A Hill to Die On: Evangelicals, Contraception, and the Integrity of our Witness

Jenell Paris has responded to my essay on whether churches should advocate for contraception for single people.

Or she linked to it anyway. Her reply gives little indication that she read beyond my first paragraph. I’ve more to say about her response later this week, but first a few general observations.***

Someone asked me this past week why I was up in arms over this contraception business. From what I can tell, it’s something of a tipping point for the evangelical movement.

There is a strong pragmatic streak that runs through evangelicalism, an ideology that postures as a rejection or marginalization of ideas and theology. You can hear it every Sunday, as pastors seek to make their sermons “relevant” and “practical” because good theology and rigorous thinking simply doesn’t sell. Closer to the point, you see it most clearly in our appropriation of technology, in our video sermons and our online church. Whatever it takes to reach the lost, whatever it takes to “be effective,” principles and ideals of Biblical anthropology notwithstanding.

Unlike video sermons, however, contraception as a pragmatic concession actually contributes to the conditions where Christians can sin without consequences for themselves or their community. Paris suggests that “abstinence absolutism” simply has not worked. Which is to say, unmarried Christians are still having sex and sex (surprise!) still makes babies. The implication is that the proclamation of abstinence in our churches has been tried and found wanting, when in fact it has not yet been properly tried at all, either from our pulpits or throughout our communal structures.

In short, the problem is both our failure to proclaim the ideal beautifully and our failure to cultivate communities that can uphold it with grace and truth. Which means the failure of chastity in our churches is an occasion for everyone to repent, not only the unmarrieds. For it is a symptom of a community disease, a disease that contraception simply cannot solve and will almost certainly make worse.

Eliminating abortion is a worthy goal, one of the highest and most noble aspirations we could reach for as a church and society. I am on the record saying that abortion is the most significant moral evil that Americans have committed.

But there are no shortcuts toward goods that do not corrode us from within. We may, like The Matrix, take a pill and wake up as Leonard Bernstein, a master at the keyboard. We may have some technical competence, and even an enormous emotional range. But the performance of music depends in part upon the cost we know was paid in the learning of it. Goods demand sacrifice: they require tears and groans, blood and sweat. And the more we are willing to go through such toils, the higher and more delightful will be the goods before us. There is no good worth having that will not cost us more than we might be willing to pay at the outset.

At its best, then, an unmarried who uses contraception has failed to grasp the nature of the goods of sexuality—and a church that encourages him to use it has doubtlessly done the same.

It is well known, or at least frequently stated, that evangelicalism’s public witness has been frequently undermined by our lack of integrity and our hypocrisy, especially on sexual issues. I fail to see how more contraception for our unmarrieds will do anything except deepen such a culture of hypocrisy by making it more comfortable and convenient to sin sexually while remaining in unbroken communion in our churches.

At the heart of this discussion is a question about whether the church will pursue integrity as a body or whether it will not merely accommodate sin among its members, but encourage the conditions for it.  Like advocating, for instance, risky investments that have minimal negative consequences that would appeal to people’s greed.

But like the stock market, the church does not operate on the grounds that past performance indicates future success. The reality of grace always makes transformation possible, which means the church’s faithful witness cannot be determined by the “effectiveness” of her results. The status of the church as “holy” is a confession, a “not yet” that is made “already” through the repentance of its members. Contraception is not merely a shortcut to avoiding abortion for the individuals who take it: it is a shortcut to “holiness” for the community as well, as the community no longer has to confess both its failing to disciple in matters of sex and its failing to disciple in matters of bioethics.

This idea is not a new one. It is simply evangelical pragmatism applied to a new area. But at some point, evangelicals of good sense must say “no,” cheerfully and patiently with eyes wide open. Advocating for contraception for unmarried Christians would represent a new low for the evangelical churches understanding of human sexuality.

This is, for me, a hill that is worth dying on. And I am not prepared to die quietly.
***I also wanted to offer a few quick clarifications on my original piece. 

First, I don’t want to associate Q as an organization or conference with the views of the people on the panel or the poll.  There’s a gap there, and it wasn’t quite clear enough in my piece.  I don’t know what Gabe Lyons’ opinions are about such things, and I gather he enjoys helping this sort of dialogue happen.

