Reformational Abolition or Cautions for the Abolitionists
Written by Managing Editor on February 20, 2019
By Toby Sumpter
I have a great deal of respect for the men and women on the front lines of the abortion ministry. My respect goes back to one of my earliest memories: when I was a little kid, I remember my pastor announcing to our church that he was flying to Atlanta to participate in an Operation Rescue protest. He said he was planning to peacefully trespass with hundreds of others, planned to be arrested, and he was doing so in order to proclaim the gospel in the face of the murder of the unborn by abortion. That was a wonderfully startling moment in my young heart and mind – awakening me to the great evil of abortion and the conflict in our own land. I had immense respect for him then and I still do to this day. I have participated in Planned Parenthood protests, walks for life, and anyone who has followed my work on CrossPolitic ought to know that I and my cohosts have not been shy about the urgency of ending abortion, pressing pro-life politicians to do justice, and seeking to encourage and support all sorts of biblical efforts to end abortion.
At the same time, there is considerable debate over how successful and effective mainstream pro-life work has been over the last 40 years. Have our lobbying groups and politicians pushed for the greatest gains? Has there been any cowardice in our ranks, any apathy, or worse – any gaming of donors – trumpeting insignificant legislative “gains” as fundraising ploys? I raise these questions tentatively and cautiously because it really isn’t easy or fun to be on the front lines of working for the end of abortion, and I believe that many are actually sacrificing much to end abortion. I want to be very careful about “friendly fire,” accidentally firing on friends who have done much to stand for truth and justice. For example, I would hate to cast any aspersions on the Roman Catholic woman who led the March for Life in my home town for many years, having attended it every single year since the very first year right after Roe v. Wade. That is certainly not the only way to protest abortion and it may not even be the most effective way, but she should not be accused of apathy or cowardice or playing to her donor base. Not hardly. But we would also be foolish not to think that our motives and incentives cannot get tangled up with sin. If Paul could tell the Ephesian elders that wolves would come in among them, then certainly, we may ask probing questions of our pro-life movement. Perhaps the greatest accomplishments of the movement over the last 40 years have been the multiplication of crisis pregnancy centers, offering ultrasounds, baby supplies, adoption information, and biblical, pro-life counseling to people considering abortions, literally all over the nation. And these accomplishments should not be minimized in the slightest. And yet, on the legal front it seems at times that mainstream pro-life organizations have settled into interminably long games of incrementalism at best, sometimes described by the frustrated as the mere “regulation” of abortion at worst.
A year or so back, Pastor Doug Wilson and I posted a few rounds of dialogue with some other brothers in favor of “Smashmouth Incrementalism,” and I want to re-assert that cause perhaps with an additional moniker, “Reformational Abolitionism.”
What do I mean by “Reformational Abolitionism?” I mean that I stand with my abolitionist brothers with regard to the end goal: the complete abolition of abortion in our land as soon as possible. I am also an abolitionist in the sense that I support legislation being proposed at every level that would immediately criminalize all abortion from conception on. While many incrementalists oppose these bills for fear of further setbacks if/when such bills are overturned in the courts, I believe we should run all the plays. Good quarterbacks do not only throw “hail marys” and neither do they only do handoffs or short passing plays. Good quarterbacks run all the plays. So for example, I support Idaho Representative Heather Scott’s bill that would return Idaho to its pre-Roe law code, recognizing the intentional taking of all human life, from conception on, as murder. And I’m very appreciative of some of her creative talking points, pointing out Idaho’s willingness to defy the Feds on the 2ndAmmendment, as well as various loopholes in Pro-life legislation that the Roe v. Wade decision itself pointed out. And I would urge the Idaho Right to Life folks – even if they don’t want to run this particular play – not to discourage it in any way.
And this leads to the “Reformational” part. I differ with some abolitionists who oppose incremental progress toward the end of abortion. Christians should never be satisfied with mere “limits” or regulations – partial-birth abortion bans or fetal-pain bans, even “heartbeat” bills are not the end goal. But a smashmouth incrementalist like myself still welcomes and supports such baby steps. If every life matters, and a bill will save even one more life, I thank God for it. And I don’t buy the shrieks from some that insist that my support for limits somehow makes me guilty of the remaining bloodshed. If I see a feasible way to save three lives from a burning building, I’m not liable for the deaths of other people I couldn’t rescue. And it’s not more faithful or courageous to leave those three people to die because I couldn’t save them all. At the same time, all of our efforts really do need to be steps toward the clear and explicit goal of completely abolishing abortion. I support every form of forward momentum, and we should never be satisfied until the job is done.
But loving the body of Christ means that Jesus gives different gifts by His Spirit to different believers. Some believers pray for the end of abortion. Some believers are running legislative plays. And some believers are homeschooling six kids and teaching them to love and serve God all their days. That’s faithful and courageous pro-life ministry too. And some believers are putting Psalms to music for the church to sing because worship is warfare. It is not apathy to abortion to spend your days teaching in a classical Christian school. It is not apathy to abortion to build a successful business on Christian principles so that you have weight to throw around in your town, so that you have influence, so that you can support godly measures, so that you can employ families who will welcome children into their home and provide for them. Reformational Abolitionism recognizes how God works through many different means to bring transformation to society. He works through churches and families and businesses and worship and evangelism and schools and the arts and protests and the courage of lesser magistrates — all of these things, with the gospel at the center, to disciple the nations and bring every thought captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ. The gospel is like leaven. It took 300 years for Rome to bow the knee to Jesus. But it did bow the knee. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles were smashmouth incrementalists, Reformational Abolitionists.
