Life Issues: Distraction from the Great Commission or Part of It?
The following is an edited transcript of a sermon.
Over the years I’ve often been told that human life issues, such as abortion and euthanasia, are not what the church of Jesus Christ should be about. I was even told by a seminary student at my church, “These issues distract us from the main thing.”
I said, “What is the main thing?” He said, “The great commission. Winning people to Christ. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. That’s the main thing, and everything else is a distraction.”
Read Matthew 28:18-20. Ask yourself how you would respond to the seminary student. Then we’ll come back to it. But first, I want to tell you a true story.
In the late eighteenth century, there lived an Englishman I’ll call Will. Will was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He went so far as to boycott sugar from the West Indies because it was the product of slavery. While still in England, he began to preach as a Dissenter.
British law prohibited anyone from attending a meeting of Dissenters, so Will committed civil disobedience every time he preached, and his parents and everyone who came to hear him preach did the same. (He failed in his first attempt to become ordained, because the ordination committee said his preaching was simply too boring.)
Then Will felt God wanted him to go to India, where he entered as an illegal alien. He was shocked to discover that many of the Hindus took their infant children and exposed them to die as a holy act. The British government in India looked the other way because it didn’t want to interfere with the culture or religion.
But Will felt compelled to interfere because children were dying. He spoke out forcefully to prod both the British government and Indian society to spare the lives of innocent children and change the laws that permitted child-killing. As a result, eventually infanticide was abolished. Countless tens of thousands of children were saved by the activism of this one man.
The Hindus also practiced a form of euthanasia, in which they took the weak and sick and lepers and left them to die. Will and the missionaries who were his associates wrote and spoke against this practice also, finally resulting in prolife laws implemented by the government. But while exposure was still legal, the missionaries carried home people left exposed to die and nursed them back to health. Will provided medicine for such outcasts, and also actively opposed the various forms of slavery practiced in India.
Then one day Will witnessed something horrible—it was the practice called sati, where widows were burned alive on the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands. After seeing one such death, he stood up in front of a group assembled to burn a woman alive. He told them the practice was wrong and they must not kill this woman. Seeing no other way to save her life, Will even lied and said the governor-general had threatened to hang the first man who lit the funeral pyre!
He then led a group of missionaries in protesting widow burning. He also set up public debates on the subject to expose what was really happening, and to bring God’s perspective to light. Missionary magazines in India published Will’s arguments against widow burning. As a result, in his lifetime the age-old practice of widow-burning was abolished.
A brilliant linguist and Bible translator, Will was also the British government’s official translator into the Bengali language. He received the official decree forbidding widow burning on Sunday morning, December 6, 1829. Will was scheduled to preach the gospel in church that morning. But he didn’t show up. He called on someone else to preach instead, and dedicated the whole day to translating the decree instead of going to church or preaching. Why? Because he knew that lives hung in the balance every minute he delayed.
Some criticized Will for his moral and political actions. You know what they said? “That’s not what you’re here for. Focus on the main thing. Just preach the gospel and pray. Stay away from politics and moral issues. Be concerned about spiritual lives, not physical lives.”
Who was this radical? Who was this man involved in protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and attempts to change the laws, who opened his home to the vulnerable and neglected and rescued them from those who would have them killed? Who was this social activist so concerned about morality and laws and saving human lives? His name was William Carey. If you’ve ever taken a class in church history or the history of missions, you know that today William Carey is called “the Father of Modern Missions.”
When we think of the Great Commission and the modern missions movement, no other name is as prominent as that of William Carey. He went to India to win people to Christ and disciple them, and that’s what he did. In the process he sought to obey other parts of God’s Word too, by personally intervening to save lives and laboring to change public opinion and evil laws. William Carey provides us a model for one of the great issues of our time—understanding the proper relationship of morality, politics, life issues, and the Great Commission.
Some Christians make the mistake of thinking social activism or politics are the answer to everything. They certainly are not. But many segments of the modern evangelical church have lost their activist heritage.
