Posted on May 23, 2019
With the surge in states passing anti-abortion laws, some have opined that Christianity didn’t become so pro-life until the 1970s. However, this view of things is a historical reading of American politics and not Christian theology. What follows are quotes from the early church relative to the orthodox position that was pro-life.
“The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind: if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.202; AD 94)
“You shall not murder … you shall not engage in abortifacients; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (Didache 2.2; AD 100)
“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.” (Epistle of Barnabas 20.1–2; ca. 134)
“Those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion.” (Athenagoras, Leg. 35; AD late second century)
“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 … A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches.” (Council of Elvira, Canons 63, 68; ca. 4th century)
A more thorough examination of the position is undoubtedly fascinating. However, one thing to add is that the early church was pro-life in the most complete sense. They were not just pro-birth. They took care of the poor, needy, widows, and those who had physical needs here on earth. Hospitals were begun because of their pro-life views, as well as hospices and soup kitchens. They even took care to pay for the burial of the dead who lacked means as early as the second century if one discounts Joseph of Arimathea placing the body of Christ in his own tomb. Christians today ought to be pro-life in this sense, not just pro-birth. Once a child is out of the womb, it needs proper caring for and loving. We must caution ourselves against American politics that is more pro-birth than life itself.
Moses’ Law encouraged, as does James 1:27, caring for the orphan (Exodus 22:22–24; Deuteronomy 14:29). God administered justice for orphans, so Israel was not to pervert justice towards them (Deuteronomy 10:18; cf. 24:17; 27:19). The Essenes—a Jewish sect that lived around the Dead Sea in the first century—were known for taking in orphans and caring for them. Their community resembled a modern idea of a monastery in that everything was common property. Josephus records that they would take in children not their own because they did not wed, and they would care for those children and teach them their ways (Wars 2.8.2).
Historically, the order of widows cared for orphans as a part of their service to the church (1 Tim. 5:9–10). Theologically, as Russell Moore once observed, caring for orphans is missional in its practice.¹ Even Jesus was adopted by Joseph, and Christ identified Himself with the “least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40). To care for orphans is to see Christ in the orphan as one of the least of those in society. As Christians, we have been adopted into God’s family. We, therefore, are orphans made children by adoption through Christ (Romans 8:15, 23).
A testimony of early church history also demonstrates that they were cared for by Christians. The late first-century bishop, Clement of Rome wrote, “Let the [elders] be compassionate and merciful to everyone—bringing back those who wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor.” The second-century Greek apologist, Aristides, wrote that Christians “do not turn away their care from widows, and they deliver the orphan from anyone who treats him harshly.” The second-century Christian work, Shepherd of Hermas, noted, “Therefore, instead of lands, buy afflicted souls, according as each one is able. And visit widows and orphans.”²
¹ Russell D. Moore, “Abba Changes Everything: Why Every Christian Is Called to Rescue Orphans,” Christianity Today 54, no. 7 (July 2010): 18–22.
² David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, s.v. “Orphans and Widows,” 1998.