I am also a Reformational Abolitionist because I oppose revolutionary and violent means of accomplishing the goal of abolition of abortion. On July 29, 1994, a man named Paul Jennings Hill approached an abortion doctor and his body guard and opened fire with a shotgun, killing both. Hill had been an ordained minister in the PCA and OPC before being defrocked and excommunicated for espousing his views on the justification of violence in his efforts to end abortion (and “Amen” to the OPC/PCA for their discipline). Hill was convicted of murder by the state of Florida and later executed by lethal injection. Hill went to his death insisting that his actions were judicious and lawful and biblically justified. But I believe that what Hill did was evil, murderous, and the state of Florida did justice when it executed Hill.
While the Paul Hill shooting might seem like one random act of violence, the rhetoric of some abolitionists is not nearly careful enough. In a recent video from “Free the States,” which can be found on Rep. Heather Scott’s website, the voiceover narrates the story of slavery abolitionism, arguing for the right of states to nullify unjust laws (so far so good). While I do believe there are important analogies that pro-life Christians should gladly point to (e.g. the Dred Scott decision was a Supreme Court decision that was ultimately determined to be unjust and unconstitutional and it was overturned, as Roe v. Wade will be one day), there are also important distinctions that need to be made, lest modern day abolitionists find themselves defending the Paul Hills of the world. For example, the “Free the States” video states that slavery is a sin, period. But the Bible says no such thing. The video says that the abolitionists insisted on “immediate” abolition and when the federal government refused to “repent,” the matter was turned over to the “court of public opinion” and – amid images of burning buildings and civil war battle fields – the narrator concludes: “the necessity of abolition becomes a reality.”
The logic here is straightforward and dangerous. So for example, what does this video (and its makers) make of the abolitionism of John Brown? In October 1859, John Brown led a failed armed raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia and was for hung for murder, insurrection, and treason. Incidentally, the US Marines who arrested John Brown and brought him to justice were led by none other than Robert E. Lee. The language and imagery of the “Free the States” video would seem to support vigilante “justice” and violence like that of John Brown. The logic would seem to demand it. Biblically speaking, slavery is a pervasive and unfortunate result of the Fall of man into sin, and is therefore regulated by Scripture, requiring humane treatment of slaves, with the clear implication that as the gospel works through cultures, it sets men free both spiritually and (gradually) physically (e.g. Ex. 21, 1 Cor. 7:20-21, Eph. 6:5-9, Philemon). The Bible clearly condemns all manstealing, kidnapping, rape, racial prejudice, and prohibits the returning of runaway slaves, and requires opportunities to gain freedom, which had the States obeyed and enforced, it would certainly have put a significant damper on the particular travesty of American race-based chattel slavery. But if this video’s strain of abolitionism is to be embraced, the murder of babies is a far clearer, far more heinous evil than American slavery ever was. Despite the real horrors that accompanied American slavery, it was nothing compared to the 60 million babies we have dismembered since 1973. The point being, if armed insurrection and vigilante violence is seen as heroic or justified for ending American slavery, you are necessarily insisting that Paul Hill was a hero and his act justified and calling for similar acts.
But that is the way of revolution– that is the way of violence and anarchy, and it is antithetical to the gospel. Yes, there are times when armed revolt is justified (War for Independence, anyone?), but the Bible is clear that individuals are only allowed to use force or violence in cases of self-defense, and then only sparingly (Ex. 22:2-3). Only magistrates are authorized to use the sword and then only in submission to biblical principles of justice, what has historically been called a “just war” (Rom. 13:1-7).
So, to my abolitionist brothers, I want to urge you to keep the gospel and the church central. Babies were being aborted in the first century, and the apostles did not make ending abortion the headline of their letters. All murder was certainly condemned, but the gospel of grace was preached and churches were established with elders in every city, building safe havens from the violence of the world, with the express goal of discipling the nations. If you are not a member of a local church, in submission to qualified elders who practice Biblical church discipline (Mt. 18, 1 Cor. 5, Heb. 13:7, 17, 1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1), you have no business expecting God to bless your abortion ministry. In the midst of Roman horrors, Paul preached Christ crucified and established churches. This is God’s way of transforming societies, through individuals being forgiven of their sins, living in discipleship communities, building families, loving their neighbors, singing the Psalms with joy in their hearts, and over time being blessed with influence and authority. This is what we call “reformational” living – the sort of reformational living that results in the abolition of abortion and many other societal evils over time.
Let’s run all the plays cheerfully and boldly, and rejoice at every victory along the way, every bit of forward momentum. It’s all part of the battering ram on the gates of Hell. Just because each and every swing doesn’t bust through the gates doesn’t mean we aren’t making progress, doesn’t mean God isn’t pleased. Keep your hearts clean from all sin. Confess your sins, forgive one another, submit to godly elders, and keep fighting. We are the pro-life generation. With enemies like Governor Cuomo in New York, it’s utterly clear that we have them on the run.
Reposted from Toby’s blog. The original post can be found here.