In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4
In my two years of involvement in the ethics community at a state medical school, I’ve found that the Christian concept of the imago dei speaks to unaddressed problems in bioethics. The philosophy of materialism so dominates medical study and practice that descriptions of the individual do not rise much past the biological system that is the body. Theological and, to a large extent, metaphysical explanations are excluded. This leaves ideas on ethical behavior merely as encouragement to be nice or to ensure individual choice.
The Bible uses many terms to describe the human being, including nephesh, ruach, lebh, basar, psyche, soma, and sarx. None of these descriptions falls into a neat, Western, body-soul-spirit framework. These words instead speak of a richness that extends far beyond any reductionist view of the person. The doctrine that people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, 9:6) gives us insight into human purpose and ethical behavior toward others.
Last fall, I presented a poster at a symposium and included in it a paragraph on using the imago dei as a basis for a theory of personhood. A medical researcher nearby left her poster and asked me what data I used to support my conclusions. I explained that my paper examined the theoretical constructs we use when treating our patients. It never occurred to her that she had, or might need, a philosophical framework in order to interpret her own data. Medical practitioners need to recognize the body as one aspect of the whole person formed in a way to reflect God, even to represent Him in the world. Ultimately, an understanding of our humanity in terms of the imago dei points to the new Adam who in His blameless life was, and is, the image unmarred.
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. – Luke 9:1-2
As I sit writing this article on the 21st floor of M.D. Anderson’s Pickens Tower, I survey the names that dot the skyline of the Texas Medical Center: St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, the Methodist Hospital, Baylor (Baptist) College of Medicine—all philanthropic ventures founded by Christians. Today, their respective denominations are only nominally involved, providing some guidance for chaplaincy programs, some of which include Muslim services. Granted, these medical institutions are now massive, multi-million dollar operations, yet many of their congregations have significant wealth that could be used to provide funding. Obviously, they are plagued by the theological waywardness of their respective churches, but other more traditional churches lack involvement in health care in a similar fashion. In speaking with a pastor of a large Baptist megachurch, I learned that they had stopped investigating opportunities to build a charitable medical clinic because of the fear of lawsuits. Financial and physician resources were at their disposal, but such a ministry was a risk they were not willing to take.
During my year at Trinity in 2008-2009, I made several trips to Lawndale Community Church in downtown Chicago. As many of you know, Lawndale has built an extensive medical clinic for the people of that neighborhood. Though drawing its membership from some of the poorest of people, Lawndale has made it a priority to spread the Gospel through practical programs ranging from sponsoring a pizza parlor to providing medical care. In Christian circles some mention that poorer patients look for opportunities to win cash through lawsuits, but Lawndale views medical outreach as a necessary risk in their pursuit of Christian goals.
Today, unfortunately, we face the trend of Christian groups pulling out of medical care. American Christianity now boasts some of the largest churches ever, with extensive programs and services that include multi-site ventures and online attractions. Few, however, see medical care as a main function of the church. Take the Baptist Medical Centre (BMC) in northern Ghana, for example. BMC, like other Christian hospitals founded by Americans in Africa, is facing the withdrawal of American financial support for its mission. Part of the reasoning behind the separation is to allow Ghanaians to mature in their leadership of such projects. This is certainly a proper goal. However, much of the termination in sponsorship is based on the idea that hospitals siphon off funding that could be better used in programs that are specifically evangelistic. The fact of the matter is that chaplaincies in hospitals provide excellent ways to present the Gospel to people who would avoid any other Christian ministry. The Muslim population is one of the major groups BMC serves, and these people would never enter a Christian building otherwise. The fact of the matter is that pastors (not to mention Christian doctors and nurses) stationed at the hospital have a constant opportunity to communicate the hope and healing of Jesus. No pastor hidden behind church doors here.
Conflict between two philosophies of health care in America has reached a fever pitch. The medical field is marked by a battle between health care based on government oversight versus medical services maintained by profit found in the marketplace. I recommend we reconsider medical care based on philanthropy as a third option. There is great wealth to draw from, and health care is tailor-made to work hand and hand with the Gospel of Jesus.
For more information about Christian philanthropy and medical care, visit these websites: