“[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: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/What’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.

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Posted by 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.


  1. i’d like to contribute to the conversation here — but i just can’t get past the naked bust of a woman. you might as well be passing out condoms with your blog posts, sir.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 1, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Please tell me this is sarcasm (I was born in Canada and don’t pick up easily on such things).


      1. it was not intended as sarcasm, but satire — a poor attempt, admittedly. either way, though, you needn’t worry that my comment was written in earnest.

        i’m a long time reader, though this is my second time (?) commenting. [well, third now, i suppose.] i’m really enjoying this most recent little series of sorts on contraception and the church. thanks for writing; i appreciate the time you put into the blog.


        1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 1, 2012 at 9:40 am

          Hahaha. Thanks, James, for the kind words and for reading. I really thought it might be satire, but one can never be too sure! I thought I’d verify before I wrote a scathing reply. : )

          Is it too soon to joke that this contraception topic has proved rather…fertile for me?



          1. it’s never too soon for a good pun, sir. and i’m not surprised at all you’ve been inspired in your writing due to this all of this sex talk. the topic is pregnant with possibilities.

            i’ll be sending a link your way (my) tomorrow.

  2. Nicely put, Matt. False dichotomies don’t really help us think clearly about this issue. It’s not judgmentalism vs. gracious contraception, but gracious righteousness _and_ love _and_ self-control.


  3. Isaac Wiegman May 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Matt, you might be surprised that I think you’re absolutely right. What’s more, I don’t like the lack of specificity in these contraception-advocacy proposals. Are we to propose contraception on an individual basis in the context of a relationship, when we discover that someone in our faith community is having premarital sex? If so, the proposal communicates quite clearly the message “I think that the lure of sex will be too strong for you to resist.” Alternatively, if the contraception advocate is proposing a less relational mode of communication (from the pulpit for instance), then the message is even worse: “I think that the lure of sex will be too strong for most people to resist.” It sets up a clear expectation of weakness of will, that may be impossible to cancel. Moreover, the pulpit just isn’t an apt forum to discuss medical matters like contraceptive use, which would seem just a little less weird to hear preached than suggestions to elderly men concerning viagra usage.

    The relational space is almost certainly the medium where this sort of communication would occur, and in that space, it’s hard to see where talk of contraception would even fit in. First, the question to the sexually active should be, “do you understand the calling of the gospel and how sexuality fits into it or do you need support in living out the calling?” Suggestions about contraception just don’t fit under either of those headings. From my perspective, it’s not even that we shouldn’t suggest it, it’s that it’s hard to imagine a position in our discourse from which such a suggestion might be aired. It would be only after we have admitted defeat under the “living it out” heading that we would come to this suggestion. If the discussion turns this direction, then it seems like I’m no longer speaking to the person as a brother or sister in Christ. Rather, I’m offering them prudential advice in a space of non-religious reasons. At that point, it’s more like I’m just leaving them to their own devices in a way that is concordant with ejecting them from Christian community (or at least no longer considering them to be a part of it).

    On a completely separate note. There is no longer any serious scientific discussion of whether the birth control pill is abortifacient. It’s not. If you like, I can put you in touch with an OB/GYN who has studied this matter in great detail and with a great deal of concern.


    1. Re: the above comment that “There is no longer any serious scientific discussion of whether the birth control pill is abortifacient.”

      I don’t by any means want to threadjack, or start some sort of unedifying argument, or anything like that. I make this comment only because I do honestly believe that innocent lives are in the balance.

      Which is a lead-up to saying that anyone interested in serious, thoughtful, compassionate, and thoroughly scientifically documented information on the Pill’s abortifacient effects should look up Randy Alcorn’s Eternal Perspectives Ministry website and find his small book “Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions?” Although it can be bought as a regular book, he also offers it as a free pdf download (I didn’t put the link because I don’t know if that is allowed in comments here). If nothing else, scroll through its Endnotes and see that much of the information comes from articles in mainstream medical journals and other mainstream medical sources, such as the Physician’s Desk Reference. Alcorn came to his conclusion that the Pill sometimes causes abortion (by sometimes preventing implantation, which means that conception of a new life has already occurred) against his own bias toward the Pill, as he and his wife used the Pill early in their marriage and he also recommended it to young marrieds in his pastoral counseling–until he began to do research, and the evidence kept undermining his assumptions that the Pill posed no problems for the pro-life conscience.


      1. Jason E. Summers May 3, 2012 at 7:17 am

        This is not a simple issue, not the least of which because, in the normal course of events, fertilized eggs do not implant (cf. my discussion w/ Karen Swallow Prior here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thinplaces/2011/11/why-i-am-pro-life-by-karen-swallow-prior/ )

        This raises an issue not unlike James Smith raised recently (http://www.colossianforum.org/2012/04/24/book-review-the-evolution-of-adam-what-the-bible-does-and-doesnt-say-about-human-origins/) viz. if we make sin implicit in the normal order we must carefully disentangle and clarify whether it is sin or what notions of causality are. There are various ways to do this.



      2. Isaac Wiegman May 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm

        I did look at the end notes of that Alcorn article, and I found nothing cited from the last 10 years. By itself, this should raise questions about the credibility of this resource, especially considering the provisional nature of almost any scientific claim. But I also have other reasons not to expend too much of my time reading Alcorn. The OB/Gyn with whom I’ve talked about this issue is a close relative who is adamantly pro-life and who, as practicing physician, keeps up with the latest research on reproductive technologies. He assures me that a lot of the older reference/educational materials on the pill (like the physicians desk reference of 1998?) refer to outdated theories about how the pill works.

        In general, I am hesitant to trust someone just because they have “researched” an issue or just because they can cite some articles about it. I find that it’s pretty easy to dig up articles that superficially support almost any kind of position, from the claim that vaccinations cause autism (a claim for which there is absolutely not a shred of evidence) to the claim that flouride is toxic (which is probably true but misleading because so far as I know it is only shown to be toxic at levels significantly higher than those found in our water or in our toothpaste). I am more inclined to trust people who are actively engaged in scientific practices, ones that require a much higher level of immersion in peer-reviewed literatures. Those who are actively engaged in this way are less likely to mistake conjectures and hypotheses as facts, and they are more likely to apportion their belief to the most accurate and up to date evidence.


        1. Jason E. Summers May 3, 2012 at 11:37 pm


          Practicing physicians are generally not in the habit of keeping up with scientific research – they are practitioners not researchers. That said, I applaud those who do. As more than one head of a hospital bemoaned a recent conference, continuing training and education within the medical field is woefully inadequate.

          In any case, yes, there are multiple factors at play in how various forms of the contraceptive pill work, but a survey of the recent literature (cf. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3163658/ and references therein including an helpful review article from last year, which is behind a pay wall) would quickly show that for the common methods, while suppression of ovulation is dominant, there is no simple consensus that the other mechanism have no role whatever.

          My concern, however, is that the ethical argument rests on rather shaky ground in any case, as noted here: http://jme.bmj.com/content/32/6/355.full.pdf and here: http://pages.shanti.virginia.edu/ashleygrahamkennedy/files/2011/11/JME-article1.pdf

          Also, your claim about aging journal articles is simply specious. For example, the article by Wilcox et al. from 1998 (“Post-ovulatory ageing of the human oocyte and embryo failure” http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/content/13/2/394.full.pdf)is generally accepted. We scientists don’t publish new articles stating old facts, we simply cite the old article until it is so old that it becomes part of the common body of knowledge, no longer needing citation. For example, a quick review should indicate that the Wilcox article is still cited in the literature regularly.



          1. Isaac Wiegman May 4, 2012 at 3:34 pm


            Thanks for responding.

            While many doctors may not, my dad (who’s the OB/Gyn in question) does keep up with the research. He’s very conscientious and would never put one of his patients on the pill if he thought it was abortifacient.

            Yes there are a number of factors at play when considering the contraceptive effect of the pill. However, the real question is whether it causes more implantation failures than other methods of birth control. Now I’ll check back with him and reply again if I’m wrong, but here’s how I understand things. Yes, Alcorn is right that the pill makes the endometrium less susceptible to implantation. The question, however, is really about how often the pill’s “first lines of defense” fail and whether that leads to a greater amount of failed implantations than would have occured without the pill (for instance, while using the rhythm method). As far as I understand it, the first lines of defense are 1) prevention of ovulation and 2) prevention of sperm motility through the mucosum of the uterus. Basically, my dad’s professional opinion is that the level of mucosal thickness in women who take the birth control pill makes it highly unlikely that fertilization will occur, even if the pill doesn’t prevent ovulation.

            My worry about the credibility of the Alcorn article was that Alcorn didn’t seem up to date on his research and thus probably isn’t an active participant or even consumer of scientific research. Even if an article from 1998 is still well cited and reliable (I highly doubt that the physicians desk reference of 1998 is), the question of how the birth control pill works its effects is one that can be influenced by subsequent research. While Alcorn may be citing research that is still considered reliable concerning this question of how “receptive” the uterus is to implantation, there are other factors at play that only someone who pays close attention to the literature or who has a very thorough knowledge of the female reproductive system would actually know about. So I think my points stand: scientific answers to many questions are provisional and we should not as a rule trust people as authorities on what “science” says if they are not active participant or consumers of scientific literatures.

        2. Isaac, thank you for the reasonable tone of your response. I know this is a sensitive issue for many people, whatever their position.

          I encourage you and/or your doctor relative–or both–to contact Eternal Perspective Ministries with the evidence you have found that you believe indicates that the Pill is harmless to the earliest stages of life. Mr. Alcorn says more than once in his book that the evidence he has found supporting the Pill’s abortifaciency is *not* something he wants to be true, and that he welcomes evidence to the contrary.

          It is to your credit that you want the most accurate and up-to-date information available; there is in fact more recent data on the EPM website. Some people draw erroneous conclusions from flimsy evidence, true; and some people misunderstand technical information that is outside their area of expertise, also true. But it is also true that people who are deeply interested in and concerned about an issue can educate themselves into a good and solid, even if lay, understanding of the issue, as well as be able to consult with or interview experts who can help them to navigate the technicalities. I hope that you will look further into Alcorn’s background and credentials, as well as arguments, before consigning him to the same realm as anti-vaccine nuts. He is actually a fairly well known Christian author, and–agree or disagree with him–not some fringe-y type.

          But again, I urge you to contact Eternal Perspective Ministries. You would be doing many people a service if you can substantiate your claim.


          1. Jason E. Summers May 4, 2012 at 5:50 pm


            Yes, that seems reasonable, though certainly there is not a probability of zero. There’s not so far as I can tell a significant body of data that argues one way or the other(we should be thankful for that since the process for gathering it would be highly intrusive and not worth the invasion given that the results don’t really affect the ethical argument).

            What’s more significant in my view is that, since failed implantation of fertilized eggs likely occurs with some (small) frequency as part of normal events, those worried about such instances in the case of birth control would also want to hold all couples responsible for avoiding that since it is fairly viable in the modern era for couples to determine ovulation with enough precision that they could nearly always ensure no fertilized egg would be unlikely to implant due to aging.

            In my view that is a bit ridiculous ethically since it condemns many acting with good intent based on an outcome that is inherent in the created order.

            The challenge is, if one accepts that, one needs to develop a much more nuanced understanding of the entire question of life and culpability.


  4. Beautifully done


  5. Man, I almost missed the last paragraph. holy crap. Well said.

    Excellent demonstration that grace can coexist with righteousness. Jesus didn’t tell the woman caught in adultery about the dangers of pregnancy and how to avoid it: He said, “Go and sin no more.” To advocate contraceptive use to singles–and not just generic singles, but actual churchgoers–is to do no less than say, “Yeah, go have sex. You’re going to anyway, and we don’t want you to have an abortion now, do we?”


  6. So I guess Messiah College will start passing out condoms in their fresher’s orientation packets? Or is that just a departmental thing–you know, once you declare a major in anthro-soc, you get a gift card to Anthropologie and the pill?

