Recent events prompted us to return to this piece from Johann Christoph Arnold published over twenty-five years ago. This excerpt is a chapter from his book Sex, God, and Marriage.
Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Psalm 22:9–11
Almost a century ago, in response to the idea of “modern” family planning, Eberhard Arnold wrote, “In our families we hope for as many children as God gives. We praise God’s creative power and welcome large families as one of his great gifts.”1
What would he say now, in an era where contraception is standard practice and millions of unborn children are legally murdered every year? Where is our joy in children, and in family life? Our thankfulness for God’s gifts? Where is our reverence for life and our compassion for those who are least able to defend themselves? Jesus is very clear that no one can enter the kingdom unless he or she becomes like a child.
Sex without regard for the gift of life is wrong.
The spirit of our age is diametrically opposed not only to the childlike spirit but even to children themselves.2 It is a spirit of death, and it can be seen everywhere in modern society: in the rise of murder and suicide rates, in widespread domestic violence, in abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia. Our culture seems bent on going the way of death, of taking into its own hands what is God’s domain. And it is not only the State that is at fault.
How many churches sanction the murder of unborn children under the guise of supporting women’s rights? The sexual “liberation” of our society has sowed tremendous destruction. It is a false liberation built on the selfish pursuit of satisfaction and pleasure. It ignores discipline, responsibility, and the real freedom that these can bring. In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, it mirrors “a profound lack of confidence that we have anything worthy to pass on to a new generation…We are willing our deaths.”3
The majority of people today have no qualms of conscience when the life of a tiny being is prevented or destroyed. Once considered the greatest blessing God can give, children are now considered in terms of their cost: they are a “burden” and a “threat” to the freedom and happiness of the individual.
In a true marriage, there is a close connection between married love and new life (Mal. 2:15). When husband and wife become one flesh, it should always be with the reverent recognition that through it new life may be formed. In this way their sexual union becomes an expression of creative love, a covenant that serves life. But how many couples view sex in this way? For most, the pill has made intercourse a casual act, divorced from responsibility and supposedly free of consequence.
As Christians, we must be willing to speak out against the contraceptive mentality that has infected our society. Too many couples have bought into the popular mindset of sexual indulgence and family planning on demand, throwing to the wind the virtues of self-control and trust. Sex for its own sake, even in marriage, not only cheapens sexual intercourse but erodes the foundation of self-giving love necessary for raising children. To engage in sexual pleasure as an end in itself, without regard for the gift of life, is wrong. It means closing the door to children, and thus despising both the gift and the Giver (Job 1:21). As Mother Teresa once said:
In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self. This turns the attention to self, and so it destroys the gift of love in him or her. In loving, the husband and wife must turn the attention to each other, as happens in natural family planning, and not to self, as happens in contraception.4
Routine contraception undermines the fulfillment and fruition of two who are one flesh, and because of this we should feel revulsion toward the attitude that consistently seeks to avoid the responsibility of bearing children.
None of this is to suggest that we are to bring children into the world irresponsibly or at the risk of the mother’s health and well-being. The size of one’s family and the spacing of children is a matter of tremendous responsibility. It is something for each couple to consider before God, with prayer and reverence. Having children too closely together can place an especially difficult burden on the mother. This is an area where a husband has to show loving respect and understanding for his wife. Again, it is vital that a couple turn together to God and place their uncertainties and fears before him in faith (Matt. 7:7–8). If we are open to God’s leading, I am confident that he will show us the way.
To abort any child is to mock God.
The contraceptive mentality is but one of the manifestations of the spirit of death that makes new life so unwelcome in so many homes. Everywhere in society today there is a hidden war going on, a war against life. So many little souls are desecrated. And of those who are not prevented by contraception from entering the world, how many are callously destroyed by abortion!
The prevalence of abortion in our society is so great that it makes Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents tame in comparison. Abortion is murder – there are no exceptions. If there were, the message of the gospels would be inconsistent and meaningless. Even the Old Testament makes it clear that God hates the shedding of innocent blood (Prov. 6:16–17). Abortion destroys life and mocks God, in whose image every unborn baby is created.
In the Old Testament there are numerous passages that speak of God’s active presence in every human life, even while it is still being formed in the womb. In Genesis 4:1 after Eve conceives and gives birth to Cain, she says, “With the help of the Lord, I have brought forth a man.” She does not say, “With the help of Adam,” but “with the Lord.”
In Psalm 139 we read:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Ps. 139:13–16).
Job exclaims: “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?” (Job 31:15)
And God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5).
We also read in the New Testament that the unborn are called by God before birth (Gal. 1:15) and that their unique gifts are prophesied while still in the mother’s womb. Perhaps one of the most wonderful passages about an unborn child is found in Luke:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:41–44).
Here an unborn child, John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, leaped in Elizabeth’s womb in acknowledgment of Jesus, who had been conceived only a short time before. Two unborn children: one capable of responding to the Holy Spirit, and the other – none other than Christ himself – conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20–21).
Clearly, the idea that a new little life comes into being through something merely physical or biological is a complete falsity. It is God who acts in bringing forth life from the womb (Ps. 71:6). Abortion always destroys this act.
