the Savior of the human race. -- Editor
In the Beginning...
Women and men were created equal.
The Bible records that in the beginning, God created woman and man-different, but equal. The two enjoyed a unique relationship with their creator, a type of intimacy we can only dream of today: God walked among them.
But in His wisdom God knew that to be truly free, Eve and Adam needed choices. So He put a tree with poisonous fruit in the center of the garden. "Eat from it," he warned, "and you will surely die." We know how the story goes-Eve, tricked by the serpent, ate the forbidden fruit. Adam rebelled against his creator by following her example.
So, God drove His two children out of Paradise, cursing every living creature and revoking immortality. Both had sinned and both were punished. Part of the curse was that the man would live by the sweat of his brow, working a stubborn earth for needed sustenance, while the woman would be ruled forever by the man. Both would die, returning to the dust from which they had been formed.
Generation after generation failed and died. Rejected by God, the man took out his frustrations on the woman. Though commissioned by God to protect and serve, the man subjugated the woman in every conceivable way; through the centuries the woman endured a subhuman status as slave or prostitute. Though at times she may have enjoyed equality, such periods were transient, lasting only as long as the ruling class saw fit. Worldwide, women are more likely to be illiterate, malnourished, and poorer than their male counterparts. Even today, in countries like China and India, infanticide of females babies is routinely practiced.
Jesus was an advocate for women's freedom and equality.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"
They were using this question as a trap, to have a basis for accusing Him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with His finger. When they kept on questioning Him, He straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."
Jesus was the perfect model when it came to women's rights. He showed mercy for the woman caught in adultery, realizing the injustice of persecuting the woman while no punishment was directed toward her male sexual partner. There has been much speculation about what Jesus was writing on the ground with His finger. Some have suggested these were the names of women visited illicitly by the teachers accusing her. (1)
Jesus treated women as people, not servants or sex objects. In a day when men did not even speak to women publicly, Jesus explained the scriptures and offered hope to the woman at the well, a member of an outcast race. Moved by compassion, He resurrected the only son of a widow. He was the perfect gentleman on every occasion, never abusing His power or celebrity status. He taught women, healed women, and accepted women, even those considered "unclean."
Women recognized His gender-blind love for all and reciprocated by acts such as pouring fine perfume on His feet and visiting His tomb after even His male disciples had abandoned Him. When Christ rose from the dead, He appeared first to women, not His apostles. Accordingly, women were central in the early church; the Bible depicts women co-ministering as leaders, teachers, benefactors, and even apostles. (2)
The New Testament gives explicit rules for preventing the mistreatment of women, even addressing the issue of sexual harassment. In the Letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes, "Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity." (3) Paul makes it clear that we are all children of God through our shared faith. He says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."(4)
In other words, we are not to identify ourselves by gender, race, or class. Male domination was a curse, but all are equal in Christ.
In the early church, a slave might be chosen as a deacon in the church, while his master was an ordinary member. This practice actually contributed to the persecution of the early Church because Christians were seen as subverting the social order. From prison, Paul writes to the church in Rome, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (5) By the time the Letter to the Colossians was written, he urges believers not to provoke further hostility by disrupting traditional social structures. (6) Even so, women and men alike held to the faith, proclaimed the gospel, and died as martyrs. (7)
Two hundred years of persecution ended in 313 C.E. with the conversion of Roman emperor Constantine, but as Christianity became the state religion, many changes came about for both good and bad. By this time women's roles in the Church had become limited, and ministers were soon regarded a privileged class.(8) Although the Church continued to promote the value of women through the example of the Virgin Mary, this did not always translate into a better lot for women of the day. Issues of women's equality and status have often been overlooked by the Church, forcing women's movements to begin in secular circles.
Finding equal if not worse oppression in the Church than in the rest of the community, many feminists have counted Christendom an enemy. In fact, God blessed the feminist movement in many important areas because the greater Church has not heard God's voice calling for reform. Voting rights, equal pay, maternity leave, and the expansion of women's opportunities were all possible because of the hard work of feminist visionaries past and present.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, being a Christian and a feminist is not a contradiction. It simply means that, as women, we are empowered to be whom God calls us to be-homemakers, grandmothers, pastors, engineers, or all of the above at different times in our lives. God's plan for women and men is spelled out in the Bible. There He provides an outline for how the family should function, how to love each other, and, by example, the central role of women in society. By applying these truths, we can experience both true feminism and true Christianity.
Marriage and Divorce
Marriage has benefited women through the ages.
Many modern feminists have viewed marriage with suspicion, as the tool of the patriarchy for legally relegating women to the status of property. Although nearly every society has abused this institution, marriage is a substantial benefit for women. Even during times of great male oppression, through marriage women have had strong influence over their husbands and children. When men have been in positions of power, this has given women a voice, if not an overt one, for both good and evil. Queen Esther used her influence with King Xerxes to save the Jewish race from genocide. King Herod's wife, Herodias, orchestrated the execution of John the Baptist when Herod was impressed by her daughter's dancing. And Pilate's wife, though unsuccessful, pleaded directly for the release of Christ prior to his crucifixion-an impossibility for Christ's male disciples.
