Abortion & the URCNA

I received an inquiry from an Australian student working on an ethics project for school. He wished to know the URCNA's position on abortion and its basis. Here are my answers to his questions. 
 

1. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and the involvement that you have in your religion?

My name is Rev. Michael Spotts. I'm a pastor in the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA). I've been involved in ministry for over a decade, both in the United States and as a missionary in Newcastle, Australia. As well, I'm the father of a nine-month old son. Together with my wife, I have experienced first-hand some of the difficulties of bringing a child to term and providing care to an infant. It is not easy! This gives me some additional empathy toward women struggling with the decision whether or not to end their pregnancies.

 

2. What is the source of the values and ethics within your religious denomination?

I prefer the term “morals” over “values” since the latter can be loaded with relativistic presuppositions. Not that this was your intent, but often discussions about “value systems” assume beliefs about right and wrong are personally or culturally contrived. Yet Christians and non-Christians generally agree that certain behaviors are wrong under all conditions, though we disagree on the basis for this conviction.

Allow me to illustrate this. During the Cambodian genocide of the 1980's, Pol Pot personally valued exterminating academics, old people, and capitalists. According to his value-system, death camps were beneficial to his country. Was the Cambodian genocide wrong? If Pol Pot's values are inferior, by what objective standard does one make that judgment? And how might you respond to someone claiming genocide is simply “contrary to the values of many Westerners, but not wrong in an ultimate sense”?

Likewise, a man might value rape as fulfilling Darwinian impulses to mate at all costs (as certain insects and animals do). To what standard can we appeal to say rape is not just contrary to some value-systems, but truly wrong and evil—no matter how many say otherwise? And if it is granted that humans are accountable to a different set of rules than animals, you must ask who imposed such universally binding ethical principles.

Historically, Christians shun genocide and rape because we hold a high view of human personhood and sexuality as invested with divine dignity. Moreover, we believe a real, eternal moral law governs human conduct. Certain acts are wrong in God's eyes and therefore wrong for everyone. By contrast, relativistic systems are limited to describing whether actions promote subjective ideals of happiness. Without any plausible basis for conceiving of right and wrong as real categories transcending human opinion, value systems are incapable of pronouncing whether any actions are actually good or evil. Ethics is cast into a sea of contrary preferences. No matter how gruesome or inequitous, one's deeds can only be deemed “bad” insofar as they fail to conform with the subjective values of other humans.

All of this has legal implications. Christians and non-Christians alike desire governments to make and enforce reasonable laws based on justice, not whim. Christians appeal to a divine law inscribed in the human conscience as the unchanging basis for just civil codes. Moral relativists have no similar recourse. Therefore, by allowing ethical judgments to come down to personal values, legal systems are at last reduced to instruments of hypocrisy or tyranny, not institutions of real justice.

Think about it. Why should this or that person have the final say in what is good? Is it not manifestly unjust to lord one's values—if that is all they are—over another person? Ninety-nine percent of people might share values yet a majority does not itself constitute genuine morality, but a mob. Otherwise, how might you speak against lynchings or military invasions, which reflect shared values of large groups?

As others have noted, in order for relativists to make adamant moral judgments they must “borrow metaphysical capital” from religions and philosophies which admit of transcendent moral laws—and in doing so, pay indirect homage to God. Without objective morality, there is no consistent, rational basis for governments to approve or condemn human actions as good or evil. And, as C. S. Lewis observed, there can be no moral law without a moral Law Giver.

Reformed Christians believe the only way to speak meaningfully about ethics is to begin at the basic conviction: principles of justice derive ultimately from an absolute, eternal, and universal moral law which governs humanity. This standard of righteousness exists independently of human conscience or culture. Moreover, we believe the moral law resides in and emanates from the unchanging holy character of one divine Being, whom we call God. Subsisting eternally in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is intrinsically communal, loving, and moral. In this way, Trinitarian theism provides a uniquely rational framework for ethics which stand above individual values and social constructs.

