“I believe that as an abortion provider, I am doing God’s work.” So says Dr. Willie Parker, an abortionist who insists that he is a Christian. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in profiling him, claims that the conservative Christian consensus that abortion is murder is a late development, that the Bible doesn’t address the issue and that evangelicals often approved of it until just a few decades ago.
The estimable Dr. Al Mohler refutes all of this. He admits, though, that one of Kristof’s points is valid: Many evangelicals did approve of abortion or take a “moderate” position on the topic. This was true even of the Southern Baptist Convention and Christianity Today up through the early 1970s. (I believe anti-Catholicism had something to do with this. I’m curious too if there is a relationship between a church’s stance on abortion and its position on infant baptism–do any of you know?)
At any rate, Dr. Mohler says the anti-life position of many evangelicals up until Roe v. Wade was unconscionable. But that soon evangelicals returned to the historical Christian position on the topic. (I believe Francis Schaeffer had a big influence on this.)
As for the historical Christian position, there is no doubt about that. After the jump, I excerpt from Dr. Mohler’s essay quotations from the early church, which addressed abortion explicitly and in depth.
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 A.D. 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, you shall not commit adultery, … you 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. The way of life honors the sanctity of life.
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 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 (A.D. 160-240) taught even more comprehensively: “For us, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is just a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter when you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed.” These two are just examples of a pro-life position rejecting abortion that included — at the very least — Athenagoras, Hippolytus, Basil the Great, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine.
As ethicist Ronald Sider commented, “Eight different authors in eleven different writings mention abortion. In every case, the writing unequivocally rejects abortion.” The most comprehensive survey of early Christianity on the question of abortion comes from Michael J. Gorman in Abortion and the Early Church. As Gorman states, “all Christian writers opposed abortion.” Every mention of abortion in the early church rejects it, forcefully.
The Apostolic Constitutions, a document from the fourth century, asserts: “Thou shalt not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. For every thing that is shaped, and hath received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed.”
Gorman writes: “Writers of the first three Christian centuries laid the theological and literary foundation for all subsequent early Christian writing on abortion. We will see that three important themes emerged during these centuries: the fetus is the creation of God; abortion is murder; and the judgment of God falls on those guilty of abortion.” Those three convictions lie at the heart of the Christian pro-life consensus that came together after the shock of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
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.
Photo of Roman Colisseum from Patheos