That's the essence of what I asked pastors in Kalamazoo last Wednesday. My theme was simple: What does a pro-life pastor looks like? (This talk adds to what I told a larger gathering of Christian leaders in Lincoln last week.)
My thesis: Given current assaults on human dignity, the pro-life pastor must commit himself to four essential tasks.
Read-on if you want more. (I apologize for the long post--I wanted to quickly post my notes for the benefit of those who attended.)
The thesis is significant, because I don't think we have many 'pro-life' churches--at least not the way I define them.
Due to technical limitations, the presentation was not taped. What follows below are the notes for my intended remarks. I said most of what's here, but not everything. For now, it's all I have time to post. If you want more detail, I've included links so you can see my sources and get more explanation of my main points.
Title: "The Pro-Life Pastor in the 21st Century"
I. Introduction: Our Problem--Human Nature is up for Grabs. The Biblical view of human dignity is under assault in ways barely imagined a decade ago. Some examples:
II. Theme: "The Pro-Life Pastor in the 21st Century." Take a close look at your ministry in the face of these assaults on human dignity. What are we, as Christian leaders, doing right now to equip our people to respond biblically and persuasively?
A. Human/animal hybrids: Research labs are moving forward on the creation of embryos that will be part human and part animal. Three groups eagerly await the arrival of these hybrid embryos: 1) scientists who will use them for grisly medical research, 2) transhumanists who wish to alter the biological nature of human beings in hopes of radically advancing our evolutionary development, and 3) radical animal rights advocates who consider any claim of human exceptionalism to be dangerous and intolerant and who look to the creation of these hybrids to knock humans off their privileged perch.
B. Scathing attacks on human dignity, once restricted largely to academia, are now featured prominently in popular media. Peter Singer, who thinks killing disabled newborns is only wrong if it adversely impacts other interested parties, writes in The Dallas Morning News: "During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct." Meanwhile, Wesley J. Smith cites a New York Times editorial writer as saying, "We are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable." There you have it: Darwinism proves humans are no more and no less valuable than barnacles. And who can forget PETA's Ingrid Newkirk saying that a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy is a roach? I guess eating a man is no different than eating a steak.
C. Scientism is trumping morality in debates over cloning and embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Make no mistake: The public supports ESCR. The idea is that if we can do it, we should do it. Even some so-called 'pro-life' politicians are falling for this dangerous idea. For example, Senator Orrin Hatch, defending ESCR, writes, "It would be terrible to say because of an ethical concept that we can't do anything for you." Does Senator Hatch realize what he just said? If science trumps morality, how is he going to condemn the Tuskegee Experiments where black men suffering from Syphilis were promised a cure only to have it secretly withheld so scientists could study how the disease kills people? How will he decry the medical holocaust of Jews in Nazi Germany?
D. The 'new atheism' treats all religious truth claims as harmful and intolerable. It's atheism with attitude and its principal goal is to drive metaphysics--including belief in human exceptionalism--from the public square. While the arguments presented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (to name a few) are shallow and bombastic, the field of bioethics is not immune from the influences of this new atheistic attitude. The case against ESCR, we are told, is nothing more than an attempt to force irrational and intolerant religious absolutism on an unsuspecting public. Thus, it must be squashed.
E. Radical environmentalists view humanity as a curse on the plantet. "This myth [of human exceptionalism] is at the root of our environmental destruction--and our possible self-destruction," writes University of Washington psychology professor David P. Barash. If that weren't bad enough, TIME quotes abortionist and anthropologist Warren Hern of the University of Colorado calling our species an "ecotumor" or "planetary malignancy" that is recklessly devouring its host, the poor Earth.
F. Personhood rights are replacing human rights. As Smith points out, most bioethicists do not believe that membership in the human species gives any of us value. Rather, what matters is whether any organism--animal or human--is a 'person,' a status achieved by having sufficient cognitive abilities. Thus, a self-aware puppy has more value than a day-old infant. Peter Singer writes, "The fact that a being is human does not mean we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human or a mouse."