Christianity makes sense of the intuitions humans share regarding good and evil as realities, as well as the phenomenon of conscience. These we confess to be the result of having been created by God for the purpose of carrying out justice. The fall of human nature from its original upright state has left our ethical capacity to discern good from evil damaged, but not destroyed. Thankfully, to aid mankind in constructing just laws, God has provided additional revelation of his moral will in Scripture, particularly the Ten Commandments and Jesus' summary, “love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Ex 20; Mk 12:30-31).

 

3.  What sets your denomination apart from other Christians?

Like other Christians, we believe human beings need to be reconciled to God and have their sins forgiven. This is accomplished through faith in Jesus Christ, whom we regard as God come in the flesh, who offered himself on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. By suffering real physical and spiritual death, the Son of God satisfied divine justice against human evil on behalf of all who trust him for salvation.

Reformed Christians are distinct from some denominations in our belief that salvation is granted by God's grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ, apart from any foreknowledge of good works or will on man's part. Forgiveness and eternal life are not based upon any choice, work, or merit in us, but purely on God's kindness for the sake of Christ. Even faith does not itself merit salvation. Faith is simply the instrument by which one receives and rests in God's promise of life, like an eye that receives rays of light, but adds nothing to the sun's enlightening and warming power.

Reformed Christians are somewhat distinct in our beliefs regarding the Bible and authority. We confess God's Word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is so divinely inspired and preserved from error that no other standard of life and doctrine stands above or equal to it.

 

4. What is your denomination's view on women having abortions? Should it be allowed? Are there any exceptions?

We believe all unjust taking of life is strictly forbidden by God. This includes taking the life of an unborn child. The only exception I can imagine a URCNA minister raising would be if the mother's own life was seriously threatened. In this case, it might be argued that abortion is an act of self-defense. Yet the number of abortions actually necessitated by fear for the mother's life is exceedingly small, if non-existent. United States Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, stated publicly that,

...in thirty-eight years as a pediatric surgeon, he was never aware of a single situation in which a child's life had to be taken in order to save the life of the mother. The use of this argument to justify abortion, he said, was a “smoke screen.”

Again, in 1967, Dr. Alan Guttmacher of Planned Parenthood acknowledged,

“Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal illness such as cancer or leukemia, and, if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save, life."

Medical advances in the past fifty years have rendered that number even smaller, to the point that arguing for abortion on the basis of saving a mother's life is virtually rhetorical. If it were desires, laws could be written to make this the one exception; evidently, a significant portion of the public desires total freedom to slay their young.

 

5. Where does this belief come from? What theological concepts is it based upon?

This belief is derived from conscience and Scripture, as well as the example of Christian tradition.

Let's begin with theological reasons for opposing abortion:

i.  Unjust taking of life is forbidden by the 6th command

“You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

ii.  Abortion interrupts God's work of forming children in the womb.

“Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb...” (Isa 44:24, ESV).
“You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psa 139:13, ESV)

iii.  God knows and has plans for unborn children.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5, ESV)
“[God] set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace...” (Gal 1:15, ESV)

iv.  God's compassion, which exceeds even the most loving mothers, is to be our standard toward children:

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15, ESV).

v.  The unborn are capable of leaning on God who oversees their delivery.

“Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb” (Psa 71:6, ESV)

vi.  Abortion rejects God's promise to make children a blessing:

“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psa 127:3, ESV)

There are also textual-grammatical reasons for rejecting abortion:

"The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to refer to the unborn (Ex 21:22-25) is yeled, a word that “generally indicates young children, but may refer to teens or even young adults.” The Hebrews did not have or need a separate word for unborn children. They were just like any other children, only younger. In the Bible there are references to born children and unborn children, but there is no such thing as a potential, incipient, or “almost” child." [...]
"In Luke 1:41,44 there are references to the unborn John the Baptist, who was at the end of his second trimester in the womb. The word, translated baby, in these verses is the Greek word brephos. It is the same word used for the already born baby Jesus (Luke 2:12, 16) and for the babies brought to Jesus to receive His blessing (Luke 18:15-17). It is also the same word used in Acts 7:19 for the newborn babies killed by Pharaoh. To the writers of the New Testament, like the Old, whether born or unborn, a baby is simply a baby. It appears that the preborn John the Baptist responded to the presence of the preborn Jesus in His mother Mary when Jesus was probably no more than ten days beyond His conception (Luke 1:41). [...]
"The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be “with child and give birth to a son” (Luke 1:31). In the first century, and in every century, to be pregnant is to be with child, not with that which might become a child. The Scriptures teach the psychosomatic unity of the whole person, body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Wherever there is a genetically distinct living human being, there is a living soul and spirit."

