The Sanctity of Human Life (Entire Article)

By David K. Bernard

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“Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17).

“Abstain. . .from blood” (Acts 15:29).

Biblical Foundation

The Bible affirms the sanctity of human life in strong terms. When one person kills another he violates God’s law and destroys God’s image-creature (Genesis 9:5-6). Furthermore, the killer destroys the victim’s future poten­tial, including the possibility of future salvation in the case of an unsaved person.

The Law prohibited all murder (Exodus 20:13), and the New Testament affirms this teaching (Matthew 15:18-20; Galatians 5:19-21; James 2:11; I Peter 4:15). By extension this forbids violence and aggression. John the Baptist told repentant soldiers, ‘Do violence to no man (Luke 3:14). He who hates is a murderer and does not have eternal life (I John 3:14-15).

Jesus went beyond the Law in teaching nonviolence and no retaliation. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . .Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44). (See also Romans 12:19; I Peter 3:9.)

The Jerusalem Council admonished Gentile Christians to abstain from blood (Acts 15:29). If Acts 15 teaches us not to eat blood because it symbolizes life (Leviticus 17:10-11), surely it also teaches us to abstain from actual bloodshed (taking of human life).

The New Testament thus leads us to reject the killing of human beings under all circumstances, even in war fare, self-defense, and suicide. In addition, the Bible in­dicates that God considers the child in the womb to be a human life; therefore we reject abortion since it is a form of murder.

Killing in Warfare and Self Defense

Many biblical examples specifically indicate that God does not will for a Christian to take the life of another person, even in warfare or self-defense. When Peter began to use his sword in an attempt to defend the Lord from capture, Jesus said to him, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). (See also Revelation 13:10.) In calling the rich to repentance, James noted, “Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you’ (James 5:6).

The New Testament admonishes us to pay taxes, to submit to governmental authority, and to pray for civil leaders (Romans 13:1-7; I Timothy 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; I Peter 2:13-17), but it does not tell us to bear arms to support the government. Although the Roman Empire was a pagan government and a foreign dictatorship, Jesus did not endorse Jewish rebellion against it, but taught sub­mission to civil government (Matthew 5:40-41; 17:24-27: 22:17-21). When slaves converted to Christianity, Paul and Peter did not condone rebellion against their masters but taught them to serve their masters, even harsh masters, as they would the Lord (Ephesians 6:5; I Peter 2:18-21).

When Christians were persecuted, they did not re­spond violently. Stephen did not throw stones back at his murderers, but prayed, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). The Christians did not storm the prison where Peter was, hut prayed for God to deliver him. Paul endured numerous imprisonments, five scourging’s, three beatings, and a stoning without retaliating violently.

The New Testament teaches that each individual is of infinite value, that God is no respecter of persons, and that society should conform to the will of God. These prin­ciples certainly exclude any form of dictatorship, tyran­ny, persecution, or slavery. However, when Christians actually faced such situations, God never willed for them to respond with physical violence, rebellion, or bloodshed

It is difficult to justify any killing in view of Christ admonitions not to be violent, not to retaliate, not to see revenge, to love enemies, and to pray for persecutors. Some say His teaching relates only to personal not social situations, but how can a person separate personal morality from social responsibility? At the minimum, one can­not morally justify all wars simply because the govern­ment prosecutes them. How can a Christian participate in the massacre of innocent people, a war of conquest: an unprovoked nuclear attack, a war of revenge, or a War to maintain an oppressive dictatorship?

If we affirm that some wars are just, how can a Christian know when a war is justifiable, especially in light of governmental deception and the individual’s limited in­formation? In World War II, most Nazi soldiers though: they were defending their homeland, race, and culture against enemies that would destroy them if they were no: destroyed first. They usually did not know of the atrocities committed by their own government. If we justify an individual’s participation in killing simply because it seems justifiable based on his limited knowledge, then almost every soldier in every war is blameless. Even most Nazi and Communist soldiers have sincerely believed the cause was right. The only way for an individual to know with certainty that a war is just is if he fights for theocracy, a government with God as the Commander-in-Chief. No such government exists today or will exist until Christ returns to earth, and at that time God Himself will do all the fighting necessary.

