A Clergyman Answers the Fears Pastors Face
As They Address the Issue of ABORTION
— In 1999, Father Frank Pavone wrote this essay to address the common problem in the Christian community, Christian leadership confronting the challenging topic of abortion.
Am I afraid of being perceived as “right wing,” fanatical,” “traditionalist,” or out of step with my people?
The real question to ask here is, “Why was I called to preach?” If I have been called to shepherd God’s people and to lead them, then I am called to help them see and practice the truth. I am not to be led around by any factions, either on the “left” or the “right.” Rather, I am to lead the people by the truth. If in doing this my church becomes labeled, so what? If people can influence us by labels, isn’t that a weakness on our part?
Am I afraid of being a single issue pastor?
From one perspective, there is no ground to this fear. A pastor addresses many issues, sometimes several in a given sermon. The real fear is, “What will happen if I address abortion even once?” From another perspective, of course, there is only one issue, because if there isn’t life, then there can be no other rights and no people to discuss them.
Will I drive away women who have had abortions?
We preach on abortion to save such women, and to protect other women from making the same mistake. A letter we received from a woman who had an abortion urges us not to fear speaking out. “I can’t help but think that if I heard in church that abortion was wrong…I might have chosen to keep my baby instead of killing my baby.” As we condemn abortion, we also proclaim forgiveness and healing. Experts in post-abortion healing tell us that it is absolutely essential that the woman “stop using the mechanisms of defense, such as denial, self- repression, and rationalization of abortion.” (Dr. Philip Mango, “The Consequences of Abortion and Their Treatment,” August 1990) Men and women both must face the fact that a baby was killed. We can help them enter the path of healing by proclaiming the truth about abortion and the reality of forgiveness. When we address abortion, it tells her, “We care.” Our silence, on the other hand, does not interpret itself. To her, it could mean that we don’t know her pain, or worse, that we don’t care.
Am I afraid I may alienate some of my members?
Certainly, we do not want to unnecessarily offend or alienate anyone from our church. We are reconcilers. At the same time, the One to Whom we reconcile the people is God. To have the people coming to our church is one aspect of our mission; another aspect is to make sure that when they come, they hear the full message of the Gospel. This is not a favor to them; they have a right to hear the Gospel fully proclaimed. To believe we can do this faithfully and at the same time never alienate anyone is to ignore the fact that even Christ Himself alienated some people (see, for example, the interaction between Jesus and His hearers in John 6). Can we do better than Christ did? Such alienation is not intentional on our part, but it is inevitable. This is so because of the mystery of freedom. Some people have alienated themselves from the truth about abortion. If then, we faithfully expose that truth, they may choose to alienate themselves from us, too. This is not the same as “driving them away,” which is a situation in which we provide the cause of alienation by our carelessness or unkindness.
Am I afraid of dividing my Church?
The fact is, every church is already “divided” in the sense that you will find people on different sides of the abortion issue. If we never speak of the issue, we may cover over the division for a while, but that is not the same thing as unity. Unity is founded on truth, and is fostered by a clear exposition of truth. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32). We do not build unity by our own human plans, efforts, and programs. We build it by lifting up Christ for all to see and hear. We build unity by proclaiming His Word, without ambiguity or apology. Sure, there will be some division for the same reason that there will be some alienation. But the Word itself causes that. “I have come for division” (Luke 12:51). It is the division between truth and error, grace and sin, life and death. This division must come before unity is possible; otherwise the unity will be superficial and illusory.
Am I just too busy to get more involved?
Much of what we are called to do for pro-life does not take more time. Rather, it takes more spirit. It doesn’t take any extra time to preach on abortion than to preach on any other topic. It doesn’t take any more time to put a pro-life announcement in the bulletin than it does to put in any other kind of announcement. It doesn’t take any more time to let a pro-life group know they have your encouragement. Beyond this, we can reflect that innocent life is at stake. If we would take time to try to save a child who was struck by a car out on the road near our Church, can we not also take the time to do something about 4400 children being deliberately torn limb from limb every day? All our time is God’s anyway. Let’s use more of it to save His children!
Do I feel inadequate to the task of addressing abortion?
There may be variations on this theme, which are addressed in the next several questions. In general, there may be a lack of self-confidence. If so, we need to strengthen our confidence by becoming more informed about the issue, by speaking with other pastors who are active in the movement, by prayer, and by experience. There is sometimes a fear that we will give the issue the wrong emphasis (“coming down too hard,” “fostering guilt,” “sounding uncaring”). To help counteract this, we can resolve that our speaking on abortion will always include reference to the help available to women in need, as well as to the peace and forgiveness available to us in Christ.
Do I believe abortion is too complex to be addressed in a sermon?