This is why the early church universally rejected abortion, and called it infanticide. The Didache, the earliest instruction (100 ce) for new Christian converts, leaves no doubt about that: “You shall not slay a child by abortion.” And Clement of Alexandria even writes that those who participate in an abortion “wholly lose their own humanity along with the fetus.”5
Where is the clarity of the church today? Even among so-called Christians, the war of cruelty and death being waged against the innocent unborn children has become a matter of fact, its ghastly horrors and brutal techniques hidden by the mask of medicine and law or even “justified” by every thinkable circumstance.
Who are we to judge whether a life is desirable or not?
I know it is unpopular to say that abortion is murder. I realize that people will say I am removed from reality – that even certain Christian theologians make at least some allowances for abortion. Yet I believe God never does. His law is the law of love. It stands forever, regardless of changing times and changing circumstances: “Thou shalt not kill.”
Human life is sacred from conception to death. If we really believe this, we will never be able to accept abortion on any grounds; even the most persuasive arguments about “quality of life” or severe physical deformity or mental retardation will not sway us. Who are we to decide whether or not a little soul should reach the light of day? In God’s plan the physically and mentally hindered can be used for God’s glory (John 9:1–3). “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exod. 4:11)
How can we dare to judge who is desirable and who is not? The crimes of the Third Reich – where “good” Nordic babies were bred in special nurseries, while retarded babies, children, and adults were sent to gas chambers – should be warning enough. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Any distinction between life that is worth living and life that is not worth living must sooner or later destroy life itself.”6
Even when the life of a pregnant mother is in danger, abortion is never the answer. In God’s eyes, the life of the unborn child and mother are equally sacred. To do evil “so that good may come” is to take God’s sovereignty and wisdom into one’s own hands (Rom. 3:5–8). In agonizing situations like this, a couple should turn to the prayer of their church:
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven (James 5:13–15).
There is great power and protection in the prayer of a united church and in the faith that God’s will can be done for both the life of a mother and her unborn child. In the end – and I say this with trembling – that is what matters.
We must offer alternatives, not moral condemnation.
As Christians, we cannot merely demand an end to abortion without offering a positive alternative. Eberhard Arnold writes:
Moral philosophers may demand that the sexual life is purified by insisting on purity before and during marriage. But even the best of them become insincere and unjust if they do not make clear the actual basis for the fulfillment of such high demands. Even destruction of the life that is waiting to come into being…remains unassailable without faith in the kingdom of God. The supposedly high culture of our days will continue to practice this massacre as long as social disorder and injustice prevail. Infant murder cannot be overcome as long as private life and public life are allowed to maintain their status quo.
Whoever fights against self-centered acquisitiveness and against the deceit in unjust social distinctions must fight them in a realistic way – a way that demonstrates a different way of life as a possibility that actually exists. If this is not done, purity in marriage and an end of murder cannot be demanded either. Not even for families with the soundest morals can anyone wish the blessing of many children, corresponding to the creative powers of God’s nature.7
Here the church has failed miserably. There are so many teenage mothers who are confronted by this question daily, yet receive no inner guidance, no emotional or economic support. Many feel they have no other choice than abortion: they have been the victim of sexual abuse; or they fear an angry boyfriend; or their parents have pressured them, saying that if they have the baby they can’t come home.
In speaking with groups of women who have had abortions, author Frederica Mathewes-Green discovered a near unanimous consensus as to why women have abortions: in nearly every case it is because of relationships. Women do not want abortions, she writes. They want support and hope.
I have found that a woman is most likely to choose abortion in order to please or protect the people that she cares about. Often she discovers too late that there is another person to whom she has obligations: her own unborn child. The grief that follows abortion springs from the conviction that, in a crisis, this relationship was fatally betrayed.
Supporting women with unplanned pregnancies means continuing what pregnancy-care centers have been doing all along: providing housing, medical care, clothing, counseling, and so forth. But we should also be paying attention to becoming a steadfast friend, the most important help we can give, and to doing whatever we can to repair relationships in the family circle.8
In speaking out against abortion, therefore, we must not forget that few other sins cause more heartache or anguish of soul. Very few women today are offered viable alternatives, and almost none of them are pointed to God, who alone can answer their need. A woman who has had an abortion suffers great torment of conscience, and her isolation and endless pain can be healed only at the cross – only by finding Christ. Christians need to feel the immeasurable pain that so many women bear in their hearts for their lost children. Who of us can cast the first stone? (John 8:7) Woe to us if we ever become cold toward a woman who has had an abortion!
God loves every mother and every unborn child in a very special way. After all, he sent us his only son, Jesus, to earth in the form of a baby, through the womb of a mother. As Mother Teresa points out, even if a mother turns against her unborn child, God will not forget that little soul. He has carved each baby in the palm of his hand and has a plan for each life, not only on earth but for eternity. To those who are desperate enough to hinder God’s plan, we say with Mother Teresa, “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give the baby to me.”
- Eberhard Arnold, God’s Revolution (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1997), 135.
- I explore this more fully in Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World (Walden, NY: Plough, 2014).
- Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 131.
- Mother Teresa, speech at National Prayer Breakfast, Washington DC, February 3, 1994.
- Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (New York: Paulist, 1982), 47–62.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1975), 164
- Eberhard Arnold, Innerland (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1999), 37.
- Frederica Mathewes-Green, “Perspective,” The Plough 56 (Spring 1998), 33.