I’m glad my church pays for my birth control

Well it’s not a line item on our church budget called “Pastor family planning fund” or anything like that. So you can breathe now. But my health insurance through the United Methodist Church is what pays for my wife and me to have our IUD that keeps us from having more babies. And I think it’s time someone named the fact that family planning is a legitimate part of the equation of Christian sexual ethics rather than always being a demonic conspiracy against God’s will for humanity. Birth control is part of how my wife and I try to be faithful stewards of our bodies and our relationship for the sake of both our family and the ministry to which God has called each of us.

I’m very attracted to Roman Catholic theology for a lot of reasons. The Roman church’s theology of the body is derived in a lot of principles I agree with: a sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over against modernist individualism, a suspicion of the worship of science. At the end of the day though, I’m a pragmatist. My wife and I are at the age where we would risk having a child with serious health problems if we did not use birth control. We would receive a child like that as a blessing from God and love him or her with all our hearts, but it would result in our relative lack of availability for ministry beyond our family, which is why having an IUD is appropriate stewardship for us.

When you have two very active, socially demanding little boys, conjugal intimacy is something that happens when it can. In other words, when neither of you are sick and neither of the kids are, when the laundry and dishes are actually dealt with before midnight, when you got enough sleep the night before that you’re not exhausted after putting the kids to bed, when you’re not so buried in the blogosphere that you’ve forgotten how to be romantic (doh!), when you get around to replacing the doorknob on your bedroom door that you had to uninstall because it was sticking. Realities like these don’t lend themselves to keeping tabs on a biological calendar as the means of avoiding pregnancy. I respect people who use the natural family planning approach the same way I respect people who have never fed their children fast food and who have never used the television as a babysitter. As the Yardbirds sang, “Mister, you’re a better man than I.”

In any case, because I work for the United Methodist Church instead of Hobby Lobby or Wheaton College or a Catholic hospital, my wife and I are able to do the thing that makes our marriage worshipful without having to add another calendar to keep track of. And if our insurance didn’t pay for birth control, we would have enough money to pay for it out of pocket. But not everyone is as lucky as I am. What about a woman who works for minimum wage washing the linens at Georgetown hospital? Let’s call her Maria.

Maria is a Baptist even though she works at a Catholic hospital; she and her husband Miguel have two children whose needs they have just enough money to cover. A third child would put them over the edge financially. Maria and Miguel have time alone together maybe once or twice a week because of their work schedules. Usually they’re too tired to do anything romantically intimate, but they recently read this book their church was promoting by some pastor from Seattle which said that sex is critical to having a Godly marriage, which is what they definitely want to have.

Maria and Miguel have to budget tightly enough that paying out of pocket for an IUD like my wife and I have or even for “the pill” is not an option.  So here’s the key question — should Maria be guaranteed the right to medically control whether she gets pregnant or not? The Obama administration decided the answer to that question was yes. The default stereotype in our heads when we think about birth control is twenty-something bar-hoppers who want to have fun without consequences. But the fact is that many married, very committed Christians use birth control because of their sense of stewardship and the recognition of the critical importance of sexual intimacy that causes Paul to tell his Corinthian couples, “Don’t deprive each other” (1 Corinthians 7.5).

This is why I’m a little put out by all this talk of religious persecution by loud evangelicals engaging in opportunistic exhibitionist “solidarity” with our Catholic brothers and sisters because they want to land some culture war punches. Sexual purity has a critical self-justifying function in American middle-class identity. It’s essential to our ability to explain why we have wealth and others don’t (I kept it in my pants till I was married; those people didn’t; my tax dollars shouldn’t have to subsidize their lack of self-control). It reassures my discomfort over social inequity to believe that the minimum wage Marias out there must have gotten into their financial circumstances because they couldn’t pinch the aspirin between their knees. That’s why I need to make it into a moral outrage that I would have to pay into a shared insurance pool that buys their birth control and enables their debauchery (which I’ve projected onto them).

Fifty years ago, the threat that black male libido posed to white girls was the main justification for the social order of segregation (if they come into our neighborhood and our schools, how will we keep our women safe?). Though the racial dimensions have been sublimated (somewhat), the threat of sexual transgression has carried over into our era as the primary underlying anxiety behind middle-class evangelical family decision-making whether it’s about homeschooling, suburban living, or finding a church with a strong youth program so my kids won’t go to the drinking sex parties that every non-Christian high school student attends every weekend.

The irony is that the culture war over sexual purity is not at all the counter-cultural stand that it purports to be; it’s completely accommodating to the mythology about the underlying causes for the social order that privilege needs to tell itself. It reassures a population of middle-class parents that focusing on their nuclear family to the exclusion of everything else is exactly what Jesus wants them to do (the same Jesus who said, “My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do my Father’s will” [Mark 3:35]). This reassurance is one of the most important obstacles to kingdom living among Christians today.

