Pastor's Blog

June 2019

Abortion Then/Now: What We Can Learn from How the Early Church Dealt With Abortion and Infanticide

Abortion Then/Now: What We Can Learn from How the Early Church Dealt With Abortion and Infanticide:

"Without God and the future life? How will man be after that? It means everything is permitted now." Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Vintage, 1991), pg. 589

Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany eliminated an incredible amount of human life. Stalin was responsible for around 20 million deaths. Mao Zedong’s regime is credited with a staggering 70 million deaths. Hitler comes in third with around 10 million murders attributed to his name. The twentieth century was the world’s great experiment in seeing what intentionally godless governments would produce. The end result was a century with more slaughter of human life than all other centuries combined. 

Without question, the saving grace of the western world has been the presence of an inherited Christian worldview. Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were able to make assertions about human rights and usher in civil rights reform based solely on a belief in the biblical Imago Dei (i.e. “the image of God”) – the idea that all humans have value because God himself imbued humanity with special value. 

As the faith of a nation goes, so goes its perception of personhood. 

Consequently, if you’ve been following trends of Christian religious activity over the past 20 years, it was no surprise to you that the New York State legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act on January 22, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The act allows abortion at any point during a pregnancy (24 weeks had been the prior limit) if it is deemed “necessary to protect a woman’s life or health.”

If you’ve ever read Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s famous article in the NY Times from over two decades ago, you knew this was coming. If you realized that the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) targeted New York upon its founding in 1969, you knew this was coming. If you were aware that over a quarter of all pregnancies in New York already end in abortion, you knew this was coming.

When you’re raised in the United States, it’s perhaps easy to forget that abortion and infanticide have been quite common in world history. The reason they have been forbidden in the West for centuries is only because Western values were shaped by Christianity. Author Benjamin Wiker makes the case in Moral Darwinism:

"[T]he laws against abortion and infanticide in the West are only intelligible as a result of its Christianization, and the repeal of those same laws is only intelligible in light of its de-Christianization." Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), pg. 100.

A fairly apples-to-apples comparison of what we see happening today in America is what was seen in the Roman Empire. The Twelve Tables – the earliest known Roman legal code, written about 450 B.C.E. – permitted a father to expose any female infant and any deformed or weak male infant to the natural elements to let them die in the fields. Philosophers Plato and Aristotle, both recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy. (cf. Plato, Republic 5; Aristotle, Politics 2,7) Seneca regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace. Tacitus stated that the Jewish mindset: “it is a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child,” was but another of the Jews’ “sinister and revolting” teachings (cf. The Histories 5.5). The famous Roman medical writer, Celsus, goes into great detail in De medicina (cf. 7.29) about how to surgically carry out an abortion. Etc. 

Some of these thoughts are new to America. But they’re not technically new.

So, the relevant question then is: How did the early Christians, with very little political, educational, or financial clout, react to the tragedy taking place around them? 

For starters, we know without question that Christians viewed abortion and infanticide as wrong. The Didache, a manual/catechism of church teachings written in the late first century, states in the second chapter: “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.” 

Similarly, Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, wrote: "We have been taught that it is wicked to expose even newly-born children… (for) we would then be murderers." Martyr, First Apology, pgs. 27-29

While we do have some records of Christians writing letters to government officials in hopes of persuading them, this seemingly created little, if any, changes in government policy. Rather, historian Rodney Stark says that what truly influenced the Roman Empire to eventually become sympathetic to Christianity’s pro-life stances was the Christians’ willingness to provide relief for the poor and taking in and supporting babies which had been left to die by their pagan parents. Historian Will Durant wrote:

"[I]n many instances, Christians rescued exposed infants, baptized them, and brought them up with the aid of community funds." Durant, Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their Beginnings to A.D. 325, Vol. 3, pg. 598

The Roman Emperor Julian, writing in the fourth century, regretted the progress of Christianity. He saw that it was causing Roman paganism to crumble. Why? From his perspective: "(The Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them." Letter to Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia (362), in The Works of the Emperor Julian, Volume III (1913)

And here’s the main takeaway. Yes, Christians should experience righteous anger at the thought of the slaughter of more unborn innocents. Anger is a mechanism that appropriately rises to defend what is right. But when anger, even righteous anger, transforms into repaying evil with evil, we forget that God alone justly brings wrath, and that our job is simply to overcome evil with good.

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12:17-21

I see no allowance in here for self-righteous social media tirades. I see no godliness in calling names like “idiots” or “psychopaths.” I see the Apostle Paul telling us that the path to Christlikeness is showing the same grace to enemies that God showed to us. I see Paul similarly telling the church in Corinth “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) I see the Early Christian Church, with minimal resources, actually influencing their pagan society by adopting children, providing charity to the poor, and confounding the culture by a demonstration of humble, sacrificial love.

Social media rants cost nothing and can ruin everything. On the other hand, picking up crosses to follow Christ costs dearly but helps save the world and lifts up the name of Jesus.

