MB Confession of Faith Article 14. Sanctity of Human Life.
We believe that all human life belongs to God. Each person is created in the image of God and ought to be celebrated and nurtured. Because God is Creator, the author and giver of life, we oppose all actions and attitudes which devalue human life. The unborn, disabled, poor, aging, and dying are particularly vulnerable to such injustices. Christ calls the people of all nations to care for the defenseless.
God values human life highly. Ultimate decisions regarding life and death belong to God. Therefore, we hold that procedures designed to take life, including abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide, are an affront to God’s sovereignty. We esteem the life-sustaining findings of medical science, but recognize that there are limits to the value of seeking to sustain life indefinitely. In all complex ethical decisions regarding life and death, we seek to offer hope and healing, support and counsel in the context of the Christian community.
I don’t know of any words more inflammatory in public discourse today than those of “abortion,” “right to life,” and “pro-choice.” It is with great hesitation and a lot of humility that I want to pen a few reflections here on these topics which have recently taken over the news. (As a man, I want to express even more humility since I cannot truly understand women’s experiences and suffering as they face unwanted pregnancies. I hope that my tone and heart here point toward love, compassion, encouragement, blessing, and faithful witness to Jesus.)
It is important to explain my presuppositions on these topics prior to engaging with them. Those who do not share these presuppositions will, obviously, find my reflections puzzling and odd.
First, I believe that for disciples of Jesus, our ethical reflection is to be founded on something more than personal wisdom, medical or scientific knowledge, or an innate sense of what seems to us fair, loving, and/or just. For this reason, we should always be drawn back to Scripture—although I am very aware that we all read Scripture with different and imperfect lenses. We need the Holy Spirit to illuminate Scripture and we need the larger Christian community (MB and beyond) to be our discernment circle as we draw conclusions about how Scripture applies to life.
Second, I believe that our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a God of love, life, beauty, harmony, and shalom (namely, wholeness with God, others, creation, and self)—while at the same time, God actively opposes evil, wickedness, and the powers of darkness which come to “steal, kill, and destroy” (cf. John 10:10). The Divine Creator, Redeemer, and King shows up and works for his Kingdom purposes in both of these ways. This means that God deeply loves us, but this love can challenge, confront, and redirect us (and others) away from what we prefer and value for our own lives. This also means that seeking God’s path here will likely involve suffering and sacrifice for all people involved, but it will also produce true love, life, beauty, harmony, and shalom.
Third, God cares deeply about human suffering of all kinds and often relieves human suffering (physical, spiritual, emotional, etc.), but God also calls us as disciples of Jesus regularly to walk into and through this suffering (cf. Romans 5:3, 8:17; 1 Peter 4:16). God’s love is a costly love that suffers. Jesus’ love led him to suffer faithfully on our and the world’s behalf. Loving in the way of Jesus will lead us into unavoidable suffering. C.S. Lewis has said it well: “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken…. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love is Hell” (The Four Loves). We will need much wisdom to discern between suffering that we should rightfully seek to avoid (and to attempt to relieve in the lives of others), and the necessary suffering that love requires of us and others.
Fourth, followers of Jesus model Jesus most effectively when they intentionally invite the filling of the Holy Spirit. While this filling certainly is demonstrated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit (see Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 12:28), it is more powerfully demonstrated by words and actions in alignment with the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “love [agape], joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Whatever we say and do in relation to these big questions, it must be consistent with the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Fifth, when it comes to ethics, the normal order and priority for followers of Jesus is to invite others to become disciples of Jesus who then embrace Kingdom ethics, rather than imposing Kingdom ethics on non-Kingdom citizens. We are not here to lecture the world about ethics—and even less to “condemn” the world (cf. John 3:17). However, there are times when we must speak up in order to provide a voice for those most vulnerable who have no voice at all.
Sixth, followers of Jesus are called to live by both humility and conviction. We declare what we believe to be true, but we also listen carefully to others, weighing their conclusions and their arguments to see what insights they can provide us. However, we are not “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14) but have bedrock convictions that guide us.
There are times when we must speak up in order to provide a voice for those most vulnerable who have no voice at all.
