Part 1 of a 2 part series. View Part 2 here.
Since the birth of “Baby M” by in vitro fertilization (IVF)—the process by which an egg is fertilized by sperm in a petri dish—in 1978, reproductive technologies have outpaced public understanding, policy development, and theological reflection.
In 1981, scientists discovered how to extract embryonic stem cells from mice for the purpose of research, experimentation, and genetic testing. By 1998, scientists replicated this process on human embryos.
By 2016, Japanese researchers shocked the world by transforming skin cells from a mouse’s tail into functional egg cells. Once the researchers fertilized and implanted these lab-grown eggs into female mice, they oversaw the birth of “grossly normal” pups, marking a pivotal moment in the development of in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) and a radical shift in how scientists understand procreation.
Scientists have already applied to begin testing artificial wombs on babies born twenty-one weeks premature. By 2030, it is likely that they will be well on their way to developing artificial wombs for conception through birth.
American Evangelicals haven’t kept up. Indeed, most Protestant denominations in our country still lack a biblically informed stance on childbearing, infertility, and the most basic reproductive technology, such as IVF, surrogacy, and stem cell research. Even fewer have a coherent vision for how to approach the bioethical innovations of the 21st century.
This matters for two reasons. First, because Protestants necessarily hold a central place in America’s political and institutional life, their denominations’ positions on contemporary bioethical questions play a key role in determining the way that new scientific innovations are integrated into the moral framework of the American mind (i.e. condoms in the 1930s or the pill in the 1950s). Second, and on a much more practical basis, because individual pastors and congregants cannot be expected to handle the moral and medical complexity of emerging technologies on their own.
It’s past time for Protestants to formulate a rich answer to these questions informed by scripture, theology, medical practice, and natural law. As David Glade, the rector of our home parish Christ the King Anglican, recently noted, the contentious issue of our day is not “Who is Jesus? or how can man be saved?” (These questions were asked and answered in previous centuries.) The question of our day is anthropology. What does it mean to be human? To put it simply, the Church in our day needs to preach “the good news of biblical anthropology.”
With this need in mind, this two-part series aims to explore what prominent Protestant denominations currently teach about IVF, surrogacy, and other infertility treatments; offer some reflections on the biblical theology of infertility, which must be the basis for serious Christian consideration of contemporary reproductive technology; and provide the broader context of what scripture says about procreation and the fallenness of man.
What Protestant Denominations Teach
So, what do Protestant denominations teach? A survey of every denomination would be daunting if not impossible. Let’s consider, instead, the most prominent traditions. Among the conservative denominations, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) stands out as the denomination that provides the most insight on IVF, surrogacy, or the use of assisted reproductive technology through their official channels.
The second group of theologically conservative denominations is best categorized as those who briefly reference limits on the use of IVF as it relates to their pro-life stance that life begins at conception. These denominations include the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), the Assemblies of God (AG), and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
Finally, let’s consider the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Global Methodist Church (GMC), and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Though theologically conservative regarding the inerrancy of scripture, their views on abortion, and in their views about human sexuality, none of these denominations have addressed the issue of reproductive technology through official channels.
In theological contrast, we can consider the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), and the Episcopal Church. These are likely a representative sample of mainline denominations that are now theologically liberal and heterodox.
The LCMS: Leading the Way
Among Protestant denominations, the LCMS provides the best and the most detailed guidance on the topic of reproductive technology. Under the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) and “life ministry” pages, official denomination teaching is easily accessed through their long history of resolutions and symposia.
Since 1984, the LCMS has addressed procreation and beginning of life issues from their official channels with Abortion in Perspective (1984), Christians and Procreative Choices: How Do God’s Chosen Choose? (1996), What Child is This? Marriage, Family and Human Cloning (2002), Christian Faith and Human Beginnings: Christian Care and Pre-Implantation Human Life (2005), A Compilation of Presentations from the Infertility Ethics Symposium (2014), Resolution 3-04: To Create Task Force for Study of Issues Relating to Procreation, Fertility, and Care for Unborn (2016), and Resolution 11-01A: To Give Guidance and Encourage Action on Beginning-of-Life Issues (2019).
