Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

The Church and Contraception for its Single Members

April 26th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The ending to my latest piece at Christianity Today, on whether churches should advocate contraceptive use for the sexually active single people in their midst:

Beneath the issue of contraception is a question about the role ideals and norms play in our communal lives. Yes, they restrict our behavior in ways that are sometimes inconvenient. Yet in doing so, they intrinsically call us and our communities toward a life that we might not otherwise choose on our own. What's more, they amplify the need for repentance and reconciliation, rather than watering down such a need through the "pragmatic" concession to the fallenness of the world. We may occasionally fail to meet them. But confronting our failures can be heroic and acknowledging our sins a moment of beauty. The only thing to be gained from lowering the expectations is greater secrecy about our sexual lives within our communities. And that, somewhat ironically, only stigmatizes unplanned pregnancies within our midst all the more by making them all the more rare.

At the same time, ideals can inspire. "The more transcendental your patriotism," Chesterton once said, "the more practical will be your politics." Communities where contraception is advocated as a solution (whether from the pulpit or in the counselors office) are communities free from the deadly burden of the cross, free from the sufferings and co-laboring that will inevitably come from caring for single mothers and their children. When I posed this idea to someone they suggested that no one would be with the single mother at 3 a.m. while the child is crying. That the possibility is ruled out before it can be considered says more about the extent to which we strive to keep our communities free from a bloodless martyrdom than it does about whether we should accept contraception.

There is no question that we need to reduce abortions, both inside the church and without. But as a church, we are not called to reduce abortions by any and every means available to us. Sin is compounding: error has a long train, and abortion is near the end of it. It is easy to turn to contraception in order to prevent abortions. But in doing so, we have not done what only the church can do: call people to repentance for our sins and exhort us toward the holiness that ought to mark us off as the people of God.

Let's do a bit more here, though, some thinking out loud:  Can anyone name a sin that Christians commit that we would suggest, as a pastoral measure, taking preemptive action to free people from experiencing the consequences--good or bad?  Analogies are tricky business, as I'm one of those rare souls who thinks that sex is sui generis, one of a kind, within the moral landscape.  But give it a whirl:  you might be more successful than I.

Try, for instance, lying.  Deceit is a moral wrong with potentially only the most positive of consequences. Would we counsel a chronic dissembler who refuses to listen to pastoral guidance to at least do their best to avoid the consequences of their actions?  Hardly likely, despite the fact that lying is clearly corrosive to the soul of the one committing it and to the community where it is enabled.

Remember, an analogy.  Yes, a pregnancy is an incredibly grave consequence for a sin, almost certainly more so than what comes from most lies. But that alone does not justify letting go of the principle so that people can have their sex.  If anything, the suggestion seems to further engrain in our evangelical communities the notion that the kids are going to have sex anyways, so we might as well keep them safe.  That notion is not only false:  it is self-fulfilling and inherently infantilizing.

But let's have a go at this, please.  This is all too important of an issue to simply let it drift into the ether, forgotten and undiscussed.  I'm curious to hear the feedback, pro et contra.  So let me have it in the comments:  what, precisely, am I missing?

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.