In any case, if it’s your conviction that birth control is part of a depraved consumerist approach to sexuality and idolatry of science that has destroyed our society’s connection with God, I can respect your stance. But I am going to point out that “family values” activism can and often does contribute to the process by which the church has become a banal accessory to privileged suburban existence rather than a body of people who have been “called out” of their privilege into the new resurrected kingdom of Christ. And I will also ask your respect for the pragmatic stewardship of birth control by which my wife and I try to stay healthy in our marriage and responsible with our resources.

26 thoughts on “I’m glad my church pays for my birth control

  1. Whereas I mostly agree, I do have a couple of thoughts. Just after we were married, I worked a $5 an hour construction job and threw a paper route. We had 6 kids in the midst of “not being able to afford it” and yet we somehow managed and now have 6 adult children following the Lord, 6 grandchildren (so far) and most importantly – no regrets. I believe in many ways what God intended as family and community has bowed to modern secularism and western thought – so I’m not quite on board with some of your thoughts on “child quantity control”. Also, I believe there is a distinct difference between preventing conception (i.e. the pill, IUDs, condoms etc.) and terminating implanted life through the morning after pill or other abortificant drugs. I live in OK (home to the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame) and I happen to know that conception prevention methods are not the issue here, it is the other abortificants that are grouped in together with the more benign prevention methods. To lump them together is unfair and equally unfair to single out someone (or some company) who has to make the decision to throw out resist the whole lot due to the fact it has been bundled together without distinction of separating the prevention means from the killing means. Granted the whole value of life issue is one of my soap boxes as evidenced by the frequency I address it on my blog so I tend to read with extra critique writings on this subject, especially by Christians.

    • Thanks for your charitable tone. It’s both refreshing and convicting since I can be a bit of a smarty pants. I appreciate your concerns about modern secularism. I think that our world tries to make everything including marriage and childbearing into market commodities. If it were just an economic question, my wife and I wouldn’t be too worried about how many kids we have though what we really want to be able to do is adopt some kids in the future especially from a pregnant girl who chooses adoption instead of abortion. Our bigger concern is the health issues that might result if we got pregnant at this stage. Having a child with challenges would be a sanctifying blessing. It would also have consequences for our ministry which we need to be stewards of.

  2. Julie, those are all fair questions. My quick answer is that when you have two possible forms of birth control, if you truly value ALL human life created in God’s image, no matter how small, then you are morally obligated to use a method (e.g., a barrier method) that has no risk of killing any of your embryonic offspring. But to give your fair question about the “natural” flushing out of fertilized embryos the consideration it deserves, I’ll have to do some more thinking about this.
    Morgan, I personally do not share Catholicism’s absolutist opposition to all birth control. But as I see it, the answer to whether or not the Guytons or any other couple are being faithful in their family-limitation attempts ultimately depend on several questions, like: What are their fundamental priorities? Which did they treat as a greater, more unacceptable risk – an unplanned baby or an unintended abortion? (i.e., was more study and concern expended in getting an IUD to be sure to avoid the “risk” of another child than was expended researching the risks of the IUD killing their own embryonic offspring?) Would an unplanned child be unconditionally welcomed and love by the couple? And how does the couple’s birth “control” mindset make room for acknowledgment of and submission to God’s ultimately sovereignty? Sorry to have to ask such pointed questions.
    FTR, I don’t expect you to “answer to me” as if we were accountability partners or something. But as I see it, when you put yourself out there, as in this post, in a public forum offering your personal life as a model for Christian conduct, then this very personalized “teaching” of yours becomes fair game for constructive critique, particularly when your example risks leading others astray in mistreating human life.
    Disclaimer: we (me no less so than you) are all sinners who would have no hope but for the blood of Jesus. So repentance, forgiveness, and new life are offered to all who would accept.

  3. Morgan,
    I empathize with much of what was said here. Allow me to counter on two points: whatever your church is paying for your birth control is coming out of your paycheck, which is coming out of the offering. A worker is worthy of his hire, although I kind of lean toward David Fitch’s tent making model. Now, paying for birth control out of pocket may be more expensive than through insurance. But why?
    Two reasons:
    1. Other people are subsidizing your birth control. Beyond the church.
    2. Many people have their healthcare provided through insurance. But this is not really insurance. It is prepaid healthcare. But since people do not face directly the costs of much of their healthcare, they consumer more than they need to, and pay more than they otherwise would. The poor folks out there can’t afford out of pocket because insurance inflates the cost.
    What is the right solution?
    First, churches should be paying their staff sufficiently, as should all ministries. Too. Often we muzzle the oxen.
    Second, the church should be looking after the poor. If the church does not, we can’t blame the world for whatever second best solution they come up with.

  4. Morgan, I’m sorry you found my language “insulting” which was not my intent. But the fact is that your dismissal of the concerns of defenders of freedom of conscience DOES come across as rather “glib” (or, “Oh, come ON! I don’t have to listen to what they say because I infallibly know that their TRUE motivation is not what they say but really some complicated form of classism.”) And it is my observation that when Christian have strong loyalties to one of the two “secular” political camps in the USA, as your one-sided blog makes it seem you do, they often end up defining their faith within the limits of these prior secular commitments.
    I am glad you describe yourself as “pro-life” but wonder what you mean by that. Since you seem very non-hesitant to comment on current political issues, have you ever once criticized the Obama administration for leftist abortion stances/policies? For “pro-life” to have any meaning, it would seem to mean, at a bare minimum, that you and your wife would have very STUDIOUSLY researched possible birth control methods and diligently avoided any method which posed any risk of ever killing a fertilized embryo (your own offspring) however small. It goes back to the old pro-life argument, “if a bag MIGHT have a baby inside, would you kick it?” Without an ironclad guarantee of scientific consensus that an IUD never, ever would kill your own offspring, it is simply not a “pro-life” thing to do.
    But you just dismiss such concerns by indicating that you see no moral difference between killing a sperm and killing a human embryo.
    And I note that you continue avoiding actually responding to the points I previously raise.
    Julie, I’m aware of the debates and recent evolution in thinking about how the IUD works, so I tried to qualify my language. But there still remains plenty of evidence that it thins the uterine wall, resulting in a fertilized embryo being flushed out rather than implanted.

    • Do you think that it’s legitimate for me to intentionally limit the size of my family as a responsible use of our resources and stewardship of my vocation? Is it possible for you that I am following God’s will in doing that?

      I don’t feel particularly inclined to “prove” myself to you in terms of my issue positions. It seems like you’ve got some hubris there that doesn’t need to be affirmed. You can search my site for “abortion” or another term and come to your own conclusions. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”

      I write what I write because I sense that God is telling me to do it. I tried not to start a blog, but He wouldn’t let me be. He usually lets me have it when I say what He didn’t tell me to say. There is a ton of sinful flesh that interferes with the spirit’s voice, but God continues to be faithful in killing it off. Thank you for your conversation. Be blessed.

    • Nat, I don’t disagree with you regarding the possible secondary (tertiary?) mechanism that you submit, but I urge you to consider that 50% of fertilized embryos are naturally flushed out rather than being allowed to implant. The total number of non-implanting embryos is GREATER with zero birth control than with this possible mechanism of the IUD. What is a conscious Christian couple to do to prevent these spontaneous “abortions?” Is there a responsibility, even when trying not to conceive, to eat foods that thicken the lining or to avoid intense exercise that reduces uterine integrity? I think that it is possible to split too many hairs on this issue.

  5. Interesting to see no honest acknowledgement of the strong evidence of how IUDs sometimes work by preventing a young embryo from implanting in the uterine wall, i.e. as an abortifacent. And you seem to sidestep such questions as: should private faith-based charities be FORCED, at gunpoint, by the government to directly violate their values? Should Roman Catholics, (or for that matter, anyone who respects human life from the moment of conception) by forbidden by the government from operating a business that aligns with their values? When push comes to shove, should your left-leaning, secular partisan political commitments define the limits of your Christian faith? And if you are currently pastoring, when a parishioner comes facing a very troubling issue of heartfelt concern, but it happens to be challenging for you, do you actually listen to what they are saying, or do you, as in this post, glibly dismiss all of their concerns as an alleged smokescreen for classism?

    • It sounds like this struck a nerve with you. When you use insulting adjectives to describe me like glib, secular, and so forth, you make it clear that you’re in conversation with a caricature of me. I do the same often. The anonymity of the Information Age is difficult to navigate. I’m pro-life but the “abortifacient” line seems like an attempt to
      controversialize contraception in order to create a united front between Catholics and evangelicals. I guess you’d call spermicide an abortifacient too. For me this is a question of stewardship of our family and ministry and naming the privilege underlying the evangelical fetishization of sexuality is not glib; it’s tragic.

    • Nat–
      I am a medical student. Current thinking on the IUD’s mechanism is that it does not function by interfering with embryo implantation. Best guess is that it kills sperm — certainly the copper version.

