Why the Church Needs Bioethics, edited by John Kilner, is a book designed for overwhelmed church leaders (and written in a way that will be accessible to any Christian) facing the panoply of new technologies in the life sciences and the new choices they enable.
During this Christmas season, as believers celebrate the Messiah’s birth, it is worth looking afresh at the problem of bioethics.
What comes to mind at the mention of the word ethics? The most common answers we, the authors, receive to this question involve some aspect of right versus wrong or good versus evil. More religiously minded people will sometimes respond with references to the Ten Commandments or other moral codes derived from sacred texts. While such responses are not necessarily wrong, we believe ethics is much more than abiding by a list of rules in order to choose right over wrong or good over evil. We believe ethics is an expression of worship to the God who created us.
With his book, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, Gilbert Meilaender has given to the church a great gift. As a pastor of a church within an evangelical denomination who gets to walk beside members of my congregation as they wrestle with the ever-changing issues pertaining to real life bioethical questions, I am grateful to have access to a book like Meilaender’s.
The 21st-century world of medicine and biotechnology is simultaneously characterized by hopeful promise and the challenging threats. The issues swirling in our culture at this time represent larger worldview issues. The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity at Trinity International University seeks to address these many and complex issues by helping Christians raise the right questions in the midst of a morally indifferent culture. Involved in these meaningful, thoughtful, and difficult explorations is a need to help followers of Christ develop a coherent and comprehensive way to see and understand the changing world in which we live.
People sometimes remark that churches are not very good at teaching and counseling their members concerning difficult bioethical issues. It is worth pondering why many faithful churches seem to fall short in this important area.
In 2015, while serving as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), I took the opportunity in the annual presidential address to raise what I think are some of the most pressing issues facing the church today in medicine, particularly at the edges of life. What follows are thoughts adapted from my presentation. In my experience, churches are undereducated when it comes to ethical issues raised by advances in medicine and technology, a neglect that is critical because these issues are not just academic ones but touch people’s lives in very tangible and deep ways.
One way of theologically framing bioethical issues, particularly those relating to the beginning and end of life, is through the dialectic of “taking and keeping” versus “receiving and giving.” While there is always a subtle danger in painting our world in black and white colors when in fact it consists of more than 50 shades of gray, reframing issues in this way can help to crystalize a Christian attitude and theological approach to various life and death issues.
Too frequently Christians in the West engage questions about medicine and healthcare from within our particular political binary—conservative or liberal. Our pundits endlessly debate the questions, “Who should have access to medical care?” “How should they get it?” And, most of all, “Who should pay for it?” Might Christians have more to say than our polarized political discourse allows? Our ancient brothers and sisters would answer with a strong, “Yes!”
Having been a pastor and professor for a couple of decades, I’ve heard (and spoken) my share of funeral sermons. At times, quite ironically it seems, death is almost personified and praised as the great deliverer, the one who relieves our loved ones of unbearable pain and suffering. And while I understand the “blessing” of death to cease suffering, I can’t help but think of the New Testament portrayal of death as “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26; cf. 2 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 20:14; 21:4). The story of Jesus’s response to the death of his friend Lazarus in John 11 brings not only comfort and hope but much-needed wisdom and perspective.
Since then, however, my attention to bioethics has waned. So many other matters—the constant demands of pastoral care, leading a ministry staff, administrating programs and events, and weekly preaching, among others—have seemed more urgent, more necessary to the work I am called to do. My membership with CBHD lapsed. The bioethics books on my shelf have remained unread. My intention to educate church members about bioethics has gone unrealized. So, when the invitation came to write this piece I was surprised and, frankly, unprepared. My immediate thought was, “What on earth can I write about and not seem like a totally uninformed fool?” But it occurred to me that many pastors probably find it difficult, like I now do, to integrate bioethical education into the daily, monthly, and yearly work of local church leadership.
In my own evangelical tradition, there is a tendency to narrow the focus of salvation so much that we find ourselves wondering, “What are we saved by grace for?" In his book After You Believe, a sequel to Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, the esteemed New Testament scholar N. T. Wright addresses this problem in a compelling and accessible way.
