From the Director's Desk (Winter 2011)

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I feel compelled to once again address the subject of how we in the church live out what we say we believe. This is one prong of the Center’s two-part vision that a Christian approach to bioethics influences both academic scholarship and the practical, lived-out experience of the church. My reflections are prompted by several recent interchanges.

Example number one: A few weeks ago, a group of Christian business owners and senior officers invited me to present the bioethical issues raised by the use of brain boosting drugs in the workplace. Afterwards, a couple spoke to me about their daughter who self-diagnosed herself with ADHD and persuaded a doctor to prescribe a drug like Ritalin. They were concerned about her dependence on the drug, with no discernible need or benefit.

Example two: A pastor described, with some consternation, a young couple in his church dealing with infertility. Distressing, but not shocking. But then he added that they were expecting twins through a gestational surrogate. Their surrogate? The wife’s mother.

Example three: a dialogue on Facebook about whether the church should speak out on moral issues like abortion from the pulpit. I was privy to only one side, but what I read concerned me. A few samples:

“Our church preached the WORD of God but did mention Roe v Wade in the Bulletin. That is the proper perspective: Preach Christ (not politics) but do speak out.”
“Christians know that abortion is wrong. What is the point of telling folks who already believe to go out and stop abortion? I can do lots of things including supporting a crisis pregnancy center—but that is parachurch. THAT IS NOT THE CHURCH.”

I could recite even more examples, but these suffice to raise the question: is preaching the Gospel sufficient grounding for Christians to make wise moral decisions? Granted there are legitimate questions about the relationship between church and state, but are there better, wiser, more theological ways of helping the church live out its convictions in our pluralistic, secular setting? While for some Christians, the wrongness of abortion is self-evident, I have not found that to be universally true. I think of the Christian house church pastor in China who had an abortion herself and advised others in her congregation to do the same. She preached the gospel under persecution, yet she did not reach the proper moral conclusion about the taking of innocent life.

In the Fall 2011 issue of Dignitas, Hans Madueme wrote at length about thinking theologically about bioethics. In this issue, Erik Clary highlights the absence of theological reflection that contributes to the impoverished discourse of principlism and personhood theories in bioethics. In both cases, they are dealing with the significance of theology for bioethics. I would like to suggest that we also take the importance of bioethical thinking for the everyday life of the church one step further. More to the point, how do pastors and the church account for some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century? Why is it that so many pastors feel uncomfortable counseling their congregation about matters such as contraception, infertility, assisted reproduction, behavior-and cognitive-modifying drugs, medical care for the disabled, and end-of-life decisions?

Several dispositions are at work here. One is the approach to preaching. Whether one’s homiletics is expository, devotional, textual or topical, without a bioethics “lens,” the preacher may never make a connection between scripture and the dignity of the human body. And besides, the ministry of the Word is broader than simply preaching; preaching is important but there are other ways to minister God’s Word in the context of the church (e.g., counseling, Sunday school, small group ministry, etc.). Are churches thinking creatively about ways to engage bioethics and other contemporary challenges in the life of the church?

Another is the divine command approach to ethics: “simply do what the Bible says.” This reduces the ethical and prescriptive nature of Scripture only to command texts, which make up a small portion of the Bible. One’s hermeneutic will affect the commands they see in the text, and the application of those commands. Silence of the text could be interpreted—wrongly, in some cases—as approval. There is no particular verse or passage that directly instructs us about human cloning. Yet, this is a profoundly important moral issue. Do we know how to allow all of Scripture to speak into the bioethical complexities of our day? If pastors and church educators do not understand this, we should not be surprised when their congregants flounder in their search for a relevant Bible verse, unaware how Scripture does address their moral dilemma.

Another disposition is the ignorance of how the Bible does inform bioethical reflection. All the major themes in bioethics are introduced in Genesis. One of them, the account of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, would have been a useful starting point forth pastor of the couple using a family member as a gestational surrogate.

Finally, I would like to point out the relegation of abortion and other moral issues to the realm of “politics.” Although the practice of abortion clearly affects the polis and is therefore apolitical question, it is fundamentally a moral question, and therefore a matter on which Christian guidance is warranted. How one resolves infertility is more than a private matter; it expresses a theological conclusion about the meaning of marriage and children and the community in which they exist. Conclusions about these matters are not necessarily intuitive; or, at least good conclusions are not. They involve an understanding of the issue, relevant technologies, ethical principles, and situational application. Pastoral counseling often needs to be informed by experts in the particular field, for example, a psychiatrist to explain a mood-enhancing drug. In too many cases, we do not even know what questions to ask, yet alone how to reach a conclusion. Let me suggest that biblical preaching and teaching should engage the following questions:

What are the boundaries of human life? Who counts as a human being made in the image of God?

What is our theology of the physical body? How do we respect the bodies of the infirm, disabled, elderly and unlovely? Who owns our body?

What does it mean to flourish as a human being? Are there limits on our freedom to choose how to treat our bodies?

How do we live in a community, with appropriate regard for the dignity of others?

What aspects of our lives do we receive as gift, and what aspects do we creatively change or improve?

This kind of teaching matters. Let me return to the Chinese pastor. When a Chinese American friend explained the dignity of the unborn child, the protection of innocent life, and the facts of abortion, the woman repented with weeping. She taught her fellow believers what she had learned. Abortions were no longer accepted, because gospel preaching was informed by bioethical teaching. That small flock is now better equipped to live out what they say they believe.

Can we grasp the transformative possibilities that can emerge within our churches? Imagine a future where we are well-equipped to live godly lives and make wise moral decisions. A future where, rather than being the last place to consult, the church community is the natural venue for wrestling with the tough questions of life, death, and flourishing as human beings made by God in his image and as an expression of his great love.