Tom Ascol has written a long essay in which he makes the case for the Abolitionist resolution passed at the 2021 SBC and against pro-life dissensions from it. He also engages my last two posts on the subject, so I thought I would write a brief word of response here. Tom Ascol frames our differences in term of class struggle—the SBC “elites” versus the average man in the pew. He writes:
It is the elite class that is woefully out of step with the rank-and-file believers who are working hard to see the scourge of abortion brought to an immediate end in our nation…
Six times Ascol uses the language of “elite” or “elitist.” I suspect that the purpose of such language is to charge people with self-interest or perhaps a love of money or status. It means to disqualify their moral standing and ability to make principled arguments, as in, “Why should I listen to you? You’re an elite self-interested protector of worldly status and treasure.” For my part, I think our differences over the best way to fight abortion are reasonable conversations for Southern Baptists to have. One man says, “Half a loaf is better than no loaf.” The other says, “The whole loaf or nothing!” Okay, let’s talk about those tactical differences. But trying to foreclose on someone’s views by slapping an “elitist” label on them is not the way forward.
I don’t think class struggle is the correct way to characterize our differences. Yes, it is possible for folks on the platform to seem out of touch with those filling the seats on the floor of the convention. More than once, I myself have felt at odds with and even frustrated with SBC leadership on this or that issue. But I don’t believe there has been a massive disconnect between the platform and the messengers writ large on the issue of abortion. Southern Baptists have made their voice heard in resolution after resolution going back 40 years affirming pro-life, incrementalism. In fact, it has been a blessed point of unity over the decades since the Conservative Resurgence.
Whatever differences we have among us as Southern Baptists, we’ve always opposed abortion and sought to save as many unborn lives as possible while hoping, praying, and working toward ending legal abortion in our nation. There has been no “class divide” on this question at all. To suggest that there has been is to distort the history of pro-life witness in the Southern Baptist Convention. There just hasn’t been any widespread discord over this issue. Until the Abolitionist campaign last year, Southern Baptists have been remarkably unified in their pro-life views. I believe we need to continue in that unity and not allow Abolitionists to divide us.
Again, we all agree with the goal of ending the scourge of abortion in our nation. The Abolitionists, however, are trying to persuade Southern Baptists that our long support for parental notification laws, fetal heartbeat bills, 15-week bans, the Hyde Amendment, etc. are collaborations with evil. In other words, the Abolitionists believe that pro-life incrementalism is sinful. If you look at last year’s resolution, you can see that in the language of the resolution:
Traditional Pro-life laws… appallingly have established incremental, regulatory guidelines for when, where, why, and how to obtain legal abortion of innocent preborn children, thereby legally sanctioning abortion…
Notice what this resolution charges us pro-lifers with doing. It charges us with supporting laws that actually promote abortion rather than trying to end it. It is a serious charge that if true could only mean that the pro-life position itself is fundamentally and sinfully compromised. The resolution says that the pro-life movement is “sanctioning abortion.” If that were true (and it most assuredly is not!), then all of our 40 years of pro-life work in the SBC would amount to nothing more than a long campaign of unrighteousness. If that is what Abolitionists wish to believe, they are free to do that. But pro-life Southern Baptists like myself are free to point out that they are wrong.
Ascol also writes,
In 2021 Southern Baptists adopted the most decisive anti-abortion resolution in the history of the convention. It builds on and extends the language of previous resolutions, affirming the sacredness of human life and calling for the immediate ending of abortion.
This is not an accurate way to describe last year’s resolution. While there is much in the resolution that pro-lifers would agree with, there is also much that amounts to an absolute repudiation of the expressed pro-life views of Southern Baptists over the last 40 years. Indeed, the resolution itself is so radical that it even calls on Southern Baptists to repent of their past pro-life efforts:
We humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion…
The “exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion” would include 15-week bans and exceptions for the life of the mother, both of which are mainstream pro-life positions. The resolution not only treats these positions as wrong but as sinfully wrong such that Southern Baptists should corporately repent of them. Keep in mind that the Mississippi law banning abortion after 15-weeks of pregnancy has brought us to the precipice of seeing Roe v. Wade overturned by the Supreme Court. And the abolitionists would have us repent of that 15-week ban!
Southern Baptists by and large support incrementalist measures such as Mississippi’s 15-week ban. Why? Because we have been about the business of obeying Proverbs 24:11-12:
11 Deliver those who are being taken away to death, And those who are staggering to slaughter, O hold them back. 12 If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?
The Scripture commands us to save those who are being led away to death. It cries out for us to intervene on behalf of the innocent in whatever way we can. Certainly, we want the unborn recognized as human beings in our laws and to be protected as such. But until they are, pro-lifers are working to rescue as many children as we can from the cold clutches of the abortionists. We are not going to stand on the sidelines waiting for the perfect legislation while thousands of children are being killed every day. We are not going to make the perfect the enemy of the good. We are going to do whatever we can to save as many as we can.
While the Abolitionists share that goal, they are not offering a strategy that is likely to achieve it. And many of them are condemning their pro-life brothers and sisters as sinful compromisers for disagreeing with them. That is why this issue has been so contentious.
This is not a class struggle, as Ascol has argued. This is a fork in the road for Southern Baptists. Will we continue our long and well-documented support for the pro-life movement, or will we follow this new teaching called “Abolitionism”? Abolitionism is not what Southern Baptists have pursued in the past. It is a departure from what we have been doing. And it would put Southern Baptists on the sidelines of a struggle that the Bible calls us to be engaged in (Proverbs 24:11-12). I just want Southern Baptists to understand what Abolitionism is before they run headlong into what I believe to be an unhelpful and misguided teaching.
UPDATE: I just received the following note from a reader who pastors an evangelical church:
Excellent article today on the pro-life/abolitionist issue. I agree 100%.
I wound up having to ask a family to leave our church last year over their way over the top zealousness of the abolitionist position. It was incredibly divisive.
It’s a shame because he was a vibrant supporter of much of the rest of the vision I have been pastoring the church with. But he and his wife were accusing everyone of sin including precious old ladies who give money to pro-life causes. They left with guns blazing calling on me to repent and to step down from being a pastor because I took the pro-life incrementalism position.
This is the second such note I’ve received from a pastor today. And this has been my long-standing concern with the way Abolitionists pursue their cause. If the abolitionists would treat our differences as a friendly disagreement among brothers working toward the same goal, there would be no issue. But that’s not what they are doing. They are framing this as a sin issue. If being pro-life is as grave a sin as they allege, then they are only being consistent. They have to call sinners to repentance, and pro-lifers are sinning.
Make no mistake. Whenever this teaching lands in a pro-life church, it will necessarily bring division and possibly a split. That’s how serious this is, and it’s another reason why I’m so concerned about it.