    MLA, I appreciate the last paragraph and many points before (for instance, say, pushing against the cultural tendency to postpone marriage).

    When I found this via your FB link (haven’t read the other two pieces in question) I was taking a break from working on a sermon on Matt 28…”I am with you” and the *courage* those wonderful words bring for obedience to Jesus and faithfulness to his mission.


  7. Thanks, Matt. Now I have to rewrite the post I was working on yesterday, where I said at least a few of the things you said here.

    Really appreciate that.

    Since you were born in Canada and don’t understand it: the above was sarcasm.

    In seriousness, though, I intend to join the conversation rather soon. I’ll link you when it goes up.

    Keep writing. This piece was the best in the series.


  8. Excellent work Matt. Thanks for writing.


  9. Truth Unites... and Divides May 1, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    “The idea that evangelical churches should advocate for contraception for their unmarried members signals the end of our courage.”

    Yes. Not only lack of courage, but denigrating the Authority of Scripture about the sin of fornication.


  10. I have two thoughts.

    I. Conditionals

    In general, it’s possible to consistently endorse a conditional without endorsing its antecedent. For example: I can consistently endorse the thesis [if I were a baboon, then I wouldn’t be a human] without endorsing the thesis [I am a baboon].

    This is no less true in the moral case. Some moral commands or recommendations come in conditional forms. They do not say “do this”; rather, they say “if you do that, then you should do this”. And one can consistently endorse these conditional commands or recommendations without endorsing their antecedents. For example: I endorse the thesis [if you’re going to kill an innocent person, you should kill that innocent person quickly and without inflicting too much pain]. But I do not recommend its antecedent; I do not think you should kill an innocent person. Indeed, I think you should not kill an innocent person. There’s nothing puzzling about this. We reason in this way all the time. It is consistent, and it is reasonable.

    I think this is the best way to think about churches that maintain that extramarital sex is impermissible while encouraging unmarried members to use contraception. Such churches are, in actions if not in words, endorsing a conditional — if you have extramarital sex, then you should use contraception when you have extramarital sex. But in doing this, they are not in any way committed to endorsing the antecedent of that conditional; they are not tacitly recommending or endorsing extramarital sex. There’s nothing puzzling about this. It is consistent, and it is reasonable.

    II. Folksy Analogy

    You don’t think your spouse should go out and get drunk beyond all reason. But you worry that she will do so anyways. And if she does, it’s very important that she not drive home. So you give her a few bucks to pay for a cab ride home — just in case. Have you, in giving your spouse the cab money, tacitly approved of her getting drunk beyond all reason? I don’t see that you have.

    One potential weakness of this analogy is that there’s nothing wrong with having cab money on hand. And some people think there’s something wrong with having contraception on hand (I have nothing to say to such people). But the case still shows that it’s perfectly reasonable to equip someone to deal with a possible situation, even if the only way that situation might get realized is by doing something wrong — without in any way tacitly approving of that wrong thing!


  11. Matthew Lee Anderson May 1, 2012 at 8:13 pm


    Thanks for the feedback. I agree that in principle it is possible to make those sort of claims, and that we do them all the time and that they are reasonable. But I’m not sure the strict logic of conditionals is sufficient to analyze the nature of the case. There is a moral psychology that must be accounted for, a responsibility as Christians to shape our wills in particular directions through the decisions that we make.

    To put it as a question: do you think that purchasing and/or using contraception in advance makes someone more likely or not to have sex when the opportunity arises? I take it that by removing what some people consider a prudential reason to avoid sex, it increases the likelihood of engaging in intercourse–and in planning out our lives around the purchasing of contraception, we reinforce in our thinking the mentality that we will both place ourselves in the situations where temptation will arise and then yield when it happens.




    1. You seem to think that the issue turns on a certain empirical question – viz., whether availability of contraception makes sex more or less likely. I confess that I do not know the answer to that question. I *suspect* that people have been engaging in taboo sex at more or less constant rates for nearly all of human history, and that (“sexual revolution” narratives notwithstanding) the widespread availability of contraception hasn’t changed this much.

      But I’m not sure that the answer to that question matters nearly so much as you seem to think it does. Consider again my folksy analogy. Would the permissibility to supplying your spouse with cab money really turn on whether in so doing, you’d make it more or less likely that she’d get drunk beyond reason? I can’t see that it would. She is your spouse, and you have reason to protect her (and those around her) from the grave dangers of drunk driving. You may counsel her not to get drunk beyond reason. And you may also give her cab money, *even if* she is more likely to get drunk beyond reason when she’s got cab money.


      1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 1, 2012 at 8:39 pm


        I don’t think that it’s an empirical question about whether statistically, available contraception increases the amount of sex or not. I framed as a question of moral psychology, which is a slightly different thing. And I don’t think that’s the only point on which the moral case rests: I think it also depends upon welcoming children as a sort of good (and not a harmful consequence).

        As for your folksy analogy, I think yes, if I had good reason to believe that giving my wife money might make a difference in whether she would get drunk or not, then I would absolutely be guided by that and not give her the money. In fact, if I had reason to think that my wife was going to get drunk, then I’d have every reason to believe I wouldn’t be giving her cab money at all but would be simply buying her additional drinks and contributing to her drunkenness. In fact, if I had reason to believe my wife was going to get drunk, I would take an even stronger “abstinence absolutist” approach and take her keys and her money away.

        But I’d also say that the analogy is flawed on grounds that children are not the sort of harmful consequence that drukenness or drunk driving are. It seems for the folksy analogy to work, it has to go forward on consequentialist grounds where we’re comparing evils against each other: giving money that might incline someone toward an evil is better than dealing with the potential evils that come from their actions. But here is where the logic of pregnancy is unique (and why my case doesn’t simply rest on the point you’ve picked out): the child is not a bad consequence or result, but an intrinsic good.

        Does that help?



