Some evangelical pastors have several reasons for not preaching on abortion—and one is fear of man
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Editor’s note: In 1994, WORLD published “Silence of the shepherds,” an article addressing the reticence of many evangelical pastors to preach on abortion. Two decades later, a WORLD survey shows that many are still silent.
Recently retired pastor John Piper did not plan to speak out about abortion. He began preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis in 1980 and didn’t touch the subject. One day late in the decade, though, he and his wife were eating at a Pizza Hut, watching a pro-life demonstration on TV: “I said—you know what? That’s just right. That’s just plain right.”
Piper began stepping out on the issue: “It was a combination of seeing other people taking it seriously and then beginning to check my own soul, and God just mercifully taking away some blind spots, showing me in the Scriptures all kinds of reasons for standing up and defending these little ones.” Since that time, Piper has preached more than 20 sermons against abortion. He was arrested in a sit-in—“I don’t regret it.” Most every pro-life ministry has blossomed at Bethlehem: “It has become a part of our culture.”
The Pipers adopted a child in 1995, and he says pastors should be “exemplars of a way to engage abortion, both on the ground at the clinics, at counseling and intervention situations, and in the pulpit.” The pro-choice complaint that “all you Christians do is shout at us” is no longer valid, Piper says: He advises today’s pastors “to take [abortion] seriously and to address it biblically, … and there are just dozens of ways to do that.”
Another famous preacher has chosen a different way. In New York City several years ago, an Ivy League graduate approached Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church to thank him for not focusing on abortion from his pulpit. She added, “If I had seen any literature or reference to the ‘pro-life’ movement, I would not have stayed through the first service.”
She was a lawyer, a resident of Manhattan, and an active ACLU member, according to Keller. She also had had three abortions. Eventually, the woman converted to Christianity under Keller’s influence; later she approached him—“Do you think abortion is wrong?” she asked. Keller said yes. She replied: “I am coming to see that maybe there is something wrong with it.”
To Keller, this story illustrates the right approach to biblical preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church concerning controversial sin areas. “Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion. … Jesus himself warned us to be wary of it, and not to mistake a call for moral virtue for the good news of God’s salvation,” he wrote in Leadership Journal in 1999.
But Keller also said in a Dec. 16, 2010, talk now on YouTube, “If people are doing something wrong, they need to be, well, prevented from doing it. … You both have the people who are doing the abortions; and as far as I see, they should be prevented from doing it, and that would be justice. But then you also have the unborn children, and they are not being treated as they deserve.”
How should other pastors act? For four decades evangelical pastors have wrestled with how to, when to, and whether to preach against the nationwide, day-to-day murder of babies in abortion mills not even a jog away from church steeples. In 1994 WORLD reported Billy Graham’s belief that addressing abortion in the pulpit could impede his “main message” of salvation. “I don’t get into these things like abortion,” Graham told talk show host Larry King.
‘We shake our heads in disgust at the German church’s tolerance of one holocaust while ignoring our own tolerance of another.’ —Randy Alcorn
Fresh research gathered by WORLD indicates that many shepherds are silent on abortion—or only whispering.
THREE SETS OF EVIDENCE bear this out.
First, WORLD conducted a random, informal survey of 40 pastors from seven member denominations in the National Association of Evangelicals. All 40 said that life begins at conception and that pastors should preach against abortion. However, 18 pastors had not preached against abortion in the last year, and five more had never done so.
On the other hand, when standing outside their pulpits, pastors were more likely to encourage their churches toward pro-life work: 29 of the pastors’ churches worked with, or funded, crisis pregnancy centers; 24 offered in-house pro-life education to members; 15 participated in Marches for Life or similar events; and four picketed clinics. Significantly, pastors who preach against abortion are about twice as likely to see congregants involved in pro-life activities as those who don’t.
Second, 25 national pro-life leaders—both evangelicals and Roman Catholics—gathered recently in Washington, D.C., in a meeting organized by National March for Life. Members of the group complained that many evangelical pastors are dropping the ball. “One of our great frustrations has been the silence of the evangelical pastors,” said Sherry Crater, coalitions liaison at the Family Research Council.
