Case Study: Right to Life – Abortion

By Daniel L. Sonnenberg, 2003. 

This case study deals with a pastor caught between two sides of the Right to Life – Abortion issue. One of his active elders came to him with a concern that the pastor spent too much time on the abortion issue in the church. In the same week, one of his active deacons came to him concerned that the pastor spent too little time on the abortion issue in the church. In both cases they reported that “a large segment of the congregation” was “very upset” about the pastor’s actions. Before Dr. Cannada explained more of the circumstances of the case, I suggested that the pastor begin by speaking with each man individually, then speak with any others who may be involved, and bring it before the elders and deacons if necessary. I also suggested a series of teachings on the abortion issue among the elders and deacons if warranted. However, according to Dr. Cannada, the second, third and fourth steps were not required in this case. Fortunately, the first meeting with each man revealed the problems. No other individuals in the church were apparently concerned with this issue. As a result, the pastor was obliged only to meet with the two individuals.

In the first case, the elder felt upset because of a friend whose wife had received an abortion many years ago on the advice of their family doctor. This couple also attended the church. The elder apparently supported the couple’s decision to have the abortion. As result, he took offense on their behalf every time the pastor spoke or wrote about his views against abortion. The couple in question had never voiced their concern or discomfort, if they had any, to the pastor. (Nor did they ever do so in the future). I am not sure whether the couple had ever voiced any discomfort about the pastor’s actions to the elder. In any case, the elder took offense on their behalf because he was convinced that they may be upset by the pastor’s actions. I can imagine the elder saying something to the pastor such as, “How can you condemn the actions of such a nice couple?” The pastor did not feel he should change his stance on the issue because of this man’s view. Nor did the elder change his stance. As it turned out, the pastor was forced in this case to simply live in the tension of knowing that someone did not like what he was doing, and neither man left the church over the issue.

In the second case, when the pastor met with the deacon individually, he discovered that the man’s daughter had previously been involved in an “Operation Rescue” event. As a result, she was arrested and incarcerated for a period of time during which her home church (in another city) had refused to pray for her because they did not believe in supporting civil disobedience. The deacon became upset with her church for failing to support his daughter in a time of need. Now the deacon was releasing his frustrations on the pastor of his own church by insisting that the pastor was not doing too little to uphold the Right to Life cause. He felt that the church service should include prayer every week concerning this important national issue. Once again, the pastor refused to change his practice based on one person’s view and was forced to live in the tension of knowing that someone did not approve of his actions. He felt he made the case clearly and frequently enough to make the congregation and leaders aware that Scripture forbade the practice of abortion.

On this issue the pastor was convinced that abortion was contrary to Scripture. Following are the data to support this premise. First, all human beings, including children, are created in the image of God, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27), and as such are protected by God’s prohibition against murder, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:6; cf. Exo. 20:13). Second, the unborn are treated as persons in Scripture. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psa. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5). Here the Psalmist was speaking as a living person, looking back on his formation in the womb. There is no distinction between his person-hood inside and outside the womb. Compare Jer. 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah was known as a person whom God had chosen for prophetic ministry even before he was formed in the womb. Alcorn (238-239) has noted that the same Greek word, brephos, is used in Scripture of the unborn as well as those already born. For example, this word is used of the preborn John the Baptist who he leaped in his mother’s womb in response to the preborn Jesus in Mary’s womb. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby (brephos) leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit… As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby (brephos) in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:41, 44). This same word is used when the angel Gabriel referred to the new-born Christ. “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby (brephos) wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” … So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby (brephos), who was lying in the manger (Luke 2:12, 16). The same word in the plural is used in Luke 18:15 of “People [who] were also bringing babies (brephe) to Jesus to have him touch them,” and in Acts 7:19 of the babies (brephe) that Pharoah intended to kill after Moses’ birth. Third, God defends and protects the lives of the defenseless and needy. “You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more” (Psa. 10:17-18). In God’s name, we should come to their defense as well. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). In fact, whatever we do for them, we do for Christ himself, “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Mat. 25:40). Fourth, rape, incest and birth defects do not justify the taking of the life of a child, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16; cf. Is. 45:9-10). This is an important issue in our day, a practice soundly condemned by Scripture, not unlike a the forbidden practice of offering children in sacrifice to Molech which arose under certain evil kings in Israel’s history. “‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD”’ (Lev. 18:21). “You burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree; you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags” (Is. 57:5). Finally, God forgives the sin of abortion. For those who confess and repent, God’s grace sets us free from sin and leads to eternal life. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:20-21; cf. 1 Jn. 1:9; Gal. 6:1).

