This week marks the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling overturning Roe, a lot of Christian commentators will be discussing the morality, legality, and availability of abortion in this new abortion era. Those questions matter, of course, and Christians should be concerned with them. The sacredness of human life, born and unborn, is an imperative that emerges from the heart of the Christian story and the incarnation of Christ in particular.
What weighs on me at this moment, however, is the sorrowful reality that the church has largely lost its moral standing to persuade the American public of its unique vision of the sanctity of life. Public trust in the church and in pastors is at an all-time low. This mistrust is warranted because of high-profile, catastrophic moral failures in the church around money, power, and (most relevant to abortion) sex.
Extramarital affairs, sexual abuse, and cover-ups of abuse have all been on prominent display in the church, and as CT online managing editor Andrea Palpant Dilley has pointed out, it is men by and large who have been unworthy of the trust given to them.
We live in an age when the church in America needs to relinquish its anxiety about public influence so that it can be rebuilt as a moral community. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s quip that the first responsibility of the church is to be the church has always made intuitive sense to me. The church’s authority in the public sphere has always been indirect. Even when Christianity was an established religion, the church could only Christianize a society to the degree that it could show the power of Christ to make holy lives.
In every age, the church’s influence is fully contingent on the congruence between the gospel it proclaims and the ethic of radical self-sacrifice and self-giving that it embodies. As theologian and historian Tim Stafford has pointed out, it wasn’t primarily the church’s cogent reasoning against abortion that made early Western societies pro-life. Rather, the church’s way of life made it attractive—and that included its commitment to the sacredness of human life in utero.
There has never been a pure age where the church has been perfectly “in the world but not of it,” but the cascading series of moral crises in the past three decades has been uniquely devastating to the church’s credibility. As David French writes, religious liberty has never been stronger, but it is not at all clear that we have been as assiduous in “securing the integrity of our institutions” as we have been in “protecting their liberty.”
I share French’s concern that churches have been more concerned about securing their liberty from external threats than using that liberty to shape communities conformed to the gospel. There is a startling parallel between the secular vision of freedom that drove the Roe decision and the kind of freedom that the American church has been pursuing. No one can doubt that the Scriptures are intimately concerned with freedom and liberty. But the church for the past half century has been shaped more by a secular American framing of these terms than by a biblical one.
The differences between the biblical and secular understandings of liberty are subtle but momentous. As scholar Vincent Miller says about consumerism and Christianity, the dissonance between the scriptural and secular definitions of freedom “lacks the definitiveness of a head-on collision” but rather has “about as much drama as a train switching tracks and going in a slightly different direction.”
The Court’s reasoning in Roe hinged on a domain of personal liberty established by the right to privacy in the 14th amendment’s due process clause. Although it’s not expressly detailed in Roe, personal liberty is understood as autonomy or self-determination. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the fundamental right to abortion, made this point explicit. That decision defined liberty as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between “positive” and “negative” accounts of liberty or, as we might more simply describe them, “freedom for” and “freedom from.” Negative liberty is freedom from coercion or malign influence. Negative liberty opposes external threats, like tyranny and oppression. It can also be opposed to internal threats, like the self’s “cravings,” to use Paul’s and James’s language (Gal. 5:16; James 1:14), or involuntary phenomena like addiction. Or it can involve influences both external and internal, like demonic possession.
In ancient philosophies and religions, negative liberty was important, but it was desirable only to the degree that it liberated people to pursue a vision of the good. This positive liberty, or freedom for, is what Catholic theologian Servais Pinckaers calls a “freedom for excellence.” It constitutes the meaning and purpose of human life. Becoming a mature person means becoming progressively clearer about the nature of the ultimate good, and learning to be morally capable of suspending our lesser desires to pursue that ultimate good.
By contrast, and as Casey makes clear, most modern Western societies are premised on a vision of liberty that’s purely negative—what many have called a libertarian vision of freedom. The historian and political scientist Mark Lilla argues that this view is characterized by moral illegibility, or an inability to organize a society around a compelling, ultimate good. Instead, Western societies are arranged around autonomous personal choice and self-expression.
In the Scriptures, this vision of purely negative liberty would be called “slavery to sin,” (John 8:33–38; Rom. 6:6) or, as David Bentley Hart writes, a slavery “to untutored impulses, to empty caprice, to triviality, to dehumanizing values.”
The New Testament is concerned with this internal kind of slavery primarily because it’s only intermittently (if ever) felt as slavery. Indeed, most of our non-Christian fellow citizens experience it as liberation. However, the Marxist literature scholar Terry Eagleton has perceived what many have not: the hollowness of pure negative liberty.
“Any practice of political emancipation,” he writes, “involves that most difficult of all forms of liberation, freeing ourselves from ourselves.”
As Stanley Hauerwas has said time and again, Christians who awaken to the differences between our understanding of liberty and the broader American understanding of it find ourselves in the position of having to more carefully and clearly distinguish between the “American ‘we’” and the “Christian ‘we.’”
In Christian terms, true liberty comes in the form of positive liberty: the capacity to experience communion with God, even “friendship with God” (Gen. 18:1–8; John 15:15; James 2:23; 4:4), in the fellowship of the church.
American Christians could, I think, by and large agree on this point. However, the thinness in our discipleship of the church comes largely from the fact that we’ve become terrified of providing any shape or contour to this ultimate good. As a result, we’ve allowed freedom to be determined by each individual, so much so that it’s indistinguishable from the self-defining libertarian freedom behind Roe and Casey.
Our conundrum is that we desperately need to be guided by capable and godly pastors and lay leaders who can show us how to submit to others in relationship; how to pray and fast and submit ourselves to God; how not to domineer or seek the high place; how not to manipulate; how not to take advantage or abuse or seduce others; and how to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbors as ourselves, as the Book of Common Prayer says.
In short, we need leaders who can help us know God in such a way that we’re freed from ourselves and able to put into practice not the works of the flesh but the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:13–26).
And yet, so many Christians struggle to trust our leaders because so many of them have failed us.
Most Christian leaders I know (both men and women) feel genuine anxiety about continuing to teach basic Christian sexual ethics. They’re not hesitant because they doubt the veracity and authority of the Scriptures. It’s rather because so much damage has been done by a censorious and judgmental spirit in the church. They see the incalculable damage done by the moral failings of Christian leaders. They are despondent about the bad fruit of a cheapened discipleship that ticks the right boxes at the polls but fails to offer hospitality, forgiveness, love, and reintegration into the life of the church.
The recovery of genuine Christian liberty requires that we rebuild the local church as a site of a fully orbed discipleship, where truth can be spoken and where people can find belonging, love, and forgiveness.
In the absence of this very local, quiet, and low-profile expression of positive Christian liberty, our understanding of freedom has and will continue to collapse into libertarian moral illegibility. That’s especially true if we fail to recognize the subtle dissonance between a secular and Christian understanding of freedom.
As theologian Ron Highfield has written, when no specificity is given to the meaning of liberty, God will be nothing more than a mere ally in our individual projects of self-creation. This is a calamity for Christian discipleship—an utter reversal of the gospel’s sharp command to “consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).
Our most pressing vocation in this cultural moment is rebuilding the institution of the local church around a freedom worthy of the name of Jesus—the freedom to serve others and, as the apostle Paul says, to offer our lives as living sacrifices.
It’s a lonely and largely invisible task. We’ll get no plaudits from politicians or pundits. But a church purified in this way will experience communion with the risen Lord and the power of his divine life in a way we can only imagine. And having experienced that, it won’t be difficult to share that faith with others.
Jonathan Warren Pagán is an Anglican priest living and serving in Austin, Texas.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.