If it is right for a Christian to kill for country, then is it right for a Christian to lie, steal, become a prostitute, worship idols or commit any other violation of God’s moral law for country? Are we adrift on a sea of moral relativism and situation ethics, in which we base moral decisions on an individual’s subjective utilitarian analysis or an unchris­tian government’s proclamations?

When we make the decision to take a human life, we are making an exception to God’s Word because we do not think it will work in our particular situation. However, God’s moral law always brings the best results when viewed from an eternal perspective.

We deplore the militaristic spirit often associated with conservative religious movements today. We must not equate Christianity with carnal warfare, or patriotism with bloodshed. Even if we think some wars are justifiable or even if we appreciate the positive benefits of some wars, we must emphasize that war is essentially evil. It is a scourge of mankind. We must never glorify war. If our world were Christian, there would be no war, and if our nation were Christian, God could protect us without war.

Israel’s Wars

Why did God allow and even command the Israelites to destroy their enemies in the Old Testament? First, the Old Testament Israelites did not have the Holy Ghost bap­tism with its overcoming power, nor did they have a com­plete understanding of God’s perfect will in this area. God worked with them on the level they had attained.

Even in the Old Testament it seems that God preferred to do all the fighting. When the Egyptians pur­sued the Israelites, Moses proclaimed, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD. . .The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” (Exodus 14:13-14). God miraculously delivered Elisha from the Syrian army (II Kings 6:13-23) and miraculously delivered Samaria from the Syrian army (II Kings 7:6-7). Likewise, God sent an angel to defeat the Assyrian army singlehandedly (II Kings 19:35). When Jehoshaphat ap­pointed singers to praise the Lord and the beauty of holiness before the army, God miraculously ambushed the enemy, apparently using angelic hosts (II Chronicles 20:20-25). Perhaps God would have done this more had Israel trusted Him fully and understood His perfect will. God refused to let David build the temple because he was a man of war and had shed blood (I Chronicles 28:3).

In the New Testament, Christ specifically went beyond the Old Testament revelation on this subject, call­ing us to a higher personal morality. Just after implemen­ting this higher teaching, Christ said, “Be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This parallels God’s progressive­ly stricter dealings from Old to New Testament in other areas such as incest, polygamy, and divorce.

Second, God used Israel as a unique theocratic instru­ment for several reasons which do not apply today: to bring judgment upon ungodly nations, to teach that the penalty for sin is death, and to protect His chosen nation so that His plan of salvation would survive. “The Canaanites against whom Israel waged war were under judicial sentence of death by God. They were spiritually and morally degenerate. . . .Thus, God ordered all the Canaanites to be killed. . . .both because they were under God’s death sentence, and to avoid the contamination of Israel .”

Today, God no longer deals primarily with nations but with individuals. He reserves judgment and tells His peo­ple not to judge others. We call this the age of grace, because God has revealed grace, mercy, and longsuffering in a greater measure than ever before and because He does not execute judgment speedily as usually oc­curred under the Law.

God’s chosen people are not a physically unique na­tion which He must protect against enemy nations. God’s salvation plan no longer depends upon a physical nation. Our weapons are not physical, but spiritual. The Israelites were physically separated from the world by diet, farm­ing practices, and keeping of the Sabbath, but we are spiritually separated from the world. The Israelites fought the world physically, but we fight the world spiritually. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not car­nal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds)” (II Corinthians 10:3-4). “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Defense of Country

If everyone believed that all wars are wrong. How would his country defend itself from attack? This objec­tion ignores Christ’s teaching that the true church would be a relatively small, persecuted minority in this world, composed of the few who follow the narrow way rather than the many who follow the broad path. Jesus said that His church would not be part of the world system. “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14, 16). “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight” (John 18:36). We are aliens and strangers in this world, with our first allegiance to a heavenly country (Hebrews 11:13-16).

If patriotism justifies killing, then two Spirit-filled members of the same “holy nation” (I Peter 2:9) could justifiably kill each other in a war between their respec­tive earthly nations!

