Some time ago I was sitting across the lunch table with two graduates of the school of theology where I teach (Talbot School of Theology, Biola University) who were on the pastoral staff of a church in the area. They had brought a couple from their church to lunch that day—the couple wanted to discuss their ongoing problem with infertility. They had been trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant for the past 2 years. As they had their problem checked out by their physician, they came to understand that the reason for their infertility was that the man was sterile, producing no sperm. It turned out that he had had the mumps as a child and it was not treated properly, and sterility resulted. This turned the lunchtime into quite a counseling opportunity since his wife blamed him for their inability to become pregnant. As she put it, “We can’t have children and it’s his fault!”
There were other issues that made the situation complicated. The wife was adamantly opposed to adoption, insistent on “having their own child.” She was pushing her husband to accept a sperm donor, so at least they could have half at genetic connection to their child. But the husband was clearly uncomfortable with this alternative, understandably not wanting a “procreative pinch hitter.” The couple was at lunch with their pastors and me wanting to know what the Bible said about having a sperm donor. Had you been in my place, what would you have told them? And to complicate it a bit further, assume that the couple had been in agreement on having a sperm donor? Would your advice change?
Or take an example from the end of life. You are called to the ICU of your local community hospital to see a family who must shortly make decisions about terminating life support for their elderly mother. She has been ill for months but does not have any kind of advance directive expressing her wishes in writing and she has not talked in much detail with his children about what she wants at the end of life. As a result, they are very confused about what to do. Their physicians are pressuring them for a decision about stopping all treatments and allowing death to take its natural course, but they are unsure about what to do. They sense that if they stop the ventilator support and remove the feeding tubes they are doing something wrong—they say that it sure feels like they are killing their mother, like they are doing something that violates their commitment to the sanctity of life. It feels to them like they are “playing God” with their mother’s life. They need your help to get them through this difficult end of life period, and they need to know which, if any, treatments they can stop. They are especially nervous about removing the feeding tubes since they have heard through the media in the case of Terri Schaivo that removing a feeding tube is tantamount to starving someone to death. If you were their pastor called into this situation, how would you advise them?
These two scenarios illustrate the role that bioethics plays in pastoral ministry. It’s important to have some working knowledge of bioethics in order to read the newspaper intelligently and keep up with the changing technological landscape in this field. But bioethics is hardly just an academic discussion that is reserved for the seminary classroom. Bioethics is an important part of the equipment that pastors use in walking through life with the people to whom they minister. Bioethics is not just about public policy, though that is an important component. Bioethical issues come across the pastor’s desk more frequently today and when they do, they come at life-defining moments that open the door for significant ministry in people’s lives. Bioethics is also important because most pastors have ministry with men and women who serve in health care professions and who want to integrate their faith and the ethics of their faith into the way they serve their patients.
Here are some of the other types of bioethical issues that pastors might find coming across their desks (all of them have come across mine!):
- A college student in your church’s college ministry has an unwanted pregnancy. She has questions not only about abortion but also about whether to marry the father (assuming he’s a stand-up guy) and about putting the baby up for adoption (if she ends up not marrying the guy).
- A graduate student in your church hears about a new way to pay her graduate school tuition—by selling her eggs to another infertile couple. She wants to know if this is consistent with Scripture.
- A woman in your church considers it her ministry to provide the “gift of life” to infertile couples by serving as a surrogate mother.
- A woman in her mid-30’s with a strong desire for a child and no foreseeable prospects for marriage, wants to go the local sperm bank and conceive a child that she will raise on her own.
- A couple with three girls wants to “balance their family” with a boy. They can select for gender by sorting the husband’s sperm and inseminate his wife with the sperm that will give them a high likelihood of producing a boy.
- A couple comes to you having just received bad news back from prenatal genetic testing on their unborn child. The child will have Down’s syndrome and the couple is feeling pressure from their physician and their family to end the pregnancy and try again.
These are a sample of the types of issues that pastors face—and I’m sure you could probably add to the list. Resolving these issues gets complicated because the Bible doesn’t directly address most of them. Scripture does give us broad general principles that we can apply—I like to think of it as Scripture giving us a set of fence-posts that provide the boundaries, outside of which one cannot go without violating an important virtue or value.
Issues like these are ones I plan to address at this year’s Shepherds 360 Church Leaders Conference in Cary, because I believe these are critical issues pertaining to pastoral ministry in the current age. Last year, I had the opportunity to discuss three related issues, which you can listen to now, and then come and join us in October at Shepherds 360 for more on the highly anticipated theme of Christian Ethics – Vol. 2.
Workshops from Scott Rae (2022 Shepherds 360 Conference):