The Issue: At the recent Christian conference Q, a panel discussion on the best ways to reduce abortions in the church suggested that churches should advocate for contraceptives for the single people in their midst. An instant poll of the attendees on the question, "Do you believe churches should advocate contraception for their single twentysomethings?" found that upward of 60 percent of the attendees responded in the affirmative.
Position #1 - On Christianity Today's website, Matthew Lee Anderson---author of Earthen Vessels---argues that while reducing abortion is a noble goal, pushing contraceptives on unmarried people is the wrong approach:
In encouraging our single people who are sexually active to pursue contraception, we offer them a technological remedy to what is functionally a discipleship and community shortcoming. At its heart, this is little more than a tacit rejection of the power of the gospel to transform lives and bring people to a repentance that is genuine and genuinely holistic. Rather than building them up to maturity in Christ, the decision to pursue contraception so as to continue to be sexually active only reinforces their infantile faith.
In Romans 3:8, Paul establishes a standard that we ought not do evil in order to bring about good. Sin must be taken out at their root, and part of the reason why we fail in our sexual lives is that we have not yet seen that because of the indwelling Spirit resistance is no longer futile. The fellow who buys a condom or the woman who takes the pill does so for a specific reason: they do not trust themselves to remain chaste when presented with the opportunity. They presumably have good reason for their doubt, if they have failed in the past. But the purchase of contraception reinforces their self-perception of their own captivity to their sexual desires and their own inability to remain continent. Rather than fleeing temptations, the purchase of contraception engenders the conditions where such temptations can be enjoyed without the distinct and difficult (though always welcome, and potentially redemptive) effect of procreation. Contraceptives, in other words, among the sexually active can tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Position #2 -- Jenell Paris, author of The End of Sexual Identity, was on the Q abortion panel. She responds to Anderson in an article on CT's website:
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.
Early in our marriage, when James and I worked in urban ministry together, I wondered whether our efforts made any difference at all. Even after years in our church and ministry, girls still got pregnant, and boys still went to jail. "True," James said, "but maybe they'll be better teen moms than they otherwise would have been." My either-or mentality cast chastity as the ideal, and premarital sex as failure. James reminded me that compromise can be sacred, even purifying us of our illusions of controlling others through well-intended religious influence.
Follow-up Response to #2: On his blog, Mere Orthodoxy, Anderson responds to Paris:
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.
Scoring the Debate: In her recent book (which was favorably reviewed here on TGC), Paris says, "I'm a 'sex only within marriage between a man and a woman' kind of Christian." Unfortunately, such a standard is undermined by her willingness to "compromise" in order to protect those who do not wish to give up their sexual sins. While Paris' argument appears well-meaning and compassionate, she relies on a worldly pragmatism that sabotages our Gospel witness. Anderson's response provides a strong, Biblically based rationale for why we should not make excuses for behavior that falls short of God's standards. [Full disclosure: Anderson is a close personal friend.]
Anderson is right to challenge the reigning paradigm of pragmatism. The consistent and loving message of our churches should be that when it comes to sin, we can forgive but not accommodate. There can be no "sacred compromise" that involved recommending condoms for single Christians. When it comes to pre-marital sex, the only true prophylactic against the unwanted consequences sin is the grace of Jesus.
Related on TGC: Trevin Wax, "Both Chastity and Contraception: A Scandalous Capitulation"