In regard to the abortion issue, several social and psychological dynamics should be considered. First is the fear of “laying a guilt trip” on those in our churches who have participated in abortions in the past. One might be concerned that speaking of a past sin may cause undue regret or sorrow. However, Scripture reminds us that “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2Co 7:10). If the sinner remains unrepentant, this will lead to agonizing sorrow and death. However, the goal is repentance which leads to life and peace. So the caring pastor will preach against abortion with a view to healing those who have committed this sin in the past and warning those who may be considering it in the present or in the future. Someone has said that in fact, our fear that there may be more at this time next year should urge us on.

Some pastors and churches make the mistake of waiting for revival to come to solve the abortion problem. However, Scripture frequently reveals that the opposite strategy works better. Revival often follows coming to grips with our sin (Alcorn, 222). “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:8-10). While it is good to pray for revival. It is well to repent and do works of righteousness as we wait. Defending the helpless should be ongoing.

Following is a tentative plan of action for the pastor in this case. First, when faced with a potential congregational uprising over a particular issue it is important to remember not to jump to conclusions out of fear. “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). It is best to remain calm. When a disgruntled person reports that others are upset about an issue, it may or may not be true, so don’t panic. The wise pastor may also seek counsel with another trusted elder or advisory team before beginning the process or may do so anywhere along the route. “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise” (Prov. 19:20). “Plans fail for lack of counsel but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22). The pastor should meet with each of the individuals to discover what issues and feelings are involved. If an understanding can be reached that may be the end of it. In these cases, the pastor did not need to meet with any others since no one else reported being upset. However, he did need to deal with the tension of living with a standing disagreement. This brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s treatment of “disputable matters” in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. Paul acknowledged that some issues in the early church were not life and death matters, such as eating foods sacrificed to idols, or the observance of sacred days. Now in the case of abortion it certainly is a life or death issue. However, as long as it is treated as sin and dealt with forthrightly, the relative amount of emphasis placed on it in the services is not. In such cases Paul says, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom. 14:5-6). Therefore, in matters that are disputable, it should be between each man and the Lord. Each person should be convinced in his own mind according to his understanding of Scripture and his conscience. The pastor, as the spiritual leader of the flock, must remain true to Scripture in his teaching and practice on this issue, for “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23b). So the pastor should remain as he is in this case, contenting himself with allowing the men to share their feelings with him, but not feeling compelled to make any measurable changes based on their views.

The dangers of such a plan are several. First, the men may choose to leave the church. However, in an older church such as this, folks are more likely to stay and fight about the issue shifting the focus from ministry to infighting. If they feel strongly enough, they may draw together a group who agree with them to stand against the pastor to try to make him change or even leave. Fortunately, that did not happen in this case.


Alcorn, Randy. Pro Life Answers to Pro Choice Arguments. Portland: Multnomah, 1994.

Frame, John, M., Robert L. Malarkey, and Joseph Memmelaar. Report of the Committee to Study the Matter of Abortion, revised ed. Presented to the Thirty-eighth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, May 24-29, 1971. Philadelphia: Great Commission Publications, 1984.

Originally written for Drs. Al Mawhinney and Reggie Kidd, Senior Seminar, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, May 2003.

Categories: Pastoral ministry, Seminary writings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: