Cover Story

Still-silent shepherds

"Still-silent shepherds" Continued...

Issue: "The wonder of life," Jan. 25, 2014

Second, 25 national pro-life leaders—both evangelicals and Roman Catholics—gathered recently in Washington, D.C., in a meeting organized by National March for Life. Members of the group complained that many evangelical pastors are dropping the ball. “One of our great frustrations has been the silence of the evangelical pastors,” said Sherry Crater, coalitions liaison at the Family Research Council.

Eve Marie Barner Gleason of the evangelical umbrella group Care Net sees pastors struggling: “Many evangelical churches are supportive of local pregnancy centers. … At the same time, it can be hard getting some pastors interested, as some church leaders think ‘abortion is not an issue in their congregation’ or ‘the subject could be controversial or threatening to influential members of their congregation.’” In addition, some pastors worry that preaching on abortion might dry up collection plates.

Third, numerous evangelical leaders speak of a lingering silence. Pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul Sr.’s opinion is illustrative: “I would say things are not the same as they were [in 1994]. … I think it’s deteriorated. I think it’s worse.” Sproul’s church pickets, does crisis pregnancy work, marches, and more. He preaches and writes on the subject. A few years ago he produced materials to help pastors address abortion in their congregation: “I heard the same thing. It was like a broken record. Pastors said, ‘I can’t use this material. It’ll split our church.’”

THE GENERAL PUBLIC TODAY knows intellectually that abortion is immoral, according to an August 2013 Pew study. The study shows that just 15 percent of Americans today say abortion is moral. So why don’t pastors preach against it so as to move congregants from a head knowledge to a heart conviction? Pastors surveyed or interviewed gave WORLD reasons that could be put into four categories:

  • Preaching on the issue might discomfort church members or hurt women in congregations who’ve had abortions.
  • Preaching on the issue should not be done as a one-note tune or “hobby horse,” especially if the pastor emphasizes expository preaching.
  • Preaching on the issue might politically stigmatize the pastor or politicize the pulpit, scaring seekers off.
  • Preaching on the issue might seem uncool or anti-intellectual.

Many millennial generation pastors share this last belief. John Piper told WORLD that such younger pastors often understand pro-life issues better than their elders, having enjoyed the benefit of decades of intellectual and spiritual ferment on the matter. Some, however, worry of being typecast as a 1980s picketer or rescuer, or as a far-right, unloving loon. “There are a lot of … courageous younger pastors who don’t have any problem,” Piper said. “On the other hand, a lot of younger pastors don’t like seeming uncool.”

LAMPOONED: Jerry Falwell (left) talks with a pro-life protester as they picket outside the Margaret Sanger center in Cincinnati in 1986.
Associated Press/Photo by Al Behrman
LAMPOONED: Jerry Falwell (left) talks with a pro-life protester as they picket outside the Margaret Sanger center in Cincinnati in 1986.
In the 1980s Francis Schaeffer and J. Everett Koop spoke out, as did oft-lampooned Jerry Falwell. National media and some fellow evangelicals stigmatized them and other evangelical leaders who proclaimed what was then a more unpopular truth. Nevertheless, those leaders moved the awareness meter, as did Catholics like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.

Some interviewed by WORLD agreed no such pastor/leader exists today when it comes to championing the abortion issue. At age 46, Mark Davis, senior pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church, recalls those men facing harsh criticism from many who had no stomach or understanding regarding abortion. Today, Davis says, “a combination of factors” pushes pastors to be more “incarnational than confrontational. … On the negative side, there is the fear of man, and the fear of being associated with certain men or certain ‘types’ of preachers. On the other side, there is a generation of pastors who have been trained to be a little more patient and to show kindness that wasn’t there before. There is good in that.”

While Davis’ church nurtures cutting-edge compassion ministries that are rarely confrontational, he also preaches about abortion. His members don’t wince, some post-abortive women thank him, and opportunities open for new ministry.

For Davis, preaching on abortion is a matter of creating a church culture in which members count on their pastor not to hedge on biblical issues but also not to beat them up: “We want to practice truth and trust. We never want to compromise the truth of what we believe; if we do, we compromise trust.”

Davis teaches about abortion without getting into political matters, and that’s a crucial distinction. Recent intimidation of some conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service causes some pastoral concern, as Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defending Freedom notes: “The IRS has done a lot through the years to create ambiguity in the law regarding what speech by pastors is prohibited and what speech is permitted. … There is a false perception that any issue society labels as ‘political’ is somehow off-limits and unlawful for churches.” Stanley notes that pastors are legally safe as long as they don’t endorse a candidate.


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