        1. Your initial reply turned on a question about whether contraception makes taboo sex more likely. You now say this question about moral psychology isn’t an empirical question. But I don’t see the distinction between a question about what people are likely to do, given the availability of contraception (an empirical matter) and a question about whether “purchasing and/or using contraception in advance makes someone more likely or not to have sex when the opportunity arises” (your words). Both seem to be matters about how people are, in fact, likely to behave. And the way to discover the truth about either matter seems to be to *watch people* using the best tools we’ve got — sociology and social psychology. So even if there is a difference between these two questions (I don’t yet see it), both seem to be in the domain of empirical science. So if you’re right, the thing to do would be to do some empirical science. As indicated above, I am no expert on those matters; but I have my suspicions about how they would go.

          That said, I don’t think these empirical questions are quite so relevant to the moral questions at hand. One reason stems from the analogy I drew.

          We disagree in our judgements about the folksy analogy, so I won’t press that point any more. I think you’re wrong, but I have no more arguments to make on that point. I’m not a consequentialist (about as far from such as you can get, in fact!), and I wouldn’t try to argue for my judgements on *those* grounds. But if you disagree with my judgements, I don’t have much more to say. And you seem to want to resist the structure of the case too; but I won’t press more on that point either.

          Finally, you now claim that there are other factors, among which are questions about whether having kids is an intrinsic good. I’m inclined to agree that having kids (when it is good) is an intrinsic good; but this does not imply that having kids is, in every case, good (there is, after all, a distinction between intrinsic and unqualified goods). And so claiming that having kids is an intrinsic good doesn’t seem to me to support your overall claim.

          In other words: it’s consistent with everything you’ve said so far about the intrinsic good of childbearing that there are cases where having kids is, overall, *not* good. Say I: in such cases, it is reasonable to avoid having kids. One can recommend avoiding having kids in such cases without recommending that one be in such cases in the first place. This would be a conditional recommendation — “if you find yourself in such a circumstance, don’t have kids”. To say that would *not* be to recommend the circumstance; it would only be to recommend a certain reply to that circumstance. To say this would be a *conditional* recommendation. It would be consistent. And it would be perfectly reasonable.


          1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 2, 2012 at 10:17 pm


            Great thoughts. Thanks for pushing back. I’m really grateful, as it’s helping me clarify the argument. I think part of my problem is that this it seems so obvious to me that handing out contraception is going to be pastorally a terrible idea (and still is, even with your counterarguments).

            That said, hasty thoughts in reply:

            1) I think there are lots of different ways we can frame the argument. One would be the social psychology/empirical route of asking whether, on balance, single people have more sex (or start having sex) after taking contraception. I may have slipped that in, and I bet cash that I’d still be right. But in the comments, I was using moral psychology more narrowly, namely to identify what is actually going on in someone’s mind when they purchase or take contraception. What is it that they are intending? And how is that intention affecting their will? I think we can analyze that independently of the results, and I would argue that the single person who purchases condoms for non-medical reasons has intentions that are very difficult to distinguish from the intention to fornicate. Opening an incognito window if you have a porn problem might be a similar case. The person who opens one presumably has an intention of avoiding detection IF looking at porn. But intending to avoid an consequent is only important to us or necessary when we are inclined toward the antecedent. And in that sense, it seems to me that purchasing both reveals our dispositions toward illicit sex and simultaneously further inclines us toward it.

            2) You’re right that I do want to resist the structure of the folksy analogy. I am continuing to think about it, as I’m not fully satisfied by my own response to it. But I do think on some level the analogy is faulty–I’m just not sure I could say exactly where yet in a way that would satisfy you or be helpful.

            3) That’s an interesting distinction between intrinsic and qualified goods. And honestly, I’m not sure what to make of the distinction between “having kids” and “kids,” such that the latter would be an intrinsic good but the former would not be good. I take it that if children are an intrinsic good, then having them would be an unqualified good. I’m trying to think of a scenario where I think the world would be better without a particular child in it–which is, I take it, precisely what the point of qualifying them as a good means, doesn’t it? And even in the most war-torn situations, it’s hard for me to say that they would somehow be better without the presence of children. Maybe I’ve an overinflated understanding of the sort of good children are (which is possible, given that I don’t have any), but I’ll have to think through this a little more.



  12. Hi! Single person speaking!


    “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.”

    …is a terrible idea, on two levels.

    For one, it functions on the presumption that the TYPE of sex single people are having is of one monolithic kind. This is a frequent narrative I see repeated throughout the church – especially by married people concerned with the policing single people’s sex lives. That narrative is that premarital sex = anonymous hook ups. For myself and many of the single people I know – who are, indeed, churchgoers! – this is not the case. Many of us have long term, committed relationships that, for one reason or another, are not marriage relationships yet. This has not prevented my friends from consummating such relationships. Indeed, I know a lot of single people, and I only know one or two who experience sex in the narrative which you describe. If we’re going to “solve” the problem of premarital sex, we need to rid ourselves of the narrative that all premarital sex is anonymous hook ups with dangerous people.

    Second, this is just on a practical level: if the man I was dating was interested in seeing me again, calling a dude from my church in the middle of the night so I could “avoid temptation” would destroy any potential that relationship would have, unless you’re already dating the type of dude who wouldn’t go home with a girl in the first place. The scenario you describe is not only a surefire way to kill any potential relationship, but one unlikely to be actually used by single people.

    I’m also a bit annoyed that the church keeps having this conversation without actually asking single people their opinions. Notice that you and Ms. Paris are both married and have been for a while. Forgive us singles if we ignore the advice.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm


      Thanks for the comment. I think I pointed this out on Facebook, but for public record I’ll say it here: I think my last sentence suggests that I am not actually treating the forms of sexual encounter as monolithically as you’re reading it. I realize that many single people who have sex are in long-term, committed relationships. I also happen to think such people should be married. But that is neither here nor there. The point is a good one, as it is, even if I don’t think we actually disagree about it.

      Second, I don’t know who is calling the “dude” in this scenario–you or the man you’re dating. Of course, I put the proposal out there somewhat cheekily, though if one of my single friends thought it would help I would happily make it available. But such phone calls need to be kept (I think) in the context of same-sex friendships. As to whether it would destroy any potential relationship, well, it might. But it might also be a decent test case to discern what sort of person you are dating.

      But it’s clearly true the tactic is one “unlikely to be actually used by single people.” Perhaps we could talk through some others, then. I’d be curious to hear if there is one that would be used by “single people.”

      As to the point about single people, well, I suppose they are welcome to ignore the advice because it comes from married people. But I don’t see why single people are the only ones qualified to judge on this issue. Perhaps you could make the case?

      Best regards,



      1. Two very terse comments about being single vs. being married:

        1) Claiming singleness as a reason not to listen to the advice of married people, and also claiming long-term intimate relationships as a justification for sex, seem like pretty fundamentally contradictory claims to me. If you’re in a long-term intimate relationship, are you really single?

        2) Married people’s advice is worth listening to partly because married people were once single themselves and therefore know what they’re talking about from their own experience. For what it’s worth, I was single (really single) for 29 years, and for those 29 years (and in the 3.5 years since then) I thought and think that Matt is right on the money.


        1. The problem is she is correct … singles should be in on this conversation. One of the problems is is that married people tend to think that they automatically know more than singles about all things sexual. So single’s thoughts on these matters tend to be ignored. I mean what could a 30 year old virgin possibly know about sexuality, right?

          Also, between the hook-up and he long term (non-married) relationship is the few-month-old relationship. This is the relationship where you’re spending a ton of time together and you’re always at each other’s houses/apartments. This type of relationship that I think is much more common amongst single church-goers. Stepping away to call some “dude” is pretty much not going to ever happen when you are at your girlfriend’s apartment and making out and feeling tempted to go a little further. Chaperones and double dates might work 1 night a week in this scenario, but what about Sunday through Friday?

          That’s not to say I think Matt is wrong in spirit on this … sex is communal and trying to get people in the church to think of sex as something other than “2 consenting adults” is basically what needs to happen.


          1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 4, 2012 at 1:45 pm


            I didn’t mean to suggest that single people *shouldn’t* be in on the conversation, or even that married people know more about sexuality than they do. I completely agree that a single person can have just as deep of insights into sexuality as a married person. I’ve also written frequently elsewhere about the need for single people’s voices to be heard on all things sexuality, for whatever that’s worth.

            As to the phone call, I agree that there are practical difficulties on that side of things too. Mostly I raised that point to suggest that there are, in fact, other ways of addressing this issue than contraception.


  13. I say you’re still taking too soft a stand. Why should only unmarried couples be discouraged from contraception? Why is rampant sin and hedonism suddenly okay within what should be the holy institute of matrimony?


  14. Marc, I like your fire, but let’s keep this just on the topic of what the Church has to say to young singles about sex.

    As a single person, I can tell you that one thing my local church did right was provide me with a lot of inter-generational relationships where people spoke to me with Authority. Sometimes that Authority came from older singles, but often it came from older marrieds, and either way, it was valuable. It wasn’t exactly chaperoning, but neither did it stand by and watch while people chose anything other than God’s best for them.

    Of course, lots of people don’t take kindly to “interfering” and don’t want to submit to authority. One of my friends ended up leaving the church after several people kindly spoke to her (yes, they were very firm, but also very kind and loving) about her relationship. (The guy wasn’t a Christian, which was the first concern, then when it became evident that they were sleeping together, our pastor actually pulled her aside. This was a small church and she was in leadership, so there was a relationship there where it made sense for him to talk to her.)

    It’s hard to do, but speaking as a single person, I feel most cared for when my community protects me from the soul-degrading consequences of sin — which happen regardless of contraception.


  15. Matt,
    Couple of comments:
    1) Excellent post, great and clear thinking, etc. You’re always good on these issues.

    2) I haven’t read other comments so may be doubling up here. But this thought continues to fester: am I the only one who doesn’t think education is the issue at all? In other words, isn’t this whole issue a red herring. Even 13 year olds know that if you have sex you can get a girl pregnant. How is this a problem of endorsement or lack thereof or some stance the church should take at all? Of course I’m agreeing with you, but I’m wondering why the response to Paris isn’t simply more incredulous. Something like: “you really think the problem is that people don’t know contraception can prevent pregnancy? Seriously?!?!” Of course it isn’t a problem with knowledge, it’s a problem of self-control.

    3) Last comment: your post, as is typical, was well-thought and reasoned. And yet, I think you undermine, conflate, or overly flourish your point with your title: how is a view held by a few evangelicals the “end” or “surrender” of anything? We have got to stop you from using the words for blog post titles. These fights are often more imaginary and online than they are for real. I say this as a pastor of scores of single Christians.

    Keep on writing, my friend!


    1. Speaking as someone that spends a fair amount of time counseling young marrieds, I am continually surprised at the lack of basic knowledge around sex. Yes everyone knows that you can get pregnant via sex. But even with relatively educated 20 something year olds, I have to say that I am shocked way more often that I would have guessed at bad information or just ignorance.


      1. But I do agree that the larger problem is self control not knowledge


  16. […] Matt continued the conversation with two more pieces. He clarified his previous post, generally said things better, and, ultimately, was far more […]


  17. Thank your for your intelligent commentary on this important subject. I sincerely appreciate your ability to be gracious in the discourse while skillfully defending your position on the “hill”. Keep up the great work! Thank you for reminding Christians of the need to be both gracious and courageous.


  18. A tremendous article. Please know that before I go further, I am not justifying evil. I would just like to point out logical problems that I see within the Church and your position concerning the use of sexuality.

    The first is the Adam and Eve/Desert Island scenario. That is, supposing there is no preacher or government, does it invalidate sexual monogamous relationship? No; while it makes complete sense if you are loving and committed to a relationship to get married, you are just as married within an without the law via the concept of oneness. Therefore, it is inappropriate in the eyes of the New and Old Testaments, and the common law, to state that those within committed monogamous sexual relationships fall outside the will and blessing of God. The Biblical precedent, however, and sensible one, is “If you’re so committed and in love, marriage should not be an issue”. To call this situation “fornication” doesn’t work and that’s important in deciphering the context for moral and immoral figurings; it becomes an issue of divorce and adultery, not fornication proper.