If the world did convert to apostolic Christianity there would be no war. In the unlikely event that one nation so converted while its enemies did not, that nation would have greater protection by prayer and faith in God than by faith in its own carnal weapons. If God allowed an ag­gressor to attack a genuinely Christian nation, it would be better to submit to dictatorship or to resist nonviolently than to cause the destruction of thousands of people. This is effectively what Jesus and Paul taught by saying it was better to live under a dictatorial or enslaving condition’ instead of rebelling. Even advocates of just war agree that this is true in some cases. “Allowing evil aggression would be better than total annihilation.” 2

God can use the non-Christian society to further His will and to protect His people. Thus, God may allow a na­tion to go to war and win so that His purpose will be ac­complished. However, this does not mean He desires for–His church to take part in the killing. In the Old Testament God allowed the Assyrians to chastise Israel, but then punished them for their own aggression (Isaiah 8:1-7; 10:12-27). God can channel ungodly actions into further­ing His plans, but if the nation turns to Him He can achieve the same results in a better way.

There are many ways to serve one’s country well without participating in killing. The Bible teaches us to pay taxes and to pray for governmental leaders. Our prayers can be very effective weapons for justice and righteousness. We can also contribute to the strength of our country by working diligently and by helping those less fortunate than we are. In fact, the Bible commands both (Ephesians 6:5-7; I Thessalonians 4:11; James 1:27; 2:15-17). Finally, even in the armed forces there are many legitimate, noncombatant jobs such as medical assistant, quartermaster, chaplain’s assistant, and clerk. Even in combat, the medic can be just as courageous in saving life as others are in destroying life.

Defense of Self and Family

How should we defend ourselves or our families against murderous attacks? John Yoder’s hook, What Would You Do? lists the options available to the Chris­tian who is committed to pacifism: martyrdom, divine in­tervention, ruse, nonlethal violence, or moral disarming. This last category includes such things as showing respect, showing love, or asserting moral authority, which often so affect the attacker that he changes his mind. Yoder gave six actual case studies, ranging from wartime to a prison riot to a mugging, in which nonviolent methods stopped a lethal attack.

We do not interpret Christ’s teaching to mean we must passively, idly watch while an attacker seriously in­jures or kills someone. Under some circumstances, it would be appropriate to use the minimum force necessary’ to halt, ward off, or incapacitate the attacker. The motiva­tion in such a case must not be hatred, retaliation, revenge, desire to harm, or desire to fight, but simply pro­tection against harm. Under no circumstances, however, should we deliberately seek to kill the attacker. We can seek to prevent evil, but not at the expense of perform­ing an equal or greater evil. It is essentially wrong to use physical force except in cases of extreme necessity, an then not to the point of taking a life.

From a spiritual perspective, the Christian should not fear death. It would be better for the Christian to die and be with the Lord than for his attacker to die and be forever lost. Jesus and Stephen set the example by praying for their murderers. Through their courageous deaths onlookers such as the Roman centurion and (as some scholars propose) Saul of Tarsus came to a knowledge of the truth.

In the vast majority of self-defense situations, we would not face the choice of killing or being killed. We must trust God to keep us from or to protect us in the extremely rare cases of this nature. Moreover, we must-use prudence and not place ourselves in situations where we might be forced to make this decision.

Bearing Arms

If we reject deadly force as an option, then the bearing of arms becomes problematic. It could reflect a funda­mental lack of faith in God’s protective power (Job 1:9-12: 2:6) and the protective ministry of angels (Psalm 34:7: 91:11). If God prohibits killing, what is the purpose of car­rying a deadly weapon? In a time of crisis, can we trust ourselves not to use it lethally? If a potential victim pro­duces a weapon, he forces the attacker to act violently and often places himself in greater danger. Furthermore, these weapons kill many more people in accidents and arguments than in self-defense situations.

