At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions
(COMMENTARY) Just over a century ago, a Methodist leader on the church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public morals noticed an empty lot facing the U.S. Capitol and thought it would be a fine place to do some lobbying.
The Methodist Building was finished in 1923 and 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., soon became an even more strategic address when the Supreme Court moved next door. The prohibition cause faded, however, and in recent decades the five-story limestone building has housed liberal Protestant activists of all kinds, as well as Kids 4 Peace, the Islamic Society of America, Creation Justice Ministries and others.
It's an unusual site for a March for Life prayer meeting. But, year after year, the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality meets there to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade.
Defending life means "walking in a way that is out of step with the world," said retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker, former president of the denomination's Board of Discipleship. While there are secular people who oppose abortion, he focused his Jan. 18 sermon on why this issue has become so crucial to modern Christians who strive to affirm ancient Christian doctrines.
"Unless a part of the church is compromised by being conformed to the world," said Whitaker, "becoming a Christian profoundly changes one's perception of reality and one's behavior. … That is why the church is loved by many, as well as hated by many."
When the March for Life makes headlines, it is almost always for political reasons, such as this year's remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a video-chat from President Donald Trump.
The massive march also serves as a hub for dozens of smaller events, with groups ranging from Episcopalians for Life to Feminists for Life, from Pro-Life Humanists to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Almost all mainstream religious groups – including progressive flocks – include a pro-life caucus of some kind.
For decades, United Methodists were powerful supporters of the interfaith Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ties that were cut by delegates at the denomination's 2016 General Conference. That same conference defeated a motion to retain an old affirmation of Roe v. Wade.
Nevertheless, the UMC homepage notes that the denomination's Social Principles include two statements that remain in tension: "Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child."
Rather than focus on modern arguments, Whitaker discussed a doctrinal statement called the Didache, which most scholars say was written in the First Century. Addressing "Gross Sins," it states: "You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten."
The bishop called the church of the first three centuries the "primitive church" and "the once and future church." Right now, the problem is that ancient Christian doctrines are clashing with evolving moral norms in the modern world, creating anxiety among those who believe the church's true mission is "finding a way forward," while trying to express the "highest ideals and values of a society and its culture," he said.
In other words, modern culture trumps what Whitaker called the "transcultural" doctrines and disciplines of the ancient church. He disagreed.
"It's a profound error to think that God's people in one place and time, or in one cultural context, may have a different doctrine and discipline from God's people in another place and time," he said.
Clearly, many modern people reject doctrines from the past. But Whitaker said he is convinced that – even on tough issues like abortion – others will be drawn to a countercultural way of life.
"When you are surrounded by a culture … that is obsessed with physical pleasure and ease, and that celebrates self-centeredness – the world of the 'selfie' – the church that speaks a different language and embraces a completely different way of life," he concluded, will be a "place of liberation and hope for those aspiring to live a more noble existence."
Photo by Monica Elizabeth.