By The Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth
Editor’s note. This gem, which appeared in the January 22, 1999, edition of National Right to Life News, is this week’s opening “Roe at 40” series where we have been re-publicizing some of the best and most enduring articles from National Right to Life News. This article, by Rev. Stallsworth, certainly fills the bill.
World Christianity, at its best, preaches, teaches, and practices what John Paul II calls “the Gospel of Life.” This means that world Christianity is, for the most part, profoundly protective of unborn children and their mothers. Stated differently, world Christianity, for Christian reasons, is pro-life in theory and practice.
While historic Christianity has always been clear about children being gifts from God and abortion being a sinful rejection of the divinely given little ones, there are certain denominations based in the United States that, in recent decades, claim to be prayerfully pro-choice. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and a few others make up this quite small fraternity of pro-choice denominations on the huge campus of world Christianity.
These particular denominations were once acknowledged as the culture-forming, culture-transforming, religious establishment of American society. They proudly wore the tag “mainline Protestantism.” When the leaders of the Protestant mainline spoke, America listened. Now, humbled by decades of membership decline and having fallen off the throne of the American religious establishment, mainline Protestantism has become “oldline Protestantism.”
To be blunt about it, oldline Protestantism in general and the United Methodist Church of which I am a pastor in particular are, on life and abortion, solidly pro-choice. But what, exactly, does that mean? In the case of United Methodism (and probably other denominations), being denominationally pro-choice means at least three things.
First, being pro-choice means that United Methodism maintains, in its official teaching a pro-choice position (that is, in its Book of Discipline).
Paragraph 65J of the Discipline attempts the impossible: appealing to all United Methodists. 65J tries to advance both pro-life claims and pro-choice claims at the same time. Not surprisingly, the result is inconsistent, confusing church teaching that is, in reality, pro-choice.
Second, being pro-choice means that United Methodism associates with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), the Washington, D.C.-based lobby that baptizes abortion-on-demand politics with allegedly religious language and rationale. Occasionally, because of this association, official United Methodism–that is, a few of its important denominational boards and several of its most visible leaders–winds up supporting RCRC lobbying efforts, including one that helped protect partial-birth abortion from legislative restriction.
And third, being pro-choice means that United Methodism and its elite leaders have made their peace with abortion on demand in American society. Apparently, they have agreed among themselves not to bring up abortion in their preaching and in their social action. They have agreed that choice is okay–perhaps tragic, but still okay–and that anyone who speaks in defense of the unborn child and mother is downright impolite and intolerant. In this way, the pro-choice sect encourages silence on abortion.
The fact that the United Methodist Church and other churches, at their loftiest leadership levels, are pro-choice exerts subtle pressures on all their clergy and laity. That is, the pro-choice pressures, exerted from on high, on local clergy and laity are often unspoken. Denominational leaders do not send out threatening letters that command clergy and laity to teach pro-choice ideology. Rather, the leaders simply do not discuss life and abortion.
Therefore, the leaders’ silence on life and abortion suggests that the pastors and laity should likewise be silent. The consistent message from the denominational top is that all clergy and laity should just be silent on matters related to life and abortion. And, if discussions of abortion should unfortunately arise in congregations, the pastors should act as facilitators for peace, not as advocates for life. These pressures are unacknowledged but they are nonetheless real.
Oldline Protestant denominations have prided themselves on their generous openness and pluralism. Therefore, in the midst of a culture where abortion is performed frequently and debated unreservedly, the alert observer would think that abortion would be regularly discussed in the sanctuaries, fellowship halls, and classrooms of the oldline denominations. However, the unseen pressures described above create a moratorium on such open, honest explorations.
Inevitably, this question arises: given these pro-choice pressures from denominational leaders, what can and should be done, by clergy and laity, to witness for life in the local church? Put differently, in the midst of denominations led by pro-choice sectarians, what could and should be done in the local church to witness for life?
It is tempting, at this point in this article, simply to list several helpful little hints for pro-life work in a congregation. That temptation will be resisted. Instead, only a single principle will be offered: In the United Methodist Church and other pro-choice denominations, clergy and laity should wisely and lovingly speak and demonstrate the truth about life and abortion. That is all. But that is more than enough.
In a pro-choice denomination, the pro-life person will want to pray and plan about the best time to speak and the best time to be silent, the best time to act and the best time to be at rest. Wisdom, given by the Holy Spirit, is crucial to faithful pro-life witness in a pro-choice denomination.
It should be added that such wisdom is based on loving patience. That is, the pro-life witness, in a church apathetic about or hostile to protecting the unborn child and mother, should be patient.
After all, the unfaithfulness of a denomination does not diminish the faithfulness of God. A church’s apostate position on life and abortion does not alter the truth of God’s marvelous Gospel and gift of life. A church’s silence on abortion does not silence God’s Word spoken in Jesus Christ for life and love. And God, not the erring denomination, will prevail in the end. The pro-choice orientation, built without solid theological foundation, will collapse in time-but in God’s own time. Therefore, the pro-life witness can and should be not only wise but also patient.
Lovingly speaking and demonstrating the truth about life and abortion, in an unfriendly denomination, also demand the courage to lead. In our day, most leaders of most institutions want more than anything else to be liked by those they lead. In our day, it is not just the teenagers who want to be popular. For example, many politicians base their policies exclusively on their polls. Unfortunately and likewise, many church leaders base their teaching on their less formal polls.
Therefore, in a hostile environment, if one is to speak God’s truth about life and abortion with wisdom and in love, one must—yes, must–possess the courage to lead. Real courage. Persistent courage. Truth-based courage. Lacking such courage, one will remain wordless and speechless about life and abortion. With such courage, the Gospel of Life can and will go forth, even in a pro-choice denomination.
The pro-life pastor and layperson in a pro-choice denomination have all kinds of opportunities to address the gift of life and the sin of abortion. She could write a pro-life article for her church newsletter. He could have a luncheon conversation about life and abortion with his pastor, who happens to be absolutely quiet about the matter. She could visit and encourage the congregation’s teenager who was recently discovered to be with child. He could teach his Sunday school class a lesson on how the Church Fathers, from the beginning, have understood life to be a gift.
She could speak a pro-life word to another church member in a friendly conversation. He could support the local problem pregnancy center, and encourage his congregation to do the same. She could compose, with some good help from her friends, various pro-life resolutions to be considered by the legislative bodies of her congregation and/or denomination. He could write a letter to his local newspaper to commend a recent article that advanced the culture of life or to critique a recent article that advanced the culture of death.
She could talk to her daughter(s) and son(s) about the importance of protecting the mother with unborn child and the unborn child within mother. Out all of these words and deeds demand the courage provided by God, by God’s Spirit, by God’s Truth. Without God’s gift of courage, the pro-life pastor or layperson will fall into the rut of compromise, and the life-advancing, life-enhancing word and deed on abortion will not be spoken and done.
THE GOAL: FAITHFUL WITNESS
The immediate goal of a pro-life witness in a pro-choice denomination is not to change the world or even the denomination. If that is our goal, we are doomed to defeat before we begin. For we, on our own, will change neither the world nor our denomination in short order.
The goal of offering pro-life witness in a pro-choice denomination is simply to tell the truth, wisely and lovingly, about the Gospel of Life. To prepare for this witness, those involved must be grounded, well grounded, in the truth of the Gospel of Life.
Again, our goal is truthfulness. We entrust the results of our attempts at truthful witness in the hands of God, who has won the victory in Jesus Christ and whose total victory we await.
Rev. Stallsworth is the editor of Lifewatch, a quarterly newsletter which concerns the United Methodist Church, the gift of life, and the problem of abortion.
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