Why did Jesus tell His disciples on one occasion to carry swords? (Luke 22:35-38). After the Last Supper, Jesus gave new instructions to His disciples relative to the preaching of the gospel. Earlier in His ministry, He had sent them out without purse (money) or bag (supply of food), telling them to depend upon the hospitality of the people. Now, however, He told them to take purse, bag, and sword. Possibly, He meant for them to take swords for protection against wild beasts and robbers (to frighten off or ward off the latter, not to kill them).

More probably, His allusion to the sword was metaphoric. In other words, He was warning that they would no longer enjoy a hearty welcome in every place, but would face bitter opposition. Therefore, they should learn to provide for themselves and to brace themselves spiritually against attack and persecution.

Upon hearing this, the disciples found two swords and brought them to Christ. He told them, “It is enough.” Two swords are not adequate for twelve men. Apparently the disciples failed to understand Christ’s real meaning at that time. When He saw them bringing two literal swords, He decided to drop the subject. This view receives support from Christ’s admonition to Peter a short time later. When Peter actually tried to use one of these swords in Christ’s defense, He forbade him with words that de­nounce all killing. Furthermore, never again do we hear of the disciples resisting violence with violence, although they were subjected to violence many times.

Capital Punishment

Does not the Bible teach capital punishment? The Old Testament did establish capital punishment for many sins. One key passage says, “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:23-24).

Jesus specifically superseded this passage, however. If we use Old Testament precedent to justify our participa­tion in capital punishment, we must support capital punishment for crimes such as adultery, breaking the Sab­bath, false prophecy, rebellion against parents, gluttony, drunkenness, and negligent manslaughter (Exodus 21:28-29; Numbers 15:32-36; Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 21:18-21; 22:22). Likewise, the church would have to pass judgment, and individual members would have to cast stones at the criminal. However, Jesus specifically superseded this practice by refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).

Like just war, capital punishment could only work perfectly in a theocracy. God’s purpose under the law was to demonstrate that the penalty for sin is death. Now that He has established this principle, He grants a greater measure of mercy and time to repent. Christians cannot participate in capital punishment today, for then they would pass judgment before God has done so and cut off mercy before God desires to do so. How ironic it would be to promote capital punishment and prison ministry at the same time!

The civil government bears the sword as a servant of God in maintaining order, exacting vengeance and caus­ing the evildoer to fear (Romans 13:4). This implies capital punishment, although it may simply mean the use of physical force or restraint to maintain order. Apparent­ly, the civil government can impose capital punishment for some offenses. God uses the ungodly society as an in­strument to bring judgment upon ungodly lawbreakers. However, this does not mean He desires for His people to perform executions, for Christians are warned not to take vengeance (Romans 12:19).

A Christian should refuse to condemn a person to death as juror, judge, or executioner. To be logically con­sistent, if one will participate in the sentencing process, he should be willing to perform the execution. However, in light of Christ’s teachings, this is not a proper role for a Christian.

Abortion and the Scriptures

One can view abortion in one of three ways: (1) The unborn child is a human being with a right to life. (2) The unborn child is a potential human life; we must protect it unless more significant harm will be done to an actual human life. (3) The unborn child is not a human life, so deliberate abortion is morally acceptable.

It appears that God Himself views the unborn child as a human being. Psalm 139:13-16 plainly teaches that God creates, cares for, and makes plans for the child in the womb. “For You have formed my inward parts; You have covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (NKJV).

God fashions and forms the unborn child (Job 10:8-12; 31:15). God made plans for both Isaiah and Jeremiah while they were yet in the womb (Isaiah 49:1-5; Jeremiah 1:5). The Holy Ghost moved upon John the Baptist while he was in the womb (Luke 1:41, 44).

The law imposed a penalty for those who hurt the un­born child: “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no lasting harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any lasting harm follows, then you shall give life for life” (Exodus 21:22-23, NKJV).

According to Genesis 9:6, God forbids the killing of man because He made man in His image. Doctors have no difficulty in identifying the unborn child as human; it shares the image of God with the rest of humanity. Con­sequently, killing this child violates God’s law.

When does the child become human? When does it become a soul? Many alternatives have been proposed: conception, implantation (when the fertilized egg attaches to the wall of the womb), forty days, quickening (when the mother first feels movement), viability (when it becomes capable of surviving outside the womb), birth, or ten days after birth.

