Saturday was INSANELY COLD. Four of us met in the windiest spot in Doylestown (right near the old courthouse) to call the county seat to repentance, and to fulfill their God-given responsibility to execute justice for those being killed in our county.
Conner came from an hour+ away (thanks dude :-)), and he joined Ben, Maureen and me in our insane polar bear challenge. Conner wins the prize for the most enduring constitution; he and I both arrived an hour early, but I had to take a break toward the end because my body started to shake exceedingly violently. Yeah, it was cold.
Below is a picture of Maureen, with Conner in the background. I was on the same island as Maureen, off to the left of that pillar, and Ben was farther to the left and across the intersection. Together we shared the gospel, and the truth about abortion, in a town famous for its licentious lifestyle.
A Slice of Ideology
I’ve been having several good conversations on abolition recently, and one question in particular keeps coming up as something that various thoughtful Christians have been asking a lot; I figure it might be worth a blog post. “So if abortion is just a symptom of a deeper issue – people not having the gospel to change their lives – then why get distracted by focusing specifically on abortion? Why not just preach the gospel?”
It’s a common enough objection that the main AHA site put a response to it under their frequently asked questions:
You see, nobody actually thinks it is true that Christians ought “only” to preach the Gospel…Nobody gives this same objection when it comes time to sign people up for the Crisis Pregnancy Center baby bottle coin drive, or for the church softball league, or when trying to find a lead guitarist for the contemporary band.
Nobody pushes back against the next potluck meal or feeding the homeless for that reason. When the pastor lectures on the finer points of eschatology, nobody calls for him to stop discussing the book of Revelation so that he can repeat the Gospel over and over…
In saying “let’s just preach the Gospel”, the objector is in fact engaging in an activity that is not in itself preaching the Gospel, thus refuting [himself].
– AHA FAQ
I think that quote serves as a good introduction to the issue. One perspective suggests that the act of preaching the gospel is the single, exclusive thing necessary to solve the problem of abortion. That certainly sounds spiritual, especially to someone like me who appreciates the word, “sola” :-). The abolitionist however observes that scripture talks about more than just the act of sharing the gospel, and believes that some of those other teachings come into play in the problem of abortion.
So which perspective is right? Which is the most biblical? Here are a few orienting questions:
- Why do abolitionists seem to obsess over one particular sin?
- Is there validity in treating the symptoms of a problem?
- If abolitionists claim to be a gospel-centered movement, but also say that abolition goes beyond just sharing the gospel, how do these things fit together?
A slice of history:
Over the next two years, Garrison gradually won adherents to the anti-slavery cause. Almost fifty abolitionist groups formed in ten states. Their influence extended from urban centers like Philadelphia and New York to remote settlements like Cincinatti, a boom town on the western frontier. There, Lyman Beecher – one of the country’s most famous preachers – had recently moved his family.
Beecher opposed slavery in principle, but distrusted activists, who “recklessly advocated immediate abolition.” His twenty-two year old daughter Harriet had inherited his views.
“There is a class of professed abolitionists in Cincinatti,” she wrote, “but they are unfashionable, and are regarded as a species of moral monomaniacs.”
In the Spring of 1833, Harriet and two friends crossed over the river into neighboring Kentucky. She had never before visited a slave state. “What Stowe sees there is a human thing. She sees these people, and they are human beings. She’s confronted with it, in such an intimate way, and I think that never leaves her.”
– American Experience: The Abolitionists (18:30 – 20:38)
I enjoy the above introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe, because it exemplifies a woman who was willing to change her mind. She originally discounted abolitionists as a bunch of crazy people obsessed with a single preoccupation (monomaniacs), but later became one of the most influential abolitionists in history. What changed? Through her own experience with the death of Charlie (her son), she came to understand the pain of a mother ripped away from her child, and why these people were so obsessed over one particular sin. Her impact on the movement became so great that Lincoln allegedly (and jokingly) blamed her for starting the Civil War – all because she came to understand abolition, and was willing to change.
