I hesitate to write this since I’m honestly not sure how helpful it will be. But I received enough encouraging feedback from the last Eight Tenets post, that I’ll throw one more explainer out for consideration. I have not had a chance to watch, listen, or read all the various responses. For example, it just came to my knowledge that the Apologia guys did a podcast episode on this topic, and I haven’t had a chance to watch/listen to all of it at the time of this writing and recording. So this isn’t a direct reply to that or anyone in particular, just a scattershot of generic replies.
Why the Name “Smashmouth” Incrementalism?
Pastor Doug Wilson coined the term, and as I understand it, we simply mean that while we are willing to accept small incremental steps toward ending abortion, we are intent on being confrontational and aggressive about it. Unlike some pro-life groups that seem to have done the math and realized that a complete end of abortion would mean a complete end of their cashflow, we are working for the day when all pro-life organizations are out of business because there is no need for them.
I have also used the phrase “Reformational Abolitionist” since historically “abolitionism” in America (relating to slavery) tended to be driven by romantic idealism and revolutionary thought more than Biblical principles of Reformation. I simply mean that we want to end all abortion as quickly as possible according to biblical principles. This includes the prophetic call to complete and immediate repentance for all sins and crimes against Almighty God, including abortion. This includes the call to joyful, reverent worship as the central powerhouse for all Reformation and Revival for the whole world. This includes the duties of being fruitful, multiplying, and taking dominion in our families and businesses, building communities of generational joy, peace, life, laughter, Christian education, wealth, generosity, mercy, and justice.
We must end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, but we must do so in obedience to God. And some who are giving their lives to this mission are doing so disobediently because they are sacrificing other duties on the altar of ending abortion. Some of them are murdering their brothers in their heart through their hatred and rage against people who do not see everything the same way they do. And that’s a bit ironic. The wrath of man does not accomplish the justice of God. Others are sacrificing the souls of their own children on the altar of ending abortion. Is your marriage on the rocks? Are your kids straying from the faith? You have no business making “abortion ministry” your central calling.
The first principle of the Hippocratic oath is first do no harm. It sure feels holy to stand out there and call mothers and fathers to repentance, but Paul says that you can give your body to be burned, and if you do not have love, it profits you nothing (1 Cor. 13:3). Some folks who have spent their lives on this issue would have been better off watching paint peel. And remember: love is obedience to God from the heart. Your first duty is to the people right in front of you: your spouse, your children, your neighbor. And then yes, as you are faithful in those things, God calls you to look up and work for justice for the orphan and the widow. But you have no business calling for justice for orphans and widows outside your home and church, if you are creating new orphans and widows inside your home and church. So “smashmouth” means confrontational and principled, but it’s a sword that cuts in every direction.
I believe that Roe is a complete sham of constitutional justice. There is no right to murder little babies found in God’s law in Scripture, God’s law in nature, or in our constitution. Furthermore, there is no right granted to the Supreme Court (or any court) to make laws at all, especially such manifestly gruesome laws. This means that Roe is not currently the law of our land. It never has been. It never can be. This is because when a man or a woman, even when he or she is wearing a black robe, commands wicked things, nothing of authority has actually been said.
But this is also true under the American club rules we call the Constitution. Judges do not make laws; congress does. So part of my smashmouth message is to cities, counties, and states to simply ignore Roe. It isn’t a law. But there is a law that exists in heaven and in nature and on all of our law codes that says: Thou shalt not murder. We learned in 2020 that governors and mayors apparently have emergency powers to shut all kinds of things down when lives are at stake. And therefore I have no sympathy (zero) for a conservative Christian governor who refuses to shut down the abortion mills in his state because “he just doesn’t have the authority to do that.” I believe the Hebrew that Ezekiel would use at this point is bullshit. Shut them down. We have an emergency. 2020 took away all your excuses. Make the feds send in the national guard. Make them forcibly re-open the abortion clinics.
