In most of the world today, slavery is unthinkable. Is it possible that we could ever reach that same place with abortion in America?
Just as there were once states where it was legal to own slaves and other states where it wasn’t, we are now a nation deeply divided on the issue of abortion on a state-by-state level. In certain states, abortion is allowed, encouraged, and even subsidized abortion. In others, abortion is all but illegal. The history of the Church’s stance on both issues, abolition and abortion, is instructive as we seek to obey Christ in a post-Roe world.
Clearly, the early Church did not like slavery. The New Testament condemns behaviors that were endemic to the slave trade. In his letter to Philemon, Paul gave broad hints that masters should free their Christian slaves. Early Christians often purchased slaves specifically to set them free.
Even so, neither the New Testament nor the early Church pushed for full abolition of slavery, for at least two reasons. First, taking a public stand would have brought even more unwanted attention to an already targeted group. Second, the ancient world offered no model to Christians for a society without slaves, so few could envision what that would look like. Though Christians saw slavery as a curse, they could not conceive of being rid of it entirely (any more than they could imagine a world rid of disease or poverty). This failure of moral imagination meant that it would be centuries before the implications of the Gospel would lead Christian rulers to take definitive steps toward abolishing slavery.
By the Middle Ages, overt slavery was rare in Europe, and Church leaders spoke out against it. Thomas Aquinas claimed that slavery might be part of the “law of nations” but was against the law of nature and therefore a sin. When, centuries later, the infamous Atlantic slave trade began, Portugal and Spain defied the decrees of four different popes to spread it in their colonies. In the English-speaking world, the rampant practice of slavery found opposition among Quakers and a rising evangelicalism that eventually ended first the slave trade, then slavery altogether.
All this means that the American theologians who defended slavery were following the culture’s lead, not Church teaching. Though it took far too long for the implications of the Gospel to become clear, the teaching of both Jesus and Paul of the spiritual and moral equality of all persons meant that slavery was incompatible with Christianity, and its abolition in Christian states was only a matter of time. Eventually, because of the commitment to the worth and dignity of every human being as created in the image of God, Christians fought to end the abuse of slavery.
In contrast, the Christian position on abortion has been clear from day one. In the Didache, the earliest non-New Testament Christian work to survive, Christians are instructed “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” Similarly, the late first or early second century Epistle of Barnabas, a manual of ethics in this early period, says “you shall not murder a child by abortion, nor again kill it when it is born.” In “A Plea for Christians,” written in 177, Athenagoras of Athens wrote, “[w]e say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder …”
Similar teaching can be found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, the pseudonymous Apocalypse of Peter, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Lactantius, which takes us up to the de-criminalization of Christianity by Constantine. The teaching of the Church on abortion has been clear from the start and continued to be clear well into the 20th century.
Only recently have some claiming the name of Christ accepted abortion as morally licit, or worse, have celebrated it. Christian opposition to abortion is based on precisely the same reasoning as Christian opposition to slavery. Every human being is made in the image of God and is crowned with glory and honor, a dignity we dare not ignore. The same dehumanizing and depersonalizing claim that undergirded the idea that slaves were less worthy as human beings, and further undergirded the horrific treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, is also at work in pro-abortion thinking. And yet, the same liberating power of the imago dei that broke the chains of slavery demands that we see the dignity of preborn children and work to protect them.
Slavery and the subsequent dehumanizing treatment of African Americans was evil, and that the crusade to end both was (and is) God’s work. May we also recognize that dehumanizing and killing the unborn is at least as evil, and rightly abhorred.