Intersections

Becoming a Pastor-Bioethicist

by: 
Wilson Jeremiah, ThM

Are You an Accidental Bioethicist?

If you’re a pastor, then you’re most likely an accidental bioethicist.[1] 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.[2] 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?

The Use of Scripture in Bioethics

Perhaps one of the most common approaches to thinking about how to give a biblical answer to various bioethical issues is to look for a “proof-text” or an explicit, isolated verse(s) or passage(s) that specifically addresses, for example, abortion or the COVID-19 vaccine. Though undoubtedly there are specific texts that stand out in giving us clarity on how to make challenging bioethical decisions, there are myriad issues that arise from our modern technological society that the Bible simply does not address directly. Thus, an approach much broader than simply proof texting is needed. As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it: “Being biblical requires more (but not less) than appealing to Scripture here and there in the course of argumentation; it requires being apprenticed to the whole pattern of life that comprises Christian identity, the new creation already-not-yet inaugurated in Christ.”[3] Or, as David VanDrunen similarly observes, what we need is less of a “rule-focused” approach to bioethics and more “to be virtuous people of good character,” for “only people who have proper virtues are well equipped to make good decisions about complicated moral questions for which we do not have direct biblical rules.”[4] In other words, our task as pastor-bioethicists is not primarily to provide a list of biblical texts or rules—as if ready-made answers can be sufficiently given—but rather to exercise wisdom in ministering a right understanding and response to particular issues. Being biblical in bioethics means making wise decisions about what actions and practices befit the Judeo-Christian worldview reflected in the Bible.[5]

Take, for instance, the issue of COVID-19 vaccine ethics. Are there, strictly speaking, one or more biblical proof-texts that directly address the issue? If you’re looking for one, then you will be disappointed. As some have noted, we need to approach the issue from various angles and ask different questions, including questions about its origins, its development, the necessity or obligation, the morality, and its safety, in order to make a good decision regarding taking the vaccine.[6] There are no easy, straightforward, “biblical” answers if what you mean by “biblical” is providing a clear proof-text(s). What we need from pastor-bioethicists then are more holistic ways of thinking about theology and the Bible in order to direct the church in becoming wise witnesses of Jesus Christ in approaching the many bioethical issues of our day.[7] Think of a movie director, who not only has to master the script for the whole movie, but also has to direct the actors and guide them during the filming process. In the same way, pastor-bioethicists are “church directors” for their respective congregations in living out their Christian virtues and values in their everyday witness, including through making difficult bioethical decisions.

Some Advice for Aspiring Pastor-Bioethicists

Since 2013, the Center for Pastor Theologians has been trying to resurrect a long-lost vision that becoming a pastor and a theologian is not only possible, but also a must.[8] In a somewhat less explicit manner, part of the mission of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity (CBHD), especially through Intersections, has been to encourage more pastors to become “pastor-bioethicists.” As I indicated earlier, all pastors are inevitably bioethicists—albeit in a more practical fashion compared to professional bioethicists. This short article is thus intended as a reminder and an encouragement for all of the pastors out there, including myself, to consider our ways of approaching the various bioethical issues of our time and to become better biblical directors for our congregations in facing those issues. For that, I would like to offer some general advice toward achieving such goals.

First, pastors are theologians before they are bioethicists. This is not to say that theology can ever be separated from (bio)ethics, but rather that pastors should first be firmly grounded in solid biblical doctrine to be able to better guide their flocks in navigating deep bioethical waters. Doctrines are not just for the sake of attaining knowledge, but for cultivating Christian virtues and wisdom to make us into “little Christs.” As the apostle Paul taught in several scriptural passages,[9] doctrines are intended to help us mature in Christ, thus enabling us to live rightly as his disciples.[10]

Second, we need a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach to bioethics. As seen from the COVID-19 vaccine example above, we need more than just good theology—which itself covers biblical studies, church history, philosophy, apologetics, and other fields as well, in addition to some scientific knowledge as well as cultural and political literacy to be able to communicate biblical teachings accurately and attractively. As you pastors have probably already realized, pastoral ministry done rightly is perhaps among the most difficult jobs in the world, for we are most of the time expected to become “jacks-of-all-trades” and generalists, not only on matters related to the Bible and doctrine.[11]

Third, we need to foster a more collaborative spirit of humility to learn from each other, even from those who do not share our views. We need to learn not just from other pastors or experts in other fields of study that we are less familiar with (e.g., biology, virology, medicine, etc.) but also from our congregants in order to be mindful of what they experience on a day-to-day basis. In so doing, we become more self-conscious of the fact that we do not have all the answers, and at the same time we are enabled to listen and eventually offer a better perspective on certain bioethical issues. My hope is that these recommendations will help us to become better pastor-bioethicists for our time.

 

References



[1] I owe this term and insight from Michael Sleasman. For an introduction to bioethics, see John F. Kilner and C. Ben Mitchell, Does God Need Our Help? Cloning, Assisted Suicide, and Other Challenges in Bioethics (Wheaton: Tyndale, 2003). For other bioethical resources, please visit https://cbhd.org/issues and https://everydaybioethics.org/issues.

[2] For a more complete list of bioethical issues and other relevant resources, please visit https://cbhd.org/issues.

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wisdom from Theology,” in Why the Church Needs Bioethics: A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life’s Challenges, ed. John F. Kilner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 114.

[4] David VanDrunen, “Better than the Rules? Developing Virtue as a Guide for Making Bioethical Decisions,” Intersections, October 18, 2016, https://everydaybioethics.org/intersections/better-rules-developing-virtue-guide-making-bioethical-decisions. See also VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).

[5] Vanhoozer, “Wisdom from Theology,” 114.

[6] For helpful resources on this, see Heather Zeiger, “Coronavirus Vaccine Ethics,” December 08, 2020, https://cbhd.org/content/coronavirus-vaccine-ethics; Rebecca Randall, “3 Bioethical Questions About COVID-19 Vaccines,” Christianity Today, January 13, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/january-web-only/covid-19-vaccine-christian-ethical-questions-fetal-cells.html?fbclid=IwAR0xa9ZPy8zXGb4O5gUBQetjZpWoBHaq7uPgYjyHOG04-5MaIG88ggVsmvk.

[7] For a good model to think more holistically about bioethics, see Hans Madueme, “Thinking Theologically about Bioethics,” Dignitas 13, no. 3 (2011): 1–5, 10–13, https://cbhd.org/Resources/Dignitas/Fall-2011.

[8] See their website and various resources in https://www.pastortheologians.com. For further elaborations on their vision, see Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015); Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand, eds., Becoming a Pastor Theologian: New Possibilities for Church Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

[9] Ephesians 4:11–16; 1 Timothy 4:11–16; 2 Timothy 4:1–4.

[10] For more discussion on this, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019).

[11] Of course, the expectations put on pastors can at times be too grand, and so pastors should not be reluctant to seek external guidance on matters where their expertise is limited (see my next point). For example, CBHD regularly receives and answers requests from pastors seeking guidance on bioethical dilemmas that arise in their congregations. For suggestions on why being a generalist is not completely unbiblical and some ideas on how to become one, see Tim Challies, “The Pastor as Renaissance Man,” August 22, 2016, https://www.challies.com/sponsored/the-pastor-as-renaissance-man/, accessed on February 25, 2010; Joe Carter, “How to Glorify God by Being a Generalist,” The Gospel Coalition, May 27, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-to-glorify-god-by-being-a-generalist/, accessed on February 25, 2021.