Years ago, I found myself at a ministry crossroad. I knew I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I was unsure of which area of further study was right for me. My desire was to make sure further study would be useful in the lives of my congregation. I finally settled on Christian ethics because I realized that my life as a pastor was, basically, a calling to help other believers live their Christian lives. Living the Christian life is the crux of Christian ethics.
I first learned of this connection between pastoring and Christian ethics from my own ethics professor, Ben Mitchell. Through Dr. Mitchell, I learned how a conversation on human cloning might transfer easily into either an opportunity for evangelism with an unbeliever or an opportunity to edify the believer, perhaps helping him or her understand the value of being created in the image of God.
Dr. Mitchell has recently paired his ethical knowledge and pastoral heart with the wisdom and insight of Dr. Joy Riley to produce a bioethics handbook for “pastors, health care professionals, and families.” The subtitle of the book tips the reader to recognize that this is not a technical ethics volume. The book is written from the perspective of a practicing physician (Dr. Riley) and a theologian (Dr. Mitchell). This teaming up of medicine and theology is not unique; other books have offered this combination. What is unique, however, is the format of the book.
Drs. Mitchell and Riley go back and forth in conversation almost like two characters in an Arthur Miller play. The occasionally awkward transition between CBM: and DJR: (as the paragraphs are headed) is more than overcome by the depth of insight each of these characters brings to the various discussions. The topics covered represent well the bioethics issues currently shaping American culture.
Before delving into any particular bioethics concern, the authors offer an introduction to the history of medicine. Though general and introductory, the book offers helpful distinctions often overlooked by other texts. For example, the authors explain that the doctor in your local clinic is probably trained in allopathic medicine (as opposed to osteopathic, homeopathic, or chiropractic methods). Knowing these distinctions is helpful for understanding what perspective your physician has on medicine and the healing task.
CBM and DJR discuss in slightly more detail the once universal acceptance of the Hippocratic Oath. At core, the Christianized version of the Hippocratic Oath could be summed up as “be of benefit and do no harm.” However, the Hippocratic Oath no longer holds authority over doctors in America. The authors describe how the removal of the oath’s positive impression makes the practice of medicine in a bioethics era a more perilous venture.
Aware of the dangers and concerned for Christian fidelity in the face of them, CBM and DJR continue their conversation about Christian bioethics under an overall framework borrowed from the highly revered theologian and ethicist Nigel Cameron. Cameron’s bioethics taxonomy divides the issues into three categories: Taking Life, Making Life, and Remaking (or faking) Life.
The first division — Taking Life — tackles the major issues of abortion and euthanasia. On the issue of abortion, Dr. Mitchell offers an informative (but brief) history of abortion laws in western culture. He and Dr. Riley then move to a discussion of how Christians might respond to the abortion culture. Dr. Riley comments on the need to expose horrible practices such as Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s clinic in Philadelphia. Curiously, neither Planned Parenthood (the largest abortion provider in the U.S.) nor Margaret Sanger (the eugenics-minded founder of Planned Parenthood) were mentioned in this chapter. This omission is curious given the fact that Dr. Riley did discuss the role of Bertrand Russell in expanding abortion laws in Great Britain. Russell’s abortion activism through his wife was apparently driven by the European eugenics fervor of the early 20th century. The rise of abortion in America through Margaret Sanger was no less eugenic in its aims. Of course, the small size of the book makes certain that some important points cannot be made.
The second division — Making Life — gives attention to issues such as reproductive technologies, organ donation and cloning. On the issue of reproductive technologies, this volume hits a crescendo concerning the merging of pastoral theology and bioethics. The opening case study asks readers to consider Jane — a deacons daughter who serves on the music team for the worship services. Jane is the daughter of a deacon and a longtime member of the congregation. She is 25 years old, unmarried, and pregnant.
When the pastor confronts Jane about her situation, Jane calmly informs him that she is still a virgin so there is no need for concern — much less for church discipline. This case study is followed by a series of thoughtful questions Christians must ask about in vitro fertilization (IVF). The authors navigate the issue thoughtfully, ultimately offering a “theology of infertility” to serve as a resource to encourage faith in the couples struggling with an unmet desire for children.
The third division — Remaking Life — considers life extending technology and efforts to avert aging. Drs. Riley and Mitchell interact in detail with the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). Though the name sounds much like an unexpected answer in the board game Balderdash, the WTA is not playing around with human limitations. They seek to transcend all human limitations. Dr. Mitchell in particular unpacks a thoroughly theological dismantling of the transhumanist ideology. The end result is that there is a healthy view of aging with leads neither to fatalism nor to transhumanism.
Overall, the book acquaints its audience with the major issues in bioethics. It is an introductory text — not designed for trained ethicists as much as for nurses and pastors and families who find themselves needing answers. Other issues such as cybernetics and genetic engineering might have been covered, but the size and scope of the book focused instead on the issues most nurses and families face.
The authors raise many questions which all people of conscience need to be asking—especially Christians. Each chapter begins with a case study pertinent to the topic at hand. Following the case study (and before the chapter’s content-laden dialog), the authors pose several discussion questions which the reader should consider while reading. The authors even expect the reader to go back through the discussion questions after completing the chapter.
The questions are not designed for trite, politically correct sound bites. In fact, the questions may not always have immediate answers. In chapter two, for instance, a broad question is posed: When should new technologies be embraced? This question must remain open, given the spread of ever-increasing quests for medical progress without moral constraint.
Some of the questions may prove too difficult for those untrained either in medicine or theology. The authors appear to have anticipated this deficiency and to combat it have included helpful bibliographies at the end of each chapter to point to reliable resources which offer more detail.
Overall, pastors would find this book an excellent resource for helping families—especially given its evangelical commitment to the Scriptures and sound teaching. The book would be great for a group of Christian nursing students to walk through together. Overall, the volume definitely hits its mark and would be a profitable read for all Christians who struggle to comprehend bioethics from a biblical perspective.
Greg Cochran (PhD) is Director of Applied Theology in the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University.
Buy the books
Christian Bioethics: A Guide For Pastors, Health Care Professionals, And Families