Meredith Cline observes,

"The most significant thing about abortion legislation in Biblical law is that there is none. It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code." [6]

Finally, there are historical reasons for rejecting abortion based on the witness of Christian tradition:

"The second-century Epistle of Barnabas speaks of “killers of the child, who abort the mold of God.” It treats the unborn child as any other human “neighbor” by saying, "You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay a child by abortion. You shall not kill that which has already been generated" (Epistle of Barnabas 19:5).
The Didache, a second-century catechism for young converts, states, "Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant" (Didache 2.2). Clement of Alexandria maintained that "those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication cause not only the outright murder of the fetus, but of the whole human race as well" (Paedogus 2:10.96.1).
Defending Christians before Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 177, Athenagoras argued, “What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? …The fetus in the womb is a living being and therefore the object of God's care” (A Plea for the Christians, 35.6).
Tertullian said, "It does not matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. In both instances, destruction is murder" (Apology, 9.4). Basil the Great affirmed, "Those who give abortifacients for the destruction of a child conceived in the womb are murderers themselves, along with those receiving the poisons" (Canons, 188.2). Jerome called abortion “the murder of an unborn child” (Letter to Eustochium, 22.13). Augustine warned against the terrible crime of “the murder of an unborn child” (On Marriage, 1.17.15). Origen, Cyprian, and Chrysotom were among the many other prominent theologians and church leaders who condemned abortion as the killing of children. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger comments, “It is really remarkable how uniform and how pronounced was the early Christian opposition to abortion.”

 

6. To what extent do you think these ethics and beliefs contribute to a better society within your community?

Communities have more to gain by upholding the lives of both mothers and unborn children than by permitting and encouraging convenience-murder. To be clear, a just society will do more than prevent abortion; sufficient care must be provided for all parties, before, during, and after pregnancy. Too often, mothers who choose life are left to themselves once the child is delivered. When, however, communities rally around mothers and children for the long haul, you have the preconditions for healthier culture. One that values all lives and strengthens the weak.

Conversely, abortion damages every individual and community it touches. There is no denying that it is unnatural for mothers to sacrifice their own young on altars of shame, poverty, or convenience. Societies which accept and promote abortion harbor millions of women carrying deep emotional scars. As well, abortion deprives nations of millions of future citizens who might otherwise have become productive artists, inventors, laborers, leaders, and defenders. Legalized abortion conditions society to disregard the lives of those deemed less desirable.

By treating infants as economic or emotional “dead weight” to be surgically jettisoned at will, societies open their ethical gates to other vile practices. Coercive euthanasia becomes conceivable. Indeed, it is widely reported that medical “harvesting” of political dissidents' organs is already practiced in some countries. “That wouldn't happen here,” you might say. But there is little in the way of philosophical armor to prevent other abortion-accepting countries from going that way, too. This stems from regarding precious lives as conveniently disposable.
 
7. Does your denomination make any effort to try convince people outside your community to adopt your beliefs on this issue?

Yes, we do so by means of preaching, teaching, writing, and counseling. We also support a number of organizations which provide care to mothers expecting children, especially those without strong family connections. Ultimately, our views on abortion stem from the conviction that God is the Lord and lover of human life. He is able to provide for anyone who seeks their well being from him. No woman should be misled to believe killing her child is the only or best choice available to her. Nor should she feel alone in the fight for life.

How to Honor Your Father or Mother Who Wasn't There

I was four when mom and dad divorced, too early for me to recall. What I remember is dad winning custody and mom living an hour away.I visited her occasionally, never longer than a weekend, until she moved out of State when I was nine. Calls and cards became more sporadic until they ceased entirely in my early teens. Shortly after coming to faith, I wrote my mom a letter expressing good will. Her reply was brief, cordial, and the last I received. Twenty years have lapsed since hearing her voice. You could say she was an absent parent.