The LCMS has rejected the use of third-party methods such as donor egg or sperm and gestational surrogates since it “involves the intrusion of a third party into this one-flesh union [i.e., marriage] and is contrary to the will of God.” Artificial insemination is implicitly accepted, given that the sperm and egg belong to the married man and woman, but it is viewed with some skepticism as adults may be tempted to use this method in lieu of addressing other underlying issues.
The LCMS’s stance on IVF has developed over time. In 1983, the Lutheran Council in the USA (LCUSA), now a distinct denomination from the LCMS, circulated a document entitled “In-Vitro Fertilization.” It concluded that “IVF does not in and of itself violate the will of God as reflected in the Bible, when the wife’s egg and husband’s sperm are used.” Nonetheless, representatives from the LCMS disagreed with this conclusion and argued for further protections. For instance, all fertilized eggs should be placed within the wife and embryos should not be subject to genetic or viability testing, experimentation, destruction, or prolonged periods of storage. While the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations was reluctant to oppose IVF as a medical treatment, the 1996 guidance argued the following:
When embryos explicitly created from within a marriage are denied the possibility of nurture in the womb that God created to receive them, then the unique and sacred expression in the embryo of the one-flesh union of marriage is subject to distortion and diminution. (LCMS 1996: 39)
More than any other denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has embraced the teaching of Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan and Lutheran Gilbert Meilaender. The 2014 Compilation of Presentations on Infertility provides the best ethical and biblical guidance on the topic. By distinguishing between procreation and reproduction, the papers emphasize the temptation of reproductive technology to present children as a project, or an act of the will, rather than as a gift that is received in marriage. Official LCMS teaching does not always reject the inherent use of IVF at all times, for all people, in all places. Still, official and unofficial teachings endorsed by the LCMS shed grave concerns and cautions on its use.
The Anglicans, the Assemblies of God, and the Evangelical Presbyterians: IVF Through a Pro-Life Lens
The next category of denominations—the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), the Assemblies of God (AG), and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)—address IVF briefly in relation to their position that life begins at conception.
All three denominations are unapologetic in their belief that life begins at conception and that embryonic human life deserves legal and medical protections. The Anglican Church of North America and the Evangelical Presbyterians explicitly note in official church documents that their belief that life begins at conception extends to the practice of IVF, too, specifically rejecting the destruction of embryos in such treatments.
The Anglican Church of North America, a relatively new denomination, is taking steps in the right direction. In the last few months, the Anglicans for Life website (the online vehicle through which the denomination communicates official teachings on social issues) created categories for those dealing with infertility and a section on bioethics. Additionally, Anglicans for Life announced a forthcoming Bioethics Center that will address issues related to assisted reproductive technology, surrogacy, cloning, stem cell research, and alternative routes to healing infertility.
Currently, Anglicans for Life discusses the harms and moral issues with IVF stem cell research, artificial insemination, and surrogacy. Best of all, the website includes links to NaProTechnology (natural procreation technology) and the Creighton Model Fertility Care System, two great approaches to treating infertility that focus on healing the underlying issues. The goal, per their website, is to pursue technological progress within God-given bounds.
In a position paper on abortion, the Assemblies of God affirms that
God’s plan for human conception is sexual union between a man and woman in a legal marriage covenant. Children of such a covenant ought to be the result of a joyous and loving sexual relationship in which the husband and wife are responsible for birthing and rearing godly offspring. However, infertile heterosexual couples who have pursued without success all viable treatments may be confronted with a decision to utilize in vitro fertilization.
The paper goes on to outline many of the ethical and physical concerns with IVF and shares strict boundaries by which one may participate in the industry.
Similarly, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church does not have an official teaching on reproductive technology, but the denomination’s position paper on abortion specifically addresses IVF and care for embryonic human life. It states, in no uncertain terms, that
The Church should actively oppose the killing of human embryos through the extraction of stem cells for medical research or treatment… The Church should oppose the practice of producing more embryos by in vitro fertilization than would be implanted in utero, which would either be destroyed immediately or stored frozen with the strong practical likelihood of later destruction.
