Tim Keller is wrong about abortion
American Christians are on the precipice of a new era. For 50 years, ever since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, courts have struck down almost all legal restrictions on abortion, making it nearly impossible for state governments to protect the lives of unborn children. Many Christians have been working quietly and patiently to end the Roe regime, and now those efforts may finally pay off.
If the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade in the coming weeks, everything will change in this country. For the first time in generations, Christians who understand what abortion is — the intentional killing of unborn children — will be able to work to pass new laws that could save millions of unborn lives.
It was at this moment, just days before the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion overruling Roe v. Wade (which is not yet final), that Tim Keller, the well-known theologian and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, wrote a provocative tweet thread explaining that Christians should not divide over the politics of abortion. The entire thread is worth reading carefully, but I will quote only part of it here:
I recently wrote about how churches should not destroy unity or fellowship over political differences … Here are two Biblical MORAL norms: 1. It is a sin to worship idols or any God other than the true God & 2. do not murder. If you ask evangelicals if we should be forbidden by law to worship any other God than the God of the Bible — they’d say ‘no’ … We allow that terrible sin to be legal. But if you ask them if Americans should be forbidden by law to abort a baby, they'd say ‘yes.’ Now why make the first sin legal and NEVER talk about it and the second sin illegal and a main moral/political talking point? … The Bible tells us that idolatry, abortion, and ignoring the poor are all grievous sins. But it doesn’t tell us exactly HOW we are to apply these norms to a pluralistic democracy. … I know abortion is a sin, but the Bible doesn’t tell me the best political policy to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which political or legal policies are most effective to that end … [W]e are allowed to debate that and so our churches should not have disunity over debatable political differences!
Keller is right to call abortion what it is — “murder.” But two things are troubling about this statement. The first is that Keller is ambivalent over whether murder, which is the killing of innocent human beings made in the image of God, “should be forbidden by law.” That is an odd position to take. To see how odd, simply reread Keller’s thread, but replace the words “abortion” and “murder” with “slavery.”
The Bible tells us that idolatry, [slavery], and ignoring the poor are all grievous sins. But it doesn’t tell us exactly HOW we are to apply these norms to a pluralistic democracy. … I know [slavery] is a sin, but the Bible doesn’t tell me the best political policy to decrease or end [slavery] in this country, nor which political or legal policies are most effective to that end … [W]e are allowed to debate that and so our churches should not have disunity over debatable political differences!
While this was once an acceptable sentiment in the Confederacy, this argument now shocks our conscience because American Christians rightly understand that refusing to abolish the sin of slavery permits wicked men to inflict grievous bodily harm on innocent people made in God’s image.
The same cannot be said about permitting idolatry.
Christians are therefore within their reason to not expect unbelievers to worship the true God while also demanding that unbelievers (and all people) not enslave others. The same is true for abortion, which is even more harmful than slavery.
Abortion kills a baby, ending its life forever. If that is true, could Christians in good conscience accept any just treatment of the sin of abortion other than working to abolish it? Keller’s thread assumes the answer is “yes,” but it fails to give any satisfying explanation as to why.
The second problem with Keller’s argument is that it calls for Christians to “not have disunity” over the politics of abortion without specifying what kind of “disunity” he’s talking about. This lack of clarity muddies the waters on an important issue that demands careful thinking.
The Bible speaks of unity in at least three senses.
First, Christians are united spiritually. Every person who trusts in Christ is united by the Spirit to Christ, and thus — by extension — united to every other Christian. This means that if a person is trusting in Christ but is deceived about abortion and is holding pro-choice views, that Christian is still united to pro-life Christians in Christ. It is impossible to break this invisible spiritual unity.
Second, Christians are united sacramentally. Christians who share the sacraments of baptism and communion together become “one body.” As Paul explained, “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Sometimes this visible unity must be broken when a member of a church rejects Christ by word or deed. For example, Protestants and Catholics have broken sacramental unity for over 500 years because each communion believes that the other teaches a false Gospel, making unity of communion impossible.
Third, Christians are united doctrinally. Pastors are commanded by God to preach and teach the truth of Scripture to their congregations, but sometimes Christians in the same congregation will disagree with their church’s teachings. This disunity should not always break sacramental unity, but it will inevitably cause some division in the Church. Christians are commanded by God to strive for doctrinal unity without sacrificing truth.
With these distinctions in mind, Keller’s argument that “churches should not have disunity” over the politics of abortion makes only partial sense. Keller is right that a Christian’s pro-choice political views should not, in many cases, be grounds for excommunication (i.e., breaking sacramental unity). But in some cases, it may be. For example, a member of a church who works as a politician to advance pro-abortion legislation may need to be excommunicated — just as it would be right to excommunicate unrepentant slave owners. That is why Christians today rightly mourn the failures of Civil War era denominations that were unwilling to accept disunity over slavery. It is just as right to mourn today those churches that stay silent on the evil of abortion.
Keller is also wrong when it comes to doctrinal unity. Pastors must be willing to accept disunity and upset members of their congregation to teach the truth about abortion. “[T]he Lord hates … hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:16-17). A pastor who refuses to preach against abortion to avoid disunity is not following the example of Christ who “came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). As Paul exhorts Timothy, “the Lord’s servant must … correct his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
We should pray that Christian pastors and leaders like Tim Keller speak clearly and forcefully about these truths — the truth about what abortion is and that saving unborn lives is worth the cost of upset members, uncomfortable conversations, and split congregations. Many Christians will be looking to pastors like Keller for spiritual guidance in a post-Roe world. The Lord will hold them accountable for whether they courageously guide the flock in the times ahead.
Steven C. Begakis is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C.