    Fornication proper must be taken as sex without honest intent. I would raise that those who aren’t married and aren’t planning to be should be held accountable as seriously as those who are adulterous. The way of this transgressor is hard, and I would see little problem in either making church uncomfortable for their godless life and simply calling a sinful spade a spade. This type of person should not be accommodated any more than a church would accommodate a treasurer who was robbing the treasury.

    Frankly, I would state that by their fruit you will know them. I think there’s a drastic mistake in the assumption that many within the church are Christians. The spirit of Christ and this type of blatant and willing evil are mutually exclusive, and I would ask the hard question why we are so concerned about ministering to people who are lying to themselves, lying to others, and polluting the church in general? I am not talking wanton harshness. Rather, I am saying let them break their own teeth by their own free will. Let them kill their children, and let them catch their diseases, and let their hearts be broken. This is not pitiless; it is the direct injunction given in the New Testament to hand them over to Satan so that their souls may be saved in the end and it is typically the method the Lord uses to get our attention in the first place.

    I say this because at heart is the issue of ownership: the whole premise of sexuality is that the Lord only gives certain kinds of permissions for the physical/spiritual expression that is sexuality. The permissions He gives revolve precisely around what will cause or not cause damage to the human soul that was created by and for Him; we are the renters, not the masters, of our bodies. To be clear, our commitment is first and foremost and forever to Christ, and all access to our souls must first be vetted through Him. Therefore, we are dealing with an offence to God, not to man, and because it’s between man and God, it should be left between man and God. We would be unwise to meddle (and talk of contraception in the Church is definitely meddling).


  19. AT: You say that you’re pointing out a logical problem, but it wasn’t clear to me just what the problem is supposed to be. My guess is that you think the church and MLA have failed to grasp the true nature of marriage, and have, as a result, illegitimately called “fornication” what is actually a case of marriage. And I take it that your examples are supposed to show the true nature of marriage. Correct me if I’ve misunderstood what you take to be the logical problem.

    I’ve heard arguments/examples like that for a long time, but something seems to me to be wrong with them. Marriage, in every culture, including OT and NT cultures, is a community affair, affecting the whole community, and as such is governed by community rules. This is true even with the Adam and Eve case you cite: the entirety of human community consisted of two people, and they were joined by God. Your claims about what can be learned by the example betrays many questionable assumptions (and so has, as you put it, “logical problems”).

    Why think that what was important in that case was that Adam and Eve loved each other, or were committed to each other, or were sexually faithful to one another, and that their being joined by God was not? Or are you assuming that God joined them because they felt love, or made their own commitment, or were faithful? But why think that?

    Why think that an extraordinary situation (whether garden of Eden or an imagined shipwrecked couple on a desert island) that limits the entire relevant human community to just two people should be taken as the paradigm case, from which one infers that marriage only ever requires the thoughts and intentions of two people? One can just as easily infer that it requires the consent of every human being in the community, since in both cases that’s what has happened. What’s the logical principle that rules out the latter interpretation, but endorses the former?

    You seem to imply that what marriage requires is that two people be in “a committed monogamous sexual relationship.” But what any one does–or two do–in a community affects the whole community. Any Christian should readily agree to this, though it is true of all communities. This is why (though much more would need to be said to explain in detail) marriages have ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE been a community-level institution, not a private commitment between only two people. No man is an island, and neither is any couple (even when on a desert island).

    A lot more could be said, but I’m afraid this is headed too far off topic. Apologies, MLA.


  20. To be clear, I stated right at the beginning that I was not justifying evil. You miss my point I think, and I’ll raise it a different way: does baptism make a person a believer, or does a believer get baptised?

    Likewise, a marriage certificate is nothing more than a legally sanctioned recognition of a given spiritual reality. It is the currency, if you will, of sexual union. I back this with the sexual system put in place in the Old Testament, which very clearly differentiates between fornication and sex between a man and a woman who do not belong to anyone else by way of marriage certificate. In one, the participants are stoned to death, in the other, they are considered by the Lord married and then they are validated before the people. Likewise in the New Testament when Paul talks about joining the body of Christ with a prostitute, it mentions one flesh. In the same way, it mentions a man and his wife being one flesh.

    Your argument about community rules is good, but it still leaves it in the realm of natural law (ie “the basic principles of this world”) and outside of Scripture. Scripture crowns natural law, it does not bow to it.

    The position your argument takes leaves this basic issue unanswered: is the sexual relationship of a faithful, monogamous, yet formally incomplete marriage invalid? If you say yes, then on the same note, you will also have to state that a Christian who is not baptised is not a Christian. You will also be in the position of stating that a wedding that takes place by a justice of the peace is not a wedding, because it is not public or communal enough. If not communal enough, then what is? The validity of a wedding union, and I’m sure you know this yourself, is not determined by the amount of guests at a wedding. Furthermore, the Ethiopian eunech, if I am not mistaken, was baptised to an audience of precisely one, plus God, yet was taken as valid; if that is valid, then why is a union only witnessed by two (the participants) and God invalid? It isn’t; it is always valid; that is why the New Testament warned believers to not join with a prostitute: the act of sex is always, without exception, one-flesh valid.

    Baptism and marriage are communal recognitions of an inward reality. Both are no more real than the inward nature. I was clear also to make the point that if the inward reality is reality, then there is precisely nothing stopping a person from the outward, communal verification.

    You are entirely correct that my assumption is dangerous. It is profoundly dangerous. That is why it is bulwarked by community recognition. I am NOT recommending unmarried sex; what I am doing is drawing a distinction, as it were, between the flu and cancer within the sexual practice of the Church. The same passages that call for stoning also acknowledge this distinction. If we are to make any kind of intelligent judgement on the topic, we must do the same.


