Introduction: The Strange Silence of the Pulpit About Abortion PDF Print E-mail

by Elizabeth Achtemeier

The Strange Silence of the Pulpit About Abortion (1)

There are very few preachers who are willing to discuss or even mention the subject of abortion from their pulpit these days, and that is a strange phenomenon for several reasons. First, it is strange because the topic of abortion is one of the hottest topics on our political and legislative scene. Since the decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973, over 34 million children have been forcefully removed from their mothers' wombs. Citizens have a somewhat uneasy feeling about that, wishing that they had some sort of moral and spiritual guidance on the issue. But the pulpit has largely refused to give them that guidance.

Second, the silence of the pulpit about abortion is strange because abortion is but one symptom of the increasing disregard of the value of human life in our society. Our newspapers are now full of accounts of euthanasia and assisted suicide, of medical care denied to supposedly useless elderly citizens, of robberies casually accompanied by the murder of the victim. Death claims its toll very easily these days. And yet the pulpit that is supposed to speak of a Lord of life remains largely silent.

Third, the silence of the church about abortion is strange because it is a recent phenomenon. Beginning with the Didache in the second century A.D., the church through the centuries has unanimously and unambiguously opposed the killing of unborn children. Luther, Calvin, Bonhoeffer, Barth, and Thielicke all spoke against it. (2) Indeed, a statement issued in 1856 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States summed up the consensus of all the churches:

    [We regard] the destruction by parents of their own offspring, before birth, with abhorrence, as a crime against God and against nature; and as the frequency of such murders can no longer be concealed, we hereby warn those that are guilty of this crime that, except they repent, they cannot inherit eternal life.

Protestant denominations in this country have abandoned that position only since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and it is now the fact that the majority of abortions in this country are obtained by white women under the age of 25, who have never been married and who have never had a child.

The pleading of preachers who will not mention abortion from the pulpit is that they must take pastoral concerns into account in their preaching. They know that there are women sitting out there in the pews who have had abortions or who have had to deal with abortion among their friends or relatives. The preacher does not want to upset such women, nor does he or she wish to stir up dissension among the church's members. The church has enough battles to wage without the preacher touching on such an explosive issue.

The Results of Silence
The results of the silence of the pulpit on the issue are disastrous, however. The congregation, and especially the young people among them, are given no Christian guidance about what to do should a problem pregnancy arise. The congregation's energies are enlisted in no way to aid those with problem pregnancies. And perhaps worst of all, those women who have had abortions are left with no spiritual help in dealing with their guilt.

When a woman undergoes an abortion, she is not once-for-all relieved of a burden, to resume her life as before. Research has shown that many women find themselves deeply affected emotionally and spiritually, often carrying with them a sense of regret or failure or guilt. Some suffer depression. A few become suicidal. But only six percent state that they have suffered no ill effect.

One pastor tells the true story of the woman who had an abortion, who was deeply upset by the experience, and who went to a number of psychologists and counselors to try to find peace. Finding no help, she finally turned to her pastor, who told her, "You have done wrong." Her reply to that judgment was, "That's what I wanted to hear!" At last someone had dealt with her difficulty. Rather than excusing her actions or discussing mitigating circumstances, the pastor helped her face her sin. And at that point, the forgiveness of Christ could be offered, the conscience cleansed, and healing begun. In short, at that point, the church could be the church, offering the forgiving grace of its gospel. But the preacher who will not even deal with the problem of abortion cannot, from the pulpit, offer that healing grace to women who are silently wrestling with their guilt.

Pamela Maraldo, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which is the largest abortion provider in the U.S.A., was quoted in the news as saying, "Abortion is where the rubber hits the road, the line in the sand for women to become fully equal citizens." There is something terribly wrong with that view. It implies that "liberated" women now can have the same sexual freedom granted to men, because if they become pregnant, they can simply abort the child. Women become "free" by killing their children! Such is the view of many in our society today, and to think that the pulpit has nothing to say in response to that attitude is truly mind-boggling.

