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Still-silent shepherds

Some evangelical pastors have several reasons for not preaching on abortion—and one is fear of man

Still-silent shepherds

(Krieg Barrie)

Associated Press/Photo by Al Behrman

LAMPOONED: Jerry Falwell (left) talks with a pro-life protester as they picket outside the Margaret Sanger center in Cincinnati in 1986.

Associated Press/Photo by Scott Cohen

“WE ARE A MURDEROUS CULTURE”: Mark Driscoll preaches in Seattle.

Editor’s note: In 1994, WORLD published “Silence of the shepherds,” an article addressing the reticence of many evangelical pastors to preach on abortion. Two decades later, a WORLD survey shows that many are still silent.

Recently retired pastor John Piper did not plan to speak out about abortion. He began preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis in 1980 and didn’t touch the subject. One day late in the decade, though, he and his wife were eating at a Pizza Hut, watching a pro-life demonstration on TV: “I said—you know what? That’s just right. That’s just plain right.”

Piper began stepping out on the issue: “It was a combination of seeing other people taking it seriously and then beginning to check my own soul, and God just mercifully taking away some blind spots, showing me in the Scriptures all kinds of reasons for standing up and defending these little ones.” Since that time, Piper has preached more than 20 sermons against abortion. He was arrested in a sit-in—“I don’t regret it.” Most every pro-life ministry has blossomed at Bethlehem: “It has become a part of our culture.”

The Pipers adopted a child in 1995, and he says pastors should be “exemplars of a way to engage abortion, both on the ground at the clinics, at counseling and intervention situations, and in the pulpit.” The pro-choice complaint that “all you Christians do is shout at us” is no longer valid, Piper says: He advises today’s pastors “to take [abortion] seriously and to address it biblically, … and there are just dozens of ways to do that.”

Another famous preacher has chosen a different way. In New York City several years ago, an Ivy League graduate approached Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church to thank him for not focusing on abortion from his pulpit. She added, “If I had seen any literature or reference to the ‘pro-life’ movement, I would not have stayed through the first service.”

She was a lawyer, a resident of Manhattan, and an active ACLU member, according to Keller. She also had had three abortions. Eventually, the woman converted to Christianity under Keller’s influence; later she approached him—“Do you think abortion is wrong?” she asked. Keller said yes. She replied: “I am coming to see that maybe there is something wrong with it.”

To Keller, this story illustrates the right approach to biblical preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church concerning controversial sin areas. “Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion. … Jesus himself warned us to be wary of it, and not to mistake a call for moral virtue for the good news of God’s salvation,” he wrote in Leadership Journal in 1999.

But Keller also said in a Dec. 16, 2010, talk now on YouTube, “If people are doing something wrong, they need to be, well, prevented from doing it. … You both have the people who are doing the abortions; and as far as I see, they should be prevented from doing it, and that would be justice. But then you also have the unborn children, and they are not being treated as they deserve.”

How should other pastors act? For four decades evangelical pastors have wrestled with how to, when to, and whether to preach against the nationwide, day-to-day murder of babies in abortion mills not even a jog away from church steeples. In 1994 WORLD reported Billy Graham’s belief that addressing abortion in the pulpit could impede his “main message” of salvation. “I don’t get into these things like abortion,” Graham told talk show host Larry King.

‘We shake our heads in disgust at the German church’s tolerance of one holocaust while ignoring our own tolerance of another.’Randy Alcorn

Fresh research gathered by WORLD indicates that many shepherds are silent on abortion—or only whispering.

THREE SETS OF EVIDENCE bear this out.

First, WORLD conducted a random, informal survey of 40 pastors from seven member denominations in the National Association of Evangelicals. All 40 said that life begins at conception and that pastors should preach against abortion. However, 18 pastors had not preached against abortion in the last year, and five more had never done so.

On the other hand, when standing outside their pulpits, pastors were more likely to encourage their churches toward pro-life work: 29 of the pastors’ churches worked with, or funded, crisis pregnancy centers; 24 offered in-house pro-life education to members; 15 participated in Marches for Life or similar events; and four picketed clinics. Significantly, pastors who preach against abortion are about twice as likely to see congregants involved in pro-life activities as those who don’t.