The Orthodox Presbyterians, the Global Methodists, and the Southern Baptists: Conservative but Unconsidered
This moves us to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Global Methodist Church (GMC), and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), none of whom specifically address reproductive technology in their official teachings.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small denomination that tends to punch above its weight, has little listed regarding in vitro fertilization or surrogacy. Two blog posts from 2006, that do not represent official Church teaching, point congregants in the right direction. The Q&A blog counsels congregants against the destruction of embryos, and other concerns with IVF. Another post encourages those struggling with infertility to view it as an opportunity to invest in adoption or to care for other children and serve those in need. (Notably, adoption is not a “treatment” for infertility, nor do most denominations suggest this, including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.)
Surprisingly, little can be said about the Presbyterian Church in America’s stance on IVF, surrogacy, or other reproductive technology. In their position paper on abortion, they affirm the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, but at no point is IVF or the use of embryos in scientific research mentioned. The Presbyterian Church in America is long overdue in its exploration of assisted reproductive technology.
Within the Presbyterian Church in America, there is a heavy emphasis on one’s “freedom of conscience.” The denomination seems reluctant to make claims about treatments that the Bible does not specifically address by name, similar to Wayne Grudem’s approach.
Similarly, the Global Methodist Church does not directly address reproductive technology or embryonic experiments. The denomination opposes abortion, except in cases when the mother’s life is at risk. From the documents available online, do not specify that life begins at conception nor that it deserves protection at an embryonic stage. This is, most likely, a failure to fully expound online given how relatively new the denomination is, rather than an indication of a weak stance on embryonic life.
At the other end of the liturgical spectrum are pastors and lay leaders affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, such as Albert Mohler, Andrew Walker, Russell Moore, Karen Swallow Prior, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). They maintain strong and unapologetic stances regarding reproductive technology. Such stances include the belief that surrogacy is an immoral practice that commodifies women and children, the need for strict limits on the practice of IVF, and in some cases, a recognition that even a “pro-life and pro-family” approach to IVF violates the biblical unity of marriage, sex, and procreation.
Even so, it is notable and problematic that the Southern Baptist Convention itself has not released a resolution addressing reproductive technology nor providing strict guidance on how and if Christians use such infertility treatments. Perhaps prominent individuals or the ERLC hold more sway over congregants of an SBC affiliate church than a convention resolution. Nonetheless, right now congregants are free to assess the issue for themselves and decide accordingly with no official guidance.
A series of articles published with the Gospel Coalition on IVF illustrate the divide between those who think that IVF is acceptable if it doesn’t destroy embryos and those who think that the use of IVF inherently violates God’s vision for the unity of marriage, sex, and procreation. This tension is representative of the divide within Protestantism as a whole.
Wayne Grudem, an Evangelical Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies, argues that if reproductive treatments remain within the confines of man-woman marriage and no embryos are destroyed, then the practice in and of itself poses no larger moral concerns. He writes,
My own position is that, in principle, the teachings of Scripture present no moral objection to a married couple using IVF (as long as no human embryos are destroyed in the process), because it is simply enabling an infertile husband and wife to overcome their infertility and thereby experience the blessing of having children).
If IVF is used by a married couple, and if care is taken to prevent the intentional destruction of embryos, then it is a morally good action that pleases God because it violates no scriptural guidelines, achieves the moral good of overcoming infertility, and brings the blessing of children to yet another family. “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!
In response, Southern Baptist theologian Andrew Walker and Matthew Lee Anderson (a member of the Episcopal Church), address the underlying theological issues at play,
For many evangelicals, though, the ethics of in vitro fertilization begins and ends at the question of how many embryos are created and what happens to them. Beyond this, many evangelicals do not even think in vitro fertilization is a “moral issue.” Why would it be, when it seems to be simply a medical technology that helps couples satisfy their deep desires for what God has deemed good—namely, the birth of a child made in God’s image? To say “no” to such technologies is, for many couples, equivalent to saying “no” to the satisfaction of their deepest, most heartfelt desires.
It’s past time to break evangelicalism’s silence about our complicity in the unethical circumstances that arise when sex and conception are divided.
We believe, and have tried to argue, that the good news for infertile couples means saying “no” to means of generating life that are contrary to the integrity of God’s good creation. We tear apart what God has joined together only at grave peril to ourselves: By dividing sex from procreation, we reconfigure the form which God has laid down for us to understand the nature of his agency in bringing new life into the world. If a people who emphasize the gospel cannot say no to that division, we are a people unworthy of our name.