What’s more, Paris suggests in her reply advocating contraception was only one of “many options” the panel presented.  I don’t know whether they all agreed with advocating for contraceptive use, and I should have made that clear.  But I do know that if anyone disagreed, they didn’t speak up.  And the only two other options I remember were adoption and marrying folks off younger—the latter of which was (wrongly) dismissed as untenable. 

Finally, there was some question about whether or not the poll numbers were 70%, as I remember, or 64% as the Huffington Post reported.  I didn’t verify them, and I don’t think much hangs on the 6% difference.*** 

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  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    This is not a hill I plan on dying on, mostly because I don’t actually have that much interaction with Christian singles. I know a number of singles through my wife, but they are almost all non-Christian. I do spend a decent amount of time thinking about sexuality for married Christians. I am getting reading to lead a group of newly married couples through a several week discussion about sex.

    And while I really do think you are an exception, for all of the talking Christians do about sex, the vast majority is about the rules of sex, not the actual meaning of sex.

    I was at a conference on cross-gender friendships over the weekend. And while I do not currently have any significant cross-gender friendships other than my wife, I have found some real wisdom and healing to come from them. So I am very supportive of healthy cross gender friendships as a good. But much of the conversation was based around preventing bad or the hurt that had come from people trying to exert inappropriate power to stop a healthy cross gender friendship.

    My connection is that in the end the conversation didn’t move as much as I had hoped. People were more interested in their own rights to friendship than the purpose of friendship. And I think it is very similar to discussions about sex. While we are moving to better discussion (or at least more open discussion) a real understanding of the purpose and meaning of sex is not sinking down to the average Christian. Especially singles.

    I understand Paris’ point. And I understand yours. I honestly think that you are rights about the teaching part (teaching about contraception does not teach about the proper use and meaning of sex) and she is right about the conversation part (that we need to not shut down conversation).

    I am not sure what the right path is. But after having spent a couple years leading small groups of newly married couples, I can say, we have not really done a service to the marriages of young couples.

  • jenny

    “But like the stock market, the church does not operate on the grounds that past performance indicates future success. The reality of grace always makes transformation possible, which means the church’s faithful witness cannot be determined by the “effectiveness” of her results. The status of the church as “holy” is a confession, a “not yet” that is made “already” through the repentance of its members.”
    Thanks for this bit. It was a touch of encouragement that I needed to hear.
    (I don’t have anything to add to the actual conversation at hand; you’re saying everything as I would like to be able to say it.)

  • sue wilson

    I suspect that the wishy washy attitude toward virginity may have something to do with the reluctance of parents to say, or support, anything with which their teens may disagree.
    We want to be buddies; we want to avoid argument or conflict of any kind. Pastors may be feeling the same about their congregations.
    What ever happened to that tee shirt that said, “Because I’m your mom!” We don’t seem to want to be moms and dads who challenge their children to really think and apply God’s word any longer.

  • Hope

    Don’t know how much you can talk to single Christians about not using contraception if all the married Christians are using the same methods. There are at least two conversations here: When is it sex appropriate? and When is contraception appropriate? But hardly anyone except Roman Catholic clergymen like to talk publicly about contraception ever being inappropriate for married Christians.

    • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

      I agree that it can be two different topics. (Although we do talk about contraception in my groups of newly married couples.)

      But I believe Matt’s point is that the issue is sexual activity among unmarried people (or at least that is my issue.)

      I think there is some good discussions to be had about contraception. But contraception is something you use when being sexually active. Sexual activity (pretty much by definition) is something that is reserved for married couples in most Christian’s understanding of sex.

      So they are connected but my point above, is that it is a useless (or less useful) discussion to talk about contraception if you don’t understand what the actual purpose of sex is. It would be like (although clearly different) having a discussion about types of delicious food with a glutton and never discussing the purpose of food and health.

  • http://jasmineyow.wordpress.com Jasmine Yow

    For what its worth, the fact that this conversation is happening gives me some sort of “freedom” to acknowledge my struggles and encourages me to pursue holiness. I tend to agree with Matt and respectfully disagree with Paris, but even so I think she makes good points.

