How Early Christians Viewed the Lives of the Unborn

Abortions are nothing new. They’ve existed since antiquity as a method to limit the number of children a household had. However, the oath attributed to Hippocrates that doctors take to this day prohibited abortion in ancient Greece—“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly, I will not give a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness, I will guard my life and my art.” Cicero argued that anyone who intentionally aborted a child deserved capital punishment (In Defense of Cluentius 32). In the Old Testament, we see the care God gives over the individual in His fashioning of them in the womb:

For You formed my inward parts; You 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. (Psalm 139:13–16)

Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:4–5)

The Ten Commandments were used by early Christians just as they were by Jews—as teachings that pertained to moral living. Notably, the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” was given a greater expansion in Christian thinking. Those familiar with biblical Hebrew might better render the sixth commandment as, “You shall do no murder.” “Murder” is a term that we understand differently than “kill.” “Murder” carries the weight of malicious intent. “Kill” doesn’t always carry that same weight. I might be driving my car and lose control and run over a person and “kill” them. However, I didn’t maliciously intend to do them any harm. The early Christians, likewise, valued life—including that of the unborn.

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder … you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. (Didache 2.2)

But the path of darkness is crooked and full of cursing, for it is the path of eternal death and punishment, in which way are the things that destroy the soul … Here are they who are persecutors of the good, haters of truth, lovers of lies; they who know not the reward of righteousness, who cleave not to what is good nor unto just judgment … murderers of children. (Barnabas 20.1–2)

Christian writers believed that life began at conception. One early Christian inferred from Luke 1:41 when John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb that very belief (Instructor 2.10.96). Athenagoras pointed to Christianity’s rejection of abortion as proof that Christians were moral when he wrote that the Christians “say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion” (Leg. 35). Later church councils forbade abortion and actually levied punishments against those Christians who murdered their unborn. The Council of Elvira (4th century) reflects such beliefs.

If a woman conceives in adultery and then has an abortion, she may not commune again, even as death approaches, because she has sinned twice. (can. 63)

A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches. (can. 68)

Even some of the most notable early church theologians/bishops supported this stance. Both Augustine and John Chrysostom viewed abortion as murder.

Despite the rationale of those who advocate such today, there is always a scenario of mitigating circumstances that people rely on to justify the action. Those who favor abortion see the argument as a discussion of the woman’s body while those who oppose abortion view the matter relevant to the body of the unborn. How one considers the debate depends on their conclusion. However, I believe that even those who make the decision are deserving of compassion and mercy, because we may not know what led to their decision. All we can do as supporters of life is to listen, learn, and try to help.

The Altar From Which We Eat (Hebrews 13:10)

Ever since humanity was driven from Paradise (Eden), we’ve tried to go back. Much to our chagrin, cherubim guarded the entrance to the Garden which faced east (Gen. 3:24), so we were unable to reenter into God’s presence, especially after the flood. When God later chose Abraham to be the founding father of the faithful, He promised him land to which he would go, and his innumerable descendants would live and prosper were they to keep covenant with God. When the people went to enter the Promised Land after a sojourn in a foreign land they left as slaves, they came from the east crossing the Jordan—an illusion of passing through waters to enter God’s presence. However, in the land of Canaan were idolaters with whom Israel was not to cohabitate let alone commune. A part of the covenant hinged on expelling or destroying the inhabitants of the land, which they failed to do, to enjoy the promised blessings.

Israel’s intermingling with the Canaanite idolaters led to them adopting idolatrous ways. The land which was to have been holy and known as a place where the God of Israel dwelt was defiled. Later, when Israel was given David as king, he wanted to construct a permanent dwelling for God rather than the portable tabernacle that had been used for 400 years. The place where the temple would be built was on Mt. Moriah, where God’s faithful founding father was to have sacrificed his own son but where a ram was provided. The temple was built by David’s son, Solomon. The entrance faced east, so to approach God one had to, as with Eden and the Promised Land, approach Him from the east in a westward progression thus symbolically retracing Adam and Eve’s expulsion. Interestingly enough, when you enter Glendale Road where I’m a minister, we enter from the north or south to make an eastward progression to the sanctuary. The Lord’s Table is placed at the western-most part therein.  

