Many churches across the country recognize tomorrow as Sanctity of Life Sunday, an annual observance tied to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, with pastors and churches turning their attention to issues related to abortion and euthanasia.
But is one Sunday a year enough? Should churches be actively engaged year-round in the fight both inside and outside church walls? Some evangelical pastors choose not to tread on this topic at all (see “Still-silent shepherds” by Joe Maxwell and Steve Hall from the current issue of WORLD magazine).
In our efforts to present biblical truth in our news coverage, WORLD often has deep disagreements with those in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but we do find common ground on life issues with Marie Bowen, an elder in the PCUSA and the executive director of Presbyterians Pro-Life. PPL, a ministry for all Presbyterian and Reformed churches, addresses head-on issues related to pregnancy while encouraging churches to step up their efforts in the battle against the culture of death.
In an article originally posted at the PPL website and adapted here with permission, Marie describes the church’s response and responsibility, to mothers and their babies, and to our God, the Owner of human life and our sovereign Provider. —Mickey McLean
How should the Christian Church respond to the culture of death?
On Wednesday, thousands will gather for the 41st time in Washington, D.C., as an expression of objection to the legalization of abortion and to commemorate the tiny and precious lives of 55 million babies aborted.
The tragic loss of life due to abortion is staggering. The 55 million babies lost to surgical abortions in America since Roe v. Wade is just the beginning. No one knows how many chemical abortions add to that number, thanks to drugs such as RU-486 and the “morning-after pill”—now available over the counter even to 11- and 12-year-old girls. Globally, the number of babies destroyed by abortion is estimated to be 120 million every year. No one can calculate the loss of God’s intended blessing to the world through those aborted babies. No one can measure losing the gifts God planned to birth through the offspring of each of those individual lives.
Gratefully, euthanasia remains illegal in all of the United States, but four states (Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont) have legalized “physician aid in dying” (PAD) or “assisted suicide.” With PAD, a doctor or other third party administers the dose. With assisted suicide, the patient self-administers the deadly chemical. In Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal for 10 years, the number of persons choosing death has grown steadily each year, reaching 77 in 2012. One study reports that 3.7 percent of physicians admitted to performing euthanasia while 10.8 percent had performed physician-assisted suicide. Like me, you probably have heard stories from individuals who have given a little extra pain medication to a loved one to speed the end of their suffering. Whether legal or illegal, hastening the death of any person inside or outside of the womb is to assert our own wisdom above that of God’s. Only God has appointed to each of us a time of natural death (Hebrews 9:27).
Abortion and euthanasia and many other threats to human life deny God’s ownership over that life. We bear the imago Dei—the image of God—and we are owned by God (Genesis 1:26-27). We are His. We enjoy a rich relational status with God that abortion destroys. Both abortion and euthanasia (or assisted suicide) take something that belongs to God—a living person who bears God’s own image—and literally relegates him or her to the trash. When we choose death for another human being we take in our own hands a dominion we are not given. It is a theft and a violence against God. But making a statement against abortion, although important, is not enough. The church must extend compassionate care.
The church has a responsibility to care for a woman and her child in unplanned pregnancy
When a woman finds herself pregnant at a time that seems inconvenient to her, the messages she hears are amplified by her own feelings. She may be married or unmarried but lack support from the father of the child to carry the pregnancy to term. If she is young, her parents, friends, teachers, and counselors may urge her to choose abortion. She may feel inadequate to support or parent her child, have no idea where to turn for help or how to make a plan for adoption, or not have the financial resources for proper medical attention, let alone a means of providing for a child. She may hear abortion is her “right” and is “safe, quick, and easy,” and she will be “rid of this problem” and be able to “go on with her life.”
Even if she is connected to a church, she may hear nothing but silence from the pulpit. She may read no information in congregational communications that provides wisdom in decision-making or expresses God’s care for widows and orphans. There may be no visible caring and compassionate ministry to encourage her or give her confidence that the church will provide emotional and material support for her and her child.
How are Reformed and Presbyterian churches responding to abortion?
The Catholic Church has been a strong and public voice speaking against abortion and has taken the lead in many communities to provide pregnancy care, adoption assistance, and meeting basic human needs. Several Protestant denominations have joined them in these efforts, though perhaps with a less public voice. Presbyterian and Reformed denominations are pro-life, with one notable exception, but are lack engagement in the political arena to change government policy on abortion.
Sadly the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which I am a member and the denomination that birthed the Presbyterians Pro-Life organization, has taken a political, “pro-choice” position on abortion. Its policy document states that women alone should decide whether they should carry a pregnancy to term. The PCUSA reasons that she alone knows her circumstances, she alone can assess her own strength and resources. Women in the PCUSA have lost the spiritual guidance of our church on this issue. We are alone, unsupported in any pregnancy decision except abortion. If our nation is guilty, and it is, how much more weighty is the guilt of the church when it condones and defends the deadly injustice of this crime against our tiniest brothers and sisters in the human family?