So, from these presuppositions, I come to this contentious topic. We are trying to navigate, from a biblical and theological foundation, how followers of Jesus should live in relation to medical procedures commonly available to end unwanted pregnancies. While the ending of an unborn child’s life without human intervention is called a “miscarriage,” active human intervention in this process is called “abortion” or the “termination of a pregnancy.” Unwanted pregnancies could result from the unexpected timing of the pregnancy, the special needs of the unborn child, and a variety of other factors in the lives of the mother, father, and/or extended family. Other unwanted pregnancies will result from complex and surely traumatic situations of abuse, rape, adultery, incest, and so on. All of these will have different levels of emotional, relational, and even physical impact on the mother. In rare situations, medical professionals face the situation of choosing between the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child. In these situations, decisions about terminating a pregnancy result from something other than an unwanted pregnancy—and Christians (along with all the other people involved) face the impossible dilemma of trying to honour the sanctity of life for both the mother and the unborn child. So, what can we say in terms of God’s perspective on human efforts to deliberately end a pregnancy?
There are many ethical issues that the Bible clearly addresses with straight-forward verses (e.g., adultery, coveting, etc.). There are other ethical issues that we must depend on guidance based on theological themes. In the case of abortion procedures, there are no straight-forward verses that provide us with exact clarity about God’s will in every situation—there are no clear verses about teen or even pre-teen girl pregnancies, or about pregnancies resulting from rape, medical distress of the mother, profound health challenges of the unborn child, and so on. Even though we may wish for simple clarity about abortion, we must acknowledge that we need Holy Spirit wisdom especially in this moment.
The only specific biblical description of something even looking like a human effort to end a pregnancy comes from Numbers 5:11-31. This text describes the strange case where a pregnant woman suspected of adultery is given bitter water to drink by the priest. The bitter water was to produce a miscarriage if the woman was adulterous but would have no effect if the woman was innocent of adultery. We must assume that the bitter water was not an abortion agent or else every woman given the water would have miscarried and been labeled an adulterer. The water was, presumably, only bitter in taste and it would have no effect unless God intervened miraculously to produce the miscarriage. This text is not about humans actively terminating unwanted pregnancies but about how Old Testament priests could deal wisely and justly with women accused of adultery by husbands who lacked evidence for such a serious charge.
Biblical guidance required
What theological guidance does the Bible provide to guide us in relation to modern attempts to terminate pregnancies? There are several clear theological truths we find in Scripture (and in Article 14 of our Confession of Faith) that have relevance for this question.
First, our loving Creator God gives life, owns life, and sustains life. All humans are stewards of life, and are answerable to God for their lives, their bodies, and all they have. Humans have the responsibility to steward everything in light of God. People are first called to love God with all of their being and from that centre, are invited to love themselves rightly, love others rightly, and love creation rightly. The implication here in relation to abortion is that all discussion about reproductive rights, reproductive freedoms, and terminating pregnancies must be subordinated to questions about what God is doing and giving in terms of life, love, and faithful stewardship. All discipleship ethics begin not with me—but with bowing in worship and seeking first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Second, our loving Creator God cares deeply about true justice and living in a way faithful to God’s justice (cf. Micah 6:8). Biblical justice involves the actions of making things right for all involved. Justice produces shalom where all humans and all creation work together for mutual flourishing in a way which brings glory to God. Biblical justice is not defined simply by equal rights or equal freedoms but by all sharing the obligations of justice. While some claim that unlimited access to abortion is essentially a justice issue (understood as this procedure being equally accessible to all), for abortion to be “just” in the biblical sense of justice, it must move all involved closer to shalom. Justice cannot be at the expense of the most vulnerable, but justice obligates all those with more resources and power than the unborn child (viz., mother, father, family, community) to step in to contribute to mutual flourishing in the direction of shalom. Justice means that those with resources must sacrificially seek the well-being of those who lack them. Terminating the life of those without a voice can hardly be celebrated as an act of justice.
Third, our loving Creator God has endowed all humans with the status of imago dei (divine image bearers) which involves capacities, responsibilities, and blessings unique to human beings. While it is unclear when in the human journey from conception to birth, this valuable status becomes its full reality, there are multiple times in Scripture when it is clear that God declares the unborn child as “you” (e.g., Jeremiah 1:5; cf. Psalm 139:13-16) implying that there is no disconnect between the “you” prior to birth and the “you” post-birth. The Bible does not identify the pre-birth “you” with the mother—but rather with the later fully formed “you.” While the Bible does not describe this scientific detail, we know that the fertilized egg inside the mother is more than just a part of her body. This fertilized egg has a genetic makeup different from the mother. The fertilized egg will soon have a beating heart separate from the heart of the mother. The fertilized egg is not the mother nor is it the father. It is a new entity separate and distinct from both. While the Bible does not refer to the developing egg with the words imago dei, the close continuity with the imago dei child it is becoming, endows the developing egg with profound value as well.
