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Bioethics & Compassion
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How to Use this Study
Page 1
Leader’s Guide
How to use the “Bioethics & Compassion” quarterly series by
Welcome to CHRISTIANBIBLESTUDIES.COM quarterly series. You’ve purchased an innovative
resource that will help you think about bioethical issues from a Christian perspective, and how
we can be wise and compassionate.
In this quarterly pack, we look at how Christians should view the ethical debate that swirls
around scientific discoveries that both extend and take life. These handouts can be used for
personal study, but can also be used in a Sunday school class or small group.
1. Select a study: In this quarterly pack of Bible studies, you’ll find the following titles:
 The Value of Human Life
 A Christian View of the Disabled
 Pulling the Plug
 Souls on Ice
 How We’re Buying into Gene Therapy Research
 Can We Clone God’s Image?
 A Christian View of the Death Penalty
 Care for Children with Special Needs
 Life-and-Death Decisions
 National Health Care: A Good Idea?
 Moral Battle for Stem Cells
 Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
 What Are We Eating?
2. Photocopy the handout. Make up to 1,000 photocopies at no additional cost, as long as
you are using the material in a church or educational setting and are not charging for it.
3. Prepare for the discussion. As the leader, review the material supplied. We recommend
you read the article and study carefully before leading a discussion on it.
Interested in other Bible studies not included in this quarterly packet? Visit our website at,
To contact the editors, please e-mail [email protected]
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The Value of Human Life
What is human life really worth?
It costs $65,000 a year to keep Charles Colson’s autistic grandson Max in a
special-needs school. Utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer would
decry this expenditure as a giant waste, because Max will never lead a normal
life, and he and other students like him completely disrupt the lives of their
caregivers. Besides, think of all that could be purchased with that $65,000—
medicines for African AIDS victims, meals for the homeless, childcare for
single mothers, new police cars for violent neighborhoods. Investing so much
in the education of one autistic boy makes no logical sense, but Colson believes
it’s the right thing to do.
How much is life worth? Why is every life precious? How does an ethic of love
work in the real world? We’ll explore these questions in this study.
Lesson #1
Psalm 8; Ecclesiastes 2:1–11; Matthew 10:28–31; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 10:38–42; Romans 8:31–32; Philippians 3:7–10
Based on:
“The $65,000 Question,” by Charles Colson, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 2005, Vol. 49, No. 10, Page 48
The Value of Human Life
Page 2
Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each person the article “The
$65,000 Question” from CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine (included at the end
of this study).
Questions about the value of human life confront us constantly in obvious
and not-so-obvious ways. Is having a child worth the $190,000 that the
U.S. government estimates it will cost to rear her for 18 years? How about
the hundreds or thousands of dollars an infertile couple could pay just to
conceive (or adopt) the child? Costs pile up at the end of life, too, with
hospitalizations, medications, and care facilities. And even when we don’t
see the bills, we all share the costs for keeping others alive through
Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurers.
Fortunately, most of us never have to assign a specific dollar amount to another’s existence.
Lawyer Kenneth R. Feinberg did. Congress put him solely in charge of the 9/11-victim
compensation fund, which meant he had to distribute more than $7 billion to more than 5,000
families. It was his job to decide the cash value of every injury or death sustained in the attacks.
Injury awards averaged $400,000 and death awards averaged $2 million, but actual
compensation ranged from $500 to $8.5 million. “It’s not easy being asked to do Solomon’s
work, and that’s what this was about,” Feinberg told an interviewer. His book about his
experiences is titled What Is Life Worth?—but he does not claim to have the answer.
Discussion starters:
[Q] Feinberg’s formula for calculating an award was lost income, plus a flat amount for
suffering, minus a collateral source of income like life insurance. What other formulae
might one use to decide what a life is worth?
[Q] Describe a time you had to decide the value of someone else’s life or comfort. (Examples
might include serving on a jury, choosing a school or healthcare facility, considering
fertility treatments or adoption, voting on a referendum to raise taxes for social services,
and deciding whether or not to support a charitable cause.) How did you make your
[Q] What is the biggest investment you have made in the life of another person?
[Q] Have you ever been involved in caring for someone with special needs? What were the
circumstances, and what did you learn from the experience?
Optional activity: Using Feinberg’s formula, ask each group member to calculate his or her
“worth.” (Assign any value you think reasonable for pain and suffering.) Does the number
seem high, low, or simply incomprehensible?
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The Value of Human Life
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Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: The pursuit of happiness is not the purpose of life.
Colson writes, “If pleasure and happiness are the purpose or true end of life, morality must
consist in rationally apportioning pleasure and happiness to those most able to experience
them. Even many Christians have embraced this proposition because it sounds so reasonable.”
True, it’s hard to argue against happiness—who doesn’t prefer comfort and pleasure to pain and
sorrow? The scriptural corrective isn’t to assert that happiness is bad, but to recognize that
happiness is not as surpassingly important as most people think. Passages such as Ecclesiastes
2:1–11 and Philippians 3:7–10 put pleasure in godly perspective.
[Q] Why is the author of Ecclesiastes unhappy?
[Q] In verses 4–9, the author outlines his pleasure-seeking resume. What activities would
appear on your pleasure-seeking resume?
[Q] Some of the author’s sources of pleasure are clearly excessive (his harem, for example),
while others, like undertaking “great projects,” seem reasonable, even laudable. How can
seemingly noble pursuits lead to misery?
[Q] How does the Philippians passage turn common notions of profit and loss on their heads?
What does Paul want more of, and what does he want less of?
[Q] When was the last time you deliberately chose against your own happiness? What greater
good did this choice serve?
[Q] How often do you pray for material success or ask God to make something “go smoothly”?
What might be a better way to pray?
Teaching point two: Life is priceless because God gives it.
Disabled lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson lost her debate with Peter Singer, Colson argued,
because the debate took place in a moral vacuum: “Once she agreed that the issue is quality of
life—that there is no objective standard, only subjective judgment about what constitutes a life
worthy to be lived—she forfeited any chance of winning.” By contrast, Christians do believe in
an objective standard, the infinite worth of God’s highest creation. Support for this standard
can be found in Psalm 8, Matthew 10:28–31, and Romans 8:31–32.
[Q] How, according to the Psalm 8, do humans function in God’s creation? How is their glory
(verse 5) related to God’s glory (verse 1)?
[Q] How does the worldview of the psalmist differ from the Utilitarian worldview?
[Q] What arguments for the value of human life does Matthew 10:28–31 add? How does the
concept of the soul make earthly (bodily) life both more important and less important?
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The Value of Human Life
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[Q] In what ways do Christ’s incarnation and death present the ultimate case for the value of
human life?
[Q] When you look at other people, do you see beings created a little lower than the angels,
endowed with souls, and worthy of the death of God himself? Is this what you see when
you look at yourself?
Teaching point three: Love defies logic.
“Love is the beginning and the end of the good life,” Colson writes, “and it’s in love that our
lives must be centered. Truth matters because without truth, love is unreal. It’s just another
sentimentality. But we know in our hearts that within us is a love that calls out to the Love that
we believe formed the universe. Otherwise, we’re lost.” Sometimes a life centered in love looks
foolish from the outside, but the Bible repeatedly affirms those who love without regard for
appearances, as in Mark 14:3–9 and Luke 10:38–42.
[Q] What surprising things does Jesus say and do in Mark 14:3–9? Why is this unusual story
worth retelling “wherever the gospel is preached”?
[Q] Why was the mystery woman able to understand Jesus’ message and mission better than
his own disciples?
[Q] Read Luke 10:38–42. What is the “one thing” needed (Luke 10:42) that Mary caught and
Martha missed?
[Q] Do you more often show love like Mary or Martha? How are both kinds of love
exemplified in Colson’s article? Why is Mary’s love better, and what does Jesus mean
when he says that what she has chosen “will not be taken away from her”?
[Q] Martha and the frustrated disciples have many heirs in churches today. How can
Christians discern which seemingly necessary tasks are busywork and which seemingly
lavish expenses are justified?
Apply Your Findings
As Colson points out, utilitarianism pervades our society, influencing us in ways we do not even
recognize. Fighting this philosophy with an ethic of love requires heart, soul, mind, and
strength. These questions offer ideas of where to start.
[Q] Think of a ministry opportunity you declined because it seemed too expensive in terms of
money or time. Even if you still cannot commit fully to the ministry, how might you
contribute something to the good cause it serves?
[Q] “Choose Life” is a popular bumper sticker proclaiming the driver’s opposition to
abortion. What are some other applications for the slogan? In other words, how can you
“choose life” today, this month, or this year?
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The Value of Human Life
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[Q] What daily choices do you make with the purpose of maximizing your happiness or the
happiness of your family? Would these choices be different if your primary goal were
living an ethic of love?
[Q] What would be your equivalent of anointing Jesus with priceless perfume?
—Study prepared by Elesha Coffman, former managing editor of
Additional Resources
-Souls on Ice
-Life-and-Death Decisions
-Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
-Is Family Planning Okay?
-A Christian View of the Disabled
The Good Life, Charles Colson (Tyndale, 2005; ISBN 0842377492)
Interview with Kenneth Feinberg,
After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997; ISBN
Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, Steve Wilkens (InterVarsity, 1995; ISBN
Riches Beyond Measure: Creating a Life Worth Living, Michael Blackwell and Ken
Walker (Strang, 2004; ISBN 1591856426)
Life’s Worth: The Case Against Assisted Suicide, Arthur J. Dyck (Eerdmans, 2002;
ISBN 0802845940)
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The $65,000 Question
And the answer my autistic grandson gives.
From a new book by Charles Colson with Harold Fickett, for the study, “The Value of
Human Life”
My wife, Patty, and I had a disturbing reminder of why the
truth matters when we visited our autistic grandson’s specialneeds school one afternoon. The school, Melmark, is housed in a
two-story, clay-red brick building, located at the intersection of
two main arteries about 20 miles from Boston. Max’s school is
on the first floor, where school officials have managed to rent
enough space to take care of 80 special-needs children, most of
them seriously autistic.
Autism is not the same thing as Down syndrome or
congenital birth defects that result in physical deformity. Most autistic kids are as
normal looking as their peers. Some do have a vacant, distant stare; others walk with
an awkward gait from motor damage. Several of the kids carried computerized
speaking pads that allow them to answer questions. These children have suffered so
much neurological damage that they would be effectively mute if not for these devices.
When Max saw us, he broke into a big smile and started skipping with arms wide,
looking for a hug. He’s a very loving kid, and we were glad to shower him with
affection. He then grabbed both Patty’s hand and mine and started to pull us into the
school, excited at the prospect of showing us where he studied and eager for us to
meet his teachers.
At the end of each school day, when the students are dismissed at three o’clock, the
teachers’ workday is far from over. The faculty members gather to discuss the behavior
of each student, meticulously planning the next day’s activities. The student-faculty
ratio is high: four teachers staff Max’s class of seven. The job requires great physical
stamina. The kids can be aggressive at times and must be gently restrained.
Gentleness in this situation often demands as much force as several people can
muster. Max weighs 140 pounds, and sometimes, when he doesn’t know how to make
his needs or dissatisfactions clear, he’ll flop down over his desk or onto the floor and
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The $65,000 Question
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refuse to move. The physical demands Max makes on his teachers are mild compared
to many of his classmates’ demands.
The mostly female faculty members were all remarkably cheerful. In fact, they
radiated joy. Where do they get people like this to work in these schools? I wondered.
A survey of teacher satisfaction revealed that helping the children was the teachers’
primary motivation; altruism is alive and well in this profession.
I understood their joy. I also have felt it as I’ve learned to love through taking care
of Max. My grandson has taught me a lot more than I have taught him; he’s schooled
me in being a grandfather. When my kids were growing up, I was gone most of the
time—too busy trying to save the world. Now, when Max is visiting or we’re visiting
him, my life focuses solely on him. There’s no leaving him in front of the television
while I go to my desk. At night, I can’t just read him a book, say a prayer, pat him on
the head, and tell him to go to sleep. In order to help him get to sleep, I play repetitive
games with him, sometimes for hours. When Max visits, my schedule is Max’s
The Max schedule makes me examine my priorities. It makes me think about the
time I devote to doing—a lot of it simply indulging in distraction—versus how much
time I give to being.
Cost-Benefit Analysis
As I was standing in the classroom, alone for a moment, an unwelcome thought
came to mind. A question really. Why do we as a society take such trouble with these
kids? Why does the school system spend as much as $65,000 per year to tend kids like
Max? Max is never going to graduate and go to college and get a productive job. Likely,
he will always be dependent on his family and the state. Simply to keep him busy,
entertained, and comfortable creates a huge financial drain. Even if he weren’t in
school, institutionalization alone would run more than $50,000 per year.
I couldn’t help but think of Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist who argues that the
governing philosophy for a society ought to be creating the maximum happiness or
pleasure for the greatest number of creatures, human and animal alike. Singer has
been described by The New Yorker as the most influential philosopher alive. Think
about how much pleasure or happiness we could create for tens of thousands of
starving African children with the $65,000 it costs to keep Max in this school. A chill
came over me as I realized how powerful—how natural—Singer’s argument sounds.
Singer’s moral philosophy is a form of utilitarianism, which in its modern form
evolved from the 19th-century writings of John Stuart Mill. Mill has profoundly
affected modern liberal thought, which views freedom as the absence of constraints.
Morality, as one sympathetic writer described Singer’s view, doesn’t come from
heaven or the stars; it comes from giving as many as possible what they want and
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need. Most atheists and the majority of people in the post-religious societies of Europe
accept this as the most reasonable way to serve the social needs of society; if pleasure
and happiness are the purpose or true end of life, morality must consist in rationally
apportioning pleasure and happiness to those most able to experience them. Even
many Christians have embraced this proposition because it sounds so reasonable.
Singer characterizes his philosophy as ethics catching up with the inevitable
conclusions of Darwinism, and he carries his thinking to its logical conclusions. For
example, he advocates infanticide for children born with defects. Singer minces no
words: “All I say about severely disabled babies is that when life is so miserable that
it’s not worth living, then it is permissible to give it a lethal injection.” He asks
rhetorically, “Why limit the killing to the womb?” As if to answer his own question, he
says, “Infanticide … should not be ruled out any more than abortion.”
Singer’s view is entirely logical, although most would find it intuitively repugnant—
at least for now. Singer dismisses objections to his philosophy as mere sentimentality.
What do you do, though, with kids like Max and all of his schoolmates who
somehow survived abortionists’ forceps or the doctors’ lethal injections? Max, after all,
is a human being, a teenager, a beautiful bouncing kid who loves life and other people.
Surely you would not eliminate him.
But think again about what you could do with that $65,000 a year, every year, not
just for starving kids in Africa, but for American inner-city kids who need better public
schools. Just think about how that money could be used in the Medicaid system,
which is always starved for cash.
Those who think humanity would never take severely disabled persons, particularly
kids, and get rid of them are simply unaware of the history of Western civilization in
the enlightened 20th century. For example, take Germany in the 1930s, even before
Hitler’s regime took hold. The brightest and best-educated people in Europe were
openly advocating eugenics—selective human reproduction and elimination of the
disabled. Doctors and educators and cultural leaders discussed how to rid Germany of
the “traditional compassionate 19th-century attitudes toward the chronically ill,” as
one doctor put it. The sterilization and euthanasia of persons with chronic medical
illnesses became a topic of great interest in German medical journals. A propaganda
campaign began to encourage the German people to adopt a utilitarian point of view.
Children were not immune from the campaign. A high school text entitled
Mathematics in the Service of National Political Education contained math problems
dealing with the care of the chronically sick and crippled. The very question that so
troubled me that day in Max’s classroom was asked of these impressionable students:
“How much money would be available for marriage allowance loans and to help
newlywed couples if the state could save the money on the ‘crippled, the criminal, and
the insane’?” The story of what that led to—the Holocaust—has been often told.
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Speaking of the eugenics practiced in Germany or the infanticide and sex-selection
abortion in China or India today—and speculating about what might happen here—
lets us off the hook too easily. Peter Singer’s utilitarian point of view already rules our
own health-care system in significant respects.
What I’m about to say may well strike close to home. In fact, it will resonate
disturbingly in millions of homes across America and Europe. Nearly every young
couple having a baby today receives information about the potential health-care needs
of their unborn child. Ultrasound, amniocentesis, and other tests are informing
parents of a growing list of medical conditions—some 450 at this writing—in their
unborn children. Doctors are afraid not to perform such tests lest they face suits for
not fully informing parents of an unborn child’s medical problems while the unborn
child may still be aborted.
Think of the practical dilemma faced by a pregnant woman and her husband after
they arrive home from a doctor’s appointment. They have just been informed that
their child may have neurological damage, which could display itself in a number of
ways, including autism. The doctor has asked them whether they want to abort their
unborn child.
What would you do? How would you reason about the decision? Would it make any
difference if your health-insurance provider informed you that it would not pay for
treatment of complications discovered in the testing? According to some reports, 90
percent of the couples confronted with this dilemma abort their unborn children.
Would you bring a child like Max into the world? If not, why not? And if you found
out about your child’s severely impaired future a day or two after the birth and if the
doctor offered you the option of infanticide, what would you do then? As laudable as
places like Max’s school may seem, why should such efforts continue if it’s in our
power to make them unnecessary? That’s the utilitarian voice constantly whispering in
our ear these days.
The person who says yes to Max now and in the future can reason only on the basis
of something completely other than a cost-benefit analysis.
Tragically, the cold calculus of dollars and cents already determines many life-anddeath choices being made in America and Western Europe today. In March 2004,
many people in England were horrified to learn that an unborn child who was more
than 24 weeks old—at the point of viability outside the womb—was aborted for “severe
disability” because the child had a cleft palate. This case brought to Parliament’s
attention that since 1990 there has been an inexorable rise in the number of viable
unborn children aborted because they had “severe disabilities.” Since severe disability
isn’t defined in the United Kingdom’s laws, this means that a child with any medical
condition, even a treatable one such as a cleft palate, may be aborted at any point in a
pregnancy. Of course, pro-choice purists question why we would even make such
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distinctions about the fetus’s condition. Why not abort anyone we choose? This debate
is currently under way.
These aren’t just intellectual issues. They’re deeply personal and anguishing
decisions that we’re forced to contend with in the course of life. As I looked around
Max’s classroom and ran my hands over the scarred wooden desk that he sits at each
day, my thoughts turned quickly to another logical extension of Singer’s thoughts:
Why keep people alive when they’re miserable? Why not give them the opportunity to
be an organ donor and give someone else life? If we get to the point where we agree
with that, then why would we not just destroy the miserable person?
With a combination of machines, we can soon, if not already, keep people alive
under almost any circumstances. What about the cost? Families can’t pay this. The
Medicare system will be broke in a few decades, sustainable only if taxes are greatly
increased. The demographic shifts in America are so dramatic that while at the
moment four workers are paying to support one person on Medicare, by 2030 it will
be 2.3 workers. Should we expect hardworking, middle-class Americans to be paying
an ever-increasing share of their earnings to keep me alive while my “quality of life”—
watch that term—deteriorates?
If you’ve been around the bedside of someone severely ill, you know the pressures
on the family, the agony, the continuous vigil. In the back of some people’s minds are
questions about the cost: How are we going to pay for all of this? Friends and relatives
are grief stricken over the pain their loved one endures. They’re tired, exhausted. A
doctor appears in a white coat, bigger than life—a professional, committed to curing
the sick. We’re ready for him or her to tell us what to do in this terrible, agonizing
Life and death become judgment calls, subject in some cases to ethics committees’
determinations and hospital guidelines. But who decides what our ethics will be? If
there is no truth, there are no true ethics, only prudential standards that reasonable
people try to apply. So the best-intentioned doctors in the world have to make
judgment calls, ever aware of the costs involved for the hospital in which they are staff
members. Aware of the patient’s suffering, pressured to handle as many cases as
possible, embroiled in a quality-of-life matrix, the white-coated doctor becomes god,
with nothing like God’s wisdom.
Most of us refuse to think we are really measuring life on the basis of cost. We don’t
like utilitarian reasoning when we’re forced to face it. There is something deeply,
deeply wrong about this whole mindset, in which so many of us are already profoundly
implicated. But there’s that terrible voice in the back of our minds that says: I know
what the right answer should be, but I’m sure glad that if I were in that situation, I’d
have an out. So how does one answer Singer’s seductive logic?
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Not-So-Great Debate
Disabilities-rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson made a valiant attempt to do
so. Peter Singer invited Johnson to speak at one of his classes at Princeton and to
debate him in an open forum, which she later described in a moving New York Times
Magazine piece.
Johnson, a lawyer, suffers from a muscle-wasting disease and describes herself as a
“jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin.” In her 40s, paralyzed in most of her body,
Johnson weighs about 70 pounds. Her spine is a tightly reversing S-curve. She sits up
in her chair by letting her ribs fall on her lap, with her elbows planted on her knees.
This position has become natural to her, and she suffers no discomfort from it. Her life
entails other restrictions, though. She can eat only purees, soft bread, and easily
chewable fruit like grapes. She needs help getting dressed, using a bedpan, bathing,
and doing morning exercises that keep her limber.
Johnson spoke first, building her case on the grounds that as a person with
disabilities, she is a member of a discriminated-against minority and that the presence
or absence of a disability does not define the quality of life. She described how much
she enjoys riding in her wheelchair—the exhilaration of feeling the breeze blow
through her hair.
Singer was, she observed, “surprisingly soft in his response.” He reframed the
issues almost clinically before opening the discussion to students. From time to time,
Singer interjected his views. He asked if an “individual is totally unconscious and … we
can know absolutely that the individual will never regain consciousness … assuming
all that, don’t you think continuing to take care of that individual would be a bit
weird?” Johnson responded that caregiving can be a beautiful thing. She could not
specify exactly why this should be the case, though, and her assertion left Singer blank.
The nobility of caregiving could not survive Singer’s argument that happiness is based
on preference, and despite the powerful argument of Johnson’s presence, Singer’s
arguments clearly won over the students.
The eerie thing about the whole encounter for Johnson was that she did not find
Singer the neo-Nazi devil that her disabled friends had painted him to be on the basis
of his writing. The classroom exchanges and those that followed at dinner with the
faculty were, by Johnson’s account, amazingly civil. She found Singer’s verbal facility
dazzling; he was so “respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument,
that by the time the show is over, I’m not exactly angry with him.”
Despite herself, Johnson came away from their encounter with enormous respect
for Singer. She writes that he is “a man of unusual gifts, reaching for the heights.” She
virtually applauds his “trying to create a system of ethics derived from fact and reason
that largely throws off the perspectives of religion, place, family, tribe, community,
and maybe even species.” She sees him as taking “the point of view of the universe,”
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concluding that his is a “grand heroic undertaking.” His weakness, she argues, is his
unexamined assumption that disabled people are inherently “worse off,” which she
described as prejudice.
In essence, Johnson did not disagree with Singer’s fundamental premise, only with
what constitutes a good life and whose preferences must be respected. Once she
agreed that the issue is quality of life—that there is no objective standard, only
subjective judgment about what constitutes a life worthy to be lived—she forfeited any
chance of winning the debate.
The enchantment that Singer’s benevolent-sounding reason worked on Harriet
McBryde Johnson is a clear example of how we have fallen under the sway of the wellspoken, highly intelligent enemies of truth. If there truly is such a thing as evil, do you
think it would present itself in its true character, as vicious and destructive? No. Most
of the time, evil comes to us as the hand on the shoulder and the kind voice that says,
“Let me help you.”
Drawing on Life
Without a view of God, or at the very least a transcendent natural order, there is no
intrinsic significance to life. Which is why Singer was so curious as to how someone
like Johnson, who is as good an atheist as he is, could disagree with his entirely
reasonable views. No one, no matter how skilled a lawyer, is going to be able to win an
argument with Singer without questioning his Darwinian premise that life came about
by chance. This is precisely what makes Singer and his kind so dangerous.
When it was about time to leave Max’s school, Max showed me one of his drawings.
It reminded me once again how important making art together has become for my
daughter and Max. It plays a pivotal role in their communication, providing a bridge
to Max’s otherwise-unknown thoughts, emotions, and memories.
Every parent experiences anxiety about what a child may be thinking and feeling.
Does my little boy’s sudden dislike of kickball stem from a bad experience on the
playground? Are my daughter’s new friends the result of an unhappy rivalry among
the old friends? Will my child ever tell me? With autistic kids, this universal problem
is much, much worse. Max will often become suddenly uncooperative for absolutely
mysterious reasons. He’ll throw himself around the room, exhibiting an agony about
which he’s absolutely powerless to speak; he can’t express in words what he’s thinking
and feeling.
My daughter, Emily, has discovered that if she draws for Max, supplying images
that serve as bridges to his inner world, he is able to make sense of what’s happening
around him. She’s able to connect Max’s throwing himself around the room with his
having a headache or being unhappy with an unexpected rearrangement of his room.
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Through her drawings, Emily has had phenomenal success in helping Max
understand things that happened to him when he was two and three years old, events
that frightened him because he was unable to interpret their significance. Through the
drawing he’s able to ask Emily what these events were about and whether he needs to
be afraid of them any longer. Emily takes a brush or crayon and adds a flourish to
Max’s picture, giving the piece a happy look. Max doesn’t need to be haunted by the
episode any longer. The two draw together in tears, celebrating their discovery and the
new freedom it has brought into Max’s life.