I believe the command, “honor your father and mother,” includes absent parents (Ex 20:12). What is harder to determine is how Christians fulfill it. Certainly, we are not obligated to obey, imitate, or admire our parents when they sin. The biblical term for honor is actually rooted in the idea of weightiness. Basically, honoring means thinking and acting under heavy, even reverential respect for the divinely-appointed position someone holds.

Here are six practical ways Christians honor absent parents.

1. FORGIVE THEM

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us... as we forgive those who sin against us” (Mt 6:12). Forgiving your absent parent does not merit your own forgiveness before God. What it does provide is essential evidence of your living faith and indwelling Spirit. Whoever has been forgiven much will love much (Lk 7:47). Certainly, every believer has sinned more against their heavenly Father than their earthly parent sin against them.

Despite the cliche, forgiveness does not always mean forgetting wrongs. Wisdom dictates that you note potential dangers to self and others, such as a history of abuse, before inviting them back into your life. Nevertheless, the Lord calls you to show forgiveness by continually letting go of ill-will and desiring God's blessing for those who wrong you.

2. PRAY FOR THEM

Children who were neglected sometimes struggle to receive God's fatherly love as well as the motherly nurture of the Church. Jesus’ warned, “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Lk 17:2). Unless reconciled to Christ, absent parents sit under heavier judgment for abandoning their posts. Honor your absent parent by praying earnestly for God to forgive their sins and transform their lives.

3. ADDRESS THEM HONORABLY

Unless requested otherwise, honor absent parents by addressing with the God-given titles of “father” or “mother”. If you have adoptive or step parents, it may be necessary to distinguish absent parents with a qualifier of some sort. In my case, I prefer to say “natural"—instead of “biological” or “real”—mother. In God's sight, the relationship parents have toward their offspring is never purely physical, but holistic, entailing spiritual responsibility. Second, describing my natural mother as “real,” in contrast to my stepmother, would devalues the equally real role the latter assumed.

It should go without saying, but Christians ought to shun hateful terms for absent parents. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph 4:1) Such language not only continues the cycle of abuse, but suggests inward contempt for God’s providential appointment. The Bible illustrates this in the story of King Saul entering a cave unaware of David hiding at his feet. David, sensing a chance to prove his harmless intent, cuts a piece of cloth from the King’s robe. Behind this apparently innocent act, however, was sin:

“Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” (1 Sam 24:5-6)

Saul may not have been a good king, but he was God’s chosen king and therefore entitled to a degree of respect. By cutting Saul's royal robe, David disgraced a symbol of divinely appointed authority. Similarly, addressing parents by hateful names, rather than their appointed titles, hacks at the honor God chooses to clothe them in. Vengeance belongs to the Lord.

4. BE THANKFUL FOR WHAT THEY DID (OR DID NOT) DO

Honor absent parents by appreciating whatever tokens of care they expressed during your childhood. Personally, I am grateful for the care and affection my mother showed during my infancy and pre-teen years. Without her early nurture, I'd be a different person. You might also consider any positive influence an absent parent had on you. For instance, my mom was an artist who worked for local gift shops. Most of our time together was spent watching her paint porcelain houses, or meticulously transcribe original poems onto greeting cards. During those hours, I learned to draw and write poems of my own. Whether or not she meant to, my mother shaped my deep appreciation of art and writing to this day.

5. WELCOME THEM

Supposing absent parents don't pose any serious danger, one way to show them honor is to maintain an open door for relationship. If you have contact information, call or write yearly. Say something like, “I'm just letting you know, I believe God brought us together and I regard you as family. You are welcome to call or join us for holidays.” Ask what you might pray for. Whether or not they reciprocate, you've done your part. 

6. PROVIDE SUPPORT IF NECESSARY

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for permitting adults to tithe that should have gone toward providing for temporal needs of their parents (Mk 7). Christ's logic is simple. When age, disease, or hardship prevent parents from providing for themselves, children ought to care for them, having received the same in youth. But what if your father or mother did not look after for you during childhood? Does failure to invest early disqualify parents from later drawing on God's family plan? Perhaps. I believe it is better for recipients of God's merciful love to ask, “what would be the gracious thing to do?” The Gospel doesn't stop at the letter of the law. 

