There are, besides moral reasons (such as fear), intellectual reasons to account for the rampant abortion apathy that has characterized the American Church since Roe v Wade (1973). Scripture is clear that “as a man thinketh, so is he” (Prov 23:7). Even if we overcome the moral reasons, we cannot live rightly unless we also think rightly. So if we are to abolish human abortion it is absolutely necessary that we articulate and refute the rationale that has enabled biblical Christianity to justify more than four decades of unprotesting coexistence alongside the most monstrous, industrialized evil the world has ever seen.
Much of the abortion indifference in biblical Christians who possess credible professions of faith may be attributable to a single, albeit subtle, supposition: namely, that if one’s doctrine is correct, one’s doctrine cannot be incorrect. I know that sounds like double-talk, so let me explain.
Biblical Christians take their cues from the Scriptures. Once they are convinced the Bible teaches something, out of allegiance to their Lord they are likely to make every effort to conform their lives to that teaching.
But there are two errors even sincere biblical Christians fall prey to that enable them to ostensibly honor the Scriptures and yet still rationalize abortion as no big deal to God, as something He is not especially intent on His people addressing.
The first error involves a failure to distinguish between “letter and spirit”. The second, a failure to recognize the limitations of proof texts.
The “Letter versus Spirit” Error
The apostle Paul spoke of “the letter” and “the spirit” of the law (2 Corinthians 3:6; Romans 2:27-29). Most of us are familiar with the distinction: By “the letter” is meant the bare statement; by “the spirit” is meant the full, underlying import and intent. The concept is so important to a correct interpretation and application of written documents that it constitutes an indispensable principle of Western jurisprudence.
The point is, since it is possible to interpret and apply “the law” (i.e., the written word) in two different ways—one that respects merely the face value of the words, the other the author’s intent as well—a person’s doctrine can be, simultaneously, correct in the first sense and incorrect in the second. In other words, it is possible to be technically correct as to what the letter says, but incorrect as to what it means.
This in large measure accounts for evangelical tepidity on abortion: we are sure we know the Scriptures, and we note that the Scriptures say little about anti-abortion activism. Therefore, proportionate inaction is, to our way of thinking, biblical.
On its bare face—i.e., according to the “letter of the law”—this seems to be right and true. After all, you won’t find many verses that say, “vote to abolish abortion,” or “peacefully demonstrate in front of Planned Parenthood clinics”, or “preach regularly against the great evil of abortion.” Our scholarship is good; we know what the Bible says; we have mastered the letter of the law.
But the more important question—indeed, the all-important question—is, have we discerned the “spirit of the law”? If not then all our biblical knowledge is so much brilliant darkness, illuminating nothing but the fact of our own blindness.
St. Paul, a man who unquestionably understood what the spirit of the law is, described it in no uncertain terms when he wrote, under divine inspiration:
“He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; Galatians 6:2)
As clear as the apostle Paul’s words are, it is clearer still that they are virtually impossible to reconcile with passivity on abortion. For whatever else we may tell ourselves about the letter of Scripture, however much we may convince ourselves that we truly follow Christ, regardless of how sure we are that we love God and obey His word, the sober reality is that “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
So how have we missed this?
Too often we have concluded the bible is chiefly a book of instructions, a simplistic “Spirituality for Dummies” handbook, if you will. But if that were the case, Israel would have been ready to meet Jesus the Messiah with open arms when He arrived on the scene. The Bible is not a very good instruction book if it instructs almost no one in its most important point.
We must ask the question, how does the Bible expect the Bible to be used?
The apostle Paul tells us the Bible was written not to prepare the head so much as the heart. Writing to the Galatians he says “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal 3:23-24).
The law (the OT), Paul says, was given to force us (i.e. to “shut us up”) to the conclusion that we need a Savior to show us the way of salvation, not to be a fixit manual to make our lives more successful or pleasurable.
In other words, God’s intent was not to satisfy the intellect by providing easy answers to life’s difficulties, but to stir the heart to feel our desperate need for the One who will care for us in all circumstances so that we will continually turn to Him. In that regard the Bible did and does a very good job. It doesn’t give us everything we want, but it gives us everything we need.
What Paul means when he says the Scriptures are our spiritual tutor to lead us to Christ is that they are a compendium of words leading us to the Word par excellence. The most important things God has to say to us cannot be contained or expressed in mere written words, in what Paul calls “the letter of the law.” They can only be adequately conveyed by a Person, the Word Incarnate. The book of Hebrews tells us that “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (1:1-2).