Second, 25 national pro-life leaders—both evangelicals and Roman Catholics—gathered recently in Washington, D.C., in a meeting organized by National March for Life. Members of the group complained that many evangelical pastors are dropping the ball. “One of our great frustrations has been the silence of the evangelical pastors,” said Sherry Crater, coalitions liaison at the Family Research Council.

Eve Marie Barner Gleason of the evangelical umbrella group Care Net sees pastors struggling: “Many evangelical churches are supportive of local pregnancy centers. … At the same time, it can be hard getting some pastors interested, as some church leaders think ‘abortion is not an issue in their congregation’ or ‘the subject could be controversial or threatening to influential members of their congregation.’” In addition, some pastors worry that preaching on abortion might dry up collection plates.

Third, numerous evangelical leaders speak of a lingering silence. Pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul Sr.’s opinion is illustrative: “I would say things are not the same as they were [in 1994]. … I think it’s deteriorated. I think it’s worse.” Sproul’s church pickets, does crisis pregnancy work, marches, and more. He preaches and writes on the subject. A few years ago he produced materials to help pastors address abortion in their congregation: “I heard the same thing. It was like a broken record. Pastors said, ‘I can’t use this material. It’ll split our church.’”

THE GENERAL PUBLIC TODAY knows intellectually that abortion is immoral, according to an August 2013 Pew study. The study shows that just 15 percent of Americans today say abortion is moral. So why don’t pastors preach against it so as to move congregants from a head knowledge to a heart conviction? Pastors surveyed or interviewed gave WORLD reasons that could be put into four categories:

  • Preaching on the issue might discomfort church members or hurt women in congregations who’ve had abortions.
  • Preaching on the issue should not be done as a one-note tune or “hobby horse,” especially if the pastor emphasizes expository preaching.
  • Preaching on the issue might politically stigmatize the pastor or politicize the pulpit, scaring seekers off.
  • Preaching on the issue might seem uncool or anti-intellectual.

Many millennial generation pastors share this last belief. John Piper told WORLD that such younger pastors often understand pro-life issues better than their elders, having enjoyed the benefit of decades of intellectual and spiritual ferment on the matter. Some, however, worry of being typecast as a 1980s picketer or rescuer, or as a far-right, unloving loon. “There are a lot of … courageous younger pastors who don’t have any problem,” Piper said. “On the other hand, a lot of younger pastors don’t like seeming uncool.”

In the 1980s Francis Schaeffer and J. Everett Koop spoke out, as did oft-lampooned Jerry Falwell. National media and some fellow evangelicals stigmatized them and other evangelical leaders who proclaimed what was then a more unpopular truth. Nevertheless, those leaders moved the awareness meter, as did Catholics like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.

Some interviewed by WORLD agreed no such pastor/leader exists today when it comes to championing the abortion issue. At age 46, Mark Davis, senior pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church, recalls those men facing harsh criticism from many who had no stomach or understanding regarding abortion. Today, Davis says, “a combination of factors” pushes pastors to be more “incarnational than confrontational. … On the negative side, there is the fear of man, and the fear of being associated with certain men or certain ‘types’ of preachers. On the other side, there is a generation of pastors who have been trained to be a little more patient and to show kindness that wasn’t there before. There is good in that.”

While Davis’ church nurtures cutting-edge compassion ministries that are rarely confrontational, he also preaches about abortion. His members don’t wince, some post-abortive women thank him, and opportunities open for new ministry.

For Davis, preaching on abortion is a matter of creating a church culture in which members count on their pastor not to hedge on biblical issues but also not to beat them up: “We want to practice truth and trust. We never want to compromise the truth of what we believe; if we do, we compromise trust.”

Davis teaches about abortion without getting into political matters, and that’s a crucial distinction. Recent intimidation of some conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service causes some pastoral concern, as Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defending Freedom notes: “The IRS has done a lot through the years to create ambiguity in the law regarding what speech by pastors is prohibited and what speech is permitted. … There is a false perception that any issue society labels as ‘political’ is somehow off-limits and unlawful for churches.” Stanley notes that pastors are legally safe as long as they don’t endorse a candidate.

AS A SOUTHERN BAPTIST pastor during the 1980s, former presidential candidate and current Fox News talk show host Mike Huckabee dove into the abortion fray—and he sees others doing the same. “I think more evangelical pastors now are willing to take a stand,” he told me, but he acknowledged that pastors who aren’t may just avoid him now: “Some think it divides their congregation and takes their eyes off of the gospel.” Huckabee asks, “How can you claim to proclaim a gospel that turns its back on the slaughter of innocent babies?” 