For instance, in 1835 there was a meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Two thirds of the delegates were ministers. In writing my second novel Dominion, I did a lot of study about the slavery era. Christians were the backbone of the Underground Railroad that illegally housed and fed and transported slaves escaping to freedom. The practice of dueling in America was finally outlawed because so many ministers condemned it from their pulpits. They urged their congregations not to vote for any candidate that believed in dueling.
When New York City was dominated by corrupt strong arm politics of “Tamanny Hall” early in the 1900s, it was a minister, Charles Parkhurst, who stood up to stop it when no one else would. He was told to just preach the gospel and get out of politics. But he produced 284 affidavits against the corruption, which he read from his pulpit. This prompted the judicial action that ended the corruption.
Christian churches were once the conscience of the nation. When a nation like ours is in such moral decline, it’s because Christians have withdrawn from that God-given role and have blended in with the immorality of society.
In 1977, as a graduate of Multnomah and finishing my studies at Western Seminary and Multnomah’s master’s programs, another pastor and myself were part of a brand new church in Boring, Oregon, which we named Good Shepherd Community Church. We had the privilege of seeing it grow to a church of more than 3,000. Many people have come to Christ and become true disciples.
When the church started, I pictured myself just teaching the Bible and staying away from controversial things. What I discovered is that I could teach the Bible and stay away from that stuff, but I could not live the Bible and stay away from it.
A few years after the church began, I joined a group that had just started the first Crisis Pregnancy Center in Oregon, when there were only fifteen CPCs in the country. It was my privilege to serve on the board of that center, later called the Portland Pregnancy Resource Center, and most recently, First Image. (For years I also had the privilege of serving on the steering committee of the new crisis pregnancy center in Gresham, which is having an incredible impact on our community.)
In 1980 my wife and I opened our home to a pregnant girl who’d had an abortion. My wife was her labor coach, we saw her through to adoption, and most importantly we saw her come to Christ. Today she is a committed disciple of Christ and has a husband and three living children of her own. For several years, she spoke on behalf of our ministry and worked in our office in the same room that was hers when she lived with us.
As the years went on, I got involved in prolife education in churches and public and private schools. I spent some time doing sidewalk counseling and participated in nine rescues over a two-year period. The rescues were totally peaceful, nonviolent intervention standing in front of the doors in a last moment attempt to save the lives of innocent children and save women from the tragedy of taking their children’s lives. (While I’m totally opposed to violence, I do believe Scripture clearly shows that in some cases civil disobedience is an appropriate response to save innocent people from dying.)
As a result of rescuing, I was sued by abortion clinics. One court judgment against us was the largest against prolifers in history, $8.2 million dollars. I believe in paying every debt, but not that one. I could not pay a clinic that would use the money to kill children. So, they came to the church to garnish my wages. That’s when I had to resign from pastoral ministry, to keep the abortion clinic from getting the money, and the church from getting in trouble because of me. It was hard to leave, having been a pastor at the church from its beginning, but while the abortionists intended it for evil, God intended it for good and has accomplished His purpose (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28).
(Since then I was also named on a lawsuit by the ACLU, because a group of us disobeyed a court order and gathered to pray at Gresham City Hall on the National Day of Prayer.)
After I resigned as pastor, I started Eternal Perspective Ministries, which is a strange hybrid of missions and relief and prolife work. Locally, we headed up things like Life Chain, Life Teams, Friends of Women, and sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics.
People have asked, Was it really worth it just to protest abortion? Just to make a political statement? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay out of such things so you could stay a pastor and do good?
I didn’t believe, and still don’t, that I would do much good as a pastor if it meant saying “No” to the clear leading of Christ in my life.
But I wasn’t protesting abortion or making a political statement. Frankly, I’m not a politically-oriented person. I have no ultimate confidence in any political party, and my ultimate hope for this country is not in politics—it’s in repentance and beseeching the mercy of the holy God we’ve offended as a nation. I don’t believe politics is a waste, and I’m all for Christians being involved, but I just don’t think it holds the solutions that many people think it does.
Bottom line: I did not get involved in prolife work because of politics, but in spite of it. I was trying to save lives for the simple reason that I thought the Bible I was preaching every Sunday said that’s what I should do.