The reason so many Christians today are fuzzy on big moral issues like abortion is because they are using the Bible like Cliff’s Notes, as if there were a summary verse or two for every issue God considers important, and if the verses aren’t there, then the issue just isn’t all that important. It was omitted to signify its relative unimportance.
But in concluding this, Christians stumble at the letter of the law, just like James and John did when they said, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” You will recall that Jesus “turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” (Luke 9:54-55) James and John were faithful to the letter of the law, trying as they were merely to follow biblical precedent. But Jesus said they missed the spirit–the point, the true intent, the essential message of the Scriptures, which is that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word, that thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Galatians 5:14). James and John, like so many of us, follow the letter of the law, but not the Life of the Lawgiver, and yet that was the whole point of the law in the first place.
So the fault lies not with the Scriptures, but with the way the Scriptures are used. We biblical Christians know our Bible to the extent that we’ve mastered the letter of the law, but sadly, as 43-plus years of silence on abortion testify, we’ve completely missed the spirit.
In the final analysis, there are only two moral commandments under which all other commandments are subsumed, and according to Christ they are alike: love God supremely, and love people above all else for His sake. That is the whole Word of God to us condensed and shed abroad in a Single Life–Jesus Christ.
If that is the message, if that is the spirit of the law, if that is the point of the Scriptures and the life of Christ, then how can we as followers of Love Incarnate not be passionate about Love’s responsibilities, with or without a verse of Scripture, a proof-text, to validate our passion and compassion? If we have to have a proof-text for everything, then how do we differ from those who live according to the letter of the law, which Paul says, not only does very little good, it actually “kills” (2 Cor 3:6).
Which leads into the second error so many biblical Christians make: to assume that proof texts alone are sufficient and required to describe and defend any biblical doctrine.
The Limitations of Proof Texts
Most evangelicals infer how important something is to God on the basis of how much clear teaching there is in Scripture regarding it. But using that rule, the conclusion can be too easily reached that not only abortion, but child molestation and a host of other unspeakable evils are not all that important to Him because His word says so little, specifically, about such things. Apparently we have not learned much from American slavery and the Nazi death camps.
The fact is, something may be supremely important to God and yet there be no unequivocal teaching on it, no handy proof texts. What do we conclude from this? That these matters are relatively unimportant to God?
To our everlasting shame, that is precisely what many otherwise good Bible-believers have concluded. And precisely why there is so little solidarity and clear priority within evangelical leadership on the issue of abortion.
To be sure, some degree of lip service is given to decrying abortion. But because of the rarity and half-heartedness of such outcries it amounts to so much “damning with faint praise”. It should be no wonder then that the evil continues with no real prospect of serious abatement, but instead with the prospect of ever-further escalation as our culture and churches grow increasingly accustomed to abortion being merely a “regrettable but necessary” part of modern life.
We evangelicals need to relearn the lesson: proof texts while good, are not the best weapons in the arsenal. Proof texts often are to truth what muskets and maces are to modern warfare. They may succeed in taking out an enemy here and there, but whole wars are seldom won by their use. To secure the decisive win, we need the big guns: principles.
What are principles? Principles are transcendent rules that, regardless of the specifics, are applicable to all like cases, and are not dependent on perfectly-matched Bible verses that speak directly to whatever particular error is being opposed. Principles are the equivalent of smart bombs and nuclear warheads because they are effective not only for winning minor skirmishes, but for the greater work of “destroying strong holds and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
While proof texts only address individual specific issues, principles sweepingly address the entire underlying moral issue, regardless of particulars. So, for example, if there is essential commonality between abortion and slavery and genocide (and there is–they are all egregious crimes against humanity), the Bible can be silent on one or all and yet, by providing a clear fundamental rule that applies to all, can speak powerfully and conclusively to all. In this instance, the commandment “love thy neighbor as thyself” covers slavery, abortion, genocide, child molestation–every mistreatment of human beings conceivable.
For far too long in our history we biblical Christians have failed to raise a strong and unequivocal voice against abortion because we have given attention to the letter but overlooked the spirit of the Bible, and we have been overly dependent on proof-texts rather than principles.
Perhaps our error has been an honest one. Perhaps our embrace of the letter rather than the spirit of the law has been unwitting, and our over-reliance on proof texts rather than principles has been innocent.
This much is certain: “When a man who is honestly mistaken hears the truth, he will either quit being mistaken, or cease to be honest.”
Let us again hear the truth, and God grant us all to discover hidden away under much of the abortion apathy of our generation a great deal of honesty that was merely awaiting enlightenment.
A synthesis of several articles by Rolley Haggard that originally appeared at BreakPoint.org in modified form