Many other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations are virtually silent about abortion, preferring to avoid controversy that brings contentious political debate inside the walls of their churches.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has been bold in voicing opposition to the healthcare reform mandate to provide abortifacient drugs, declaring it will not provide abortion coverage in its health plan nor cover any drugs that would cause abortion. Last June, the EPC edited its position paper that reinforces its strong stand against abortion.
The Presbyterian Church in America has a reputation for being highly engaged in pregnancy care. Virtually every church in the denomination is associated with a pregnancy care center in its community. But on the political front, the PCA is mostly silent.
There are many other Presbyterian denominations in the United States, and likely they are spread across the above-mentioned range of positions and engagement regarding abortion.
What is lost when the church fails to stand against abortion?
Lost is any stated caution from the church about God’s prohibition against taking human life. Lost is pastoral encouragement that we can trust God and know He will be enough for us now and in the future. Lost is the teaching that God has created the child in the womb. Lost is the warning that when we take the life of an unborn child we thwart the plan of God to bring blessing through the life of that child. Lost too is the promise of the church that the community of faith will rally round us and walk with us through the difficulties of pregnancy and the daunting task of parenting for the long term.
When we devalue the life of an unborn child, we devalue every human life. At the moment of fertilization, when the egg from the mother and the sperm from the father unite, God forms a new human being in that instant—a new person with a genetic identity different from either the mother or father. From infinite possible combinations He forms a male or female like no other. God means for that new person to grow and develop with a unique personality and giftedness. When we refuse God’s gift by aborting a life He has created, we indicate that not all lives have value—not every human being deserves to live. It is as though we say to one another, “If you are not perfect, if you are not convenient, if I do not want you, then you have no right to live.”
The late Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier, theologian and longtime professor at Union Seminary, wrote of abortion’s denial of the doctrine of redemption—that having been redeemed we are no longer our own but belong to God:
“But now, you see, the abortion forces in the church are whispering, ‘Don’t believe a word of it. You belong to yourself, and your body is yours alone. You can do what you like with that child you carry in your womb.’ Oh no, good Christians, abortion is not a fringe issue. It has to do with the heart of our faith—with the Christian doctrine of redemption by the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“In short, abortion has to do with the lordship of Jesus Christ and with everything we say about the nature of Christ’s lordly rule. Abortion says that Christ was wrong when He commanded, ‘Do not kill’ [Mark 10:19]. Abortion says that we can make up our own rules for our sinful selves, and totally ignore the fact that apart from Christ, we can do nothing, except wither and dry up like branches that are good only to be tossed into a fire [John 15:5-6]. Abortion says that Christ is not Lord, but rather that we are our own lords instead. And so abortion argues against and denies the church’s earliest, central, most enduring confession, that Jesus Christ alone is Lord over all in heaven and on earth.”
Dr. Achtemeier perceived abortion as a great threat, not only to the life of the child lost, but also to the integrity of our Christian faith:
“We need to say in our congregations, ‘Look, friends, there is a movement afoot in our churches—a pro-abortion movement—that is a denial of everything we believe in our Christian faith. It is as serious a threat to the Christian Church as is atheism or idolatry. Indeed, it is a form of both of those evils, and we need to think through the theological issues involved in abortion and take our stand and speak out.”
Christianity is the answer to the culture of death
Inside and outside the womb—God knows us, God sees us, God has purposes for our lives. The Bible stories of women who are pregnant teach us that God can be trusted to fulfill His promises—even when we are unfaithful. While those condoning abortion deny God is able to see and know both woman and child and provide for both of them in difficult circumstances, the Christian Church has believed for centuries that God can be trusted to sustain and care for her and for her unborn child.
The Christian Church was first to save abandoned infants in Rome and has always led in protecting orphans and the vulnerable. Such care naturally flows from our understanding of the sovereign provision of God and His great love for us.
The church holds a view of pregnancy fundamentally different from that of current culture. Those wanting to keep abortion legal often view an unplanned pregnancy as “punishment,” while the church adheres to the biblical view of children as a gift from God.
“Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3, NKJV).
The Christian understanding, that every life has value to God and that God compels us to care for the most vulnerable among us, has fueled centuries of compassionate care for orphans, widows, and the poor (Matthew 25:40; James 1:27). Not every pregnancy in Scripture took place in ideal circumstances, but every child in the Bible is received as a gift from God. So how should Christians today make choices regarding abortion? Are the feelings, circumstances, and plans of the woman of first importance? Should we devalue what God has created in the womb because he or she may not be “perfect” in our eyes? Dare we speak as God and say, “It would be better if this child were never born?”
No! Each living human being is unique and different from any other, and God creates him or her. She is given to us as a gift. He is made by God to bless the world in ways we cannot see. Our lives will be touched and changed and blessed as we welcome each child into our community of faith. Dare to trust God. Make Scripture our primary source of wisdom for decision-making and relish the joy of God’s gift to us in children.
The Christian Church is in a fierce spiritual battle for the imago Dei—the image of God. A child is hidden for nine months in the womb—but also sanctified in the womb by the Lord Jesus Christ, who came as an embryo to identify with humankind so that each tiny child might reflect Christ’s glory to the world.