In a utilitarian accounting, such an experience is meaningless because Max’s life is
meaningless. Why, then, does Emily feel profound joy when she is drawing and talking
with Max, reaching him at a deep level? Why can I say that Max has taught me ever so
much more than I have taught him, as if Max is a gift to me? I don’t want to be
misunderstood here. Max’s autism is not a good thing—it’s part of the world’s
brokenness. Yet that brokenness has been used to enlarge my capacity to love. That’s a
very great gift. Paradoxically, Max has introduced joy into the lives of his teachers, his
mother, his grandparents, and many others because of these costs, these sacrifices.
How should one account for that?
How should Max account for himself, and why should he have to? Max is more
than happy to be alive, thank you very much. Max knows a joy and wonder that puts
me to shame. Why is that?
Let me just suggest at this point it’s because the good life is not about the sum total
of what we contribute to the world. It’s about loving. Utilitarianism knows nothing of
love. Love is the beginning and the end of the good life, however, and it’s in love that
our lives must be centered. Truth matters because without truth, love is unreal. It’s
just another sentimentality. But we know in our hearts that within us is a love that
calls out to the Love that we believe formed the universe. Otherwise, we’re lost. Failing
to acknowledge this love beyond self caused the gifted Harriet McBryde Johnson to
lose her debate with Singer. Without love, anyone would.
Charles Colson is a CHRISTIANITY TODAY columnist, and author, with
Harold Fickett, of The Good Life: Seeking Purpose, Meaning, and
Truth in Your Life (Tyndale, 2005), from which this article is
excerpted and condensed.
“The $65,000 Question,” by Charles Colson, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 2005, Vol. 49, No. 10, Page 48
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Care for Children with Special Needs
How can we offer practical help for children and their parents?
Jesus cared for the disabled wherever he went, and he expects us to model
his compassion. The first step in developing an effective ministry for
children with special needs and their parents is to communicate with the
parents about their needs, desires, and practical ways the church can
support them. In his article for LEADERSHIP journal, Steve Harris, the father
of a child with spina bifida, has outlined practical ideas to help those who
face the difficulty of raising a handicapped child.
How can the church develop strategic and effective ministry for children
with handicaps and their parents? How did King David model care for his
friend’s disabled son? How did Jesus respond to hurting people and their
families? How can we best demonstrate love and support to the parents of a
child with special needs?
Lesson #2
2 Samuel 4:4; 9:1–12; Matthew 9:18–38; Mark 2:1–12; John 9; Romans 11:33–36
Based on:
“What Parents of a Handicapped Baby Need Most,” by Steve Harris, LEADERSHIP, Spring 1985
Care for Children with Special Needs
Page 2
Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: At the beginning of the class, provide each person with the
article ”What Parents of a Handicapped Baby Need Most,” from LEADERSHIP
journal, included at the end of this study.
Many parents of children with disabilities feel overwhelmed, according to
the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities.
The sheer demands of caring for such a child can leave parents physically
exhausted and emotionally drained.
The church should be a key player in empowering and supporting the
parents of children with special needs. In reality, however, they are often
ignored within the church. People are uncomfortable in their presence
because they don’t know what to say or do, and therefore their needs often go unmet. This
leaves their parents feeling frustrated, isolated, and with few alternatives that will allow them
to function and participate in church activities.
Parents of children with special needs are often hesitant to ask for assistance. It is the church’s
responsibility to communicate with the parents to find out how we can best support them and
meet the needs of their child. Together the church and the parents can develop specific
strategies of care. These may include: specific training for lay people; development of programs
that allow inclusion of the disabled; revamping the physical structures of the church; finding
mentors to share experiences, advice, and support; developing support programs such as child
care assistance or financial assistance; and striving to understand the emotions of anger,
frustration, jealousy, and even depression that parents of such children often face.
Discussion Questions:
[Q] How do you feel when you come into contact with people who have a disability? Share
your experience.
[Q] Do you agree that the church often ignores people who have disabilities? Why or why not?
[Q] Why is it important for disabled people to feel welcomed and loved in the church?
[Q] How might communicating with the parents of a child who has disabilities reduce our
anxiety about relating to and caring for a handicapped person? Why is communication
with the parents essential to an effective ministry for such a child?
[Q] What practical and purposeful methods might be used to include disabled people in your
church while allowing the parents of children with handicaps to participate in church
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Care for Children with Special Needs
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Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: God has a plan to display his work in the lives of children
with disabilities.
Read John 9:1–41. God had a plan for the blind man in this story. His parents had faced not
only the grief of a child born blind, but the judgmental finger pointing of a society that believed
that suffering, illness, and calamity were the result of sin. Even the disciples assumed this man
was blind because of sin, and they asked Jesus who was to blame—the man or his parents. Yet
Jesus did not condemn the blind man or his parents; instead he demonstrated unconditional
love and genuine compassion. God used this man’s blindness to glorify himself and to bring the
blind man to a point of belief in Jesus. Not only did Jesus heal his vision, he opened the eyes of
his heart to salvation.
Read Romans 11:33–36. No one can know the mind of God. We do not know why God allows
suffering in the lives of those he loves, but God has a plan to accomplish his will in the lives of
children with disabilities, just as he does in all people. Our role as believers is to help the
parents of such children cope with their heart-breaking grief and difficult journey with a faith
that clings to Jesus for hope, strength, and comfort. When we do not understand God’s ways,
we must not try to come up with our own answers. Instead, we must trust God’s heart and find
ways to minister to his children who are in pain.
[Q] How might the assumption that sin causes handicaps affect how such children and their
parents are treated?
[Q] A similar situation today might be the guilt a mother may take on herself that she did
something wrong during her pregnancy. How might this attitude create false guilt that
would hinder her relationship with God?
[Q] In the story in John 9, in what ways did the blind man’s life glorify God? How might God
be glorified when a child with disabilities is not healed?
After the blind man was physically healed and had given Jesus credit for the miracle, the
Pharisees accused him of being steeped in sin since birth, and they evicted him from the
[Q] Why do you think Jesus went to look for the man after this happened? How did this
demonstrate Jesus’ love and compassion for the man? How did Jesus offer emotional and
spiritual healing at this time?
Optional Activity
Sometimes a child’s handicap is a direct result of a parent’s choices, like drug or alcohol
abuse. Consider the following scenario: A young woman in your church has had a baby that
is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The child has handicaps that likely include retardation.
The Child Welfare System has intervened to protect the child from further abuse by the
mother. The mother attends church irregularly and has few friends. She comes to the elder
board for help. She admits that she is an alcoholic and says that she wants to quit drinking
and raise her child. Form a mock elder board and discuss how you might best help this
woman and her child.
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Care for Children with Special Needs
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Teaching point two: We demonstrate love to the parents of a child with special
needs when we help care for their child.
Read 2 Samuel 4:4 and 2 Samuel 9. David showed kindness to Mephibosheth because of his
great love for Mephibosheth’s father, Jonathan. King David provided physical assistance to
Mephibosheth by restoring to him all of his grandfather Saul’s land and possessions. He also
provided servants to farm the land since Mephibosheth was unable to do this himself. David
provided emotional support for Mephibosheth by inviting him to eat at his table as if he were
one of his own sons. Since David was faithful, righteous, and upright in heart (1 Kings 3:6), it is
likely that David also cared for Mephibosheth spiritually. David demonstrated his love for
Jonathan by caring and providing for Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth.
When we help care for a child who has handicaps, we demonstrate love to not only the child but
to her parents. Caring for such a child may entail providing for physical needs like helping to
raise money for a special wheelchair or medical expenses, or caring for the child while a parent
is away. It also necessitates emotional support and encouragement of the child. This can be
demonstrated by physical touch, taking time to listen, playing games, or simply offering a
smile. We can care for a handicapped child spiritually by loving her with the love of Jesus.
Holding a child on your lap during Sunday school, coloring pictures of Jesus with her, and
telling her how much Jesus loves her are a few ways we can care for her spiritually. The best
way to support the parents of a child who has special needs is to love and support their child.
[Q] Mephibosheth referred to himself as a “dead dog.” What does this imply about how
handicapped people were treated at this time? What does it imply about Mephibosheth’s
[Q] How did David respond to Mephibosheth’s stunned disbelief that David would care for
him? How was David’s response similar to how God responds to us with unconditional
love? How can we practically demonstrate unconditional love to a special-needs child?
[Q] Why did King David believe he could demonstrate kindness to Jonathan by caring for
[Q] How can you develop a relationship with a child you know who has disabilities, as David
did with Mephibosheth?
Teaching point three: Help the parents of children with special needs to “carry
the mat” of their child to Jesus.
Read Mark 2:1–12. Faithful, devoted friends carried the mat of the paralytic to Jesus. They
courageously fought the crowd and developed a creative strategy to accomplish their task.
These four friends worked together to fulfill their purpose. They had a strong faith, and
believed that Jesus could help and heal their friend.
One way to help the parents of children with special needs is to assist them to “carry the mat” of
their child to Jesus. This includes practical assistance and prayer. In faith, we can bring the
child and his parents to the feet of Jesus through prayer. We can ask the parents for specific
prayer requests to be brought to the Father. We can offer physical assistance in caring for the
child in simple ways, like assisting to get them in and out of a wheelchair so that they can
attend church, or in bigger ways like being trained to care for the child in Sunday school. As the
four friends struggled through the crowd, we may need to help parents advocate for the cause
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Care for Children with Special Needs
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of their child. Just as the four friends found a creative way to help the paralytic, we can help our
friends find assistance programs, available sources of financial aid, and the best education
programs. We can help them plan for the future of the child. Most importantly, just as the
friends of the paralytic helped keep him focused on Jesus, we can help the parents to stay
focused on Jesus as their source of comfort and strength, and as their child’s healer—if not here
on Earth, then in heaven.
[Q] Four friends worked together to bring the paralytic to Jesus. How can the church bring
children with disabilities and their families to the feet of Jesus?
[Q] Through what opposition did the four friends persevere to bring their friend to Jesus?
Why is perseverance essential when we are aiding the handicapped?
[Q] The four friends dug a hole in the roof to lower the paralyzed man to Christ. Why might
creative thinking be an important part of meeting the needs of the disabled?
[Q] When Jesus saw the faith of this courageous crew, he told the paralyzed man that his sins
were forgiven. How can our faith assist a child with disabilities and his parents?
Teaching point four: Jesus calls us to follow his pattern and care for the needs
of the harassed and helpless people on Earth.
Read Matthew 9:18–38. Everywhere Jesus went, he cared for the disabled and their loved ones,
demonstrating that God loves all people, regardless of their physical or mental abilities. Our
value is based on the fact that we are created and loved by the God of the universe, not on our
talents, intellect, physical ability, or outward appearance. God gives all of these outward
manifestations anyway; they are not something for which we can take credit. Therefore, God
does not look at our outward appearance, but at our heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
When Jesus looked out on the crowds in the towns and villages he traveled, he had compassion
for the people because they were harassed and helpless. He not only attended to their physical
needs, but to their emotional and spiritual pain and confusion. Jesus urged his disciples to
notice and care for the needs of the broken, needy people that surrounded them. The struggles
of the people on earth are many, but the workers are few. Jesus wants us to desire to be
workers in the harvest field of God—being his hands and his feet—caring for the physical,
emotional, and spiritual needs of people and ultimately bringing them to Christ.
[Q] How did Jesus respond to the ruler who begged for his daughter’s life? What does Jesus’
response tell you about his compassion for the parents of the ill or disabled?
[Q] How did Jesus respond to the crowd in the ruler’s house? Why do you think he sent them
away? What emotional impact would their presence and activity have had on the ruler?
How did this demonstrate Jesus’ care for the ruler’s emotional well being?
[Q] “Take heart, daughter,” Jesus said to the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.
What did these simple words reveal about Jesus’ understanding of the woman’s
emotional struggles with this illness? How did Jesus encourage her spiritual life?
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Care for Children with Special Needs
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[Q] Jesus used physical healing as an outward symbol of the inward spiritual healing that
every person must find in Christ. Since Jesus already knew the hearts of the blind men,
why did he ask them about their faith before healing them?
[Q] How might caring for the physical needs of people be a tool to help bring in the harvest as
Jesus commanded?
Apply Your Findings
Jesus continually cared for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the disabled. As his
followers, we need to model Jesus’ compassion. One way to do this is to assist the parents of
children who have special needs. The church needs to find concrete, practical ways to assist in
this endeavor.
Action Point: As a small group, discuss practical ways to help children with special needs in
your church. Use Steve Harris’s article as a beginning point. Talk to the parents of children with
disabilities in your church for suggestions and advice. Consider practical, emotional, and
spiritual needs. Implement your ideas.
—Study prepared by Julie Kloster, former special education teacher, sibling of a
mentally impaired brother, freelance writer, and regular contributor to
Additional Resources
-A Christian View of the Disabled
-Encouragement for Caregivers
Common Sense Not Needed – Revised, Corrie ten Boom (Christian Literature
Crusade, 1994; ISBN 0875083099)
The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Autism, Adelle Jameson Tilton
(Adams Media Corporation, 2004; ISBN 1593370415)
Exceptional Teaching, Jim Pierson (Standard Publishing, 2002; ISBN 0784712557)
In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen
(Crossroad, 1989; ISBN 0824512596)
It’s So Much Work To Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities
Find Social Success, Richard Lavoie (Simon & Schuster Trade Sales, 2005; ISBN
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What Parents of a Handicapped Baby Need
Practical ideas to help those who face this difficulty.
By Steve Harris, for the study “Care for Children with Special Needs.”
As a pastor, I know that the most enjoyable call is a visit to
the maternity ward to congratulate new parents. But what
happens when news comes that the child has serious handicaps?
As a parent of a child with spina bifida, I’ve learned what kinds
of ministries are most deeply appreciated. Here’s what a pastor
or layman can do in the first 24 hours to help the hurting family.
1. Be there. Your very presence at the hospital is an
important statement of love and concern. The new parents,
bombarded with an onrush of doctors, nurses, specialists, and
social workers, will appreciate a familiar face. Often immediate surgery will be needed.
The “ministry of presence” can be powerful.
2. Be ready for varied emotions. The young couple will probably be feeling dozens
of emotions at once: joy, sadness, anxiety, guilt, apprehension, confusion, anger. Be
ready to absorb those emotions without judgment or analysis. This is a time when
listening is a very special gift.
3. Attend to needed celebrations. A child, a beautiful gift from God, has entered the
world. Help the couple, and the church, to celebrate that miracle. Make sure all of the
“regular” festivities are planned and carried out: the rosebud on the pulpit, flowers to
the hospital, showers (if possible). At an appropriate time, speak with the parents
about any desire to have the child baptized or dedicated. Don’t avoid the needed
4. Don’t forget the grandparents. The birth of a child, especially a handicapped
child, affects not just the two parents but the entire family. Help the grandparents
express the joy and grief they might be feeling.
5. Consider practical needs. The church family, if mobilized, is an excellent
resource to help meet practical needs facing the new parents, who are often in an
emotional fog. They often need help with food, transportation, or details. The day
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What Parents of a Handicapped Baby Need Most
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following Matthew’s birth, my senior pastor arranged to have my car inspection
sticker renewed, a practical matter I’d clearly forgotten.
6. Recommend community support groups. It helps to be aware of local groups
that might be able to give special empathy to the new parents. The local hospital or
March of Dimes can provide addresses and information.
7. Suggest relevant resources. Become aware of available resources that will
minister to the young family in their need. Search your local or online Christian
bookstore, or get recommendations from others who have dealt with this.
8. Be a catalyst for prayer. Offer prayer support and alert others to pray. My
friend John, pastoring at a camp, mobilized 250 junior campers to pray for Matthew.
He later drove three hundred miles to tell us about it and to pray with us.
9. Be a continuing friend. Even on that first day, realize the situation will call for
extended concern, love, and prayer. Making plans for regular follow-up and visitation
will assure the family that they will be supported, which goes a long way toward easing
the loneliness they feel.
Being aware of the unique needs associated with the birth of a handicapped child
can have a strategic and effective ministry to the parents and family—even in the first
24 hours. It takes prayer, some preparation—and the courage to face a situation we
wish had never happened.
“What Parents of a Handicapped Baby Need Most,” by Steve Harris, LEADERSHIP, Spring 1985
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A Christian View of the Disabled
Disabilities among us present challenges—often, to our attitudes,
ambitions, and Christian faith.
Disabilities at birth are becoming rarer in Western countries. One good
reason is that widely available and excellent health care has improved the
chances of having a healthy baby. One bad reason is that disabilities can be
detected now well before birth and couples may choose not to bring the
pregnancy to term. Western societies still struggle with accepting
challenging conditions and needy lives.
In this study we’ll be asking: What are the main bioethical issues parents
face when grappling with bringing children with disabilities into the world?
What perspective can biblically grounded faith bring into bioethical
dilemmas, both to parents and to those who stand by them? What can the
local church do to strengthen support for children with disabilities?
Lesson #3
2 Samuel 9:3–11; Job 19:21–27; Luke 7:3–10, 9:37–43a; Philippians 2:1–4, 3:7–14
Based on:
“A More Perfect Society,” by Angela Beise, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 2005, Vol. 49, No. 7, Page 49
A Christian View of the Disabled
Page 2
Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each person the article “A
More Perfect Society” from CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine (included at the
end of this study).
Early in her reflection, Angela Baise identifies a child’s disability in her
family. “Michael is 8 years old and has a rare genetic chromosomal
disorder called 18Q-minus.” While not many children have Michael’s
specific disability, pre- and postnatal treatments and therapies have
enabled many children with various disabilities to find some quality of life.
Yet, as Baise also notes—and as anyone with disabled children can attest—
there is grief and challenge to face on a daily basis.
Baise and her husband live in France, where they serve on the mission field. They find that
there are fewer disabled children in that country, and fewer services and space available for
therapy, education, and integration in society. If expectant French couples discover that their
child will have some significant disability, many end the pregnancy. Two bioethical questions
surface in this scenario: What should parents do if they become aware of a pending disability in
a child in utero? How should society deal with imperfect children when most people seek lives
with no defects, illnesses, or physical challenges?
In the end, the primary bioethical issue for a Christian is not whether to bring such a child into
the world. There is an equally important issue: how do we deal with imperfection, weakness,
and neediness in others?
Discussion starters:
[Q] Describe a family you know who has a child with disabilities. (Be sure to respect family
privacy by not divulging names freely.) What are some of the challenges they face? What
ethical decisions have they wrestled with? In what way(s) have you been able to support
or help them?
[Q] Think of some disabilities for which there is a greater survival rate now than a decade ago,
or a generation ago. What medical advances have made this possible? What kinds of
improvements have occurred in quality of life? What problems continue?
[Q] What are some of the social and educational advances that have occurred for children
with disabilities?
[Q] How does society still need to improve in educational and social services, activities, and
[Q] How have churches improved outreach and pastoral care to children with disabilities and
their parents? Does your church minister effectively to these people? In what ways? What
improvements need to take place?
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A Christian View of the Disabled
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Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: God views with profound grace those who face physical
challenges—and calls us to do the same.
Read 2 Samuel 9:3–11. King David sought in a positive way to resolve remaining issues with
Saul’s household. In the final piece of business, David provided for Mephibosheth, who was
crippled in both feet, probably from birth. In fact, Mephibosheth referred to himself as a “dead
dog” in David’s sight, for he recognized his great dependence on his household for even the
most basic care.
In ancient times, there were no medical treatments to sustain disabled children or heal
disabilities. If these children survived childhood, they continually depended on parents for
their needs and often were hidden away from participation in work and worship. Jewish
communities were no exception. David demonstrated God’s grace by providing for
Mephibosheth’s needs and ensuring that he had a roof over his head and meals to eat in the
royal household.
Read Job 19:21–27. Job lived a healthy, happy, and holy life until Satan tested him to the
uttermost. He lost his children to death, and his wife grieved profoundly. Then Job became
physically disabled. The people around him believed he had done something wrong and
concluded that his physical challenges stemmed from sin. Even three close friends, who sought
to minister to him and comfort him, said that he needed to repent from whatever he did to
offend God.
In some circles today, there remains a belief that physical disability is a result of sin, or of
falling out of the Lord’s favor—whether of the individual or the parents. After all, one might
reason, God creates people to be healthy. Job moves beyond that to claim that his Redeemer
lives and that Job will be able to stand before the Lord in the midst of his challenges and
sufferings and be received into God’s presence. Angela Baise says, “As disabled children are
becoming more rare, I wonder if medical technologies are robbing affluent societies of an
underappreciated wealth.” Perfection does not matter, but compassion does. As she says of her
other children, “One would think that this would have made them bitter and discontented.
Amazingly, it has done exactly the opposite. They are thankful, giving, and tolerant to difficult
and unlovely people.”
[Q] Why do some people claim that disability is evidence of sin in a person’s life? How, if at
all, is disability in children connected to sinful acts or a sinful condition?
[Q] What is the value of David’s approach to Mephibosheth? Have you ever known of such a
situation in contemporary life in your family or among friends? What are the costs of such
compassion? What are the benefits?
[Q] Why do Job’s three friends have a poor approach to Job’s situation? What would have
been a better approach?
[Q] What do you think of Angela Baise’s statement that physical disabilities can create
bitterness and discontent in a family? Why would siblings feel this way? Why would
parents struggle with these feelings? How could it be that siblings instead become
“thankful, giving, and tolerant to unlovely people”?
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A Christian View of the Disabled
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[Q] Describe some evidence of God’s grace in the midst of a child’s disability. What are some
ways they demonstrate that they are “underappreciated wealth”?
Teaching point two: In Jesus’ ministry, God reaches into the broken and the
challenged who are ready and willing to receive his healing.
Read Luke 7:3–10. As Jesus entered the town of Capernaum, a Roman official, a centurion,
learned of his presence. A valued servant was gravely ill and near death, and the centurion,
though a pagan, seemed to know that Jesus was capable of great healing. So he sent the Jewish
elders of the community to seek Jesus’ healing help, and Jesus began to make his way to the
centurion’s house—no doubt a distinguished place in Capernaum. As the centurion learned that
Jesus soon would arrive, he sent friends with a message: I am not worthy to receive you, but
only say the word and my servant will be healed. Why? The centurion added, “For I myself am
a man under authority, with soldiers under me,” and he notes that his servants and soldiers
obey his word.
Angela Baise raises an interesting point when she asks, “Could it be that the special-needs,
‘imperfect’ people have that balancing effect on society as a whole? How would love and
compassion develop among people who were only surrounded by the lovely and intelligent?”
The centurion understood that, as he was under authority, so was Jesus. So the scales of
authority now balance in the centurion’s view. Jesus’ healing word revealed God’s power. Even
more, Jesus’ words of healing and compassion brought about a miracle. God works that way to
heal the physically broken and inspire those who care for them.
Read Luke 9:37–43a. Disabilities in children are not only physical in nature. They can have
emotional or intellectual disabilities. Sometimes the complex combination of challenges seems
overwhelming. In this story, Jesus heals the boy with an evil spirit. In ancient times, societies
viewed people that manifested certain behaviors as being possessed. In this story, the boy’s
problem has many physical consequences. Luke, the great physician, noted that after the boy
manifested terrible convulsions, “Jesus rebuked the spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to
his father.”
No doubt the boy faced much therapy of the type appropriate to the time. In a way, the father’s
work may have just begun. As Angela Baise says of her son Michael, “It’s often embarrassing to
have a child who cries out in public for no reason, looks different, and acts different. He won’t
be at the top of his class, won’t be the best athlete, and will probably never be voted Most
Beautiful or Most Likely to Succeed.” But God’s grace has opened up the opportunity to love
and encourage.
[Q] Note that the centurion never talked directly with Jesus or made a direct request for the
healing of his servant. Why not? What prompted Jesus to listen, even indirectly, to his
request? How can we bring a child’s disability before various professionals? Before God
[Q] How does society deal with multiple disabilities? How are mental or behavioral
disabilities distinguished from “growing pains” or different learning styles, especially in
boys? How would the boy with the evil spirit be handled in today’s schools, churches, and
homes? In what ways can we pray for discernment in meeting children’s needs?
[Q] What are some of the bioethical issues in dealing with multiple disabilities and behavioral
problems? Is it always right or necessary to medicate? What do we do with those who do
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A Christian View of the Disabled
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not want to go the medication route to deal with a diagnosed disability—for example,
parents who disagree with a diagnosis of ADHD?
Teaching point three: The fellowship of believers embraces all who seek Jesus
and encourages them to look compassionately to one another’s interests.
Read Philippians 2:1–4. Angela Baise points to this section of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
and says, “As I pondered this potential ‘perfect’ society, one verse from the Bible kept coming to
my mind: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit’ (Phil. 2:3). Parenting a child with
special needs makes living out this verse a little easier.” Note that another section of this verse
follows: “But in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
So often, Baise suggests, parents live out their dreams through their children. Disabilities may
put an end to dreams fueled by powerful pride and selfish ambition. Sometimes, just to make it
to adulthood and to some degree of independence may be the greatest accomplishment of a
child, she suggests, and compassion may be the greatest trait a parent can have. Paul suggests
to the Philippians: imitating Christ’s humility, and bearing the challenges and sufferings of
others, may be the greatest life we can live.
Read Philippians 3:7–14. Angela Baise says that one of the prices paid by the “perfect society” is
vain conceit lived out through children. As Paul says, however, we count all as loss in our own
lives compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ—and helping others to live for
Christ to the extent that they can. Paul adds that we must forget what lies behind and strain
forward for what lies ahead—the heavenward prize of eternal life. One of the great lessons
learned by families with a disabled or challenged child—and those who minister to them—is to
look compassionately to another’s interests, and thereby to grow closer to Christ themselves.
[Q] How do parents demonstrate selfish ambition and vain conceit? What is such a view of
the “perfect society”—or, better yet, the perfect family?
