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A Word to the PastorWithin a congregation, the pastor's teaching and preaching on life and abortion is always a challenge. A tough challenge. However, it is a challenge that, by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, must and can be met.
First, truthful teaching and preaching on this matter are mandated by the Gospel itself. The Gospel is the Gospel of Life, and the Gospel of Life is for the lives of “the least of these” (Matthew 25), including the unborn child and mother. From the beginnings of primitive Christianity to the present, post-modern days of Christianity, the Church has consistently taught and preached the Gospel of Life, practiced solidarity with the unborn child and mother, and opposed abortion because it involves the total destruction of one innocent life and the severe harming of another.
Therefore, every pastor, as part of the Church, has the same privilege and duty. To serve the Gospel is to offer the Gospel of Life. Likewise, to refuse to offer the Gospel of Life is to refuse to serve the Gospel in its fullness. Faithfulness to the Gospel is the first and most important reason for the pastor teaching and preaching on life and abortion.
Second, instruction on life and abortion is important because abortion is such a prevalent temptation throughout American society today. In the United States, for example, around 1,300,000 abortions will be performed this year. This means that nearly 4,000 abortions each day will be chosen as the “best” response to difficult circumstances. In other words, ours is an abortion culture. In this kind of environment, the Church's word on life and abortion can and must be clearly spoken.
Third, if the pastor of the local church is silent on life and abortion, then the following is communicated: each of you can and should make up your own mind, follow your own conscience, make your own decision. By his silence on life and abortion, the pastor, without saying so, is actually advancing a pro-choice position within a congregation. That is, pastoral silence by default allows the general culture—the prestige media, the entertainment industry, and the educational establishment (all of which are generally pro-abortion)—to shape the thinking and morals of the congregation on this matter of life and death.
And fourth, if a pastor refuses to address life and abortion, a kind of moral vacuum is created in a congregation. Into that vacuum more strident voices can and will rush to try to establish their positions. In confronting pastoral silence, well-meaning, pro-life laity can become overly zealous while trying to advance an anti-abortion agenda. Their zealotry will ignite the fires of the pro-choice and pro-abortion elements in the congregation. This can result in unfortunate, destructive conflict in the congregation.
For these reasons—the Gospel of Christ is the Gospel of Life, the nearly omnipresent temptation of abortion, the fact that pastoral silence serves the pro-choice agenda, and the fact that pastoral timidity can radicalize the laity on abortion—the pastor must teach and preach on abortion.
Even though we may know in our heads and hearts the important reasons for teaching and preaching on life and abortion, we pastors still hesitate to follow through. Oh yes, we have our reasons, flimsy though they might be. We want to be liked by as many of our church members as possible. We do not want to offend anyone. We fear that such teaching and preaching will stir up conflict, and we despise avoidable congregational conflict.
Personally speaking, we do not want to be identified as culturally close-minded, morally rigid, theologically conservative, politically right wing—the conventional, but nonetheless intimidating, charges made against the pro-life pastor by the “politically correct.” For these reasons and others, we become just plain timid, maybe downright afraid, to tackle this somewhat explosive subject.
We should not be timid. We should be not afraid. Instead, we should seek knowledge, wisdom and patience. To be sure, the pastor in a new appointment should not preach on life and abortion during his or her first sermon. But after serving a congregation long enough to have built up a sufficient level of trust and a sense of trustworthiness, the pastor is ready to begin faithfully preaching and teaching on life and abortion.
The pastor's first and most important step is simply to inform the congregation what historic Christianity, through the ages, has taught and preached about life and abortion. This can be accomplished through an extended comment in a sermon, as part of a Bible study or a church school class, or through an editorial in the parish newsletter. This can and should be done matter-of-factly, with love, and without polemics, condemnation or mean-spiritedness. It need not be done defensively.
