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Q & R: Abortion and the Bible

Here's the Q:

Brian, I just found (for the first time) the "Can We Talk" item you had published in Sojourners in March 2010. Okay, call me slow!

It made me think of a question that I've always wanted to ask you. As you probably realize, your ecclesiastical background is not radically different from mine. The Brethren are not all that different from the independent Christian churches or the Disciples of Christ denomination (which were not yet completely distinct from each other when I was a boy). Yet your church background seems to have taught you that there is something morally wrong about abortion, and mine was completely silent on the subject.

As a consequence, I came to adulthood without the prejudice that abortion is necessarily wrong. Naturally, I have since then come in contact with people who sincerely believe that you can't be a Christian unless you're solidly against abortion. Why? I have searched the Bible for any reference that supports that position, and I can't find any that really matter. Most of the arguments I've seen for their position are akin to reading Matthew 8:22 and coming away with the theological certainty that it is antichristian to bury dead people -- we should simply go to church instead, and let the dead people bury themselves.

But what I'm most curious about is not why they believe what they believe -- though that does make me wonder -- but why it is that I have never seen a reasoned discourse on this topic among Christians who can agree on such basics as that the Bible is authoritative. This is truly amazing to me. I am simply not used to people holding rigid positions yet not attempting to justify them in print. Contrast this with the issue of drinking alcoholic beverages. Back in the 70s, there was a writer named Knoffel Staton who frequently published in the Christian Standard. I still remember one impassioned explanation from him as to why it is wrong to imbibe. And, of course, I remember exactly why I completely ignored his essay -- he played fast and loose with scripture, contorting what he did cite and ignoring a multitude of passages that disagreed with him.

The topic of abortion touches such a sensitive nerve with so many people, that I honestly don't think there are many who could even conceive of the idea of having an unbiased discussion in which the participants jointly searched the scriptures in a serious and unprejudiced effort simply to find out what (if anything) the Bible says on the topic. And I very much want to understand why that is. When I read the New Testament and consider the things that Jesus actually did say, I see that He talked about things that most churches never explicitly talk about (which is why I keep buying copies of your "Secret Message of Jesus" to give away to anybody who looks willing to read a book). It seems obvious to me that the Church ought to take its priorities from the priorities of Jesus. He never said one word about abortion, yet the Church says a lot of words about it. He did say a lot of words about the Kingdom, yet the Church has very little to say about it in any way that could be recognized as what Jesus was talking about.

I know you're busy and may not have time to respond directly on this. But if it stimulates a thought that you choose to write publicly about, I would be most interested to read your thoughts.

Here's the R:


Thanks for your question. I agree - it's surprising how little civil, reasoned, biblically-rooted dialogue is available in print ... or online, or in real life ... where various positions make their case, respond to one another respectfully, etc. I think there's more mature dialogue on sexual orientation than on abortion in this regard, although there's no shortage of hostile, uncivil rhetoric on that subject too.

One reason, I imagine, is that this issue became a political wedge issue first ... a subject people like Frank Schaeffer, Colonel Donor, and Randall Balmer have written about helpfully. Nearly all the energy was focused on using the issue to solidify voting blocks - not on exploring the issue honestly and reasonably in light of Scripture and tradition. (I'm sure there are some books out there that sought to do this, but they didn't get center stage.)

Underneath the political surface, I think abortion became a battleground (for some people, not all) in the deeper social struggle over patriarchy. As patriarchy gave way to more democratic, egalitarian social relationships in home, church, and society at large, some advocates of feminism had much to gain by making the issue a battle over the rights of individual women to make decisions about their own bodies, struggling against the rights of powerful men to make decisions about women's bodies. Traditional Christian religious bodies (speaking of bodies), always led exclusively by men until very recently, tended to respond to this struggle as an attack on their own right to exist as they always had - with men in control. The issue couldn't be discussed without calling into question the whole authority structure of their communities, and thus nobody could pretend to be a disinterested, objective participant.