Walker and Anderson raise concerns with IVF that go beyond regulations and ethics. They argue that the treatment in itself violates the unified nature of marriage, sex, and procreation. When we separate any one from the other two, we separate what God has brought together.
On this point, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, counsels Christian couples to not
embrace the new reproductive technologies without clear biblical and theological reflection. At a bare minimum, Christian couples must commit to the implantation of all embryos, and the selective reduction of none. But this does not alter the fundamentally artificial character of the technology or the moral status of the embryos, and thus IVF presents grave moral issues to the Christian conscience. For these reasons, it cannot be encouraged.
Again, no uniform teaching exists among affiliates of the Southern Baptist Convention. One issue that remains an open question for Catholics and Protestants alike is the practice of embryo adoption. “Sometimes people who know that I’m not supportive of in-vitro fertilization will ask me how I can be supportive of embryo adoption,” says Russell Moore, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, “I think embryo adoption is a perfectly ethical thing for Christians to pursue.” Interestingly, both Russell Moore and Karen Swallow Prior, who have placed themselves at odds with many aspects of conservative evangelicalism, are on the record in their stance against IVF and surrogacy.
The Malignant Mainlines
In contrast to these conservative denominations are the stances of the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and the Episcopal Church. Each denomination relies heavily on current legal judgments, personal testimonies, and progressive arguments not only to justify the use of IVF and surrogacy, but even to claim that access to such technology is morally required.
The United Methodist Church summarizes it well in its 2024 Revised Social Principles, which states,
We support the use of a variety of reproductive strategies for those desiring to have children, including fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization (IVF), embryo or sperm donation, surrogacy, and others. We believe the decision whether to use reproductive alternatives is best left to those considering the use of these options, in consultation with their health care providers. In all instances, the use of reproductive alternatives should be in keeping with the highest ethical standards, prioritizing the health and well-being of both women and children.
Notably, the denominations’ documents do not include a consideration of what the Bible may require of Christians engaging in these reproductive technologies.
Similar to the Presbyterian Church in America, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PSUSA) does not address the issue of reproductive technology or surrogacy in their publicly available church documents. Their “Abortion and Reproductive Choice Issues” page states that no one knows when life begins and that questions related to abortion must be discerned through prayer, counsel, and scripture. They do not take a firm stand on the moral or theological position of abortion. They leave the final assessment of the issue to individual congregants.
Reviewing the denominations’ stance on these issues, Abigail Rian Evans concludes that,
All currently available reproductive technologies and therapies, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogate motherhood, and artificial insemination by donor (AID), are considered acceptable, though individual Presbyterians may oppose them. Presbyterians are encouraged to engage in further study of the issues posed by these technologies.
The lenient and heterodox position of the PCUSA suggests that the use of such technologies is permittable with no restrictions on the testing or destruction of embryonic life.
In the Episcopal Church’s 2022 binder of resolutions, the denomination goes so far as to recognize that pregnancy and childbirth “are dangerous undertakings that risk permanent disability and death for those who bear children.” Further, it states that uninhibited access to abortion and birth control are necessary for “preserving the health, independence, and autonomy of those who can bear children.”
For Christians, the Bible is not a dead-letter text but the living and active Word of God. It speaks repeatedly of the need to ask for wisdom, to seek wisdom with all one’s might, and to live in unity with wisdom. Protestant denominations must think beyond the text itself and courageously counsel Christians beyond the specific ethical issues within assisted reproductive technology and toward a holistic vision of marriage, sex, and procreation. This counsel must first and foremost come from a proper understanding of what the Bible says about infertility and procreation.
“For I Know the Plans I Have For You”: A Biblical View of Infertility and Procreation
So, what does the Bible teach about infertility and procreation?
The Psalmists’ declaration that “It is [God] who made us, and we are His” is the foundation of the church’s stance on assisted reproductive technology. When men and women consider theological and moral questions about the creation of life, it is essential that they first recognize their own nature as beings created in the image of God.
In the first three chapters of Genesis, God clearly outlines the nature of man and woman, the purpose and boundaries of marriage, the blessing of procreation, and the fear and anxiety that the Fall infused within each of these arenas of what it means to be human. So, what does the Bible say when it comes to contemporary questions of procreation and infertility?
