Should Churches advocate contraception for their 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 “no,” whereas 66% answered “yes.” I was alarmed, quite honestly – this wasn’t the opinion of a fringe liberal group – those at the conference represented a fairly mainstream group from Evangelical churches across America.
The poll was conducted at the end of an “Abortion Reduction” panel, where startling statistics on Evangelicals’ extramarital sexual activity and abortion were discussed. According to recent statistics reported by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), 80% of unmarried Evangelicals between the ages of 18 – 29 have had sex. We are talking about not just a majority, but a large majority. Unsurprisingly, many are getting pregnant, and tragically, about 30% of those pregnancies end in abortion.
This is a huge problem that demands attention. But the issue goes much deeper than “abortion reduction.” The NAE’s campaign to reduce abortion states: “You may not know it, but abortion is in your church … and it’s time to start talking about it.” Yes, it certainly is time to talk. But shouldn’t we rewind a bit and talk about about why four out of five unmarried Evangelicals have had sex, not just what to do about the consequences?
Advocates of this “compromise,” such as Jenell Paris who was featured on the Q panel, blame the failure of the “abstinence only” message. Paris writes that churches should “[B]oth uphold premarital chastity as the biblical ideal, and encourage and educate unmarried singles about the effective use of contraception …This may sound like a compromise (it certainly does to me), but consider where years of abstinence absolutism have left us.” Clearly, with 80% of Evangelicals engaging in extramarital sex, the “just say no” approach has failed. But accommodating, and even enabling sin is no solution at all.
Teaching that extramarital sex is wrong, but then encouraging the use of contraception if one chooses to do it anyways is dangerously confusing. Such an approach essentially enables sinful actions by making them appear “consequence free.”
The “compromise” approach sets up a false dichotomy, portraying itself as the only alternative to the failed “abstinence only” approach. Evangelicals should move beyond the “just say no” approach, but not by abandoning traditional sexual teachings. Rather, the new approach should strive to portray, in positive terms, why sex is for marriage only. What is so great about the biblical plan for sex, marriage, and children?
At least a contributing factor to this issue that should be discussed, is the late marriage age. Avoiding sexual temptation and sin is a poor reason on its own for marriage, but if we truly believe marriage is God’s beautiful plan for the union of man and woman, shouldn’t it be a bit higher on our priority list? The average Evangelical couple today gets married in their mid to late twenties, after they have gone to graduate school, traveled, and established a successful career. Our priorities place education, career, and exploring the world above marriage and family. These things are not inherently bad, but emphasizing their importance over the marriage and family relationship seems problematic.
Many say it’s simply unrealistic to expect young people to tie the knot in their early twenties. A myriad of reasons for why younger marriage is impossible are offered, but the discussion is rarely pursued. I cannot launch into that discussion here, but I will suggest that our priorities may be out of line. Further, I’m skeptical that marriage and other life pursuits are as mutually exclusive as we tend to think. Speaking merely from my observations of friends and acquaintances, those who marry upon college graduation have some of the most successful and promising career prospects.
The marriage age issue is only part of a broader discussion that needs to happen among Evangelicals. Abortion within the Church is an absolute tragedy that must be dealt with. But the root issue, the 80% who are unmarried and having sex show a desperate need for Evangelical leaders to teach the true beauty and nature of sex within the marriage relationship, as procreative and unitive – not simply as something we should “just say no” to until the wedding night.