Eve Marie Barner Gleason of the evangelical umbrella group Care Net sees pastors struggling: “Many evangelical churches are supportive of local pregnancy centers. … At the same time, it can be hard getting some pastors interested, as some church leaders think ‘abortion is not an issue in their congregation’ or ‘the subject could be controversial or threatening to influential members of their congregation.’” In addition, some pastors worry that preaching on abortion might dry up collection plates.
Third, numerous evangelical leaders speak of a lingering silence. Pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul Sr.’s opinion is illustrative: “I would say things are not the same as they were [in 1994]. … I think it’s deteriorated. I think it’s worse.” Sproul’s church pickets, does crisis pregnancy work, marches, and more. He preaches and writes on the subject. A few years ago he produced materials to help pastors address abortion in their congregation: “I heard the same thing. It was like a broken record. Pastors said, ‘I can’t use this material. It’ll split our church.’”
THE GENERAL PUBLIC TODAY knows intellectually that abortion is immoral, according to an August 2013 Pew study. The study shows that just 15 percent of Americans today say abortion is moral. So why don’t pastors preach against it so as to move congregants from a head knowledge to a heart conviction? Pastors surveyed or interviewed gave WORLD reasons that could be put into four categories:Preaching on the issue might discomfort church members or hurt women in congregations who’ve had abortions. Preaching on the issue should not be done as a one-note tune or “hobby horse,” especially if the pastor emphasizes expository preaching. Preaching on the issue might politically stigmatize the pastor or politicize the pulpit, scaring seekers off. Preaching on the issue might seem uncool or anti-intellectual.
Many millennial generation pastors share this last belief. John Piper told WORLD that such younger pastors often understand pro-life issues better than their elders, having enjoyed the benefit of decades of intellectual and spiritual ferment on the matter. Some, however, worry of being typecast as a 1980s picketer or rescuer, or as a far-right, unloving loon. “There are a lot of … courageous younger pastors who don’t have any problem,” Piper said. “On the other hand, a lot of younger pastors don’t like seeming uncool.”
In the 1980s Francis Schaeffer and J. Everett Koop spoke out, as did oft-lampooned Jerry Falwell. National media and some fellow evangelicals stigmatized them and other evangelical leaders who proclaimed what was then a more unpopular truth. Nevertheless, those leaders moved the awareness meter, as did Catholics like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.
Some interviewed by WORLD agreed no such pastor/leader exists today when it comes to championing the abortion issue. At age 46, Mark Davis, senior pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church, recalls those men facing harsh criticism from many who had no stomach or understanding regarding abortion. Today, Davis says, “a combination of factors” pushes pastors to be more “incarnational than confrontational. … On the negative side, there is the fear of man, and the fear of being associated with certain men or certain ‘types’ of preachers. On the other side, there is a generation of pastors who have been trained to be a little more patient and to show kindness that wasn’t there before. There is good in that.”
While Davis’ church nurtures cutting-edge compassion ministries that are rarely confrontational, he also preaches about abortion. His members don’t wince, some post-abortive women thank him, and opportunities open for new ministry.
For Davis, preaching on abortion is a matter of creating a church culture in which members count on their pastor not to hedge on biblical issues but also not to beat them up: “We want to practice truth and trust. We never want to compromise the truth of what we believe; if we do, we compromise trust.”
Davis teaches about abortion without getting into political matters, and that’s a crucial distinction. Recent intimidation of some conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service causes some pastoral concern, as Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defending Freedom notes: “The IRS has done a lot through the years to create ambiguity in the law regarding what speech by pastors is prohibited and what speech is permitted. … There is a false perception that any issue society labels as ‘political’ is somehow off-limits and unlawful for churches.” Stanley notes that pastors are legally safe as long as they don’t endorse a candidate.