Huckabee cautions about “doing what I call ‘preaching to the gallery.’ You beat at the abortion issue and destroy it. Then you hold up its carcass so everyone can clap.” At the same time, he says the excuses need to stop: “We need to be careful and offer grace to people who’ve made bad decisions and give the gospel to them, while at the same time drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘This is not something that can be acceptable.’ It’s forgivable, but not morally acceptable.”

But author Randy Alcorn fears that Americans are just too used to abortion now: “It’s not outrageous to us anymore.” Alcorn and his wife helped an unwed mother and then blocked the doors of abortion businesses, which led to several arrests and a large civil judgment. He parallels abortion and the killing of Jews during World War II: “Self-righteously we decry the German church’s failure to stand up for the Jews. Meanwhile we fail to stand up for the unborn. We shake our heads in disgust at the German church’s tolerance of one holocaust while ignoring our own tolerance of another.”

John Piper argues that American evangelical pastors know abortion is an abhorrent evil. They know they are to preach against murder, especially if it’s happening next door and involves people sitting right in their pews. They know that the path to healing requires repentance, and repentance requires conviction of sin, and conviction of sin requires clear exposition of the Word of God, even when it is uncomfortable. Pastors know they will come under a stricter judgment if they sugarcoat the gospel.

Piper sums it up this way in a sermon entitled “Love Your Unborn Neighbor”: “God says to us in America in the 21st century stained with the blood of millions of unborn babies, these words from Proverbs 24:11-12: ‘Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?’”

ON OCT. 20, 2013, as 14,000 people listened in person at the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church and 11 others by simulcast, pastor Mark Driscoll addressed the Sixth Commandment—“Do not murder.” He spent 39 of 68 minutes exclusively on abortion, “the hardest part of the sermon,” he told his church up front: “Hundreds of you will probably leave and never return. I would encourage you to consider what I have to say, to go home and study what the Word of God has to say, and … make a prayerful, careful, biblical decision.”

Driscoll proceeded to critique abortion, as he has routinely since founding Mars Hill in 1996. “Life begins at conception,” he said, noting that an unborn child is “a person made in the image and likeness of God.” Driscoll rooted in the Bible “seven reasons why life begins at conception.” He said “we are a murderous culture. … [Since 1973] there have been between 50 and 55 million documented abortions, just in the U.S.”

Some listeners cried as Driscoll called for a “change of heart, change of life,” and spoke of God’s mercy and forgiveness: “You men who have encouraged, forced, or paid for the abortion, you women who have killed your own child, murdered your own child. … The good news is that Jesus died for murderers. … You need Jesus, and you need him to forgive you for your murder, and he will.”

Afterward, a woman in Mars Hill’s Albuquerque, N.M., satellite congregation knelt up front. It was the anniversary of the day she had aborted a child. She began worshipping and weeping. Then her four living children hugged her, supported by her husband. Eventually, she started comforting another post-abortive woman.

—Joe Maxwell is a Mississippi writer; Stephen Hall is executive director of Joseph’s Way

Preaching it

For samples of pro-life sermons pastors have preached, go to wng.org/topic/saturday_series/.

WORLD mailed surveys to 20 evangelical pastors of megachurches asking them if they preach against abortion. Seven replied. Six preach “more than once a year” against abortion, either as a sermon topic or when discussing a particular passage of the Bible during a sermon. One preaches “about once a year.”

More than once a year

Matt Chandler, The Village Church, Flower Mound, Texas

Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, Seattle, Wash.

Jonathan Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va.

Dwayne Pickett, New Jerusalem Church, Jackson, Miss.

Dave Stone, Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Ky.

Ed Young Sr., Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas

About once a year

Bob Coy, Calvary Chapel, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Joe Maxwell

Joe Maxwell

Joe Maxwell

Steve Hall

Steve is the Executive Director of Joseph’s Way. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the University of Virginia School of Law and has contributed to WORLD, Leadership Journal, and Crosswalk.com. He and his wife live in Virginia.

Comments

  • TrudyP
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    Personally, I find the "evidence" less than convincing. An informal, random survey of 40? I would like to see how the random sample was chosen and what the statistical analysis was.  A very unconvincing article that lacked believable evidence except for some anecdotes. This is NOT the standard I expect from World.

