Contraception, Encouragement, and Affirmation

Last week, Matthew Lee Anderson published an article through Christianity Today arguing that Churches Shouldn’t Push Contraceptives to Their Singles. I thought the post was thoughtful and interesting, and shared it with a few friends. It helped start a couple of helpful conversations, so there was merit at least in that outcome, if not the article itself.

Late last week, Jenell Paris responded to Matt’s article, suggesting that a church that teaches both chastity and contraception was a church making a sacred compromise. She was part of the Q panel that started this whole discussion, and felt that Matt had missed out on pragmatism that the Church could benefit from.

Finally, Matt continued the conversation with two more pieces. He clarified his previous post, generally said things better, and, ultimately, was far more convincing and clear than he had initially been.

There is one concept that Paris brought up that Matt quickly brings up, but I thought was worth discussing further.

I was part of the Q panel on reducing abortion; folks working in higher education (that would be me), research, crisis pregnancy support, and adoption offered many ideas for reducing abortion. One was that churches take a both-and approach to abortion reduction: both uphold premarital chastity as the biblical ideal, and encourage and educate unmarried singles about the effective use of contraception. Encouraging, not pushing. Educating, not affirming.

It is the last bit in particular that I think is interesting: the idea that the church can encourage the use of and educate about contraception, without pushing or affirming it. Matt briefly talks about the ideas, and says:

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 itsuse, of presenting the information in ways that signal (tacitly or otherwise) approval and exhoration.

A few of the comments on that last post argued something similar. One argument for education was that we can encourage and affirm a conditional without affirming the antecedent: if you are going to have premarital sex, use contraception, but we don’t advocate having premarital sex. This is reasonable and consistent, though I think Matt offered up some thoughts. If you’re interested in that particular debate, feel free to peruse the comments section.

Another comment suggested that the whole issue is a red herring; of course education isn’t the issue, since nearly everyone old enough to have sex knows that sex can lead to pregnancy, and that contraception is one way to prevent pregnancy. Most people know that contraception is not perfect, nor is it a guarantee of avoiding pregnancy. The argument, then, should perhaps fall on what the church should talk about; should the church focus on holiness and avoiding sin, or should the church step up and help those who are partaking in sin avoid the consequences?

But all of these questions ultimately go back to this concept of encouragement or education; how does the church talk about contraception and premarital sex? Does the church talk about it at all? Should we be talking about these issues, either from the pulpit or with leaders in our churches, or should these issues be left to the home, the schools, or to some other teaching authority?

And, I think, this is the heart of the issue we’ve all been discussing. Paris seems to think that Matt’s rhetoric closes down discussion, which strikes me as odd; by posting about this in a public blog, allowing comments, and even continuing the conversation in light of other posts, he is encouraging Christians to be open and talk about these issues. It sounds like Matt, while on the one hand desiring for the church to push against advocating for contraception among singles (even something like ‘carry condoms, young men!’), he also wants this conversation to take place. The church shouldn’t be condemning without offering reason: let’s take a stance even while we present our reasons. Let’s openly speak out against actions that are problematic while we also allow space for those who act otherwise to speak up and either be corrected or reason against us.

I also don’t necessarily think it is the place of the church to be educating young singles about contraception, at least when it is understood as some sort of sex education class, taught through the church. It seems that the church should open up conversations about sex in general, though this should be focused, at least in a teaching position, on general Biblical principles for holiness, both in and out of marriage. This is already happening, at least in my experience, in a lot of churches.

The primary problem I have with the way churches currently interact with young singles who do have sex is that these people rarely feel like it is okay for them to attend the church in any open way. We have to find a way to affirm and love individuals, in spite of their choices. I don’t want to suggest we ignore their sins, the consequences of their sins, or that we somehow just ‘accept them for who they are.’ We are all sinners, and I, for one, do not want that sin in me to be accepted by my community. If the church is to function as a close community seeking after the glory of God by encouraging holiness in all of her members, then each member has to know that they will be on the one hand fully accepted and loved while on the other hand held accountable for their actions. Some of my least favorite memories are the ones that have changed me for the better: when peers or authority figures have called me out on my sin, it is difficult to describe the emotion. It never makes me comfortable, but it nearly always pushes me towards holiness.

But what is key, there, is that those people who have approached me have been those who are in close relationship with me: youth pastors, close friends, my parents. I’m not sure how to translate this to a larger church structure, but it seems that this might be the sort of relationship a pastor should seek to have with his congregation; certainly the elders should have these sorts of relationships.

How does the church, then, educate without affirming? How does the church talk about these issues? Publicly, from the pulpit, or privately, in the form of a pastor or elder talking to an individual who may be struggling with these topics? Where are the lines drawn?

I’m not sure I can answer those, but these are the questions we should be asking.

Christ Abide.

Image via Flickr.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).