Since God treats the unborn child as human, we can eliminate birth as the time when life begins. Adam became a living soul when he breathed the breath of life, hut God uniquely created Adam and Eve as adults while creating everyone else in the womb. Moreover, the unborn child does “breathe” amniotic fluid.

Conception is the most clearly defined point for the unborn child to receive its spiritual identity. Scripture in­dicates that the child inherits its sinful human nature at conception. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). The Spirit of God caused the conception of Jesus in the womb of a virgin (Matthew 1:18, 20). Specifically because of this miraculous conception, the child was God with us, the Son of God, and the only begotten of the Father (Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:35; John 1:14). The Son of Mary received the nature of deity at conception; the Incarnation took place at that time.

All alternatives other than conception are highly ar­bitrary, incapable of clear determination, and without biblical support. Modern technology has pushed the point of detection of movement and the point of viability to earlier times than ever before. In view of the extreme uncertainty and lack of biblical evidence associated with the other alternatives, we cannot afford to act upon them. This means we should avoid abortion at every stage, in­cluding birth control methods that do not prevent con­ception but only prevent implantation of the fertilized egg. This would include some types of birth control pills (the mini-pill) and the intrauterine device (IUD).

We conclude from Scripture that the unborn child is a human being with a right to life as great as our own.

Medical Evidence on the Unborn Child

The scientific evidence supports our conclusion. (See Rites of Life: The Scientific Evidence for Life before Birth.3) Here are some key facts relative to the develop­ment of the unborn baby, taken from When You Were Formed in Secret by Gary Bergel with remarks by C. Everett Koop M.D.4 (Koop has since served as Surgeon General of the U.S.) It is significant to note how much development takes place in the first few weeks, before the mother even knows she is pregnant.

Week 1: The fertilized egg attaches to the wall of the womb.

Week 2: The tiny organism begins to send hormonal signals to the mother.

Week 3: The heart begins beating. The brain begins to form and soon sends impulses throughout the body. If it were outside the womb, it would be legally alive.

Week 4: Legs and arms form.

Month 2: The inner ear forms. Feeble body movements can be recorded. The fetus swims and responds to touch. All this indicates that the nervous system has developed to the point that the baby can ex­perience pain.

Month 3: The baby sleeps and wakes. He “breathes,” drinks, and excretes amniotic fluid. He can distinguish tastes. The vocal cords are complete; he could cry if he had air. The fingerprints are complete, giving a unique legal identity.

Month 4: Facial features are distinct. The baby usually begins to suck his thumb.

Months 5-6: The baby hiccups, kicks, punches, and recognizes his mother’s voice. He has a favorite position in which to settle.

Months 7-9: By this time, the baby has full use of sight, hearing, taste, and touch. He has experienced his own mo­tions, waking and sleeping, and secretions. He relates to the moods and emotions of his mother. Before he ever leaves the womb he has already experienced a wide range of human activities and stored them in his brain for assistance in facing the future.

Abortion Methods

Five methods of abortion are currently in use in America.’ The first two account for over 95% of all abortions.

(1)   Dilatation and Curettage (D & C). The abortionist uses a curette, a tiny hoe-like instrument, to scrape the wall of the womb. This cuts the baby’s body into pieces. Nurses reassemble the body parts to make certain that nothing remains in the womb.

(2)   Suction. The abortionist uses a suction tube to suck the baby into a jar, again tearing the body into pieces. At a recent Right to Life Convention, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortionist, showed a movie of this method. The film used new sonographic techniques and showed “the outline of the child in the womb thrashing to resist the suction device before it tears off the head.”6

(3)   Salt Poisoning. The abortionist uses a long nee­dle to inject a strong salt solution directly into the am­niotic fluid. The baby swallows and “breathes” the salt, which poisons and burns him. About a day later the dead, shriveled baby is expelled from the womb. Occasionally, babies survive this process and are born alive with a grotesque physical appearance.