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:27-28a, ESV).
The command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” is best understood as a blessing or promise, and it directly corresponds with mankind’s creation in the image of God. As Oliver O’Donovan argues, God begets Christ of His same nature and substance, but he created man and woman in His image and likeness, but of a radically different nature and kind. God blessed man and woman to beget children (Genesis 5). Procreation is, fundamentally, a blessing of the imago Dei. But, O’Donovan warns, when humans use assisted reproductive technology, they risk no longer begetting children, but creating or producing children. If so, this could distort our understanding of what it means to be human.
Further, understanding the Cultural Mandate as a blessing, rather than a command, ensures that men and women understand that they are not tasked with the responsibility of producing children by whatever means necessary (as many pronatalists—those who are in favor of increasing the total fertility in the United States—assume). In scripture, children are a blessing that humans receive from God as signs and symbols of his faithfulness toward us (Isaiah 8:1-4, 16-18).
Men and women cannot “create” another person any more than we create ourselves. God gives humans the blessing of begetting, discipling, disciplining, and stewarding children as the gift from God that they are. It is nothing short of idolatry—attributing our blindness to God and God’s all-knowing wisdom to our own actions—to act as creators of another person.
In Genesis 2, God gave man and woman strict boundaries through which to procreate: the union of exclusive and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman. No procreative work blessed by God can introduce a third person into the marital bed. Polygamous marriages and crude forms of surrogacy, such as the example of Abraham and Hagar, are never blessed by God per se, and indeed, such actions produce pain, hardship, and sin in the lives of those who partake.
Still, it is important to note that while the use of many reproductive technologies may violate God’s vision for marriage, sex, and procreation (Malachi 2:15), the children formed through these practices are no less valued, loved, or cared for in God’s eyes. A good example of this is God’s care for Hagar and Ishmael. Despite the abuse and ill-treatment that both received, God blessed and established a lineage for them. Indeed, Hagar has the distinct role of being remembered as the only woman to name God, declaring “You are a God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).
In Genesis 3, death enters the world through the sin of Adam and Eve. Where there once was unity in all things—between God and man, man and woman, labor and fruitfulness, and marriage and procreation—sin separated each from their natural end.
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children…” (Genesis 3:16a, ESV).
Women are uniquely given the ability to conceive, gestate, and bear children within themselves. This process can change a woman’s mind, heart, and body for the better. When sin entered the world, however, Eve and future women bore the punishment for sin in the pain of childbirth. Yet this “pain in childbirth” refers not only to the physical pain of labor. It includes the uncertainty, fear, and death that will unnaturally go with each aspect of childbearing from the desire to have children (or its rejection), to conception, pregnancy, labor, and even the care for one’s children outside of the womb. Moreover, the Hebrew word used for pain in Genesis 3:16 (בְּעֶ֖צֶב) is the same word used in Genesis 3:17 when God tells Adam that “in toil” he shall eat of the land. Physical pain is certainly a part, but it is not the ultimate meaning of the word. The word speaks to a deeper difficulty in the weariness, anxiety, and death that sin produces. Infertility, then, is a result of the fall. To experience infertility is not a sin in and of itself, but it is the consequence of sin entering the world.
The centrality of fertility and the command to bear children in Genesis 1-3 is undeniable. In fact, Christians must grasp this to fully understand God and what it means to be human.
There are six primary covenants that God makes with mankind. Each covenant includes either the promise and blessing of children, or the blessing of many descendants—either through direct procreation or spiritual parenthood as one disciples future generations.
The first covenant occurs in Genesis 1:27-28 when God creates man and woman and reveals their purpose in the ‘cultural mandate.’
The Noahic covenant, in Genesis 6 and Genesis 9:1,6-13, is a retelling of the Genesis covenant with the call to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth with many descendants.
The Abrahamic covenant, in Genesis 12, 15, and 17, occurs as God blesses Abraham, promising to make him the father of many nations so that his descendants will fill the earth.
The Mosaic covenant, in Deuteronomy 28, shows the reversal of Genesis 3 and the redemption of creation when God declares, “blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock” (28:4).
