Educating the church about how to think about bioethics

Janie Valentine’s post on Monday about a Christian health sharing ministry considering the surgical treatment of ectopic pregnancy to be the moral equivalent of abortion points out a major concern related to the church and bioethics. This is particularly a concern regarding the evangelical Protestant church and bioethics. With its hierarchical structure the Roman Catholic Church has a way of connecting the well considered thoughts about bioethical issues that are expressed by Roman Catholic ethicists with the ministries of the church. Protestant churches, and evangelical Protestant churches in particular, have a significant disconnect between those who think deeply about and write about bioethical issues and those who are doing ministry.

The issue of whether to cover the costs of surgical treatment of ectopic pregnancy illustrates the need for people within the church to learn how to think about bioethics and other ethical issues. It is not that we need to have some established evangelical set of ethical positions on issues, but rather an understanding by people in the church of how to properly analyze and think about an ethical issue. Over centuries of thought Christian scholars have recognized the principle of double effect as a good way of analyzing moral dilemmas in which doing something that is good, such as saving the life of a woman with an ectopic pregnancy results in the unwanted bad affect of the death of an embryo. It is clear that we should not focus solely on consequences and do things that are wrong even to save a person’s life, but it is reasonable at times to do good things that have unintended but foreseeable bad effects. There is a way of thinking about ethical issues that has been well established by Christian ethicists over the years which many in the church are not at all familiar with. That is a problem.

The question is how those of us who understand how to think well from a Christian perspective about moral and ethical issues can communicate that to the church in general. Over the past eight years I have been trying to do that by teaching at a Christian university. My thought has been that if we teach students who will be the future leaders of their churches how to think well about ethics they will help their churches think well about those things. However, what I have learned is that only a small minority of the students at what I consider to be an excellent Christian university actually get enough education in ethics to be able to do that. Somehow we need to convince the church that learning how to think well about moral and ethical concerns from a distinctly Christian way of thinking is important for the life and health of the church and methods to accomplish that need to be established.

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Terrill Wade MD
Terrill Wade MD
3 years ago

YES!YES!YES! I am so with you. The ignorance within the church membership concerning how to think ethically about all of the new health issues has been of increasing concern to me over the last 10 years .

I have tried various methods during the years to educate the church body, ranging from an adult Sunday school class, to a series on the challenges of infertility treatments advertised to the larger Christian community in Richmond, to a one-day pastoral ethics convention.
The attendance was usually very poor, and I have come to realize two facts:

a) The average Church member is not interested in thinking about future ethical decision-making needs unless they happen to be facing a particular crisis at that moment (eg infertility, relative dying etc.) when the education is often too late.

b) The reason they are not interested is that the need for necessary Christian bioethical thinking and planning NOW is not made from the pulpit or our Christian leadership in the Church. While the details of each ethical/bioethical issue should probably not be part of the sermon, the ministers MUST point out to their flock where the current issues challenge,or conflict with, the way that we will live a life that reflects Christ.

Unless members come to realize that preparation (education about these issues and discussion of the Christian response to them) in these areas is an essential part of making the godly decisions required by unexpected or time-pressured pressured medical events, they will continue to forced into going along with the decisions expected by an increasingly humanistic medical staff.
And the members will not realize this unless their leaders routinely teach that it is a necessary part of our Christ-like living

Which brings me back to the Church pastors and leaders, the leaders of the flock! I know that often they do not feel knowledgeable about the issues and so they don’t address them. Many are indeed complex! The fact is, though,that they don’t need to have all the medical knowledge about, or all of the answers to, the issues. Rather, as they teach through the scriptures, they should be able to point out areas of life where these issues are most likely to be encountered, and (here’s the most important part) to emphasize the necessity of thinking through a Christian approach ahead of time, as part of normal Christian living. Unless the leaders are willing to emphasize this, the church members will see no need to learn about the issues. They will continue to remain ignorant, and eventually may regret many of the decisions they have been pressured into.

So it comes back to the importance of the education of the Church leaders:
a)with a basic understanding of how and where the health and life science developments intersect with the christian life – either to aid it or to conflict with it.
b)and even more importantly, the vital role they need to play in stimulating Church members to learn (ahead of time) about these issues, because how we Christians deal with such family/life issues will affect our personal faith walk, our family interactions, and the Church’s witness for Christ to the community.

Tom West, MD
Tom West, MD
3 years ago

Over 20 years ago, I came to the conclusion that there was an acute need for Medical Bioethical information in the local church to understand and develop opinions on the current science and its effects on their fellow man. I had formed an unreasonable expectation that because I felt this topic was essential to a modern Christian view of life, as I saw it, that others knew enough to be of the same persuasion. This was not and nor is now the case. While trying to get Pastors onboard with the importance of this topic to modern life presenting this topic from the pulpit, I found a general interest expressed; but no ability to present the issues cogently involved to their congregations. They just didn’t have adequate knowledge.

Subsequently, I developed a Medical Bioethics course for lay Christians and their leaders using materials from CMDA (Christian Medical Dental Association) and their references. Updating it constantly, I have taught this course in different settings over the years and it has been enthusiastically received. Most recently I, with my Pastor, lead a series of 4 evening discussions in August-September 2015. These were very well attended, indicating the desire of the church to be informed. These are available for viewing on line ( /sermons/archives/Hewins 8/2,9,16 & 9/3). During these presentations, many were very supportive of my forming these thoughts into a book form and in July 2016 published this book.

West, MD, Tom H; “Christian Culture & Controversy: Engaging Culture to Make a Difference” Kindle Edition; CreateSpace; 2016 ISBN-13:978-1523816101 (Available on Amazon and at CMDA)

Book description:

“Christians are often confused by medical bioethical issues. They feel they lack adequate information and understanding to develop meaningful judgments concerning the varied bioethical positions presented. Clear thinking as presented in the fields of science, philosophy, and Christian theology should be the basis of anyone’s decisions regarding bioethics. “Christian Culture and Controversy” will be helpful to Christians wishing to understand the issues involved in today’s controversial bioethical discussions. Its goal is to inform fellow Christians as to the current state of our culture and its divergent and often contradictory views on medical bioethics. Emphasizing America’s uniqueness in the world, the book explores of a variety of disciplines and their effect on bioethical thought. Equipping Christians to develop positions with confidence and fulfill their necessary involvement in any discussion of bioethical issues has never been more essential.”

My hope was for this book to be both informative to the reader as well as give pastors, knowledgeable lay persons, and Christian physicians the necessary tools to lead their fellow Christians in a deeper understanding of the very important discussions of Medical Bioethics as being presented now and into future in the public square.