It said, “Rescue those who are being led to slaughter.” It said, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” It said, “Defend the fatherless.” It said, “Do to your neighbor what you would want him to do for you.”
I asked myself, “If I was scheduled to be killed at 8:00 tomorrow morning, what would I want someone to do for me?” So I did it, peacefully and nonviolently. It’s not the main thing I’ve done, nor the most important. It just happened to be the one that got the most attention and was the most costly from a material point of view.
People’s responses to my situation brought home the basic confusion about morality and politics in the church today. I keep hearing about how abortion is a political issue and the church should stay away from politics. We should be “a good witness,” which means we shouldn’t do anything unpopular, anything that would make people upset.
Once, at a March for Jesus, organizers said no one could wear T-shirts taking a position on issues, because “we want to be united and noncontroversial.” Christians who were standing outside an abortion clinic intervening for children were asked to leave because the March for Jesus happened to be going right in front of an abortion clinic. Now, I understand the March for Jesus is meant to be focused only on the Lord. But the implication was, somehow standing up for Jesus was incompatible with standing up for children about to die. Could you see a March for Jesus in front of Auschwitz where no one was allowed to remind anyone that innocent people were being killed there? And if you think that’s an unfair comparison, it’s because you think born people are more valuable to their Creator than unborn people.
We say, “Let’s be Christ-like,” as if being Christ-like meant we can never confront with the truth, never say or do anything unpopular. Well, by those standards, Jesus wasn’t Christ-like—remember how He confronted people with their sin, called them hypocrites, overturned their money tables, and chased them out of the temple? Sometimes I think the Jesus we believe in is not the powerful and controversial Jesus of the New Testament, but the Jesus of our imaginations, who is more like Mr. Rogers or Barney the Dinosaur than the real Jesus.
At its heart, abortion is not a political issue. If a drunk driver was headed down the street at 50 MPH and a child was standing in its way, what would you do? Hopefully anything to get the child out of the way! Why? To protest drunk driving? To make a political statement? To impose your morality on someone else? Of course not. Simply to save an innocent life. That’s what prolife work is about. It’s not politics—it’s just an attempt to follow Christ by loving our neighbor, and intervening for the least of His brethren.
If I stepped out to save the life of this child about to be run over, would the Oregonian the next day call me an anti-drunk driving activist? No, just a caring person trying to save a life. Satan is a master at burying spiritual issues under the label of “politics.”
The same thing applied to the attempt to repeal measure 16, the Physician Assisted Suicide law that was approved nearly three years ago. A lot of people said it was a political issue. But it was a human issue, a moral issue, a sovereignty-of-God issue, an issue as to who has the prerogatives over human life and death. In the same way that we should try to save a child about to be killed by a car, we should restrain a desperate person from jumping in front of a car. If they asked us to help them by pushing them in front of the car, we would refuse. (That would be pedestrian-assisted suicide.)
To suggest that this life issue somehow isn’t relevant to the church is ludicrous. As Christians we are exactly the ones who should care most about this issue, and should be on the forefront. If we would have been years ago, it wouldn’t have passed.
The son of a good friend of mine died from AIDS. Tell her that homosexuality is a political issue. It isn’t. It’s a human issue. A spiritual issue.
Turn to Luke 10:25ff. What does it say I must do? Love the Lord your God; love your neighbor as yourself. Love is something you do. In Matthew 22 Jesus calls this the first and greatest commandment, and the second like it. (The Great Commission is not called the greatest commandment. Loving God and loving your neighbor is.)
To a man who wished to define “neighbor” in a way that excluded certain groups of needy people, Christ presented the Good Samaritan as a model of our behavior and said, “Go and do likewise.” This man went out of his way to give physical help to the man lying in the ditch. In contrast, the religious hypocrites looked the other way because they had more important “spiritual” things to do. (We are the Bible-believing conservatives, the priests and Levites of our day.)
When I said this at a seminary in Philadelphia, one student was offended at the comparison. He said, “Abortion is just a symptom. As pastors, we have to deal with the cures.”