Interestingly, Steven Pinker cited in his NY Times article that “The women who sacrifice their offspring tend to be young, poor, unmarried and socially isolated.” If provided adequate human resources – godly men who were willing to stay with them and help them raise kids, Christian friends who encourage them towards the beauty of God’s will, a church that is willing to financially come alongside a young pregnant woman and give her grace instead of shame – many of these young, poor, unmarried, marginalized women would make different decisions. The quick jab, sanctimonious social media post doesn’t move the needle an inch. Sacrificial love brings forth life.

This is not to say that wisdom brought forward in videos like this one aren’t enormously helpful. Being able to defend your Christian values using arguments from the Natural Knowledge of God are an important part of your Christian witness as well. Former NARAL co-founder, Bernard Nathanson, became a pro-life activist upon viewing the undeniable evidence before him with the advent of the ultrasound (chronicled in educational film The Silent Scream). He later became a Christian. Calm, logical arguments are an essential part of the public dialogue.

But the group Steven Pinker was identifying as prime candidates for abortion is shockingly close to the group of people in society that God, throughout Scripture, is constantly compelling his nation (OT) & Church (NT) to watch out for – the widows, orphans, foreigners, and poor. The Lord does not tell his people to rage against the evils of the world, but rather to keep their own lives free from evil and be a light to the world. 

"Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other." Zechariah 7:9-10

In the recent history of American politics, when Christians shout, the country gets angry. But historically, when God’s people calmly point to the truth and lovingly sacrifice like Christ to lift up life and personhood, the world has been changed.

The good news is that we ALL have been forgiven and saved by a child whose life was unfairly taken. It was a costly tragedy for which we’re all equally guilty. But in his infinite wisdom, God used this horror to bring forth spiritual life. He can do it again.

We thank Pastor James Hein and for this week's blog.

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Why We Had To Be Called "Christians"

"Why We Had To Be Called 'Christians'”:

“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26) 

How to define a “Christian” is actually one of the more interesting debates in a post-Christian culture. Since we’re now on the other side of an overtly Christian culture, that means the word “Christian” has necessarily absorbed some baggage along the way. Clearly, not everyone who identifies as “Christian” is, in fact, a Christian (Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 4:20; James 1:26). And if you hope to lead anyone to Christ, in this culture, you should be able to articulate both what “Christian” is and isn’t.

I personally think there are three essential aspects to a Christian witness:

you need to be able to articulate the Bible’s teaching of sin/grace

you need to be able to tell your own personal story in terms of sin/grace

you need to be able to explain what it means that you have now, by grace, been made a “Christian.”

Helpful in the discussion of what it means to be Christian is understanding where the word “Christian” comes from. And fortunately for us, the Bible tells us: a place named Syrian Antioch.

In Book of Acts, which is the story of the Early Christian Church, you have three lengthy case studies of Christian conversion. We find the conversion of an Ethiopian prime minister in chapter eight, the conversion of a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, in chapter nine, and the conversion of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, in chapter ten. And this doesn’t even include the conversion of the Samaritans in chapter eight.

All of this diversification was a little culturally startling to the Early Church in Jerusalem. While you’d think that they’d all be ecstatic about the widespread evangelism, you have to keep in mind that the first-century church consisted mostly of Jewish converts. As the church became “less Jewish” with the conversion of Samaritans and Greeks and Romans and North Africans, some felt a bit of an identity crisis. Up until this point, many believed they had simply added Jesus to their pre-existing Jewish culture, and their conception of culture had been adapted as Christ was adopted, but their culture was not yet transformed. Now they felt like they were losing their personal worldly culture as the predominant culture of their religious lives. And this was somewhat necessary and inevitable.

The eternal, multiethnic, multicultural trajectory of Christianity was seen no more clearly than in the city of Syrian Antioch.

Antioch was the third largest city of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. It had about ½ million people, making it ten times larger than Jerusalem. It was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. And it did have a large pre-existing Jewish population. So, although it was 300 miles north of Jerusalem, Antioch was still a natural spot for Christians to flee after the persecution in Jerusalem broke out. Antioch was a gorgeous, wealthy city with a four-mile-long, marble-paved main street lined by marble colonnades. It was the only ancient city with street lights at night. It’s the first truly cosmopolitan city in the empire. And in retrospect, it becomes such an obvious location for Jesus to use as a home base of sorts for his Church to carry out Gentile mission work. The Christian population of the city came about amidst a tremendous pluralism of Roman, Greek, and Syrian gods, as well as Judaism. 

When reading through the names of the leadership at the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1), it becomes clear that amongst the five guys mentioned, just by examining their names, you can tell they come from three different continents and represent at least four nationalities. And it’s at this point that it begins to become clear why the followers of Jesus Christ needed to be called “Christians.”

The Latin suffix -ian means “belonging to the party of.” It seems likely that some of the Jews sort of derisively called the followers of Jesus “Christians.” But why did they have to come up with a name for them at all?

See, the Jews could just be called “Jews.” It was all-encompassing. When someone said “He’s Jewish” – from that name you could understand an individual’s religious beliefs, ethnic lineage, dietary habits, moral standards, and many other details all the way down to his basic weekly schedule.

