The NFP files

Rethinking Contraception"  

by Sam and Beth Torode

“Dearly beloved,” the minister began,
 “we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.”

The congregation was silent in rapt attention, except for the occasional cry of a disgruntled baby with little interest in the sacred occasion at hand.

“Marriage is an honorable estate,” the minister continued, “and not to be entered into lightly, but reverently and soberly, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.”

“First, it was ordained for the procreation of children.”

At this point, a guest later reported, the calm was interrupted by an involuntary snort of disapproval — “humpf!” — from one of our relatives, who crossed her arms in dismay at such an archaic notion.

That snort summed up a good deal of modern thought on childbearing. In the United States and western Europe, married couples are having fewer and fewer children, thanks in large part to the wide availability of contraceptives, along with the rise of dual careerism in marriages.

Growing up, neither of us was taught to oppose contraception on principle. Sam knew that the Catholic Church officially forbids it, but assumed this was a superstition left over from the Middle Ages. Birth control was never mentioned in his Baptist church. In high school, his friends ridiculed the Catholic position — for them it was enough to quote the lyrics from Monty Python’s satirical song, “Every Sperm is Sacred.”

One afternoon in college, a friend of Sam’s remarked that she had just read an article explaining why the pope was so opposed to contraception. “I still don’t agree with him,” she said, “but I was surprised that he actually had reasons.” Sam’s curiosity was piqued, and he decided to research the subject for himself. But, with no prospects for marriage in the near future, he didn’t give it too much thought.

As a teenager, Bethany occasionally discussed contraception with her best friend. Though her mom had taught her to be wary of the Pill and other hormonal contraceptives, Bethany still argued in favor of barrier methods such as condoms. At age sixteen, she volunteered at a Crisis Pregnancy Center staffed by women from a variety of church backgrounds. She was surprised to learn that they didn’t recommend any form of contraception, not even condoms, for their married clients. Instead, the staff counseled women to become aware of their fertility cycle and to use natural ways of spacing births. After receiving a folder on these natural methods during her training, Bethany promptly slid the information under her bed and thought, “I’ll figure out what I believe about all this later.”

The time to figure out exactly what we believed about contraception came sooner than either of us expected. We met in January of 2000, became engaged in May, and married in November. During our courtship, the topics of birth control and having children came up early in conversation. We wanted to make wise decisions in these areas and knew that the issue of contraception wouldn’t go away by ignoring it.

Unfortunately, we could find little wisdom on the subject from our fellow Protestants. In most of the popular Christian relationship guides, it is simply assumed that couples will be using contraception and that this does not affect their marriage or “sex life.” James Dobson, director of Focus on the Family, wrote a book with the promising title Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide; but, disappointingly, it does not address the subject of contraception within marriage.

Our experience was not unique. Kevin Offner, a friend of ours who works with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, was equally frustrated by the lack of critical discernment on this topic. “When I was engaged, ” he said, “I wanted to think through the whole issue of birth control, so I consulted my married evangelical friends. To a person, they all said, ‘Sure, of course we use birth control.’ When I asked them why, bringing up the concerns other Christians have, many of them answered, ‘You know, I never thought about that! ’ ”

By the time we were engaged, it was clear to us that for love to flourish, we had to grow in knowledge of and respect for each other’s bodies — not just our minds and souls. Thanks to a little thing called PMS, Sam quickly realized that understanding the female fertility cycle is not an option — it’s a vital part of learning how to love your spouse. You ignore it at your peril. He wondered: Why shouldn’t the fertility cycle be respected when it comes to sex? Why shouldn’t husbands conform their desires and actions to the natural rhythms of their wives’ bodies, rather than ignoring or suppressing them? We decided it was time to look into those natural means of child spacing.

We enrolled in a Natural Family Planning (NFP) home study course offered by the Couple to Couple League. Sorting through all the information was a bit daunting at first, but the more we read, the easier it became to grasp. (In hindsight, we know the best way to learn NFP is from a teacher, not a book. But at the time, we mistakenly thought that a group class would be too embarrassing.) By studying NFP, we learned far more about our bodies’ complementary designs than we had ever been taught by doctors or health instructors. More than that, we were prompted to communicate with each other on a deeper level than before and were immersed in what we found to be a profound, biblical perspective on the meaning of sex. Learning NFP is the best way we can imagine to prepare for marriage.

Initially, we were interested in NFP because we hoped to avoid having a baby right away. Though we both love children and want to have a passel of them (whether by birth or by adoption), we figured it would be best to wait until Bethany had finished college. That was the advice we were given.

But as our wedding day approached, we found ourselves more and more looking forward to having a child, and we decided not to put off having a baby for our own convenience or because we were afraid our marriage was not yet ready for such a test. God’s timing is different for every couple, and some have legitimate reasons for postponing children immediately after marriage, but we did not. We knew this was a responsibility to be approached with fear and trembling but believed that by inviting new life we would grow closer in ways we had yet to fathom. Love, we discovered, cannot be contained in just two bodies.

Sam & Bethany Torode are freelance writers and graphic designers who live in rural Wisconsin with their kids. This article is adapted from the introduction to their book, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002). Sam was nice enough to let us post this excerpt from their book. Copyright © 2002 Sam and Bethany Torode.

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