What Pastors Need to Know about Abortion

Cross on wall in church

Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

Pastors very often, I think, would rather not speak publicly about abortion, even if they personally support the pro-life cause. This isn’t usually because they want to hide from the issue or because they don’t think it’s a truth worth defending, but because they are afraid of putting a stumbling block in the way of someone’s salvation. Pastors want pro-choice people to turn to Jesus because they need Him just as much as pro-lifers do. Ministers don’t want to be responsible for someone’s refusal to accept Christ because they pushed them away with a political position.

I think there is much which is commendable in this kind of thinking, though I also believe it to be mistaken on a number of points. But it doesn’t matter either way: since the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abortion as a political issue in America has come to a head. The time where you could just ignore abortion from the pulpit is long over. Parishioners will ask about abortion, so it would be both impossible and irresponsible for ministers to avoid giving them spiritual direction in this area.

Because pastors aren’t pro-life activists or philosophers, it’s reasonable that they don’t have all of the answers, even if they have a robust foundation for their own pro-life beliefs, just as it’s reasonable that pro-life activists wouldn’t necessarily be able to fulfill the functions of a pastor’s role. In this case, congregations will look to their ministers for leadership, and the pro-life movement can offer guidance to ministers about how to communicate the truth about abortion to their congregations. Pro-life people ought to be equipping the equippers, as it were.

Accordingly, here are five things pastors need to know about abortion.

#1: It’s a Biblical Issue First

I get that a lot of pastors are hesitant to bring up abortion because they think of it as a political issue. There’s an extent to which that’s reasonable; after all, churches are not political entities and are, in the US, not allowed legally to take certain types of political action. It’s not the job of a pastor to “play politics”—but, at the same time, religious beliefs and principles have been dragged into politics, and it remains the job of the minister to articulate and defend those beliefs.

This is the case with abortion: it is, for the Christian, an issue of faith first and only second about politics. Abortion is a biblical issue whether or not it is a political issue. Biblical ethics is comprehensive: there isn’t room to punt on abortion when our Scriptures say “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12) and “to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

#2: There Is No Room for Abortion in Scripture or Tradition

If abortion kills a human person—which it does—then the Bible absolutely has something to say about that. While the Bible never uses the word “abortion”—just as it never uses the word “trinity”—it unquestionably and uncontroversially opposes abortion. Scripture gives no quarter to those who would attempt to use it to justify abortion. While I’ve made this argument multiple times in other places, I’ll recapitulate it here in three stages.

First, the Bible is clear that human life is valuable and that all humans are persons from their earliest stages. Humanity was marked as distinctly valuable from the moment of its creation in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). Scripture asserts personal continuity between the embryo in the womb and the adult it later becomes (Psalm 139:13). Luke’s Gospel relates that John the Baptist and Jesus were both full persons acting within their respective roles as prophet and Messiah before they were born (Luke 1:41–44). 

Second, children are given exalted status and God holds the act of killing children in specific contempt. Jesus told His disciples not to “despise one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10), that “it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones” (Luke 17:2), and not to hinder them from coming to Him (Matthew 19:14). On the flip side, Scripture uses the word “abomination” to refer to killing children as a sacrifice to idols (Jeremiah 32:35). While the scriptural context is literal pagan statues, the principle ought easily extend to the idols of our current age, such as convenience, career, money, and status.

I want to take a detour for a moment to address the pro-choice person’s favorite Bible passage, Exodus 21:22–25. The passage, as translated in many modern versions of the Bible (though not the (N)KJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, or NLT), seems to indicate that causing the death of an unborn child merits only a fine, while harm to the mother earns the aggressor the “eye for an eye” penalty. This is often used to imply that Scripture clearly doesn’t consider the fetus an equal human person, since the penalties for mother and child are so different.

However, there’s good reason to believe that the “majority” view of contemporary translators and commentators is mistranslating and misinterpreting the text. To draw on a source from my own religious tradition, Jack Cottrell’s classic article in Christianity Today explains in detail why the word translated as “miscarriage” refers to ordinary birth in every other Old Testament usage, unless accompanied by a word or explanation further signifying death. Indeed, there is a Hebrew word that literally means “to miscarry” or “to be bereaved,” and it doesn’t show up in the passage. Interpreting the passage in consonance with the Hebrew words that are actually there, and not imaginary ones that aren’t, shows that the fine is for early birth, and that the “harm” envisioned as meriting “an eye for an eye” is harm to either the mother or the child.