(4)   Hysterotomy or Caesarean Section. This method is most used in the last three months. The abortionist removes the baby surgically, just as in a Caesarean birth, except that the baby dies.

5)   Prostaglandin Chemicals. The abortionist applies hormone-like compounds to the muscle of the womb, which cause intense contractions that push out the baby prematurely.

When these last two methods are used, the baby will occasionally be born alive, to the dismay of all concerned. It thereby obtains a legal right to life, although it usually receives minimal medical help and soon dies. In some such cases, abortionists have killed the baby by total neglect or by a direct act, even though this is legally manslaughter or murder. The doctor can legally kill the baby while holding it in the womb; it is illegal for him to kill it once it is outside the womb.

Are Some Abortions Justifiable?

Reasons often given for justifying abortion include preserving the mother’s life, the expectation of a defec­tive child, rape, and incest. However, these account for only 3% of all abortions; the other 97% occur for mat­ters of convenience and economy.’ Pro-abortionists justify the 97% by arguing: (1) a woman should have absolute control over her body and (2) everyone will suffer if a child comes into a family that is emotionally and financially un­prepared for it. However, the time to consider these things is when deciding to marry and to engage in sex­ual activity. The solution is birth control, not abortion. The mother voluntarily subordinates certain of her rights to those of her child when she allows herself to become pregnant. Adoption is always available for those who do not want the child. The real issue is convenience; the mother does not want to undergo the remaining months of her pregnancy. Surely, matters of convenience cannot take precedence over human life. If this reason justifies abortion, what prevents it from justifying infanticide as well?

What if the child will probably be physically or men­tally handicapped? We must affirm that all human life is worth living. Handicapped persons can enjoy life as much as anyone else. Otherwise, this reasoning would justify killing of handicapped adults. Once conception occurs, the decision is not ours but God’s. Many times, doctors significantly overestimate the health problems of the un­born child. Can we afford to abort this life with its unknown potential when nature has not chosen to do so by miscarriage?

What about cases of rape and incest? These are very difficult situations, but if the unborn child is actually a human being, can we kill it because of its father’s sin? If the rape victim reports immediately to a doctor she can almost certainly prevent pregnancy. Can we kill the unborn baby because its mother was ignorant and failed to take proper action? The child is a result of sin, but can we kill children conceived out of wedlock on the same basis? The rape victim does not deserve what has hap­pened to her, but can we ease her situation by killing an innocent third party? Suppose a married woman is raped by a man of a different race and conceives as a result. Suppose she thinks the child is a product of her marriage, but at birth discovers it is not. If we can justify abortion for rape, can we justify infanticide in this situation? In view of all these moral difficulties, it seems advisable for a victim of rape or incest to have her child and give up for adoption rather than to have an abortion.

Finally, can we allow abortion to save the mother’s life? First, we should rely on the general will of God to heal and to help the holy woman in childbirth (I Timothy 2:15). If the mother’s life is actually at stake, however, the doctor should perhaps take the baby early. In this case, the intent is not to kill either mother or child but to save the life of both if possible. Even if the child dies, this is no more than what would happen to the mother other­wise. The choice is not between killing and not killing, but between letting one person die and letting two peo­ple die.

This situation is unique to pregnancy, because in no other case are the physical lives of two people inextricably intertwined in this manner. In our day, many prominent doctors maintain that, given the advances of modern medicine, it is never necessary to perform an abortion because of complications of pregnancy.

Teaching in Church History: War

Roland Bainton remarked that “no Christian writer prior to the time of Constantine approved of Christian participation in warfare. . . .The primary reason for the objection to participation in warfare was the aversion to bloodshed. . . .Bloodshed was abhorred by the Church. Therefore, of course, gladiatorial combats were con­demned and the Christians could not witness them. Chris­tians could assume no magisterial post that carried with it the possibility of passing a sentence of death.” 9 Ken­neth Latourette affirmed that no Christian writing of the first three centuries condoned participation in war.