In The Abolition of Man—published nearly 75 years ago—C. S. Lewis speaks indirectly, though perhaps prophetically, to our current complexities—reminding us that there is truly nothing new under the sun. In the title chapter of the book, Lewis asks the question, “In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?” Are we able to have the control over Nature and live the autonomous lives we desire? In our attempt to understand and fully live out what it means to be human, is it possible to conquer those aspects of Nature we believe hinder, diminish, or destroy our flourishing, thereby solidifying our humanity?
I have intentionally titled this series, “Death and the Church.” Given the highly individualistic character of Western culture, many complex human issues are viewed as personal concerns to be dealt with in a manner that keeps friends, neighbors, and even family at a distance. The well-known expression “It is none of your business,” epitomizes an isolationism that has become a core value of American culture.
When Jesus encountered people dealing with hurts, he very often brought his healing touch. He restored sight to the blind, enabled the lame to walk, and opened the ears of the deaf, indicating the nature of his kingship and his Kingdom. His life and proclamation promised a new creation where there will be no pain, fear, or tears. Nevertheless, it was but a taste. Those he healed still died; their temporary healing pointed toward a full and final renewal that has not yet come. It makes sense that followers of Jesus want to proclaim and offer hope and full healing. Still, this good instinct can easily go astray. Sometimes, even though there may be good intentions behind this impulse, we can really hurt those who face suffering.
From birth control to dementia, the world of bioethics touches us all. And in a world in which cultural norms are moving further away from Christianity, leadership in the church must be informed and aware of these issues and consider them from a biblical perspective. Pastors and teachers must learn to shepherd their flock through the stormy waters of our MedTech age as they make bioethical decisions. Christian Bioethics is a compass that can help navigate these waters.
Christianity provides the radical answer that humans are created in the image of God, or the imago Dei (Gen 1:26–27). But what exactly does this mean? Until the mid-twentieth century, Christian thought on the imago Dei focused on uniquely human capacities, usually reason and morality. But if a capacity is absent, or damaged, does this mean that the imago Dei is degraded? A focus on capacities risks dehumanizing the very old, the very young, or those with disabilities. Recent advances in archeology and history provide scholars a much richer context for understanding how the Bible uses the word “image”—one which goes beyond mere capacity.
As Christians who believe in the God “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,” it can be hard to know how to pray for those suffering from chronic illness (Psalm 103:3, ESV). Often, the church starts strong, praying fervently for the healing of the afflicted person’s body. However, as weeks, months, and even years go by, discouragement can set in. Why keep praying for something that does not seem to happen? As other requests for prayer are shared, it is easy to push those with chronic illnesses into the background.
All too many of us (both those outside the church and sadly too many within as well) look to technology as a kind of savior, believing it will alleviate all our pain and afflictions, leaving us with nothing but happiness. Such an idea, Lawler says, is futile. Not that happiness is wholly elusive; rather it “is more than a chemical problem that has a technological or biotechnological solution.” Even if these means can solve some of our ailments, they will undoubtedly introduce new problems. Lawler points out, “we will never live in a world without the reality of catastrophes, without sin, suffering, loneliness, profound disorientation, dementia, and death.”
“Advent” comes to us from the Latin adventus meaning “arrival” or “coming to.” We celebrate this beginning with the lighting of the hope candle. It reminds us of the promise of a coming savior, the messianic hope—a hope that as Jesus said to his disciples that “many prophets and righteous people longed to see . . . and to hear” (Matt 13:17 NIV). We remember this hope, as it was realized in the coming of the Christ in the most vulnerable of human forms, an infant. And yet, in this very same hope we remember that the fulfillment of the first Advent, was also marked by the promise of a second Advent, the blessed hope. As the Nicene Creed affirms, having been seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”
In our death-denying culture (including the evangelical church), it is very rare to hear sermons on Christ’s resurrection except at Easter. Even then, many messages tend to be apologetic in nature, namely, how the empty tomb vindicates Christ’s claims to deity. While I have heard many pastors sermonize on Paul’s “resurrection magnum opus” in 1 Corinthians 15, too little time has been spent on the extensive treatment that the Apostle gives to its implications for believers facing the reality of even untimely earthly death (cf. vv. 35–58). This existential absence has, in my opinion, only exacerbated a secular-like trust in the achievements of modern medicine in the Christian community.