    I thought Adam brought some good insights to the discussion too – thank you.

  • Diogenes

    “At its best, then, an unmarried who uses contraception has failed to grasp the nature of the goods of sexuality—and a church that encourages him to use it has doubtlessly done the same.”

    This problem goes much deeper. The fact is that a married couple who uses contraception absent some very serious circumstances (e.g., medically diagnosed serious risk to the life of the wife from pregnancy) has failed to grasp the nature of the goods of sexuality and the churches that encourage them to use it have done the same. There is no serious doubt that until the second quarter of the 20th century, all orthodox Christian denominations condemned the use of contraception as gravely sinful. Luther condemned it repeatedly. Calvin condemned it in the harshest of terms. David Kennedy’s award winning “Birth Control in America” records the strong conservative Protestant opposition to its acceptance in the early 20th century and the fight waged against it trough the 1930s. And everything which was predicted by the opponent of change has come to pass. On the issue under discussion in this post, the use of contraception to enable singles to fornicate without the risk of pregnancy, no less a hero of Evangelicals than C.S. Lewis warned, “Now that contraceptives have removed the most disastrous consequences for girls, and medicine has largely defeated the worst horrors of syphilis, what argument against promiscuity is there which will influence the young unless one brings in the whole supernatural and sacramental view of man?”

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  • Tyler Manners

    Sin is still sin, no matter what the modern culture calls it. One of the reasons, we are a peculiar people is that we still believe in the precepts and standards of the Word of God in a world that has learned to worship itself. According to contemporary culture, things viewed as natural most certainly can’t be wrong. Those of us who are unenlightened and buy into anachronistic philosophies are thought of as dragging their feet in progression toward a newer, better world.

    The problem with Grace is two-fold. The first difficulty is that we’re called to love the sinner as redeemable and valuable in God’s sight. The second problem is that the thought is the deed, and no one of us can claim holiness as a birthright. Judgment also raises its ugly head, when we—as Christians—fall short of our responsibility and sin. Planning for that possibility on a prophylactic level compounds the issue by premeditation.

    Like the man who angrily grips the knife in his hand and suddenly lets it fall to the ground, startled at what he almost followed through with in a moment of passion. The Christian—in another moment of passion—should realize that his action of intimacy is just as much unchangeable. Avoiding the environment of sin is probably the easier way to avoid some sins, even though the current cultural climate doesn’t lend well to that.

    This isn’t a new issue. What’s known as the “oldest profession” is testimony to that. The world’s view of the Christian view and the subject is what has colored our way of dealing with it.

    It kills me to say no to that piece of cake when I’m on a diet, but the result of my giving in is gaining weight. But why is it so much harder for me to not enter into the complex choreography of an intimate liaison. Accidents don’t happen. If I fall to my more base inclinations, something in the severity of my situation should force me to drop the knife. No one needs to tell me about using condoms—I’m only an idiot if I can be ignorant in today’s world. And abortion shouldn’t even enter into the options for dealing with my sin.

    The argument isn’t Condom vs. Abortion. The argument is Condom vs. Self Control. God gives us the Spirit of power, love and a sound mind. If we foster that sound mind, we can maybe start to get a handle on sin.

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  • davestrunk

    Matt, spot on, per usual. I don’t have a lot of substantive agreement to add except a few additional observations.

    I have been in evangelical churches all my life, and I’ve never heard any explicit reference to the pros or cons of contraceptives, ever. In addition, I concur that there isn’t a strong law/gospel message around sexuality (even pornography, an issue that people bring to my office a lot) in many evangelical churches. So, I agree, the abstinence message hasn’t really been tried. Honestly, I talk to a lot of self-defined Christians who don’t actually know it’s wrong to live together before marriage. Perhaps this is unique to Colorado, but it’s real.

    Because of the prescience of sexuality issues as a whole in relation to church, I taught 4-week class in my church back in January. So, some churches are addressing these issues, I guess, and hopefully I had enough grace and truth, to boot. Some churches are dealing with it, however meagerly.

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