Q&A

*This is an edit of a post published in 2008. Since we continue to get questions along these lines, we thought we would repost it.

Question: I’ve heard that you lost members of your congregation because you refused to take a stand in the abortion debate. If this is true, I’m deeply disappointed in you. Preachers should not be afraid of offending people. So please tell me, what is your stance on abortion?

Answer: I am pro-life to the core of my being. I believe that all life is a sacred creation of God. I am therefore opposed to all unnecessary violence toward any life, and especially human life. (People who know me know that I even avoid killing bugs if at all possible!) So obviously, I am opposed to abortion. Abortion is predicated on the pervasive, fallen, anti-Christian assumption that violence solves things. In the long run, violence always deepens and perpetuates problems. It never solves them.

Yet, it’s also true that I refuse to tell attenders at my church (Woodland Hill Church) how they should vote on this (and every other) issue. This is not because I’m afraid of offending anybody — obviously, since my refusal to get behind pro-life politicians and agendas (or pro-choice politicians and agendas) resulted in offending many people who then left my church. The truth is that I offend people all the time at my church and routinely have people leave. This doesn’t bother me in the least as long as I believe that what I’m teaching is true and is what God is calling to me teach.

My refusal to jump on the pro-life political bandwagon (or any political bandwagon) is based on two things: The example of Jesus and the ambiguity of politics.

The Example of Jesus
First, I see no precedent in the ministry of Jesus or the entire New Testament for Kingdom leaders to be steering Kingdom people on “the right way” to participate in politics. Jesus never so much as commented on the politics of his day — despite living in politically hot times, and despite people constantly trying to get him to weigh in on various issues. The Kingdom Jesus came to establish, and the Kingdom we are part of, is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Our main job as Kingdom people is to imitate (literally,  “mimic”) him in all things (e.g. Eph. 5:1-2).

We need to always remember that we are citizens of heaven before we are citizens of any earthly country (Phil. 3:20). Indeed, we’re to consider ourselves exiles and foreigners in this land (1 Pet 2:11). As guerrilla warriors stationed in enemy-occupied territory, we’re not to become preoccupied with civilian affairs (1 Tim.2:4). Nor is it our business to judge, let alone try to rule, people outside the church (1 Cor. 5:12). Our only job is to bear witness to the reality of God’s reign by sacrificially serving the world. Hence, I don’t believe it’s my job as a leader in the Kingdom to be trying to tell other Kingdom people how — or even if — they should vote.

The Ambiguity of Politics
Second, an issue is political if it divides the polis (Greek for “city-state”). Political solutions are attempts to unite the polis around a particular resolution. In pluralistic societies such as America, these issues are almost always extremely complex. Good, decent, Bible-believing people can and do fundamentally disagree about them. There is no single, unambiguous way to translate one’s Kingdom convictions — including convictions about the wrongness of abortion — into a political solution.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the ambiguous questions surrounding the political issue of abortion:

* Is working to pass a law against abortion the best way to prevent it? Some studies suggest that abortions are as common in countries where it is outlawed as they are in countries were it’s permitted. Some studies also suggest that poverty rates affect abortion rates much more than laws. So one could argue that a candidate who is pro-choice but who has a better economic program would do more to save unborn lives than a pro-life candidate who has an economic program that does less to alleviate poverty.

Then again, one could argue the opposite. And, of course, good and intelligent people fundamentally disagree about what constitutes a “good” economic program.

* Is working to outlaw all abortions the best way to save unborn lives? Maybe, maybe not. Polls have for years shown that the vast majority of Americans agree that the fewer the abortions, the better, and that the later an abortion is performed, the worse it is. Yet, we as a society are not working together to create a society in which abortions are increasingly rare and in which late term abortions don’t happen at all, mainly because the opposing sides are polarized, paranoid and therefore uncompromising. Politics is “the art of compromise” — by definition, since we’re trying to resolve an issue that divides the polis. Often in politics, the best way to ensure you won’t get any of what you want is to insist on getting everything that you want.