[Q] What are some ways children can blemish the image of a perfect family? What happens
when disabilities are part of the challenge?
[Q] What are some of the best ways to demonstrate compassion to special-needs and/or
disabled children and their families? What are some unhealthy approaches that appear to
mirror compassion? What are some of the results of Christian compassion?
[Q] Angela Baise says, “My nephew, who is a year younger than Michael, loves to help at his
school with the class of students with special needs—or as he puts it, “the class like
Michael.” I see my husband kiss our son’s often expressionless, crooked little face, and my
heart nearly bursts with a love and joy that I can hardly contain.” What are some of the
perspectives that change—both ethically and emotionally—in dealing with children with
Apply Your Findings
Psalm 139:13–14 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s
womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful; I
know that full well.”
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A Christian View of the Disabled
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What if parents bring a child into the world when they know that such a child has significant
physical, mental, or emotional disabilities? How can they believe that such a child has been
made by the hand of an omnipotent God? That is the theological issue behind the bioethical
dilemma. Most family members, friends, church members, and even pastors do not know what
to say.
Angela Baise has wrestled with this question directly. She finishes her reflection by asking, “I
wonder, if our advanced technologies successfully eliminate the weak and needy, will future
scholars, theologians, politicians, and poets ponder: ‘Why has our society become less loving,
so selfish, so intolerant, so uncommitted to anything outside of individual gain? Why are we so
full of selfish ambition and vain conceit?’ Will this more ‘perfect’ society be a place where any of
us would want to live?” Children with disabilities demonstrate the imperfections of humanity—
yet they challenge believers to understand that we do not live in a perfect society—and we won’t
until all of us are made physically and spiritually whole in heaven in the presence of God in
[Q] What would it take to start a Christian education program for special-needs children in
the local church? How can their faith be shaped and nurtured? How do we invite them
into a relationship with Jesus Christ?
[Q] Why do people long for a “perfect” society? How does the perfect society many strive for
on earth differ from the kingdom of God?
[Q] What are some challenges on the horizon spiritually and practically in dealing with
children with disabilities? Do you think the bioethical problems will be different? Why or
why not? What are some comments you want to add to the conversation?
— Study by John Throop, a writer on theology, ethics, and church ministry and
the executive director of the Association for Volunteer Administration.
Additional Resources
Bioethics (4-week study course)
Souls on Ice
How We’re Buying into Gene Therapy Research
Can We Clone God’s Image?
Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
Moral Battle for Stem Cells
His Name Is Joel: Searching for God in a Son’s Disability, Kathleen Deyer Bolduc
(Bridge Resources, 1999; ISBN 1578950341)
No Disabled Souls: How to Welcome a Person with a Disability into Your Life and
Your Church, Jim Pierson (Standard Publishing, 1998; ISBN 0784707685)
Strong at the Broken Places: Persons with Disabilities and the Church, Stewart D.
Govig (Westminster John Knox Press, 1989; ISBN 0804211531)
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A Christian View of the Disabled
Page 7
Surprised by Suffering, R. C. Sproul (Tyndale House Publishers, 1994; ISBN
When God Weeps, Rev. Steve Estes and Joni Eareckson Tada (Zondervan, 2000;
ISBN 0310238358)
Why Me?: A Doctor Looks at the Book of Job, by Diane M. Komp (InterVarsity Press,
2001; ISBN 0830823301)
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A More Perfect Society
Why I wouldn’t want to live there.
By Angela Beise, for the study, “A Christian View of the Disabled”
Recently my son’s teacher said something that shook me to
the core of my being. Michael is 8-years-old and has a rare
genetic chromosomal disorder called 18Q-minus.
After my husband and I moved to France three years ago with
our four children to work in missions, we were surprised to find
that France does not have many schools for disabled children.
The society in general isn’t friendly to the disabled. In our area of
Paris alone, there are 300 special-needs children on a waiting list
for a place in a school. For three years, we have searched for a
school for Michael, but to no avail. Fortunately we have a teacher who comes to the
house twice a week to work with him.
As she was leaving our house after a therapy session, she advised us to apply to a
couple of schools that are specifically for children with Down syndrome, even though
Michael does not have Down. Then she made the shocking statement. “Schools for
Down children are starting to take children with other syndromes since Down is
becoming so rare,” she said. “Now that tests can tell so early in pregnancy that a baby
has Down, fewer people are choosing to have them.”
Michael has benefited greatly from incredible advances in medical technology. He
was born with a cleft lip and palate, and feet that required extensive surgery. I am
grateful for the doctors and technologies that have met his needs. But as disabled
children are becoming more rare, I wonder if medical technologies are robbing
affluent societies of an underappreciated wealth.
In the days following this teacher’s remark, I tried to imagine a society devoid of
people with disabilities. What if any and all babies with special needs were to be
eliminated? What would a society look like if everyone were “normal,” if we never had
to make provisions for and exceptions for people who are deaf, blind, mute, or lame?
I didn’t have to look any farther than my own family to start finding answers. My
children are among the most unselfish people I have ever known. Brian, 19, Melissa,
17, and Rachel, 13, have made sacrifices, too many and too big to count, for their
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A More Perfect Society
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disabled sibling. One would think that this would have made them bitter and
discontented. Amazingly, it has done exactly the opposite. They are thankful, giving,
and tolerant to difficult and unlovely people.
Could it be that the special-needs, “imperfect” people have that balancing effect on
society as a whole? How would love and compassion develop among people who were
only surrounded by the lovely and intelligent? My children treasure nothing more
than a smile or kiss, sometimes just eye contact, from their little brother. My nephew,
who is a year younger than Michael, loves to help at his school with the class of
students with special needs—or as he puts it, “the class like Michael.” I see my
husband kiss our son’s often expressionless, crooked little face, and my heart nearly
bursts with a love and joy that I can hardly contain.
As I pondered this potential “perfect” society, one verse from the Bible kept coming
to my mind: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Phil. 2:3). Parenting
a child with special needs makes living out this verse a little easier.
This child becomes the focus of most of his parents’ time and energy. An enormous
amount of money may have to be spent on therapists, doctors, hospitals, and
equipment. He limits what dreams his parents can pursue. They grieve throughout his
lifetime. They not only grieve the child they “lost” at his birth, but grieve as they see
him struggle with tasks that normally come easy, grieve when he realizes that he is not
like other children, and often when he is in physical or emotional pain. They have little
room left for selfish ambition.
What about vain conceit? That is likely to die, too. It’s often embarrassing to have a
child who cries out in public for no reason, looks different, and acts different. He won’t
be at the top of his class, won’t be the best athlete, and will probably never be voted
Most Beautiful or Most Likely to Succeed.
I wonder, if our advanced technologies successfully eliminate the weak and needy,
will future scholars, theologians, politicians, and poets ponder: “Why has our society
become less loving, so selfish, so intolerant, so uncommitted to anything outside of
individual gain? Why are we so full of selfish ambition and vain conceit?” Will this
more “perfect” society be a place where any of us would want to live?
—Angela Beise parents her four children with her husband, Jim,
and helps lead an Alpha course in Paris.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 2005, Vol. 49, No. 7, Page 49
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Life-and-Death Decisions
With medical technology extending life indefinitely,
is it ever right to pull the plug?
Advances in medical technology have helped more and more people survive
extraordinary physical trauma. In a recent CHRISTIANITY TODAY article,
Lindsey O’Connor reflects on her two-month coma. She writes that while
life can be extended and viable beyond previous limits, there are
fundamental questions and powerful emotions for Christians to consider—
hopefully long before they are called upon to decide whether to try a
medical procedure or allow a loved one to die.
What issues are involved in life-and-death medical decisions? Is each of us
responsible for making a living will? How do we decide if someone should
live or die? In this study, we’ll address such questions and search for
biblical guidance on making these high-stake decisions.
Lesson #4
Psalm 90:10–12; Psalm 139:15–16; Ecclesiastes 3:1–8; Luke 6:6–11; Philippians 1:18b–26; James 5:14–16
Based on:
“While I Was Sleeping,” by Lindsey O’Connor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, February 2004, Page 44.
Life-and-Death Decisions
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each student the article
“While I Was Sleeping” from CHRISTIANITY TODAY (included at the end of
this study).
Every year a miraculous new medication seems to come out, an advanced
therapy or an innovative piece of equipment that helps to extend the lives
of those in critical conditions. Stroke sufferers can reverse paralytic
effects if treated with a blood-flow reversal method within the first four
hours. Accident victims can survive incredible physical trauma with new
medications and therapies. At rates never before known, people are
surviving heart attacks, aneurisms, blood clots, and other physical
Medical treatments can provide wonderful opportunities for survival and healing. At the same
time, they can present terrible choices to loved ones who wish to be faithful but who confront
harsh and painful medical realities. Patients can slip into deep comas for weeks—even years—
on end. Christians are faced with basic choices: Should we allow our loved one to die and be
with the Lord? Or, if we withhold medical treatment that could save that person’s life, are we
killing them?
The husband of the comatose Terri Schiavo wants to remove feeding tubes and prevent “heroic
measures” so his wife can die in peace. Her parents, on the other hand, believe their daughter is
responsive at some level and want to continue treatment so she can live. Who is right? Who is
loving? Who is faithful?
Discussion starters:
[Q] Have you faced a life-or-death decision regarding a loved one’s medical care? Describe
the person’s condition and the decisions you were called upon to make. What was the
[Q] Have you made a living will to communicate your wishes in the event of an incapacitating
illness? If so, how did you make your decisions?
[Q] What are some wonderful medical advances of recent years? On the other hand, what
ethical dilemmas have these advances created?
[Q] What is the role of prayer in critical medical situations? How should we pray for a
critically ill person?
[Q] Identify some critically ill people whose cases have been covered in the news. Does the
media appear to have particular views about life-and-death decisions?
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Life-and-Death Decisions
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Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: God, who is the author of life, defines the span of life in
every individual.
Read Psalm 90:10–12 and 139:15–16. Although David lived 3,000 years ago and did not know
of today’s medical technology, he did make clear that God is the author of life and, as such,
defines the span of life. David understood that as our Creator, God is sovereign over our lives,
and we have little autonomy when it comes to life-and-death matters.
[Q] Look again at Psalm 90:10–12 and 139:15–16.
David said he “was woven together in the secret place.” After creating us, does God
continue to have sovereignty over our bodies? How?
What does this Scripture mean: “All the days ordained for me were written in your
book before one of them came to be”? Does God know the outcome of our life, even
when it involves a seemingly senseless accident or illness? What are the implications
of such foreknowledge?
Do we have the right to interfere with such trouble or sorrow, or is it part of God’s
In view of God’s plan for our lifespan, do we err if we attempt to prolong life through
sophisticated medical technologies?
[Q] How do you respond to Lindsey O’Connor’s assertion that “if our chief end is to glorify
God, then we can find purpose and meaning in a life that society deems a mere
existence”? Can we glorify God in a vegetative state?
Teaching point two: God does not equip us to make completely knowledgeable
decisions about life and death—but he stands ready to guide us in decision
Read Luke 6:6–11. Jesus discerned the difference between maintaining a religious regulation—
total rest on the Sabbath—and a divine gift of healing. Jesus said to the accusing Pharisees, “I
ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
[Q] Why did Jesus violate the Law’s clear restrictions against working on the Sabbath? Why
would the Pharisees be puzzled or angry at Jesus’ actions?
[Q] What does Jesus’ decision to heal say about the importance of medical intervention to
preserve life and ultimately promote healing? To what extent are there parallels between
these two situations?
[Q] Lindsey O’Connor notes how her husband Tim demonstrated a model decision-making
process regarding lifesaving measures: research, counsel from the doctors, weighing
futility versus benefit in treatment, consideration of Lindsey’s wishes and his own
motives, and most especially, constant prayer and godly counsel. What makes this
approach a model decision-making process? What happens when little time is available?
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Life-and-Death Decisions
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Teaching point three: Faithful prayer using a variety of methods and styles can
have a profound effect on critical medical situations.
Read James 5:14–16. In the historical setting of the New Testament church, life was uncertain.
When people became ill, death often was close at hand because little was known about the
illness or possible treatments. James urged those who were sick to call on the elders of the
church for prayer and anointing for healing, declaring that “the prayer offered in faith will
make the sick person well.” Why? “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
[Q] What is the role of prayers of petition? What is the role of prayers of intercession? What is
the role of Christian service—sometimes called prayer in action? How do such prayer
methods have an impact on a critically ill person? How can prayer change the expected
course of an illness or injury?
[Q] Lindsey O’Connor describes how, through her several-month comatose experience, her
family and friends prayed for her, her husband, her family, and her doctors and nurses,
and carried the tremendous burden of service in helping the family. How do you think
these people prayed? What did they pray? How would you explain their outcome to other
families whose loved ones passed away in spite of their prayers?
[Q] What role does a church community have in lifting up in prayer the critically ill, their
families, and those who treat them? If a church wanted to start a prayer ministry or assist
families in crisis, where and how would the members begin such a ministry?
Teaching point four: Medical technology can advance God’s sovereign
purpose—or it can promise more than it can deliver.
Read Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 and Philippians 1:18b–26. O’Connor comments on the Terri Schiavo
controversy and asks, “Is there a morally acceptable line for relinquishing life support? Could
sanctity and dignity of life walk hand in hand?” As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, there is a
time for everything under heaven—including a time to be born and a time to die.
The apostle Paul demonstrates a Christian approach to life and death. In the midst of suffering
and hardship, Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in
the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!” Paul, like
every human being, has a choice between life and death—but when medical technologies enable
us to interfere with dying, do we interfere with God’s will? If we do not preserve life, do we kill?
This is the dilemma Christians face.
[Q] To what extent does medical intervention interfere with “a time to die”?
[Q] What guidelines can help us weigh the difficult choices for medical intervention? When
do we mobilize all possible technology, and when do we let go and accept death?
[Q] To whom should Christians go for counsel on this issue? How can different people—like
doctors, pastors, and friends—offer different perspectives for guidance?
[Q] Should there be limits to medical advancement? Or are we obliged to pursue every
possibility for the extension of life?
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Life-and-Death Decisions
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Apply Your Findings
In Leadership Handbook of Outreach and Care, Wayne Wills writes that medicine’s only
legitimate role is to “enhance the quality of life.” Pastors help family members to weigh the
consequences of a particular course of treatment against the benefits—and to put their trust in
God for the outcome. “When this is not done,” Wills observes, “the medical-industrial
complex’s ‘technological imperative’—whatever can be done must be done—may take control
by default.”
Medical staff can provide direction on medical options and potential consequences, but there is
no sure outcome in the vast majority of cases. That’s why, when family members face medical
dilemmas with loved ones, it is crucial to balance research and information with faith and
obedience. At the same time, there is no one right way for faithful people to make difficult
medical decisions.
[Q] Can—and should—Christians counter the imperative that whatever can be done must be
done? How have you seen this imperative at work among family members and friends?
What have been the results?
[Q] Another factor to consider is what procedures and medications insurers will cover, and
what happens if a person is uninsured. What ethical dilemmas do insurance policies
[Q] How can the Christian community have a more influential and positive role in providing
ethical medical guidance to our society?
[Q] What would happen if you fell into a coma tomorrow? Would your family and doctors
know your wishes for treatment?
—Study by John R. Throop, a writer on theology, ethics, and church ministry. He is
an Episcopal priest and is pastor at Christ Church Limestone near Peoria, Illinois.
Recommended Resources
Birth and Death: Bioethical Decision-Making, by Paul D. Simmons (Westminster
John Knox Press, 1983; ISBN 0-664-24463-7)
Holy People, Holy Lives: Law and Gospel in Bioethics, by Richard C. Eyer
(Concordia Publishing House, 2000; ISBN 0-5700-5255-6)
Leadership Handbook of Outreach and Care, James D. Berkeley, gen. ed.,
specifically “Medical Ethics,” by Wayne Wills, pp. 320–321 (Baker Books, 1994; ISBN
Medicine of God: Christian Medical Ethics for These Times, by Ruth Oliver (Trafford
Press, 2002; ISBN 1-5536-9514-3)
Playing God: Dissecting Biomedical Ethics and Manipulating the Body, R. C. Sproul,
ed. (Baker Books, 1997; ISBN 0-8010-5725-6)
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While I Was Sleeping
Why my husband finally refused to end my life during my two-month coma.
By Lindsey O'Connor, for the study, “Life-and-Death Decisions.”
My blood ran cold as I watched the video of Terri Schiavo. I
shivered at the news that this brain-injured woman was comatose
or in a persistent vegetative state while the video seemed to show
otherwise. The chill was more than just my journalistic intrigue.
People everywhere were debating the right to “die with dignity”
and wondering what it would be like to be in Schiavo’s place, but I
didn’t exactly have to imagine.
One year before the day Schiavo’s feeding tube was pulled, I
awoke briefly from a 47-day coma, only to go back under for
several more weeks. Severe childbirth complications resulted in two emergency
surgeries and the transfusion of 20 units of blood and blood products—about twice the
blood volume of my body. I remained comatose and on life support in the ICU for two
My family expected my death repeatedly during my coma. I developed acute
respiratory distress syndrome, which is often fatal, and it critically impaired my lungs.
I had pneumonia, a toxic blood infection, blood clots, kidney failure, and life
threateningly low blood pressure and oxygenation. My family was told I had anoxia—
brain damage from oxygen deprivation. I lay hooked up to a ventilator and a feeding
tube, receiving maximum doses of drugs to keep me alive. Heroic measures and lifeand-death decisions were daily realities for my family.
My husband slept and ate little. Tim juggled his job with being constantly available
to me, to doctors’ consultations, and to our family. He described our surreal journey in
e-mail updates that were forwarded by many people around the world. He also
undertook “Caroline therapy”: laying our mother-deprived newborn on my chest while
I slept, so she would sleep too.
Tim learned to be an effective advocate for a critically ill patient by researching my
diagnosis thoroughly and making the doctors make him understand. And on days
when his faith was in shock and he was too numb to pray, the prayers of others and a
Holy Spirit–inspired mind propelled him beyond his capacity. Yet the possibility of a
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While I Was Sleeping
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brain-damaged wife, or the thought that he was about to be a single father of five,
including our newborn baby, always hovered.
Our children took on responsibilities uncommon for their ages. Three birthdays
and our 15-year-old Claire’s high-school homecoming came and went while I slept.
The children discovered that profound sadness can coexist with moments of normalcy
and surprising pockets of happiness. But in the dark, a brave front gave way to deep
fears as 10-year-old Allison finally admitted to her father, “I’m so afraid of not having
a mommy.”
We experienced the body of Christ in action as our local church and others
completely ran our home and came in the middle of the night when I’d take a dive. My
fellow members of the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association held a day of
prayer and fasting, unaware that their prayers ascended on my worst day.
Three of my close friends took weeklong turns in our home caring for the baby and
children. Our eldest daughter, Jacquelyn, decided to leave her freshman year in
college to become the baby’s primary caregiver.
She also experienced a faith crisis. One night, in her car in the hospital parking lot,
she pictured her life two ways—with God and without. Was her faith in God just her
parents’ teaching to invoke good moral choices, or was it real, hers, and worth
anything at all? She pondered that age-old question: How could God let something so
terrible happen? She decided that as difficult as this was to get through with God,
going it alone terrified her. Her faith became her own that night.
Our story is like a movie shown on two screens: my loved ones’ experience on one,
my experience on another. Their story happened to me but I missed it, missed two
months of my life and the greatest tragedy my family’s been through. My story shows
me giving a happy birth, then having trouble, then going to sleep before the surgeries.
I awaken from a drug-induced coma, thinking it was the next morning, and hear my
husband say, “You’ve been here for 47 days.” Later that day, I slip back into the coma
for several more weeks, then awake to the invasion of the body snatchers, unable to
breathe or move on my own, my heart severed from my newborn.
When Schiavo’s story broke, I waded through the murky ground of what many felt
but few voiced. Many prolife Christians agreed that what was being done to Schiavo
was terribly wrong, but still deep questions swirled: Who would want to be in her
position? Is there a morally acceptable line for relinquishing life support? Could
sanctity and dignity of life walk hand in hand?
The In-Between
When Dr. James Dobson was a guest on Sean Hannity’s national talk-radio show
discussing Schiavo, he recounted my story. Add me to the list of poster adults for not
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While I Was Sleeping
Page 3
pulling the plug. Yet from my new perspective, the sanctity of life versus the dignity of
life still seems complex.
Gradually I’ve begun to remember bits of my comatose state: The swimmingthrough-mud feeling of trying to surface to awareness. The frightening dreams. The
intense and very real spiritual warfare, a battle as unto death. The fog of being
strapped in a chair with daytime television on to “stimulate” me, vaguely registering
that people were in my room, but unable to comprehend that, let alone communicate.
It was like watching someone through opaque glass underwater, visible but obscure
and unreachable. And the weeks of living in the shadowland between my coma and
full awareness, with times of frustration beyond belief.
I remember Tim holding one of my hands, a neurologist the other, and telling me
to squeeze their hands. Unable to do so or to speak, I felt my brain screaming, “Why
can’t I do this? Maybe I’m dying.” Later, my inability to use the call button left me
banging a spoon on the bedside table for an hour and a half. No one came. They
thought it was the repetitive motor response of a brain-damaged woman.
These memories seeded a need for clarity in answers and—just as important—a
passion to ask the right questions in life-and-death issues. William Temple, who was
Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, wrote that the “church must announce
Christian principles and point out where the existing social order is in conflict with
What then are the Christian principles at the heart of this argument? Two come to
mind: “Thou shalt not murder” is a protective boundary whose removal would incite
societal moral free-fall. And life is sacred and reflects God’s image, with innate value
regardless of its quality or productivity.
But if God values us, whole or brain-damaged, and there’s value in being a loving
caregiver to an incapacitated person, what about the seeming purposelessness of that
patient’s existence? A second biblically derived principle sheds light here: if our chief
end is to glorify God, then we can find purpose and meaning in a life that society
deems a mere existence. God can be glorified even through our suffering.
But how do we apply this truth in the modern hospital, especially when science can
seem to be extending suffering while extending life? When is it morally right for a
Christian to remove or refuse medical treatment? How do we determine when or if we
can remove life support from our loved ones? When is it okay to issue a Do Not
Resuscitate (DNR) order? Can we request that we not be kept alive artificially without
violating the Sixth Commandment?
My family lived these agonizing questions. Two weeks after the initial dance on the
edge came a death vigil. As I lay dying, the respirator whirred, pumping air into my
lifeless-looking body and then sucking it out. My chest rose and fell to the machine’s
rhythm, yet my lungs failed to properly oxygenate my blood. Paralytic drugs
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While I Was Sleeping
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immobilized me. Vasopressor drugs fought to keep my blood pressure up. My limbs
were blue and as cold as refrigerated meat. It did not look like I had any upper-level
brain function. I was expected to die before morning.
I later learned that 40 or more friends and relatives stood vigil in the waiting room.
My friend Sue brought our son in to join his siblings for the grim task of saying
goodbye. She said to my pastor, Brent, “So, this is it?” He nodded.
Sharon marveled at our Christian paradox through grief: “She may see the face of
Jesus today.”
Susan, one of my best friends, looked at my gray, barely recognizable body and
said, “Death is ugly, isn’t it?”
Kathy, my other best friend, said goodbye and left distraught with my baby.
My dad touched my feet and said, “I taught these feet how to walk.” He agreed with
Tim as he made end-of-life decisions.
Tim said, “Even though we have hope, there is still pain. The difference with a
Christian worldview is that the outcome is established. Even if we leave things unsaid,
we’ll have an opportunity to talk again.”
Through the long night, Tim hammered out the heart-rending ethics and options.
He cited the radical drugs I was receiving, which essentially cut off blood flow to my
extremities so the body could concentrate circulation and pressure to the vital organs.
“Does this constitute heroic measures?” he asked.
“Yes,” answered the doctor.
“So would it be ethically acceptable and appropriate to limit this medicine?”
“It would be acceptable,” she said.
Tim anguished about the ghoulish side effects and the possible dire outcome. Torn
by his pain in my suffering, he issued a DNR order under certain circumstances. Then
he rescinded it. Then he issued it again. Then, again, he rescinded it. Removing the
respirator and feeding tube was never an option. What he questioned continuing was
the heroic measure of a drug so strong that doctors privately call it “leave ‘em dead.”
“She’s suffering and she’s not there,” Tim said.
“But we don’t know that,” Susan said.
“Tim, there’s a high likelihood she’s going to die tonight, so keep your fingerprints
off of it,” counseled Brent.
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While I Was Sleeping
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Mama Goes North
Thankfully, God’s leading through the counsel of community left every lifesaving
measure in place, including the “leave ‘em dead” drug. Tim’s was a model decisionmaking process: He researched my situation; he consulted with doctors; he considered
the futility or burden over benefit of treatment; he remembered my wishes; he
questioned his own motives. Most important, he prayed constantly and sought godly
I don’t remember waking up the second time. Weeks after I woke up I was still on a
vent, unable to speak. I went into the hospital on August 30, 2002, and came home
just before Christmas, still unable to walk or breathe on my own. But in February
2003, while still incapable of driving and doing most things, I did rewrites on a book I
had turned in the week before the birth (ironically titled If Mama Goes South, We’re
All Going with Her). Discovering I could still think and write was another miracle,
since in the hospital I couldn’t read (coma can affect vision) or concentrate. I didn’t
know if I’d ever be able to resume my work.
I sometimes hear comments that Lazarus could have heard. One of my Christian
doctors said, “There’s no medical reason you are alive. You are a miracle at the hand of
God.” Tim often reminds me, “Life is fragile, so leave nothing unsaid.” In spite of daily
physical effects of the trauma, I’ve learned that radical obedience (in my case, having a
baby at 40) is worth any cost, that prayer is inconceivably important, that miracles
still happen, and that I have a faith worth dying for.