God, the author of marriage, outlined the principle of one man to one woman. Practically speaking, this means that a husband can't come home with another wife if the old one doesn't suit him any more. It means that, even when a woman becomes old and wrinkled, he can't trade her in for a younger one. He can never throw out his wife or refuse to provide for her and their children.(9) If a couple has a marriage problem, they must try everything humanly possible to work it out. Jesus reiterated the scriptures, stunning even his own disciples when He forbade divorce.
Some Pharisees came and tested [Jesus] by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" "What did Moses command you?" He replied. They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away." "It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."(10)
Jesus said these words not to enslave women, but because he knew the hardships caused by single motherhood, divorce, and polygamy (though not legal in this society, it is both legal and encouraged in many others). In Christ's day, a divorced woman was often forced into prostitution to support herself. Even today divorced, middle-aged women are unlikely to find another mate, and their economic status is well below their more marriageable ex-husbands.
Beyond the basic rights and influence accorded women by marriage is the concept of spiritual equality. Jesus was quoting Genesis when he said that a woman and man are to leave their parents and become one. Although many see this as simply a mandate for sexual activity, God intended something more-a union in heart, spirit, and intellect. When two people have achieved true marriage, there is no power struggle. The two share insights, daily concerns, and become partners in all important areas of life. Differences, strengths and weaknesses complement each other.
If a breakup occurs, each person is deeply and permanently affected. Divorced people are more likely to divorce again if they can find another partner. They are also more likely to die from cancer, suicide, and cardiovascular disease, resulting in shorter life spans. Needless to say, marriage is a gift we need to appreciate and protect.
Sex Differences in Marriage
Husband and wife share unique responsibilities.
A string quartet is comprised of four similar but different instruments: a bass, cello, viola, and violin. None outranks the others, and all are needed for the full richness of string-quartet music. Most of the time the instruments all do about the same thing--for example, during a four-part harmony. But when there is a melody, the violin is usually the one to carry it. When there is a beat, the bass sets the tempo. If God has something to say to each instrument, what would it be? "Bass, you're pretty loud, so don't drown out the violin." "Violin, when playing the melody, don't get ahead of the bass." What a wonderful sound is produced when all work together.
How awful it would be if each played disregarding the other members. What if someone asked, "Which is better?" Would such a question even make sense? What if someone said the bass was too big or the viola too small? Should we make them all alike so it's not unfair? Of course not! How boring it would be if they all sounded the same.
Like complementary instruments, men and women weren't made identical by God either. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise that He had a few special instructions for each when it comes to the music of family life. Overall, both wife and husband are equally responsible for their marriage and children, and there are no areas where either partner is completely absolved of responsibility. However, there are a few areas where one partner has unique considerations. The following theme is found in several places in the New Testament.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her... In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-for we are members of his body. (11)
Many have misunderstood this teaching, citing the Apostle Paul's plea for women to submit to their husbands as a mandate for blind obedience and a justification for male domination. (12) But Paul gives dual instructions for both members. Both are literally subject to each other and mutually accountable. The wife is asked to respect and respond to her husband in everything.(13) The husband is asked to devote himself to the well-being of his wife, just as Jesus does for the Church, even to the point of death if necessary.
The husband is asked to provide spiritual guidance when necessary, which is not to be confused with domination. Lordship by anyone other than God is oppressive, but leadership can be redemptive. Husbands are not to force their wives to do anything, only point the way, if needed. This is analogous to Jesus pointing the way for each of us, but never forcing His will on anyone.
Both partners are still equal; the Bible gives no additional power to the husband, although society often does. This is why in the Letter to the Colossians, Paul makes a point to say, "Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them." (14) Men also tend to have an advantage in size and strength. Thus the Apostle Peter warns husbands to "be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers." (15)
Domestic abuse of any sort-physical, mental, or sexual-is clearly not permissible among Christians. In ancient times there was often no recourse for abused individuals, so Peter counsels nonviolence, deferring to the ultimate justice of God, when he writes that "it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God." (16) Unfortunately, many have distorted this scripture as a platitude for women to endure senseless abuse for the sake of Christ. (17)
When abuse occurs, the church must step forward to protect the abused party and take strong measures regarding the abuser. If the abuser refuses or fails in attempts at repentance, this may be grounds for separation. (18) If the abuser is dangerous, proper authorities must be employed to assist.
Women too have additional areas of responsibility. For example, the wife is solely responsible for taking care of her body and her baby while pregnant-and usually for quite some time afterward, especially if nursing. While pregnant, her body undergoes many uncomfortable changes; she may be large, clumsy, and vulnerable for months. And even if she never has children, she must endure monthly cycles and the associated difficulties for roughly 35 years.
The wife is also given special instructions in the event that she finds herself married to a non-believer. She must refrain from nagging or pressuring her husband to convert and instead be a witness through example-by showing respect, devotion to God, and purity of heart. (19) This is not because women don't have anything valuable to say or any such nonsense. The Apostle Peter, a married man himself, understood the best way to communicate the message of Christ's love to a stubborn husband. Any woman who has ever suggested her husband ask for directions while lost can appreciate how resistant men can be to unsolicited advice!
Sex as a Part of Marriage
Sexual intercourse is intended as a mutual expression of love.
Hand in hand with the gift of marriage is God's gift of sex. It doesn't take an anthropologist to appreciate the profound effect this activity has had on every civilization that ever existed. It is inexorably linked with love, babies, religion, and the legal system. For any woman who has ever been sexually harassed, raped, molested, or abandoned while pregnant, the idea of sex as God's gift probably seems like a cruel joke. But with all great gifts comes great responsibility, and sex is no exception. God didn't just say, "here's sex, have fun and good luck." He gave us guidelines. Sex is an expression of love through physical, emotional and spiritual oneness. It is reserved for marriage only, in part because it is the adhesive that bonds two people together. By Biblical rule, husbands and wives are neither to force themselves on each other, nor are they to deprive each other of sex, except for a short time by mutual consent. (20) Sexual activity outside of marriage is strictly forbidden. The following passage from the Old Testament book of Proverbs illustrates several elements of the sexual covenant, including pleasure and exclusivity.
Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers. May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer-may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. (21)
Interestingly, following God's plan for sex would eliminate virtually all rape, prostitution, adultery, sexually transmitted disease, most abortions, and countless failed marriages. The Old Testament book Song of Songs, which may have been authored by a woman, focuses further on the sensual elements of love, largely from a feminine perspective. (22) That a whole book of the Bible is dedicated to the description of a passionate relationship indicates that erotic love is intended to be a normal part of married Christian life. Sadly, many Christian sects throughout the ages have attempted to devalue the pleasure aspect of sex, leaving behind a legacy of shame in the hearts of many believers. (23)
But sex is not just to give married couples something fun to do at night or even to improve relationships; its dual and complementary purpose is to allow us to participate in the creative process. Like God Himself, we too can be parents. Every couple could experience the joys and sorrows of parenthood. We know love we could never otherwise imagine but also deep pain when our children fail in some way or do not meet our expectations. We would know exactly how God felt when Adam and Eve left the garden. Parenthood is a gift that draws us out of ourselves in a mysterious way. Children are, in fact, an even greater gift than sex. Although the pain we feel when giving birth is counted as part of the curse of the fall, bringing children into the world is truly redemptive. They are our most important natural resource and our hope for the future. When we die, they are the only part of us that continues on this earth. And like all humans, even the smallest child is created in the image of God.
Abortion harms women physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Given the understanding that human life begins at conception, taking the life of an unborn child is no different from the related atrocity of infanticide. As far back as the second century, both practices have been condemned by the Church. (24) Abortion was so unthinkable among Hebrews that no special mention of it was necessary in the Old Testament criminal code. (25) God said "You shall not murder," and that was enough. (26) Abortion makes the womb a place of death instead of life. The ability to give life should be celebrated as a gift, never to be taken for granted. It is the very thing that separates women from men. Christians believe it is also the gift God gave women to save humanity. When one generation has failed, the next has a chance to do better. And most importantly, all were given the opportunity for salvation through the birth of Christ-Mary's choice to give life in the face of adversity.
Over the past few decades, abortion rights have been the cornerstone of the feminist agenda, yet legalized abortion has never empowered women. Instead abortion has cheapened the value of life by dehumanizing the unborn child. We have had to use words like fetus, conceptus, or POC (products of conception) to feel better about the elective extermination of our unborn children. Some feminists argue that the unborn child is not a person because it cannot live apart from the mother. We find this reasoning particularly insulting. What gives us the right to take the life of another just because he or she is small, dependent, and defenseless-aren't we all so in the eyes of God? The weakest among us are the ones most in need of protection.
In reality abortion has acted like a bandaid to hide the fallout of our society's failed value system-a system whereby a pregnant woman is seen as a problem to be fixed instead of a participant in the miracle of life. We were told that women need abortion as a way to compete in today's world. If we have to kill our children to make a living, what kind of living is that? The notion that a woman cannot have a baby and go to college, or cannot have a baby and be a CEO, or cannot have a baby and be the person she is supposed to be---is untrue and should not be entertained. True freedom is about having choices-real choices that do not force a person to choose between her baby and God's plan for her life. How much more empowered are we when we reject abortion as a shortcut to career goals and insist our children are not disposable?
Hunter Tylo, an actress and a Christian, recently waged this battle when she was fired from the popular television show Melrose Place for becoming pregnant.(27) According to one news report:
Defense attorneys say Spelling had the right to fire Tylo because the actress could not convincingly play the planned role of a "vixen" and "seductress" on the show while pregnant. During Friday's testimony, Tylo wiped tears from her eyes as she told jurors she sued Spelling because she was so distraught over her dismissal that she thought of ending the pregnancy. "For a brief moment I'm ashamed of, I considered having an abortion," she said. "I considered it, and I'm ashamed because I don't believe in it. I look at my daughter walking now and I'm ashamed. I don't ever want to see a woman put in that position again," she added. Tylo, 34, said she also felt the need to sue because her family had been treated "like a piece of dirt on the bottom of a shoe" by the producers. Asked by her attorney if she worried about the repercussions of suing Spelling-one of the most powerful men in Hollywood-Tylo answered that she did. (28)
A producer of the show was quoted as saying, "Why doesn't she just go out and get an abortion? Then she can work"---underscoring the callousness of thought regarding Tylo's unborn baby as compared to her "proper" career aspirations. (29) In the court room, the defense lawyer questioned Tylo's motives, accused her of faking tears, and berated her for calling herself a Christian. Because she dared to stand up for her faith and her rights under California state law, Tylo paved the way for all working women in similar circumstances. She was awarded $4.9 million dollars for pregnancy discrimination, almost double the amount originally requested. She later said, "I know a lot of actresses who are afraid to announce that they are thinking about having children because they are afraid of being written out or written down, or whatever… I hope [this case] gives other actresses confidence to know producers are not going to have that ground to stand on anymore." (30)
This case also provides a clear example of how abortion on demand has actually served men rather than women. Employers do not want to pay for maternity leave just as Hollywood does not want to bother working around a female star's bulging belly, regardless of legal obligation. Organizations like Playboy have always been big supporters of abortion rights. The man of yesteryear escaped to the army if he sowed a few too many wild oats; nowadays he pays for an abortion and pats himself on the back for being so responsible. It's the woman who is left with a scarred uterus, breast cancer, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (31,32)
Another example comes from a student at a Christian college, who writes the following about her struggle:
I wasn't planning on becoming pregnant. I was [pregnant] before and had an abortion, the biggest mistake. It haunts me constantly. I don't want to repeat the past this time, but I am so scared of how my mother will react. I know I can work through it, I am just really scared and unsure of the future. If I go through with it, adoption is out of the question; I want to keep it. My ex-boyfriend doesn't want to have it, he says we don't have the money or responsibility to care for it. At the moment, I think an abortion would be the best route, but when I think of how it is a living thing and how I would be murdering innocence I cry. I am really depressed. I need help in this. My ex doesn't seem to want to see any other point of view, and I want to make a good decision. I need possible ways I could still go to school and keep the child without the help of my ex. [Do you have] any info regarding an abortion at my time? How to tell my mother, should I tell her I was raped?(33)
How pitiful is our society still when the prospect of being pregnant is so frightening that a woman feels the need to lie about being raped or to take the life of her child, whom she wants very much. I have been a crisis pregnancy counselor more than five years, and recently I have started counseling women, such as the one above, over the Internet. I have spoken to more women than I can count about their reproductive histories. Never have I heard a woman talk about how terrific her abortion was. The occasional woman is strangely detached, but usually she talks about pressure from her boyfriend, fear of her family, depression and nightmares, and how she does not want to go that route again. I have met with several women who almost bled to death after their supposedly safe, legal abortions. I have spoken to a few who were so distressed about choosing abortion they had become suicidal. A woman knows what science has known for decades, even if she can't admit it to herself-that at the moment of conception a new life has been entrusted to her care. She may have a million justifications for an abortion, but inside she knows she has killed a living being. One woman wrote the following:
I am 18 years old and had an abortion when I was eight weeks pregnant. I had no one to turn to, no one to talk to. I wanted to have that baby badly, but my family and my boyfriend's family didn't. In my mind, I struggled with the thought that even if this baby is not yet born, nobody wanted it…. But to me, it is not the baby's fault. It is innocent. Still, I went through with the abortion and now I cannot seem to forgive myself for what I have done. I wish I just died with that child. I am seeing a psychiatrist right now, and am hoping to feel better about myself, though I know it would take a long time. I would carry this guilt for the rest of my life, wishing I could undo what had been done. (34)
Post-abortion depression, drug use, and relationship problems are all too common. Every abortion is coupled with profound spiritual repercussions, such as a sense of separation from God. Years ago, we had been told that legalized abortion would eliminate single parenthood, poverty, and child abuse; instead, all of these problems have increased over the past twenty-five years. Any woman who has had one knows that abortion is no solution. The founders of feminism in our country recognized this and vigorously opposed abortion, seeing it as a form of infanticide. Susan B. Anthony's own words seem to resonate with the lament of the young woman above.
