It's a new season.
As spring turned to summer, WORLD on June 21 broke the news that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) had received $1 million over several years from the National Campaign for the Prevention of Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTUP). That organization promotes contraceptives for the unmarried. Many evangelicals had heatstroke.
NAE reacted at the end of June by flashing on the home page of its website two questions and answers: "Does NAE promote biblical sex in biblical marriage? Yes. Has NAE endorsed contraception for unmarried Christians? No." But the real question was whether NAE was helping NCPTUP promote its unbiblical message-and whether NAE, which has an annual budget of only $1 million, was asking NCPTUP for new money.
On June 15 NCPTUP chief program officer Bill Albert had written to me that NAE and NCPTUP were discussing a second grant: "The second award is still under negotiation and has not been finalized." The goal of the second award would be "to continue the work started under the previous grant." Albert added on July 9, regarding the NAE grant, "Funding has been extended through the end of the year."
But NAE has received a lot of summer heat from individuals and denominational leaders. On July 10 NAE vice-chairman David Neff told me flatly, "We are not applying for another grant." (Neff is also editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.) NAE's "Generation Forum" project, funded by NCPTUP, will close down later this year.
It will be important to watch whether future NAE-sponsored events include NCPTUP speakers, as did a Los Angeles gathering in 2010 and the Christian Student Leadership Conference in 2011. It will be an improvement if future NAE announcements, publications, and videos stop echoing NCPTUP's failure to distinguish between married and unmarried contraceptive use. (See the "Generation Forum" video below and the Spring 2012 issue of NAE Insight for examples of such lumping.)
NAE President Leith Anderson's seven-paragraph June written response to WORLD, all of which is online at worldmag.com, included these two sentences: "Evangelicals are conflicted about contraceptives outside of marriage because we never want to promote or condone sexual immorality. But we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions."
The "but" is key: Should evangelicals accept the NCPTUP notion that to reduce abortion we should promote unmarried contraceptive use? Pastors writing to WORLD in late June and early July overwhelmingly said no to adultery. They proposed five alternatives.
• FIRST, many said we should fight the recent tendency to marry later. (Since 1971 the median age for first marriages has jumped from 23 to 28 for men and from 21 to 26 for women.) Paul Mulner of Winston-Salem, N.C., wrote, "I have counseled certain young people to get married sooner than they had planned. I am opposed to the practice of long engagements and I let our young people (and their parents) know that."
That advice reflects what Paul told Corinthians: "If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:9). This was in line with common Jewish practice of the time, as later recorded in the Talmud: One sage, Rav Huna, said, "He who is 20 years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin."
Pastors' comments to WORLD also match up with what University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus has found: "Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed." That's a problem, because marriage pushes men and women to maturity, and late marriage means extended adolescence for millions.
Others mature without marriage, but for many single men this crucial developmental delay underlies both sexual recklessness and job fecklessness: Earnings for men between the ages of 25 and 34 have fallen by a fifth in the past 40 years, accounting for inflation. The change also contributes to abortion and poverty among single moms: Many unmarried women, competing for eligible men, feel the need to be sexually available. Parents of both men and women are complicit, because they often urge children to have a firm career foothold before considering marriage.
• SECOND, we should show the consequences of sin: John Piper in Minneapolis wrote that promoting contraceptive use is "opposite from Jesus' approach. Instead of suggesting a way to soften the impact of sinning he intensified it." Piper cited Matthew 5:27-30 and Galatians 6:7 ("God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap"), then concluded: "Abortion is caused by illicit sex the way stealing is caused by unemployment. We don't give the unemployed person money so he won't steal. We help him see that work is better, and then help him find it."
• THIRD, along the lines of helping young Christians see what's good, Mike Singenstreu of Victoria, Texas, wrote that our churches should "promote integration of ages so they hear these messages from other adults." This also goes with what Regnerus has found sociologically: "Weddings may be beautiful, but marriages become beautiful. Personal storytelling and testimonies can work wonders here, since so much about life is learned behavior."
Worldmag.com is beginning a series of profiles of couples married for at least 35 years. It's important for 20-somethings to see the positive side of earlier marriages to which Proverbs 5:18 alludes: "Let your foundation be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth." As Regnerus writes, "Young adults want to know that it's possible for two fellow believers to stay happy together for a lifetime, and they need to hear how the generations preceding them did it."