Would I want to live without cognitive awareness? Well, no. Wanting to avoid
suffering is human. Even Christ asked if his suffering could be avoided. I believe there
are times when it is acceptable and ethical to remove medical treatment from our
loved ones. But in all cases, we should weigh our desire to be released from suffering
against a greater desire to glorify God. If I had predetermined no life support (or only
short-duration support), as some have in advance directives, I’d be dead. I’d also
perhaps have missed the greatest opportunity of my life to bring God glory, because he
can use us for his purposes in any bodily state—even while we’re sleeping.
—Lindsey O'Connor is an author, speaker, and former news anchor.
Her most recent book is If Mama Goes South, We're All Going with
Her (Revell, 2003).
“While I Was Sleeping,” by Lindsey O’Connor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, February 2004, Page 44.
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Pulling the Plug
When is it okay to let go of the terminally ill?
At issue today is when life ends. At first glance, the Christian’s high view of
life may indicate that any and all steps should be taken to keep a terminally
ill person alive as long as possible. But is this really the most loving,
humane, and godly thing to do? How might Christians have been
influenced by a secular view of death?
Lesson #5
Genesis 2:7, 3:19; Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 27:24–25; Job 1:20–22; Proverbs 1:11–12, 15–16; Ecclesiastes 9:3–10; Daniel 3:13–18;
Matthew 5:21–22, 26:6–13, 26–29, 36–46, 51–56; Mark 12:30–31; Acts 7:54–60, 17:24–28; Romans 5:12, 13:8–10, 14:7–9; 1
Corinthians 13:4–7, 15:24–26; 2 Timothy 4:6–8; Hebrews 9:27; James 1:5; Revelation 21:3–4
Based on:
“The Inevitability of Death,” by Rob Roy MacGregor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, April 1987, page 24
Pulling the Plug
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each person the article “The Inevitability of Death”
from CHRISTIANITY TODAY (included at the end of this study). Because this is a controversial
subject with many valid views, be sensitive to each other’s perspectives. Try to learn from each
other’s views and experiences, rather than coming to a consensus.
Discussion starters:
[Q] What is Dr. MacGregor’s conviction concerning medical care in America today?
 How is the view of death changing in our society?
 How do doctors typically approach the application of medical technology?
[Q] Why might legalities and ethics make us hesitant to stop treatment in some cases?
 Who makes the judgments concerning treatment of the terminally ill?
 How does one case relate to another? What happens to absolutes when each case is
treated individually?
[Q] How do the attitudes and beliefs of most doctors affect their approach to treating the
terminally ill?
 Why might a doctor be unwilling to allow a patient to die?
 What do most doctors believe about their patients’ desires for health care?
 How does peer pressure affect a doctor?
[Q] How has society’s approach to death today affected beliefs about continuing or
discontinuing life support?
 What happens when we avoid dealing with death? What happens when we don’t
believe in an afterlife?
[Q] What steps does MacGregor give that may help a Christian deal with a terminal illness?
 When should the doctor, patient, and family start discussing the extent of medical
 Who makes the final decision?
 What happens if the decision is wrong?
[Q] MacGregor says that doctors have relinquished the judgment process in attempting to
sustain life. What are the roles of the Christian doctor and of God in this judgment
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 How does faith affect the doctor’s decision-making process? At what point does the
doctor relinquish his role as judge to God?
The Scriptures
“A physician’s duties are to diagnose, to initiate a treatment, to offer relief of symptoms, and
to provide a safe passage.”
—Dr. Jacob Bigelow
[Q] According to the Bible, what part does death play in human existence?
a. Read Genesis 3:19 and Hebrews 9:27.
 In what sense is death a natural part of life?
 Read Daniel 3:13–18. What did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego believe about
God’s deliverance?
 Read Matthew 26:6–13, 26–29, 36–46, 51–56. How did Jesus deal with his
impending death?
 Read Acts 7:54–60. How did Stephen respond in his last minutes of life?
 Read 2 Timothy 4:6–8. What attitude did Paul have toward death?
[Q] In what sense is death an unnatural event for us? Read the following Scriptures:
 Ecclesiastes 9:3–10: What frustrated the author in this passage?
 Romans 5:12: Why do we have death?
 1 Corinthians 15:24–26; Revelation 21:3–4: What will ultimately happen to death?
 What adjectives are used to describe death? How is death personified?
[Q] What perspective do the following verses give to life on earth?
 Psalm 39:4–7: How should we view our earthly lives?
 John 11:25–26: What does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?
 John 14:2–4: How does this verse give perspective to trouble we may now
 Philippians 1:20–24: If you choose as Paul did, to say, “to live is Christ and to die is
gain,” what difference would that make in the way you think and behave?
 Revelation 21:1–2: How should we view the end of our earthly lives? What is the
difference between life on earth and life in heaven?
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[Q] Read Genesis 2:7; Job 1:20–22; Acts 17:24–28; and Romans 14:7–9. What control do we
have over our own lives?
 Who gave us our lives? Who takes them away?
[Q] What are the differences between killing and ending life support for a terminally ill
person? Read the following Scriptures:
 Exodus 20:13
 Deuteronomy 27:24–25
 Proverbs 1:11–12, 15–16
 Matthew 5:21–22
 What are the characteristics of murder common to these verses? How do they differ
from the characteristics of terminating treatment as described by MacGregor?
[Q] How can we know God’s will when faced with the decision of continuing or discontinuing
life support for a terminally ill family member? Read the following verses:
 Mark 12:30–31
 Romans 13:8–10
 1 Corinthians 13:4–7
 James 1:5
 What attitude must we have toward the ill person before we make a decision? Whom
must we rely on to make the choice?
The Application
“To confront fears of death is to have an opportunity of growth to new maturity in dealing
with those who are now dying, and to prepare for ourselves and for those to whom we are
responsible, a better facing of life and death… . If we are not prepared to think out clearly the
personal meaning of our deaths, we become the ‘victims’ of someone else’s meaning for our
—Melvin J. Krant, M.D.
[Q] Divide into small groups of three or four. Discuss how you would feel and act if you were
(1) the patient, (2) the doctor, and (3) a family member in each of the following cases.
If you are short of time, assign each group one of the following cases.
Case 1: The patient is an 86-year-old woman who suffered a stroke two years ago. Since then
she has been in a nursing home, where she is fed through a feeding tube. Each day she is
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Pulling the Plug
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given drugs to strengthen her heart and prevent infection. She is unaware of who she is,
where she is, and does not recognize family members.
Case 2: The patient is a 29-year-old man who has had leukemia for three years. He is now in
intensive care receiving chemotherapy. Life expectancy is three weeks to six months. His
mental capacity is normal on the few occasions he is conscious.
Case 3: The patient is a teenager who was in an automobile accident. He is in a coma and only
staying alive by being on a respirator. There is no indication that he will ever be able
breath on his own.
[Q] After discussing the above cases, come together as a class and share your feelings and
beliefs. How has thinking about these examples of terminal illness affected your views of
and feelings toward your own death? The death of loved ones? What new insights have
you gained into the issue of medical care for the terminally ill?
Note to Leader: The group may come to very different conclusions as to what the
right thing is to do in each of the above situations. Be sensitive to different views and
careful to discuss this issue sensitively, with an attitude of learning from each other.
[] Close the class in prayer. Acknowledge God’s sovereignty in our human lives and the
inevitability of death. Thank him for his gift of eternal life, which eliminates our need to
fear death.
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The Inevitability of Death
Why do we have so much trouble letting go?
By Rob Roy MacGregor, for the study, “Pulling the Plug”
As a consultant in infectious diseases at a university teaching hospital, I advise
doctors on the management of desperately ill patients and observe their attempts to
restore these men and women to health. In the course of my experience, however, I
have become increasingly convinced that medical care, American style, is clearly
running the risk of extending the dying process rather than prolonging life. Both
doctors and patients are losing their sensitivity to the inevitability and the
appropriateness of death in certain circumstances.
Because of the powerful tools at our disposal, we doctors sometimes abdicate our
traditional role as servant and adviser to the sick and suffering, and become
technicians who merely run the machines that sustain “life” (defined in a narrow
physiological sense). By so doing, we relinquish the judgment of what should be done
for what could be done, and end up applying medical technology wherever possible: Is
respiration failing?—Use the respirator. Have the kidneys stopped working?—Start
dialysis. Slowly and sadly our attitude is becoming: “If we have the technical
capability, we must always use it.” And as a result, patients can be drawn into a
dehumanizing spiral in which each organ failure is met by still another life-support
We must never lose sight of the fact that life is precious, a gift from God that
cannot, must not, be dismissed lightly. But in understanding our relationship to life,
and the extent to which we should fight to hold on to it, we must also come to grips
with death. We must ask why technology is so often applied indiscriminately in the
U.S. today (an approach interns call the “full-court press”). And why we have so much
trouble letting go.
Why the Full-court Press?
Although there are numerous reasons for our prevalent “at all costs” attitude, I
shall comment on six that appear to be central.
First, we fear that electing not to pursue all available life-sustaining measures will
open a Pandora’s box of relativistic decision making about life and death. But while
the withholding of medical treatment can lead to dangerous abuses, potential abuses
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also exist in the uniform application of support technology without regard for the
likely irreversibility of the patient’s condition. Assessment of potential for recovery
may seem like a difficult process, but the high frequency with which doctors agree
among themselves (and then find that families have independently come to the same
assessment) has convinced me that terminal illness is not difficult to recognize. Our
difficulty appears to be acknowledging that the patient has reached that point.
Second, the doctor’s self-image as “healer of disease” makes death the ultimate
defeat, a blow to the self-esteem of the doctor who prides him- or herself on knowing
how to cure disease. In contrast, the old-fashioned role of doctor as helper and
comforter allowed physicians to be less threatened by this last stage of life.
Third, medical practitioners generally assume that the aggressive, high-tech
approach is what patients want and expect. In most cases, this is a misperception.
Whereas the majority of patients want to be made as comfortable as possible (and, of
course, regain good health), few desire the ordeal that often accompanies the
prolonged dying process in a hospital. Many patients now are saying, “If the chances
for recovery are not reasonable, let me die in peace.”
Fourth, significant peer pressure exists. Both doctors and families believe they are
expected to “do everything they can” for the patient. Withholding treatment could
appear to be uncaring or irresponsible. In addition, doctors do not wish to appear
uninformed in the eyes of their colleagues. To defer a diagnostic test, or not use a lifesupporting technology, might suggest lack of familiarity with the newest advances in
Fifth, many doctors and patients’ families have not come to grips with death
personally. The pragmatic, day-at-a-time philosophy toward life espoused by our
society offers little or no solace in the face of death.
Sixth, because death is seen by most as the end of personhood, people ask: “Why
not go all out? What is there to lose?” Modern medical education encourages such
pragmatic questions, but devotes little time to answering them. But the families of
many patients have learned firsthand that there is much to lose: the dignity of a loved
one sustained by a machine, the days spent in anguish and uncertainty, and the
resources spent in maintaining “mechanical” life.
As powerful as these six pressures are, they should be resisted. Loved ones, instead
of asking “What can be done?” when presented with overwhelming illness, need to
ask, “What should be done?”
Between the Lines of Scripture
Here is where we can look to the Scriptures for guidance.
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The Inevitability of Death
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Obviously, this was not much of an issue in biblical times. Only in the last 50 to 75
years have advances in medical science allowed us to prolong life in the face of even
temporary organ failure. Nevertheless, several general Christian principles have clear
relevance to the question.
First, the overriding teaching of the New Testament is love; love for God and love
for neighbor. Thus, the Christian question should be: “What is the loving thing to do in
this circumstance?” Is it loving to prolong suffering with next to no chance for
significant recovery? Is it loving to maintain hope when realistically there is none? Is it
loving to pursue a course likely to be dehumanizing even for a patient who survives?
A second consideration is the so-called Golden Rule: “Always treat others as you
would like them to treat you” (Matt. 7:12, neb). Jesus said all of God’s law and the
teaching of the prophets were built on this profound principle. When considering its
application to medicine, it may be surprising to learn that many doctors share the
average layman’s fear of a lingering death, and instruct their families that they want
no “heroic measures” to be used when their own time comes.
Third, Scripture teaches that love between God and man is “better than life” (Ps.
63:3). Thus, God does not tell us that earthly life is to be valued as the highest good,
nor have the apostles, martyrs, and saints lived this way down through the centuries.
Paul said: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Fourth, the biblical statement “just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after
that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27) is a reminder to modern medicine that normally
people prepare “to die once.” However, when trying to do all we can for the dying
patient, we put many through a psychophysiological tug-of-war with death because
our technological interventions repeatedly “rescue” the patient from the inevitability
of death. In his last hours, the distinguished physician Sir William Osier is reputed to
have said: “I am too far across the river now to want to come back and have to do it all
over again.”
Finally, the words of Jesus, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you
free” (John 8:32), seem to be applicable. The truth can set one free both from false
guilt and from the need to utilize unwarranted therapeutic maneuvers. Appropriate
care balances a respect for the sanctity and uniqueness of each human life with respect
as well for the process of dying. The physician and family can elect to make a patient
comfortable without resorting to costly procedures that prove, in the end, to be
fruitless and even punishing.
Of course, I do not advocate a position that would deny any patient the best help
available. But I would maintain that the best does not necessarily mean the most.
When disease has progressed to the point where death appears to be a release, we
must avoid making the death more punishing by a slavish adherence to simplistic
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The Inevitability of Death
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principles such as “while there’s life there’s hope.” Rather, we must attempt to discern
the Christlike response to each situation.
Anticipating Death
How, then, might Christians approach life-threatening illness?
Early in the course of an illness, the patient, family, and doctor should talk about
their attitudes regarding the appropriate extent of care. Then, when faced with a
progressively downhill illness, doctors must give the patient and family their best
assessment of the situation. (Families have the right to request this information.) It
should include a discussion of what measures could be taken to sustain life, what the
odds of success appear to be, and what that “success” might mean in terms of the
patient’s ability to function. Afterward, the doctor needs to render his or her advice:
weighing the pros and cons, what he or she thinks should be done.
After giving this advice, the doctor must step back and let the family decide. If the
choice is to pursue an aggressive treatment course, doctors must do their best to carry
out these wishes. But if the family chooses to withhold potentially life-sustaining (or
death-prolonging) measures, they can do so with the reassurance that the doctor has
recommended this course as one he or she considers to be merciful and loving. The
whole process must be entered into prayerfully.
Finally, we must accept the fact that, on rare occasions, assessments will be
incorrect; a patient who has been judged to be irreversibly ill might rally in response
to a do-everything-possible approach. However, this possibility must not prevent us
from facing these decisions. For, if we indiscriminately use all of the life-sustaining
modalities at our disposal, we also err by punishing the 99 patients whose process of
inevitable death is merely prolonged, in order to extend the life of one.
The Christian community and Christian doctors are in a unique position to act
because of our view that God is in control of life. Thus, our ultimate call is not always
to cure disease, but rather to minister regardless of the outcome. Jesus himself did not
heal all of the sick, but he set the powerful example of consistent compassion for their
suffering. Our own personal walk with Christ and the support of the fellowship of
believers can empower us to emulate his compassion rather than be driven by the
technological imperative.
Dr. Rob Roy MacGregor is professor of medicine and chief of the
infectious diseases section, University of Pennsylvania School of
Medicine in Philadelphia.
“The Inevitability of Death,” by Rob Roy MacGregor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, April 1987, page 24
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National Health Care: A Good Idea?
The Judeo-Christian teaching that human life is valuable drives us to
consider health care that may not be cost effective.
Is national health-care insurance a benefit whose time has come? The rapid
increase in the cost of medical care seems to be thrusting us toward such
insurance. But lurking behind this question is a more important one: Have
our decisions concerning life and death become so secularized that we are
blindly worshiping at the altar of physical existence where the length of life
is a higher priority than its quality?
Lesson #6
Genesis 20:1–13; 2 Chronicles 16:1–14; Ecclesiastes 3:1–2; Matthew 4:1–4; Luke 4:1–4, 8:40–42, 51–55, 9:24, 12:25;
Romans 14:8; 2 Timothy 3:10–12, 4:6–8
Based on:
“Is Health Care Spiritual?” by G. Timothy Johnson, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, September 1990, page 29
National Health Care: A Good Idea?
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each person the article “Is Health Care Spiritual?”
from CHRISTIANITY TODAY (included at the end of this study).
“By having reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relation with the world.”
—Albert Schweitzer, Atlantic Monthly
Discussion starters:
[Q] Have you ever been without medical insurance? If you have, or if there ever came a time
in which you were without it, did you—or would you—deny yourself medical attention
because of the high cost of health care? Why?
 Under what conditions would you forgo medical attention because of the required
cost? Explain your answer.
 Why do you think health care is so expensive? Who do you think suffers most under
the current system? Why?
 Do you think health care under the current U.S. system favors the wealthy and the
poor over the middle class? Why or why not?
[Q] Do you believe we should have a universal health insurance, provided through federal
guidelines and financed by general taxation? Why or why not?
 In what ways do you think private and public insurance has failed to help all who are
in medical need? Why? How do you think federally financed insurance would affect
insurance companies?
 Why does Timothy Johnson believe we need some form of national health insurance?
Do you agree or disagree with his statement that the Bible mandates such a policy?
[Q] What kind of national health insurance does Timothy Johnson envision for the United
 Why does he prefer the Canadian model administered by the provinces to a national
health-care service that is run from Washington? If you are aware of any problems in
the Canadian system, what are they? How could the United States improve on the
Canadian model?
 What evidences have you seen in the federal bureaucracy to warrant your skepticism
that any federal program of this magnitude could succeed? Would failures of
previous and current federal programs encourage you not to favor national health
insurance? Why or why not?
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[Q] In his article, what is Johnson more concerned about than whether or not the United
States should have a national health insurance?
 What issues does Johnson refer to when he speaks of “physical existence”? Do you
agree or disagree with him that most of us blindly worship at the altar of physical
existence? Why?
 Do you think placing too much priority on the physical lifespan of human existence is
in conflict to Judeo-Christian teachings? Explain your answer.
 How do you think national health insurance would relate to the issues of prolonging
death or rescuing life? Is there a way of framing such an insurance program that
would resolve these two problems? If so, how could it be done? If not, why?
[Q] Do you agree or disagree with Johnson that deeply ingrained in the American psyche is
the belief that all human lives are of value? Why?
The Scriptures
“Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my
—Psalm 39:4
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
—Philippians 1:21
[Q] How did the following people regard their physical life in the face of possible death?
 Abraham in Genesis 20:1–13
—What do we learn about God’s sovereignty in this account? Why must we believe in
his sovereignty to appreciate the true value of our lives?
 Asa in 2 Chronicles 16:1–14
—What happened to King Asa when he did not seek God’s help both when Israel
attacked his kingdom and when a disease afflicted his feet? Why does God want us to
turn to him when our life is in danger?
 Paul in 2 Timothy 3:10–12 and 4:6–8
—Why could Paul face death with courage and great expectation for a future life?
How does a life of faith make our impending death a joyful event?
[Q] According to the following verses, how should we value our lives?
 Luke 9:24
—What does Jesus mean by the words lose and save? What priorities is he setting for
us? How do these priorities enhance the quality of our lives?
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National Health Care: A Good Idea?
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 Luke 12:25
—Why does Jesus say it is foolish to worry about how much longer we can live?
 Romans 14:8
—How does Paul lessen the fear of death in this verse?
[Q] List and explain two or three biblical examples from Christ’s own life and teachings that
show he cared as much about the quality as the length of life.
 Johnson describes Jesus as not frantically attempting to heal and restore every life
and his own short earthly life as two examples of Christ not overemphasizing the
length of life. What are some others?
 In Matthew 4:1–4 and Luke 4:1–4, Jesus refuses to turn stone into bread to satisfy
his hunger. Discuss this example from Jesus’ life as a possible illustration of his
rejection of idolizing physical life.
 Also discuss how Jesus is still deeply concerned about people’s physical welfare as,
for example, in Luke 8:40–42 and 51–55 where he raises a girl apparently from the
dead and tells her parents to feed her. For Jesus, physical existence is neither to be
idolized nor negated.
[Q] Does the meaning of Ecclesiastes 3:1–2 strengthen your faith in God because it says he is
in control of your life or discourage you because it makes you feel you have no control
over your life? Explain your answer.
The Application
“Take care of your life; and the Lord will take care of your death.”
—George Whitefield
“Life, like the waters of the seas, freshens only when it ascends toward heaven.”
—Jean Paul Richter
[Q] Do you believe the Christian perspective of death should be taught in your church?
 Under what circumstances do you think it would be inappropriate to discuss death?
For example, do you think this issue should be addressed before elderly people?
Before children? When would you first talk about death to your child? Why?
 Do you agree or disagree with Johnson that the church could influence medical
decision making if the New Testament view of death was regularly preached and
taught in the church? Why?
[Q] Why is the quality of life just as important to you as the length of your life?
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National Health Care: A Good Idea?
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 List answers on a chart or chalkboard. Ask class members to explain why their
answers are important to them. Which answers are shared by most of the group?
 Which answers directly relate to the spiritual quality of life? How do they? Being a
missionary or a Christian worker in a hostile environment is one example.
 Would your view of life change if you were a child? An elderly person? An extremely
ill person? Explain your answer.
[Q] If you had to make a medical decision concerning the fate of someone very near to you,
would you want limits placed on modern medical technology as it tries to prolong that
person’s life? Why or why not?
 What condition must such a person be in before you would consider any limitations,
if at all? Why? Discuss such issues as the high medical cost that reduces the quality of
life for others in the family and the prolonging of grief for a person who is for all
practical purposes already dead.
 If you were to make this same decision about yourself in the event you became
physically ill in the future, what would you decide? Why?
 How would your faith in Christ influence your decisions in these situations? Do you
think other Christians might make different decisions and still rightly discern God’s
will? Why?
[] Close with a time of prayer, asking God to direct our government’s leaders to establish a
more just health-care system, to bring healing to those who are suffering, and to help us
raise the quality of our lives by serving him and others more.
Recommended Resources
Schemmer, Kenneth E., Between Life and Death (Victor Books, 1988). See chapters 3
and 4 in which Schemmer, as a medical expert and Christian, defines death and life.
Spring, Beth, and Ed Larson, Euthanasia: Spiritual, Medical & Legal Issues in
Terminal Health Care (Multnomah, 1988).
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Is Health Care Spiritual?
The Judeo-Christian teaching that human life is valuable drives us to consider health
care that may not be cost effective.
By G. Timothy Johnson, for the study, “National Health Care: A Good Idea?”
American society is on a collision course between rising expectations for high-cost
care at all ages and an apparent unwillingness to pay for such care. Logically, only two
measures can prevent the collision: Spend more money or deny expected care. A third
measure—wringing more care out of the present health-care expenditure level—is only
a temporary fix. Even if more inefficient and/or unnecessary care can be found and
eliminated, the increasing cost demands of new technology and labor-intensive care,
combined with a growing number of senior citizens, will eventually outstrip even the
current level of almost 11 percent of the GNP spent on health care.
Currently, the favored choice seems to be to deny care whenever possible, rather
than to give more money to an already gluttonous system. This option is supported by
two perceptions—both of which could be reversed in public thinking. One is the
understandable human tendency not to want to pay for getting sick—and the
consequent desire to have someone else (meaning government or employer) pay for
our health care. The other is the understanding that we pay more for health care than
other nations with similar values and health outcomes—suggesting that our health
money is not being well spent. (That we pay more is an indisputable fact; that our
money is not being well spent is a matter for debate.) However, as more members of
our society are being denied actual care, or at least easy access to desired care, the
debate about how to balance the spending of money and efforts to limit care will
become more urgent. The question Christians must ask is whether spiritual values
have anything to contribute to the outcome of the debate.
I would suggest that there are two very important Judeo-Christian spiritual themes
that speak intensely and provocatively to the current healthcare debate, and that are
seemingly contradictory. Only one of these values is widely held in our society, but the
other may be increasingly needed to balance the debate.
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Is Health Care Spiritual?
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A Time to Heal
The first theme, deeply ingrained in the American psyche, is that all human lives
are of value. That theme clearly stems from Judeo-Christian teachings about the worth
of each human life in the eyes of God. And even though the specific religious
underpinnings for that belief have diminished in our society, the conviction is still
widely held by current generations of adults. Translated into health-care policy, that
belief drives us to provide at least basic health care to all our citizens, something we
have always tried to do with either private charity or public insurance, and even to
consider care that may not be logically called basic. For example, in a recent
discussion on health-care policy, a doctor described the foolishness and wastefulness
of the speech therapy being offered to his mother in a nursing home. He said, rightly,
that his mother, who had suffered a severe stroke, was in no condition to benefit from
this therapy, which was costing $50 an hour. But a rabbi in the audience got up to say
that such therapy was evidence of our societal commitment to the dignity of even a
woman in her condition—and we should therefore support the effort.
Clearly, however, our theoretical commitment to health care for all has never
translated into a public policy of truly universal health insurance provided through
federal guidelines and financed by general taxation. Instead, we have attempted a
patchwork of private and public insurance that increasingly has left large holes in the
health-care safety net. The biblical call for social justice, with special attention to the
needs of the poor, leaves no doubt about the need for some form of national health
insurance that will guarantee such needs will be met.
