How should churches respond to pro-choice members? Should they be subject to formal church discipline?
In considering the question the first thing we need to remember is that abortion is both a justice issue and a gospel issue. The Bible tells us that human beings are crafted in God’s image. Abortion is an unjust killing of an image-bearer of God in the same spirit of murder that Scripture attributes to Satan.
Part of the responsibility of pastors is to give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). The idea that an unborn child isn’t worthy of protection is not merely a private “values” situation. It is a biblical, theological, and moral issue.
Different Situations Require Different Responses
Because God requires us to defend innocent life, this is indeed a matter of church discipline. But how we impose that discipline depends on a few factors.
One factor is the particular stage of life this member is in. I have a friend who’s doing ministry in a very secular city in the Northeast. He told me that when the Planned Parenthood videos came out last year, some of his church members were asking, “Am I pro-life now that I’m a Christian? Is that what I signed up for?” That’s not a sign a person is resisting truth; it’s a sign a person needs further instruction in the gospel. That kind of situation should be addressed differently than, say, a member who’s been a Christian for a long time questioning why he should be pro-life.
Another factor is what kind of power and influence this member has. A relatively new believer who merely has questions about the morality of the issue will be treated differently than a member actively lobbying for Planned Parenthood or actually performing abortions. In the latter case you have an immediate conflict between the life of the member and the truth in the church. You’d need an immediate confrontation with that member demanding the end of this kind of behavior, just like you’d have with someone actively participating in another kind of open sin.
Teaching and Clarity Come Before Discipline
Long before we get to the question of church discipline, though, we need to make sure our churches are teaching in a clear and biblical way what Christianity says about the unborn. Do our congregations know that the first time we meet Jesus Christ is not in the desert but in utero? This means we have to take time—and not just on Sanctity of Life Sunday—to explain why unborn children, as well as their mothers and fathers, matter to God. This has to be a normal part of the teaching ministry of the church.
Not long ago I was teaching on abortion to a student group at a church. I told them it was quite possible that someone in that group was going to have an unplanned pregnancy or cause an unplanned pregnancy—maybe even in high school. And I told them the way to deal with that is to come to the church, not run from it. That’s crucial. So often in cases of an unwed pregnancy, young women and men will fear shame and ridicule in the church and will try to keep their situation “underground.” It’s at that moment the Planned Parenthood clinic feels so welcoming and so helpful.
What a church must do is make clear, “You are welcome here and you will be cared for here, because God cares about your life and your baby’s life.” We have to positively teach what the Bible says about all life, including the life of the unborn. If the church has a clear doctrine of the unborn, then discerning what situations require either more discipleship or immediate intervention becomes easier.