G. The acceptance of personhood theory meant a majority of Americans strongly favored the direct killing of Terri Schiavo simply because her cognitive abilities were less than our own. The whole ordeal put in place a premise that it's okay to kill people who don't improve. Truth is, Terri had no duty to get better. Pro-lifers failed to make that case and we're still paying for it. Politically, anyone who thinks pro-life lawmakers weren't punished in 2006 for intervening on her behalf is living in a dream world. Further punishment likely awaits them in 2008.
H. For many Americans, clear thinking on abortion is eclipsed by personal experience. Over 80 million of them have participated in an abortion-related decision (if you include boyfriends, husbands, parents, etc.), and many of those same people are in our pews. The numbers are most likely increasing: The Guttmacher Institute reports that 18% of all abortion patients identify themselves as "evangelical" or "born-again" Christians--up from 16% in 1987. (That's nearly 1 out of every 5 women who abort.)
III. Significance: The question is crucial, because Christians who ignore current debates over abortion and embryo research may soon face even tougher challenges. Nevertheless, I'll tell you how some churches I know respond: They give the local crisis pregnancy center (CPC) director five minute each year--on 'Sanctity of Human Life Sunday'--to briefly discuss her ministry to women in need, followed by a vague sermon that says little about abortion per se, but rather discusses our need to be 'pro-life' in all areas like caring for the poor, feeding the homeless, stopping spousal abuse, etc. Now, there's nothing wrong with a discussion of these topics or with giving the CPC director time to highlight her work (indeed, we should give her much more time than that!), but is a tepid pro-life Sunday once each year going to equip lay people to persuasively respond to these assaults on human dignity? What's needed is pastoral leadership that preaches truth and equips lay-persons to engage the culture with a robust, but graciously communicated, biblical worldview.
IV. Thesis: The pro-life pastor commits himself to four essential tasks. First, he preaches a biblical view of human value and applies that view to abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and cloning. Second, he equips his people to engage the culture with a persuasive defense of the pro-life view. Third, he restores lost passion for ministry with cross-centered preaching. Fourth, he confronts his own fears about preaching inconvenient truth.
A. Task #1: The pro-life pastor preaches a biblical view of human value. We don’t need Scripture to expressly say elective abortion is wrong before we can know that it’s wrong. The Bible affirms that all humans have value because they bear God’s image. (Gen. 1:26, 9:6, Ex. 23:7, Prov. 6:16-17, James 3: 9.) The facts of science make clear that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are unquestionably human. Hence, Biblical commands against the unjust taking of human life apply to the unborn as they do other human beings. Moreover, if humans have value only because of some acquired property like self-awareness--as critics of the pro-life view assert--it follows that since this acquired property comes in varying degrees, basic human rights come in varying degrees. Theologically, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely in their respective degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature made in the image of God. (For more on these points, go here.)
B. Task #2: The pro-life pastor equips his people to engage the culture with a persuasive defense of the pro-life view. Scientifically, pro-lifers contend that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. True, they have yet to grow and mature, but they are whole human beings nonetheless. Leading embryology textbooks affirm this. (See here and here and here.) Philosophically, pro-lifers argue that there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant in the way that abortion advocates need them to be. For example, everyone agrees that embryos are small—perhaps smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. But since when do rights depend on how large we are? Men are generally larger than women, but that hardly means they deserve more rights. Size does not equal value. Pro-lifers don't need Scripture to tell them these things. They are truths even atheists and secular libertarians can, and sometimes do, recognize.
C. Task #3: The pro-life pastor restores passion for ministry through cross-centered preaching. Millions of Christians have given up on a passionate pursuit of God-glorifying ministry because they feel disqualified by past sexual sins which may include abortion, fornication, pornography, etc. Ignoring these sins does not spare people guilt; it spares them healing. And we wonder why there is little passion for missions, evangelism, pro-life advocacy, and worship in our churches?
John Piper deals with the problem of past sexual sin and how believers can be freed from its clutches, but for now, the starting point for human healing is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That gospel teaches how a holy God designed a good world where the humans He made to worship Him and enjoy communion with Him forever willfully rebeled against their creator. Although these rebel humans deserved God’s almighty wrath, He held back His righteous judgment and sent Jesus to take the punishment they deserved. By God’s design, Jesus—the sinless one—was killed on a cross by the very people he came to save. Yet the story doesn’t end there. Three days later, God affirmed Christ’s sin-bearing sacrifice by raising Him from the dead. As a result of Christ’s sin-bearing work on their behalf, God’s people—all of them unworthy of anything but death if judged by their own merits—are declared justified by God the Father, who then adopts them as His own sons and daughters. Who, then, can bring a charge against God’s elect? Paul’s answer is clear: No one can. For it is God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5; 8:33). It is His gift, completely undeserved, so that no one can boast.
