If the NAE represents the church, it is treading in dangerous waters

I am loath to comment on the criticisms World Magazine has been heaping upon the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) for taking money from the pro-contraception National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, but there are a few points of contention here that are worth your attention.

For those of you not following the story, World editor Marvin Olasky, a leading Evangelical in the (compassionate) conservative movement, summarizes the story as he sees it here. Olasky writes,

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, founded in 1996, is devoted to promoting contraceptive use by the unmarried. CEO Sarah Brown clearly enunciates its mission: “Whatever the proposition on a given day, ask yourself one simple question: Does it increase women’s access to good contraceptive care? If the answer is no, oppose it!”

The annual budget of the NAE, of which several confessional Reformed denominations are a part, is approximately $1 million. That the National Campaign has given the NAE a $1 million grant is therefore as significant for the functioning of the NAE as it is noteworthy in bringing together what Olasky calls “strange bedfellows.”

The Campaign’s website describes the benefits of its NAE investment: “Through a series of papers, projects, and meetings, the NAE seeks to spark productive conversation, deliberation, and action among evangelicals regarding sexuality, healthy family formation, and abortion reduction.”

So what happened? You should really read Olasky’s entire piece, but here are the most important parts:

In April, the Relevate Group, headed by Gabe Lyons, held its Q Gathering in Washington, D.C. Young evangelicals gathered to hear speakers and panels address numerous topics, including abortion reduction. The speaker who dominated that panel was none other than the Campaign’s Sarah Brown. It turns out that the NAE paid $10,000 to Q and pushed to include Brown. Brown argued that churches should promote contraceptive use by their unmarried singles….

As the one-sided panel concluded, 372 audience members had the opportunity to answer electronically this question, “Do you believe churches should advocate contraception for their single 20-somethings?” Almost two-thirds voted yes….

News reports noted that result as evidence that the debate over contraceptive use by the unmarried is over, since even evangelicals favor it.

On the website of the NAE one finds the following statement:

Several sources have mistakenly claimed that the National Association of Evangelicals endorses or promotes the use of contraception by unmarried Christian young adults. No. NAE has never done so. NAE promotes, endorses and teaches the biblical standard of God’s gift of sex only within marriage between one man and one woman.

At the same time, in another article Olasky presents the following as part of the response of NAE President Leith Anderson to Olasky’s concerns:

“We never want to promote or condone sexual immorality,” NAE President Leith Anderson wrote in response to my questions: “But, we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.” (Olasky provides a link  to this article where one can find the fuller conversation.)

This is a fascinating story. We have a conservative Evangelical journal going after a quasi-ecclesiastical organization (i.e., an organization that represents denominations) for compromising its fidelity to biblical teaching on sexual morality in the name of a prudential effort to reduce abortion. Now for the purposes of this blog post let’s set aside all questions of whether or not handing out free contraceptives is the wisest way to reduce the prevalence of abortion. I would submit that the NAE has brought this trouble upon itself by failing to see that the purpose of an ecclesiastical organization (even a quasi- one like the NAE) is to speak the revealed truths of the word while abstaining from involvement in politics or in civic campaigns that involve prudential judgments about the application of biblical teachings in the effort to achieve particular goals of justice. Political and civic organizations may rightly reason that particular ideal ends (i.e., reducing abortion) sometimes justify unideal means (i.e., handing out contraceptives to singles), but churches have no business diluting their presentation of the word by making these sort of judgments. At the very least, asWorldpoints out, NAE ought to be providing moral clarity on this point. Given the response of the media to what NAE has been doing, whatever the NAE may claim, this clarity is not getting through.

The fact is, the best thing the church can contribute to the cultural crisis of abortion and sexual promiscuity is to speak clearly to what Scripture says about these matters, both in terms of law and of gospel. To be sure, the church sometimes needs to make public statements regarding issues of broader cultural concern. But the content of those statements still needs to be that of the word, nothing more and nothing less.

What is the nature of the crisis at hand? It’s not just about abortion. Olasky writes,

Contraception among the unmarried, sold as liberating, has created a new slavery: Many young women feel pushed into sexual activity because guys want them to do what “everyone else” is doing, purportedly risk-free. Many young evangelicals understand that contraceptive use by unmarried individuals enables sinful behavior.

In a book review in Christianity Today Sharon Hodde Miller makes a strong case for the devastation that has been brought by the sexual revolution, and the decisive role the birth control pill has played in that process.

As [Mary] Eberstadt sees it [in her book, Adam and Eve After the Pill], the contraceptive pill has launched us into a new age in which responsibility has been divorced from sex. And while it is easy to point fingers at the secular world for embracing this reproductive technology, Christians are complicit in its hold on our culture. Most Christians do not want to be told what to do with their bodies any more than non-Christians, and the Pill has made that freedom possible….

Using contraception is not a private act, nor is it a neutral one. Eberstadt’s book is Exhibit A of this reality.

Knowing this, pastors cannot address the widespread sexual brokenness in our culture simply by encouraging married sex. They must also address the ideology and theology behind the brokenness, and contraception is Ground Zero for those discussions.

If the church is to have anything at all to say to the broader cultural crisis it is to proclaim the whole truth of Scripture regarding sexuality, marriage, and care for children. To be sure, the broader society will not be able to uphold this moral standard, particularly not through government coercion. But simply hearing the truth about human beings and sexuality, loud and clear, is absolutely crucial in a world in which people are being bombarded continually with a completely contrary (and deceiving) message. Sex is not an arena of private morality. It matters for the basic health and prosperity of human society as well as for individuals, and the church needs to demonstrate why that is the case.

There is a place for governmental and civic organizations to ask the questions about what we should do when people do not live as they should, what prudential steps we should take to eliminate the worst evils, and so forth. In fact, this fits nicely into the mission of an institution like World Magazine. But it is not the job of the church. Indeed, if there was ever an illustration for the need for the two kingdoms doctrine this is it. The task of the church is to proclaim the whole counsel of God and to exhibit that counsel in the love of its members (whom it lovingly trains and disciplines). That task should never, ever be confused with the need to work out ways of restraining evil or alleviating its tragic consequences through coercive or otherwise prudential civic endeavors. The clarity of the gospel depends on it.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 3, 2012, in Abortion, Contraception, National Association of Evangelicals, Social Issues and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on If the NAE represents the church, it is treading in dangerous waters.

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