AS A SOUTHERN BAPTIST pastor during the 1980s, former presidential candidate and current Fox News talk show host Mike Huckabee dove into the abortion fray—and he sees others doing the same. “I think more evangelical pastors now are willing to take a stand,” he told me, but he acknowledged that pastors who aren’t may just avoid him now: “Some think it divides their congregation and takes their eyes off of the gospel.” Huckabee asks, “How can you claim to proclaim a gospel that turns its back on the slaughter of innocent babies?”
Huckabee cautions about “doing what I call ‘preaching to the gallery.’ You beat at the abortion issue and destroy it. Then you hold up its carcass so everyone can clap.” At the same time, he says the excuses need to stop: “We need to be careful and offer grace to people who’ve made bad decisions and give the gospel to them, while at the same time drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘This is not something that can be acceptable.’ It’s forgivable, but not morally acceptable.”
But author Randy Alcorn fears that Americans are just too used to abortion now: “It’s not outrageous to us anymore.” Alcorn and his wife helped an unwed mother and then blocked the doors of abortion businesses, which led to several arrests and a large civil judgment. He parallels abortion and the killing of Jews during World War II: “Self-righteously we decry the German church’s failure to stand up for the Jews. Meanwhile we fail to stand up for the unborn. We shake our heads in disgust at the German church’s tolerance of one holocaust while ignoring our own tolerance of another.”
John Piper argues that American evangelical pastors know abortion is an abhorrent evil. They know they are to preach against murder, especially if it’s happening next door and involves people sitting right in their pews. They know that the path to healing requires repentance, and repentance requires conviction of sin, and conviction of sin requires clear exposition of the Word of God, even when it is uncomfortable. Pastors know they will come under a stricter judgment if they sugarcoat the gospel.
Piper sums it up this way in a sermon entitled “Love Your Unborn Neighbor”: “God says to us in America in the 21st century stained with the blood of millions of unborn babies, these words from Proverbs 24:11-12: ‘Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?’”
ON OCT. 20, 2013, as 14,000 people listened in person at the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church and 11 others by simulcast, pastor Mark Driscoll addressed the Sixth Commandment—“Do not murder.” He spent 39 of 68 minutes exclusively on abortion, “the hardest part of the sermon,” he told his church up front: “Hundreds of you will probably leave and never return. I would encourage you to consider what I have to say, to go home and study what the Word of God has to say, and … make a prayerful, careful, biblical decision.”
Driscoll proceeded to critique abortion, as he has routinely since founding Mars Hill in 1996. “Life begins at conception,” he said, noting that an unborn child is “a person made in the image and likeness of God.” Driscoll rooted in the Bible “seven reasons why life begins at conception.” He said “we are a murderous culture. … [Since 1973] there have been between 50 and 55 million documented abortions, just in the U.S.”
Some listeners cried as Driscoll called for a “change of heart, change of life,” and spoke of God’s mercy and forgiveness: “You men who have encouraged, forced, or paid for the abortion, you women who have killed your own child, murdered your own child. … The good news is that Jesus died for murderers. … You need Jesus, and you need him to forgive you for your murder, and he will.”
Afterward, a woman in Mars Hill’s Albuquerque, N.M., satellite congregation knelt up front. It was the anniversary of the day she had aborted a child. She began worshipping and weeping. Then her four living children hugged her, supported by her husband. Eventually, she started comforting another post-abortive woman.
—Joe Maxwell is a Mississippi writer; Stephen Hall is executive director of Joseph’s Way
For samples of pro-life sermons pastors have preached, go to wng.org/topic/saturday_series/.
WORLD mailed surveys to 20 evangelical pastors of megachurches asking them if they preach against abortion. Seven replied. Six preach “more than once a year” against abortion, either as a sermon topic or when discussing a particular passage of the Bible during a sermon. One preaches “about once a year.”
More than once a year
Matt Chandler, The Village Church, Flower Mound, Texas
Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, Seattle, Wash.
Jonathan Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va.
Dwayne Pickett, New Jerusalem Church, Jackson, Miss.
Dave Stone, Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Ky.
Ed Young Sr., Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas
About once a year
Bob Coy, Calvary Chapel, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
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