This spiritual/moral commitment to provide basic health care for all is the easy
part, although translating it into reality and overcoming the political barriers to
national health insurance will indeed take time. The much harder spiritual value to
digest will be our second theme: that we should not blindly worship at the altar of
physical existence. Specifically, this should cause us to look at what we spend money
for and especially how much we spend for prolonging death or for rescuing life.
A Time to Die
At the heart of our Judeo-Christian tradition lies the belief that there is more to our
ultimate pilgrimage than the physical life span of human existence. The familiar
injunction of Ecclesiastes about “a time to die” often gets lost in the modern cultural
worship of life at all costs. This concept is sharpened and provocatively enlarged by
Jesus when he challenges his disciples to understand that “whoever loses his life for
me will save it” (Luke 9:24). The apostle Paul carries this liberating concept to
exquisite heights when he is able to write, “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die,
we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8).
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Is Health Care Spiritual?
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I am also reminded of Jesus’ question to his disciples as recorded in Luke 12:25:
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Obviously this rhetorical
question was asked in the context of a lecture regarding foolish worry and anxiety
about earthly sustenance. But perhaps some of our worry and effort to salvage or
prolong physical existence falls into the category of “foolish” or even “sinful.” Put
bluntly, when does the effort to rescue physical existence from the jaws of otherwise
certain death—or at least certain vegetative existence—qualify as spiritually foolish?
Even to ask this question puts a different spin on the way the matter of medical
rescue is usually approached. Typically, the question of whether to engage in
extraordinary medical effort is approached by simply asking whether or not it is
technically possible—or, today, by asking whether or not the effort is “cost effective” in
terms of the quality of life expected. Also, today, the questions must always be asked in
the context of the current local or state legal climate—an indication of just how
secularized decisions about life and death have become. But if we are to ask about the
spiritual value of our medical efforts, we are forced to bring the debate to a new level—
one in which easy answers simply will not work. At best, we can only approach the
questions in light of basic principles that can guide us to more spiritually sound
decisions about how we should use our health-care resources.
First, it is spiritually sound to accept death as part of life. If the church taught and
preached the concept more regularly—and discussed it more thoroughly—it would
become a more natural and pervasive part of our medical decision making. We need to
be reminded of this valid spiritual principle time and time again so that it
automatically becomes part of the data in specific decision-making situations.
Second, it is spiritually sound to care as much about the quality as the quantity of
life. That is clearly the message of Christ’s own life and teachings. During his ministry,
he did not frantically attempt to salvage all the lives about him—though he did heal
and restore life in many instances. By his own life example—a ministry of only three
years and a very premature death—it would be hard to conclude that longevity in and
of itself is the proper measure of meaning.
Third, it is spiritually sound to consider limits on the application of modern
medical technology. Jesus’ teachings often ask us to question the value of and the
concern for earthly existence or the comforts and idols thereof. He was not, of course,
an ascetic in substance or style. But he was remarkably free of worry about how long
he would live or even how well he would live.
Taken together, these three principles direct us to be willing to consider more
limits on the use of present and future medical technology than is now the case.
Specifically, I think they guide us not to:
Rescue very young (very low birth weight) preemies where current
medical skill cannot reasonably predict a nonvegetative life;
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Is Health Care Spiritual?
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Prolong the artificial physical functioning of a person who would
otherwise clearly be dead;
Prolong the natural physical functioning of a person who has no hope of
human—that is, conscious—existence.
This means that when choices must be made, these principles compel us to use
limited resources to provide for the basic medical needs of the living rather than to
support heroic measures for the dying. In other words, I would not deny a liver
transplant for an otherwise physically intact person on this basis but I would remove
life-support measures for a person with no hope for conscious recovery. The
secularization of health care has elevated physical existence to a near-idolatrous level,
but this need not be a terminal condition. Health care that is infused with JudeoChristian values will not only teach us to respect human life, but also to accept and
respect the inevitable end of earthly existence.
— G. Timothy Johnson, M.D. Medical Editor, ABC News, New York
and WCVB-TV, Boston.
“Is Health Care Spiritual?” by G. Timothy Johnson, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, September 1990, page 29
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Souls on Ice
Are in vitro fertility treatments ethical?
Infertility disheartens many marriages and can cause deep pain. In almost
every church are couples who desperately want to get pregnant but cannot.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a grueling and costly fertility treatment, but it has
enabled many infertile couples to conceive. It seems to be an extraordinary
medical breakthrough—and an answer to many desperate prayers. But as John
Van Regenmorter cautions in a CHRISTIANITY TODAY article, many IVF patients
leave behind excess embryos. As a result, more than 400,000 frozen embryos
currently lie in storage. If we believe life begins at conception, Van
Regenmorter asks, is it ethical to go through IVF? If so, what do we do with
those extra embryos?
Lesson #7
Genesis 1:26–28; 9:1–7; 25:20–21; Psalm 127:4–5; 139:15–16; Matthew 18:14; Mark 9:36–37
Based on:
“Frozen Out: What to do with those extra embryos?” by John Van Regenmorter, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 2004, Page 32
Souls on Ice
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each student the article
“Frozen Out: What to do with those extra embryos?” from CHRISTIANITY
TODAY magazine (included at the end of this study).
If there is a couple struggling with infertility in your study group—or a
couple who couldn’t get pregnant so they adopted a baby—contact them a
week before the class. Ask if they would be comfortable sharing their story
for up to five minutes at the beginning of the class. If they are
uncomfortable talking about this, assure them you will not put them on the
Use your judgment to adapt the study guide in a way that’s most sensitive
to class members struggling with infertility or any who may have had IVF
and left behind extra embryos.
More than 400,000 embryos are stored in fertility clinics in the United States. Collectively,
they represent the desperate dreams of men and women to conceive children. After years of
struggling with infertility, many couples see in vitro fertilization as their final hope to bear
children of their own.
IVF treatment involves surgically harvesting a woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with a
man’s sperm in the lab. Because the treatment is so expensive—$12,400, according to John Van
Regenmorter—most couples decide to produce ten or more embryos at once. A doctor will
implant two or three of these embryos in the hope that one will become a viable pregnancy. The
remaining seven or eight embryos are then frozen for future use.
A problem emerges when a couple decides they no longer need the frozen embryos. Most
evangelical Christians believe life begins when an embryo is formed. A couple considering IVF
faces difficult questions: Do they really believe frozen embryos contain human lives? How
many embryos are they willing to create? How will they protect the sanctity of those lives?
After going through IVF treatment, many Christian couples put off any decisions by indefinitely
keeping their embryos in storage. But couples like this have life-honoring options, says Van
Regenmorter, who directs Stepping Stones, a ministry for infertile couples. They can give up
their embryos for adoption through an organization that will place the embryo with Christian
parents. Or they can plan to have no spare embryos left over and commit to transferring all of
the produced embryos to the woman’s womb.
Discussion starters:
[Q] In what context have you learned about IVF?
[Q] Before today, have you ever considered the moral implications of IVF? Explain.
[Q] Do you know anyone who has had a child through IVF? Do you recall them struggling
with the ethical implications of their decision?
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[Q] Why do you think IVF is generally acceptable among evangelicals while abortion is not?
Do you think there is any inconsistency in holding these two views? Explain.
[Q] Do you think the desire to have a biological child of one’s own at the expense of creating
spare embryos can come from God? Why or why not?
[Q] Is a frozen embryo a person? Does it have a soul? How do you know?
Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: God wants us to be blessed with children.
God was thrilled with the prospect of Adam and Eve continuing his work of creation. “Be
fruitful and increase in number,” he told them. In English, this phrase sounds like a
commandment. But biblical scholars such as Ray Van Leeuwen point out that this is not a
mandate that applies to every person. In the original language, the grammatical structure of the
sentence is that of a general blessing. Procreation, and all that goes with it, is so good that it’s a
blessing God graciously bestows on us. Through the act of having children, we mirror God as
his privileged co-creators. It’s something for which our female and male bodies were designed
and something most people naturally want.
Read Genesis 1:26–28 and 9:1–7.
[Q] In telling the first man and woman to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue the earth,
what was God essentially doing?
[Q] Are people who choose to remain childless necessarily going against God’s will for them?
[Q] Why do you think God wanted us to become co-creators in an ongoing partnership with
[Q] Does the warning in Genesis 9:6 apply today?
[Q] Is “shedding the blood of man” equal to creating and then discarding extra embryos for
the purpose of having a baby?
[Q] Does Genesis 9:5 apply to the parents of the excess embryos?
Teaching point two: In God’s eyes, there are no unwanted children.
Read Psalm 127:4–5, Matthew 18:14, and Mark 9:36–37.
A distraught rape victim may not want to bear the child of the man who violated her. Happy
parents of an IVF child may not want to give birth to all seven embryos that remain in storage.
But in God’s world none of this incipient human life is an accident. That, of course, makes its
guardians responsible for it—whether they want it or not.
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[Q] How often do you see families like the one in the 2003 movie Cheaper by the Dozen?
What is the typical reaction people have when they see big families? (“You guys must be
Catholic” or “Ever heard of condoms?” are two examples.)
[Q] Have you ever noticed how the Bible refers to a pregnancy, a birth of a child, or having
children? How do biblical messages about childbearing compare to those we often hear
[Q] When the psalmist prayed, “You have knitted me together in my mother’s womb,” this
encompassed his embryo stage, which lasts through the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
When the embryo is knitted together in a petri dish, is its moral status, and therefore our
responsibility for it, lessened?
[Q] Throughout the Bible, what’s the message God drives home about “little children” or “the
little ones”? How about the weak or the defenseless in general? What difference would it
make if Christian couples who use IVF applied these messages to their embryos?
Teaching point three: Working against infertility is consistent with God’s will.
While fertility is God’s design, infertility seems to be the result of the Fall. Whenever the
biblical narrative describes childlessness, the parents express sadness and lament. At times,
when God chooses to miraculously intervene, he gives children to the barren. Fertility is always
a blessing in the Bible. Infertility is often a curse (Job 3:6–8).
Read Genesis 25:20–21.
In Isaac and Rebekah’s time, people perceived barren women as worthless since a woman’s
contributions to society outside of childbearing (e.g. in the professional arena) were limited. A
married woman’s primary value was her ability to bear children. Today, such stigma usually
doesn’t accompany infertile women. Still, many have a strong desire to have children.
[Q] There’s something God-like about the prayer for children uttered over and over by an
infertile couple. Why do you think that is?
[Q] Can an aspect of fallen human nature get mixed up in the godly desire to have children in
our own image? If so, what could it be?
Hannah was another biblical figure who asked God to take away her infertility. She prayed so
vigorously that a priest thought she was drunk. In an accompanying interview to Van
Regenmorter’s article, Amy Laura Hall makes a provocative statement regarding Hannah’s
There are evangelicals who argue that it is natural to want to have our own children so
badly that we will expend tremendous time, effort, and expertise to pursue them. … I
come back again and again to a pity section on parenthood in Karl Barth’s Church
Dogmatics. He reminds us that “the Son on whose birth alone everything seriously and
ultimately depended has now become our Brother.” The irreproducible gift of Christ
must shape the way we think about procreation. The prayer of Hannah cannot be the
prayer of the Christian woman because the child on whom our hope depends has
already been born and has become our brother. The supposedly natural, desperate
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desire to bear a particular, promised child may be changed by our faith in the birth of a
baby boy in an inauspicious manger in Bethlehem.
[Q] Do you agree with this reasoning? Why or why not?
[Q] If God admits with us that infertility is bad and having children is good, does this mean
it’s his will for infertile couples to have children through ways ranging from adoption to
IVF? Why or why not?
[Q] Consider the following ways of having children: mentoring a child, becoming foster
parents, adopting a child, artificial insemination using the husband’s sperm, artificial
insemination using a donor’s sperm, paying a surrogate mother to carry a child, altruistic
(non-paid) surrogacy, rescue surrogacy (in which a woman carries an unwanted embryo),
and IVF. What methods of having children are morally acceptable? Which ones aren’t you
sure about? Which ones do you think are immoral?
[Q] Every Gentile believer should be grateful that the family of God has no regard for blood
lines. As Paul encouraged the Romans, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we
are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs
with Christ” (Rom. 8:16–17). If the Creator of the world has adopted us as his children,
his Son is our brother, and those of us who believe in him are siblings to one another.
What encouragement can these biblical truths give to infertile couples?
Teaching point four: God’s breath of life is present in every embryo.
Read the prayer of someone who used to be an embryo—as we all did—in Psalm 139:15–16.
Allow two or three minutes of meditation.
Apply Your Findings
Think about spiritual parents you have had—people who have adopted you (though not
necessarily literally), loved you, and taught you the way of God. If it’s been a while since you
thanked them for their investment in you, perhaps it’s time to help meet a need they have or
drop them a note.
Are there childless couples in your congregation or neighborhood? How about childless single
women who you know would love to have children? In what ways could you affirm and
encourage them? Perhaps your child needs an “adoptive” aunt and uncle, or a grandpa and
Are there families in your congregation or neighborhood who are considering adopting a child
or have adopted children? Are there ways in which you could help parent their child?
If there are any couples in your congregation going through the IVF process, how could you
offer them your encouragement? If you are a close friend, how could you interact with them in
a way that would be both tactful to the couple and honoring to the incipient life that may be at
risk in the process? At least, say a prayer for them and their embryos.
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What dependent, defenseless, little life can you defend and help grow? What can you do today
to begin?
—Study by Agnieszka Tennant, associate editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and
former editor of Current Issues Bible Studies.
Additional Resources
At the Beginning of Life: Dilemmas in Theological Bioethics, Edwin C. Hui (IVP,
2002; ISBN 083082667X)
Does God Need Our Help? Cloning, Assisted Suicide, and Other Challenges in
Bioethics, John F. Kilner and C. Ben Mitchell (Tyndale, 2003; ISBN 0842374469)
When the Cradle is Empty: Answering Tough Questions About Infertility, John Van
Regenmorter (Focus on the Family and Tyndale, 2004; ISBN 1589971574)
 web site of Stepping Stones, a ministry of Bethany Christian
Services for infertile couples
 web site of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity
 web site of the International Council on Infertility Information
 web site of RESOLVE, an organization helping infertile couples
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Frozen Out
What to do with those extra embryos.
By John Van Regenmorter, for the study, “Souls on Ice”
Jim and Susanne are facing a modern moral dilemma.
Desperate for a baby after struggling with infertility for eight
years, they agreed to try in vitro fertilization with embryo transfer
(IVF-ET). Multiple eggs were surgically harvested from Susanne's
ovaries and then fertilized with Jim's sperm in the lab.
Three of the resulting embryos were implanted in Susanne's
uterus in the hope that at least one would grow into a baby. The
seven remaining embryos were frozen (cryopreserved) for later
implantation attempts, if needed.
Surprise—Jim and Susanne are the proud parents of triplets, two girls and a boy.
According to the Center for Applied Reproductive Science, triplets are unusual but not
unheard of. Typically when three embryos are implanted, would-be parents can expect
at best one baby. There is about a 20 percent chance of twins and a 5 percent chance of
triplets, depending on the age of the couple.
Jim and Susanne are ecstatic with their triple blessing—and a bit frantic. Believing
they have a full quiver, they desire no more children. They wonder, What do we do
with the human life we have left on ice?
Jim and Susanne are not alone. More than 400,000 frozen embryos are stored in
clinics across the United States. No one knows how long frozen embryos retain their
viability, but children have been born from embryos stored five to ten years.
A significant number of these embryos belong to believers. Many couples like Jim
and Susanne have considered donating the embryos to the clinic storing them. But
there is a hitch. The clinic offers no guarantee that recipients of their embryos will
share Jim and Susanne's Christian faith.
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“As Christians,” Jim says, “it would grieve us to think that children we helped bring
into this world would be raised in a non-Christian home and perhaps be lost for
Jim and Susanne and countless others who have created frozen embryos sitting in
high-tech storage have three options:
Allow the clinic to destroy the embryos. In our culture, where embryos are not
viewed as human life, such destruction is perfectly acceptable. For believers like Jim
and Susanne, however, such a solution is abhorrent. Susanne says, “We agree with the
philosophy of [Dr. Seuss’s] Horton the Elephant, ‘A person’s a person no matter how
Allow the embryos to remain in storage indefinitely. This is not a life-honoring
approach either. Unfortunately, according to Ron Stoddart, founder of the Snowflakes
embryo adoption program in California, this is the approach that most Christian
couples seem to be taking.
“Most couples want to avoid making a decision about their embryos,” Stoddart
says, “so they just keep paying their clinic a yearly fee to keep them in frozen storage.”
Donate the embryos to another infertile couple so their embryos have a chance at
life. Without doubt, this option is the most attractive for many Christians. Christians
like Jim and Susanne, however, will want to make sure that their embryos are donated
to couples who will raise their offspring to know the Lord.
Thankfully, there are Christian physicians and at least two national organizations
that gladly honor the requests of donors to find believing couples for their embryos.
One of these organizations is Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Southern California.
Nightlight began the Snowflakes embryo adoption program. Why Snowflakes? As their
brochure puts it, “Each frozen embryo is a beautiful, unique, fragile creation of God.”
Stoddart adds, “An embryo is not a potential human life-it is human life with
potential.” Through the Snowflakes program, genetic parents can choose adopting
parents who will meet their religious standards and values (
Couples can expect to pay $6,000-$9,000 for an embryo adoption through
Another organization, the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) is located at
the Baptist Hospital for Women in Knoxville, Tennessee. Last spring NEDC began an
embryo donation and adoption program. Endorsed by the Christian Medical Society,
NEDC seeks to match unused embryos from in vitro fertilization with infertile couples
across the country (
The center’s goal is “to give life to these tiny embryos and to give an infertile couple
a new name: parents.”
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Embryo donation and “adoption” is not without implications and complications.
In legal terms, there is no such thing as embryo adoption. Since our society does
not grant embryos the status of personhood, the transfer of embryos from one couple
to another is governed by contract law rather than by adoption law. Hence there is no
legal requirement for “adopting” parents to undergo a suitability assessment, though it
often takes place anyway.
Because legalities concerning the procedure remain unsettled, couples who donate
and receive embryos should have a carefully written contract drawn up by a qualified
attorney. Relinquishment of rights should be thoroughly addressed.
Those who donate embryos must also reckon with the emotions resulting from
giving their genetic children to others. And those who give birth to embryo-adopted
children must decide when and how to disclose to these children the nature of their
It is not surprising, then, that couples with unneeded embryos feel conflicted.
According to a 2003 national survey commissioned by resolve, the national infertility
association, only 18 percent of the association’s members who had embryos in storage
were likely to consider donating their embryos to another infertile couple.
Nevertheless, embryo adoption can be the answer to prayer—both for those
burdened with unneeded embryos and also for those struggling with unresolved
infertility. As one recipient of such a gift says, “To have someone say, ‘They are from
us, but they are for you,’ is the most awesome thing.”
After discovering the Snowflakes program on the Internet, Jim and Susanne are
prayerfully considering donating their embryos to another Christian couple. “We
really want to do the right thing,” Jim says, “but it will take courage and wisdom.”
Before You Begin
If a couple opts for an IVF procedure, how should they go about it? Is it necessary
to produce and freeze more embryos than are needed for implantation into the womb?
Why couldn’t a couple decide to have only two or three eggs fertilized, and then have
all the embryos transferred to the womb?
This approach would eliminate frozen embryos and seems logical and wise.
Unfortunately, it is not very practical. At the best infertility clinics, the success rate for
each IVF attempt is 25-50 percent. This means that many couples undergo two, three,
or more IVF attempts before a successful pregnancy. Sadly, some couples who make
repeated attempts never succeed.
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What is more, the process of harvesting multiple eggs from a woman’s ovaries is
unpleasant, painful, and expensive—the average cost is $12,400. Faced with such
facts, most couples who undergo IVF are willing to produce more embryos than they
can use for what is known as an initial embryo transfer attempt.
Nevertheless, a number of Christian physicians, counselors, and church bodies
offer the following rule of thumb: Do not allow more embryos to be formed than the
number of children you are willing to parent. That is, if an infertile couple feels that
they can honestly parent up to six children, then they can reasonably allow up to six
embryos to be formed.
Perhaps two of the embryos will be implanted in an initial attempt, and the
remainder will be frozen for later use. It is extremely unlikely that all six embryos
would become viable pregnancies. If such a “miracle” should happen, the couple has
predetermined that they will give all six embryos a chance at life. None of their
embryos will remain in limbo on a shelf.
This life-affirming approach contrasts with creating 15, 20, or more embryos—far
more children than any single couple can realistically parent.
—John Van Regenmorter is co-author of When the Cradle is Empty:
Answering Tough Questions About Infertility (Focus on the Family
and Tyndale Publishing House, 2004). He also directs Stepping
Stones, a ministry of Bethany Christian Services for infertile
“Frozen Out: What to do with those extra embryos?” by John Van Regenmorter,
CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 2004, Page 32
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Moral Battle for Stem Cells
Christians and scientists alike have taken positions on both sides of this
issue of embryonic stem-cell research. Some want a more open door for
this type of research and the funding to go with it. Others want a ban on all
research on embryos. In this study, we will look at the issue, its moral
implications, and several biblical principles that will inform and guide our
Lesson #8
Isaiah 44:24
Based on:
“Two Cheers.” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, September 3, 2001, Vol. 45, No. 11, Page 42
”Weblog: Bush Finds Middle Ground with Stem-Cell Decision.” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, August 10, 2001,
Moral Battle for Stem Cells
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to meeting, provide for each person the articles
“Two Cheers” and “Weblog: Bush Finds Middle Ground with Stem-Cell
Decision” from CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine, included at the end of
this study.
As the law stand now, federal funding is provided for stem-cell
research on previously destroyed embryos. By limiting research to
some 60 existing lines, this confines research to embryos that have
already been destroyed but were created as part of fertility treatment,
preventing the creation of embryos solely for research.
Stem-cell research holds promise for treating common diseases, such as diabetes and many
other rare and tragic conditions, such as spinal injury.
The family of a Texas teenager paralyzed in football practice last year feels the moral tension in
this complex issue. The couple is pro-life, but they want their son to walk again.
Joe Beene, a 17-year-old from Odessa, became the subject of a letter-writing campaign on this
issue. Many of Beene’s friends argued for presidential approval for stem-cell research. “Many
wonderful things could come of that,” said Beene’s mother. “It’s not like you’re going to be
hurting anybody.”
The boy’s pastor, Rev. Mark Riley, opposed presidential approval of funding for stem-cell
research. “I don’t agree with it,” he said. “I don’t support (their) point of view, though I totally
support Joe.”
Beene, now confined to a wheelchair, is caught in the middle of the dilemma. A devout
Christian, Beene says, “I don’t want to go against God’s will. But how do I know what God’s will
is?” (News report from, August 3, 2001.)
Discussion Starters:
[Q] Ask participants to take sides in this debate and discuss Beene’s situation. Ask for
volunteers to represent his parents, pastor, and the boy himself.
[Q] After everyone has read the editorial from CHRISTIANITY TODAY, ask the group to select
one or two of the bullet points in the section under “Do no harm.” Discuss a point or two
keeping in mind the positions represented by Beene’s parents, his pastor, and Beene
Discover the Eternal Principles
No biblical passages directly address the bioethical choices we face today. But there are general
principles in the Bible that ought to guide all of our choices. Read Isaiah 44:24–28, which
provides a paradigm that can shape our discussion of embryonic stem-cell research. In addition
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to these verses, other passages give us a broader biblical base for understanding complex
biomedical and ethical issues.
In this passage, God speaks to his people, Judah, whose wickedness resulted in the judgment of
captivity in Babylon. God reminded the nation, with whom he maintained a covenant
relationship despite its idolatry, who he is.
Teaching point one: God is the giver of life (v. 24).
A. God alone is the Creator of the universe.
The use of the words “alone” and “by myself” in God’s description of his creative process is
significant. No one can claim a role in this divine activity. Life, even through human agents, is
still God’s work. The phrase is reminiscent of the question God asked Job after a boastful
speech: “Where were you” when all creation was made (Job 38–39)?
B. God created the beings who inhabit his universe.
This verse tells us that God, who made galaxies and planets, also made human beings. His
involvement in human reproduction is framed with the words “who formed you from the
womb.” Here, he is speaking to the nation collectively (see also 44:2). God is intimately and
actively involved in the formation and birthing of his people. Before we dismiss this as
figurative language when applied to the kingdom of Judah, we must remember that in other
passages, the phrase speaks about the creation of individuals. David says God not only knew
him from his mother’s womb, but it was God who knit David together there (see Psalm 139:1316). God saw his unformed body and wove him together.
[Q] Psalm 139 is one passage cited by pro-life advocates to support their stance against
abortion. How do you think it fits into the discussion of the use of embryos for stem-cell
Does this Psalm inform us regarding human intervention in God’s process of forming
people in their mother’s wombs? If so, how?
C. Life is costly to God—and sacred.
God identifies himself as “Redeemer” as he opens this declaration through the prophet Isaiah.
As redeemer, God, who went to the trouble to create the nation, must buy his people back from
their captor-judges. Not once, but twice God redeemed his people by delivering them from
slavery. Likewise, God in Jesus Christ has paid with his very life for the redemption of those
enslaved to sin. God does not take lightly those for whom he sacrificed his Son. Therefore, life is
sacred to God, and human life in particular. Human beings, who bear God’s image, are
supernaturally born and reborn.
[Q] When do you think God endows us with souls: At conception? When our brain waves are
detectable? At birth?
[Q] Read Genesis 1:26–31. How does the creation of people in God’s image affect our
understanding of the human embryo?
Can a being of just a few cells, or even one, be said to be in God’s image? Explain.