If this is our attitude, we can ask, “How is it complex?” Certainly it is psychologically complex. Morally, however, it is quite straightforward: abortion is a direct killing of an innocent person, and is therefore always wrong. Nothing can justify it. Is it “too complex” to denounce killing in a sermon? Is it “too complex” to point out injustice toward the most defenseless members of society? Is it “too complex” to proclaim that there is help available for pregnant women, and that there are better choices than abortion? How is this any more complex than addressing racism, poverty, warfare, or drug abuse?
Does the complexity of a large and varied congregation deter me from addressing abortion?
Any good public speaker knows that a primary rule is “Know your audience.” A Sunday congregation is a varied audience, in terms of age, education, and spiritual maturity. The problem of addressing such a group is not limited to abortion. For any subject, we must exercise sensitivity and prudence. At the same time our audience is not in a vacuum, nor are they living in a Christian society. We must consider the shocking, confusing, and erroneous messages they are constantly hearing outside our Church. Young people are being corrupted. Our challenge is to provide them with truth that will counteract the corrupting errors they hear elsewhere. If our criterion in preaching is that every person will immediately understand everything we say, we are using an unrealistic and unnecessary criterion. People will so differ, furthermore, in their estimation about what is “appropriate,” that there will always be some criticism. We must live with that. We should make it clear that we are always open to speak with people privately if questions or misunderstandings arise due to our preaching. Using prudence, we must at the same time ask, “If they don’t hear the truth from us, exactly where and when will they hear it?” Do we allow a society which is saturated with pro-abortion rhetoric and so often intent on covering up the truth about abortion to have the first, last, and only word with people whom we are responsible to shepherd?
Do I have trouble relating abortion to Scripture?
My own theological field of expertise is Scripture, and I will say without qualification that if Scripture does not teach the immorality of abortion, it does not teach anything at all. A particular word like “abortion” does not have to appear in the text of Scripture in order for Scripture to teach clearly about it. The word “Trinity,” for example, is not anywhere in the Bible, but the teaching is. Abortion is the killing of an innocent, human child. The teaching on abortion is contained in the numerous condemnations of the shedding of innocent blood, and the numerous instructions about charity, especially toward the weak, the small, the helpless, and those whom society rejects. Numerous texts can be pointed to, but beyond this are the entire themes and directions in which Scripture moves. The people of the old and new covenants are called to be a holy people, a community bound to God and one another in love. This happens because God takes the initiative not only in giving life but in intervening to save the helpless. Such are central events of both the Old and the New Testaments. Abortion belongs to a totally contradictory dynamic of thought and life. It excludes members of the community and destroys rather than defends the helpless.
Am I disillusioned by the lack of support I have in addressing abortion?
We may not receive the encouragement we need from our fellow pastors, members of our church, or denominational authorities. Contact with other pastors who have taken a stand on behalf of life can be very helpful as you step out. In most congregations, encouragement to speak out is certainly there. When the pastor takes a strong stand on life, that encouragement will actually grow. These people are just waiting for their pastor to lead, and they will gladly follow once he does. Complaints may also come, but it is not the complainers who have to answer to God for what is preached or not preached in the pulpit! In regard to our denominational authorities, we need to heed Scripture’s advice to pray for them, and if some are not encouraging us regarding the life issues, we should kindly but firmly request that they do.
Am I “turned off” by the eccentricity of some pro-lifers?
There are “eccentrics” in every movement, as well as “fanatics” that take things too far. But if our own prevailing impression of pro-lifers is that they are eccentric, it may indicate that we have had very little exposure to the people in the movement. Pro-lifers are among the most dedicated and selfless people in the world. They love those who cannot love them back and endure ridicule, cost and injury in the process. The pro-life movement is the largest grassroots movement in the history of the United States. Of course there are eccentrics. There are also many saints. (Sometimes these categories overlap!) Studies show that the pro-life movement, vast and varied as it is, is more a reflection of America than the pro-abortion movement.
Furthermore, it is very much in our power to strengthen the pro-life movement by bringing into it as many people as possible, including professionals of every field. The local church (in conjunction with para-church ministries) should be the pro-life movement of the neighborhood! It is up to us to make that happen! Nobody is exempt from the call to be a “pro-lifer.” What, after all, is the alternative?
Don’t the people in my church already know enough about abortion?
Many pastors feel this way. But think again. After fighting legalized abortion since 1973 we still fact the tragedy that every child in the womb today still remains legally abortable. These abortions still occur at the rate of one every 20 seconds (i.e. 4400 a day, 1.6 million a year), and Christians, statistically, procure abortions as much as anyone else. Seventy-three percent of the women getting an abortion claim some Christian affinity, and one out of every six identifies herself as an evangelical or “born again” Christian. Knowledge obviously, is still lacking. Most people still do not know, for instance, the extent of abortion, the revolting ways it is performed, or the harmful physical and psychological after-effects of the procedure on the mother. Many know abortion is evil but they do not realize how evil it is. Moreover, knowledge is not virtue. Our task is to rouse people to do something about it. If they already know enough about it, where are our local pro-life groups? Where are our local crisis pregnancy centers and shelters for unwed mothers? Many exist but so many more are needed! People need encouragement from us more than ever as they are bombarded with pro-abortion slogans and lies and as fear of lawsuits is keeping many away from perfectly legitimate pro-life activity. If at times we feel like we are “preaching to the choir” let’s realize that people can quit the choir, which is exactly what the other side wants to happen.