Couldn’t you just see the priest and Levite explaining that people getting beaten up and lying in ditches was just a symptom of spiritual problems, so that’s why they left him to die? Women getting raped and children getting molested and people starving because of senseless wars are all symptoms of something deeper too, but it doesn’t mean we don’t help them!
If you were the man whose life was saved, and you heard someone talk about God, who would you listen to? The spiritual-sounding, theologically-correct priest and Levite who ignored you, or the Samaritan who helped you?
Was it a distraction from the main thing to help save the life of the man lying in the ditch? Or was it part of the main thing? To the priest and Levite it was a distraction—they had sermons to preach, tithes to collect, synagogues to build. But Christ condemned them for failing to help the weak and vulnerable and needy, and He commended the Samaritan for getting down in the ditch where the problem was and giving a dying man his help.
Look at Matthew 25:31-46, about the sheep and goats. Christ makes a distinction of eternal significance based not merely on what people believe and preach, but on what they’ve actually done for the weak and needy.
Can anyone read this passage and still believe that intervening for the needy is some peripheral issue that distracts the church from its main business? That it’s some fringe or secondary concern? On the contrary, it is part and parcel of what the church is to be and do. It’s at the heart of our main business.
Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you’ve done it to the least of these my brothers . . . so to me.” Whatever we do or don’t do for the needy, Jesus takes it personally.
Remember that seminary student from my church who said prolife outreach was a distraction from the main thing which was winning people to Christ? I was his advisor. I asked him how he was doing in sharing his faith with others. He explained that since he’d come to seminary, he hadn’t spent any time with nonchristians.
I said, “Well, you can’t be distracted from the main thing, because according to what you told me earlier, you’re not doing it in the first place.” I then gave him a number of examples of people who’ve been reached for Christ through prolife outreach.
Nothing opens up doors for evangelism like need-meeting ministries. One Saturday at an abortion clinic a Bible college student stopped to give us some perspective. He said, “Why are you doing this? If you people weren’t here, you could be doing door-to-door evangelism.”
I said, “Most Christians are home watching ball games or doing yard work but you’re not giving them a hard time—is that preferable to trying to save lives? And you’re not doing door-to-door evangelism—you’re just standing here criticizing your brothers and sisters.”
I’ve seen people led to Christ at prolife activities. I’ve seen the gospel shared numbers of times. I’ve done it myself.
The truth is, prolife efforts open great doors to evangelism. Students who do a speech on abortion have follow-up conversations that can lead to sharing the gospel. Someone who writes a letter to the editor may have a neighbor who sees it. Those who work at Pregnancy Resource Centers have built-in opportunities to share Christ they would otherwise not have met. Those who pass out literature at abortion clinics regularly share the love of Christ.
People who open their homes to pregnant women can demonstrate a love that is more than words, then follow with the words of the gospel. My own family had the joy of seeing a pregnant young woman accept Christ while living with us. Whenever we mix it up with people and meet their needs, there’s a great opportunity for evangelism. I know of many girls like our friend who came to Christ when pregnant and living in the homes of Christian families.
I spoke at a Crisis Pregnancy Center in Baton Rouge that had existed for ten years, and they kept careful records. They had shared the gospel with something like 7,000 women, and over 1,800 had come to faith in Christ.
So, on the question of how standing up for life relates to the Great Commission, there are three relevant points.
First, the Great Commission isn’t the only command, and it isn’t even called the greatest one. We call it the “Great Commission”—yet Jesus said “Love God” and “Love your neighbor” were the greatest commandments. The Great Commission is a central command, but Jesus labeled another command the greatest, and the Great Commission is really just an extension of the command to love God and our neighbors.
Second, even if all there was to the Great Commission was evangelism, standing up for those whose lives are endangered would qualify because so often it results in evangelism.
But here’s the third point. The truth is, the Great Commission is much more than evangelism. We’ve edited the Great Commission and restricted it to evangelism and a very narrow definition of discipleship. In His Great Commission Jesus didn’t only tell us to evangelize. He told us to be “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
He didn’t just say teaching them to believe everything I have commanded you; He said teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. We teach not only by word but by example.