By taking this first step, the pastor clearly indicates to the congregation that he or she stands with historic Christian teaching. The pastor declares that this teaching is not a matter of personal opinion or preference; rather, this teaching is offered as a matter of Church instruction, as a matter of the Church's Gospel, as a matter for ordained ministerial transmission that is not open to revision. This kind of honest, loving, pastoral forthrightness—which is, to be honest, often preceded by more than a little pastoral apprehension—is usually appreciated by the laity. After all, the laity respect pastoral courage and leadership, especially when pastoral courage and leadership serve the Gospel and connect with the congregation. When such leadership is practiced, many members of the congregation will respond with support for the pastor. Some will begin to have their hearts and minds changed.
Furthermore, when standing for the Gospel of Life, and with the Church on life and abortion, the pastor will find the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the pastor's ministry and in the midst of the congregation. The Holy Spirit will even bring the mystery of the Communion of the Saints to bear on the pastor and the congregation. And God's Spirit will bless the pastor with increasing freedom to speak the truth, in love, on this matter and others.
Once the pastor declares, even briefly, historic Christianity's teaching, a theological-moral ethos on life and abortion will begin to emerge, develop, and mature in the congregation. Among themselves and among members of the community at large, the members of the local church can be counted on to discuss the pastor's instruction. Through their many conversations, the laity will reinforce the teachings of the pastor and, at the same time, will help establish the emerging pro-life ethos of the congregation.
Certainly, disagreements with the pastor's teaching on life and abortion are likely to occur. However, it should be remembered that such disagreements are the dissent of individual members over against the mind of the Church catholic, over against the office of the ordained clergy, and over against the moral consensus of the congregation that is in formation. Moreover, constructive disagreements should be allowed, even encouraged, by the pastor. The pastor might well note that such disagreements are best aired and engaged in personal conversation.
In these conversations, the pastor's task is not so much to win arguments as to continue to propose the truth of Christian teaching—and that includes the responsibility to listen to those who disagree and to respond thoughtfully. All involved should recall that these conversations take place within the strong bonds of fellowship, unity and Christian love. Again, the pastor's privilege and duty involve truthful witness, not the scoring of debate points.
After the pastor has taken this first and most important step of clearly stating historic Christian teaching on life and abortion, other steps can and should follow. Future sermons, Bible studies, church school lessons and newsletter articles should contain occasional references to the Gospel of Life, to the forgiveness of God for those involved in abortion, to the protection of the unborn child and mother, to the clear biblical teaching for life and against abortion. The congregation can also be informed about how abortion has become a means of birth control in American society. These references will serve to reinforce the congregation's knowledge.
Once the Gospel of Life is nearly taken for granted in a congregation, that congregation will more intentionally and exuberantly celebrate God's gift of children. Furthermore, the pastor will not be embarrassed to teach biblically and clearly on matters related to human sexuality. Even in counseling those planning to marry, the pastor will lift up the gift of children and discuss the view of some medical authorities that “contraceptives” may in fact cause abortion.
Over time, the Gospel of Life, with the power of the Spirit, will lead a congregation to consider ways to minister to those who are threatened, and to those who have been harmed by abortion. Such works of mercy will, by the grace of God, be the fruit of truthful preaching and teaching of the Gospel of Life. But it all begins with the pastor simply asserting the basic truth that the faithful Church, throughout the ages and now, stands with the God who stands with the unborn child and mother, and against abortion.
For the pastor of our day, the “principalities and powers” of this age seem to have constructed a veil of fear around the problem of abortion. Even so, the faithful pastor, ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit with a solid biblical foundation and in continuity with historic Christianity, has nothing to fear.
So from you, the pastor, let the word on historic Christian teaching on life and abortion go forth. The Gospel will be more faithfully served. Your congregation will be transformed. Hearts and minds will be changed. Lives will be saved. Wounded lives will be healed. And all of this will not be by accident, but by the powerful grace of God.
Used with permission. This information excerpted from Lifewatch and the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS).
© 2011 Focus
on the Family