• FOURTH, Tim Keller in New York City preached in May about how we should foster covenant rather than consumer relationships. He pointed out that living together outside of marriage is not a trusting and giving relationship, but a consumer one in which those thinking about possible marriage market themselves to others. For this reason, it's not surprising that those who cohabit and eventually marry are more likely to divorce than those who did not cohabit: The former often become accustomed to thinking like consumers.
Keller noted that rapturous passages about sex in the Bible show it's supposed to be about giving and not just receiving-but sex outside of marriage is typically selfish, because one or both partners requires sex in order to keep the relationship going. Keller called sexual preoccupation a form of idolatry: Instead of thinking that we cannot be whole people and happy without sex, we should realize that the only Person we really can't live without is God.
• FIFTH, Eric Olson of Omaha, Neb., noted that the selling of extramarital sex is not new: "Just a couple of weeks ago, when preaching in ... Judges 2:6-3:6 on the proclivity of the children of Israel to forsake Yahweh for the Baals and Ashteroths and 'play the harlot,' we studied the history of the fertility cults and what orgies they promoted, committing fornication with a temple prostitute every time they brought a sacrifice. We suggested that the sexual appetite was a big part of the draw to the pagan fertility cults." It's a big part today as well.
• OTHER pastors also noted the concern that some contraceptives, by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg, produce early abortions. All recognized that the problem of extramarital sex is not going away. We've heard for a decade about the 10-40 window for evangelism, but the biggest open window domestically is the 10-30 window regarding sex, with puberty coming earlier and marriage later. We live in a highly sexualized culture where it's hard to surf the web, watch television, or drive past billboards without seeing appeals to adultery.
Some pastors mentioned that True Love Waits and other abstinence programs have succeeded in pushing back the age when sexual relations commence, but they apparently have had little effect on individuals in their 20s. Pastors recognized the temptations to adultery that plague many young adults, but saw passages like that of James 1:2-4 vital for just such a time: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
My takeaway: When we face difficult problems, we can choose to follow the world's prescription, or God's. If the NAE speaks with worldly wisdom in the name of evangelicals, it undermines pastors, parents, and young adults striving to do what's right. The Holy Spirit is real and can change people: Giving in to the contraceptive lobby is like saying the Holy Spirit is powerless to help us obey God.
The signs of an NAE summer change are welcome. When the NAE board of directors meets this fall, evangelicals will be watching. For example, the general assembly of one NAE member, the Presbyterian Church in America, has resolved to monitor NAE doings and then decide whether to stay in or leave.
The PCA is not the only group on alert. The Institute on Religion and Democracy has criticized what it calls the NAE's "leftward drift" over the past six years. It has critiqued NAE leaders who have advocated job-killing regulations to try to fight global warming, worked to shield entitlement programs from reductions in projected spending growth, or hinted at support for unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Those may or may not be good proposals, but the Bible does not clearly state what our position on these issues should be. On the issue of unmarried sex, though, the Bible could not be clearer: Do not.
Some organizations with Washington, D.C.-area offices fuzz the basics as they start opining about all kinds of policy matters. Many are like Sir Brian Botany in the wonderful poem by A.A. Milne, which describes a man full of himself: "Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on. / He went among the villagers and blipped them on the head. / On Wednesday and on Saturday, / Especially on the latter day, / He called on all the cottages and this is what he said: 'I am Sir Brian!' (Ting-ling!) / 'I am Sir Brian!' (Rat-tat!) / 'I am Sir Brian, / 'As bold as a lion! / 'Take that, and that, and that!'"
But here's a spoiler alert: The villagers finally have enough of Sir Brian. He gets his comeuppance and the poem concludes: "Sir Brian struggled home again and chopped up his battleaxe. / Sir Brian took his fighting boots and threw them in the fire. / He is quite a different person / Now he hasn't got his spurs on, / And he goes about the village as B. Botany, Esquire. / 'I am Sir Brian? Oh, no! / 'I am Sir Brian? Who's he? / 'I haven't any title, I'm Botany; / 'Plain Mr. Botany (B.)'"
A plain NAE can be of great use in representing evangelicals by standing for religious liberty amid what looks increasingly like the "crooked and twisted generation" described in Philippians 2:15. Now that the NAE's Generation Forum, paid for by NCPTUP, is on the way out, an NAE that will "shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life" would be wonderful to see.