Jesus commanded us in Luke 10 and Matthew 25 and other passages to exercise compassion and to take sacrificial action for the weak and needy. That’s part of the “everything I have commanded you.” So, if in the church we fail to intervene for the suffering and needy, and to teach others to do so, then we fail to fulfill the Great Commission. We show the world and the church that our words about the gospel are only that—words.
There is a link between truth, morality, and evangelism. As an author, I’ve seen how my novels have reached people on both a spiritual and a moral level. I once talked to a prochoice woman, a liberal nonchristian. She told me she read Deadline, and it really caused her to think. A man told me he gave that same novel to his nonchristian neighbor. He and his wife stayed up half the night reading it and told him, “It challenged my beliefs.” Our ministry has heard from numbers of people over the years who’ve read the books and come to faith in Christ. Hearing the truth about moral issues didn’t keep them from Christ; in fact, hearing what rings true may have drawn them to Christ.
How do moral issues affect the spiritual life of the church? Polls indicate that one out of five women getting an abortion identifies herself as a “born again Christian.” This means the church is killing its own children, at the rate of a quarter of a million per year. Our pews are filled with single girls and boys, young couples, grandparents, “sympathetic friends,” and even pastors who, through their counsel or lack of counsel, have innocent blood on their hands.
How does that relate to revival? Scripture says God hates hands that shed innocent blood (Proverbs 6:17). It says the only one who can ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place is “He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3-4). It says, “If anyone turns a deaf ear to the law, even his prayers are detestable.” (Proverbs 28:9).
In Zechariah 7:13 God says, “When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen.” If we’re killing children and refusing to deal with it—and many churches across America are—then God says, “Cancel your prayer meeting—I’m not listening.”
Revival isn’t a slow slide into communion with God. It begins with confessing our sins, repenting of them, and falling on our knees to forsake them. If in all our prayers for oneness and unity and blessing we bypass our moral responsibility for the killing of children and the legitimization of the killing of the elderly, revival won’t come. It can’t.
There’s a bunch of Christian books and seminars about waging spiritual warfare and doing battle with the forces of evil. Nowhere is this evil more evident than in the abortion and euthanasia issues, and biomedical issues.
Jesus called Satan a murderer and liar from the beginning. He murders and he lies to cover his murders. The forces behind child-killing are demonic—from the time that babies were offered to the demon Molech. Abortion is Satan’s attempt to kill God in effigy by destroying the little ones created in His image.
We’re not dealing here with “one more social issue,” but a unique and focused evil in which Satan has deeply vested interests. We are dealing with a force of darkness that will bitterly resist every effort to combat it, and which requires earnest and sustained prayer, and alertness to the spiritual battle. I’ve had a few encounters with palpable evil—once in Egypt during prayers to Allah, and once at a New Age radio station in Hawaii. The third place I’ve experienced it is where you don’t have to travel very far—the abortion clinics here in Portland, where I live. The same darkness surrounds the killing of the elderly and incapacitated.
Martin Luther addressed the pastor’s role in facing the greatest evil of his day:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proven, and to be steady on all the battle fronts besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
The truth is: it is hard and often costly to get involved in lives. The American church’s highest value today is the avoidance of pain. We want to be accepted. We want to be popular. We don’t want to be controversial. We don’t want anyone to bother us. Above all, we don’t want to suffer. We need to remind ourselves of what Scriptures says about pleasing the Audience of One. (In the final day, only His assessment of our lives will matter.)
I mentioned William Carey earlier. Here are some others of the most evangelistically-oriented Christians in history:
- John Wesley actively opposed slavery, and encouraged mine workers to unite in order to resist the inhuman treatment by their employers.
- Evangelist Charles Finney had a major role in the illegal Underground Railroad, saving the lives of many blacks, all while under criticism from fellow Christians because of his civil disobedience. His college, Oberlin College, became a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
- D. L. Moody opened homes for underprivileged girls, rescuing them from hopelessness and exploitation.
- Charles Spurgeon built seventeen homes to help care for elderly women, and a large school for hundreds of children. Spurgeon and his church built homes for orphans in London, rescuing them from starvation and vice on the streets.
