"What we do in life echoes in eternity."
Maximus in the 2000 movie "Gladiator"
There is a sobering warning in James 3:1: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness
When teachers and leaders in the church get it wrong as sometimes happens (i.e., when Paul had to confront Peter in the early church, Gal 2:11-14), the consequences can be both long-term and devastating. Hence we find the warning in James about stricter judgement for those that teach in the church. (This is further evidence that all of us will stand accountable before the judgement seat of Christ as unbelievers are judged for punishment of sin and believers are judged for degree of reward.)
Here is a grievous historical example of the enormous damage that can happen when leaders and teachers in the church get it wrong ...
When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Jan, 1973, the Roman Catholic Church (to its credit) immediately voiced strong opposition. They insisted the Supreme Court blundered by making an immoral, anti-religious and unjustified decision, and vowed to continue the fight against relaxed abortion laws.
But most other religious bodies and leaders who expressed themselves, approved the decision, including much of the evangelical Protestant church. When asked for an official position after the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention responded they had no official position on abortion. (see here.)
W.A. Criswell (1909-2002) led First Baptist Church in Dallas during the 1970s and 80s to become the largest Southern Baptist Congregation in the world. The church rolls boasted 26,000 members, and the congregation owned five blocks of downtown Dallas real estate. He would publish the well-known and respected Criswell Study Bible in 1979. Some supporters described him as one of the 20th century's greatest expository preachers. Still regarded as a leading force in the church, his sermons spanning more than 60 years are available online here.
In 1973, after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, Criswell supported and affirmed the decision. Religious News Service quoted Criswell as saying,
"I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from the mother that it became an individual person, and it always has, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed." (See here.)
(Note that Criswell's response was not theological in nature, but what seemed right to him. Proverbs 14:12 & 16:25 apply.)
Not until years later would Criswell reverse his position on abortion, becoming a staunch opponent of the procedure. Despite his later retraction, the damage done by Criswell's initial endorsement coupled with the original apathy of his denomination, is incalculable. How many babies were aborted because of his endorsement? How many abortion advocates still point back to his original endorsement for support? For an example that Criswell's original statement lives on, see the May, 2014 blog entitled "The Late First Baptist Dallas Pastor W.A. Criswell Was Pro-Choice" here.
(Criswell College, a Bible school he started and is named after him, recently sued the federal government claiming Obamacare violates the school’s religious beliefs by forcing it to pay for employee health insurance that covers birth-control pills they believe induce abortion.)
While Criswell’s earlier views may have been the most public, he wasn’t alone in holding them. Wayne Dehoney, SBC president for two terms in the 1960s and longtime pastor of Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., described “a basic watershed between Protestant and Catholic theology on two questions -- the morality of birth control, of which abortion is another form, and the question of when life begins.”
Echoing Criswell's original statement that life begins at birth, Dehoney said, “Protestant theology generally takes Genesis 2:7 as a statement that the soul is formed at breath, not conception,” (see here)
Incredibly, Dehoney, commenting on a Louisville Courier-Journal story in 1976 revealing that one tenant in property owned by his church was running an abortion clinic, said that he personally had “no moral or theological problem with the operation of a legal, ethical clinic.”
Paralleling Criswell and Dehoney, W.O. Vaught, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., told his most famous parishioner future-President Bill Clinton that life begins at birth, providing justification for the future President's position on abortion. In his 2004 autobiography, My Life, Clinton remembered Vaught telling him that while abortion was usually wrong, the Bible did not condemn it. Vaught said the Bible teaches that life begins not at conception but when life has been “breathed into” a baby after delivery.
“I asked him about the biblical statement that God knows us even when we are in our mother’s womb,” Clinton wrote. “He replied that the verse simply refers to God being omniscient, and that it might as well have said God knew us even before we were in our mother’s womb, even before anyone in our direct line was born.”
The repercussions for our words and actions (both good and bad) echo through time long after we're dead and buried. This is why God delays final judgement so that everyone's life can bear fruit - for either good or bad - down through time. The church has grave responsibility. If we are unsure of the ethical position of an issue (i.e., Criswell said it "seemed" to him), the church should always seek a thoughtful, researched theological answer, not provide a knee-jerk reaction based on feeling. Ultimately, the church should always err on the side of caution (i.e., if we're unsure when life begins, assume it begins at the earliest opportunity - conception.) Getting it wrong can do enormous damage both short and long term. As Maximus said, "What we do in life echoes in eternity."
(Ironically and sadly, the attorney who filed the initial lawsuit in Roe v. Wade was a Southern Baptist and member of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas (see here) )