In this light, one could argue that the best political solution right now – the one that would save the most unborn lives – isn’t the uncompromising one: it’s rather the one that finds common ground among the differing parties. It may be that, while it feels more righteous to tow an uncompromising line on the abortion issue, doing so actually contributes to unborn babies being killed! At least you could see how a good and intelligent person might think this (or think the opposite!)

On a personal note, I have in the past suggested that we might as a society make headway on this deeply divisive issue and save multitudes of unborn children by taking our socially agreed upon criteria for what constitutes death, when legal personhood ends, and simply reversing it, making it the agreed upon criteria for when legal personhood begins. More specifically, when a person’s brain activity falls below a certain minimum threshold, we no longer consider them a legal person. So, perhaps we could get the majority of people in America to agree that when a fetus’ brain activity rises above this same minimum threshold, it should be considered a legal person, possessing all the rights of birthed human beings. I’m told this minimum threshold of brain activity is crossed around the ninth or tenth week of pregnancy.

I put this forward not because it is what I myself believe, but because, in our divided pluralistic context, I think it might be a solution that would unite the polis, allowing people on both sides of the abortion issue to finally work together to achieve what the majority of us want: namely, fewer abortions. By getting both sides to compromise, multitudes of unborn children might be saved whose lives would have been terminated if both sides remained locked in the ideological purity of their polarized positions.

At the same time, I could be wrong about all of this. And whether I’m right or wrong, it would be misguided and arrogant for me to label my proposed solution a “Christian” solution, for even if it’s correct, there is, in reality, nothing distinctly Christ-like about it. And it would be even more misguided and arrogant for me to use my authority as a leader in the Kingdom to try to influence people to vote along the lines of my proposed political solution. Indeed, the only reason I even bring it up in this essay is to illustrate my point about the ambiguity and complexity of politics in a pluralistic society. Smart and sincere people who even share the same faith and values can come to fundamentally different conclusions about them.

* There are also lots of ambiguous metaphysical and ethical questions one has to wrestle with concerning the issue of abortion. Is it self-evident to all rational and decent people that full personhood begins at conception? Would only an unintelligent or indecent person disagree with this? Is it self-evident that using the morning-after pill is as wrong as partial birth abortion? Is it obvious that women who take the “morning-after pill” should be sentenced as murderers, the same way we sentence people who kill toddlers or adults?

If this seems counter-intuitive, as it does to most people, why is this? And if comparing women who take the morning after pill to murders seems extreme, what about women who terminate their pregnancies (say) in the fourth week as opposed to women who do so in the ninth month? Are there different levels of criminality here? Should both be punished equally as murderers? And most importantly, whether you answer “yes” or “no,” is your answer unambiguous? Could an intelligent and decent person disagree with your answer?

My point is that the metaphysical and ethical questions surrounding abortion are matters about which decent and intelligent people can (and do) sincerely disagree. In fact, I’ve found that many Christians are surprised to learn that these are questions about which good and decent Christians throughout history have disagreed. While Christians have always regarded the unborn to be precious creations of God, there has never been agreement about when an unborn child acquires “the image of God” or receives a “soul.” And the reason is simply because the answer to these questions is not self-evident.

* What about those rare cases when a woman’s pregnancy is the result of rape or where it threatens her life? If full personhood begins at conception, why should the circumstances surrounding conception make any difference? And why should whatever threat a birth might pose to the mother be weighed more heavily than the threat to the unborn? Yet, most pro-lifers who insist that it is self-evident that full personhood begins at conception want to make exceptions in these circumstances, and the question is, why? Does it not suggest that, despite their sincere intellectual convictions about personhood beginning at conception, these pro-lifers on some level intuit that the matter is more complex than this?

* Finally, the most fundamental set of questions that needs to be asked regarding the political issue of abortion revolve around the issue of who should have the right to decide these ambiguous and complex issues? You? Me? The Federal Government? The State Government? The woman with the unwanted pregnancy?

These are obviously tough issues that intelligent, decent and even Bible-believing people can and do disagree on. Two Christians may agree that it would be wrong for them as followers of Jesus to ever terminate a pregnancy while at the same time arriving at opposite conclusions about the best way to solve the political issue of abortion.

