Yes, the title is right. While the issue of abortion seems to be yet another point of division, there is a way forward. We can have Christian unity regarding abortion, and we can lead the way toward American unity about the same.
Of course, we will need to invest some effort. Working together means listening to each other, empathizing with each other, and often surrendering personal preferences and “gut feelings” in pursuit of obeying the call of Christ.
But whenever we can work together to defeat evil, God requires us to work together – even at the cost of some personal convictions. John 17:20–23, Ephesians 4:1–6, and Philippians 2:1–4 are among the many, many passages that stress this Christian obligation.
Acts 15:1–26 (often titled “The Jerusalem Council”) gives us a great example of how to become unified. In this passage Christians from Antioch and greater Judea meet with the apostles in Jerusalem to determine the extent to which gentile followers of Christ must obey Old Testament law. After much discussion and debate, the council comes to a compromise agreement (15:19–21): gentile Christians must avoid sexual immorality and avoid eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols or has come from strangled animals, and must avoid eating blood (rare steaks are not allowed!). Apart from these requirements, gentiles do not need to worry about Old Testament Law.
I’ve read many books and commentaries that discuss this passage, and I cannot think of even one scholar who agrees that Christians should pay special attention to these four rules. Yet that’s part of what makes this passage such a beautiful model: while the compromise itself is less than perfect, everyone surrenders personal convictions so as not to hinder the spreading of the gospel.
With respect to abortion, my ministry is positioned between two Christian denominations that take the most extreme positions. I am ordained by a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (and hold a degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), which last year categorized abortion as “murder” and a “crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law.” This statement does not even consider possible exceptions for rape victims, or for the health of the mother.
On the other end is The Episcopal Church, in which my wife pastors a congregation, and in which I frequently preach and teach. While The Episcopal Church states that it “emphatically opposes abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience,” it maintains “unequivocal opposition” to all laws that restrict the rights of women to determine whether abortion is the best choice for them, and to then get an abortion if they so choose.
(Most other denominations are in between, calling for anti-abortion laws while allowing for certain exceptions.)
I’m confident that most members of Southern Baptist congregations do not agree that, no matter what the circumstances, all abortions are murder. And I’m pretty sure that most Episcopalians think that it’s OK for governments to prescribe some limits to abortion. Maybe the “rank and file” of the two are not so far apart?
In any case, there is substantial room for even strict adherents of the positions of the SBC and The Episcopal Church to take a unified approach against abortion. And since our attack on abortion can be much more effective than our individual efforts have been thus far, we have no excuse before God for not trying to work together. Indeed, paragraph 15 of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (which functions as the SBC “statement of faith”) mandates Christian readiness to “work with all men of good will in any good cause.” This leaves no room not to work together against abortion.
The key to unity is for all of us is to underline God’s will with respect to abortion. Since God wants us to respect and value human life, God wants the willful termination of life to be as rare as possible. In other words, God wants the number of abortions to go down.
Amazingly, both the SBC and The Episcopal Church statements affirm the idea that God calls us to make abortion as rare as possible. So the next step is to build upon this agreement.
The main practical disagreement between the SBC and The Episcopal Church is whether Christians should try to get governments to pass laws that restrict or outlaw abortion. Yet while emotions can run hot over this, the reality is that the Dobbs decision, like most abortion laws in the United States today, will not have much effect on the number of abortions. This is because women who want abortions in the United States in 2022 have many options. The majority of American women already live in states that permit abortion, and many of those who do not can easily travel to such a state, or buy abortion pills (legally or illegally), or get an illegal abortion, or even perform a self-abortion, perhaps aided by friends.
So instead of trying to outlaw something that the majority thinks is acceptable (perhaps with limits), we can be much more effective by tackling abortion demand. If fewer women want abortions, then there will be fewer abortions!
Studies bear this out. The more women have access to quality medical care, birth control, and sex education, the less likely it is that they will end up with unwanted pregnancies and wanting abortions. And when funds are available to help support the needs of babies and their mothers, women are more likely to carry their pregnancies to term. A recent former SBC President, J.D. Greear, strongly recommends this “giving” approach. As he celebrates the victory over Roe v. Wade, he urges us to support organizations that help women in the above ways.
The silver lining for the church is that “pro-choice” groups already tend to agree that we should help women as per Greear. Paradoxically, it tends to be the “pro-life” folks who are uncomfortable about reducing abortion demand by providing birth control, sex education, funds for impoverished mothers, and the like – even though these things reduce abortion!
Yes, giving women birth control, education, and financial support can conflict with some of our values. Most of us want parents to be involved in, or even control, the health, well-being, and sex education of our children. And we should be wary of creating dependency by giving things to people for free.
But this is where the Christian call to compromise in the name of our greater mission comes into play. When we truly get serious about dealing with larger issues, lesser matters lose their importance. And if we truly believe that abortion is a kind of murder, then there is no room not to make birth control easily available to all women, or to pressure our politicians to pass laws that provide funds for disadvantaged mothers.
Almost all Christians, whether “pro life” and “pro choice,” agree that in a sinless world, the number of abortions would be zero. Since that’s not the world we inhabit, God calls us to make that number as small as possible. Fights over about whether abortion should be legal and whether exceptions should apply drain our energy, divide God’s people, and hinder our prophetic witness, while doing little to fulfill God’s call to lessen the number of abortions. But if instead we focus on meeting the needs of young women, we not only make abortion more rare. We also show our world that Christians can push aside social and political disagreements in order to work together for the good of all.