Am I afraid of “political issues”?
Is the killing of children merely a political issue? In the moral and spiritual realm how is abortion different from the killing of 2-year-olds? Do we have any less obligation to speak up for our brothers and sisters before they are born than after they are born? Does the fact that politicians talk about abortion require us to be silent? It is amazing how the Church receives such praise for speaking up for peace or for economic justice which are also “political issues ” but is subject to different rules when it comes to abortion. Some clergy will be silent saying it is a “political issue.” Then some politicians will be silent saying it is a “religious issue.” If abortion is immoral, where do we go to say so?
Actually, abortion is many things. It is an issue of public policy which we have every right to influence. It is a moral issue and a fundamental human rights issue for all men and women of good will. It is a spiritual issue confronting us with the challenge as to whether we will peacefully co-exist with child-killing in our midst or rather acknowledge God as the Lord of Life and worship Him by defending life.
If being afraid of political issues is the problem, how much more should we fear spiritual ones in which the powers at war are much more awesome and the stakes much higher! But we are pastors. We do not undertake the task on human strength but in the power and authority of Christ. Hence we do not let fear deter us.
Am I afraid of being confrontational?
Being confrontational is not the same as being uncharitable. Our Lord, who ate with sinners, also confronted them. Love demands confrontation because it cannot rest if the beloved is entangled in evil. Love seeks the good of the beloved and this means it has to get tough at times to extricate the beloved from evil. Many think of the price of confrontation but forget that there is also a price to be paid for not confronting. The price is that evil continues to flourish, relationships become shallow and superficial, and true leadership vanishes because the leader is no longer able to point out the right path and will eventually lose the respect of those who look to him for guidance.
Do I see the abortion issue as a lost cause and therefore a waste of time?
Abortion is a brand new cause every day. The cause is the life that is today, the life that can be saved today. Each day in our country the abortion “issue” is really 4400 “issues,” namely, the real human children who are scheduled for death and have never died before. Each day it is a new tragedy, demanding a new response. A lost cause? Why? Are we perhaps no longer allowed to speak up for the defenseless? Are we no longer able to love the mothers of these children and provide help for them? Can we no longer help people see the truth about how evil abortion is? Do we perhaps not have God on our side? Does a government that abandons its responsibility to defenseless children have the last and definitive word? No, not for a minute is this a waste of time. We have no reason and no right to declare this cause lost. It is not a question of pro-life winning or pro-choice winning. The fact is that if pro-life doesn’t win, nobody wins! We are talking about the very existence of human civilization! The error of declaring certain categories of people to be “non-persons” has occurred before in history (Nazi Germany; slavery; etc.) and has been corrected. It can, must, and will be corrected again. To resolve anything less is not simply to abandon a “cause;” it is to commit suicide.
Am I afraid that in addressing abortion I am allowing a “personal agenda” to intrude into the worship service?
If defending innocent children from death and reaching out in practical charity to help pregnant women in need is simply a “personal agenda,” then what is the Church’s agenda! Can it be possible to not include this? (See James 1:27)
Will I endanger our tax-exemption by speaking on abortion?
No. The law does not forbid us from speaking on public policy issues. Though non-profit designated churches are required to refrain from partisan electoral politics, issue-oriented speech is protected by the First Amendment, even within the section 501(c)(3) regulatory framework. A church may not endorse a candidate, but it can freely take a stand on important public issues. (The National Association of Evangelicals has put together a brochure specifically detailing what a church may or may not do under the non-profit tax status.)
Am I uncertain about the credibility of the teaching itself ?
All the teachings of the Lord Jesus hold together in an indivisible, living unity. We may not see the full “credibility” of any of the teachings if we isolate them from the whole, or eclipse the others. Is it difficult at times to observe the Bible’s clear directives on abortion? Certainly. But there are other difficult obligations, including dying to ourselves, loving our neighbor, forgiving those who have sinned against us, and so on. In this context, the teaching on abortion is in fact very credible, and will be so to our people if we present it as part of a clear, vigorous exposition of the entire Gospel, with no distortions or omissions, and if we place it in the context of a life marked by faith, compassion, and deep holiness.
This essay was written by Fr. Frank Pavone, a priest and national director of Priests for Life. It was edited for Protestant use by Gary Thomas, director of public education for Care Net