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[Q] Some people interpret “God’s image” to mean the exercise of free will and the God-given
exercise of dominion over creation. How does this interpretation apply to the embryo?
How does it apply it the scientist conducting the research?
Teaching point two: God is the giver of knowledge (v. 25-26a).
A. Knowledge that is not from God does not glorify God.
Not all purported wisdom is from God. Verse 25 is about those who would pit their knowledge
against God’s. God will not tolerate false prophets and diviners, people who claim to know the
things reserved for God. He makes their knowledge useless. Here, God speaks to a nation
looking for answers and turning to anyone who will tell them what they want to hear (that the
worship of false gods is okay, or that the exile will be short, or that the nation will be restored to
its former glory under David or Solomon). The principles at work here are these: (1) humanity
wants answers to its quandaries faces, and (2) someone will always tell people what they want
to hear, even at the risk of usurping God.
[Q] Can you think of other biblical examples where the pursuit of knowledge was at issue?
Leader’s Note: You may wish to bring into the discussion Gen. 2:16-17, the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Gen. 11:1-10, the Tower of Babel.
[Q] Can the pursuit of knowledge that will alleviate human suffering ever be immoral?
B. Knowledge from God glorifies God.
God has a special relationship with those he commissions to his service: he does what they
predicted he would do, but first he tells them what to say (v. 26). The point at the time of this
writing was that God was telling his people he was at work in the world—specifically, in their
situation—and if they would listen to his true prophets, they would have some understanding of
what he was doing. And the credit is appropriately placed: “I will restore them.”
The forth-telling by the prophets let the people know that the events of their lives were not
happenstance. God brought exile, and God would bring deliverance. If Jerusalem was to be
rebuilt, it would be God’s doing, not a human being’s.
[Q] So, how are we to discern the knowledge that is from God from knowledge that isn’t? Or
how do we know what is reserved for God to know, as in the Garden?
Teaching point three: God has purposes in his creation and he is working them
out (vv. 26b-28).
A. God is in control of nature (v. 27).
Some events in nature are without natural explanation. Here is one example. If the waters of a
sea part, only God could have caused it. We might explain the geopolitical movements of people
groups or the deliverance of enslaved nations, but even if we fail to see God’s hand in these
things, we cannot explain away nature defying natural laws. The hearers of this verse would
immediately recall the parting of the Red Sea, recited at every Passover celebration. Scientists
might offer theories about strong winds and low tides, but even the best study cannot explain
why the seabed was exposed at the precise moment when Israel needed to cross it.
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[Q] Can you think of other biblical examples where God used nature to carry out his plan?
B. God appoints leaders to accomplish his purpose (v. 28).
The final verse in this passage is about the future king of Persia whom God would use to deliver
Judah. Cyrus overthrew Babylon in 539 B.C. and a year later issued a decree allowing the
captives to return home. Not only were the people freed, but God worked through three foreign
kings to rebuild the holy city of the Jews, Jerusalem, and their worship center, the temple. The
admonition to Judah implicit in this verse is this: don’t be surprised whom God uses to carry
out his will. In other words, God uses imperfect people in his perfect plan. As the old saying
goes, “God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick.”
[Q] How does this concept—that God places the right people in the right places to accomplish
his purposes—affect your view of leaders in the scientific community, and stem-cell
research funding? Are they God-appointed? And even if they are, should we trust all of
their decisions?
Apply Your Findings
[Q] Are there any aspects of stem-cell research that seem unanswered by Scripture?
[Q] What is the best approach to take when Scripture does not give specific answers to 21 st
century issues?
Action Point: List these three principles from Scripture (teaching points one, two, and three
and their sub points). Which points are most helpful in evaluating the morality of stem-cell
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Moral Battle for Stem Cells
Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21-22
The biblical admonition against murder is clear. But is embryonic stem-cell research the
same as murder? The embryos, under President Bush’s guidelines, have already been
destroyed. Still, some say that the federal funding of the existing stem-cell lines from
these embryos would support a culture of death. What do you think?
In Exodus, as God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, we see that one of the chief
concerns of God is preservation of human life. In the New Testament, Jesus expands our
understanding of this respect for life by broadening the concept of murder. Not only is it
the taking of life from another human being, but we are also placed in danger of
judgment when we treat others as valueless. In Matthew 5:21-22, the word raca means
“empty-headed one.” In current terms, the term would translate as “an airhead,” “a
dimwit,” or “an idiot.” To declare someone as raca means to say there is nothing of value
in them and they have nothing to contribute to society.
[Q] Does the understanding of raca used in this passage inform the
embryonic stem-cell debate?
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Two Cheers
President Bush’s stem-cell decision is better than the fatal cure many sought.
A CHRISTIANITY TODAY editorial for the study “Moral Battle for Stem Cells”
At first glance, President George Bush’s
August 9 announcement about federally funded
stem-cell research looked an awful lot like Bill
Clinton’s 1999 decision. By wriggling through a
loophole, both presidents avoided crossing the
1995 congressional ban on funding research that
required the destruction of embryos. Both plans
fund research on stem-cells derived from
previously destroyed embryos.
But there is a significant difference: Clinton’s plan created an ongoing incentive for
private suppliers to destroy more embryos to supply federally funded researchers; the
Bush plan limits the federal funding to the 60 existing lines of embryonic stem cells—
and, of course, the morally licit adult and umbilical cord stem cells.
The Family Research Council’s Ken Connor reminds us that seeking to reap a
therapeutic harvest from illicitly derived stem cells is still “the fruit of the poisonous
tree” and puts the President “on the wrong side of the principle.” Then again,
President Bush has actually pulled our society a few feet back up the slippery slope the
Clinton administration put us on. And given the realities and pressures of this
debate—in which high-profile conservative Republicans like Senator Orrin Hatch
joined the opposition—we can give Bush’s compromise two cheers.
But we give three cheers to his choice of advisers. Further decisions will be made in
connection with a “a president’s council to monitor stem-cell research.” The council is
to be headed by medical ethicist Leon Kass, who has most recently distinguished
himself in his arguments against human cloning.
Kass is no interloper on scientific turf. He is a University of Chicago-trained
surgeon with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard. But unlike many scientists in this
debate, he is not overly impressed with the moral bearings of those on the leading
edge of research. In a paper published by the Rand Corporation, Kass writes about
“the moral meaning of genetic technology, including stem-cell research”: “We triumph
over nature’s unpredictabilities only to subject ourselves, tragically, to the still greater
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Two Cheers
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unpredictability of our capricious wills and our fickle opinions. Engineering the
engineer, as well as the engine, we race our train we know not where. This…. is the
truest moral meaning of today’s wonderful biomedical technology…. It is only our
infatuation with scientific progress and our naive faith in the sufficiency of our
benevolently humanitarian impulses that prevent us from recognizing it.”
Do No Harm
Those suspicions are the best context for the president’s council, as it considers the
many unresolved questions. We call on the council to keep the following in mind:
A powerful lobby of scientists, biotech capitalists, patient advocates, and
politicians want to use human embryos (especially the frozen surplus from fertility
clinics) to find miracle cures for millions of people with diseases caused by defective
human genes or traumatic injury. It will be hard to say no to these advocacy groups
when they promise amazing cures and a virtual fountain of youth in our brave new
biotech future.
“Any being that is human is a human being,” wrote the Ramsey Colloquium in
1995. “If it is objected that, at five days or fifteen days, the embryo does not look like a
human being, it must be pointed out that this is precisely what a human being looks
like—and what each of us looked like—at five or fifteen days of development.”
When prolife politicians forget that and appeal to the medical good that could
come from embryonic stem-cell research, they create a class of subhumans (the
unborn) and falsely pit embryos against the needs of desperately sick people. They
also surrender a fundamental principle of prolife understanding: It is not right to
sacrifice one human being for the good or convenience of another.
To speak of “surplus” human life, as the lobby does, is morally offensive. No
human life is dispensable, even if the intended use is good. Parental consent and
donation of a “surplus” embryo provides no moral justification. If it did, we would
have long ago gained permission to experiment on fetuses before they are aborted.
Embryonic stem cells are not our only resource. The National Institutes of
Health and advocacy groups downplay the potential of alternative research on adult
stem cells, saying that they are hard to locate and may not multiply as well as “younger
cells.” But in early July, the Do No Harm coalition issued its own survey of medical
research. The coalition concluded that the potential of adult stem cells “is as great or
greater than the potential offered by embryonic stem-cell research.” Embryonic stem
cells may actually provoke an immune reaction in patients, form tumors inside a
patient’s body, and have not yet been successful in clinical trials.
Science has a morally tainted legacy. Mengele’s government-sponsored twin
studies at Auschwitz and the government-sponsored Tuskegee study that allowed
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Two Cheers
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African-American men to die from syphilis serve as painful reminders that scientific
research must be moral in both means and ends.
A clear principle has emerged from the global debates over human
experimentation: It is immoral to perform research on people with “diminished
autonomy.” Those who are mentally ill, significantly disabled, or immature are not in
a position to volunteer for a research experiment. They merit protection.
Our Christian faith obligates us to speak on behalf of the voiceless. A ban on federal
financing for research that destroys human embryos—a ban that we endorse—is not
enough. Privately funded, for-profit research that destroys or clones human embryos
should also be outlawed. Fertilization clinics are creating too many human embryos.
These unwanted embryos should be made available for adoption.
God’s design for an individual life is evident from its initial cell, and we should
protect that life at every stage. To be sure, stem-cell research should be pursued to
help those who suffer; thus we urge President Bush to avoid any future decisions that
condone the destruction of embryos and to increase funding for research on stem cells
from morally acceptable sources.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY, September 3, 2001, Vol. 45, No. 11, Page 42
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Bush Finds Middle Ground with
Stem-Cell Decision
Bush: “We must proceed with great care.”
Todd Hertz for the study “Moral Battle for Stem Cells”
Last night, President George W. Bush announced (video) that
he favors federal funds supporting embryonic stem-cell research—
but with specific limits and where the “life and death decision has
already been made.”
Bush drew a line in the sand saying that federally supported
embryonic stem-cell studies will be restricted to stem cells
harvested from over 60 existing genetically diverse stem-cell lines.
Derived from already destroyed embryos, these cell colonies can
regenerate themselves indefinitely.
In order to monitor stem-cell research, Bush is creating a president’s council of
leading scientists, doctors, ethicists, lawyers, and theologians. Dr. Leon Kass, a
biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago, will lead the council.
Kass has conservative credentials (including writing for First Things and being a
Brady Fellow at The American Enterprise Institute) and a well-rounded resume (he’s a
medical ethicist, a surgeon, and a Ph.D. in biochemistry). Currently the Addie Clark
Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College of the
University of Chicago, Kass is a graduate of the University of Chicago School of
He has established himself lately in the fight against human cloning with a book
and several articles. A recent Kass essay, “Moral Meaning of Genetic Technology,” sets
the context for the embryonic stem-cell debate.
Bush’s decision was a careful step into the fray. In his compromise, he found a way
to allow scientific exploration to continue while still making an ethical stand. But
people on both sides feel he gave too much ground.
Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics is “greatly
disappointed in President Bush’s misguided decision to allow federal funding of
existing stem cell lines derived from the destruction of human embryos. Science
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Bush Finds Middle Ground with Stem-Cell Decision
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should not, and need not, depend on the deliberate destruction of human life, no
matter when that destruction of life occurred.”
The New York Times reported today that many groups on both sides have found
something to like and hate. That seems true with conservative organizations.
Ken Connor of the Family Research Council commended Bush for “drawing a clear
line against future federal funding of stem cell research that involves the killing of
human embryos,” but was distressed at the decision to fund research on the existing
60 lines. “It is a basic moral principle that one cannot benefit by the wrongdoing of
others. In law, this doctrine is known as the fruit of the poisonous tree,” Connor said.
He said the compromise is a slippery slope because now the question is not
“whether such research ought to be permitted, but rather how many cell lines are
enough. Having introduced the camel’s nose under the tent, soon we will have the
whole beast.”
CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s editorial response argues that the decision “actually pulled
our society a few feet back up the slippery slope the Clinton administration put us on.”
The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity cheers Bush’s restrictions but is
disappointed he did not completely ban federal funding.
The President’s compromise is disappointing but not entirely disheartening. We
should not use tax dollars to fund research which is complicit with embryo
destruction. Since human embryos were killed to obtain the stem cell lines, those cells
are morally tainted. All the more, this research is likely unnecessary given the
tremendous progress in using stem cells from morally unproblematic sources such as
umbilical cords, placentas, and adult tissue.
Fortunately, the President drew a clear line in the sand stating that federal funds
would not be used to destroy human embryos. It is unfortunate though that federal
money will be used to promote research that, if treatments ever come from it, many
conscientious citizens will refuse because it comes from destroyed human embryos. It
is better to promote research that all Americans can unequivocally support.
Human Life International particularly responded to “fundamental issues” that
Bush discussed in his explanation. Fr. Thomas Euteneuer wrote:
Last night the President asked the question, “are these frozen embryos human life
and therefore something precious to be protected?” Of course! The fact that we as a
nation cannot answer that question is the most deeply disturbing aspect of this whole
debate. Human life begins at fertilization, Mr. President! Human life is precious! And
even though the Government is not funding the killing of these embryos, it is now
funding their killers.
Concerned Women for America feels the logic behind the decision is unacceptable:
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The President’s position contradicts the Nuremberg Code, ethical guidelines set
down after World War II, which prohibits experimentation that knowingly causes
injury or death to humans.
The President has embraced the hair-splitting logic of the previous Administration,
in pretending that it is wrong to conduct experiments on someone you have killed
yourself, but right to do so on someone who has been killed by another. The critical
moral question is not who killed the victim, but rather shall we profit from that
In a contrasting statement, the National Right to Life Committee applauded the
decision. “We are delighted that President Bush’s decision prevents the federal
government from becoming a party to any further killing of human embryos for
medical experimentation,” said Laura Echevarria, director of Media Relations.
James Dobson of Focus on the Family says Bush “deserves praise from citizens
who understand that it is never justified to destroy one life in order to possibly save
another.” He said:
Americans who respect human life from conception understand that this type of
research oversteps the bounds of morality and ethics. We breathe a sigh of relief that
President Bush has upheld that pro-life policy, and trust that he will continue to do so.
We as a nation need to understand that we can be both pro-life and supportive of
medical research. Federal funds should be directed toward funding research using
non-destructive sources such as bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, placenta and fat.
”Weblog: Bush Finds Middle Ground with Stem-Cell Decision.” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, August 10, 2001,
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How We’re Buying into Stem
Cell Therapy Research
Why shouldn’t Christians promote and participate in studies that may
help cure terminal diseases and paralyzing injuries?
The U.S. government continues to debate whether to pursue stem cell
therapy research. True, embryos are destroyed in the process of trying to
save people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries, but many feel the
government must approve such research because its job is to do the
greatest good for the greatest number of people. What’s our response?
Lesson #9
Genesis 1:26-28; 4:8-16; 9:1-7. Acts 15:1-35. Matthew 5:45b; 6:33; 7:12; 18:14; 22:37-40
Based on:
“Faith vs. Statistics,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, February 2003, Vol. 47, No. 2, Page 144
How We’re Buying into Stem Cell Therapy Research
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to meeting, provide for each person the article “Faith
vs. Statistics” from CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine, included at the end of
this study.
In his article, Chuck Colson mentions Christopher Reeves, who suffered a
paralyzing accident (and has since died). At the time this article was
written, Reeves was hoping that a cure would be found to treat his spinal
cord damage. In an appearance before a Senate committee, Reeves used a
utilitarian argument for stem cell therapy research: “I thought it was the
job of the government to do the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Senators appeared to agree with the argument, Colson says, but what’s
more disturbing is that many Christians are also buying it. What is so appealing about this
argument? What is wrong with it?
If the government really embraced this theory, Colson argues, it would have to use its limited
funds for the greatest number of people, meaning that more money should be spent on
immunizing vast numbers of Americans than on researching a cure for paralysis. What’s wrong
with that logic? Is there a better criterion we should use?
Suppose you have a terminal disease. Scientists have been experimenting with stem cell
therapy for treating that disease. Your doctor is encouraging you to participate in those
experimental trials. However, before you sign the papers for undergoing treatment, you are told
that the procedure involves the use of embryonic stem cells. Ask yourself these questions:
Discussion starters:
[Q] Could you in good conscience participate in the experiment, knowing that this drug might
be the only hope for extending your life?
[Q] Whether or not you choose to participate, how would you defend your choice?
[Q] If you agree to participate in the trials, how would you justify taking the life of embryos to
save your own life?
If you choose to reject stem cell therapy on grounds of conscience, how would you
explain that to the people in your life who love you and depend on you?
[Q] Would it make any difference to you if the embryos were cloned for the expressed
purpose of using them in stem cell research?
What if they were surplus embryos created for in vitro fertilization and eventually
would be destroyed anyway?
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Discover the Eternal Principles
The Bible doesn’t speak about stem cells, much less stem cell research. However, this doesn’t
mean it offers no direction. Scripture gives us a sense of identity (we are God’s people) and a
sense of orientation in life. Like the U. S. Constitution, which is a standard for addressing new
issues that emerge, we must continue to revisit the Bible, applying its principles to current
circumstances and dilemmas. Let’s consider some biblical principles that apply to stem-cell
Teaching Point One: All life is created by God. Humans are created in the
image of God, thereby reflecting their Creator.
Read Genesis 1:26–28.
People have long debated what it means to be created in the image of God. Some say it is a
capacity for human rationality or for making moral decisions or for being in relationship with
God or others. Others argue that we reflect the image of God in caring for God’s creation. In any
case, it is dangerous to link the image of God with any human quality that some have more than
[Q] For example, if we say that the image of God is human reason, does that mean that very
smart people reflect more of God’s image than those of average intelligence? Do people
who are mentally challenged reflect even less of the image of God? What does this mean
about the human fetus or embryo; does it fail to reflect the image of God until it develops
into a creature with intellect?
Teaching Point Two: God is not just the creator of human life; he also wills to
protect the human life he has created.
Read Genesis 4:8–16.
Motivated by jealousy, Cain killed his brother Abel. When God called Cain to account for his
murderous deed, Cain’s response was: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Likely Cain meant that as a
rhetorical question, but in the biblical narrative the implication seems to be that yes, we are our
“brother’s” keeper. Because Cain killed his brother, he was cursed. He would no longer till the
soil and would become a vagabond on the face of the earth. Cain thought this curse would kill
him. Yet God protected him with a mark so that others would not kill him for taking his
brother’s life.
If God is willing to preserve the life of one who murdered his brother, how much more will he
protect the life of the innocent, the weak, and the disadvantaged?
[Q] Should the call to be our “brother’s keeper” extend also to the unborn fetus or embryo?
Why or why not?
Teaching Point Three: God makes provision for human livelihood—both plant
and animal life—but taking the life of a human being created in God’s image is
Read Genesis 9:1–7.
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This passage is framed by a clause echoing the creation account (see teaching point one): “Be
fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” God allows Noah and his descendants to eat
not just plant life but animal life as well to fulfill the admonition to be fruitful and multiply. But
precisely in this context, God reasserts the prohibition against taking a human life. Humans—
as well as animals—are not to take the life of a human created in God’s image.
Verse 6 is often used as justification for capital punishment: “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed.” This seems to contradict the point about God protecting the
murderous Cain. However, this statement may not be prescriptive as much as descriptive of the
way things happen in a sinful world: sinners will avenge the loss of human life that is precious
to them. The injunction is, don’t take human life created in the image of God. Even so, if we
assume that the first part of verse 6 is a moral injunction to take the life of those who kill other
human beings, this command would seem to be superceded by the New Testament in which we
learn that Jesus’ life and sacrificial death alone can expiate the guilt of human sin, including the
guilt accrued from taking human life (see Heb. 9:23–28; 1 Pet. 3:18). Taking one life to save
other lives cannot, therefore, be justified.
[Q] Would you agree that this also applies to stem cell research? Why or why not?
Teaching Point Four: The Bible doesn’t have an answer for every human
dilemma, but with the aid of the Spirit in the community of faith, it points us
in the right direction.
Acts 15:1–35 tells us that early Christians faced many decisions that were new in light of the
gospel and the missionary mandate to take the gospel into the world. The issues they faced did
not necessarily have answers in the only Bible they had then—what we call the Old Testament.
They had to rely on the teaching and example of Jesus, prayer, the movement of the Spirit, and
the testing of the spirits within the community of faith. The book of Acts is full of decisionmaking and discernment: whom to replace Judas (1:15–26); whether to accept the converted
Paul as an apostle of the gospel (9:26–30); how to treat non-Jewish converts to the gospel (e.g.,
10:1–48; cf. 11:1-18). This should encourage us when we face new challenges such as stem cell
research or allocating limited resources for human good.
The early church also offers a model for engaging in spiritual and moral discernment—the
Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. Whether or not to circumcise Gentiles is not a pressing issue
today, but it was a critical issue for the early church. The very integrity of the gospel was at
stake. The model of discernment from the Jerusalem council has these features:
 Conflict arose out of a concrete situation the church faced; it wasn’t a debate over abstract
theological issues.
 Although the issue emerged in a local situation, it involved the whole church; hence,
representatives of the entire church were called to resolve the matter. This was not a
matter for individual or local church interpretation (see 1 Pet. 1:20).
 People on both sides of the conflict were allowed to share their perspectives; the conflict
was clearly stated, and debate was fostered rather than repressed.
 Past precedent as well as the new work that God was doing in the church was shared.
Scripture was reinterpreted in light of the new thing that God was doing.
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 All participants in the debate prayerfully sought the guidance of the Spirit. A wise leader
suggested what the Spirit’s will was. The rest of the body concurred: “It seemed good to
the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28a).
 The two scriptural principles that ultimately shaped the decision were: faithfulness to the
gospel and maintaining Christian fellowship (in that order of importance).
 The decision reached by the council was shared via letter and in person with the church
where the issue had originally surfaced.
Teaching Point Five: Even if the Bible doesn’t have an answer for every human
dilemma, it has many principles that apply to matters of life and death.
The following passages from Matthew are just some of the biblical principles that can be
applied to questions about stem cell research:
5:45b: [God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous
and the unrighteous.
6:33: But seek first his kingdom [that is, God’s will] and his righteousness, and all these things
[sustenance for life] shall be yours as well.
7:12: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the
Law and the Prophets.
18:14: In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should
be lost (cf. 18:6).
22:37-40: Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and
with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love
your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
[Q] Which of the above biblical principles do you think apply to stem cell research? How?
Which of these principles apply to allocating resources for improving the human
situation? How?
Apply Your Findings
Recently, a Christian mother and her daughter watched a news story that prompted an
interesting discussion. In the news story, premature twins born at about a pound each finally
weighed enough to go home. “I wonder how much it cost to bring them this far?” asked the
mother watching the news story. Her daughter was horrified by the question. “Would you deny
them care because of the cost?” she demanded to know. “Of course not,” was her mother’s
response. “But you do have to wonder how far we should go. There aren’t exactly unlimited
[Q] How far do we go to save a life? And at what cost?
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[Q] Does it make a difference whether it is at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a long
life? For instance, should we go to extreme measures to save the life of a 15-year-old but
not a 75-year-old?
[Q] Who should make these kinds of decisions? As Colson indicates in the article, Reeves was
fortunate to have the resources to keep him alive and to make life as comfortable as
possible under the circumstances. But who speaks for poor people and others who do not
have political clout?
—Study prepared by Richard A. Kauffman, former associate editor of
CHRISTIANITY TODAY and author of numerous studies in this series.
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Faith vs. Statistics
Beware of doing ethics by crunching numbers.
By Charles Colson, for the study, “How We’re Buying into Stem Cell Therapy
In a Senate hearing room, Christopher Reeve is testifying
in support of embryonic stem-cell research. Sitting in his
wheelchair, breathing with a ventilator, the former star of
Superman films makes a sympathetic figure. And then
someone raises an uncomfortable question: Is it ethical to
take a life to save a life? Embryonic stem-cell research does,
after all, destroy human embryos.
Reeve counters: “I thought it was the job of the
government to do the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Senators and reporters nod in agreement.
Obviously, they didn’t get it. If the government really embraced “the greatest good
for the greatest number,” Reeve himself might be dead. After all, Reeve’s therapies, his
doctors, his aides, and his motorized wheelchair cost millions—money that could,
instead, fund basic medical care for hundreds of poor children.
Of course, Reeve can afford to pay for all of this himself—a fortunate fact should
the government take his “greatest good” advice. But he’s still asking taxpayers to
spend millions on research to treat spinal cord injuries. Given that vastly more
Americans need immunizations than a cure for paralysis, wouldn’t a “greatest good”
policy mean spending scarce research funds on immunizations instead of paralysis
I’ve used this vignette in speeches, and to my shock, I’ve found that even Christians
nod in agreement with Reeve’s reasoning—until I explain just where this thinking
leads. Have we all unthinkingly become practical utilitarians?
Reeve is echoing the arguments of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, the
quintessential moral utilitarian. Singer believes morality cannot be judged by any
transcendent standard. Instead, he suggests we ask whether a particular action will
increase the world’s sum total of happiness.
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Faith vs. Statistics
Page 2
For example, Singer believes parents should, instead of spending money on
lifesaving surgery for their child, send the money to save a hundred African children
from starvation; doing so would increase the world’s total amount of happiness.
Singer scorns traditional teachings about the sanctity of human life, believing that
some people—encephalitic babies, for example—are not actually “persons.” He argues
that parents should be allowed to kill their handicapped newborns (a healthy
replacement baby would live a happier life), and favors euthanasia for sick and elderly
people who have lost the basic capacity for mental functioning and who create a
burden on others.
