Why We Must Have Charitable, Irenic Debates on Bio-Medical Ethics in the 21st Century
Standards Are Inescapable. The Question Is—-By What Standard?
A central theme of Vision Forum Ministries and our Witherspoon School of Law and Public Policy is that God’s written revelation—the Bible—is sufficient for all of faith and practice. The Bible, not human emotions, pragmatism, natural law reasoning or utilitarianism, is the basis for all ethical choices. The Bible is the only standard.
Not everyone agrees. Even within the community of professing Christians, other standards are touted—both explicitly and implicitly. We hear people attempting to solve ethical issues with significant life and death implications by appealing to human experience, autonomous reasoning, nature and feelings, but rarely do we hear people appealing to Scripture as the exclusive standard for ethical decision making. Some will even argue that they believe that the Bible is the standard, but then go on to deny its applicability to practical issues. Such individuals often use harsh and condemning words to judge Christians who stand in the great tradition of the Reformers when they attempt to apply the Bible to real world settings.
There are even those who rail against people for articulating biblical standards applied to life—as if to do such is unfair or unloving. There is a great hypocrisy here. Such individuals use their own private standards to condemn those with standards which are different from their own. The fact is that standards are inescapable. The only question is “by what standard?”
Of course, believing that the Bible is the only standard, on the one hand, and determining the implications of that standard on specific ethical issues, on the other, are two different things. The first is a non-negotiable presupposition. The second is an exercise in humility, study, and meditation. The simple truth is that we live in a complex world with complex issues. We need clarity from God’s Word (the only true source of clarity), and this requires the humility to go before the Lord and seek answers to the hard questions.
The Challenge of Bio-Medical Ethics
One of the most challenging and difficult areas of personal decision making and public policy for 21st century Christians is biomedical ethics. The challenge of modern biomedical ethics is made more difficult by the fact that we live in a culture that hates God, and has determined to be at war with life.
The Witherspoon School of Law and Public Policy does not have the answers to all the difficult questions. But we do believe that we are right to assert the Bible as the only source book for ethical decision making. Furthermore, we believe that now is the time to raise a generation of Christians that have been forced to wrestle with the complexities of Christian bio-medical ethics theory long before they find themselves in a crisis. In fact, the worst time to wrestle with a bio-medical issues is when you are emotionally embroiled in a crisis concerning that issue.
As a ministry that has fought vehemently for the life of the unloved (see our Life and Liberty Medical Fund) and has been engaged in rescuing babies deemed by bureaucrats or physicians to be unworthy of protecting, we have witnessed first-hand the pressures to compromise which are placed on families in times of distress. Too often personal emotions, intimidation from social workers (or even individuals within the medical establishment), and pragmatic peer pressure win the day. The results can be horrifying. In some cases emotional decision-making and peer pressure leads to the unnecessary death of the very individuals we should be protecting. In other cases, the consciences of Christians are seared because they are forced to live with the consequences of unwise choices. Too often, rather than acknowledging error, they justify their behavior and excoriate anyone who dares to ask what the Bible says about such an issue. I have seen this where Christians have aborted their babies because they were told they “had no other choice” to protect the health of the mother, and where they have terminated the life of disabled or sickly children or parents by withholding food or life support at the advice of physicians.
Should Christians Oppose All Abortions, Or Just Most of Them?; Is Starving a Disabled Dependent Always Wrong, Or Is It Only Wrong In Some Cases?
There is not a local church or family in America which is not effected at some level by the challenge of biomedical ethics in the 21st century. But the only thing which seems certain is the uncertainty of most churches to articulate a biblically defensible ethical standard.
Christians today are confronted with question like these: Was it murder to pull the feeding tube on Terri Schiavo, or was it compassion? Is embryonic stem cell research valid? Is it improper to use contraceptive devices like “the pill” which have abortifacient potential? May couples use surrogates to carry their children to term? Is in vitro fertilization using donor sperm a legitimate consideration? Is it adultery? Is it something else? Does “brain death” constitute death? May we consider the “quality of life” of an individual when deciding whether to continue feeding them? Frankly, these questions are hard, but there are much tougher ones coming down the road—questioned destined to redefine our view of motherhood, compassion for the infirm and care for the elderly.
Some Christians maintain a 100% pro-life, no abortion philosophy. Others believe that it is acceptable to abort a child in the case of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is threatened. The latter is the position of the Orthodox Jews. And there are many questions presented to us by our “brave new world” that raise noodle cookers of equal emotional challenge and philosophical complexity.
But the fact that questions are difficult does not mean that we can hide from them or brush them under the rug. It was precisely an unwillingness on the part of the Evangelical Christian community to identify and communicate a biblical ethic for tackling issues like feminism and eugenics in the early part of the 20th century, and on abortion in the years preceding Roe v. Wade, which contributed to the widespread acceptance of birth control, abortion, and euthanasia within our culture—including within the Church itself. We are living with the consequences of a century of cultural retreat driven by antinomianism—an antinomianism which has fueled the deplorable silence of the Church in the wake of ethical chaos.