In the Davidic covenant, 2 Samuel 7, God promises to “raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” God’s covenant with David foretells the coming of Christ, a descendant in the line of David.
Finally, the New Covenant reveals Jesus as the final and complete covenant of God with man. The seed of the woman, prophesied to defeat the serpent and sin in Genesis 3, is revealed at this time. This final and everlasting covenant corresponds with the Great Commission, when Jesus commands his followers in Matthew 28, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…”. While the procreation of children is central to each covenant and the call of married Christians, it is not the only means by which God sets up a legacy for Christians. Indeed, Jesus, Paul, and many other believers show how those called to singleness also partake in this divine commandment and blessing. The redemption of the body fulfilled in Christ results in the reintegration of what sin separates, especially as it relates to our embodied selves.
Notably, the “Big Three” Patriarchs of the Old Testament—Abraham with Sarah, Isaac with Rebekah, and Jacob with Rachel—struggled with infertility. In each instance, the pain of infertility led to despair, envy, pride, or sin. In fear and distrust, Abraham and Sarah tried to fulfill God’s covenantal promise through Hagar, Sarah’s slave. This intrusion of a third person into the bonds of marriage not only evoked cruelty from Sarah, but it violated God’s promise to supply descendants within the bounds of godly marriage and faithfulness.
The stories of Isaac and Rebekah as well as Elkanah and Hannah show us that prayer and fasting are essential. Any attempts to vainly control the situation are condemned by God.
It is God who opens and closes the womb. He is the only one with power to open ours today. Infertility is not always resolved or explained, even in the Bible, but we can be certain that God is active and able, even in the most painful situations. God does not promise that every person will bear biological children, but He does promise that all who ask for wisdom will receive it freely (James 1:5). As such, Christians should ask for wisdom as they seek to restore the physical causes of infertility.
As an article with Ligonier Ministries says:
No matter what Rachel tried with her maidservants or mandrakes, Leah was still given more children than she was. We must accept the truth that God dispenses His benefits in the way He sees fit, and thus we must not grow jealous of others as Rachel did. We are to seek the Lord in prayer as we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).
Throughout the history of Israel, the fear of infertility and the desire to control or overcome it directed their attention to idol worship. Interestingly, as an excellent lesson from Sam Lam at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC pointed out, the Israelites persistently worshipped Asherah, the goddess of fertility, “from the time of Moses through Gideon through kings both in the nations of Israel and in Judah. Even after the exile, the people of Israel still served Asherah (see Micah).” Let that sink in: the false and idolatrous worship that plagued Israel most directly corresponds with their desire to overcome infertility (be it of the land or their bodies).
Instead of trusting in God’s faithful providence and care, God’s people repeatedly suffered His judgment for their idolatry and sin. The sermon goes on to explain, “worship of a fertility goddess involved doing things for her that, in return, would lead to fertility, from pregnancy and childbirth to also having a good crop harvest.”
Beyond infertility, the Bible is rich with passages that discuss God’s view of procreation. Chief among them is Psalm 127-128. It says,
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD. The LORD bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel!
From these two chapters, we may deduce four lessons to guide our approach to assisted reproductive technology.
First, these chapters begin with the reminder that “unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” It is natural and good that married couples desire biological children. Indeed, if you are married and can bear children, this is central to your calling to be fruitful and multiply and to disciple the nations, beginning in your own home. This desire, however, does not mean that it’s always easy or possible.
When people try to produce children in their own power and control, Scripture calls such work vain. (This mindset can permeate both natural and mediated procreation.) It is the Lord that builds the house. If or when a couple bears children is wholly in God’s control, not ours. This should fill the Christian with great joy: God is sovereign over each person’s family, hopes, and desires. He is a good father who gives good gifts to his children; indeed, no good thing does he withhold (Psalm 84:11 and 103:13, Matthew 7:11, James 1:17).
Second, the text declares that “children are a heritage from the Lord.” Children, as Oliver O’Donovan says, are not an act of the will but a gift that husbands and wives must receive with open hands. This is true even when the children that the Lord gives them are different from what they initially wanted or expected. As with all gifts, however, couples cannot control when a gift is given, or if it is given at all.