Why are we so obsessed with abortion? It’s a good question; there are many sins in the world, many good causes worth our time and attention. So that it’s understood, I’d like to emphasize that abolitionists do NOT claim that fighting abortion is the only good work that Christians can do, nor do we claim that it is the only way to share the gospel. We care about the whole problem of sin that has taken root in our culture, which is why abolitionists will engage in acts of charity like providing sleeping bags for the homeless, or printing gospel signs that have nothing to do with abortion:
I feel like these things hardly need saying, but I have actually conversed with people who were under the impression that we believe talking about abortion is the only way to share the gospel (due to the writings of our critics), or it’s the only sin worth discussing and fighting. Absolutely not; we’re willing to admire and learn from the abolitionists of slavery, yet their focus was on defeating a different sin, chattel slavery. We fight Darwinism, and atheism, and rape, and abuse, and the list goes on.
However we recognize a priority in terms of what sins should occupy the bulk of our time and effort. A cursory examination of God’s word demonstrates to us that there are degrees of sin. While every sin is heinous in the eyes of God (James 2:10), not every sin is equally heinous (John 19:11, Luke 12:47-47, Jeremiah 16:12, Matthew 23:15, Genesis 18:20-21, etc). We are all limited in terms of how much time and energy we can give to advancing the kingdom of God, so at some point all of us have to make a choice regarding what is most important to pursue. All things being equal, if it comes down to a choice between stopping Billy from lying to his parents, or stopping Suzy from murdering her daughter, the abolitionist would say that God cares more about the latter sin. Both are wrong, but stopping a murder is more pressing and more important.
A less trivial example: abortion vs rape. Both sins are instances of injustice and oppression, the strong abusing and destroying the weak. Why would an abolitionist claim that fighting abortion is more important than fighting rape?
Well, yet again, scripture holds murder to be a more egregious sin than rape; murder was a capital crime in Israel, whereas rape (though horrible) was not. When you’re the victim of rape, you still have a future in this life to find redemption and healing. When you’re the victim of murder, it’s the end of your story (on this side of eternity).
Beyond the difference in degree, however, a lot of it has to do with cultural context. If we lived in a culture where rape was exceedingly more prevalent than murder, then rape might be the priority. However, according to RAINN, “there is an average of 293,066 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year,” whereas surgical abortions exceed one million – and there’s no reliable way to measure the destruction of over-the-counter poison pills. Moreover, if rape was legally protected by the government, and murder was still outlawed, then rape might be the priority. At the moment, abortion is much more prevalent and protected than rape, so it therefore warrants more of our attention.
As one more example, modern abolitionists do not believe that fighting slavery is our most important priority, whereas historic abolitionists did. Our ideology is the same; our understanding of scripture is (largely) the same; where then is the difference? It rests is our cultural context. The government’s laws regarding slavery currently reflect the law of God; laws regarding abortion do not. Moreover chattel slavery is less prevalent than abortion; thus abortion therefore should occupy a greater amount of our attention.
I hope that helps to explain our monomania. It isn’t that we have a special obsession with abortion, or that we have blinders on and cannot see the effects of other sin. The reason for our focus on abortion is because we have a reasonable sense of priority, and that I believe is a position which finds much warrant in scripture.
Gospel-Centered, Not Gospel-Exclusive
“Okay, so granted – abortion may be the most heinous, prevalent sin that has taken root in our culture. Nevertheless, if the gospel is the cure for all sin, then why not just preach the gospel, generically, to appeal to a broader audience? Why get distracted with a particular sin?”
Well first, let’s bring a more fair assessment of abolitionists to the table. We do actually preach a generic gospel that covers all varieties of sin, and I daresay we do it more frequently than most American Christians. If a larger bulk of professing believers were actually faithful to boldly take the gospel into a dark and dying world, then we probably wouldn’t be in our current national crisis. That’s a critique that bites into my own walk as much as anyone’s; before abolition, I had a largely private walk with the Lord. If nothing else, abolition has put a fire under my butt to actually do something about the billions of people in my world who are heading for Hell.
With that said, we do bring abortion into the discussion, for at least the following two reasons: First, it opens up a useful opportunity to present the gospel, and our need for it. Second, and more importantly, there’s more to living the Christian life than just preaching the gospel.
A Stage for the Gospel
Honestly, one of my favorite things about abolition is just how simply useful it is to discuss abortion with people. There are individuals in my life; I’ve tried for years to discuss our need for Jesus, and they’re like, “Yeah, well, we’re not really that bad.” But show them a picture of an aborted child, and tell them that one in three women in our nation has killed somebody, and all of those pretenses of holiness fly out the window.
We live in a dark and wicked nation. We need Jesus. Bad.