  • Bill Taylor
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    On the other hand, God is drawing some of the unsaved people who favor abortion.  This articlehttp://www.scragged.com/articles/the-abortion-battle-shows-the-wayshows how Christians are making inroads in the pro life battle.

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    If the church on the whole can preach the importance of the tithe and the adherance to Christian conduct they should be able to preach against the destruction of life. All preaching that is targeted ****** the heart of the offender but that is always a good thing; awareness of those things that do not glorify Jesus are knowledge and power in the long run of salvation. If we do not educate the masses on the importance of the things God hates (shedding of innocent blood) then they will not know the conviction of the Spirit and the need for the redeeming Savior. God is watching and waiting for his people to come together in one voice on all these issues that will divide the church. Pastors have to remember that the Word of God, divided rightly will either drive or draw the populas. God bless the hard work of those in the field of saving the lifes of the unborn.

  • michelle's picture
    michelle
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    You're correct, Gimpy, I was not clear on my point. I wanted people to understand  words from the pulpit need to be carefully seasoned with grace and not full of condemnation. Well-meaning Christians have said terrible things that were true but not grace-full. A post-abortive woman generally knows she's made a negative moral choice, she does not need to be shamed.Murder, for example, is one of those trigger words. Thou shalt not murder, deliberately choose to take another's life, is what the commandment says. The way that truth is expressed from the pulpit, however, can be the difference between a guilty person's ability to hear it and accept it applies to them.In all my years of speaking with women considering abortion or who have had an abortion, few were cavalier about their decision. It doesn't take much to convince them to carry--but they usually have someone urging the abortion. Most often it's the child's father or the woman's mother. If they were given a little bit of encouragement and hope, many women would not abort. The church is a hospital full of sinners in need of forgiveness. That's true of any man, woman, grandparent, sibling or friend whose hands are guilty of abortion--whether by action or encouragement. They're no worse than I am. My point is if the church will preach truth in a way that does not shame but allows the Word to move in an individual's heart, true repentance is much more likely to occur.

  • Thunderfingers
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    Just a note about an evangelical pastor who has really suffered for his stand on the abortion issue: Writer Randy Alcorn wrote [in an excellent article entitled, Is the Health and Wealth Gospel Biblical?]: "in 1990, [I was] sued for millions of dollars by an abortion clinic, forcing me to resign from a pastoral ministry I loved."

  • Gimpy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    "What I missed in this article was the understanding that it's the Holy Spirit that convicts, nothing man can say"You're right about the Holy Spirit convicting, of course, but what specifically was your point here? That pastors shouldn't speak out about abortion? That, after all, is the focus of the article and the comments."From my years of experience, I can tell you, willy-nilly shouting out condemnation at vulnerable women, does not convict"I don't believe I've seen that advocated either in the article itself or in the comments. The discussion has been about whether abortion should be opposed from the pulpit at all, not whether "willy-nilly shouting out condemnation of vulnerable women" is appropriate, so again it's not clear what you're addressing. Or was your point just that you've tried this yourself and simply wanted to inform others of its ineffectiveness?

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    Thanks, Michelle! You nailed it.

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    It seems to me that if the church will not preach against abortion - will not call it the sin that it is - because it does not want to discomfort the post-abortive mother, then it is not really giving the post-abortive mother the help in Christ that she needs.  To be set free, and to be healed, she needs to come to terms with the sin - not only of abortion, but of any sin that led to that decision - whether it was against her (meaning she was forced to have the abortion), or of her own volition.  She also needs to be loved through that healing, and to know that God truly forgives because of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.Every pastor should be preaching against abortion, but he should be ready at the same time to embrace and help the sinner any way he can. Perhaps many preachers do not feel confident with that last part, so they avoid the subject altogether.

