Early Christians and the Sanctity of Human Life

Plutarch was a first century historian who wrote that the Carthaginians “offered their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan.” Cicero (106-43 B.C.) said that “deformed infants should be killed.” This was the worldview of the Greco-Roman world in which the early church lived. If this sounds like the extreme practices of an ancient barbaric society long forgotten, then you need to wake up.

The more we learn about the horrors of the abortion culture, more accurately described as the culture of death, the more disturbing it becomes. In the past couple of weeks the issue of infanticide has become a major discussion in the world of social media. Remember, infanticide is the killing of an infant that is alive after birth. Recently a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood defended the horrific practice before the Florida House of Representatives. Even more disturbing than the Florida case is a murder case in Pennsylvania involving an abortionist who is charged with seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of third-degree murder. The seven counts of first-degree murder involve babies that had survived abortions and were subsequently put to death. What makes these cases even more shocking is the lack of media coverage that the cases have been given since the trial began last month. The media has been virtually silent.

One thing that is important for us to consider as Christians thinking through the issues involved here is that this is nothing new. Our forefathers in the Christian faith faced similar cultural horrors in their day. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph society has not changed as much as some would have us to believe. This is because we live in a Genesis 3 world. Ever since Genesis 3 sin has dominated the human heart. This is was true in Rome, Athens, Germany, and is still the case in Philadelphia and Florida. Nevertheless, Christians fought against the unjust practice based primarily on two principles from Scripture: “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13) and “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). The early Christians without reservation put infanticide within the context of the command not to murder. They did not shy away from the controversy and condemned it in their writings. The author of the Didache (perhaps AD 90) has this to say: “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children; you shall not be sexually immoral; you shall not steal; you shall not practice magic; you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide (lit. you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill one that was born)” (2:2). The author mentions killing children again in 5:2 as something that is characteristic of the way of death. Similarly, The Epistle of Barnabas (2nd century) condemns abortion and infanticide in 19:5, “You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide (same wording except for the word). At first Christians did not have the kind of influence to impact policy on infanticide. This was true for a long time. They opposed it where they encountered it, they patiently endure persecution, and they continued to preach the gospel. As they did this Christianity spread throughout the Roman world and evetually was made a legal religion in AD 313. The problems that arose from Christianity being legalized notwithstanding, the Christian emperor Valentinian outlawed infanticide in AD 374.

But what about abortion? Perhaps you are thinking, “I am a Christian who opposes infanticide, but I think that a woman has the right to choose an abortion under certain circumstances.” My question would be, what is the difference in the baby traveling a few inches? What is the difference in a few weeks or months? When does a fetus somehow become a human being deserving of life? As I have demonstrated in the above quotes early Christians also opposed abortion. They viewed the fetus as a human being, and thus considered it murder to end the pregnancy. “You shall not murder a child by abortion” (author’s translation). Someone at this point may respond that the actual Scriptures do not teach what the Didache is here teaching. The fact that babies are human and deserve the right to life is established in the Old Testament. A baby does not become a human being when the State says that it does. Rather God creates the baby in his image from the moment of conception. Even before conception God has a plan for the baby. These truths are taught beautifully in Psalm 139:

For it was you who created my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise You because I was fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, and I know this very well. My bones were not hidden from You when I was made in secret, when I was formed in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began. – Psalm 139: 13-16 (HCSB).

If this is the case then clearly abortion falls under the definition of murder, which is an assault against the image of God. But again someone may respond that the Old Testament uses poetic and exaggerated language when describing the process of the infant in the womb. No where is the practice of abortion forbidden in the Bible. However, this may not be the case. In Galatians 5:20 Paul lists sorcery in his list of the works of the flesh. Also in Revelation 21:8 John lists sorcerers immediately after murderers and the sexually immoral. Alvin Schmidt in his book How Christianity Changed the World makes a strong case that what Paul and John may be referring to is the practice of abortion. The standard Greek lexicons define the word cluster that Paul and John use (pharmakeia and pharmakos respectively) as involving magic potion, medicine, or even poison. Abortions in the ancient world were often caused by medicinal potions. Schmidt also points out that Plutarch used pharmakeia with respect to contraception. Thus, a very good case can be made that Paul did in fact condemn medically induced abortions. History also demonstrates that Christians continued to oppose abortions caused by potions, and in 374 abortion was also outlawed.

As I have attempted to demonstrate Christians from the beginning of their existence have contended for the rights of children. The society in which they had a very low view of life, especially the lives of children. These should be the very lives most precious to us. We should give glory to God for the children that he blesses us with. But sadly our society is very similar to the Greco-Roman society. Human life is counted as cheap, and often it is considered a burden to society. As Christians we cannot conform to our culture, especially in this area. Human life is one of the most precious gifts that God has given us. He values it and so should we. However, we must remember that we are not called to be politicians or vigilantes. We are heralds of the sacred message that our king has given to us to proclaim. The earliest Christians did not respond to their culture with violence and neither should we. Instead, we are to preach the gospel of Christ. We must never forget that the people going into abortion clinics are hurting people that desperately need the gospel. We fight this battle with the message that we are sinners under the just wrath of God, and that Jesus Christ lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death, and rose from the dead to secure freedom from sin, guilt, and death. The only thing that will ever impact the culture of death is the good news that Jesus saves.

Post written by Matthew Gay

Sources cited in this article:

Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Baur, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited and Translated by Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilber Gingrich [BDAG] 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000.

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida, A Greek-Engish Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains 2nd ed. New York: United Bible Society, 1989

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Abortion

One response to “Early Christians and the Sanctity of Human Life

  1. The early Christians did believe in the sanctity of life. And it included more than babies. Unlike today’s Evangelical Americans they were unequivocal in their opposition to bloodshed, as was C.H. Spurgeon in his day.
    http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/
    http://christianpacifismblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/pacifist-quotes-2/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s