A Christian’s Duty
More than practical usefulness however, standing against injustice is a Christian’s biblical duty. We don’t focus on abortion simply because we want a useful illustration in sharing the gospel. As the quote from AHA highlights, there is more to living the Christian life than just sharing the gospel with people, and we all know that. The Bible has a much broader, comprehensive message to speak to us than simply defining how to share Jesus with unbelievers. In particular, it describes the change that the gospel should bring into our own lives, now that we have Jesus. For example,
- What should a Christian marriage look like? (Ephesians 5:18-33)
- How should you act when a brother sins against you? (Matthew 18:15-17)
- What should you do when innocent people are being abused and murdered all around you? (Luke 10:25-37)
Abolitionists hold a high view of the gospel that is more comprehensive than simply our eternal salvation and fire insurance. We believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection should have an impact on our own lives right now, producing an increasing obedience to the things that Jesus taught.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Part of sharing the gospel with people involves teaching them to obey the commandments of Jesus. If the gospel has taken root in our own lives, then we too need to be obeying Jesus in the commandments He has given to us.
That is why we have a focus on abortion when we share the gospel out in the culture. It is not because we believe that standing against abortion is the only way to share the gospel. Rather it is because we believe that standing against abortion is the only way to be obedient to Jesus in a culture that kills its children.
There is more to living the Christian life than just preaching the gospel. Sharing Jesus is unquestionably a central part of our calling, but He also commands us to do other things, such as seeking justice for the oppressed, and demonstrating practical compassion to the innocents being slaughtered around us.
Treating the Symptoms
“Okay, so we have a responsibility to defend the helpless, but isn’t the best way to do that to simply share the gospel? After all, there are many forms of sin in the world, and we can only stop them by preaching the gospel.”
Abolitionists would actually hold a lot of agreement with the above fictitious (but representative) speaker. One of the major critiques that we bring against the pro-life movement is that largely, they have abandoned the one weapon that can actually defeat abortion – the gospel – and are instead treating only the symptoms with shallow, palliative measures. A couple of paraphrased quotes from Abolitionism 101:
“Abortion is sin, and the only answer to sin is the gospel.”
“We are fighting something far worse than abortion; we are at war with the worldview which makes it acceptable in the first place.”
Abolitionists fervently agree that we will never defeat the entrenched sin of abortion without keeping the gospel at the center of our message to a lost and dying world. “Gospel-Centered” is the second of five core tenets that bind abolitionists together.
The first tenet however is “Biblical,” meaning that everything we say and do as Christians should flow out of the whole counsel of God’s word. So the question arises – is it biblically warranted to entirely leave off the treatment of symptoms and attack exclusively the root cause of abortion? Such a strategy can certainly sound spiritual, but even a cursory examination of Jesus’ life and teachings would discredit such an approach.
Here’s a simple analogy. You’re in a hospital, dying of cholera. The doctor comes in with medicine that will save your life. Your wife however tells the doctor, “Please don’t give that to him; it won’t help any. The root cause of all disease is sin; he just needs to hear the gospel.”
No, that’s silly. When God visited our world, He did not just preach the gospel to lost people; He treated the symptoms of sin. Jesus performed countless miracles, healing people’s physical ailments so that they might recognize and accept the eternal healing and life that He provides. The Good Samaritan did not “just preach the gospel” to the robbers who nearly killed the victim; he treated the symptoms. As I developed in a recent post, we are called to adorn the gospel with actions that reflect the character of God, a god who cares about the whole effect of sin, both in the spiritual realm, and in the physical.
The truth is, it is entirely possible to share the gospel, and to fight abortion at the same time – I know, because I’ve been doing it for a year now. Focusing on abortion is not a distraction from the gospel; it is an object lesson that demonstrates the life-and-death consequences of sin.
Abolition offers Christians an opportunity to obey Jesus’ commandment to share the gospel, and to obey our Father’s commandment to seek justice for the oppressed. While God’s focus always keeps eternity in view, He does care about what happens in our present world, and it is a biblical mistake to believe that we don’t have to reflect that concern in our lives and in our actions. As His image-bearers, we should love the things that He loves, hate the things that He hates, and act the way that He acts. That includes treating the symptoms of sin.
Well, I’m getting tired, and this post is long enough. More things that should be covered: Do abolitionists preach a gospel of works? Should we invest time in establishing good laws, or should we just preach the gospel? (guess what my answer will be ;-))
Thanks for reading; I’m going to bed. In Christ,