  21. Thanks for the clarification, AT. And I guess this isn’t that much off topic after all, since it’s connected, I think, to temptations that young, single evangelicals feel. (I was one for a long time–married at 34.) I remember couples at the Bible college I attended justifying illicit relationships (and, I think, engaging in intricate self-deception) using the kind of reasoning you suggest. I understand that you don’t intend to justify such behavior, and I’m not accusing you of that, but I still think that the reasoning is wrong, and encourages or makes possible (in spite of your intentions) such self-deception.

    So I don’t buy the analogy with baptism for multiple reasons, but I’ll focus on the “deeper spiritual reality” comment. If a marriage ceremony (that is, the public making of the commitment; the “certificate” is merely a contingent convention, the making of the vow before the community is essential, whatever form it takes in a time and place). So here’s the point: even if it is an outward sign of an spiritual reality, why think that the spiritual reality is satisfied by the relationship between the two, and no one else? Why can’t the spiritual reality that is signified be a community-level reality, rather than a couple-level reality? (Hint: it can be, and is.)

    Your assumption that whatever has to do with community rules is thereby not spiritual, but only natural and of “the basic principles of the world” is, I think, a bad one. There are spiritual communities (e.g., the Church), and they have rules, too. Spiritual ones, at that.

    By the way, where in the Bible do you get the “faithful monogamous” as the standard for a “real” marriage? The OT certainly treated polygamy as real marriage, and the NT doesn’t deny that (though it is treated as less than ideal). Furthermore, lack of sexual fidelity, though it is a potential ground for legitimate divorce, does not automatically invalidate the marriage. So whence the standard?

    And to answer your question, yes, the faithful monogamous but formally incomplete “marriage” is invalid (by which I mean, not a marriage at all), if by “formally incomplete” we mean never accompanied by the requisite community-level commitment. I think I’m happy to bite that bullet, which I find not to be a bullet, but a tasty morsel.

    (Note on my tone: please don’t read anything as though said in a sneering way. Though I disagree with you, AT, I appreciate your challenge, and am grateful for the opportunity it gives me to think through some of these issues.)


  22. Thanks for the kind words.

    There is one dominant sexual thread that runs through Scripture, in amongst the polygamy and monogamy and wife-stealing, and the seduction of Boaz, etc, and it is this: spiritual fidelity. That is, fidelity to the Lord. That is why Joseph protested with Potiphar’s wife re: the Lord, not because of Potiphar.

    The mistake you make is the assumption that any solitary command concerning Eros is because of man. It is not; man offers no answers. Man may be hurt by his sexual actions, but he often isn’t. It is always, first and foremost, between man and God.

    Unbelievers can see this because it is plain. What business does the government have in the rooms of individuals? Now you would recoil and say “Well we’re a community and we all have something at stake here.” and I’d say, fine and great — so let me pick your diet for you, and you education for you, and what T.V. shows you watch. Let me, a Canadian, pick you, an American’s, foreign policy — because we’re all in a community. You can see legalism very clearly, and a sort of ivory tower creeping intellectualism. And I’d bet you prefer if I just let you live your life and vote in your own foreign policy.

    If I could nail down one thing that you have said repeatedly, it is that you are afraid that my statement would open the door to all sorts of illicit sexuality, and by doing so, would cause sin. I’d say that you’re entirely right, but that fact doesn’t make me wrong. Frankly, however, I am not afraid that God will be brought to the dust by something I say. God is far, far bigger than I am, and does not need me to proclaim Him or talk about sin. And talk you and I do is a gracious nod from God to us, not vice versa.

    Therefore, if an unbeliever can see and recognize in court of law that a long-term relationship is in fact marriage (common-law) and treats that marriage relationship in precisely the same fashion as a church wedding, then it is a valid marriage. And likewise, if you are leaning wholly on the authority of community, then my community of Canada recognizes two men as a marriage union. Do you? Neither do I. Why? Because it’s subject to higher spiritual law.

    My point is, you can either choose majority/community rules, which will tell you I’m correct in my assumption that the two are married, or you can pick spiritual law, which will demonstrate in Scripture I am correct, or you can take community rules as incorrect, citing gay marriage etc, which will still leave me correct, or you could say spiritual rules are incorrect, which would then leave you with either an arbitrary judgement.

    Frankly, your position reminds me of a teetotaller’s, where there is typically one and one only legitimate issue, and that is not seeing man or God dishonoured. But I must then ask you what you though when Christ created wine, and whether he was a clumsy goof to do so, or whether his repair of various people and submission to Caesar did harm or good. You’ll see that Christ and his church are masters and judges over sin; although sin is to be hated, nothing is to be feared.

    You fear that my position opens the gates to hordes of sinning young people. They’re already there.


  23. Perhaps we will slowly come to understand one another (sorry, MLA, if we’ve hijacked the conversation); you say that I have not understood you, and I think, from your comments, that you have not understood me. So here’s another shot at a couple points you make:

    You say that I assume that any command concerning Eros is because of man. I don’t think that I have made any such assumption. Could you tell me where I have?

    Do you mean that the kind of fidelity you meant from the beginning, when you said “faithful, monogamous relationship,” was always “fidelity to the Lord”? If so, are you implying that unbelievers, who are by definition not faithful to the Lord, cannot be married? That seems wrong to me, and if it is a consequence of your view, so much the worse for your view. And even pagans in the OT can be and were considered to be in real marriages.

    That marriage is a community-level institution is because this is how God made it, not because man made it that way. But because this is its nature, even unbelievers recognize it (though some may mistakenly think that man gives it its nature). I have never implied that it is up to man’s will alone. Rather, the will of God and the will of man work together (with the will of God necessarily primary) such that God is involved in every marriage. It is not merely a matter of community rules, but it is at least a matter of community rules (constitutive rules, not necessarily positive law). Everything I have said is consistent with this, and nothing implies that only the will of the community is involved.

    You are right that I have expressed concern that your line of reasoning, and your definition of marriage, can be and has been used to justify sin. But I have never said that it was wrong because of this; my actual arguments against it have not depended on how it is used. Nevertheless, since such a danger is present, I think that is all the more reason to think carefully and critically about the view. God will call us into account for every word we speak, and for every stumbling block we place in the way of our brothers or sisters, even unintentionally. (Praise be to God for his grace, for we all stumble in many ways.)