Third, infertility can and does cause people to feel shame. It’s a visceral reminder that in this sinful and broken world, all is not as it should be. This shame is not from God, nor is infertility a sin or necessarily a sign of God’s judgment upon you. Gilbert Meilaender, in Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, uses the Gospel story of the man born blind to illustrate this point.
Jesus turns away from such a tight connection between sickness and sin. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents,” Jesus says, “but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (v. 3). We may be uncertain how to react to Jesus’s response. On the one hand, it suggests that the distribution of illness may be harder to fathom than the disciples thought. No connection between sickness and sin can simply be assumed. When I am ill, I need not assume that God is punishing me, singling me out for retribution. If that relieves us of one worry, however, what are we to make of Jesus’s suggestion that the man’s blindness is by no means a random occurrence-that, in fact, the providence of God is at work in his blindness, fashioning the opportunity for Jesus to work a great “sign” by healing him? Perhaps all we can conclude is that the reasons for sickness may often be beyond our understanding. Jesus does not say that sin never results in sickness, nor does he say that it always does. He does not say that sickness never strikes at random without apparent reason; he says only that it did not in the case of the man whom he healed. He leaves us pretty much on our own to puzzle over this question-with, however, the clear warning that our ways are not God’s, and his purposes may be beyond our comprehension. But Jesus does one thing more. He gives to the sufferer the dignity of being united with him in his own suffering, and he gives to all of us the duty of attending to the sick, directing and freeing us thereby to show compassion to all who are ill.
Fourth, Psalm 128 begins with the declaration that “blessed is everyone who fears the Lord.” If Psalm 127 warns us of incorrect ways to deal with infertility—vain control—then 128 provides men and women with a powerful tool. What is this fear of the Lord? Proverbs 1:7 tells us it is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom is not a form of passive waiting or inaction. Wisdom, often embodied by Lady Wisdom in the Old Testament and by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, is a gift from God available to anyone who asks for it (James 1:5-6). By seeking the Lord and abiding in his Word, Christians receive wisdom. As such, the foundation for one’s pursuit of infertility treatments must be the pursuit of wisdom. It is the patient and faithful pursuit of God himself amidst infertility.
God does not ask His people to passively wait, but to actively seek wisdom in all their dealings. This Psalm empowers Christians to use wisdom and Godly discernment when considering the options before them. For many people, infertility may be addressed by healing the underlying causes that impede pregnancy. Interestingly, strict reliance on assisted reproductive technology, such as IVF, has much lower success rates, with much higher ethical costs, than basic treatments within restorative reproductive methods.
Unlike the biblicism of Wayne Grudem’s approach, the Bible calls Christians to apply knowledge and understanding of how a given thing works to their pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs 2:6). Nonetheless, Christians must be careful not to swing too far in the other direction and use the pursuit of wisdom to justify a permissive use of reproductive technology. Wisdom must be grounded on the explicit teachings and worldview of scripture, not in our personal desire for children.
Scripture treats the act of using a third person to bear children, which would include using a surrogate or “donated” egg and sperm, as a violation of the seventh commandment that “thou shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Whether it be concubinage as was common among Israel’s king’s, polygamy, or the use of Hagar to bear a child for Abraham and Sarah, their sin bore bad fruit for the individual families and the nation. Christians must move beyond the superficial view that if surrogacy and assisted reproductive technology result in the birth of a live child, then it must be good. Instead, we need to appraise this technology in light of the purpose of procreation and the fact that the family is not only a covenant between a man and a woman, but a covenant between them and God—the one who blesses us, and commissions us, to be fruitful and multiply.
It’s high time for Protestant denominations to take a firm and authoritative stance on reproductive technology. Even now, scientists are cloning generations of monkeys in China, developing artificial wombs for human use in the United States and Australia, and normalizing the use of preimplantation genetic testing to select future children with the highest intelligence.
The assault on what it means to be human, from sexuality to artificial creations of human life, requires Christians to stand firm in their support for the integrity of marriage, sex, and procreation. The very life and well-being of future generations depend on it. Moral ambiguity will only breed more hardship in the life of the Church. Protestant denominations and leaders must carve a courageous vision forward about the good news of biblical anthropology.
This piece originally appeared in the American Reformer