And there's the larger historical framework as well ... that conservative/fundamentalist Christians (especially in the South) had "lost" a series of battles (evolution, segregation) and wanted to stop the erosion of their power. When Protestant fundamentalists and conservative Catholics created an alliance on the issue, it was a pivotal moment.

Meanwhile, many people don't fit in any of these dualistic rivalries. Some are progressive on feminism and gay issues, for example, but not pro-abortion. To add to the complexity, many people are personally against abortion (meaning they wouldn't choose it if they were a contributor to an unplanned pregnancy) but also against imposing their personal view on others through legislation. They find the pro-life versus pro-abortion framing of the argument inherently unfair, because they consider themselves both pro-life and pro-choice.

Relatively few people are in a position to talk about abortion as a theological and biblical question without having to worry about the consequences, meaning where their views would locate them in political, social, and even economic struggles.

I'm sure you know all this already. I should say that I grew up in a church where abortion was never mentioned. We focused on heaven, hell, sin, atonement, worship, repentance, witnessing, the end times, and doctrinal disputes of the 18th century ... abortion was a political issue (not spiritual), and it was a Catholic issue (not - as we would have said it [!] - Christian). I never even knew what abortion was until I was in high school and had to write a report on it for an ethics project in a philosophy course - taught by a former Catholic priest. Everything I found in my research (as I recall - this was about 1973-1974) was written by Catholic ethicists.

Later, when I had become a committed Christian myself (beyond simply being born into a Christian tradition), and when the religious right began forming, I started hearing about it and felt embarrassed that I didn't already have a lot of understanding on the subject. I guess I just assumed that since Francis Schaeffer was against it, I should be. The Biblical passage that was used to condemn abortion was Psalm 139:13-18. It was always presented as an open and shut case - proving that life begins at conception, etc. (By the way - we never talked about the next passage, Psalm 139:19-22, which seems to have had an equal influence in the tone of the discussion!)

I never found those verses to be as convincing as my friends seemed to, but my "gut" said that abortion wasn't something I wanted to defend. Neither was it something I wanted to elevate to the single litmus test for orthodoxy and the single issue for voting, etc. So I didn't fit in with either pole of the "liberal" or "conservative" continuum.

The only place I've written about my views on abortion was near the end of Everything Must Change. I was always a little surprised that that chapter didn't get more attention than it did ... but I shouldn't have been surprised since it didn't fit neatly into the political, social, and religious dualisms that have been so dominant.

The subject deserves the kind of dialogue you suggest. But if people approach the subject with a dualist/win-lose/us-them mindset, the outcomes will be very predictable.

To get beyond that mindset, participants would have to break the big subject down into smaller questions ... i.e. addressing "What does the Bible say directly about abortion?" and then "What does the Bible say indirectly about abortion?" and then "What does the Bible say about morality and legality?"

All of this would soon get us into some deeper conversations like, "What does the Bible say about democracy and democratic processes?" As we both know, those discussions would quickly force us deeper still, to ask questions about how the Bible is supposed to exert authority - the kinds of questions I grappled with in A New Kind of Christian and A New Kind of Christianity.

My guess is that until we have those deeper conversations, the other ones won't be very productive. And unproductive controversies are a subject about which the Bible has a lot to say, by the way! (See, for example, 2 Timothy 2)

By the way, Protestants (who emphasize the Bible) and Roman Catholics (who emphasize the magisterium and things like natural law) tend to approach these matters quite differently. And in recent years, under the rubric of "conservatism," many Protestants have become much more Roman Catholic in their reasoning, I've noticed. It's important to remember that even when we come to a table of conversation as individuals, we tend to bring our communities with us, and so the table gets very crowded very fast!

All of this reminds me why the word "conversation" has been so important to so many of us in recent years ... conversation suggests there's more to do than square off in opposing camps and lob verses versus one another. Thank God for cohorts and communities where the kinds of honest, respectful conversations we need can happen - whether online or around a dinner table or in a classroom or around a campfire or along a trail or wherever. You would be an excellent person to convene such a conversation and guide it in fruitful, productive paths. Well, I've rambled on and on ... but hopefully there will be something of value in all of this. We have a long way to go!