No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime! (35)
Some feel that Christians are cruel in their opposition to abortion, unsympathetic to the pregnant woman caught in a difficult situation, but nothing could be further from the truth. For being apparently unfaithful, the Virgin Mary, probably a poor 16 year-old girl when impregnated, could have been rejected by her fiancé, shamed by her family, or even killed. Nevertheless, when given the opportunity to bear and raise the Messiah, she said simply, "I am the Lord's servant."(36) It should be understood that Mary was not passive; rather, for a higher good, she actively chose to carry, bear, and raise a child that was not biologically her husband's. It was a difficult situation in which Mary's life, and later her baby's life, were both endangered. When King Herod heard news of the Messiah's birth, he ordered a mass execution of infants in an attempt to kill Christ before he could become a rival. But Mary had a powerful faith that God would make a way, and He did. The family, once poor, came into wealth by gifts of gold and spices from unexpected wise men; then the Holy Family escaped safely to Egypt, out of King Herod's reach. We encourage others in such a predicament to likewise put their trust in God that He will make a way, even though the road may be hard at times. As Mary's unplanned pregnancy redeemed all of humanity, the same can happen of an unplanned pregnancy today. I've seen it many times-a child seen as a horrible mistake suddenly becomes the most wonderful gift from God once abortion is ruled out.
But Christians are not merely saying, "Just have faith." James, the brother of Christ, rejects this type of hypocrisy, stating that "faith without deeds is dead."(37) Rather, Christians are aiding women through both independent and church-based crisis-pregnancy centers across the globe. These centers, staffed primarily by caring women on a volunteer basis, offer free pregnancy tests, support and friendship, education, post-abortion workshops, local resource listings, and sometimes even medical care. In the United States alone, over 3,500 organizations are actively helping women choose life.(38) These include crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes, non-profit adoption services, hotlines, and post-abortion help centers. Anyone interested in providing women with real choices is encouraged to support abortion-alternative ministries. Many of those involved have had abortions and want to help provide other women with better options.(39) One woman writes the following about our crisis pregnancy center:
I am so happy to see a place like yours that helps women. I had a painful experience, an abortion at age 18 that I am still very sad about. My life is very different now-I have a 22-month old child, am married with another due in October. As I watch my daughter sleep, I hope she never goes through that experience [when she grows up]. I never realized how precious a tiny life is until I had her. I feel horrible for every woman that is alone and scared and wish I could reach out to all of them. My first pregnancy I had no support from the father-in fact I began to hate him. When I was pregnant with my daughter, every day I marveled at the tiny life inside, like I do now. My husband has felt both our daughter and this baby kicking, and it is such a special moment, one we treasure. I hope the women walking through your doors have the support of the father or boyfriend or husband. It makes such a big difference… I wish I had made a better choice-the choice of abstinence until I met him. I will always regret that abortion, and I love children more than ever. I will hopefully spend the rest of my life doing things that benefit children. Only if I make a difference in one hundred lives will I ever forgive myself for the loss of the one. God bless all the frightened women out there. We punish ourselves enough-we don't need to be punished by others. May we all find peace, and be good parents to the babies we keep. (40)
Family Planning and Birth Controln
Many Christians misunderstand the purpose of family planning.
In the Bible, the first command ever given to woman and man was to "be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth." (41) A nation that grew, as did the Hebrews in the Old Testament, was termed blessed, while one that shrank was considered cursed. The mandate to be fruitful is still in effect among Christians. Christ's last command, as recorded in the book of Matthew, parallels the Lord's first command. Jesus says, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey in everything I have commanded you." (42)
Whether married or single, we are called to bear good fruit, creating disciples and passing on our faith to the next generation. Being fruitful and multiplying may mean adopting children with special needs and raising them well, being a foster parent to a teen in need, being a pastor and teaching the congregation, or being a missionary to people in remote places. The most common means of multiplying is still the old-fashioned way of giving birth, but the desire to space out children, or "family planning," has resulted in some misunderstanding of the duty of Christian couples.
When contraceptive devices first gained wide popularity in our country in the late nineteenth century, most Christian groups opposed them as "immoral" and "impure." But over time birth control gained widespread acceptance, and by the 1950s Protestant denominations made it a point of policy to leave the choice of contraception to the couple. (43) The Catholic Church, however, continues to prohibit all forms of contraception, except for natural methods under certain circumstances, and abstinence. (44) Practicing Catholics maintain it is wrong to thwart the attempt of our Creator at blessing a couple with an additional child.
The Scriptures state that "the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding" and in fact "my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge." (45) Therefore the Christian should be a technophile, embracing the knowledge provided by God to make our existence on this earth that much more bearable. Contraceptive science is no exception; like all technologies it can be used for good or evil. Ask any woman who has recently given birth--the limited ability we are afforded to plan our families is truly a blessing. On the other hand, forced sterilization of the poor or mandatory birth control is an abuse.
