Developing a whole-life, pro-life ethic in our churches

June 29, 2016

As Eric Metaxas and others noted, what happened with the Planned Parenthood videos is a “William Wilberforce moment” in the culture. Wilberforce was the Christian man who looked into his Bible, saw that racism and slavery were evil reverse-images of the gospel, and dedicated his life to accomplishing what seemed culturally and politically impossible in late-1700s Great Britain: the abolition of the slave trade.

In a decisive moment that now lives in history, Wilberforce commanded the floor of British Parliament for over three hours doing nothing but reading gruesome horror stories of the African slave trade to the men that politically protected its continuation. He concluded with this sentence:

“You may choose to look away, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

On his deathbed in 1833, after a lifetime of being told abolition was impossible, he received word that Parliament had passed the Slavery Abolition Bill, granting freedom to all slaves in the British Empire.

In the last several months, videos of Planned Parenthood officials (the organization that performs over 40 percent of our nation’s abortions) harvesting and selling the body parts of dismembered infant corpses have surfaced to national outrage. But why are these videos causing such upheaval in a nation that has been legally pro-abortion since 1973? It’s because the reality of what abortion is (the murder of a human infant) is being thrust before us in a way that is hard to ignore.

This is our William Wilberforce moment. The stories have been viscerally told, and people may choose to look away, but nobody can ever say again that they did not know.

While it was surprising and encouraging to see hashtags like #PPSellsBabyParts, #DefundPP, and #UnplannedParenthood overrun the youth culture of social media platforms, wise pastors will realize we need more than hashtag activism. If we desire that his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, we need more than hashtags; we need church cultures that vibrantly embody a whole-life, pro-life ethic. For pastors to cultivate this, I see at least three indispensable practices.

1. In the words of Collin Hansen, we must “speak to persuade, not just to rally.” The temptation is to preach the fist-pounding, us-versus-them sermon against “all the wicked baby-killers” because we know it rallies a base and will earn us back-pats for “boldness”. But our calling isn’t to rally a base; it’s to persuade men (2 Cor. 5:11). When you preach an angry us-versus-them sermon, it alienates any of “them” that are present with honest questions. Pastors who brush past questions dismissively will themselves be dismissed. Here are a few of those questions or justifications and how the recent videos have equipped us to address them:

“Women’s rights.” Abortion advocates have long justified abortion by framing it in terms of women’s rights. One thing these videos are doing is making that defense seem childishly naive, at best, and intentionally deceptive, at worst. A person can point to video three and say, “What about the rights of the woman laying dismembered in a pie dish?”

“It’s just a clump of cells.” Abortion was legalized in 1973 before any technology that gave a clear look at the child inside the womb. “It’s just a clump of cells” was the lie we were told, and we believed it because we wanted to believe it. It was soothing to a screaming conscience: We’re not killing infants, we’re just removing clumps of cells. After these videos, no one can say this with a straight face. “Clumps of cells” do not have organs that can be harvested to save human lives. Lab technicians don’t point at “clumps of cells” and exclaim, “Another boy!”

“These babies are just like organ donors.” No they’re not. Organ donors get to choose to be organ donors after their natural deaths. They are not killed and chopped up without their consent in order to harvest their organs.

“My body, my choice.” Again, these videos expose this statement as absurd. It’s not just a woman’s body. We’ve now seen the other bodies in the pie dishes.

“They’re not all the way human.” The first step in committing any large-scale human rights atrocity is to linguistically dehumanize the victims. “They’re not all the way human” is what the Nazis said about Jews, nicknaming them “Untermenschen,” or “the subhumans.” The Colonial Slave Trade said black Africans were only three-fifths of a person; and now Planned Parenthood says that unborn children aren’t really babies until they emerge from the birth canal.

The label “extremists.” Planned Parenthood — in sheer terror at the national outrage — is trying to frame opponents as “extremists.” This is increasingly comical for three reasons. First, an estimated (and growing) half of our nation believes what Planned Parenthood is doing is wicked. Second, Planned Parenthood’s abortion policy would be illegal in 93 percent of the world. And third, Planned Parenthood said they wouldn’t continue do what they said they weren’t doing in the first place — receive money for harvested fetal organs. So, who’s the extremist?