Yet, even if the wishful pro-choice interpretation were somehow correct, a lesser punishment can’t be taken to imply what pro-choice people want it to say. After all, Adam and Eve did not receive the immediate death they seemed to be promised; did the lesser punishment mean they didn’t deserve worse? Or when Jesus intervenes to prevent the woman caught in adultery from being killed, and gives her no punishment in place of that found in the Law (“neither do I condemn you”), does that mean that she hadn’t sinned, or that she wasn’t guilty and liable before Him? Clearly not, in either case. Rather, mitigation of deserved punishment implies nothing about the wrong that was committed—even if it’s written into the law code.

Third, responsibility to and for children is a theological cornerstone of Christian practice. Killing children, often noted by the euphemism “passing through the fire,” is one of the specific reasons God caused the destruction of the Israelites in the Old Testament (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:10, Jeremiah 32:35, Ezekiel 16:21, Ezekiel 23:37). More generally, the prophets singled out the practice of targeting, harming, and profiting off of the weakest members of society as the reason for divine judgment, rather than idolatry (examples: Micah 3, Amos 2). God refuses to deal with religious practices by people who oppress the weakest humans in society (Amos 5:21–24), a sentiment echoed by Christ Himself in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23). But James cements the principle as the cornerstone of Christian religious observance: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). What are children led to death but orphans? What are women pressured into killing their children, whether by people or circumstances, but widows? Both are cast out of the network of social protection, which is the characteristic of both groups James mentions.

That should pretty much settle the matter about what the Bible says, no matter how some pro-choice religious groups attempt to delude themselves and others. However, if someone is really hung up about the fact that the word “abortion” didn’t appear in any of those verses, perhaps it would be helpful to note that the Didache, the earliest surviving Christian writing outside the Bible, doesn’t mince words. The authors command, in no uncertain terms, “thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide;” they later refer to abortion practitioners as “murderers of children.” This is to say, if you believe church tradition (extrabiblical teachings and writings) controls interpretation of the Bible, this is open and shut; tradition is pro-life. Even if you reject that role for interpretation, but you think it’s acceptable to defer to, say, Calvin’s interpretation of Scripture, how much more should you defer to the teaching of the apostles who walked with Christ, even when that teaching is not within the Bible? Either way, the push to allow or support abortion within Christianity is a new movement, spitting in the face of Scripture and history.

Let’s be clear: the only orthodox line available to a pastor is opposition to abortion, based on the Bible and/or tradition. The attempt to allow abortion or stop ministers from publicly attacking it is a recent departure from true, historical faith, and this is the case no matter what denomination someone is! So pastors can stand firmly, knowing that it is in keeping with millennia of Christian ministry to instruct congregants against abortion.

#3: Christians Are Called to Goodness, not Minimal Decency

The best pro-choice argument is based on an inversion of Scripture. In Thomson’s famous “A Defense of Abortion” essay, she distinguishes between the biblical account of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and what she calls the “Minimally Decent Samaritan.” Thomson argues that minimal decency (which she leaves conveniently undefined) is all that can be ethically required of people, and that it perhaps should not even be legally required.

Thomson writes: 

After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said, ‘Go, and do thou likewise.’ Perhaps he meant that we are morally required to act as the Good Samaritan did. Perhaps he was urging people to do more than is morally required of them. At all events it seems plain…that it is not morally required of anyone that he give long stretches of his life—nine years or nine months—to sustaining the life of a person who has no special right (we were leaving open the possibility of this) to demand it.

Whether or not Thomson’s argument is defensible on atheistic grounds, it is patently ridiculous to flip the Good Samaritan upside down and say, “well, what Jesus really demands is freedom of choice.” She seems, rather conveniently, to have ignored that verse which must be considered the cornerstone of any Christian ethics: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

It’s an open question as to whether something can be “above and beyond the call of duty” for a Christian. At minimum, though, Scripture does not endorse a standard of minimum decency. The Good Samaritan gives sacrificially, and that is the ethical floor for a Christian, not the ceiling. Thomson’s argument, still the most influential pro-choice argument 50 years after it was written, is anti-Biblical.

To restate this, because it’s important: abortion is killing, and it’s self-delusion to maintain, as Thomson does, that it is merely “not helping.” The Bible is clear that killing innocent people is wrong, full stop. But even if we granted Thomson’s premise that abortion was merely “not helping,” she’s still wrong that a Christian could endorse that. The Good Samaritan is the minimum ethical standard for Christians, and the priest and Levite who merely “don’t help” are condemned by Christ. If the “Minimally Decent Samaritan” appears in Scripture, it is among the goats (Matt. 25:31–46).

#4: The Church Has Room to Work Against Abortion

While ministers, specifically, can work against abortion by instructing their congregants that abortion is unbiblical and wrong, there is one very valuable role for the church as a whole. The church is well-suited to providing care and resources to women and children and thereby preventing thousands of abortions.

It doesn’t prevent a person or church from being pro-life if they don’t do anything for women. Sure, you can have a logically consistent pro-life position without supporting help for unwed mothers or families in difficult situations, but can you understand why that would look weird and be off-putting to an onlooker? Pro-life apologetics from the pulpit or in small groups are only one piece of a proper Christian response to abortion. The church is particularly well suited to help families in need.

This is something that many enterprising individuals and congregations are already doing through pregnancy resource centers and smaller activities within churches. But we can do more. Remember the sacrificial giving in the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable which undercuts abortion so strongly that a pro-choice philosopher went out of her way to attack it? The role of the church is to give sacrificially out of love for women and children; remember, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…” (James 1:27).

Churches should help women considering abortion because it’s the right thing to do, and helping women is also a direct attack on an abortion industry which exploits them for profit. By providing another option, a way forward through a potentially difficult situation, churches can hurt demand for abortion. Because abortion clinics, however they may be incorporated, are functionally for-profit businesses, hurting their profit margins is perhaps the most effective way to shut them down.

Ministers are in the best position to communicate to members and visitors that their church will pursue sacrificial love towards women in unplanned pregnancies. We suggest doing something like our “Pastor Pledge” to make it clear that pregnancy will not be stigmatized and that your church is there to help. Well over 100 pastors across the country have already taken this pledge, and we’ve already heard about an unwed mother who chose life on a Sunday morning after hearing her pastor speak as modeled in the pastor pledge article!

#5: Be Prepared to Give a Defense

Apologetics takes as its root the Greek word “apologia,” translated as “defense.” Take, for example, the cornerstone verse of Christian apologetics: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). Pro-life apologetics is giving a defense of the pro-life position. ERI published the Equipped for Life Course in order to train people to make the best pro-life arguments and give the best responses to pro-choice arguments in a winsome manner. 

Ministers are, I think, called to do something similar in their churches. They must be prepared to give a defense of what the Bible says when it is contested by the culture or even one of their congregants. Pastors ought to be able to explain why they believe that abortion is in conflict with Christian truth, and they cannot shirk from that duty out of fear of reprisal, whether by people leaving or tithes dropping.

It’s important to note that it’s possible (and vital) to give that defense in a gentle way. You may be, rightly, concerned with inadvertently shaming post-abortive women and men in your congregation. But never talking about abortion doesn’t actually spare the feelings of post-abortive people. One woman powerfully recounted how years of sitting in her church and never once hearing abortion mentioned from the pulpit made her feel that abortion must be the unforgivable sin. Avoiding the subject doesn’t help the people for whom you’re concerned; speaking about it with grace and truth is the only way to pursue healing, reconciliation, and restoration. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but a starting place. There’s so much to learn about pro-life apologetics and practical strategies to care for women and children and prevent abortions. I haven’t even touched on sidewalk counseling! Our friends at Care Net have also created the Making Life Disciples program which is meant to help a church small group connect with a local PRC and be emotionally prepared to offer assistance to unwed mothers. But the main things pastors need to know are that abortion is a Bible issue and it’s something the church should actively work against. Therefore, pastors should be active and equipped to lead their parishioners to save lives.

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The post What Pastors Need to Know about Abortion originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.” 

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Director of Content & Research

Andrew Kaake (pronounced like “cake”) is the Director of Content & Research at Equal Rights Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classics and political science, cum laude, from Amherst College, where he wrote a thesis on the topic of C.S. Lewis and natural law philosophy. He completed his master’s degree in bioethics at Trinity International University, studying the philosophical underpinnings of controversies about life, death, and technology and trying to create ways to communicate that information to others. During his studies at Trinity, he worked as a research assistant for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

Andrew wants the pro-life movement to help foster a culture that seeks truth and embraces logical consistency. “What I believe about humanity and personhood clearly impacts what I think about abortion, but it also holds implications for how I should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) dialogue with other people who disagree with me.”

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