This is the “greatest good” philosophy that Christopher Reeve espouses. I wonder if
he knows that Singer, on his first day at Princeton, was greeted by protesters from Not
Dead Yet, a group of people who—like Reeve—are wheelchair-bound. Unlike Reeve,
they understand exactly where Singer’s teaching leads: euthanasia for those
considered burdens on society.
His philosophy also leads to absurdity. Rejecting the uniqueness of human life,
Singer claims that drawing distinctions between humans and animals is “speciesism.”
So—quite logically—he professes to find nothing morally objectionable about bestiality
(sex with animals), a view that shocks even non-Christians. (When my colleague Nigel
Cameron pressed him in a recent debate on the question of the animal’s consent, it put
Singer on the defensive.)
In utilitarianism, we encounter a philosophy dramatically at odds with
Christianity. The Scriptures teach that God created humans in his own image, giving
each a unique moral character. Christianity, as Mother Teresa used to say, is antistatistical. Every human, at every stage in life, has intrinsic, not merely instrumental,
worth. This means it’s never right to create and then kill one person to find a cure for
another. Of course, we all want to see loved ones relieved of their suffering. But it
shows what we’re up against when even many Christians fail to grasp the implications
of practical utilitarianism.
In one sense, we can be grateful for Peter Singer. He does what Francis Schaeffer
urged us to make secularists do—that is, take their reasonable-sounding philosophies
and carry them to their logical and often preposterous conclusions. I’ve discovered
that this tactic is the best way to penetrate the postmodern fog. If biblical revelation is
true, any proposition that is inconsistent with it can be shown to be irrational.
Life-and-death issues like stem-cell research won’t go away. If we don’t make the
case against utilitarianism, policies that today make most of us recoil may one day, as
our moral sensibilities become anesthetized, elicit nothing more than a shrug. And
then, as the philosophy of “the greatest good for the greatest number” takes hold, the
Christopher Reeves of the world will be in peril—and so will the rest of us.
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Faith vs. Statistics
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“Faith vs. Statistics,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, February 2003, Vol. 47, No. 2, Page 144
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Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
Why shouldn't we use our embryos and genes to make our lives better?
The world awaits a Christian answer.
Now that scientists have sequenced a working draft of the human genome,
we face new questions raised by cloning, gene therapy, stem cell research
and other uses of biotechnology. What insights and values do Christians
bring to these questions? This study explores recent scientific advances and
helps Christians think biblically about the proper and improper ways they
might be applied.
Lesson #10
Genesis 1:28; 2:15; 11:1-9; Matthew 9:18-34; 1 Corinthians 10:23-24
Based on:
“A Matter of Life and Death.” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 1, 2001, Vol. 45, No. 12, Page 34
“The Genome Doctor,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 1, 01, Vol. 45, No. 12, pg 42
Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
Page 2
Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to meeting, provide for each person the article, "A
Matter of Life and Death" from CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine, included at
the end of this study.
When Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome
Research Institute, and his team published a working draft of the human
genome sequence, President Clinton declared, “Today, we are learning the
language in which God created life.” Now that scientists hold a list of
humanity’s some 30,000 genes, they will learn the functions of more and
more genes and proteins. Eventually, they hope to be able to:
treat or even eliminate hereditary diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, mental
illness, cancer, and asthma;
clone human beings;
develop tests for every genetic characteristic that may lead to illness or deformity;
develop tissue that regenerates itself, so that spinal-cord and other injuries might be
create tests that would determine the intelligence, size, and other characteristics of
potential children.
David P. Gushee argues that “the world, especially the biotech industry, asks the church this
question: Tell us why we should not proceed to remake humanity now that we are developing
the power to do so.” How should we answer that question?
Discussion starters:
Here are three scenarios that have arisen or may arise because of advances in biotechnology.
For each scenario:
a) Form two teams, one for each side of the issue.
b) Give each team a few minutes to develop ideas supporting its point (brief suggestions
are given below if groups need ideas to spark their thinking).
c) Have each team present its ideas.
d) Let each team offer counter-arguments for ideas presented by the other team.
e) Ask the entire class which ideas were most convincing, and why.
Choose the scenario you like best, or do all three if time permits.
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Scenario 1: Railroaded?
As Collins mentioned in the interview, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad tested
their employees (without their knowledge) for a rare genetic condition that might cause carpal
tunnel syndrome.
Team A represents the railroad, arguing that this testing is necessary and even beneficial
because: (a) it identifies which employees are likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome through
their work so those employees can be moved to other jobs not likely to cause the syndrome,
sparing them much pain; (b) it saves the railroad huge medical bills for employees, keeping the
railroad profitable, which saves employees’ jobs and helps the customers of the railroad.
Team B represents the employees’ union, arguing that this testing is unnecessary and violates
their rights because: (a) it was done without their knowledge and consent; (b) it may be used to
limit employees’' ability to receive medical payments or damages should they develop carpal
tunnel through work conditions; (c) it could be used to limit the range of positions employees
may serve in or even to fire the employees, based not on performance but on a genetic
condition over which they had no control.
If Team B wins the debate easily, ask them how the issue would be different if employees were
notified of the testing before they were hired and could choose whether to allow it.
Scenario 2: Hunting Down Huntington’s
When Mary Gonzales, who is pregnant, goes for her first prenatal visit, her doctor orders a
genetic screening. Let’'s say the results show the child in her womb will develop Huntington’s
disease, an inherited progressive degeneration of nerve cells that causes jerky, involuntary
motions. However, the hospital is experimenting with germline therapy in which the single
faulty gene that causes Huntington’s can be replaced with a healthy gene. If the technique is
successful, not only would the baby be spared the agony of Huntington’s, but so would all of
that baby’s descendants.
Team A argues that germline intervention should not be allowed because: (a) leading
researchers believe that genes interact unpredictably with environment and behavior, so we
may fail to prevent Huntington’s and might actually do more harm than good; (b) whatever
happens affects not just one person but all of his or her offspring and the gene pool of the
human race; (c) at conception, God has endowed us with our genes and we don’t have the right
to alter them; (d) if we eliminate some genetic diseases, anyone who still has one because he or
she couldn’t afford not to will be treated as an outcast.
Team B argues that (a) doctors and humanity in general have the obligation to alleviate
suffering if they have the means to do so, and now we have the means; (b) we can improve the
lives of countless descendants of this baby and improve the gene pool of the human race; (c)
genetic misspellings are a result of sin and are not ordered by God; just as we get vaccines to
prevent certain diseases, we should feel free to use germline therapy to treat diseases before
they start; (d) most medical advances start out as options for the rich but over time become less
expensive and are covered by more insurance plans. Thus, distributed widely to the poor, the
rich help the poor by beginning this process. Also, negative treatment of people with genetic
diseases can be handled through legislation and should not prevent the development of
medically beneficial therapies.
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Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
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Scenario 3: Send in the Clones
Let’s say Vladimir Zielinski, a talented violinist who emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern
Europe, and his wife, Weronika, a medical technician, have struggled with infertility. Now in
their early forties, they realize their chance to bear children is virtually past. However,
researchers in Italy have been experimenting with human cloning, and they believe they could
successfully clone Vladimir. The procedure would be expensive and would need to be done
outside the U.S., but the Zielinskis long for Vladimir Jr.
Team A represents the Zielinskis, arguing that cloning is beneficial and well within their rights,
because: (a) they are not able to bear children through sexual means; (b) they are paying for the
procedure and are willing to bear any risks, such as deformities in the clone; (c) they know that
their cloning won’t stop God from placing a unique soul and dignity in their clone; (d) they are
advancing human knowledge and by their cloning, doctors will learn much to help future
Team B represents Zielinski’s pastor who argues that no one should be allowed to be cloned
because: (a) the error rate in cloning is so high that the procedure is nearly certain to produce
hideously deformed creatures that will die or need to be destroyed; (b) the clone is a human
being who had no say in the matter; (c) cloning will end up stifling the human dignity of the
clone; (d) the child is likely to experience an identity crisis as a precise copy of another human
After the scenario(s) have been discussed, ask these questions:
[Q] In all that you heard, what most struck you, and why?
[Q] When you see the kinds of situations created by advances in biotechnology, how do you
feel? Why?
[Q] Why should Christians learn about and speak out about these developments?
What do we have to say that can’t be said by doctors, scientists, researchers, and
government officials?
What do we have to say that can’t be said by people of other faiths?
Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: Following the example and command of Jesus, Christians
are to bring healing.
Read Matthew 9:18–33.
Jesus intervened in people’s lives to heal and keep them from suffering from hemorrhage,
blindness, muteness, and other maladies (Matt. 9:18–33). He even reversed the normal and
accepted process of death (Matt. 9:18, 19, 23–26).
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Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
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Following Jesus’ example and his direct command (Matt. 10:1, 7, 8), his apostles and 72 other
followers (Luke 10:1, 9, 17) also healed people and even raised the dead (Acts 9:32–42; 14:8-10;
In the centuries of Christianity, believers have taken the lead in nursing care and in major
medical advances such as the treatment of leprosy (Hansen’s disease).
[Q] What was the ultimate purpose of Christ’s healing miracles?
Can Christians conclude that Christ’s example leads them to embrace the potential of
biotechnology to heal and to alleviate suffering?
Teaching point two: Not every human endeavor is approved by God.
Read Genesis 11:1–9.
[Q] In this story, what cultural advantage did people have?
Leader’s Note: A common language.
[Q] They also had a technological advance. What was it?
Leader’s Note: The use of bricks and mortar, rather than stone, which made it
possible to build much larger, taller buildings.
[Q] Why does God confuse the builders’ language and thus stop the work?
Leader’s Note: The precise reason is not given. But the phrase “nothing they plan to do
will be impossible for them” implies the following possibilities: (a) their successes would
lead to overweening pride, which God resists; (b) their ambition was an attempt to
compete with, rather than serve, God. Note, however, that God does not object to their
technological advance.
[Q] Since God has created human beings with curiosity and intelligence, is God responsible
for advances in biotechnology?
Leader’s Notes: This touches on the classic discussion of sovereignty and free will:
God is sovereign over all yet gives humans the freedom to make even destructive
[Q] What motives do you think people bring to biotechnology?
Which ones might be against God?
Leader’s Note: Have people list various possible motives of researchers, biotech
companies, and potential users of the advances. For example: the desire to help alleviate
suffering; the drive to become transcendently wealthy—the biotech industry does $100
billion in business in the U.S. alone; the desire to be “immortal” through cloning; the
hope to re-engineer or advance humanity as a species; the desire to have unlimited
choice and autonomy.
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Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
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[Q] Gushee writes, “Much of our culture’s elite lives without a working hypothesis of God.
Assuming we dwell alone in the universe, they believe we must simply keep improving life
until the next comet hits.” What would you say to people who want to “keep improving
life until the next comet hits,” because they believe there is no God?
For what reasons would Christians, who do believe in an active God, want to make
human life as good as it can be?
Teaching point three: Though for the Christian it may be generally true that
“everything is permissible,” not everything is beneficial or constructive.
Read 1 Corinthians 10:23–24.
Paul’s counsel in these verses was given to Christians celebrating their “freedom” in deciding
whether to participate in feasts for idols. They believed that since they knew that idols were not
really God, they could share in the pleasure of idol feasts without harm. Paul says otherwise:
while Christians technically have the freedom to do that, it’s neither beneficial nor constructive
because idol feasts involve people in the demonic world (v. 21) and make the Lord jealous (v.
22); participating in them is like believing we’re stronger than God (v. 22).
Parallels might be drawn to some of the possibilities opening before Christians today—for
example, cloning a human being. Now that it’s essentially possible (large mammals such as
sheep have been cloned successfully), Christians must not merely ask, “Is it permissible?” but
“Is it beneficial and constructive?”
Gushee summarizes the arguments of President Bush’s top adviser on bioethics, Leon Kass: (1)
cloning constitutes unethical experimentation—it produces failures, disabilities, and
deformities—on nonconsenting humans; (2) it threatens human identity and individuality by
creating exact replicas who will be compared to the original; (3) it turns procreation into
manufacture by allowing adults to select the exact genetic blueprint for a child; and (4) it
means despotism over children and the perversion of parenthood as children become objects
created asexually.
Teaching point four: Though God blesses efforts to mitigate the effects of sin,
humans will never remove all suffering and death.
Read Genesis 1:28; 2:15 and Romans 8:20–21.
God asked men and women to rule and protect the earth (Gen. 1:28 and 2:15). We should
reclaim every inch of creation for God, praying and working for the advancement of God’s
At the same time, creation has been “subjected to frustration,” as Paul writes in Romans 8, and
so we should not expect our efforts to completely overcome this yearning. Ultimately, we must
rely on God to restore and free his creation.
[Q] What would happen if Christians thought that improving the world depended solely on
Have you seen any instances when Christians seemed to be thinking this way?
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Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?
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[Q] What would happen if Christians thought that improving the world depended solely on
Have you seen any instances when Christians seemed to be thinking this way?
[Q] Should we see diseases caused by genetic anomalies (for example, a birth defect called
spina bifida) as God’s will? Why or why not?
What does your answer say for how Christians should approach biotechnology?
Apply Your Findings
[Q] If genes determine or predispose us toward some illnesses, depression, and various
behaviors, is belief in God merely one more genetically driven human behavior?
Leader’s Note: You might quote from CT’s interview with Collins: “The study of the
genome will tell us a lot about our biological nature, about the parts of us that are more
mechanical, but I don’t believe it will tell us about why virtually every human being has
this sense of longing for God. I don’t believe studying DNA will tell us where this sense of
right and wrong we share comes from. I don’t believe it will explain why we have this
urge to do the right thing, even to the extent of putting our own lives in danger, which
would be exactly the opposite of what evolution would suggest we should do. All those
aspects of humanity are the best evidence that there is more to us than chemicals and
DNA, that there is a spiritual part to our nature.”
[Q] Collins says, “There’s never been a revolution in science that didn’t have a dark side.”
What is the dark side of biotechnology?
What should Christians do about that?
[Q] What is the bright side of advances in biotechnology?
How should Christians encourage that?
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Genetic Testing:
How Far Is Too Far?
Why shouldn’t we use our embryos and genes to make our lives better?
The world awaits a Christian answer.
List on a piece of paper the following actions that biotechnology has made possible or
may do so within the foreseeable future: (a) clone a human being; (b) clone an animal;
(c) genetically modify plants so they resist insects or carry vitamins; (d) do pre-natal
tests to determine whether the conceived children are genetically predisposed to develop
serious illnesses or conditions; (e) select the genetic characteristics of potential children,
such as intelligence and size; (f) alter the genes of an adult whose illness has some
hereditary component, such as heart disease, so that none of his or her offspring will
have the gene anomaly thought to cause an illness. Then think:
[Q] Which of these would you accept? Which would you not accept?
Where would you draw the line, and why?
[Q] Return to a question from the beginning: Why should Christians
learn about and speak out about these developments? What do
we have to say that can’t be said by doctors, scientists,
researchers, and government officials? What do we have to say
that can’t be said by people of other faiths?
To learn more about Christian perspectives on bioethical dilemmas, check out and
A Matter of Life and Death
Why shouldn’t we use our embryos and genes to make our lives better?
The world awaits a Christian answer.
By David P. Gushee, for the study “Genetic Testing: How Far Is Too Far?”
On June 26, 2000, scientists Francis Collins and J. Craig
Venter joined Bill Clinton at the White House for the stunning
announcement that researchers had mapped 90 percent of the
genes on the human genome, which contains codes for all
inherited characteristics. The President declared, “Today, we are
learning the language in which God created life.”
Humanity will spend much of the 21st century attempting to
speak that language. A fast-developing biotech vocabulary—
genetic therapy, stem cells, reproductive cloning, and so on—
strains the ability of even the most thoughtful to keep up. Human life may soon be
changed dramatically, and Christians must participate in the international
conversation about these changes before they become irreversible.
The Christian faith has the potential to serve not just the church but also the world
by penetrating the fog of current events to discern their deeper meaning—and to offer
clear-headed analysis amid growing confusion.
Opposing Forces
Long-established forces threaten to crowd out the voice of faith:
Market forces. The sprawling biotech industry, already doing $80 billion in
business in the United States alone, would not be awash in money were there not a
demand for its innovations. These products and services include stem cells, gene
therapies and enhancements, and, one day, perhaps soon, clones. Biotech firms
promise what people want—health, pain relief, reproduction, longevity, success.
Thus far they do so with little public regulation or control, one of the most
troubling features of our new era—unlike the nuclear weapons challenge posed last
century, harrowing as that was. Then government policy threatened humanity; today
corporate interests do.
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A Matter of Life and Death
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Moral fragmentation. A morally fragmented nation may lack the basic requisites
for a conversation—a shared framework of meaning, a minimal level of trust, and an
agreed-upon vocabulary. But by failing to converse and arrive at a national (much less
international) decision about the biotech revolution, we default to existing powers and
interests and likely stumble into disaster.
“Our society currently lives from moral fragments and community fragments only,
both of which are being destroyed faster than they are being replenished,” writes
ethicist Larry L. Rasmussen.
Worldview dynamics. This leads us to a still deeper reality: beneath both economic
practice and moral fragmentation lies the foundation of worldview. Among those who
press most aggressively for unrestrained development of biotech advances —including
nonscientists—worldviews and philosophies such as naturalism, atheism,
utilitarianism, and scientific utopianism reign. Much of our culture's elite lives
without a working hypothesis of God. Assuming we dwell alone in the universe, they
believe we must simply keep improving life until the next comet hits.
Libertarian ideology—which stresses individualism, privacy, moral relativism,
unlimited choice making, and autonomy—folds neatly into these godless worldviews.
It holds that no one should deny himself anything that will bring self-realization and is
not immediately harmful to another.
Hence a powerful contingent argues for the largely unrestrained pursuit of
biotechnology as a matter of personal (including reproductive) liberty. This quest is
driven by a utopian dream: overcoming our species’ limits through human power and
scientific progress.
Some suggest triumphantly that our species is about to evolve right past Homo
sapiens to what New Republic senior editor Gregg Easterbrook calls Homo geneticus.
One enthusiast has said that future generations will look back on our time as “the
point in history when human beings gained the power to seize control of their own
evolutionary destiny.”
Leaving the limits of nature and the past behind, we will remake ourselves. Still, as
bioethicist Audrey Chapman has written, the nations are not sure they ought to heed
this siren song. They seem to be pausing at the brink, waiting to hear from the church
or any other voice on why they should not plunge into the remaking of humanity.
The Challenge to Christians
Tell us why we should not proceed to remake humanity now that we are developing
the power to do so—this is the challenge presented to Christians (and other religious
groups). When the U.S. National Bioethics Advisory Commission formulated guidance
to the President on human cloning in 1997, for example, it sought the testimony of a
variety of religious thinkers.
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A Matter of Life and Death
Page 3
To offer answers, we must consider some difficult theological conundrums. After
we identify a few of them, we will sketch an initial response —exhaustive neither in
scope nor argument—to specific biotech challenges.
Is God responsible for these technological advances? A vibrant theology of divine
sovereignty would have to answer “yes,” at least in some sense. If so, then why worry?
Because our affirmation of God’s sovereignty comes with the equally biblical assertion
that human beings have the freedom to make good or bad decisions.
God did indeed make us with the intelligence to develop these technologies, but we
are responsible for what we do with that intelligence. We may stumble into areas
beyond our appropriate range; this was the primordial sin, after all. But it is also
possible that God is at work in some of these biotechnological advances.
Are suffering, finitude, and death revocable by human effort? Human sin
introduced suffering and death into a previously unmarred creation. The reversal of
sin’s effects marked the kingdom-inaugurating ministry of Jesus Christ, but until he
returns the creation will continue to “groan” (Rom. 8:18ff), and illness, death, and
finitude will remain a reality.
Indeed, both Scripture and history show that utopian visions of the elimination of
suffering tend toward disaster, either through tyranny or as the unforeseen
consequence of well-intended schemes. One of the best things biblical faith
contributes to the biotech discussion is a well-considered understanding of human
weakness, finitude, and sin, and the double-edged potential of many human
The Dominion Mandate
And yet does God not mandate human efforts to mitigate the effects of sin? Along
with Chris’'s kingdom mandate to heal and restore, in creation God called humanity to
exercise dominion over (Gen. 1:28) and preserve/protect (Gen. 2:15) the earth. After
the Fall, the dominion/protection (stewardship) mandate was not removed but
extended to more difficult conditions.
God calls us to “sustain, restore, and improve” our fallen world, according to
ethicist James C. Peterson. While the term “created co-creators” overstates our status,
we are called to mitigate the Fall’s effects and thus improve human and planetary life.
It would be disobedient to resist human progress toward these ends, but the issue
becomes complex when innovations risk bringing more harm than benefit—and when
they risk transgressing divinely established boundaries.
To what extent does God intend to “fix the world,” as opposed to redeeming a
people for eternity from within a broken world? Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner
has argued that a dubious “fix-I” mentality lies behind much of the biotech revolution.
And yet a healthy theology of God’s sovereignty as Creator and Redeemer drives us to
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A Matter of Life and Death
Page 4
reclaim “every square inch” of creation, as Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper (18371920) once famously said. Likewise, a kingdom approach emphasizes Jesus’ mission
as reclaiming a rebellious and suffering world for its rightful King.
More pessimistic theologies allow for much less actual transformation before
Christ returns. Our bioethical dilemmas underscore both the possibilities and the
limits of transformation in this world, and perhaps keeping both in tension is the best
way forward.
Are genetic anomalies and the diseases they cause God’s will? Some argue that
interventions such as gene therapies constitute an attempt to thwart God’s will. Yet,
only if we think of cancer, crib death, car accidents, tornadoes, and nearsightedness as
God’s will in some nonbiblical, fatalistic sense, ought we also understand genetic
anomalies such as cystic fibrosis or spina bifida this way. We should instead see these
inherited diseases as legacies of the Fall and hence worthy subjects of our best efforts
to safely mitigate them.
What is normatively human? Has God established a fixed human nature (the
imago dei) that we are not permitted to alter or transcend? While humanity is made in
the image of God, strikingly diverse Christian interpretations of the imago dei abound.
It may be that Christians can ascribe no single meaning to it, but at minimum the
imago dei means that humans were designed to resemble God in ways that other
creatures do not—this includes our intelligence, moral agency, and our ability to form
interdependent relationships in community.
Human life merits a special imputed respect, even sacred value, on the basis of this
design as well as God’s unique declaration of our status. Also, by sharing this status,
all humans partake of a fundamental equality. But given that much about us is far
from Godlike, in the biotech era we must find the balance between reaching our
potential and respecting our limits—both of which are fundamental to human life.
To what extent does God work through the agency of government to restrain sin
and prevent disaster? Reflection on the biotech challenge helps to settle the question
of whether Christians should remain politically engaged despite the many
disappointments we have with government. God created the State to advance the
common good (Rom. 13:1-7), and at times it is the only human power capable of
restraining threatening forces.
We cannot withdraw from political engagement, especially in times like these.
At least three pressing issues demand an immediate Christian response: stem-cell
research, human cloning, and genetic therapy.
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A Matter of Life and Death
Page 5
Stemming Life
The effort to use stem cells obtained from adult neural cells, bone marrow, livebirth umbilical cord and placental blood, and other sources raises no moral problems.
The potential health benefits of stem cells remain unclear (despite dramatic claims in
the media), but there is no reason to limit research as long as the source of such cells is
morally licit. Indeed, Christians should support initiatives such as Rep. Chris Smith’s
(R-N.J.) proposal to establish a national stem-cell donor bank involving only these
nonembryonic cell sources. Such a donor bank would make stem-cell research a public
initiative with near-universal support—and would greatly expand the availability of
such cells.
The use of embryonic stem cells from elective abortion, or, more importantly, from
the “leftovers” from in vitro fertilization (IVF), has heated up the debate. Both concern
the moral status of embryonic life, and thus this issue intertwines with the moral
struggle over abortion. The biotech community and its allies have pressed hard for the
right to use embryonic stem cells freely, and for an end to the ban on federal funding
of such research.
In one sense, the moral issues are similar whether we are considering aborted
fetuses or “surplus” IVF embryos. Both are (or were) among that class of human
beings rightly called the unborn, or those in the process of being born—human beings
valued by God whose lives began at conception.
Research using aborted fetuses entangles the researcher in a prior wrong. A
researcher can be guilty of complicity even if he had no role in the original wrong and
his own motives were beyond reproach. Complicity can be avoided. For example, the
medical community rightly rejected any use of knowledge gained from the Nazis’
horrific experiments on concentration camp prisoners.
As for the more than 100,000 unused frozen embryos in the United States alone,
the moral problem remains the manipulation and ultimate destruction of a human life
at its earliest and most defenseless stage.
A prior problem exists, of course: the routine practice of producing excess
embryos. This is a fine example of the law of unintended consequences. Twenty years
ago, at the dawn of the assisted reproduction industry (today still largely unregulated),
no one imagined that at the turn of the millennium, a city’s worth of embryos would
await an uncertain future in icy limbo.
A fresh moral evaluation of the assisted reproduction industry is past due. Before
President Bush’s decision in August to limit federally funded stem-cell research to
existing stem-cell lines, biotech industry, political, and media voices pressed hard for
the legitimating of research using IVF leftovers. “Respectable” opinion continues to
assert that blocking stem-cell research using IVF leftovers is foolish and extremist. But
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the Roman Catholic Church and hard-line prolifers aren’t the only ones to raise their
voices in protest.
Ethicist Amy Laura Hall of Duke University notes that feminist scholars such as
herself believe this practice raises troubling questions about exploitative “harvesting”
of the female body.
