The course of my life roughly coincides with the post-Roe v. Wade abortion debate in America. The Supreme Court decision was issued on January 22, 1973, a few days after my first birthday. On January 24th thousands of marchers will rally in Washington, D.C. for the 38th annual March for Life, joining the many millions who have marked this gruesome anniversary in American political life over the course of the last four decades.
There are consequences to all political speech and action, and there has been no greater, more sustained political action in the Christian church in my lifetime than the pro-life movement. I haven’t known a church that wasn’t to some degree engaged in this debate. What have the consequences been?
Recently I put this question to a room full of congressional staffers attending a lunch hosted by our church on Capitol Hill. A young lady noted that the pro-life debate had contributed to the culture’s view of the church as angry and judgmental. In a later email — she had clearly been thinking deeply about the question — she added the charge of hypocrisy, noting that in the eyes of the world the church is accusing the world of great sinfulness while turning a blind eye to its own.
That a world lost in sin would view the church as hypocritical and judgmental is not all that surprising. It is a price you are bound to pay if you teach and preach and uphold the law of God in the world.
But this very fact does make it all the more remarkable, does it not, that Jesus tells us that Christians will be known by their love for one another? That’s doubly remarkable: Christians are known by their love (not speech or activism), and they are known for how we treat each other (not their political opposition).
In his recent book To Change the World, sociologist James Davison Hunter notes that the dominant evangelical witness to modern American culture is political. To those outside the church, evangelicals Christians are viewed more as a voting block than as a loving, worshiping, or suffering community.
If the charge of hypocrisy and judgmentalism is a consequence of political action, should this therefore silence the church on the issue of abortion? Is love incompatible with politics?
Two distinctions are crucial to hold in mind here. The first is the difference between the church speaking politically or more generally bearing witness to moral truth; and the second is between the church fulfilling the great commission as a corporate entity and individual Christians fulfilling the great commandment as citizens in this world.
I would argue that individual Christians have great liberty, and indeed responsibility, to engage lovingly in political action for the good of our neighbors. Whereas the church is limited in her public policy pronouncements to what Scripture clearly teaches — for fear of binding consciences without divine warrant — individuals should and must struggle in all wisdom to apply God’s law in the messy particulars of life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer illustrated this principle by never speaking publicly against military service in the Nazi armies, even while he was himself a quasi-pacifist who was secretly plotting the assassination of Hitler. He held his tongue because he did not want to suggest to other Christians that his course of action was the necessary one for all believers. He maintained this silence while the Nazis intentionally sought to dispatch with pastors in his “confessing” church by sending them to the front lines.
For the church bearing witness to the kingdom of God, the distinction between political action and moral truth-telling is crucial, yet always difficult to draw clearly. Abortion is a helpful test case, but also somewhat exceptional. It has become the defining political cause of the church precisely because the moral lines and their policy ramifications are overwhelmingly clear. Protecting the lives of the weakest in our midst against a culturally approved slaughter is about the clearest possible moral stand the church could hope for.
And yet, even here our political action has consequences. Christians must ask whether their rhetoric has hardened political opponents against the Good News of the Christian gospel, and if so, whether this is an acceptable price to pay. Has this political action helped or harmed the church in her Great Commission cause?
Worse, politics entails coalitions. Abortion may be an exceptional instance where the church has grounds to speak clearly to our political leadership. But the pro-life movement gave birth to the Religious Right, and the Religious Right gave birth to a platform, on issues ranging from taxation to national defense to labor policy. All moral issues, to be sure. No issue isn’t moral. All worth taking a stand on. But all issues of considerable biblical silence. Political activism on abortion has served as a gateway for a much broader-based politicking by churches, with much wider-ranging consequences.
A third distinction is worth noting, between political and non-political action. Over the course of my life, I believe the pro-life movement has moved from politics to broader social action, including counseling, adoption, and other material assistance to the victims of our abortion culture. They have done so in large part pragmatically, due to a lack of progress in the political arena. But this move has a principled basis, in that it results in a Christian witness more clearly grounded in love.
One of the great reformation insights into God’s law is the recognition that every Thou shalt not of proscription entails a Thou shalt of loving action. As the church bears witness to the truth of God’s law in the world, may our acts of love always speak louder than our words, and may our words never fall short of the truth we are bound to defend.
(A version of this article appeared in Christian Renewal.)
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC. He formerly worked as a Communications Director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and held other positions at the U.S. Departments of Justice and Defense.