All of that. The same was true for Samaritans, Romans, Greeks, Africans, etc. But now you have all of these groups converting to follow Jesus. Consequently, you could no longer just say, “He’s a Jew.”

Identifying a nationality was no longer sufficient to summarize the story of his life. And this was the first time in world history that this was the case.

In fact, the city of Antioch was built by a guy named Seleucus, who was one of Alexander the Great’s generals. And when he constructed the city, Seleucus understood that, because of its location, Syrian Antioch was going to be a multiethnic city. Therefore, he not only ended up building a great wall around the city, which most major cities had for protection, but he also built walls within the city. Archeological record tells us there were at least 18 ethnic quarters within the city confines. Seleucus was smart and knew every race and culture believes it is superior to the others, which is why they often try to distance themselves. So the walls of Antioch not only kept the outsiders out, but they were also designed to keep the different ethnic groups separate.

But the Christians in Antioch were blowing this all up. Almost everyone in the world assumes that religion is simply an extension of your culture. And it’s easy to understand why. We tend to think you’re Muslim because you’re Middle Eastern, or Hindu because your Indian, or Roman Catholic because you’re Italian, or Presbyterian because you’re Scottish, or Anglican because you’re English, or Lutheran because your German, or Baptist because you’re Southern. We still hold these assumptions. And much of it is completely fair.

But the Christians in Antioch were busting these categories.

They were metaphorically breaking down the walls of Antioch.

You couldn’t identify their beliefs by their race or skin color or heritage. They needed a new name that apparently represented a higher priority than their culture – and the name given to them was “Christian.”

What does this mean for us today?

The early followers of Jesus had to be given the name “Christian” because they no longer identified primarily with their society’s prevailing priorities.

Jesus had become a higher priority.

Jesus had become to them “God.”

This doesn’t mean they resented every aspect of their culture. But it did mean that they rejected the cultural practices that didn’t glorify the true God. Remember, they were given the name “Christian” from the outside. It was obvious to the surrounding community – by the way they interacted in their relationships, by the way they managed their time and money, by the truth that they taught – that Jesus was their chief priority. They believed their sins were forgiven, their eternity was secure, and their time on earth was principally an opportunity to testify to that.

I’m constantly writing about how culture is ever-changing. But that – the Antioch definition of “Christian” – totally works still today.

We thank Pastor James Hein and for this week's blog.

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Moving Past Babel

When your home has been destroyed and the city lay in ruins, starting over doesn’t happen so easily. Imagine a French family living in one of the many towns utterly destroyed by the allied bombings of World War II. How do you move on when every building on the street has been bombed out, shattered bricks spilling out onto the roads, rooms exposed on three sides because their walls were blown apart? Is it even feasible or compassionate to suggest starting over at that point? Or think of the people in Iraq who desire to move past the tribal wars and historical blood feuds that have destroyed their homes for years. It’s hard to move past all of that and start over.

Moving away from the desolation of life to something better can seem like a monumental task. When we have been torn up by sin, when the foundation of our life has been blown apart by guilt and the consequences of our sin, it seems unimaginable to move away from all that pain. Each year we ask young men and women to pledge before God and Church that, what? That they will run away at the first sign of difficulty? That they will run for cover when someone challenges their faith? No, they pledge that they would rather die than give up their faith. 1 Timothy 6:12 puts it this way, “Fight the good fight of faith.”

It is a fight. Being a child of God is a fight. So how do we move on from the rubble of our sin? How do we carry the light of God’s promise into the darkness of this world? We take God’s word, we take his promises, and we move on.

As humanity on the dawn of its second age moved away from their rebellion at the Tower of Babel, so we move away from our own “babels.” We move away with the LORD’s forgiving presence leaving behind our sinful pride. And as we move away from that we head into our futures with the LORD’s faithfulness.

Genesis 11:8, "So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city."

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Help Me Help the World

Perhaps you remember the day of your confirmation: whether you were confirmed as a youngster or as an adult, I hope it was a happy day. And it should be because confirmation is a celebration of God’s word. He brought you to faith. He keeps you in the faith. And he will bring you to himself in heaven.

So now what? Sometimes confirmation can seem like such a big deal that we put all this emphasis on it without thinking about the day after confirmation, or the life after confirmation. Confirmation means strengthening—strengthening for a life of showing your faith. Because whether you are aware of it or not, there is a world out there that hurts. It hurts because it’s lost in sin. And you and I, who have been confirmed or those who will be confirmed, have the answer for that world.

The problem is sharing that answer with the world is painful. There was a believer from the book of Acts named Stephen who understood how painful it was to share Christ in the world. When you look at his story, you might think, “What terrible experience!” But in the midst of all the bad things that happened to him, Christ was right there to strengthen him. And just like then, Christ knows that we need his help if we’re going to be any help in this world. Jesus helps us help a hurting world: Jesus encourages us, and Jesus gives us love to share. 

Acts 7:54-60, "When [the Pharisees] heard these things (from Stephen's sermon), they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed up into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 He said, “Look, I see heaven opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 But they screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and rushed at him with one purpose in mind. 58 They threw him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” After he said this, he fell asleep.

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For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works... ~ EPHESIANS 2:8-9