Many studies in neuroscience report that extensive usage of social media and screen technology changes the human brain in ways that make it difficult for a person to maintain sustained levels of concentration. Nearly thirty years ago, Jane M. Healy argued in her book, Endangered Minds, “that we are rearing a generation of ‘different brains.’” How much more might this be the case today than it was then? Such changes raise important questions. How are all of these technologies shaping us? And, what ramifications does this have for worship, preaching, and religious education?
As I have reflected on those conversations, two aspects stand out: 1) their questions represent the public, secular views about death and dying popularized in American culture; and 2) they were more interested in avoiding physical pain than in thinking Christianly about the problem. I want to briefly describe the view they seem to have absorbed, and the consequences we already see from legalization of both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS).
In her 2018 book, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, Christian apologist Nancy R. Pearcey tackles a variety of hot-button ethical issues including abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, hookup culture, and transgenderism. Chapter by chapter, Pearcey makes the case that Western secularism denigrates the human body by embracing each of these practices, and she defends the holistic realism of Christian ethics in response.
Twenty minutes later we were in the hospital lobby. We walked right past the information booth and straight to the elevator bank. Billy Bob seemed to know where to go. As the elevator arrived, he said, “She’s in room 511.” We stepped in and he pushed the button for the 5th floor. That’s when the first of many pastoral lessons hit me up the side of my face.
Of note here are three exhortations, all begun by the phrase “let us”: (1) “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith”; (2) “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering”; and (3) “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” The astute reader will notice that the three exhortations encompass faith, hope, and love, common themes in the biblical story. How might we apply these three injunctions to the COVID-19 crisis?
In my previous piece, I discussed the first of three exhortations given in Hebrews 10:19–25 to Christians in a time of spiritual crisis. The first exhortation is to draw near to God with a pure heart. Now I will discuss the second exhortation: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (ESV; v. 23).
Previously, we saw that the author of Hebrews exhorted those who were going through a time of crisis to draw near to God and to hold close to the faith they have confessed. In his final exhortation, he encourages his readers to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24–25). How does this apply to our own time of crisis?
I concur that the reductionism of “biological death” is based on an incomplete picture of who humans are—much like its opposite state “biological life.” According to the Christian tradition, humans have souls (Gen 2:7), the divine image (1:27), and a personal destiny which transcends their death (Rev 20:11–21:27). Therefore, the biblical perspective on life and death may differ in important ways. We might even ask: Will there still be a hard line dividing the two?
If you’re a pastor, then you’re most likely an accidental bioethicist. How so? For starters, you’ve probably encountered (or will soon enough) a question from your congregation about one of these difficult topics: abortion, assisted suicide, birth control, withdrawing life support, children and technology, etc. As pastors, of course, we are expected to provide answers, or more precisely, biblical answers, to those sorts of questions. Once we start thinking about what the Bible has to say to these challenging issues of our day, we become accidental pastor-bioethicists—though certainly not all pastor-bioethicists are created equal. Are you ready to give a biblical answer to such besetting bioethical issues? What does it mean to give a biblical answer?
Many “in the pews” lack the theological categories needed to respond to the challenges of our MedTech age. Congregants look to the Bible for answers, but the authors of the Bible did not envision a world where babies could be crafted in a lab, tested and rated to determine which is the “best,” and then transferred into someone who may or may not be the biological mother. They did not foresee machines that could keep a person’s heart beating and lungs breathing even though the brain had ceased functioning. They could not comprehend a device that could access the world’s accumulated knowledge and be stored in a pocket.