Tertullian said that God “puts His interdict on every sort of man-killing by that one summary precept, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ “11 Specifically, he concluded that warfare was not proper at all for Christians. He asked, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”

The Canons of Hippolytus stated, “It is not meet for Christians to bear arms.” 13 Hippolytus claimed apostolic tradition in opposition to all killing. For converts he said, “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath; if he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected. A military commander or civic magistrate that wears the purple must resign or be re­jected.”

The pagan Celsus charged Christians with undermin­ing the state because they abstained from war. Origen did not deny this charge of pacifism, but argued that if everyone became Christians war would become un­necessary. “If all the Romans. . .embrace the Christian faith, they will, when they pray, overcome their enemies; or rather, they will not war at all, being guarded by that divine power which promised to save five entire cities for the sake of fifty just persons. . . .When God gives to the tempter permission to persecute us, then we suffer persecution; and when God wishes us to be free from suf­fering, even in the midst of a world that hates us, we enjoy a wonderful peace, trusting in the protection of Him who said, ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ ”

Celsus urged Christians to help the king by going to war. Origen replied that Christians fight spiritually for the king through prayer. “And as we by our prayers van­quish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the viola­tion of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way art much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. . . .We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army—an army of piety—by of­fering our prayers to God.”

Lactantius wrote, “For when God forbids us to kilt, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is n even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus [it is not] lawful for a just man to engage in warfare. . . .Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man.”

In the Middle Ages, the Waldensians opposed all taking of human life. During the Reformation, the Anabap­tists even rejected military service on the ground that all taking of human life is sinful. Thus the Mennonites and the Hutterites today are pacifists. The Quakers likewise are pacifists. The early Pentecostals were pacifists, with many rejecting all military service. The Assemblies of God originally discouraged military service, but now leaves the decision to the individual. The United Pentecostal Church does not oppose noncombatant military service, but does oppose all killing.

The Articles of Faith of the UPC state, “We believe and interpret [the Bible] to mean Christians shall not shed blood nor take human life. Therefore we propose to fulfill all the obligations of loyal citizens, but are constrained to declare against participating in combatant service in war, armed insurrection, property destruction, aiding or abetting in or the actual destruction of human life. . . .We believe that we can be consistent in serving our Govern­ment in certain noncombatant capacities, hut not in the bearing of arms.”

Teaching in Church History: Abortion

Latourette noted that the early church fathers univer­sally condemned abortion.

Athenagorus wrote, “Those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion. . .[We] regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care.”

Pagans accused Christians of killing and eating children in secret rites. Tertullian countered, “Murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb. . . .To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. . . .Blush for your vile ways before the Chris­tians, who have not even the blood of animals at their meals of simple and natural food; who abstain from things strangled. . . .You tempt Christians with sausages of blood, just because you are perfectly aware that the thing by which you thus try to get them to transgress they hold unlawful. And how unreasonable it is to believe that those, of whom you are convinced that they regard with horror the idea of tasting the blood of oxen, are eager after the blood of men.”

Minucius Felix wrote, “There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide [murder of a relative] before they bring forth. . . .To us it is not lawful either to see or to hear of homicide; and so much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food.”

The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles say, “Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten.”

The Roman Catholic Church today strongly opposes abortion, even in cases of rape, danger to the mother’s life, and malformation of the unborn. Most liberal Prot­estant churches allow it, while conservative Protestants still oppose the practice.

Abortion was illegal throughout most of the history of the United States. In 1967 Colorado became the first state to make abortion on demand legal in cases of grave danger to the mother’s physical or mental health, rape, incest, or likelihood of severe deformity. 24 In 1973 the Supreme Court struck down all laws that severely restricted abortion. In 1974, the first full year of legal­ized abortion, almost 900,000 abortions took place in the U.S. 25 According to U.S. News & World Report, over 1,500,000 legal abortions were performed in 1980. Literal­ly millions of unborn children die from abortions. Statistically, the most dangerous place for a child is its mother’s womb.