- Amy Carmichael intervened for the sexually exploited girls of India, rescuing them from temple prostitution. She built them homes, a school and a hospital.
We remember each of these Christians for their evangelism, but forget their commitment to personal and social intervention for the weak, needy, and exploited. Perhaps the effectiveness of their evangelism was due to the fact that, unlike many other Christians of their day—and this day—they lived out the gospel they preached. There’s no conflict between the gospel and social concern and action. In fact, there is a direct connection between them. The Great Commission is not our only mission, but to love God and to love our neighbor is. But properly understood, standing up for the weak and needy and vulnerable and speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves is not a distraction from the Great Commission or “the main thing”— rather, it’s an essential part of the main thing.
Let me end with a personal story that shows the connection between moral issues and the Great Commission. My father was a self-made man, fiercely independent. He fended for himself through the depression, and learned to do everything his way and not trust others. When I became a Christian in high school, my father was very resistant. He couldn’t stand Christians and thought they were all hypocrites.
He was the least likely person to come to Christ I’ve ever known, and told me he never wanted me to share the gospel with him again. All those years my mother and I prayed for him, but he remained resistant. After my mom died, he moved from Gresham, Oregon to Vancouver, Washington, just across the river. In the spring of 1991, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
In November 1991 the state of Washington had a very similar ballot measure to Oregon’s that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide. Doctors would have been permitted to issue life-taking drugs to patients on request. Here was another political issue, a social-moral concern. We shouldn’t get involved, but should just preach the gospel and pray, right?
Just two months before the vote, polls showed it almost certain that the measure would pass by 5%. Well, some Christians in Washington got together and labored long and hard, and the measure was narrowly defeated.
Two months later I got a call from my 84-year-old unsaved father. He sounded very distressed, and he said, “I’ve called to say good-bye. I’m in pain from the cancer—I know the end’s coming. I’ve got a gun to my head. I’m sorry to leave you a mess.” I begged him to hold on.
I jumped in the car, made the thirty minute drive in twenty, knocked on the door and got no answer. I walked in, and saw lying on the floor a rifle and a handgun. I called out for my father, turned the corner into his room and bumped into him as he walked out. I took him to the hospital, and they fixed his immediate problem, then scheduled surgery for the next morning.
I came in early, an hour before surgery. I prayed that somehow, in his pain, with no easy way out, that God would break through to my father. I read through Romans, sharing the gospel as clearly as I could. After half an hour of going from verse to verse, I finally looked at him and asked, “Dad, have you ever confessed your sins and asked Jesus Christ to forgive you?”
“No...” he said, then paused. Finally he added, “But I think it’s about time I did.”
My father prayed, confessed his sins, and placed his faith in Christ that morning, just before they wheeled him into surgery. The surgery was successful.
Sometime later I found out that months earlier, believing he was terminal and the pain was about to get worse, he had wanted to end his life. He had gone to several doctors and nurses in the fall asking to give him a pill, because he didn’t want to leave me the mess from the gun. They said, “We can’t give you a pill—it’s illegal.” But one doctor said to him, “Come back after the election. I’ll be able to help you then.”
My dad was disappointed when the measure failed. He was counting on it. He was going to get that pill and have it nearby, and when he got low enough, he would take it. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if my father had legal access to a poison a physician could guarantee would end his life, he would have used it. And if he would have, my father would have gone into a Christless eternity.
In the time of people’s pain and weakness, they need the rest of us to reach out, help them, encourage them, and tell them they’re worth something. They don’t need us to pass them a pill and help get rid of them. I have several friends who work as chaplains in care centers. They’ve led many people to Christ in the final months of their lives. And many of these people, if they would have had a society-approved way to end their lives earlier, would have. And they would never have reached a point of trusting Christ.
So I thank God for some Christians in the state of Washington who realized what was at stake—not just legislation but lives, not politics, but people. People for whom Christ died. People God created. People God has a purpose for, and over whose lives and deaths He alone has the prerogatives.
I thank God for some Christians who realized we’re to love God and our neighbor. And who realized that preaching and prayer ring hollow—they have no credibility or effectiveness—unless accompanied by loving action in the name of Christ.