The Onan Incident
© 5.9.05 By D. Eric Williams
"But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass that when he went in to his brother's wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; therefore He killed him also" (Gen. 38:9-10)
There has been plenty of discussion about the "Onan Incident" over the centuries and as far as I can see, most all of that discussion has misses the central point. Ask yourself; why did Onan practice "coitus interruptus?" The answer is obvious; he didn't want to raise an heir for his brother. What may not be so apparent is the type of character that this refusal reveals and how that pertains to the marriage relationship.1
Onan's problem was that he didn't want the responsibility of raising an heir for his brother. He may have hated his brother, he may have hated the idea that the child wouldn't be regarded as his; but at the bottom of it all Onan was self centered. After all, the work of raising a son would be his, but none of the benefit. The first born son of his union with Tamar would be reckoned as Er's child and the boy would inherit the privileges of Er's firstborn status. Why shoulder an obligation like that if you don't have to? Thus, Onan decided that he would outwardly fulfill his responsibility, but in reality he would side step his duty - while at the same time reaping the benefits of the marriage bed.
The point I want to make here is this; the Onan Incident does in fact have a direct bearing on the issue of birth control (it also has a bearing on the Christian view concerning all manner of fornication, but today I'm narrowly focused on the issue of birth control).
What is birth control but an attempt to enjoy the benefits of sex without the responsibilities? It is God's intention that married sex should result in the birth of children as He sees fit (Gen. 1:28, 9:1, Ps. 127, 128, Mal. 2:15). A child is both a blessing and a responsibility. And, as I wrote elsewhere, if a man does anything to prevent conception while satisfying his sexual needs, he is telling God that he wants the pleasure without the responsibility. This truly is Onanism; gratifying self while shirking responsibility. Furthermore a man who practices birth control is saying that God does not have authority over human reproduction - just guidelines for righteous sex. "The result is an unnatural divide between sex and human reproduction. Human reproduction standing alone becomes a personal individual issue, a medial and scientific issue – even a State issue – rather than the private sexual concern of a man and his wife before God. God intended for sexual pleasure and human reproduction to be wholly entwined. The bottom line is that we can't have it both ways. Either we declare sex as merely "intended for pleasure" or we affirm that sexual pleasure is only part of a far more profound experience".2
Moreover, it is God's intention that sexual union tell us something about the relationship of Christ and His Bride the Church. We don't need to buy into some sort of erotic mysticism to acknowledge that what Paul says in Ephesians chapter five concerning "one flesh" accurately describes the unity of a man and his wife and the unity of Christ and the Church. A problem in understanding has arisen in this matter because the one flesh unity of Christ and His Church has been individualized. That isn't Paul's point. Yes we are individually united with Christ; but the individual relationship is that of brothers, comrades in arms. Hence Paul's salutation to the various churches being "dear brethren" or something of that sort. Individually we are all brothers 3 of Christ (in Christ), corporately we are all His Bride.
Therefore, sex outside of marriage is always wrong because it cannot reflect the covenant relationship of Christ and His Church (or at least it does so in a perverted fashion). Likewise, sex within the marriage relationship can be wrong insofar as it may not properly reflect the covenant relationship as Paul describes it in Ephesians chapter five.
One of the characteristics of the Christ/Bride union is increase. The work of the Church is to spread the Gospel and reap a harvest of children. Obviously Jesus would be angered if His Bride sought the pleasure of unity with Him while shirking the responsibilities of "childbearing." The Church is to proclaim the Gospel and win converts to Christ, to teach them, punish them when need be and to send them forth to do the work of Christ. The situation is really no different in the marriage relationship. A husband and wife - together - are commanded to model the Christ/Bride union; be fruitful and multiply and raise children in the way of the Lord. Using birth control attempts to side-step certain responsibilities of the marriage covenant. Birth control is Onanism.
Does this mean that any Christian couple using birth control is in danger of dropping dead? Maybe - anyone of us could die at any time. But I don't believe that God is going to strike dead all Christians who are users of birth control. If He did the vast majority of the Church in America would be wiped out over night (no pun intended - well not really). At the same time I'm not suggesting that God refrains from striking people down in the new covenant age; apparently He does only for sins against the Spirit.
My point is this; if we say that we believe that we're supposed to live a life of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, then we need to live a life of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.