A small minority of Christians believe all applications of birth control, including natural methods, are wrong because they are an implicit rejection of children. But wanting two children as opposed to twenty simply means we want to allocate our time, money and energy productively. Having as many children as humanly possible is not usually realistic or even healthy. Some also blame the existence of birth control for increased promiscuity. Although there is probably a correlation, widespread misuse of birth control does not mean it is inherently evil. People have misused many good things-including airplanes, telephones, and even the Bible-and will continue to do so.
On the whole I do not see any moral difference between natural and artificial methods of contraception, and I believe Protestant churches made the correct decision when they allowed birth control methods which truly prevent conception. However, new technologies mean new responsibilities. The couple must choose a contraceptive method that works for both parties, especially the wife, who usually has the burden of any potential side effects as well as the physical consequences of contraceptive failure. Couples must include God in their decision of how and when to contracept. For the feminist this may seem strictly an issue of autonomy, but there are additional factors the Christian must consider. Our bodies are not our own-they belong to Christ-so God's will must be our primary consideration. (46) God might instruct a couple who did not plan on having any children to have them. A couple that planned on a big family may be infertile. If birth control fails, as it often does, the couple must accept the child as a gift from God, not a burden or mistake. It behooves all couples to have a good understanding of their bodies and birth control, even if they choose not to use it.
No methods are perfect, and some should not be used by Christians. While most Christian couples are interested in controlling fertility, many have concerns about certain birth-control methods, and with good reason. As Christians we maintain that life begins at conception, yet many of the chemicals we use to prevent pregnancy are also known to interrupt life in its earliest stages. Combined oral contraceptives (the pill), estrogen-free pills (the mini-pill), Depo-Provera (the shot), Norplant, and the IUD all prevent the implantation of an embryo after fertilization as one of several major mechanisms of action. (47) Expulsion of a developing human being is quite different from simply keeping sperm and egg apart (by inhibiting ovulation, for example).
This unfortunate fact is de-emphasized by pharmaceutical companies, who tend to explain only the contraceptive aspects of these drugs to interested individuals. (48) Women have the right to know how their methods of birth control work; we are not too dim to understand these things. Thinking women everywhere are looking for answers but are consistently fed half-truths by those who profit financially from such products. I recently received the following letter from a Christian woman grappling with these very issues:
I always knew I would never use an IUD because I was morally and religiously opposed to the idea of it. It was only recently that I read that the pill and all other chemical methods of birth control are also abortifacients. I don't currently use any of these methods, but I was on the pill for one year when I first got married and had planned to never use it again because of the unpleasant effects it had on my body and my fertility. Since I learned about the ill effects of most forms of birth control, I have begun searching for what I feel I am 'supposed to' use. (49)
Another woman echoes her:
In my years of taking the mini-pill no doctor or health professional has ever told me about the abortive aspect of the drug-this makes me angry. I think women are still only told about the "benefits" of the contraception and not the side effects. With a lack of available and objective information it is no wonder that we put our faith in them. I won't be any longer. I have two friends who recently had the three-month Depo-Provera injection done. When I asked them how it works neither could tell me. They could only say it is popular in Europe and women don't really need to menstruate! I will tell them to look [for more information] in the interests of their own self-education and self-preservation. (50)
Failing to properly explain the mechanism of these drugs and devices infringes on our right to informed consent. Yet no women's-rights organizations have dared to tackle this aspect of the issue for fear of weakening their position on abortion rights and birth-control advocacy.
Beyond the disturbing mechanisms employed by birth-control chemicals is the catalog of side effects, drug interactions, and health hazards that, I maintain, no male would endure. I regularly receive letters like the one below from a young woman:
I have never had acne problems until these shots. Now, I have severe acne on my chin, back and shoulders. The dermatologist can only control the acne with medication until the shot is out of my system. I will be starting on Accutane as of tomorrow. But for the last six months I have experienced severe pain and embarrassment due to the acne. How long does this shot take to get out of your system? It looks like it's about to start healing when it flares up again. Have you heard of anybody else with this problem? (51)
In addition, hormonal methods routinely cause depression, weight gain, and menstrual-cycle disturbances--if not complete cessation of periods.
