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The End of Courage and the Surrender of Evangelical Sexual Ethics

May 1st, 2012 | 10 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

“[W]hat the young properly demand is an account of life and the initiation into a community that makes intelligible why their interest in sex should be subordinated to other interests.  What they, and we, demand is the lure of an adventure that captures the imagination sufficiently that for Christians ‘conquest’ comes to mean something other than the sexual possession of another.”

                                                                                                                             — Stanley Hauerwas

Let us start with a given:  most single evangelicals have troubles with sex.  Or rather, they have no troubles with it at all.  Many of them are, as Jenell Paris points out, having a bit of a good time while showing up in our pews and then compounding their sin by choosing abortion.  That all of this is a scandal is a given on which everyone agrees.

The question is what our churches should do with this fact, what course of action they should pursue.   The solution put forward by Paris is to “encourage” and “educate” about contraception, to advocate for it even without “pushing” it.

What should we make of her reply?

Straight away, I’ve no problem walking back from the language of “pushing.”  It wasn’t mine originally, though I suspect I know why the editors chose it (pageviews, people, pageviews).  Whatever conceptual difference Paris sees between that and advocacy is one I am happy to let stand.

'Venus de Milo' photo (c) 2009, Chadica - license:’s more, she is correct that the panel had a variety of voices.  And I didn’t intend to suggest that all of them agreed.  None of them objected, which is why I said the answer was “tacit,” but silence is not necessarily consent.  What’s more, Paris might be right that “many ideas” were presented for reducing abortion in churches.  But outside of contraception, there was precious little that was said about reducing pregnancies altogether.  Getting folks married before they turned 30 came up, but only to be criticized.

Moving on, however, Paris writes:

“By presenting young adults with choices that shut down conversation and relationship (either do it God’s way, or your own way that is so depraved we can’t bear to discuss it respectfully or extensively), churches don’t prevent people from learning about or accessing contraception, nor from having premarital sex.”

Here’s my dilemma:  Paris is writing, I take it, in response to my original piece at Christianity Today.  Her opening paragraph suggests that she is, on some level, framing her points in reply to mine.  That’s how I think I’m supposed to read it, because that’s how internet conventions work.

But that simply can’t be right, as I am pretty sure my suggestion doesn’t imply shutting “conversation and relationship,” or that those who have premarital sex are “so depraved we can’t bear to discuss it respectfully and extensively.”  If that sort of straw man is what the argument for contraception needs, then I may just bow out and go drink my tea.  It so badly misrepresents doesn’t even rise to the level of misrepresenting my views because I didn’t say anything close to it.  And no responsible person who holds an “abstinence absolutism” position would be committed to holding it either.

Besides, who said anything about churches preventing people from accessing education about contraception?  I take it that if a single person likes to read, so much the better for the world.  In fact, keep reading about contraception long enough and you come across interesting little pieces challenging the premise that contraception reduces abortion anyway.

But let’s entertain the idea.  Maybe churches should educate folks about contraception.  What would they say?  They could say, for instance, that there is significant debate over whether the pill is actually abortive.  And they could discuss the way taking steps to create the conditions for sin actually incline our will toward it (I’d like for someone to explain how contraception follows the Biblical exhortation to “flee temptation”).  Those are, of course, cheeky ways of framing it.  But my point is that information about contraception isn’t the issue here (though we can haggle over who should deliver it, and what this means about the failure of both the home and those hallowed sex education programs in our public schools).   The question is instead one of encouraging and advocating for its use, of presenting the information in ways that signal (tacitly or otherwise) approval and exhoration.

Let’s move on:

“Instead, we deny young adults conversation and prayer about the moral, spiritual, and practical dynamics of their intimate relationships, support that is not nearly as easily available as contraception. If church support is available only when abstinence is practiced or professed, many will either go elsewhere or feign chastity in order to avoid shame or even expulsion. When unintended pregnancy happens, church may then be far down the list of potentially helpful places to go, and deservedly so.”

Paris and I are agreed that the culture of shame around pre-marital sex is a problem and that our communities are not the sort of grace-filled places that they ought to be.  I said as much in my original piece, after all, the existence of which I’m still looking to see reflected in Paris’ response.

But I frankly don’t understand the logic here:  we deny our young adults sober and adult conversations about their intimate relationships, a form of support that’s harder than contraception.  Is she meaning to suggest that our communities ought turn to contraception because it’s the easiest form of “support” for young people?   Because, you know, nothing says “love” these days quite like denying ourselves the cross while handing out the pill.

The only other alternative is that while we’re denying young folks the difficult support of serious conversations, they’re out getting easy access to contraception and so having more sex and making more babies (and, Lord have mercy, then seeking abortions).  That can’t be right, though, as that seems to undermine the premise of the discussion:  given that both the education and the access to contraception are easy to get, it’s not clear why churches need advocate for it at all.

I think at the heart of this paragraph is the same false dichotomy on which this whole argument depends:  the churches who major on abstinence cannot be hospitable to those who do not.  Paris has, of course, the full weight of empirical and anecdotal evidence on her side.  The churches that are “abstinence only” in their approach have not been particularly welcoming of those with unplanned pregnancies.  But for that, Paris wants us to change our sexual ethics while I’d like to set about changing the churches.