    Common-law marriage is also an odd case, and not to be treated as paradigm. It is not “full marriage” even in the eyes of the law in most states. Often people who are common-law married can still get legally married. The point is that “common-law marriage” is a confused notion even in our culture, and often handled differently from state to state and community to community. It’s recognized as something a lot like a marriage, but also not entirely like a marriage, it seems. It is a manifestation of a marriage problem, not a paradigm case of a true marriage. In other words, I don’t think that considering it enlightens the current conversation.

    For the record, I’m not a teetotaler, though I was raised in a teetotaler community.

    Now my turn to psychoanalyze your position: I suspect (I could be wrong) that you have been unduly influenced by Modernist socio-political philosophy that is overly individualistic, and places too much emphasis on individual will. You accuse me of placing too much emphasis on the communal will, but it seems to me that you emphasize the individual will too much. We both acknowledge the sovereignty of God over marriage, we dispute the nature of the institution God created vis-a-vis the wider human community. I say he instituted it as a communal thing, and that it necessarily involves not only God’s will and the wills of the couple, but also the will of the relevant community. You say it only involves God’s will and the wills of the couple. I say that is a manifestation of a questionable individualism.
    So your statement that “you can either choose majority/community rules, which will tell you I’m correct in my assumption that the two are married, or you can pick spiritual law…” is a false dichotomy, because community rules can be consonant with and part of spiritual law, and because spiritual law can (and I believe in this case does) includes community-level requirements, not just individual. (This does not imply that all communities are infallible in their rules and their understandings about marriage, and anyway, for us, the church is the relevant community.)

    Well, that’s probably enough for now. Thanks for the conversation so far. Sorry for monopolizing your blog, MLA.


  24. Hi Jonathan (and with a respectful nod to MLA!)

    When I say “because of man”, what I am saying is that you seem to have an (to use fancy terms) anthro-centric view of sexuality, when any satisfactory, dogmatic statement on the subject can only be theo-centric. Without God, all we’re left with on the subject of sexuality is a lot of partial truths. That is, it’s partially about community, partially about the individual, partially about health care, etc. etc. The only whole truth that can be said on sexuality is that it is because of God the nature of God in man that any of it makes sense.

    One of the greatest failures of the Church is precisely what you consider a fault in my thinking: that of individuality. At its heart, the church is a collection of separate souls; salvation is each by each, head by head; the Lord died for each one of us individually; our lives are our own and the Lord calls us individually even as we chose him individually. By our own individuality, we glorify God within the Church; we bring out of our “wealth” (our individual salvation) the promotion of the Kingdom. It is all, without fail, individual: individual souls, individual minds, individual sins and salvations. We live or die according to our individual choices. Any valid corporate or community effort must consist of an allegiance of individuals rallying willingly around a common cause, otherwise it is a meaningless and weak corporation. This is sharply defined from antinomianism in that it is not an excuse for sin; rather, it is a rationale for free will to whatever end, sinful or righteous, it may take. I will bow to no one but God, however, God requires that I often bow to man. To not do so is at worst destructive but most often, an immature pain in the corporate butt. The only value in a corporate effort is based in the qualities of the individual members. Therefore, the corporate is always subject to the individual even to the extent that the majority, made of individuals of a common mind, rules.

    So to my statement that it is between a couple and God, which you recognize as questionable individualism: if we can be trusted to chose heaven or hell, which is the ultimate expression of individualism, why on earth would we relegate our comparatively lesser relationships to the scrutiny of man’s judgement apart from the word of God? It is God who justifies and God who condemns, not man.

    However, community and spiritual law can often be in agreement as you said, which brings me back to my original comment in my first post: if a couple are believers, and if they have the opportunity, then why would they choose to remain formally unmarried? It is the same question I would ask a person who refuses baptism, although a believer.

    Formally unmarried but committed, monogamous, and loving sexual relationship is not fornication. What it is is extremely dangerous, unsafe, and worrisome; it is operating one of the most volatile human endeavours without any kind of external safety margin. It is the Christian life without a Bible, property ownership without possession of title, and legal authority without legal strength. It is dangerous and unwarranted, it is non-committal to its spouse, and it is all the work with none of the fun. It is the precise opposite of what it claims to be, which is freedom. It is fundamentally incomplete and unstable, like weeping dynamite. It is all of these things and more and is plainly not a preferable or morally succinct situation. I have not said it is anything different or positive.

    However, it is not fornication. Perhaps it could be called porneia, a word which always seems to carry overtones of violence like my above paragraph. The difference though is as crucial as the difference between killing a person in self defence and murder.

    Not looking for the last word here, but maybe we shouldn’t continue. We’ve each said enough and have given everybody including ourselves enough to mull over.


  25. TA: agreed, we’ve probably gone as far as we can go. Perhaps there are some deeper issues of theological anthropology and and ecclesiology under our disagreement, and obviously all that’s not going to get settled now. (I seem to remember MLA writing a book that touched on these issues… hmm…) Thanks for the discussion, go in peace.


  26. I didn’t have time to read through all the comments so I apologize if this aspect of your brilliant piece was already addressed: “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.”

    As I’m sure you know, the language of “conversation” is rampant in some corridors of the church today and is actually utilized to end conversation, replacing it with a platform of “understanding” which generally eliminates the pursuit of objective truth claims. You rightly point out the flaw in this thinking and Christians would serve well to point out this false dichotomy each time it presents itself. Staking a claim to truth….saying yes or no to God…need not end the conversation, but it does frame it in a particular fashion.


  27. […] the high rate of divorce and the increase of premarital sex in the evangelical church at large (see here). We say we love Jesus; there is hardly a contemporary worship song that doesn’t have the words […]


  28. […] single members? This question, recently raised at the Q Ideas conference in April has launched an intense debate among Evangelicals. At the conference, I was one of only 34% who responded by text message […]


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