Readers familiar with CURE know that we are a group committed to recovering the essence of the Christian message. That means that what you see and hear from us will usually be in the form of doctrinal discussions, issues, and debates written with the thinking layperson in mind.
Nevertheless, there are some practical issues that walk that razor's edge between faith and practice, to the point where it is difficult to tell whether one who engages in a certain practice is actually denying a certain essential doctrine by doing so. If, for instance, one were to cast one's gaze on an attractive body at the beach for more than passing appreciation (it's not difficult to figure out in which part of the country I live), that would be a sin (lust, since many of us have forgotten), but it would not involve a matter of doctrine. I can and, in fact, do engage in sins that do not affect my faith in God, in Christ, or my convictions about the way in which I am saved. While sin tolerated can often undermine confidence in any doctrine that fails to flatter our own indulgences, most of our daily failures to conform to God's revealed will are of a practical rather than doctrinal sort.
But, as I say, there are exceptions. Abortion is one such exception. In order to engage in this serious sin, a Christian must actually deny a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. He or she must deny that God is the Sovereign author of life who alone has the power and right to give and take away human breath, and we also deny the creature we destroy his or her dignity as an image-bearer of God himself. In Christian belief, the significance of human beings over all other species of animal life resides in the image of God (imago Dei) stamped on each person, as an artist signs his masterpieces. Although God created all things, only humans bear his likeness, and they bear it from conception. As Calvin put it, "Though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine" (Institutes 1:15.3). Bavinck, the great Reformed dogmatist, argued that "as long as Man remains Man, he bears the image of God," however tarnished and effaced.
If this doctrine is lacking in the church, surely it will be lacking in society. Before the late Francis Schaeffer, a Reformation thinker, reminded the evangelical and fundamentalist world of this biblical doctrine, there was virtually no response from the evangelical church to the atrocity of abortion. Roman Catholics, of course, had a theological impetus behind their opposition, but it was obscured by their inclusion of birth control as well as abortion.
And now, thanks to the efforts of the Schaeffers and their many co-laborers, a wide cross section of the evangelical movement supports the protection of human life in its most vulnerable phase. Clearly, humanity is determined by the imago Dei, not by concepts such as "viability." Nevertheless, because we evangelicals over the last two centuries have been given to feverish activity without much theological reflection ("Don't bother with all that 'head stuff' – let's just get out there and get it done!"), we are single-issue people. We can only handle one issue at a time. As important as the abortion debate is, the anger that people such as Francis Schaeffer felt in response to it was motivated by a theological conviction--the same well-spring that produced anger at the pollution of the environment (cf. his freshly released Pollution & the Death of Man), outrage at the racism rampant in evangelical circles (cf. Two Contents, Two Realities), and frustration over the injustices of the powerful over the weak.
The abortion debate has been led, like the abolitionist and civil rights movements, as a protest against the oppression of the weak by the strong, picking up on the rich biblical language. "Blessed is he who has regard for the weak" (Psalm 41:1); God "will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight" (Psalm 72:12-14). And yet, while many evangelicals oppose abortion, there is a curious silence on nearly every other issue where the pro-life ethic, commanded by Scripture, is at risk. One cursory glance at a concordance will reveal how concerned God is about the treatment of the homeless, the poor, the weak, the minorities ("aliens and strangers"), and others too often marginalized.
Words like "oppress," and pejorative barbs from God about "you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, 'Bring us some drinks!'" (Amos 4:1). "'1 will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished,' declares the Lord" (Amos 3:15). The people of God are entrusted with a special obligation to social justice: "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy" (Psalm 82:3-4). God hates oppression with the same intensity with which he hates abortion, but are we as consistent in our righteous indignation?
Like abortion, apartheid is a theological as well as an ethical question. To deny life and justice to the unborn or to the un-white is not only a serious sin (such as selfishness or racism), but a deliberate system, complete with biblical proof-texts twisted beyond recognition. While those committed to being faithful to the Christian creeds and Reformation confessions declared apartheid in South Africa a heresy, evangelicals here at home have shown more ambivalence. While Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the Christian Right courageously defended the human rights of the unborn, Falwell returned from his trip to South Africa declaring that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose pleas for a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy have kept south Africa from bloodshed thus far, was "a phony" and urged Christians to support the racist government of P.W. Botha. In the meantime, Jessie Jackson expressed outrage at Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton's criticisms of a rap song encouraging black violence against whites. When will "reverends" transcend pagan party lines?
Think of our other issues involving the doctrine of the image of God. It is the motivation behind our concern for the victim of a savage murder; our horror at seeing children searching for food in garbage bins behind a restaurant while their mothers hold up signs that read, "Will Work for Food and Diapers." It is that conviction that breaks our heart when we see a prostitute selling her body to keep alive, while others (including those who participate in the same industry through pornography and other forms of sexual entertainment) pour shame and contempt on her. It is that conviction, that religious belief, that binds us to our neighbors and to their interests, regardless of whether they are believers or share our same values or our ethnic, cultural, or linguistic heritage. Not long ago, a friend and I went through the drive-through window at a fast food spot. The fact that the server had a thick foreign accent, characteristic of fast food franchises in Southern California, and that my friend never shied away from making his racism a matter of public record, made me cringe as I prepared for the inevitable. Sure enough, this friend made some typically racist remark. The sad thing is, he's a pastor. The odd thing is, he's a rabid opponent of abortion. But is he consistently pro-life?
Evangelicals raise no qualms when the United States commits millions to Israel or spends millions on a military campaign to free a tiny, but wealthy, oil state with no regard for democracy, but when it comes to talking about the emergency in Somalia, Africa, with hundreds dying every day from starvation, the sentiment seems to be, "We have our own problems here at home." Evangelicals rightly protest the murder of the unborn and decry the silence of those who refuse to defend those who have no voice to defend themselves. Nevertheless, that same silence hovers secretly over the same impassioned group when children die senselessly after they are born. Shouldn't there be an outrage of equal proportions? Isn't life life? Or are we just caught up in the glitz and glamour of political debates? Are we really pro-life?
Until Christians put their theology first, their activism will be little more rationally motivated than that of Hare Krishnas passing out flowers in airports. We will be moved along, one issue at a time, by charismatic and energetic leaders and our internal contradictions (such as calling ourselves "pro-life" when in truth we rarely speak up for the poor and oppressed after they're born) will not win for evangelicalism respect in the eyes of the world for having the courage of its convictions. What convictions? Activism, agendas, and practical involvement are not convictions. Indeed, these things mean nothing without convictions, and convictions come from deeply held beliefs about God and ourselves. And folks, that's theology.
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(First published in Modern Reformation, July/Aug 1992 issue)
This essay first appeared in the July/August1992 issue of Modern Reformation magazine, when it was under the auspices of CURE (Christians United for Reformation), the predecessor to White Horse Media.
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved
Permissions: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.