Almost 50 years after Roe v. Wade, a new Marist poll shows that when asked to align with one side of the abortion debate, a majority of Americans describe themselves as pro-choice. The disturbing implication is that this means that a large number of those who claim to be faithful Christians are not pro-life.
Currently, about 71 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians, though if we exclude Mormons and Jehovah’s Witness, that figure drops to 68 percent. Based on the Marist poll, we can conclude that about 29 percent of self-identified Christians—almost one in three—do not consider themselves to be pro-life on the issue of abortion. How is it possible for such a large swath of believers to support such evil? Is it even possible to be a faithful Christian and support abortion? I don’t think it is.
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). That’s not a suggestion—it’s framed as an imperative. Those who love Jesus keep his commandments. The corollary is that those who do not keep his commandments do not truly love Jesus. Loving Jesus is the de minimis standard for identifying as a Christian. If you do not truly love Jesus—if you do not even attempt to keep his commandments—you should not call yourself a Christian. This should not be a controversial assertion.
Abortion and the Sixth Commandment
And yet it will be, for many people think they can identify as orthodox believers and reject Jesus’s commandment prohibiting the taking of innocent life. The command was first given by God to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments on two separate occasions (Ex. 20:13 and Deut. 5:17). In the New Testament, we also find the commandment reconfirmed by Jesus (Matt. 5:21), and reiterated by his apostle, Paul (Rom. 13:9). But does it apply to abortion?
As Kevin DeYoung notes, the sixth commandment prohibits much more than just cold-blooded, premeditated murder. It prohibits killing or causing to be killed by direct action or inaction any legally innocent human. Because elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being, abortion is prohibited by God under the sixth commandment.
Again, this should not be controversial, for it was the position of nearly all Christians from the early church fathers until the mid-20th century. Why then do so many Christians disobey this command by rejecting the pro-life position on abortion? I think there are three primary categories of people who believe you can be a follower of Christ and support abortion.
Three Categories of Christians Who Support Abortion
Those who are vincibly ignorant — Vincible ignorance is a useful term, derived from Catholic moral theology, that describes ignorance a person could remove by applying reasonable diligence in the given set of circumstances. As applied to this situation, vincible ignorance could mean that a person is unaware that the Bible prohibits killing innocent humans, or that an embryo/fetus is a human being, and that they would change their position and become pro-life if they were made aware of these facts.
A prime example of vincible ignorance was found among Southern Baptists—and the Southern Baptist Convention—prior to the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1980 that a majority of the denomination began to give the issue much consideration. Once they realized their error—thanks to ardent pro-life advocates such as Richard Land—they changed their position, both individually and also as a denomination.
Today, though, legitimate ignorance of abortion is harder to maintain. Pro-life activists have spent decades providing reasons why, based both on Scripture (i.e., we know God says such killing is wrong) and science (i.e., we know a human embryo/fetus is an actual human being), abortion is morally and biblically wrong. Nevertheless, we can’t discount the possibility that some faithful Christians have still not gotten the message. In such cases we have a duty to educate them on the issue.
Those who are on a trajectory of apostasy — You cannot truly love Jesus and support elective abortion; that’s clear from applying basic moral reasoning to Jesus’s own words. Unfortunately, we live in an age when such hard truths have to be sugarcoated to be considered palatable. Some people would be shocked and dismayed at the claim that rejecting Jesus’s command by supporting abortion means they do not love Jesus and have become apostates. So instead of making that obvious assertion, I’ll merely say such people are on a trajectory of apostasy. (If you disagree, please convince me based on scriptural principles.)
The prime examples in this category are mainline denominations such as the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ. Each of these denominations concluded that abortion is morally acceptable because they first rejected the Bible as their primary source of authority. Their official sanctioning of abortion is a mere signpost that are on a trajectory toward full apostasy.
Within these denominations, some members are clearly apostate and many others are not. Those who are not should wonder why they retain such affiliation. Pro-lifers may justify their staying to change hearts and minds. But they should also be concerned about how their denominations might change them. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).
Those who adopt consequentialist moral relativism — Perhaps the largest category of Christians who are not pro-life is those who believe a form of moral relativism—what I call consequentialist moral relativism—is acceptable for followers of Jesus. Ironically, they are supported in this view by many Christians who do consider themselves to be pro-life.
Consequentialist moral relativism is the claim that in certain limited circumstances, how we perceive and treat moral actions or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative and must be judged solely by its consequences. This differs from consequentialism (the view that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences) in that it is applied inconsistently, and on a case-by-case basis. A consequentialist would say we must always judge the morality of actions based on the consequences, that the ends always justify the means. In contrast, the consequentialist moral relativist (CMR) picks and chooses, on an ad hoc or even post hoc basis, when to adopt consequentialism.
For example, a CMR may agree we should adopt as an absolute universal standard that it is unjust to takes the life of a defenseless human being, and yet still maintain that we can support (or at least turn a blind eye toward) elective abortion when it would allow a woman to avoid negative consequences. These positions are incompatible, of course, but that is one of the primary appeals of consequentialist moral relativism: it doesn’t demand consistency. If anyone calls them out, they can simply shrug and claim, “Everyone else does it too.”
This is nonsense, of course. But there are a shockingly large number of Christians who have adopted consequentialist moral relativism, especially for public morality. Last year I wrote an article making the obvious point that, “God Hates When Christian Politicians Lie. We Should Too.” That article lead many self-professed Christians to complain that I was naively wrong. Their reasoning was pure CMR: we can and should give politicians an exemption from an absolute moral standard (i.e., lying) because it’s necessary to achieve a positive consequence (e.g., pro-life judges).
Because I believe God’s standards are absolute, I concluded the article by saying, “It would be better for us to lose elections than to overlook behavior that could cause someone to lose their soul.” The CMRs found the idea that all Christians should be expected to follow the commands of Christ (and should be rebuked when they fail to do so) absurdly conciliatory to our political foes. Maybe the ends don’t justify the means all the time, they would say, but in politics it often does means supporting moral relativism and consequentialism.
Sadly, many Christians think this is an allowable position for Christians to hold. We have a shockingly high number of immature believers who would say, “Look, I might not choose this man to be a Sunday school teacher in my church, but that’s not what this election is about” or that whether a self-proclaimed Christian politician “violated that commandment [the commandment prohibiting adultery] or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him.” (Note: If you are in a church where the pastor makes such morally relativistic and unbiblical claims, flee as fast as you can and find a church where the preacher supports biblical ethics.) When pro-lifers who claim to be Bible-believing Christians are adopting consequentialist moral relativism to justify our positions, we shouldn’t be surprised that the pro-abortion camp thinks such reasoning is morally and biblically acceptable to apply to their side.
Both groups are wrong. All Christians should oppose abortion. And all Christians should also oppose consequentialist moral relativism. Both oppose God’s commands, and both eventually lead to apostasy and death, both literal and spiritual.
We’re Commanded to Teach God’s Commands
From this the conclusion is simple. If we are going to make the American church pro-life we need to correct ignorance, separate from apostasy, and reject consequentialist moral relativism. Fortunately, we already have orders for our King about how to do this: “teach disciples to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
Teaching self-professed Christians to obey God’s commands might not end abortion completely. But we’d at least be able to end the support for such evil by faithful believers. And if we are ever going to make America an anti-abortion nation, we have to start by making the church overwhelmingly pro-life.