By Joshua Arnold
Last Friday, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough excoriated Christians who oppose abortion on the grounds that Jesus “never once mentioned it.” Reducing the Gospel to a single issue is “heresy,” he said, and those who do so “are using Jesus as a shield to make 10-year-old, raped girls go through a living and breathing hell here on earth.” He argued that pro-life state legislators believe “that life begins at fertilization and ends at childbirth.” Here’s the full context of his mini-speech:
Let me just say, as a southern Baptist, that grew up reading the Bible — maybe a backslidden Baptist, but I still know the Bible — Jesus never once talked about abortion. Never once. And it was happening back in ancient times. It was happening back in his time. Never once mentioned it. And for people perverting the gospel of Jesus Christ down to one issue, it’s heresy. If you don’t believe me, if that makes you angry, why don’t you do something you haven’t done in a long time? Open the Bible. Open the New Testament. Read the red letters. You won’t see it there.
And yet there are people who are using Jesus as a shield to make 10-year-old, raped girls go through a living and breathing hell here on earth. They’ve also conveniently overlooked the parts of the New Testament where Jesus talks about taking care of the needy, taking care of those who are helpless, who live a hopeless life. Because they believe — these state legislators believe — that life begins at fertilization and ends at childbirth.
The accusation cuts deep. The argument seems sounder because it begins with a claim that can’t be proven false. Search the words of Jesus, and you’ll never find “abortion” mentioned. But that doesn’t mean that Christians have no response, nor even that Scarborough’s argument is sound. Jesus also never mentioned the word “trinity,” but to deny that is heresy.
The first item to address is Scarborough’s condemnation of single-issue voters, that it’s “heresy” to pervert the Gospel down to a single issue. The Gospel itself, the good news that God has chosen to save us from deserved, eternal punishment through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, and that we now are reconciled to God by grace through faith, freed from the power and penalty of sin, is rarely a rationale to cast a ballot for one political candidate over against another. But the radical message of the Gospel does have massive implications for how we live our lives, and some of those can influence how we vote.
Sometimes, we can deduce a Christian position on a political issue in a straight line from the Bible, while other implications are arrived at less directly. Southern Baptist pastors Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli take abortion as an example of a straight-line issue, “the Bible explicitly teaches that murder is sinful; abortion is a form of murder, so we should oppose abortion. That’s a straight line. Accordingly, both of our churches would initiate the church-discipline process with a member who is advocating for abortion.” In contrast, they argue, “fellow church members … should recognize Christian freedom on jagged-line political issues.” Individual members may or may not have strong convictions about various jagged-line issues, but they must agree on the straight-line issues.
For many Christians, abortion is not only the most obvious straight-line issue (with marriage a close second), but a moral evil of such gravity that it outweighs all other moral considerations combined. That’s not to say that they have reduced the Gospel to a single issue. Rather, the Gospel has many applications to public policy, and these Christians are demonstrating a sophisticated, prudential framework for judging between them.
Jesus on abortion
Scarborough insisted that “Jesus never once talked about abortion,” even though it was practiced at the time, and so he didn’t consider it evil. Christians in the first century after Jesus’ death would completely disagree. According to the Didache, an early compilation of Christian teaching, “the Lord’s teaching through the twelve apostles to the nations” includes an exhortation, “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”
Indeed, Jesus reaffirmed the Old Testament command, “you shall not murder” (Matthew 19:18). Some people might affirm a commandment against murder but stipulate a carveout to allow abortion; that is Scarborough’s position. But far from curtailing the prohibition on murder, Jesus strengthened it. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).