Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. 2 Timothy 4:2 (RSV)
Hundreds of thousands of abortions occur each year in the United States. Many of the women (and men) involved in these abortions are church members. A few are ordained clergy. This points to a sickness, a moral sickness, in many American churches. Most clergy fear addressing abortion in their congregations, so they simply avoid the topic. Some laity, too, do not want their bishops, pastors, or priests to talk about abortion, and they let it be known. Churches in America have learned to live with this sickness by denying its existence.
It might be asked: “Why is abortion, one among many of today’s problematic social issues, such a big deal for the Church?” For two reasons: First, abortion is a “big deal” because protecting mothers and their unborn children has been an essential part of the Church’s faith and life from the time of the apostles until now. Of course, in these latter days, a few old-line Protestant denominations in the United States have deleted the article of faith on life and declared the morality of abortion (and in some cases, politically advocated for it). In all other churches, defending innocent unborn lives is simply a given, a part of the Christian community living under the guidance of Jesus Christ, an essential characteristic of the Church’s apostolic identity. Second, abortion is a “big deal” because it involves the taking of an innocent human life, a little one created in the image of God. That, for the Church, is morally unacceptable and a sin.
So how can morally sickened churches—even those that don’t acknowledge it—improve or restore their health? By preaching the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, and return; the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of new life. By preaching this gospel faithfully and truly, Sunday after Sunday, week after week.
The gospel has healed sickened churches in the past. Here is an account of a little-known example:
In the 19th century, some of [the Netherlands Reformed Church’s] ministers denied the resurrection or the divinity of Christ; another minister famously claimed to be a follower of Buddha. The leadership of the church refused to uphold the church’s confessional standards. As a result, the majority of the church seemed to have lost its theological identity.
In this situation the orthodox minority found itself divided into two camps on how to respond. One camp thought the church’s theological character should be restored by its members appealing to the church’s courts and synod [that is, disciplining offenders]. If this did not help, the members would leave the church. This became known as the juridical way. For several decades the juridical camp made its appeals, and when these were unsuccessful, members of the dissenting group left and formed the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN). Meanwhile, the other minority group in the NRC followed the medical way: its members believed that as long as one is not prevented from preaching the gospel, one should never leave the church. They believed that the medicine of the gospel itself can heal a sick church, and although they were weakened by the loss of orthodox allies, members of this group continued to focus on preaching the gospel.
The result seemed predictable. The RCN would become a conservative bulwark, its identity firmly protected by its juridical structure. The NRC would grow more and more liberal, with a slim and powerless conservative minority. But things turned out differently. [emphasis added] One hundred years later the RCN [the more recently formed, orthodox church] found itself at the far left of the theological spectrum, and its international daughter churches, including the Christian Reformed Church in the USA, declared themselves in impaired communion with their mother church. Meanwhile, in the 1930s and 1940s a spirit of renewal began to stir in the NRC [the original church whose faith was suspect]. [This renewal occurred as National Socialism seduced the gospel in some European churches and as the Nazi army conquered the Netherlands in 1940.] Liberals, middle-of-the-roaders and conservatives became discontented with the perceived theological wishy-washiness of the church.
None of these groups gave up its particular approach to the gospel, but all realized that a church which does not firmly confess its obedience to the gospel of Christ is null and void. In 1950 an overwhelming majority in the synod accepted a new, Christ-centered church order and restored the church’s ties to its confessional documents. The preaching of the gospel, not juridical discipline, had healed the church.
If this is what it means to be church, being church will never be easy. We find ourselves joined together with people we disagree with, people we do not necessarily like. But that is exactly what God’s covenant is all about: God reaches out to people who are not likable—people who are sinners. It is only because God graciously embraces these imperfect human beings that any of us have a chance to be included in God’s covenant.
If this is what it means to be church, then being church is also profoundly countercultural. . . . if there is any place for the church to be countercultural . . . it is in situations in which we are called to remember our original covenant.
“You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16). As a church we are called, formed, judged and renewed not by our own choices, but only by God.
—Edwin Chr. van Driel, “God’s Covenant: What It Means to Be Church,”
The Christian Century, January 9, 2007
This historical account suggests how the healing of the moral sickness caused by churches’ abortion acceptance can take place. Pro-life activism, congregational experts, and community therapists are not the answer. The answer is simply preaching the full gospel (and that, of course, includes the sacraments) that has been given to the Church.
As the gospel—faithfully preached and sacramentally enacted—heals a church, God renews its members’ relationship with Jesus Christ and reforms the church as a community to live more faithfully under the Headship and Lordship of His Son. A healed church lovingly offers gospel truth about life and abortion.