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

April 30th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.