Worshipers would enter, first, the outer court of the temple. This outer court represented the world where sin pervaded, and corruption existed. Before proceeding to the temple, one would encounter the brazen altar where sacrifices were burned to the Lord. Next to the brazen altar was a brazen sea used for purification—yet another allusion to sacrifice and then water cleansing (baptism) as a prerequisite to entrance into God’s presence. Once sacrifice and cleansing were achieved, by priests then, they could enter the holy place. Our concern here is with the outer court and altar, and in future posts, we’ll see how Jesus entered the holy place and holy of holies.

His crucifixion followed a long line of history where sacrifice was common, but in His own, He abolished the system of sacrifice since He fully met the needs sacrifice required. Animals were used because of their innocence and purity. They were to have been without blemish and of a certain kind, and the sinner often laid their hands upon the animal to transfer their guilt to the animal which was then sacrificed and took upon itself the death meant for the offerer. This act of atonement united the human and the divine so that they would be reconciled, but more sacrifices were required because the human would continue sinning and the sacrifice previously offered, while sufficient for the moment, was imperfect and incapable of covering the whole of the person’s transgressive nature.

Where did this process take place? Usually in a holy precinct where an altar was present. The first ever mention of an alter we see in the biblical record occurs after the flood waters recede and Noah constructed such to give a whole burnt offering to God (Gen. 8:20). The aroma that ascended before God was the reconciling communication between God and humanity that reflected God’s pleasure with Noah and His subsequent promise to never again destroy the earth by flood (Gen. 8:21). All of the sacrifices permitted under the Levitical law included burning the offering or a portion of it, and the aroma ascending before God to His satisfaction and reconciliation with the sinner. Sadly, though, it was only momentary and not entirely effective, because of the worshiper not being able to approach to offer it himself or to enter into the holy places of the temple. I digress here to show how each of the offerings entailed burning.

  1. The burnt offering consisted of an animal being slaughtered, cut in pieces, and its entirety burned on the altar (Lev. 1:1–17; 6:1–6).
  2. The grain offering consisted of cereal, oil, and frankincense, with a part of the cake made from the first two given to the priest with the rest burned alongside with the frankincense to God (Lev. 2:1–16; 6:7–16).
  3. The communion sacrifice consisted of an animal slaughtered and cut in pieces with most of the meat being for the offerer to eat at a celebration to follow. Some of the meat was for the priest, the fat, however, was burned on the altar (Lev. 3:1–17; 7:11–34).
  4. The sin offering consisted of an animal being slaughtered with the blood offered, and the fat was burned on the altar (Lev. 4:1–5:13; 6:17–23).
  5. The guilt offering resembled the communion sacrifice but without any mention of blood being offered to God (Lev. 5:4–26; 7:7–7).

In each of the offerings, the burning of the offering, or fat, was essential so that the aroma could ascend before God to His pleasure and effect reconciliation. The smell was among the key elements so that the offering was considered acceptable to God. Levi had been chosen to put sacrifices before the Lord’s nose (Deut. 33:10), Eli’s priesthood was for burning sacrifices (1 Sam. 2:28), and Solomon built the temple to burn offerings to God continually (2 Chron. 2:4). One might wonder, “Does it take a sweet smell to please God and abate His wrath?” I believe this is an example of anthropomorphic language when, in reality, there’s a greater meaning here. That meaning has more to do with sin being atoned for and reconciliation achieved through the sacrifice. Jesus gave himself for us, “an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph. 5:2).

The Christian altar, the cross and also by extension the Lord’s Table, is where the sacrifice is made and from it comes the food we eat. There were always two parts to a sacrifice made: 1) the actual sacrifice of the animal and 2) the portions shared with the offerers (worshipers) for consumption except for the burnt offering. Israel always went from the altar to the table, and the same is true of us. We go from altar (cross) to the table, namely the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 10:16–21). Why did the Hebrew writer note that those who minister in the tabernacle were not worthy to eat from our altar? Because they don’t have faith in Jesus. To eat this spiritual food is to have fellowship with Jesus and to partake of Him. “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day … He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:54, 56).  

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