Back in February I had an abortion and then in March I went on the shot. It is now September and I am still bleeding. I don't think there has been a week or even a day since February that I have not been on my period. I have told my doctor and all he says it that it will stop-all the questions that I read from other women on the shot complain of not having their period. I am concerned and would like to know if maybe there was something done wrong during my abortion to cause this massive bleeding or if it is a common side effect that many women experience along with me. (52)
These are considered normal side effects and of little concern to the medical community. "Serious" health hazards include stroke, heart attack, cancer, and pregnancy-any of which can be fatal. (53) We are told to put these risks in perspective-that we are much less likely to have a serious medical problem from the Pill than from, say, pregnancy, as if we have no right to complain. (54) The implication is that our feminine physiology is more dangerous than the problematic drugs and devices that injure us. Safer birth-control methods, like the condom, diaphragm, and sponge, tend to be about as effective as withdrawal. Due to method failures and user error, a typical contracepting woman has in any given year about a 25 percent chance of getting pregnant while employing these methods. (55) And natural family planning is rarely mentioned because few doctors are educated in its use and because it requires strict compliance. Other methods can also present problems in terms of compliance; in any given month about half of oral-contraceptive users will forget to take a pill, making pregnancy not unlikely. (56)
Like the rest of us, Christians are often left trying to sort through a myriad of poor birth-control options, with the added constraint of moral standards. As mentioned previously, the method of choice for the Catholic Church is natural family planning (NFP), an improved form of the rhythm method. Unlike other methods, NFP has no health risks, is completely natural and mutual, and costs next to nothing. If properly adhered to, NFP is as effective as the Pill. It is based on the knowledge that with a little effort a woman can determine exactly when she is fertile and can avoid sex at that time should she so choose. Many feminists support the use of this method because, in addition to its safety, it gives a woman more insight into her own body and therefore more power. It's also an excellent method for couples who may not have access to other methods or good medical care. However, NFP is not the best choice for every couple at all times. Many nursing women and women with irregular cycles or recurrent yeast infections will have trouble identifying patterns of fertility. Attempting NFP in these situations can mean few opportunities for couples to enjoy sexual relations, resulting in sexual frustration. New technologies are being developed to help couples identify fertility patterns. As of this writing, one European hand-held fertility computer is being tested by the US Food and Drug Administration. (57) However, this method is currently only for women with fairly regular cycles.
On the whole, women presently have about four different types of natural methods, as well as five different barrier methods, three types of IUDs, two types of implants, one injection-based method and two more in the works, and scores of oral-contraceptive brands and formulations. In fact, there is even an abortifacient pregnancy "vaccine" being developed that would cause a woman's own immune system to destroy her developing embryo. (58) However, men who want to take the responsibility of contraception are presently left with only the age-old condom and sterilization. More options for males would be a welcome change for everyone. One concerned man wrote the following:
I was just wondering if there's any type of birth-control pill or shot for men yet, and if not is there one in the near future? … We've tried many options from Depo-Provera (NIGHTMARE!!!) to condoms (reduced the pleasure factor for both of us too much). Presently she is on a very low dosage of Estrogen pill, but even that is causing problems for her (depression and massive headaches). If there is anything more I could do, I'd really like to know. (59)
Most feminists realize that current birth-control technologies are not the panacea once imagined, and have called for aggressive research into better methods. (60) Most churches are reluctant even to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, many Christians face frustration, side effects, and unplanned pregnancies as they try to sort through the maze of family-planning aids.
Young people do not understand the consequences of sexual behavior.
Because many churches view the sex education of its members as a subject too thorny to tackle, we have a generation forced to learn about sex from school and the secular media. Our country is witness to 1.5 million abortions annually, epidemic rates of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, a divorce rate of 50 percent, and sex scandals of presidential proportions. Fifty percent of teens have been sexually active, and one in five of those becomes pregnant. (61)
These problems are just as common among Christians as non-Christians, and that is particularly troublesome to parents and church leaders. But it is not enough merely to advance the "Just say no" message and depend on parents to transmit the essentials. A large portion of sexually active young women feel uncomfortable talking about sex even to their partners, much less to their parents. One 19 year-old wrote, "My parents wouldn't teach me anything but waiting till I was married. I found out about birth control after my daughter was born!" (62) This is why schools have been forced to provide sex education--it just is not happening in the home.
Sex educators, on the other end of the spectrum, assume that abstinence is beyond the ability of our youth and are eager to place a condom in every third grader's hand. Sex educators think the curriculum should include same-sex relationships, abortion, and other controversial topics, in addition to tpics such as borth control and STD prevention. (63) Although these are all important issues, a number of Christians are concerned they will be addressed in a manner contrary to deeply held convictions. Many question whether topics like homosexuality and masturbation are appropriate for classroom discussion. Parents are concerned that material presented might be too explicit or too graphic for children. Additionally, rates of teen pregnancy and STD transmission have continued to rise over the years, despite increased condom-based education. (64)
In light of these facts, it has been difficult to justify the need for sex education to the minds of many Christians. As a crisis pregnancy counselor, I have found it rare to meet a woman, of any age, who does not know something about birth control. Despite having knowledge about contraception, between one-third and one half of the young women who seek a pregnancy test were having unprotected sex. Half of all abortions are a result of no birth control use whatsoever. At our local crisis pregnancy center, the initial conversation usually goes something like this:
Counselor: "…Were you using any birth control at the time you think you may have gotten pregnant?"
Counselor: "Are you trying to get pregnant?"
Client: "No way!"
