Churches on Abortion: Why We Differ

Open bible with a cup of coffee for morning devotion on wooden table

Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources


In early May 2022, a working draft of a majority opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health was leaked. In it, the Court looked ready to severely weaken if not overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which liberalized abortion laws throughout the United States and its territories. For those favoring abortion rights, the outcry was quick and loud.

What was troubling is a statement that came from the president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), which read in part: “…the leaked draft does not represent the Supreme Court’s ruling in its final form; nevertheless, it contradicts this church’s teaching. This church teaches that abortion and reproductive health care, including contraception, must be legal and accessible.”

In contrast, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) find and teach that abortion is clearly contrary to the Word of God.

Both positions cannot be correct, yet how can each church body speak so confidently? We see similar contrasts on such issues as marriage, gender, birth control, and assisted suicide.

Ideology vs. Theology

The Apostle Paul provided Timothy with an interesting observation about the nature of people. He wrote:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:2,3)

When people look for a teacher to tell them what they want to hear, what do they point to as their source of authority? They themselves become that authority. They want instruction that fortifies what they already believe.

This is understandable. Most of us create circles of friends based on shared interests and likes. We welcome the like-minded and ostracize those with whom we differ.

That is fine when talking about ways to decorate, what to plant in a vegetable garden, or what to wear at a picnic. It becomes problematic, however, when the issue takes on a moral or theological tone.

It is our nature to think ideologically. We think in terms of issues (ideas that we highly value or believe in) and then construct a support base around those convictions. Ideology is what drives people to seek out teachers who will say what their itching ears want to hear. Some people like to think they don’t have any ideology – that they just work with facts – but of course, defining certain things as “fact” and others as not is itself an ideology.

We run into problems when ideology clashes with theology. In other words, when our ideas clash with what is revealed as authoritative instruction, we are faced with a question: Does our theology drive our ideology, or does our ideology drive our theology?

The answer seems easy for those of us who have been raised in our Christian faith. Of course, our theology drives our ideology. In practice, however, it is much more difficult for two reasons:

Reason #1: Authority

What is the standard by which we make judgments involving right and wrong? Let’s take slavery as an example. Slavery is pretty much universally unacceptable in our society today. There was, however, a time in our history when many people believed slavery to be an acceptable and perhaps even good thing. Are we “right” to oppose slavery, or were they “right” to favor slavery? Why? Was it just a matter of opinion? Is that enough to take a stand? What is it that makes our anti-slavery position correct, and the pro-slavery position wrong?

Now let’s wade into the deep end of the pool:

What if an adult wants to be sexually active with a 14-year-old child? What if the child is agreeable? Is it still wrong? Why? What makes it wrong if both the adult and child think it is right?

What about abortion? Why is it wrong? Why would it be acceptable? How do we know the right and wrong position?

Ask yourself: “Am I led theologically or ideologically?” Ideological convictions unite us on issues like slavery and pedophilia, yet separate us on issues like abortion, gender, and marriage. For many of us, the Bible answers the questions.

So, how do we handle this source of authority? Do we believe the Bible “contains” the Word of God, or that it “is” the Word of God?

Historical Lutheranism holds to what are called the “Three Solas”: Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), and Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). In other words, we believe we are saved by faith, it is entirely without works (grace), and that Scripture is the only reliable, inspired, and inerrant standard for truth. The Bible not only contains God’s Word but is God’s Word.

Some Lutheran churches (and other church bodies in general) have spun the meaning of Sola Scriptura. Here is an example of how they do that:

Lutherans follow a man, Jesus Christ, not a book. The Holy Scriptures testify to the Word of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. The authority of the Lutheran church is rooted in the testimony of scripture. The Lutheran church reads that testimony through the eyes of the gospel, which is the good news of Jesus Christ who defeated death and bridged the gap between humans and God. [ELCA church in the state of Washington]

This is a convoluted way of saying “The Bible ‘contains’ the Word of God.” What follows from that position is that not all parts of the Bible are true, reliable, or binding on Christians.