But here is the rub: It is not merely that we have failed to speak to the broader culture, we have failed to disciple the Church itself. We have failed to honor that portion of the Great Commission which obligates us to make disciples, teaching them “all things, whatsoever I have commanded.” And this is why there is precious little demographic difference between the professing Christian Church and the secular culture when it comes to the numerous life and death issues swirling around the current biomedical ethical maelstrom.
We Will Begin to Debate the Issues Now, Or Our Children Will Drown In Sea of Ethical Relativism
Whether it is always wrong to kill an unborn baby, or whether it is acceptable to kill some unborn babies that threaten the lives of their mothers is a legitimate ethical question. It is a question that can only be settled properly by appealing to Scripture. The same goes for decisions to pull the plug on grandma, to use sperm donors, or whether or not to harvest organs from “brain dead” patients in order to save the lives of others.
There are those who would shut down the very type of dialog presented by Vision Forum Ministries at academies like the Witherspoon School of Law and Public Policy. They would do so amidst a barrage of name calling and emotional furor. For such individuals it is sin to even ask the ethical questions, let alone reach conclusions that would differ with their personal experience. I disagree with them. In my view, it is precisely this haughty spirit which has led to the irrelevancy of Evangelical Christianity’s witness in culture. It is this spirit which is causing the children of our present generation to drown in a sea of utilitarian ethics, and moral relativism.
We will never be able to address those questions, unless we agree to set aside hyperbole, name calling, motive judging, and hyper emotionalism in our dialog. We expect such tactics from the world. For more than a century feminists, eugenicists and humanists have built their anti-life campaign on precisely these type of arguments. But it should not be so for the people of God. The mission of the Christian is not self-justification and emotional coddling. It is not personal convenience or self-empowerment. It is not some man-centered social agenda. Our mission is the advancement of the Kingdom of God by proclaiming the crown rights of Jesus Christ over all of life. Our mission is submission to Him. It is humbly acknowledging that we are the creature and He is the creator. This means that His law-word revelation trumps our feelings and opinions every time.
And that is why Witherspoon students are encouraged to reach their own conclusions on issues ranging from ectopic pregnancies to the Terri Schiavo case by breaking the issues down into their various component parts and distilling the most applicable biblical principles necessary for sound Christian ethical theory.
Come Let Us Reason Together—With Compassion
We need to reason together—through the Scriptures. And we need to do so with compassion. Compassion is needed for the tens of thousands of women who have been lied to by the state, by Hollywood, and the government school systems. Compassion is needed for a generation of men and women who have received little to no instruction from the pulpit on these issues, and who have been taught that the Bible is “silent” on matters of bio-medical ethics.
But we must also have compassion for the unlovely—for the unborn, for the sick and infirm, and for those whose lives hang in the balance waiting for us to choose wisely. And dear friends, there is nothing compassionate about making selfish ethical decisions that place the lives of others in jeopardy.
My heart breaks for the untold thousands of parents who have found themselves navigating through such difficult ethical waters without the benefit of the Word of God. And even more so for those who have been required to consider these issues for the first time amidst intense pressure and emotions. And how can we have anything but profound compassion for those who have made wrong choices, only to realize their error after the fact.
But isn’t this true of all of us? Haven’t we all sinned and fallen sort of God’s requirements—repeatedly! And isn’t it the message of the Cross—that there is forgiveness and hope for new beginnings at the feet of Jesus.
Sometimes the answer to our ethical inquiries will include repentance. But is repentance such a horrible thing? Must we always be about the business of blame-shifting and self-justification?
The Church as the Great Defender of Life
We live in a culture which possesses remarkable medical technological accomplishments. We have the technology, but we often lack the moral maturity to use it for the glory of God, We are like toddlers in the cockpit of a giant space ship headed for the stars. We have the ability to press buttons capable of moving engines and machines of remarkable power. The power is in our hands, but we are not quite sure what to do with it. This makes us very dangerous. Only by returning to Scripture can we hope to go from suckling babes to mature men and women capable of intelligent navigation.
The Church is the great defender of life. Of all the people on earth, we should be the most sensitive to the preciousness of life. But how will we be advocates for life if we refuse to thoroughly examine the biblical implications of the increasingly thorny questions our children will be forced to resolve? What ethical inheritance are we leaving to them—objective truth, or subjective opinions? We must return to the Bible—all of it—all sixty-six books. The answer to the ethical crisis therefore is not denial or neutrality. It certainly is not ethical silence. The answer is preparedness through prayerful study and humble willingness to reexamine the twisted ethical standards which our culture defends and we often embrace without question. Only then can we avoid being part of the problem itself. Only then can we be the defenders of life to which God has called us as His chosen people.