  6. Yikes. Not one of my favorites. A provocative blog with historical and contempory points (and bias), but forgive me, I cant help but wonder if this is a rational defense for family planning, or a put-down on those who feel that artificial birth control is often incongruent with healthy bodies, and that no one else should be responsible (financially) for the responsible sexual decisions between mature adults but themselves? Respectfully, is it possible that your ” sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over against modernist individualism, a suspicion of the worship of science” is convenient rhetoric to appear fair and balanced? Many religions indeed, give a slanted view to how they preach what is God’s preference in this matter, but “Sexual purity has a critical self-justifying function in American middle-class identity” smacks of opportunistic political verbage. Isn’t the point that, regardless of what our choice of church teaches, we are mandated to descern (through biblical study, prayer and respectful dialogue) what our conscience tells us is acceptable, when different than doctrine?
    You will have no shortage of those who will agree with your “pragmatic stewardship of birth control” toward a healthy marriage and stable use of your resources, and as a midwife, I have counseled on all options. To infer that opposite thinkers have less-intelligent reasons for choosing NFP (“birth control is part of a depraved consumerist approach to sexuality and idolatry of science that has destroyed our society’s connection with God”) is hardly respectful and ill-informed. To literally blame “family values activism” as a banal accessory to privileged suburban existence, focusing on themselves at the exclusion of everyone else, is absurb and eons apart from rational global thinking.

    • The most important comments you make are the ones where you push back. I treasure your honesty. I think I probably had some trigger words in here that set you off. I need to learn how to talk about middle-class privilege more delicately. My point is not that we aren’t trying our best to be prayerful disciples who earnestly seek to discern God’s will for our sexuality. It is however the case that there are social forces which we’re unaware of that have shaped us and do influence the questions that we ask when we read the Bible, pray, etc.

      Sexuality gets a very disproportionate priority for middle-class evangelicals; there are social and historical reasons for this. It would be odd to a Martian looking down our society to hear that “morality” almost always means something about sex to us.

      But I need to figure out a way to talk about this that names the background forces without implying that people who walk in the world created by these forces are being deceitful or insincere in their pursuit of God’s truth. That’s why I depend on readers like you to push back when my tone is too cynical. I’m hoping that by the time I write my book, God will have chiseled me enough that it will be 100% smart-aleck-free.

      • You humble me, Morgan, and I respect you even more for it. I am not a biblical/religious scholar, but I continue to learn much from our discussions and the spiritual discernment offered by your readers. You are never insincere, and I appreciate you always giving me the benefit of the doubt, as well.

        • Seriously though. Keep me in line. I’m a profoundly arrogant person who’s also very much in love with God, and sometimes the former is louder than the latter, but God never fails to give me a Nathan when that happens.

  7. We too used birth control, condoms. However, I think your Dave Ramsey article is contradictory to this article. Being in complete graditude to God, trusting in him instead of self reliance. Although I have always lived simply, and saved and invested for our future, all without Dave Ramsey, I am beginning to believe that my participation in the stock market is probably immorale, and using birth control also, because this is not trusting in God. I think we have been sucked into the worlds ways. I hope your idea of others paying for birth control, is not equated with abortion, and seperate from companies being forced to pay for their employees birth control either. I think you and Dave Ramsey need to be less confident in your advice if you don’t back it up with lots and lots of scripture.

    • Thanks for responding Peggy. I do have a lot of respect for people who are trying to purge their lives of individualism and self-reliance. There are areas where I feel like I have had to be pragmatic in my own life and not 100% consistent with my values since there are a limited number of hours in the day.

  8. We recovering homeschoolers have this joke:
    Q: What do you call people who use natural family planning?
    A: Mom and Dad.
    I support individual couples being able to make these decisions for themselves. The consequences resulting from Christians who persuade people they have no choice in the matter, though unintentional, can be disastrous and even abusive.
    Good post.

  9. Great post. In response to the comments though I would like to say that an IUD can be completely natural. The one that I had for a short while was simply copper. Copper is not generally considered a pollutant although some bodies cannot tolerate it in much the same way some bodies cannot tolerate gluten. As an advocate for natural approaches I still have to say that the all natural approach is not necessarily the means by which we determine whether use would be good stewardship or not. The reality of the matter is many good things have come from human creations empowered by our God given intellect. Of course many bad things have come from that same intellect. Alternatively many bad things come from natural locations. NFP is a viable option for some families, but other forms of birth control offer alternative medical benefits as much as they offer side effects for some. My husband and I attempted rigorously to use NFP to distance the time between our two children. Despite diligence our daughter is expected in May, months before we would have elected. We were prepared for that possibility and are still thrilled; however, Maria and Miguel may not be able to embrace that high failure rate as enthusiastically (If I remember correctly it hovers somewhere around 37%).

    • You know what else causes cancer and loss of bone density? Carbonated water, fluoride, corn syrup, asphalt, saying the phrase “what’s happening?” more than twice a day for a minimum of 2 years, compact discs, Apples to Apples, sharpening a pencil with an analogue sharpener, all forms of toothpaste, and lawn-mowing.

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