Earlier this year, I was officially invited by the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to offer talks and trainings, in two locations, explaining how the United Methodist Church has been moving in a more pro-life direction on abortion, and to discuss how congregations can offer effective ministry to reduce abortions.
This four-part article series is a record of some of the remarks I delivered, with some edits for the sake of clarity, space, and confidentiality.
While we may have some disagreements, we at IRD/UMAction are grateful to Bishop Thomas Bickerton for his key role in my being invited to speak at these events.
A very fair “so what?” type of question is what sort of difference do the public stances of our denomination on abortion really make?
First, there’s a basic matter of principle. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20 that we are Jesus Christ’s ambassadors. So among other things, if we are really to be Christ’s ambassadors, then I don’t believe we have any right to say we don’t care about what sort of positions on abortion or other major issues our church is publicly presenting to the world.
There are also some very real, practical effects of our denomination’s teaching.
Right now, United Methodist is the third-largest denominational affiliation in the U.S. Congress – and it’s been that way for over 20 years. Denominational leaders will sometimes really emphasize the UMC connection when they are lobbying United Methodist political leaders.
And a few years ago, the Philippines was having this big political debate about some proposed changes in their laws related to abortion and various forms of birth control. The United Methodist bishops of the Philippines ended up banding together and lobbying their government in a particular way, and their position was shaped by this official United Methodist resolution called “Responsible Parenthood,” which very strongly supports abortion and sort of ties it together with family planning.
And then there are the realities of how when pastors are faced with urgent moral questions of a woman with an unplanned pregnancy considering abortion, it would make sense for the pastors to remember or consult what their own church officially teaches its values are around such questions.
I recall a couple of testimonies of women in such desperate situations who went to a United Methodist pastor for help, and the pastor encouraged them to just get an abortion. In each case, this took place quite a while back, when our church’s official teaching did not have much to say that affirmed the inherent value of unborn human life, but our teaching had a lot to say about abortion being a choice our church supported, period. In one case, the pastor even said “Put your mind at ease; in the eyes of the church” – meaning according to OUR church’s official teaching – “ANY decision prayerfully considered is OK, and in your case, I think you should have an abortion.” In each case these young mothers followed the United Methodist pastor’s advice and got an abortion.
And in each case, they later came to see this pastoral advice as a sort of betrayal – they went to the United Methodist Church to seek help no one else was offering them, and instead of help, they were misled into making what they came to see as a terrible decision that haunted them for many years afterwards.
I know hearing these stories can be discouraging.
What hope could there be for such a denomination?
But that brings us to another key question.
Let’s just think of how serious a denomination’s problems can get. A major American Christian denomination, with a powerful influence in our society and around the world, has statements in its official resolutions and teachings that hide behind vague euphemisms to very broadly support abortion in at least most cases. Leaders of the denomination have been very involved in helping and supporting the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR) [which eventually changed its name to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC)]. The denomination gives its name and money to support a political lobby office that, among other things, defends taxpayer funding of abortion and uses harsh language to insult prominent Christian pro-life and pro-family leaders.
Behind all this is a deeper problem of elite leaders in the denominational hierarchy embracing the social values of secular liberalism, and often showing open contempt for members of their own denomination with more traditional biblical values. And a study of one of the denomination’s largest seminaries found so much theological liberalism there that while two-thirds of the seminary’s students came into their first year believing in the complete truth of the Bible’s teaching that Jesus really was miraculously born of a virgin, by the time students got to their final year of seminary, only one-third believed that.
Some Christians with pro-life and other traditional biblical values may ask what hope there could possibly be for such a denomination as I just described. Some may want to throw up their hands, give up, and go to another church. And many people have walked away from this denomination because of these sorts of problems.
And of course, the denomination I just described was the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s.
In that denomination, they had these serious problems. But they also had clear biblical teaching throughout the New Testament epistles to expect and prepare to deal with unfaithfulness within the church itself. So enough faithful Southern Baptists did not quit but instead followed Jude’s teaching to “contend for the faith.” If you look back in the New Testament Book of Jude, notice that Jude was talking about confronting false teaching and immorality that was going on WITHIN the church itself.
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t agree with the Southern Baptist Convention on everything. [I have a young child I am getting baptized next week. And the godmother we chose is a female United Methodist pastor.]
But I can still celebrate how God moved within that denomination to bring it to greater faithfulness on other issues, like making it such a strong supporter of the pro-life cause.
To be continued…