Like all sinners, post-abortion men and women need this gospel. With it, they live each day assured God accepts them on the basis of Christ’s righteousness not their own. They experience unspeakable joy knowing their past, present, and future sins are not counted against them. Instead of ignoring abortion and refusing to show Christians what's truly at stake, pastors should use this difficult topic to reiterate the great truth of the gospel, which alone frees people to pursue passionate ministry for the kingdom.
D. Task #4: The pro-life pastor confronts his own fears over preaching inconvenient truth. Three examples:
1) Fear of distraction: Pastors sometimes ask, "Won't addressing abortion distract the church from the gospel?" This is a legitimate concern. Our preaching must always direct sinful human beings to the righteousness that God alone provides. The good news is that we can use the topic of abortion to point people to the very gospel they so desperately need. At the same time, we should remember that God's gospel is addressed to particular audience, human beings. But our attempts to communicate that gospel suffer when the very definition of what it means to be human is up for grabs. Indeed, it's hard to preach that man is a sinner, that man needs to repent, and that man can be saved only through Christ when nobody knows what a man is anymore.
To site J. Gresham Machen, teaching Christians to engage the ideas that determine culture is not a distraction from the gospel. Rather, it removes roadblocks to it:It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root. . . What is today matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate. So as Christians we should try to mould the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity. . . . What more pressing duty than for those who have received the mighty experience of regeneration, who, therefore, do not, like the world, neglect that whole series of vitally relevant facts which is embraced in Christian experience—what more pressing duty than for these men to make themselves masters of the thought of the world in order to make it an instrument of truth instead of error? (Emphasis added.)In short, it's not either/or: We can preach the gospel and confront false ideas, including the one that says humans have no intrinsic value.
2) Fear of driving people away who might otherwise hear the gospel. I dealt with this problem in my previous post on clergy and abortion, suffice to say that well-crafted pro-life talks suggest to unchurched people that the Christian worldview is reasonable to believe. When I gave a pro-life presentation at the University of North Carolina Law School, a young female professor responded (in front of her students): “I did not come to this event with the same pro-life views you hold. In fact, I came here today expecting an emotionally charged religious presentation. Instead, you gave one of the most compelling arguments I have ever heard. Thank you.” True, she didn’t fall on her knees and confess Christ on the spot. But now she’s begun wrestling with Biblical truth. To use a baseball example, you don’t have to hit a home run with every conversation. Sometimes just getting on base is enough. And you’ll certainly do just that whenever you clarify the moral logic of the pro-life view.
3) Fear of offending people with abortion-related content. It’s amazing how people will tolerate a strong pro-life presentation if you make your case graciously and incisively. Kindness goes a long way and often pays off with changed lives. Consider this email from 15 year-old Brittany, received after I spoke to an assembly of 1,000 high school students in Baltimore:Dear Scott,
Yesterday you came and talked to my high school, Archbishop Spaulding, about pro-life. It made a big difference on how I thought about abortion. I was totally for abortion and I thought that pro-life was just plain stupid. I have totally changed my mind after I listened to the pro-life point of view. Upon watching the short video clip of aborted fetuses, I felt my stomach turn and I thought, “How could anybody do this? How could anyone be so cruel and self absorbed as to kill an unborn baby who doesn't have a say in that decision?” Then I thought, “Oh my gosh, I think that!” I was totally ashamed at how selfish I had been. Before the assembly, I didn't want to listen to what you had to say. I was going to nap during your speech…until I saw that video. Now, I am totally changed forever. Keep doing what you do!
Always stress grace. Give hope to those wounded by abortion. Ask God to fill your heart for lost and hurting souls. Then speak and show the truth in love. They can take it.
(Pastors--The best practical tool for training Christians to defend life is the DVD series Making Abortion Unthinkable from Stand to Reason.)