CONCLUSION

Living by faith in a sin-broken world means looking beyond our broken human relationships to the faithfulness of God. Rejoice in the good news that God has proven his eternal commitment to his children. The Father sent his Son to redeem, and his Spirit to work out your adoption into the family. “Father, you loved them,” says Jesus, “even as you loved me” (Jn 17:23). The Lord is never absent.

I pray God grants you opportunities to minister to your parents. Pray for me likewise. If you have ideas of your own, please share them.

Gaining Wisdom to Counsel

For most of us, counseling is neither easy nor comfortable. Shattered lives have a way of slicing our confidence as advice-givers, exposing the triteness of our answers. Understandably, you might be tempted not to get involved. Leave counseling to the "experts".

God Uses the Weak

The miracle of ministry is that God uses ordinary people to dispense divine gifts of mercy and wisdom, not in spite of our weakness, but because of it:

"We have this treasure [the indwelling Spirit of Christ] in jars of clay [frail human nature], to show that the surpassing power [which he works in and through us] belongs to God and not to us." (2 Cor 4:7)

Far from being a liability, a sense of personal inability is a fundamental qualification of Christian faith and service. Weakness puts you on your knees so that you can look up to the Lord. Proper training is has its place, but as everyday Christians act in dependence on the Spirit and in accord with the Word, God's wisdom often manifests itself in surprising ways. 

Gaining Wisdom

All the same, wisdom is acquired through practice. It grows out of intentional habits: always seeking to make the best decision among multiple valid options; reflecting on past outcomes and future possibilities before making choices. Observing the same in others.

Remember the old alphabet paper of childhood, the kind with bright blue lines that we wrote the A-B-C's on repeatedly? The Bible is like that. Scripture provides certain guidelines we must stay between to have legible godliness. Wisdom, however, is more like penmanship. You gain wisdom over time by carefully, constantly tracing patterns drawn by others. Eventually, a kind of "muscle memory" develops which is able to account for different circumstances and produce crisp words of counsel. If the Ten Commandments provide the basic letters of Christian life, wisdom writes them in cursive.

Prayer

Heavenly Father, in whom subsides perfect insight and understanding, please grant and increase in me wisdom to give spiritual counsel. Not for my own glory, do I ask, but for Christ's pleasure and for the benefit of others whom you delight to bless. In know your means of imparting wisdom can be unpleasant, even painful, but I believe your promise that treasure gained is eternal. By your grace, in due time, I look forward to directing others in paths of godliness and peace. Thank you, Lord. In Jesus precious name, Amen.

Humans are Not Made for the Ant Heap

Humans are Not Made for the Ant Heap

Cultural programs that require depersonalization and denial of the individual are inherently flawed and doomed to fail. Humans are image bearers of one God who is three Persons, indivisibly united yet distinct. As such, our species is made for diversity in harmony, not peace at the price of uniformity. A secular author who expressed this instinct well was Aldous Huxley. In 1958, under the Cold War cloud of communist experiments, he observed in Brave New World Revisited...

Let Your Deeds Be Your Deposits

Some friends of mine are serving as missionaries in Ghana. From what I gather, it is not easy work. Just yesterday, though, I came upon an encouraging passage from Ignatius' letter to Polycarp, written in the first century. He urged the younger pastor,

"Be more zealous than you are... lend everybody a hand, as the Lord does you... Let your deeds be your deposits, so that you will eventually get back considerable savings."

The reward which God shall grant for our works done in faith is of grace. It will nonetheless be a reward proportioned to our service, while greatly outweighing any opportunity costs involved. I'm jealous for the blessing the Lord is preparing on behalf of my missionary friends, doubtless one that will crown Christ admirably. Because I cannot have their reward, but must receive one suited to my service, I will need to serve all the more heartily so that I can share the same joy with them in glory. Lord, bless us all to run the race so as to win.