The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[d] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries. Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
Documented use of an Abortifacient, Numbers 5:16-22
In May 2022, white evangelical Christians woke up to some rather unexpected news. A draft opinion had somehow leaked out of the Supreme Court, suggesting that Roe v. Wade would soon be overturned. Shortly after, it was. I single out white evangelicals here because, according to a recent Pew Research study, they are twice as likely to want to see abortion outlawed than other Americans (including other Christians). It would be an error though to conclude this means white evangelicals are the most pro-life. No no no, this is not the case at all. White evangelicals are no more pro-life than other religious groups, Christian or otherwise – they are, however, the most autocratic. Yet those who would use the Bible to institute government sponsored morality seem to have forgotten where the bodies are buried: also in their Bible.
The concept of abortion is nothing new. The practice of inducing an abortion as punishment for unfaithful women was once conducted as part of priestly duties in pre-Christian Judaism. A woman suspected of adultery, yet maintaining her innocence would be partially stripped, treated as an animal (right down to the presentation of an animal’s meal offering), and made to drink a type of holy water concoction; it was believed an unfaithful woman would abort her lover’s fetus and die within up to three years were she guilty (Mishnah Sotah 3). Holy water has a long tradition of being used to cleanse and purify, and so the implication was that the illegitimate fetus was evil, and therefore must be purged from the woman. Behind the scenes, this seemed to have more to do with the financial aspects of marriage contracts and intimidation than it did holiness, and the practice was eventually ended prior to the destruction of the second temple. Today’s American evangelicals take the opposing viewpoint of their ancestors – namely, against all forms of abortion – yet still firmly hold onto the practice of controlling women in much the same way. Yet while many other Christians value life just as much as autocratic evangelicals, we differ greatly from them particularly on a solution to the number of unwanted pregnancies in the country. The earliest Christians opposed abortion by adopting others’ discarded and unwanted live babies – a Roman practice known as “infant exposure” would leave abandoned babies in the trash or otherwise discarded after birth, left to die or be raised as slaves and prostitutes by others. It was this practice that many early writers condemned as “the worst abomination of all” (Philo of Alexandria). They wrote about Roman abortion practices far less. Yet while early Christians put their faith into action by sacrificially taking in these babies to save them from such a fate, today’s evangelicals largely believe opposing abortion through politics and legislation is the only solution. Most others believe it is an ineffective and dangerous solution – perhaps just as dangerous as the ancient practice that once caused them (or at least was perceived to; the practice’s effectiveness was highly questionable among rabbis).
Forced morality is likewise nothing new either. In the book of Chronicles, King Josiah breaks down the altars of false gods, tears down carved images, and rids Judah and Jerusalem of the ungodliness of the time. When his priest finds the Book of the Law, Josiah tears his robe and imposes moral rule according to the laws of the book. The chronicler Ezra writes, “Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their ancestors.” An often overlooked detail in this story is that in spite of a society living under (and clearly practicing!) moral law, God tells Josiah that he will take his life early so that he will not see the disaster God plans to bring about. A useful object lesson can be found here: perceived morality counts for little when it is compelled. At the center of today’s controversy is not really Christian doctrine at all (there is no Christian doctrine concerning abortion), or even morality, but rather the same desire for power; today, that translates to the church’s desire for socio-economic power.
In the beginning wickedness did not exist. Nor indeed does it exist even now in those who are holy, nor does it in any way belong to their nature.
Athanasius, Against the Heathen
I’ve devoted much of the past 30 years as an evangelical Christian “layperson” to Christian studies to try and become an educated one. Greek, theology, the patristics, and Christian history should be in the wheelhouse of every Christian, yet many never study their own religion, and merely live confined to the prison of their own prejudice. Most Christians can’t tell the difference between culture and doctrine, and often conflate the two. It is, therefore, of little surprise that what Christianity has become in America is more or less a product of a news cycle, and less about a gospel of a meek savior. Evangelical Christianity in America broke in 2020, though perhaps some would say it’s been broken longer.
Ever since, the church stopped being recognizable – even to many Christians – in her embrace of racism, hostility, and misinformation that many Christian believers proliferate. It often failed to resemble a church at all, but rather a counterfeit designed to resemble Christianity in name only, almost certainly alien to what was truly being worshipped. The year 2020 brought some of the worst out in the mainstream evangelical church – relatives, friends, and people I’ve grown up with – who were once a much-needed example of Christianity to me – have severely disappointed in how they’d conducted themselves, causing me to question if they ever truly understood their own faith.