But the paragraph that gets me is this one:

Advocating contraception for unmarried churchgoers certainly is a compromise, but consider what that really means. Com– means with, and promise means to agree, or to make a pact. To compromise is to work toward agreement or commitment with another. Like compassion, community, or companion, com– is about being in relationship with others. Unipromise isn’t even a word; without compromise, you’re just alone, speaking your ideal into thin air. It’s fine to have ideals, and to proclaim them with perfect phrases in perfectly planned church services. Contemplating perfection is a holy exercise that lifts our aspirations. Lived experience, however, is far from perfect; when I consider ideal parenting, ideal marriage, or ideal teaching, my life pales in comparison. I count on my gracious children, husband, and students to make daily compromises—as I do for them—as part of healthy relationships in the real world.

I take it that the bit about “perfect phrases in perfectly planned church services” is a reference to my line about the ways in which we ought speak about sex (namely, with reverence).  That bit of evidence that she’s read beyond the title isn’t exactly comforting, for reasons I’ll articulate below.  And yet I should make clear that there’s no reason to limit my point to our worship services:  I’d like that way of speaking to pervade our small groups, our mentoring relationships, and every part of our communities.  And for whatever it’s worth, I serve in a local church in a role where I’ve had some opportunity to try to make that happen.

But let’s address the sacredness of this compromise.  Contraception may be a compromise, but it doesn’t seem particularly sacred.  As a solution, it lacks any imagination that takes its cues from the cross.  There are all sorts of compromises we could make with single people who are sexually active and desiring to change, but the problem with an easy technological solution is that it precludes them from ever coming up.

Here, for instance, is a promise we could make to our unmarried folks:  we will open our homes and marriages to you so you can see why sex is worth waiting for (a good, I will point out, that can be discerned outside the bedroom in the quality of our lives).  What’s more, for those single folks I know, I promise to make my phone line available to talk if you think you might go home with someone you shouldn’t.  Or we can chaperone, to make sure you both go home alone.  Or better yet, double date and do the same thing.

There are, then, a host of compromises that our communities could make before ever encouraging someone to take the pill.  Yes, pregnancies might still occur.  But the communities that have taken steps toward solving the problem where it really lies—in the arrangement of our lives together—an unplanned pregnancy will be more of a gift than a threat.

One final paragraph, then some closing thoughts:

After all, “just saying no” to premarital sex, important as it is, is not the heart of the gospel. The heart of the matter is saying yes to God. Maybe we often rely on shame and fear because it’s hard to believe that people would say no to something as tantalizing as sexual pleasure if they didn’t stand to lose something extremely valuable such as honor, the affection of family and church, or even eternal life. If people knew they were loved, no matter what, and that God and God’s people would have their backs even if their own sin is the cause of their troubles, wouldn’t they just sin freely because grace abounds? Perhaps some would, but even then, love can be a kindness that leads to repentance. Others may find the real reason to reject immorality: not for fear of shame, disgrace, or hell, but for love of the right and the good. Right loving—full of compromise, compassion, and companionship—is the best encouragement for right living.

Frankly, I’m at the point where I’d rather not believe that Paris read my piece at all, evidence noted above notwithstanding.  The alternative is that she read it and has strategically decided to ignore its substance, or is grossly distorting what I’ve said.  All those options are, honestly, rather frustrating.  It’s one thing to say that the church should have a conversation about contraception.  It is a very different thing to have that conversation badly, to ignore your interlocutors together or badly misrepresent them.  If this is how the “conversation” is to proceed, well, I don’t expect it to get far.

Which is to say, I categorically reject the notion that the above paragraph has anything to do with what I said.  I’m not “just saying no” to premarital sex or relying on shame and fear.   Allow me the pretention of quoting myself, please:

It is not enough to name human sexuality as a good before moving on to our list of rules. We must allow ourselves to linger there, to reflect upon its unique texture and explore its inner recesses. If we will do that, our proclamation will ring with the sort of poetry that will convince people that we can genuinely say with God that he has made it very good indeed.

The fear, shame, and isolation that unexpectant mothers feel suggests that our churches rarely exude the warmth and grace of those who live under the mercy of Christ. Their report is reason for repentance, and for serious self-examination.

It may be the case that churches that have taken an abstinence only line have depended upon shame and fear.  But they need not do so.  If I am right—and the comment boxes are God’s gift to those who are eager to show how I’m not—their  “yes to God” leads to a “no to contraception” and another “yes to sinners and their children.”   All that can and must be held together, as without it the church is something less than the community of sinners covered by grace and called to perfection and holiness.

The idea that evangelical churches should advocate for contraception for their unmarried members signals the end of our courage.  To en-courage is to instill the virtue, to fortify, to equip a person to stoutly face the challenges before them.  It takes no courage as a community to blame our unmarried people’s ignorance about contraception for the abortions in our midst.  It takes no courage to say that the forces of sexual libertinism are too great for our young people to overcome, and to give up calling the single people to a form of life that our culture resists.  It takes no valor, no mettle, no virtue to shift the blame for our community dysfunctions on to our unmarried people and hand them a pill to make up for it.  It takes no vision, no imagination, to undermine the work (under the pretension of supplementing it) of helping our young people imagine their single lives in ways that do not include fornication, of instilling in them the strength and the desire to actually bring them about, and of building within our communities the systems of support and care that can help them become a reality.

The paradox, of course, is the very thing that every high schooler, college student, and young adult I have met so desperately wants is that which the solution of contraception necessarily denies them.  It may be sex that they’re having, but it’s meaning and adventure and romance that they want.  And those are goods that are only attainable through a heroic self-denial that refuses the lure of compromising with sin, even as we seek to work with and alongside the people who inevitably will commit it.