Getting the Perspective Right
So what can the preacher say from the pulpit about this unsettling and difficult issue of abortion? First, it seems necessary for the preacher to set the issue of abortion in the proper context. One of the further reasons why the pulpit has ignored the issue in the last twenty years is because the debate about abortion has largely been carried on in the political and legislative spheres. Not wanting to engage in politics, the pulpit has avoided the debate.

We preach a gospel, however, that proclaims that all of human life must be seen in relation to God. We all are made in the image of God, created to have relationship with him. And no matter by what discipline we are described--psychology, economics, medicine, anthropology, history, art, science--if our relationship with God is not included in the description, we have not fully been characterized.

So it is that the question of abortion must also be debated within that context. To think that the question can be decided solely in terms of "quality of life" or "privacy of the individual" or "women's rights" or "population control" or "freedom of the individual" simply does not accord with the Christian faith. And the failure of our society to settle the issue on any one of those bases is perhaps one evidence of the truth of our faith.

In the last analysis, the question of abortion must always take God into account. How does our God-created relationship with our Maker affect our stance toward abortion? That, it seems to me, is the starting point for all discussions of the issue from the pulpit. Given the nature of God, revealed to us through the Scriptures, what can we and what should we preach about this moral issue?

The Content of Our Message
From its beginning, the church has proclaimed that God in Jesus Christ is the Creator of all life on this earth. "All things were made through him," reads the Gospel, "and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:3). We owe our existence to our God, we confess. We are the work of his hands (Ps. 138:8; 100:3). We are not chance happenings in the evolution of the universe or the products merely of human desires, but fearfully and wonderfully created by our Maker, knit together in our mothers' wombs (Ps. 139:13-14), clothed with skin and flesh, and "knit together with bones and sinews" (Job 10:11).

Because we are created by God, the church has also always proclaimed that we belong to the One who made us. "It is he that made us," we say, "and we are his" (Ps. 100:3). "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). And so no Christian can claim to belong to themselves alone, nor can they say, as the pro-abortionist says, "My body is my own." No, all that we are and have belongs to God. And so when we bring our offering, and dedicate ourselves anew to our Lord, we sing, "We give thee but thine own."

The church emphasizes that all human life belongs to God in its sacrament of baptism. When a child or an adult is baptized, we proclaim that such person is God's, his adopted child, received into his family, given the gift of his Spirit, and allowed to call him "Father" (Gal. 4:4-7). And so the church prays, "Our Father. who art in heaven." And we further proclaim that nothing in all creation, neither life nor death, can henceforth separate that child of God from his love in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:38-39).

This ownership of Gods means, then, that we are not free to be pro-choice, to do with our bodies and our lives as we alone choose. "You are not your own," writes Paul, "you were bought with a price" (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Therefore, "do not become slaves of human masters" (1 Cor. 7:23 NRSV). Our unborn children do not belong to us, to be disposed of as we will, and we are not to view them as a faithless society sometimes sees them--as hindrances, obstacles to our full enjoyment of life. No. All our children, born or unborn, belong to God who made them. We are only stewards of his wondrous gifts of life--a fact that all devout Christian parents know when they lift up their children before their heavenly Father in prayer.

It follows, therefore, that to abort an unborn child is to destroy a life that has been created and that belongs to God. It is to rob God of his possession, and thus to take to ourselves the ownership of the life that belongs to God alone.

The Question of the Beginning of Life
But, the question arises, is an unborn fetus, at whatever stage of development, a human life? And the answer is an unequivocal "yes." When a male's sperm unites with a female's egg in the mother's fallopian tube to form a zygote, there are present 46 chromosomes within the zygote that will then develop into a unique individual. And that zygote is not animal or bird, fish or inanimate object, but human--the beginning of an unrepeatable human life, created by God. The zygote that becomes the embryo that becomes the fetus that becomes the baby (all technical medical terms) may not, at an early stage, look human to us. But he or she is undeniably a human life intended by God. When conception takes place, God has stretched out his arm to make a human being, and the one question confronting us is whether we will accept the gift of human life or brush aside God's arm and refuse his gift. We are to view the human in the womb, not from our perspective but from God's.