Yet, this unresolvable ambiguity should cause followers of Jesus no concern, since resolving ambiguous issues that divide the polis isn’t part of our unique calling as Kingdom people! Following Jesus doesn’t give us any unique wisdom about how to run society. What it must do, however, is make us more willing to imitate Jesus and therefore sacrifice ourselves on behalf of others — including for the unborn.

The Uniquely Kingdom Approach to Abortion
The unique Kingdom approach to abortion doesn’t focus on figuring out the “right” political solution, getting “the right” candidates into office or getting the “right” bills passed. As with everything else about the Kingdom, it rather focuses on manifesting the self-sacrificial love of God towards women with unwanted pregnancies and towards their unborn children.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. An unmarried 18-year-old woman I’ll call Becky became pregnant. She was afraid to tell her strict Christian parents because she was convinced they would disown her in disgrace and make her move out of the house. This, in turn, would severely jeopardize her plans to attend college and fulfill her dream of becoming a veterinarian. Consequently, she was planning on having an abortion.

Becky confided in a neighborhood friend of the family I’ll call Dorothy. Dorothy was a middle aged divorced woman who over the years had developed a special relationship with Becky. When Becky told Dorothy of her plan, Dorothy didn’t judge her or dump her opinions about abortion on her. She simply offered to help. If Becky chose to have an abortion, Dorothy offered to help with her post-abortion recovery. But, believing that abortion was not the best solution to Becky’s dilemma, she lovingly encouraged Becky to think seriously about her planned course of action.

Even more importantly, she offered to do whatever it took to make going full term feasible for Becky. It is at this point, I believe, that Dorothy began to address the abortion issue in a distinctly Kingdom manner.

If Becky’s parents kicked her out of the house (which they did), Dorothy offered her basement as a place for her to stay. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Dorothy also offered to provide whatever financial and emotional support Becky would need throughout the pregnancy to whatever degree she was able (she ended up taking out a second mortgage on her house). If Becky wanted to give the baby up for adoption, Dorothy offered to help with this. If Becky wanted to keep the child (which she ended up doing), Dorothy offered to help her with this as well (she became the Godmother). And, on top of this, Dorothy promised to work with Becky to help make it financially possible to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian.

As a result, Becky went through with the pregnancy, moved in with Dorothy, and pursued her dream part-time while both she and Dorothy raised her daughter.

This is an example of being “pro-life” Kingdom style, for Dorothy was willing to sacrifice on behalf of Becky and her unborn child. Dorothy’s sacrifice wasn’t rooted in a particular way of resolving the complex, ambiguous questions mentioned above. In fact, Dorothy didn’t claim to know much about these difficult issues. She only believed it is better to affirm life whenever possible rather than to terminate it, and she was willing to communicate this conviction in any way she could by paying a price.

The price Dorothy paid was much greater than the price of a vote, carrying a picket sign or signing a petition. But this is precisely why Dorothy’s way of being “pro-life” manifested the Kingdom. It has nothing to do with one’s opinions about which ambiguous kingdom-of-the-world option is “right.” But it’s got everything to do with replicating the self-sacrificial love that Jesus displayed when he gave his life for all people on Calvary. There is nothing distinctly Kingdom about having all the right opinions in the world about what government should do. But when a person like Dorothy instead asks, “What can I do?” that reflects the beauty of a life over which God reigns.

It may be worth noting that, for a variety of complex reasons, Dorothy tended to vote “pro-choice.” Yet, I submit Dorothy was far more pro-life than many who profess to be “pro-life” because they vote a certain way.

The Church is called to be a Church of Dorothy’s, not just on the abortion issue, but on every issue. We’re not called to pretend we have more wisdom or righteousness than others when it comes to political problems. We are rather called to imitate Jesus in manifesting God’s love for all people at all times — including women who are considering abortion.

On the abortion issue, as on all other issues, the Kingdom is not about how we vote. It’s about the sacrificial way we live.