I’ve been saying for years (just in case you’re new around here) that conservative states should play chicken with the federal government in the same way the liberal states have done on issues like marijuana and immigration. If the blue states can pass laws legalizing pot shops and declare themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants, defying federal law, then conservative states should simply outlaw abortion and close down the murder mills and refuse to show up when they are summonsed to federal court by Biden’s cronies. Just smile and wave. Smile and wave. And if God is kind, and the current Supreme Court overturns Roe this summer as it should in the Dobbs vs. Jackson case, every conservative state should still do this.
Another Short Defense of Increments
I know that Jon Speed has responded to my suggestion that the exile of sodomites by Israelite kings (instead of the death penalty) may be an example of godly incrementalism, and he raises some reasonable questions that I haven’t had time to chase down yet. Nevertheless, in my recent Tenets post, I mustered a host of additional biblical data demonstrating the widespread realities of incomplete and partial justice allowed for in the law of God and sometimes even instituted directly by God. I don’t think anyone wants to argue that polygamy is a “just” arrangement for marriage, and yet God did not immediately prohibit it (though He certainly could have). Rather, he regulated it, putting significant limitations on it (Ex. 21). He did the same with slavery and divorce. He did not immediately abolish slavery and divorce, but He established laws which, if followed from the heart, would slowly diminish those practices.
Of course, some argue that murder is simply in a different category. Fine, but God also regulated the common practice of blood vengeance for accidental murder. The system of cities of refuge protected many manslayers, but surely it did not completely eradicate blood vengeance. Some guys who accidentally killed someone probably got lynched before they made it to the city of refuge. There would of course be some legal recourse possible in those situations, but God did not completely criminalize blood vengeance killing. He incrementally limited it.
Finally, while some rightly point to the absolute abomination of innocent bloodshed, the way it defiles a land according to Scripture, God also says that failure to keep Sabbath does the same. In fact, at the end of the Kingdoms, it was not primarily the child sacrifice that God pointed to that ultimately caused the land to vomit them out into exile. No, God says it was their failure to keep Sabbath (2 Chron. 36:21). Therefore, by the logic of those who insist that all legislative efforts to end abortion must require complete and immediate cessation of all abortion, they really must insist on the same sort of legislation requiring Sabbath keeping, right? Or would it be acceptable to incrementally work toward a culture and civil law that honors the day Christ rose from the dead (as our US Constitution does)?
The Centrality of the Gospel
Some replies to me have asked if I would handle adultery the same way I’m advocating we end abortion. If someone in your church said he was addicted to porn or seeing hookers, would I urge him to cut it back to once a week or once a month? Of course the answer is no. I would insist on immediate repentance. Cut off the hand that causes you to sin; pluck out the eye. I would (and do) urge changing jobs, getting rid of your phone, cancelling the internet, filtering software, etc. Aha! My abolitionist friends cry. You admit it! Yes, of course I admit it, and happily. And for the record, if a member of my church was involved in the abortion industry in any way shape or form, I would require the same.
But what if I require immediate repentance of a church member, and the fellow refuses? I would walk out the steps of church discipline (see Mt 18), up to and including formal excommunication. But then what? What if he’s still going to stripper clubs? What if he’s still doing abortions? Now what? Now multiply that by a thousand (or more), and you have our culture, our nation. Of course, piles of people never actually got formally excommunicated. They just left the church or they go to an apostate church that says that adultery and fornication and abortion are all very complicated matters, and who’s to say? It is not at all complicated: abortion and adultery are sins and crimes against God and nature all the time and in every place. I will continue preaching that, Lord willing, to my dying day. And I call upon all men everywhere to repent and submit to Christ because there will be a reckoning.
But what do we do in the meantime? What if some of the pagans offer to limit their murders to Tuesdays and Fridays? Do I take it? Yes, of course I do. Or, what if you live in a state like I do where Mormons hold a large share of the legislative branch, and what if their official heretical beliefs are that abortion should be allowed before a heartbeat can be detected or in cases of rape or incest? And the Mormons offer to help criminalize abortion after a heartbeat can be detected, except in cases of rape or incest? Do I take it? Yes, of course I do.
And as I said to my friend Jeff Durbin in one conversation about this, if we’re talking about a state (maybe in the South somewhere?) where a majority of the legislators are evangelical pro-life Christians, then I don’t see why you wouldn’t simply insist on passing a bill completely ending abortion. Period. If we’re talking about some place like, I don’t know, Oklahoma, where a majority of the lawmakers are members of SBC churches (maybe?), I’m probably completely with my abolitionist brothers. We don’t counsel incremental repentance for professing evangelical believers. But if you’re in New York State, and they’re passing legislation to allow you to kill the baby up to two years of age (and why not?), then you’re doing business with Aztecs and while you preach the gospel to them, I would absolutely take every opportunity to limit and regulate that bloodshed. Can we get a 20 week ban? I would take it. This is what we mean by “running all the plays.”
A Super Long Conclusion
Maybe one way to frame all of this is to ask whether there is any room for running all the plays in evangelism. I’m a presuppositionalist, and I have concerns about approaches to evangelism that flatter a man’s reason and blindness. But I don’t mind running evidentialist plays or various and sundry arguments that might trip a man’s unbelief up in the process. Even the presuppositional argument depends on thinking and reasoning, but of course the point of it is to undermine all our abilities to reason to God. The point of it is what Paul says in Romans, to shut every mouth.
In one sense, conversion to Christ is immediate. There is a point in time in which God gives a man a new heart. One minute, if a bus hit that guy, he would go straight to Hell, and then a minute later, he would go straight the other way. That’s true, and I believe it. But frequently, conversion is not experienced in such a dramatic way. Frequently, it seems to us more like a dimmer switch, more like the sun coming up. There really is a moment before and after, but since we are not God, we do not have the ability to click a stopwatch and record the nano-second. God knows it certainly, but we don’t and can’t. Therefore, we preach and urge for conversion of sinners. But frequently, we are working with incremental steps.
Suppose somebody comes to church for the first time. We meet them and talk to them. Maybe they’re obviously pagan. Maybe it’s a lesbian or transexual. Maybe it’s an abortionist. They seem honestly curious. You tell them you believe the whole Bible, even the parts about homosexuality and crossdressing and abortion. And then, shock, they come back the following week. You talk to them again. They ask questions about the gospel and what the Bible says about sexual sin and abortion. You tell them the answers clearly. You point to the texts. They leave, and they come back again the following week. Maybe somewhere around week 4 or 5, they ask to meet outside of church, and they are a tangle of questions and confusion. They seem very interested in the gospel, very unsure of how to get out of their current situation, and what to do. Jim Wilson says there’s a difference between “good advice” and “good news.” Good news begins with the gospel and conversion and then leads to sanctification and wise decision making, but somebody who is not yet converted to Christ can make more or less wise decisions but not really make much progress in wisdom apart from Christ. You can tell an unbeliever not to spend more than they make (good advice), but ultimately only a believer wants to be wise and sacrificial with their money.
Now, I can imagine plenty of scenarios where you are telling this inquirer that they need to come to Christ and repent completely now, and yet, it could take weeks, months, or years for that to happen. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not talking about the kind “friendship evangelism” that never tells the truth, never confronts sins, and simply plays footsie with the world. I’m talking about the kind of smashmouth friendship Jesus had with sinners, the kind that called sinners out, the kind that pursued for conversion and repentance and holiness. And yet, frequently there really is a process, and before a person is converted, they would certainly know what I think about their notorious sins (they need to immediately end), but in the meantime, my “good advice” would be toward incrementally ending those sins, since sinning less is better for them and for the world. There is no room for compromise on God’s standards, but when unbelievers ask whether it would be better to sin more or less, faithful Christians should have a clear conscience about always saying less. And that’s all we’re saying when we support a heartbeat bill. Fewer babies dying is better than more babies dying.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
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