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To the utter consternation of the abortion rights movement, the issue of abortion simply will not go away. Decades after abortion rights activists thought they had put the matter to rest with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, America’s conscience is more troubled than ever, and near-panic appears to break out regularly among abortion activists. Such a panic is now under way, and the defenders of abortion are trotting out some of their most dishonest arguments. One of the worst is the claim that Christians have only recently become concerned about the sanctity of human life and the evil of abortion.

In fact, one of America’s most infamous abortion doctors, Dr. Willie Parker of Mississippi, has made such a claim in his new book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. Parker, who refers to himself as a Christian, writes: “If you take anti-abortion rhetoric at face value, without knowing much about the Bible, you might assume that the antis have Scripture on their side. That’s how dominant and pervasive their righteous rhetoric has become.” But the Bible consistently reveals life as God’s gift and mandates the protection of human life, made in God’s image, at every stage of life and development.

Even more recently, Nicholas Kristof, an influential columnist for The New York Times, approvingly quoted Parker in his column as stating, quite astoundingly, “I believe that as an abortion provider, I am doing God’s work.” Kristof is well known as a humanitarian, a defender of human rights and human dignity. The great tragedy is that his humanitarian vision does not extend to unborn human beings. He celebrates Parker as a doctor who had a “come to Jesus” moment who now believes it is morally right to perform abortions.

“If that seems incongruous,” Kristof writes, “let’s remember that conservative Christianity’s ferocious opposition to abortion is relatively new in historical terms.” He goes on to make Parker’s argument that the Bible “does not explicitly discuss abortion” and proceeds to state “there’s no evidence that Christians traditionally believed that life begins at conception.”

What is the truth? Let’s begin with where Kristof’s punch lands with force. He makes the case that America’s evangelical Christians came late to a consistently pro-life position. On this he is absolutely right. He is able to document the equivocation and confusion that abounded within evangelicalism, from the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1970s to the pages of Christianity Today. An embarrassing number of prominent evangelical preachers held to “moderate” views on abortion and speculated about when life begins and thus deserves protection. That did not begin to change until the latter years of that decade, when the biblical and theological logic of the pro-life position began to take hold of the evangelical mind and heart.

The only consistent biblical logic is to affirm the sanctity and dignity of every human life from the moment of fertilization.

At this point, we need to separate two issues that are confused in Parker’s and Kristof’s argument. The first is the historic Christian understanding of the morality of abortion. The second is the question of when what some theologians have called “ensoulment” takes place. The second question is not a helpful theological question, nor is it answerable. The only consistent biblical logic is to affirm the sanctity and dignity of every human life from the moment of fertilization.

As for the first question, the evidence is irrefutable. The early church was decidedly, vocally, and courageously pro-life and opposed to abortion. One of the earliest documents of Christianity after the New Testament is the Didache, dated to around AD 80–120. The teaching describes two ways: the way of life and the way of death. The way of life demands that Christians “shall not murder a child by abortion nor commit infanticide.” Both abortion and infanticide were common in the Roman Empire. Christians were forbidden to murder any child, born or unborn.

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215) made clear the sin of women who “in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.” Tertullian (AD 160–240) taught even more comprehensively: “For us, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb.” These church fathers are just two examples of a pro-life position rejecting abortion that also included—at the very least—Athenagoras, Hippolytus, Basil the Great, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine.

As ethicist Ronald Sider comments, “Eight different authors in eleven different writings mention abortion. In every case, the writing unequivocally rejects abortion.” Michael J. Gorman states in Abortion and the Early Church: “All Christian writers opposed abortion.” Every mention of abortion in the early church rejects it forcefully.

The shame is not that evangelicals hold these pro-life convictions now. The shame is that there was ever any evangelical equivocation on such a matter of life and death and human dignity. Furthermore, there can be no question that historic Christianity condemned abortion and affirmed the sanctity of human life, born and not yet born.

Let there be no confusion on this question. The Bible reveals the sanctity of all human life, the early church affirmed the sanctity of every human life, and anyone who performs an abortion is not “doing God’s work.” Rather, he is undoing it. As the Didache, echoing Deuteronomy, reminds us from so long ago, we are to choose the way of life, and never the way of death.

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