I cannot say that my son "began" only when he was born, or that he became a person when I first felt him move in my womb, or that he was a human being only when he took on human shape within me. No. He began, by the grace of God, as soon as God granted to him his unique chromosomal inheritance. And equally, by the grace of God, he developed within me, until he came forth a miraculous gift from his Maker. From the very first moment of his conception, God created him, and then sustained him, caused him to grow, and gave him birth. And now that same God who willed him in the first place, guides and directs his life through all the coming years. Indeed, that God will not desert him even when he dies, but will receive him as his child into his eternal kingdom. God owns and cares for my child all his unborn and earthly life, and because of that, I can be a very grateful and joyful parent.

Should All Children Be Born?
Some quite dedicated Christians object to such pro-life views on the grounds of their compassion. Some children, they point out, are unwanted, abused, even starved to death, and they compassionately do not want any child to undergo such torture. And so, they say, it is better that the child is aborted before it is born into awful circumstances. Like the army general who stated that they had to destroy the Vietnam city in order to save it, these Christians believe they should kill the unborn child in order to show it mercy. Surely there is some faulty reasoning there. Worst of all, there is some refusal to take responsibility.

We live in a society in which almost all sense of community has broken down. And so the pregnant, unmarried teenager is thought to have a problem that is hers alone. Most often she is counseled to have an abortion because there is no one to help her through her pregnancy, and there is no one who will care for her and her child if she decides to bear the child to term.

Some African-American churches, however, have come up with a solution. When a young woman gets into trouble in their neighborhood and conceives a child, the church "adopts" the woman as its daughter, sees her through her pregnancy, provides for her needs, aids her in supporting herself and her child, and integrates her and her family into its fellowship. All churches need to do the same.

After all, when we sit at the Lord's table, we confess that we are all one in Jesus Christ, bound together in ties of mutual love, bearing one another's burdens, and responsible for the welfare of each of our neighbors.

It takes very little imagination on the part of a congregation to plan what it can do in relation to problem pregnancies and to organize committees to deal with them. Most women who have had abortions have said that if they knew there was someone to help them, they would never have aborted their child. And the Christian Church is called to offer that help.

Congregations can hold baby showers and set up maternity clothes closets and food pantries. They can provide guidance for schooling, jobs, and housing. They can give instruction in maternal care. They can offer supporting company and "be there" for the one in need. They can welcome the pregnant mother into their fellowship, celebrate the birth of the child when he or she is born, and try to be the kind of church that helps that mother and child and their family also to become faithful disciples of Christ.

All congregations should have connections with their local crisis pregnancy centers. All should educate themselves about abortion. And all should be carrying on a lively educational program concerned with Christian sexual morality and family life.

At the same time, churches should be aiding adoption agencies. To my knowledge, my particular denomination has only one center that aids unmarried women who choose adoption for their babies. At the same time, there are thousands of couples hoping and praying to adopt a child. The church, if it would, could relieve a lot of children of being shunted from one foster home to another.

In other words, the church should not ask, "Should this child be born?" The question, rather, should be, "What can we do to preserve and foster this life that God in Christ has created?" We are, indeed, our "brother's keeper" (Gen. 4:9), called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), and among those for whom we are responsible are the one and one-half million children who otherwise, every year, end up in plastic bags as "medical waste," to be hauled off to the incinerator.

We cannot predict the future of any child who is born. We may think some baby and mother face only the most dismal future. But that is a view which takes into account neither the continuing love and action of God in Christ nor the Christian ministry of all his followers. The church can minister, because God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has loved and acted on its behalf. The pulpit is called to prompt that ministry by its proclamation of God's loving creation and ownership of all human life.

The Rev. Elizabeth Achetemeier, Ph.D., is adjunct professor of Bible and Homiletics at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.


1. This article [will be] published in the Jan/Feb. 1996 issue of Pulpit Digest, copyright Logos Productions.

2. For a full discussion, see Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church, by Terry Schlossberg and Elizabeth Achtemeier, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995. (Book now out of print and available only through PPL. Click on the "order resources" box below).



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