The effective separation of sex from procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age--and one of the most ominous. This awareness is spreading among American evangelicals, and it threatens to set loose a firestorm.

Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of "The Pill" much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin -- as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress, and the conquest of nature.

At the same time, evangelicals overcame their traditional reticence in matters of sexuality, and produced a growth industry in books, seminars, and even sermon series celebrating sexual ecstasy as one of God's blessings to married Christians. Once reluctant to admit the very existence of sexuality, evangelicals emerged from the 1960s ready to dish out the latest sexual advice without blushing. As one of the best-selling evangelical sex manuals proclaims, marital sex is Intended for Pleasure. Many evangelicals seem to have forgotten that it was intended for something else as well.

For many evangelical Christians, birth control has been an issue of concern only for Catholics. When Pope Paul VI released his famous encyclical outlawing artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae, most evangelicals responded with disregard -- perhaps thankful that evangelicals had no pope who could hand down a similar edict. Evangelical couples became devoted users of birth control technologies ranging from the Pill to barrier methods and Intrauterine Devices [IUDs]. That is all changing, and a new generation of evangelical couples is asking new questions.

A growing number of evangelicals are rethinking the issue of birth control--and facing the hard questions posed by reproductive technologies. Several developments contributed to this reconsideration, but the most important of these is the abortion revolution. The early evangelical response to legalized abortion was woefully inadequate. Some of the largest evangelical denominations at first accepted at least some version of abortion on demand.

The evangelical conscience was awakened in the late 1970s, when the murderous reality of abortion could not be denied. A massive realignment of evangelical conviction was evident by the 1980 presidential election, when abortion functioned as the fuse for a political explosion. Conservative Protestants emerged as major players in the pro-life movement, standing side-by-side with Catholics in the defense of the unborn.

The reality of abortion forced a reconsideration of other issues in turn. Affirming that human life must be recognized and protected from the moment of conception, evangelicals increasingly recognized Intrauterine Devices [IUDs] as abortifacients, and rejected any birth control with any abortifacient design or result. This conviction is now casting a cloud over the Pill as well.

Thus, in an ironic turn, American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of the nation's Roman Catholics indicate a rejection of their Church's teaching. How should evangelicals think about the birth control question?

First, we must start with a rejection of the contraceptive mentality that sees pregnancy and children as impositions to be avoided rather than as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured. This contraceptive mentality is an insidious attack upon God's glory in creation, and the Creator's gift of procreation to the married couple.

Second, we must affirm that God gave us the gift of sex for several specific purposes, and one of those purposes is procreation. Marriage represents a perfect network of divine gifts, including sexual pleasure, emotional bonding, mutual support, procreation, and parenthood. We are not to sever these "goods" of marriage and choose only those we may desire for ourselves. Every marriage must be open to the gift of children. Even where the ability to conceive and bear children may be absent, the will to receive children must be present. To demand sexual pleasure without openness to children is to violate a sacred trust.