In many ways our society is losing its sense of the sanctity of human life. Abortion is now commonplace. People have smothered or starved aborted babies who con­tinued to live outside the womb. Warfare is endemic to our planet. Violence is a favorite topic for television and movies, and audiences love it. The news media routinely portray brutal scenes of war, terrorism, crime, and ac­cidents. Many theologians advocate violent rebellion and terrorism as valid methods of achieving greater social justice and democracy. Most countries use murder to quell political dissent and accept aggressive war as part of in­ternational politics. In general, our world accepts violence and bloodshed as legitimate means to publicize issues, resolve differences of opinion, and assert rights. Recently there have been many specific indications of the decreasing value society places on human life. In Bloomington, Indiana, “a baby with Down’s syndrome was starved to death in a hospital after doctors, parents, and a state court agreed that no treatment should be given.”  A victim of cerebral palsy sued to force health care workers to let her commit suicide by starvation; for­tunately, the court refused her. A U.S. governor discussed the duty of the elderly to die and relieve the next generation of the costly burden of care. The World Council of Churches has provided financial support for “liberation’ armies committed to violence. A Nobel Prize winner ad­vocates that infants not be declared human until several days after birth so that those with defects can be legally, killed. The Humanist Manifesto recognizes the right to commit suicide.

We wonder how the Nazis could have murdered six million Jews and how a nation of civilized, “Christian’ people could have allowed such crimes to occur. Yet b, desensitizing ourselves to violence and killing, we are conditioning ourselves to the point where our society could accept such crimes on a similar scale. Already we have accepted the killing of more than one million unborn babies per year. Will this philosophy spread to justify infanticide, euthanasia (“mercy killing”), killing of the handicapped, killing of the aged, or assisting someone who wishes to commit suicide? Where will it end?

What would the man Jesus do? Would Christ perform an abortion? Would Christ cut up an unborn child and throw it in a trash can? Would Christ shoot to kill a mugger? Would Christ be a sniper in the army? Would Christ plant a minefield? Would Christ flip the switch on an electric chair? Would Christ be a member of a firing squad? If He would not, then neither can we. The Christian solution is to affirm the sanctity of the individual human life to such an extent that we will not deliberately take a human life for any reason.


  1. Rushdoony, p. 279.
  2. Norman Geisler, Ethics: Issues and Alternatives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), p. 176.
  3. Landrum Shettles, M.D. and Daniel Rorvick, Rites of Life: The Scientific Evidence for Life before Birth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).
  4. Gary Bergel with C. Everett Koop, Abortion in America and When You Were Formed in Secret (Elyria, Ohio: Intercessors for America, 1980).
  5. lbid., p. 11-4.
  6. Joseph Sobran, “Burden of proof is now on abortionists,” Jackson Daily News, June 22, 1984, p. 10A.
  7. Bergel, p. 11-7.
  8. William Nolen, M.D., The Baby in the Bottle (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978), pp. 35, 57.
  9. Bainton, pp. 50-54.
  10. Latourette, I, 242-243.
  11. Tertullian, The Shows, 2, ANF, III, 80.
  12. Tertullian, The Chaplet [On the Crown], 11, ANF, III, 99.
  13. “Heads of the Canons of Abulides or Hippolytus,” ANF, V, 256.
  14. “Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, in Bainton, p. 152.
  15. 0rigen, Against Celsus, 70, ANF, IV, 666.
  16. Ibid., 75, ANF, IV, 668.
  17. Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 6.22, ANF, VII, 187.
  18. Manual, United Pentecostal Church International (1984), p. 24.
  19. Latourette, I, 248.
  20. Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 35, ANF, II, 147.
  21. Tertullian, Apology, 9, ANF, III, 25.
  22. Minucius Felix, The Octavius, 30, ANF, IV, 192.
  23. Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 7.3, ANF, VII, 466.
  24. “The Sexual Revolution of the Twentieth Century,” Christianity Today, November 11, 1983, p. 29.
  25. Donald Shoemaker, Abortion, The Bible, and the Christian (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 9.
  26. “Koop’s Compromise: A Step Toward Protecting the Baby Does of the Future,” Christianity Today, February 1984, p. 44.

The above article, “The Sanctity of Human Life” was written by David K. Bernard. The article was excerpted from chapter twelve in Bernard’s book, Practical Holiness A Second Look.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

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