2. Wise pastors must convincingly communicate a pro-life ethic as a gospel issue, not a political issue. My experience as a pastor of a millennial-dominated church in an urban area is that many younger people are secretly suspicious I wear two hats: local church pastor and local recruiter for the Republican Party. If pastors are not careful to root our pro-life ethic in the gospel (and not a political agenda), we risk confirming the suspicion and our reasoning being dismissed as driven by a political ulterior motive.

In a radically politically polarized culture, one of the most validating aspects of the gospel is that it’s politically confusing. A deep care for the poor, racial reconciliation, and love for the immigrant and sojourner — issues typically politicized as progressive — are embedded into our souls by the gospel. The belief in the sanctity and definition of marriage; the intrinsic value of all human life, including the unborn, elderly, and disabled; and biblical sexual ethics – issues typically politicized as conservative — are equally embedded into our souls by the gospel. It is exactly the fact that it transcends the existing categories that moves people to consider the possibility of the Christian gospel’s transcendence.

It’s remarkably persuasive to show that the same gospel that moves a person toward a “liberal” passion for racial reconciliation moves them toward a “conservative” pro-life ethic. Christians don’t oppose abortion because it’s a political issue, but because it’s a gospel issue. Abortion is the evil reverse-image of the gospel. Instead of saying, “I’ll die for you”, it says, “You die for me.”

To discern whether your church culture has a biblical pro-life motivation or merely political pro-life motivation, a helpful diagnostic question might be, “Is the message of our church consistently pro-life or only vocally pro-life when it intersects with a conservative (or liberal, depending upon your context) political agenda?” For instance, it strikes the average person as just a smidge disingenuous to boldly declare, “We are pro-life!” in one sentence and, “Send those non-American-speaking immigrants back to the country from which they came!” in the next.

3. We must affirm with our culture what we declare with our message. It’s possible to simultaneously preach true doctrine with our lips and utterly deny that doctrine with our culture. Think of the church that worships a man who was a homeless refugee but in which everyone avoids the homeless man that stumbles into a worship service. We can deny with our culture what we declare with our message, rendering the message almost impossible to believe. However, when a compelling culture affirms a clear message, even skeptical onlookers are moved to think, “I may not believe it yet, but if it produces this I wish it were true.”

Vibrant church cultures will show a pro-life ethic not just to be morally right, but existentially beautiful. Our churches, as “living epistles” and outposts of the Kingdom of God, can become places in which the beauty of a pro-life ethic can be experienced before it is even believed.

Our second adopted daughter is a black female with a birth defect born to a collegiate single mom. If you converted Planned Parenthood’s victims into a most wanted list, “black female with birth defect born to collegiate single mom” would be public enemy number one. The abortion-rights narrative for Felicity was, “All she can be is a burden, all she’ll do is ruin someone’s life prospects, and all she’ll have is misery.” But experiencing Felicity crucifies that lie, putting it to open shame.

Last night my heart almost exploded out of my chest as our gorgeous 9-month-old nestled her cheek against my shoulder, looked up into my eyes, and sighed “dada.” Yesterday, our family couldn’t post the pictures fast enough as she imitated her big sister’s dance moves. Despite three surgeries and countless nights struggling to breathe through her birth defect, when we walk into her nursery each morning, she invariably greets us with a smile that could wake the dawn, flails her arm in an attempted wave, and squeals, “haaaaaa!” (translation: “hi!”).

I assure you, once you’ve experienced that, you’re forever inoculated from a host of chillingly hollow abortion-rights narratives. Churches teeming with adoptions and foster parents, sacrificial compassion for pregnant teenagers and single moms, bestowed dignity upon the disabled, and honor for the elderly will be culture-shaking churches.

May the Lord raise up more churches with a gospel-saturated, pro-life culture that proclaims this from the rooftops, lives this in the everyday, and changes the cultures around them.  

Josh Howerton

After graduating from Union University with a degree in Theological Studies and heading to Southern Seminary, Josh served as the Lead Pastor of The Bridge Church in Spring Hill, Tennessee (a Nashville suburb) for ten years. He is now the Lead Pastor of Lake Pointe Church in Dallas, Texas. Josh is married to Jana, the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24