What is important to note is that the statement is presumptive (i.e., “Lutherans follow…”) as if it speaks for all Lutherans (it doesn’t). Second, it distinguishes between “The Holy Scriptures” and “The Word of God.” Finally, it subordinates all of Scripture to the “eyes of the gospel.” Notice how that obscures, rather than clarifies: Because only the message of Jesus defeating death defines the rest of Scripture, that position permits the church or any person to ignore the parts that are uncomfortable. That brings us to the second reason that living by theology is difficult:

Reason #2: Inclination

Three passages of Scripture are especially haunting for me:

The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. (Genesis 8:21) [emphasis added]

Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold. (Matthew 24:12) [emphasis added]

For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:19) [emphasis added]

In my younger days I looked at the evil others did, I read the stories of others who did not help those in their time of need, and I understood Paul had a problem practicing what he preached. That examination was superficial. In time I came to understand the inclination of my heart is evil, my love grows cold, and my actions do not always reflect the good I desire. In other words, I had to discover the plank in my own eye (Matthew 7:3,4).

So, to ask the old Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” This means that even while recognizing the authority of Scripture I am engaged in a constant and unrelenting battle with an inclination to reject the authority of Scripture. As Paul also said:

The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7,8)

The problem with chasing after teachers to tell us what our itching ears want to hear is that our itching ears are not a reliable standard of what is right and wrong. And when we gather people around us who think and feel as we do about passionate issues, we become reinforced in notions that may very well be wrong.

Tension

Often when I preach or teach, I say something on the order of, “If you find living the Christian faith is going well for you, you are likely doing it wrong.” When considering my own inclinations, it means there are all sorts of things God says that should make me squirm. I am at war with him. Like Paul, the good that I would do, I do not.

Sometimes I sense what is right and wrong, without ever knowing what the Bible says on the matter. We are told:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. (Romans 2:14)

That is why my inner being rebels against things like slavery and pedophilia. Yet even those with what would be considered an especially strong faith can stumble in their faith life. There is infidelity, slander, thievery, and worse from those who seemed to live exemplary lives of faith. We see it even in the people the Bible gives us as examples of faith, and we see it around us today. And we feel it within ourselves. When society says one thing and the Bible states another, it is so, so, so much easier to side with society. In examining this reality Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand—from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: “What is the will of God?” [Ethics]

My point is simple: Left to our own reasoning, we are flawed. It is within our nature to rebel, challenge, bend, and twist the truth to suit our desires. We, too, have itching ears.

This is how Christians, who in one breath proclaim salvation through faith in Christ alone, will in another breath take a position contrary to what is found in Scripture. When finding portions of Scripture uncomfortable, they contrive a reason to ignore it. This is why abortion-rights advocates focus on how “God is love” and then presume that “love” permits what they wish to promote, without consulting the more uncomfortable portions of Scripture that might actually show their presumptions are wrong.

Surrender

So, now what do we do? First, let’s focus for a moment on the plank in our own eyes. It is harder to be pro-life when we could be the ones facing an unwanted pregnancy. It is harder to recognize two genders (male and female) when we are facing gender confusion. It is harder to want to go on with a life that has become filled with discomfort and sadness. Yet, we surrender to an authority beyond our comfort levels. We acknowledge that our inclination shifts with the degree to which we find ourselves in crisis. And we recognize our inclinations need to be checked and balanced.

That is why we talk about a “surrender” in the Christian faith. We do not surrender to be saved or to earn God’s attention and forgiveness. We surrender because life is not about earning God’s favor. Rather, it is a demonstration of what it means for us to be favored by God. We surrender to the Scriptures not in worship but in obedience. We are told:

In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. (1 John 5:3)

The Apostle is not talking about keeping the commands we like or those that make us happy or bring us pleasure. We keep all God’s commands in surrender to a wisdom and truth that far exceeds our notions of good and evil. We surrender to God’s commands because our desire is to first demonstrate to God our love for him and the sacrifice he made with the gift of his own Son for our sins.

The Apostle Paul described life as a “good fight” and a “race” to be finished (2 Timothy 4:7). Jesus said, when we follow his Word, the world hates us because it hated him first (Matthew 10:22). When Paul and Barnabas lived God’s Word and suffered for it, they reminded the people:

We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)

It is not easy. It is seldom popular. It is rarely comfortable. Yet, submission to the authority of Scripture is always right.

Correction

Identifying a problem is of little value if we do not serve as a force of good to bring about correction. Once we surrender our will to the perfect will of God expressed through his Word, we can then begin to help others correct themselves. We do it not like a wild man beating off an attacking bear. Instead, we are told to:

Correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 4:2)

People spend a lifetime forming their opinions and values. Rarely can change be brought about overnight. Think of what that involves. What do you think it would take for the president of the ELCA to back away from what she wrote about abortion? She is a theologian and holds the highest position in that church body. Even getting past the obstacle of illogic, everyone’s great internal foe must be tackled, namely: pride. Change comes hard.

So, if we wish to see Christians with unbiblical positions change them to biblical ones, we need to approach them with “great patience and careful instruction.” Loving correction means showing error, not just in their position, but also in the process used to arrive at their position.

The most powerful word in your arsenal is “Why?” When someone argues in favor of abortion rights, ask, “Why do you feel abortion is a right to be protected?” Because there is no right to abortion in Scripture, there is ultimately some perceived sense of rightness extracted from a flawed notion about themselves.

In a world of sin, there are many examples of generally unacceptable behavior, prompted by an individual’s suspicions, notions, or sense of justice. It could be a brutal murder, an act of rape, terrible vandalism, horrible slander, and the list goes on. These examples point out how others, using their own internal sense of right and wrong, arrive at very unpopular (wrong?!?!) conclusions. How can we be certain that they are not right, and we are not wrong?

Do not look for a mountaintop conversion experience. As with most of our ministry of God’s Word, we are planting seeds and fertilizing. God, in his own time and through his Holy Spirit, will not permit his words to have been wasted when we speak them (Isaiah 55:11).

Also, remember why you seek correction. For the unbeliever, our motive is to connect them with their Creator. Correction is of secondary concern as we set out to illustrate the consequences of sin and God’s solution in Jesus Christ. Our premier concern is for their soul.

For believers who have pursued the conclusions of itching ears rather than the truth, we need to help them get back to the truth. We need to help them realize that the right obedience of God’s Word is the expression of gratitude for God’s solution to sin. To do that, we want to seek out and find common ground.

Remember that in a world driven by ideology rather than theology, the rapport is built around a common ideology that, for us, is rooted in Scripture. Maybe we can’t find common ground on abortion, but perhaps that common ground is in fighting for better care for single mothers and babies. Maybe we cannot find common ground on a binary (male/female) understanding of sexuality. Maybe our common ground is to feed the hungry or house the homeless.

As we build a rapport, we earn a place at the table to discuss the more delicate differences that divide us. Because our goal is NOT to win the argument but to either lead someone to Christ or to help someone improve as God’s servant, we walk the difficult and time-demanding path of correction rather than conquest.

Again, it is a process. The Apostle Paul said:

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. (Philippians 3:15)

Be as patient with others as you know God is with you. In so doing, you will be keeping your head in all circumstances (2 Timothy 4:5). You will find the resolve to remain calm and patient, even though ideologically you may become incensed. Theologically, you know what it means to be the object of perfect love. Let Christ be your role model.

It is troubling when anyone expresses a view that speaks “for the church” when it is lacking a biblical foundation for what it says. While it is tempting to get into a battle with words, our greater concern is to speak the truth with clarity, love, and patience. We shall continue to do so.

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