Counselor: "What did you think would happen when you decided to have sex?"
Client: "I dunno."
Counselor: "Do you usually use contraception?"
Client: "Well, no-well, sometimes. He had a condom, but he didn't use it."
Counselor: "So, why didn't you ask him to use it?"
Client: "I dunno…."
"Kids as young as 12 are having sex without a thought regarding safe sex or consequences," says Sue Skovira of the New Horizons Crisis Pregnancy Center in Pennsylvania. "They are believing those who tell them they can't control their sexual urges. They don't believe there are real consequences until it's too late to do anything about it."
One female respondent of an on-line survey wrote the following:
I went to public school and deeply feel that the sex ed. was highly inadequate. More emphasis should have been placed on abstinence and emotional consequences. After talking to others my age they agreed that if abstinence were presented as a better, more acceptable option they would have waited longer. (65)
Correspondingly, we have seen a push away from conventional sex education to abstinence-based instruction as a saner alternative. In my own preliminary research, a statistical analysis of women using the online pregnancy-help service indicated that the most unplanned pregnancies were experienced by women with no sex education at all, with a trend toward the fewest unplanned pregnancies being experienced by women taught at least some formal abstinence education. Likewise, a 24-year-old Mormon woman writes:
I had been taught from a very early age that you do not have sexual relations with anyone until you are married. I believe that this should still be taught to young children....Instead of assuming that teens will do what they want anyway we should educate them more about responsibility and patience and to not have it until they are married. We would have a lot less STDs floating around and less AIDS, etc. if people still took this stand with morality. Society has taken a major plunge in the wrong direction concerning the topic of teen sexual behavior and birth control. I think that birth control should be made readily available, but I also think that we should not just assume there is nothing we can do about [STD's and teen pregnancy]. Education and knowledge is power...not ignorance. Teach abstinence! Teach it in grade school! Teach it on TV and in homes. (66)
Abstinence-based education has received increasing acceptance and widespread use as of late. (67) In 1996 congress allocated $250 million for abstinence education. (68) For the first time in twenty years, the Centers for Disease Control report that more young people are choosing to wait before starting to have sex. (69) Condom use among sexually active teens is also on the rise, yet condoms are an imperfect defense. More than one in six condom users experience an unplanned pregnancy annually, (70) and this rate is even higher among teens and unmarried persons. (71) And despite increases in abstinence and condom use, many continue to have sex without precaution or concern as to consequences.
Unplanned pregnancy and STDs are clearly undesirable, potentially fatal, and entirely preventable. The best thing we can teach our daughters and sons is to save sex for someone who is willing to make a permanent commitment. But it is not good enough just to say it; we have to live by example, teach strategies for how to stay out of risky situations, and teach our daughters how to be assertive. Emphasis must also be placed on consequences, responsibility, and relationship issues, including marriage preparation. There is a need as well to teach birth-control methods formally, but it must be a realistic presentation, assessing both risks and benefits, and framed within the context of marriage.
Some people are afraid that if young people know about birth control, they will become more sexually active. But young people already have some knowledge of birth control, and much of it is wrong. We are always better off with education as opposed to ignorance, especially when we can place this information in the proper context. Christians who don't have a place for artificial birth control in their value systems must be respected, but those who oppose it should at least know what they oppose and why. Above all we need to affirm our children's developing sense of sexuality, helping them to appreciate it as gift from God and part of what makes them special.
Christians and feminists can learn from each other.
True Christianity and true feminism are more alike than different. Both share many important goals, most notably the equality and dignity of women. Christ modeled the critical principles of equality, mutual respect and mutual service as an example to all humanity. We can apply these principles toward our approach to age-old issues such as marriage and sex, as well as toward contemporary thought on abortion and sex education. Women and men are different, but equal in the eyes of God.
However, true social equality can never be realized as long as the smallest and most vulnerable members of the human family are ignored; therefore we must reject abortion as a remedy for social problems. Women facing crisis pregnancies must be treated with compassion, without resorting to violence against women or the unborn. Sex education must encourage sexual abstinence outside of marriage as the best way to combat unplanned pregnancy and related problems. Even so, young people need to receive education on relevant issues, but in a manner sensitive to individual religious convictions.
It is my sincere hope that Christians and feminists will attempt to learn from each other. I would like to see a new attitude of mutual respect instead of mutual vilification. Every Christian should be a feminist, working for and modeling sexual equality, just as Christ did. Feminists can begin by practicing what they preach, showing tolerance and respect for people of all persuasions, including Christians and others working for legal protection of the unborn. The Church must open its ears to the cry of oppressed women everywhere, just as feminists must open their ears to voices of women damaged by reckless sexual behavior and by abortion.
Just before the children of Israel were about to enter the promised land, Moses renewed the covenant God had given them. Moses concluded his long career as the leader of the Hebrew people with the following words, which I believe God is still saying today to those of us who are willing to listen. "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live."(72)
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