Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Last week I sat down with a pastor who wanted to know what to do in response to abortion. As we moved onto our second coffee, amongst all the excellent questions he posed about how to speak and act inside and outside the church came this one, framed negatively: How should we not do it?
At this point I mentioned what seems to be many UK pastors’ number one reason for saying or doing not very much about abortion:
We don’t want to do this “the American way”.
Though suffering from a lack of definition, I think we all understand (talk about “unconscious bias”!) what is suggested by “the American way”. The fear is that to make a big deal of abortion would be to make God out to be a Republican, and Donald Trump his final prophet. The tone will be “shouty” and “unnuanced”, and the application points will include things such as shooting your local abortionist or wagging a finger at women who’ve had abortions. Perhaps a hatred of women in general will be encouraged too, because, as we all know, Trump is certified misogynist.
It’s not a look most UK pastors are going for.
To his great credit, my pastor friend immediately volunteered that it was precisely this (minus perhaps my elaboration) that had held him back thus far. It was a confession, not a defense. He genuinely wants to move forward now and make it right.
There are many out there, like my pastor friend, who have somehow fallen under this impression (I wonder who’s been whispering in their ear) that there really are only these two options: “American” or “nothing”. But they know that they cannot do nothing: love for the babies, the women, our nation, God’s word, compel them. At the same time, the Lord’s renown is precious to them too, and the last thing they’d ever want to do is misrepresent Christ or sully his gospel, which they fear “the American way” would. And so they feel stuck. But they are not content. They want to find a way through. This is for them.
I must restrain myself – purely because of space – from defending my brothers and sisters across the Atlantic from a stereotype which is itself unnuanced and judgmental, evidentially unwarranted, little more than a racist slur. There are many pastors on that side of the pond who don’t do it “the American way” (John Piper, for example) – but don’t expect that to get through our double mainstream (even Christian) media lens unfiltered.
I will also have to leave for another day the very important question of Christian engagement in politics. I am certainly not trying to argue here or anywhere that Christians should stay out of these things.
All I am seeking to do here is to encourage you that when it comes to preaching on abortion, “the American way” and “nothing” are not your only two options. There’s a third way.
You can preach on abortion without the MAGA hat.
1) Start with the gospel
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a great leveller. Not only does it humble the proud and lift up the lowly, declaring that all of us are sinners in need of a Saviour: it cuts across the ethnic, social, “us and them” divides that we human beings like to construct.
I am not saying that political stances are immaterial. Some of them are deeply moral and there are certainly moments in history and around the world where it seems that the Christian must take a particular side (consider Bonhoeffer, the German Church, and the Nazi Party). But these are conclusions rather than starting-points, and they are subordinate to the most pressing question facing every man and woman on the planet.
The crucial distinction between all people everywhere is not Republican or Democrat, nor even “pro-life” or “pro-choice”: it’s that there are sinners who’ve bowed the knee to Jesus and received his forgiveness as a gift, and there are sinners who haven’t yet.
If someone of a different political leaning or position on abortion comes into my church, I want to be sure that they hear the gospel first and foremost, loud and clear, and that any ethical applications are built on and from that, nothing else.
Look at it another way: I could have a church that agrees with me morally and politically – but for the wrong reasons. It could just be fear of the tribe that got them there. Moreover, some of them might not even be saved.
So for the salvation of my hearers, but also to make sure that any ethic taught is a truly Christian ethic, I must start with the gospel. The gospel must continually form, inform, reform all our thinking and acting.
There is also this colossal reality that cannot be ignored: 1 in 3 women has at least one abortion by the age of 45, and it’s not that different in our churches. If I don’t make sure these post-abortive mothers (and fathers) in my congregation know that, contrary to their fears, abortion is not the unforgivable sin, that Christ’s mercy is vast enough for them, I am not doing my job.
I am also not doing my job if I say nothing about abortion, because it is precisely the silence around abortion that makes so many feel that what they’ve done is unforgivable, because their pastors can’t even mention the word.
2) Lead with the facts
You don’t need me to tell you that abortion is an emotive issue. It can be tempting to dive in with (often justified) feelings, opinions, judgments. Can I encourage you instead to allow the facts to do most of the talking for you.
The humanity of the unborn child is the absolute crux of this issue. Don’t just claim it: show it! This footage from the Endowment for Human Development is hugely impactful and paints at least a thousand words.
Bring out the biblical case for the value of human beings right from conception and you won’t need to say much more: you’ve already laid the foundation that changes the entire debate.
And all without a flag, gun, or pick-up truck in sight!
It’s not enough merely to show the humanity of the baby, however: you also need to show the inhumanity of what’s being done to them. Every reformer from Wilberforce and Clarkson to MLK has known and practised this simple principle: injustice has to be exposed. The most objective and respectful way you can do this is to offer people the opportunity (I always give them a warning and permission to close their eyes) to see abortion for themselves.
Again, you are letting the facts speak. You’re not protesting abortion: abortion is protesting itself.
3) Frame it as a discipleship issue
Jesus insists (e.g. Matthew 28) that we are to obey everything he taught. Much of this is captured by the summary: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Loving our neighbours – in this case the babies and their parents – is not an optional extra, nor can it be dismissed as something political or social as opposed to Christian. It’s a core part of basic discipleship. Followers of Jesus love their neighbours.
Majoring on biblical language and concepts like this (“true worship”, “compassion”, “taking up your cross”, “suffering”, “boldness”, “truth”) will help your listeners to think and act biblically, and will make sure that what you are saying is rightly different in tone and angle from some political rally.
This is how I seek to teach on abortion. Let me know if it sounds American to you in any way!
If you're a pastor can I urge you to make a commitment to teach on abortion regularly yourself? I agree with Vaughan Roberts that merely referencing it as an aside isn't enough: it needs special focus and devoted teaching. And I hope you can see now that "the American way" is not your only option.
May I close with a word of caution? Or perhaps an encouragement to count the cost.
Jesus, as you know, was called a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). Do you think he was a glutton and a drunkard? Of course not. But people maligned him as such.
Jesus promises his followers that if the world hated him, it will hate them also (John 15:18). Specifically he blesses those who will have all kinds of evil spoken falsely against them (Matthew 5:11).
You can preach on abortion the “right” way, in a way that pleases the Lord, and you can still get hated for it, unjustly, even from within your church – but more often by people who weren’t actually there and didn’t even hear it.
Someone might even call you a Trump-supporter.
Is that a price that you're willing to pay, for the sake of preserving a baby’s life, ministering the gospel to a post-abortive mother, preaching the whole counsel of God?