Where humans give up hope and see no future, God often brings hope
Even from this short theological reading, it would seem that human efforts to terminate pregnancies must face squarely questions about how humans are called to participate with God in the formation of new human image bearers; what true justice looks like for all involved; and what it means for mothers to carry in their wombs developing fertilized eggs that are dependent yet separate from the mother herself.
We must also acknowledge that we do not always know what true love and justice look like in cases where there is a great conflict between the well-being of the mother and the well-being of the unborn child. Especially in cases of high-risk pregnancies and traumatic vulnerability between the mother and the unborn child will be much different than in most other situations. Much godly wisdom will be needed to discern what love, life, and true justice looks like in these moments—but we also believe that our loving Creator God can bring beauty out of ashes (cf. Isaiah 61:3). Where humans give up hope and see no future, God often brings hope and healing. In the biblical story, children are the very embodiment of hope.
If the preceding sketch of a theology related to terminating pregnancy is faithful to Scripture, there are implications for our local church families. Whatever the circumstances surrounding a child’s conception, suffering love calls church families to care for mothers in sacrificial and tangible ways. Whatever the circumstances surrounding a child’s conception, this love calls church families to care for newborn children with celebratory welcome rather than stigma. There are no “illegitimate children” born in our world, only beautiful and profoundly valuable image bearers created by God with a calling to worship and serve God with their whole being. Whatever the circumstances surrounding a child’s conception, the church family must participate in the work of justice and shalom especially when there is no one else to stand in the gap. Whatever the circumstances of a child’s conception, suffering love must value the well-being of all participants. The church community faithful to the way of Jesus must embody this love.
The embodied Kingdom Community
Now, it is clear that all of this talk of biblical justice, suffering love, and holistic shalom will make little sense to those outside of our church family. The New Testament focuses on the Church as the embodied Kingdom Community, worshipping King Jesus, and living out God’s Kingdom way in the world. Jesus doesn’t spend much time telling Rome how to run its empire. However, in Canada, we have some level of ability to influence the laws and processes in our larger world. While political transformation of Canada should never be our Christian hope for how God’s Kingdom comes, we do not shy away from being a prophetic voice for the well-being of all—especially the vulnerable in our world. If we ignore the vulnerable, we are accomplices in their harm.
There is no question that the unborn are in the category of the vulnerable—but it will be hard to bear faithful witness for them if we have not also recognized our lack of suffering love and advocacy for women who experience profound vulnerability and harm at the hands of others. We must repent (and this means actually turning in a new direction) if we hope to speak with integrity on this question. If we are wanting mothers to make their own well-being secondary in order to ensure the ongoing life of the vulnerable unborn child, we must also be willing to put our well-being aside and stand with those who are paying a high price. How can we communicate and demonstrate this commitment much more effectively in our world?
Speaking to secular government about this topic and to individuals/groups who do not share our commitment to Jesus will be most effective when we use discourse that is understandable to our audience (“justice for mother and for child” rather than “abortion is murder”). Quoting Bible verses, using inflammatory language, or yelling slogans most often ends conversation rather than invites people into deeper conversation and change. Change comes by means of the Holy Spirit inviting and convicting. Our discourse needs to be consistent with the methods of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22-23).
In addition, law making in a pluralistic society is most often about compromises between competing perspectives. While Christians believe behaviours like adultery or pornography are contrary to God’s will, we do not really expect Canada to make laws to make these illegal. We do, however, hope Canada will bring in laws to limit their worst forms (e.g., child pornography). Because Canadian law is at best a “compromise” in relation to Kingdom ethics, the best possible outcome of our witness to the state is that Canada would put some sort of limits on abortion availability rather than outlaw the practice entirely. But we must also go on record to support governmental actions that protect women and children against sexual violence, abuse, and so on. And we must also be people who live out God’s compassion in our local communities. We as Christians cannot be single-agenda people since our convictions about the sanctity of life have implications for all the vulnerable in our world and not simply the unborn.
Kingdom living in the way of Jesus is not something that can be imposed on the world by coercion or political power. Kingdom living is animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit and lived not simply in light of the realities of our present age but in light of what Jesus is bringing with his final and beautiful return. This is why it is so challenging to communicate effectively to our world our desire to love mothers well and love unborn children well. If we manage to win some political victory without winning people over to join with us in our love for both the mother and the unborn child, it will be an empty victory and a short-lived moment in our cultural narrative.