  • michelle's picture
    michelle
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    I am not a pastor, but I've taught Bible study for over 30 years and worked at PCCs around the country for more than 26. In all the churches I've attended, I don't think I've ever heard a sermon on murder, much less abortion.But it seems to me, you start a sermon using the word I've spoken countless times:"There is no unforgivable sin, whether it be murder, abortion, lying or gluttony. Let's talk about the heart."What I missed in this article was the understanding that it's the Holy Spirit that convicts, nothing man can say. If you're preaching about God, His grace, the nature of sin and how to be forgiven, I think you give plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to work. Randy Alcorn's LIFE convicts by his example. Anyone who knows his story has got to be affected by his commitment to follow God's leading. Today, at utmost.org, Oswald Chamber's teaching says this: Whether I hear God's call or not depends on the condition of my ears, and exactly what I hear depends upon my spiritual attitude. You can preach the law, give examples, show examples, work at PCCs, picket and so forth, but unless the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of people, it can border on frustration. As a body of Christ, we need to be praying for revival, and the softening of hearts.From my years of experience, I can tell you, willy-nilly shouting out condemnation at vulnerable women, does not convict--it hardens the heart and makes our "work" at the PCC more difficult. Only God can soften the heart. Only the Holy Spirit can move people to confess their sins.Our job is to witness with our life, show with our hands, love with our hearts, pray with all our might and bestow grace.He has shown you, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: love justice, mercy and walk humbly with your God.Sorry this is a little jumbled--I'm off to teach Bible study!

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Sawgunner
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    I think all churches should from time to time point out the urgency of standing up for innocent unborn. Note how I used the term "innocent". Those precious kids have committed no offense, stood before no judge yet they are given the sentence of death. Perhaps we should borrow from the suicide prevention folks? Abortion as a permanent solution to a temporary problem (assuming we are willing to call a pregnancy a problem which might best be re-labeled as a crisis or difficulty instead).Congregations with legal professionals (attorneys, judges) should nudge them to help would-be aborting mothers with the adoption process.Sadly in the USA at the last minute we know a mother can and often does change her mind about adopting out her children. This in turn likely explains the explosive trend of going abroad to adopt a child. (Even with all its high costs, I guess so long as you have no international political standoffs, an overseas adoption will continue to appeal to many).

  • waitmans9's picture
    waitmans9
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    The fear of
    man brings a snare, But he who trusts in the Lord will
    be exalted. Isaiah 29:25              
    You shall not murder.
    Exodus 20:13 If we feared God more than we feared men then we would not be worried about loosing the people in our congregations.  Of course we wish
    people would listen and believe the truth about God, but our main goal is not
    to keep the pews full. As John Piper said, "American evangelical pastors
    know abortion is an abhorrent evil." People are just afraid of loosing
    some of their congregation. We must not be fearful of what man thinks
    about us but we should be strong and courageous. 

     

  • Gimpy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    "If people don't hear about real sin, how can they grasp their real need for a Savior?  The end result is a church full of deluded people adhering to a cotton candy Christianity."Exactly. And when anyone DOES point out the truth they're labeled -- often by others claiming to follow Christ -- as "hateful" or at least "unloving", and the "proof" of the supposedly un-Christian behavior is that the world was offended by it. That approach conveniently allows them to have their cake (or, if you prefer, cotton candy) and eat it too because: 1) the world doesn't hate them as it did Jesus and he said it would his disciples and 2) at the same time they can convince themselves and others that they're being pious by not calling out sin and offending anyone in the process. In reality, though, it's just cowardice and selfishness masquerading as piety.I've also noticed that the cotton candy crowd rarely, if ever, seems to offer constructive alternatives but appears content just to criticize those who are trying to spread God's Word. That leads me to believe that what they really want is not for the people they're criticizing to be more loving, but for them to just shut up.

  • Jar of clay
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    To preach the Gospel while neglecting Scripture's clear mandates on the sanctity of life verges on censorship of God's Word. Martin Luther stated, "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world & the devil are, at the at moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ [acting on my beliefs], however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the solider is tested. And, to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if we flinch at that point".  In Leviticus 20:1-5, God warns His people about failing to deal with the sin of child sacrifice; I see little difference in failing to deal with the sin of abortion in our culture. The apostle Paul asked the Galatians, "Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?" We are told in 2 Timothy 2:24-25 how truth is to be delivered and the potential consequences of delivering it in a gentle and forthright way.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:57 pm

    "Preaching on the issue might discomfort church members or hurt women in congregations who've had abortions."  Sadly, too many pastors are unwilling to address any personal sin beyond that of disregarding the speed limit or overeating at Thanksgiving for fear it might cause discomfort to their listeners.  If people don't hear about real sin, how can they grasp their real need for a Savior?  The end result is a church full of deluded people adhering to a cotton candy Christianity.