Further, due to its Nazi past, Germany is moving much more carefully in this area
than the United States. If international opinion matters, we should listen to its
misgivings as part of our decision-making. And, as Hall rightly notes, our suddenly
deep concern about suffering people is disturbingly selective. “This is not, ultimately,
about the alleviation of suffering in general; it is about the alleviation of our own fear
of suffering.”
Of all potential sources of stem cells, producing embryos for experimentation and
research via cloning techniques—known as therapeutic cloning—is the most troubling.
Yet private research firms have begun doing precisely this. Therapeutic cloning is
odious because (a) it could surreptitiously lead to morally dubious reproductive
cloning, and (b) it intentionally manufactures human life with the certainty of its
Many leaders here and abroad are pressing for therapeutic cloning; the Christian
community must reject it. As a matter of public policy, Christians and others who
value embryonic and fetal life have a right and obligation to press for the exemption of
embryonic stem cells from research efforts. President Bush’s stance, while
demonstrating laudable respect for the value of embryonic life, in this sense did not go
far enough.
This is especially true in light of the apparent promise of other sources of stem cells
and other paths to the goals of regenerative medicine. Discovery of treatments for
such diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s would be a tremendous
accomplishment, but deeper biblical values proscribe us from pursuing those ends at
the expense of developing human life—especially when alternative sources are viable.
Drawing the Line at Dolly
A fascinating thing happened during the debate that broke out after Dolly the
cloned sheep made her appearance—large sectors of society said, “This crosses a line;
this must not happen.”
This does not mean that powerful voices are not continuing to make their best case
for cloning (extracting the nucleus of an adult cell and inserting it into an egg cell that
has been stripped of its own nucleus, then stimulating it to begin cell division). Nor
does it mean that research has halted; no one knows how many private laboratories
have ignored the moral, physiological, and legal risks in attempts to clone humans.
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But it may mean that the human family will rouse itself to actually draw a line before
cloning becomes a fait accompli.
University of Chicago medical ethics professor Leon Kass, whom Bush named as
head of his new bioethics commission, summarizes the overwhelming case against
cloning in four points: unethical experimentation, threat to human identity and
individuality, turning procreation into manufacturing, and despotism over children in
the perversion of parenthood.
1. Cloning is a form of experimentation on a nonconsenting subject. Attempts on
animals reveal extremely high failure rates, resulting in many disabilities and
deformities. No ethical scientist would attempt human cloning at current odds.
2. Cloning threatens human identity and individuality by permitting the
intentional genetic replication of a person whose life is already in process. The clone,
says Kass, “will not be fully a surprise to the world; people are always likely to
compare his doings in life with those of his alter ego.”
3. Cloning turns procreating into manufacturing by enabling the advance selection
of a total genetic blueprint. Things are made, but people are begotten. In cloning, that
boundary line is erased (although a form of baby manufacturing has been underway
since in vitro fertilization began, Kass rightly notes).
4. Cloning is an act of despotism that perverts parenthood by turning children into
genetically engineered possessions intended to fulfill parental wants. Some argue that
many children are already brought into the world for reasons other than the sheer
desire to welcome new life. But we must reject treating children, however they are
born, as commodities or as instruments to other ends.
A number of other arguments have emerged: Cloning would mark the first instance
of humans reproducing through asexual replication, radically altering the nature of
procreation and eliminating dual genetic origin in the cloned. Notre Dame law
professor Kathleen Kaveny has shown how dramatically cloning would confuse family
lines and relations.
If made available solely by the market based on ability to pay, cloning would
contribute to distributive injustice. It would weaken marriage and the relationships
between men and women by further eroding the link connecting marriage, sex, and
childbearing—likely extending the practice of assisted reproduction among
homosexuals. Kass has made the point that it could deepen the misery of children
after divorce—if, for example, Mom had to look at the clone of the now-despised Dad
all day long.
Cloning would contribute to our epidemic narcissism by enabling self-creation
without any involvement of another person. The potential for multiple self-cloning
could create a household freak show. It could bring more children into the world who
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A Matter of Life and Death
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lack the benefit of two parents. The sly might try to clone others without their consent;
or, conversely, famous people and corporate interests might market highly desired
genotypes to those seeking (in vain) to guarantee successful offspring.
Finally, cloning does not meet any legitimate human need. Many kinds of
reproductive technology exist for the infertile. Misguided efforts to bring back a dead
child through cloning would mark a sad attempt to salve a grief that cannot be salved,
and at the cost of exploiting another human being through her very creation.
Human cloning should be banned. We need both federal laws and international
agreements. The United States has lagged behind irresponsibly; while anti-cloning
legislation had passed the House, at press time, the United States had only a
temporary ban on federal funding and threats from the Food and Drug Administration
to prosecute private firms that attempt cloning.
Tinkering with Genes
Genetic therapy may be the most morally difficult of the three areas considered
here. A distinction between somatic interventions (repairing a defect in the genes of a
living person) and germline interventions (altering reproductive DNA inheritable by
future generations) has been recognized in this field since the 1980s, with ethicists
saying yes to the first and no to the second. But recently questions have been raised
about this distinction’s scientific accuracy and moral relevance.
An American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) study group has
suggested abandoning the terminology and instead distinguishing only between
inheritable and nonheritable genetic modifications.
In Genetic Turning Points: The Ethics of Human Genetic Intervention,
geneticist/ethicist Peterson argues that all genetic intervention should be evaluated
based on four criteria: safety; improvement for the recipient; maintaining an open,
and not foreclosed, future for the recipient; and just resource allocation. While the
stakes of germline intervention (or inheritable modifications) are certainly higher than
for somatic intervention, Peterson argues that either could meet these criteria if the
science develops adequately. He further asserts that we might have a moral obligation
to pass on to progeny the healthiest possible genetic legacy.
Several points argue in favor of germline therapy: some maladies might be cured, it
may be the only way to attack some diseases, and prevention costs less than cures. If,
for example, the gene for Tay-Sachs or Huntington’s disease could be eliminated from
the reproductive DNA of all those who carry it, the disease itself could presumably be
wiped out. Why just offer somatic interventions to millions of sufferers if we can
eliminate the disease altogether?
Among such concerns, one is simply scientific. If, as Francis Collins (director of the
National Human Genome Research Institute) argues, the role of genes is complicated
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A Matter of Life and Death
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and undeterministic—genes interact unpredictably with each other, with other cellular
actors, environment, and free will—then the supposed promise of some germline
interventions may be vastly overstated. At present, at least, we may simply be in over
our heads and end up doing more harm than good.
The AAAS report states flatly that inheritable modifications cannot now be carried
out safely on human beings.
Furthermore, germline intervention would affect not just one person but all
offspring; more broadly, it would affect the gene pool of the human race. Another
concern is distributive justice—unless everyone gets access to germline therapies, such
exclusivity could worsen our already unjust allocation of health-care resources.
Some fear, further, that the effort to eradicate genetic diseases will contribute to
the social stigmatization of those who have them.
Finally, we will not be able to draw a firm line against morally odious genetic
enhancements if we permit germline therapy. Genetic enhancement suggests
outrageous possibilities. We rightly scorn the prospect of a society in which people
with means purchase prepackaged genetic endowments of athletic, artistic,
intellectual, or physical prowess for themselves or their children (if this ever really
proves possible).
It is easy to envision a split between what Princeton University molecular biologist
Lee M. Silver creatively labels the GenRich and the Naturals—those who would be able
to buy genetic excellence and those who would not.
A tragically ironic misunderstanding of human satisfaction lies behind such a
possibility; not giftedness alone, but a blend of natural endowment, discovery, and
hard work makes excellence satisfying. Undoubtedly, however, a market would grow
instead for engineered excellence, even if it were a black market. Recently Sports
Illustrated suggested the drive for athletic success will make genetically engineered
athletes inevitable.
The implications of genetic enhancement for human reproduction, family life,
childhood, and society as a whole are indeed chilling. Ethicists address this issue in
various ways. In From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (Cambridge, 2000), by
Allen Buchanan, et al., the authors flatly propose that the purchase of what I am
calling “excellence enhancements” should be prohibited by law.
They argue, however, for a consensus on a small core of very basic human
capabilities, and for access by all citizens in all health plans to the genetic therapies
that could help obtain them. In a sense, this is the model that already prevails in
health care (though it is deeply corrupted by unequal access). It would simply be
extended to genetic medicine.
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At a theological level, John Feinberg argues for drawing a distinction between
conditions traceable to the Fall of humanity and its consequences, and those that are
not; genetic interventions would be permissible for the former, and only for the latter
if motives were morally correct. But who will decide that?
While the current state of science on inheritable modifications demands at least a
moratorium on any application of them, research should continue. Making
fundamental distinctions between narcissistic excellence enhancements and genuine
health care, perhaps one day we will be able to eliminate genetic maladies through
rigorously tested therapies available to all.
A Bioethical Decalogue
I have argued that the world, especially the biotech industry, presents this
challenge to the church: Tell us why we should not proceed to remake humanity now
that we are developing the power to do so.
Our answer should be this: You rightly perceive a mandate to understand and
alleviate illness and the suffering it brings. We will support this effort, but within the
boundaries of human well being under the sovereignty of God. These boundaries
include limits on the means we may use to achieve the goals.
Human beings may not be manufactured, engineered, or destroyed; we may not
experiment on or otherwise use the vulnerable without their consent; we may not set
aside the essential structures of the created physical and social order; we may not
casually alter or enhance the nature of the person (and other forms of life); we may
not restrict the legitimate benefits of innovations to the privileged but instead must
serve the common good; and the biotech community may not make decisions without
the participation and consent of society.
In turn, we will pledge to protect biotech efforts from the attacks of those who do
not understand them, and we will do everything we can to nurture a culture in which
innovations will honor human dignity.
Bioethicist Chapman asks, “Will society have the wisdom, the powers of
discernment, and the appropriate commitments to apply its new knowledge and
capabilities for ethical ends?” May God graciously guide our steps, that the answer to
that question will reflect wise exercise of our dominion.
David P. Gushee is Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy
and Senior Fellow of the Center for Christian Leadership, Union
University, Jackson, Tennessee.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 1, 2001, Vol. 45, No. 12, Page 34
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The Genome Doctor
The director of the National Human Genome Research Institute answers questions
about the morality of his work.
An interview with Francis Collins, for the study “Genetic Testing: How Far is Too
He grew up on a 95-acre farm that had no plumbing. Son of a
drama professor father and a playwright mother, he wrote and
directed a script for The Wizard of Oz when he was 7. But he
chose to become a chemist, not a dramaturge. At 23, he completed
a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale University. After realizing
that he’d like to focus on something more human-oriented than
quantum mechanics (his emphasis at Yale), he moved on to
medical school at the University of North Carolina, where he
encountered the field of medical genetics. The promise of genetics
to alleviate human suffering got hold of him for good.
Before the employees at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)
began to recognize the Honda Nighthawk 750 motorcycle and its 6-foot-4 driver on
the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Dr. Francis
Collins made a name for himself as one of the scientists who discovered the genetic
misspellings that cause cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, and Huntington’s disease.
He became NHGRI’s director in 1993. Last February, the publicly sponsored NHGRI
(and the private company Celera Genomics) published a working draft of the human
genome sequence.
Scientists are now busy perfecting that genome draft, studying human genetic
variation, and sequencing the genomes of the mouse and the rat. The main question
that nags them is how the genome works, but they’re having to answer ethical
questions as well. A professing Christian, Collins talked “genethics” with Agnieszka
Tennant, CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s assistant editor.
Where do science and religion meet?
I think of God as the greatest scientist. We human scientists have an opportunity to
understand the elegance and wisdom of God’s creation in a way that is truly
exhilarating. When a scientist discovers something that no human knew before, but
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God did—that is both an occasion for scientific excitement and, for a believer, also an
occasion for worship. It makes me sad that we have slipped into a polarized stance
between science and religion that implies that a thinking human being could not
believe in the value of both. There is no rational basis for that polarization. I find it
completely comfortable to be both a rigorous scientist, who demands to see the data
before accepting anybody’s conclusions about the natural world, and also a believer
whose life is profoundly influenced by the relationship I have with God. Science is our
most powerful tool for studying the natural world, but science doesn’t necessarily help
us so much in trying to understand God; that’s where faith comes in.
Have you ever had doubts about the morality of the Human Genome
No. I think the genome project is a way of accumulating knowledge, and knowledge
does not have moral value. Knowledge is neither good nor evil; it’s just knowledge. It’s
information. The application that we make of that knowledge takes on a moral
In that regard, I have felt a profound sense of concern and responsibility that as
this knowledge accumulates, we set in place guidelines that will maximize its benefits
and minimize the inappropriate uses—actions that would be morally repugnant or
would frankly damage people by using the information against them. Those
possibilities are out there as they have always been for any new development.
There’s never been a revolution in science that didn’t have a potential dark side.
But we’ve done something different here. Since the beginning of the genome project,
we’ve devoted 5 percent of the effort to funding research on those ethical, legal, and
social issues. And that has brought into these considerations a whole host of social
scientists, lawyers, ethicists, and theologians. So we’re in a much better position, I
think, this time to avoid the bad outcomes because we’ve been thinking about it
What prompted you to become a Christian?
My parents sent me to church basically to learn music. I didn’t learn much about
Christianity. I tuned that out. When I got to college, others around me quickly
dismantled whatever little bits of faith I had by asking penetrating questions that I
didn’t have answers for. So I slipped away from any sense of religious persuasion into
agnosticism and ultimately, as a graduate student in chemistry, I was a pretty
obnoxious atheist.
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What changed you?
I went to medical school. I watched people in terrible medical circumstances who
were engaged in battles for survival, which many of them lost. I watched how some
people leaned on their faith and saw what strength it gave them. I was both uneasy
and curious, realizing that my decision to walk away from faith had not been founded
on rationality. Instead, it had been a response to what I perceived to be the majority
view around me, and I hadn’t really considered the evidence. But as a scientist, I
wasn’t supposed to make conclusions without considering the data. Based on that
uneasiness, I began to try to learn more about various faiths. I spoke with a Methodist
minister, who pointed me to the writings of C.S. Lewis. I read Lewis’s Mere
Christianity, and my arguments about the irrationality of faith lay in ruins. It left me
feeling very uneasy about the whole thing. After a year of battling with myself, reading
the Bible to understand Christianity, and comparing it to other faiths, I concluded that
this really did make a lot of sense. I developed a very strong sense of wanting to give
my life to Christ and that set of principles. I did so at the age of 27.
Was your love for God written in your genes?
No. I reject the notion that spirituality is something that will be explained by the
study of the genome. The study of the genome will tell us a lot about our biological
nature, about the parts of us that are mechanical, but I don’t believe it will tell us why
almost every human being has a sense of longing for God. I don’t believe studying
DNA will tell us where the sense of right and wrong we share comes from. I don’t
believe it will explain why we have this shared urge to do the right thing, even to the
extent of putting our own lives in danger to save another, which would be exactly the
opposite of what evolution would suggest we should do. All those aspects of humanity
are some of the best evidence that there is more to us than chemicals and DNA, that
there is a spiritual part to our nature.
Do you believe in evolution?
I think evolution is a very compelling explanation for the relatedness of living
things on this planet. You can’t study DNA without noting the relatedness of the
sequences between us and other animals, bacteria, and plants. But I don’t have any
problem with putting that together with my belief in God as the Creator of life and in
God as one who desires fellowship with humankind. If God decided to use the
mechanism of evolution to create human beings, who are we to say that was a bad way
to do it? In that regard, I would be called a theistic evolutionist, as are many people
who work in biology and who also believe in God.
You once said that the potential benefits of genome research are so promising that
“the unethical thing would be to slow it down.” Pragmatically speaking, what is the
promise of the genome project?
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I’m a physician, and my interest in the genome project will always be because of its
medical promise. Genetics will tell us about the pathways that go awry in diabetes, in
heart disease, in mental illness, in cancer, in asthma. I could go on for hours listing the
conditions that could benefit from this research because they all have at least some
hereditary contribution. Uncovering those hereditary factors will allow us to make
predictions about who’s at risk for what, and hence to practice better prevention. Even
more dramatic will be the development of new therapies targeted at the primary
problems instead of some downstream effects.
What are the latest and most important discoveries of genome
We encountered a host of surprises when we had the chance to read through this
“instruction book” for the first time. One that got great attention was how few genes it
turns out that we have. It’s wondrous that our genes are able to direct all the things
that they do, with only 31,000 or so of them to do so. Everybody had expected that
number would be more like 100,000, so that was a stunner. But we found that, on
average, each human gene seems to make about three different proteins, which may
explain how we get by with such a small number of them. Human genes are very
cleverly constructed in comparison to their counterparts in worms or flies. Our genes
seem to have more punch, more complexity packed into each gene, than simpler
organisms do.
How do you respond to Christians who equate genetic engineering
with playing God?
I love to engage such folks in a dialogue. “Playing God” is a term that people throw
around without necessarily defining what they’re speaking of. If humans played God
with the same benevolence that God did, then perhaps we wouldn’t worry about it. But
of course that’s not usually the case. We need to first define what we mean by “playing
God.” I’d refer your readers to Ted Peters’s wonderful book by that name, which
outlines areas we should be concerned about and other areas that we should be
celebrating and pressing forward as rapidly as we can.
What type of genetic engineering might end up trampling on human
The notion that we could eventually take charge of our own evolutionary state and
improve ourselves is a chilling one for most people, and especially, I think, for people
of faith. The idea is that we would re-engineer the human race by deciding which
features we would like to improve upon, such as making ourselves smarter and
stronger. But who’s going to decide what’s an improvement? I think any kind of
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activity where we systematically change our very nature jeopardizes our relationship
with God, who I believe was intent on creating humankind in our current state.
Where's the fine line between genetic determinism and the
legitimate gene therapy that leads to cures and alleviation of human
I don’t know that those two things are in conflict. Projects to develop gene therapy
and gene-based drug therapy are highly moral, ethical activities that we should all
support. Gene therapy, which does not affect the germline (it’s not passed on), fits in
with the tradition of alleviating human suffering that has been a primary tenet of all
religions and particularly Christianity. It would be the most unethical stance, I think,
to say that we shouldn’t be pursuing it because it involves genes. If we can do gene
therapy safely and ethically, and if we can cure terrible diseases that afflict children
and adults, we are almost obligated to do that.
Genetic determinism is a separate, more conceptual issue. In our enthusiasm to
use the tools of genetics to uncover answers to long-sought medical mysteries, we may
mislead the public—and sometimes even ourselves—into concluding that we are
nothing more than machines whose activities are programmed by our DNA sequence.
We, as scientists, have to continually remind ourselves and the public that when you
get beyond medical applications of genetics into the nature of what it means to be
human, DNA isn’t going to tell us everything. Free will is a very important part of who
we are, and the study of the genome is not going to make that obsolete.
Some insurance companies, employers, schools, and courts have
already begun discriminating against people because of their genes.
How do we protect ourselves from it?
The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad recently tested many of its
employees, without their knowledge, for a rare genetic condition that might cause
carpal tunnel syndrome. The company tried to avoid responsibility for its employees’
workplace injuries. The railroad hoped to blame the problem on their workers’ genes,
figure out how not to cover their medical expenses, and potentially even to fire them.
This profound violation of genetic justice has led to a storm of concern, and I hope it
will lead to a solution—in this instance, the passage of federal legislation that outlaws
the use of genetic information in the workplace and in health insurance. Our DNA is
passed to us from our parents without anybody asking our permission, and it is unjust
to have the information used in discriminatory ways.
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Should genome information be patented or shared with everyone for
This is a very difficult and controversial issue. Some people approach gene
patenting from a moral perspective and others from a legal perspective. I think we
ought to ask ourselves whether a particular patent is likely to generate public benefit
or not. If not, we shouldn’t allow it. If yes, then we ought to strongly consider
patenting. That position bothers some people because the very notion of patenting a
gene that we all have seems to allow somebody to claim ownership over a creation
they didn’t have much to do with. But in reality, when you file a patent on a human
gene, it is not the gene in its natural state. It is a re-engineered, recombinant DNA
version of the gene that nobody has in his or her body. It’s also not true that having a
patent on something means you own it. It means that you have certain legal rights to
the commercialization of that discovery. There are clear instances when patenting a
gene has led to the development of a product that has greatly benefited the public.
Could you give an example?
If I had a heart attack and I rolled into the emergency room with chest pain, I
would be given a blood clot-dissolving drug called TPA. TPA was produced by
Genentech using recombinant DNA. It cost the company half a billion dollars to bring
that drug to market. Genentech representatives would tell you that if they hadn’t had a
patent on the TPA gene, the investment would not have been worthwhile because
some competitor would have taken their market away after they had done all this
work. I think we’re all glad that TPA exists. It has saved a lot of lives. And the patent
seems to have been necessary for that outcome. So when we have a clear pathway from
the gene to a product that the public needs, then a patent makes sense.
I have much more trouble, though, with patenting genes with functions that we are
uncertain about. That can lead to people claiming large territories of the genome,
hoping that sooner or later somebody else will figure out what those genes do. Then a
license will have to be granted and payments will have to be made. That could be
exactly the wrong thing to do for the public benefit. The position of the National
Institutes of Health, with which I agree, is that we should set the utility standard very
high before allowing a patent on a gene. Unfortunately, the bar has not been set as
high as we would like.
You’re not a fan of germline therapy that would allow altering of
genes in sperm or eggs in order to prevent the passing on of
diseases or disabilities to future generations. What’s wrong with
At the moment, it’s not safe. The only way we might currently try it would be likely
to change not only the misspelling in the DNA that you want to fix, but also some
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other places in the genome would also get a little bit scrambled. The notion of altering
DNA that’s going to get passed to future generations, and is of uncertain consequence,
does not measure up to most people’s standards of ethical acceptability. It certainly
doesn’t measure up to mine.
Are safety issues also the problem that you have with cloning?
I have two problems with cloning. The most apparent one is the safety concern.
There will be carnage of unimaginable consequence if we attempt to clone human
beings right now. Everything we know about every animal species for which cloning
has been attempted indicates that only a tiny percentage give rise to live births that
survive for more than a few days. Most of them result in miscarriages, birth defects,
and newborn deaths of uncertain cause. Puzzling and troubling outcomes occur when
you try to convince DNA from a differentiated cell that it’s actually an embryo again. It
is unacceptable, given all of that data, to contemplate the cloning of a human being at
the present time.
But of course, even if the safety issues were solved, would human reproductive
cloning be an acceptable practice? It wouldn’t be for me. I believe that human beings
have come into this world by having a mother and a father. To undertake a different
pathway of creating a human being is a profound departure from the normal state of
things. I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why we need to do that.
You once described yourself as “intensely conflicted” in regard to
stem-cell research. What's the cause of this conflictedness?
It is a classic example of a collision between two very important principles. One is
the sanctity of human life and the other is our strong mandate as human beings to
alleviate suffering and to treat terrible diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and spinalcord injury. The very promising embryonic stem-cell research might potentially
provide remarkable cures for those disorders. We don’t know that, but it might. And at
the same time, many people feel, I think justifiably, that this type of research is taking
liberties with the notion of the sanctity of human life by manipulating cells derived
from a human embryo.
Are there any other scientific decisions that trouble you because of
their ethical implications?
We should all be concerned about the possible need to define boundaries on
genetic testing. In some instances, it is enormously beneficial that we have tests
available to predict future illness.
If someone in your family has colon cancer, you may be able to find out whether
you’re at risk or not. If you are at risk, you can take steps to save your life. But is that
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the kind of testing that ought to be carried out prenatally? Is it appropriate to test
prenatally for things that are adult-onset disorders for which an effective intervention
exists? Is it appropriate to begin to test for things that are really more traits than
diseases? I am very concerned about those things.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 1, 2001• Vol. 45, No. 12, Page 42
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Can We Clone God’s Image?
Today’s advances in biomedicine give parents unprecedented power to
select and shape their children. But should they take advantage of it?
In spring 2002, CBS radio news carried the story that a biomedical
research firm was in the process of cloning a human, and clones had been
implanted in two women, who became pregnant. The claims could not
immediately be confirmed or disproved, but their plausibility shows the
powers of the business-biomedical establishment. The rules of procreation
are changing; parents have been given unprecedented ability to control
their children’s genes.
The Bible doesn’t explicitly address modern bioethical dilemmas, but it
stands committed to the dignity of human life. The Bible’s wisdom can
guide Christians in answering questions upon which, in Leon Kass’s words,
“the human future is at stake.”
Lesson #11
Genesis 1:24-2:3
Based on:
“Defender of Dignity,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, June 10, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 7, Page 42
Can We Clone God’s Image?
Page 2
Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to meeting, provide for each person the article
“Defender of Dignity” from CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine, included at the
end of this study.
The film Gattaca (1997) portrays a world in which genetic engineering
makes people more beautiful, intelligent, and desirable. Gattaca’s website
raises the following question: Your 2-month-old baby is about to be taken
off life support. You and your partner can no longer bear children. Would
you clone the child if it were an option?
[Q] How would you answer this question, and why?
Human cloning was actually favored by a thin majority of people who responded to the
website’s question. The current results: yes, 51 percent; no, 49 percent.
On the other hand, a survey conducted by Time magazine last year found much greater
opposition. When asked, “In general, do you think it is a good idea or a bad idea to clone
human beings?” 90 percent of respondents said it was a “bad idea.”
Still, the questions of what it means to be human—and whether cloning is a good idea—won’t
go away. Nancy Gibbs wrote for last year:
“Before we assume that the market for human clones consists mainly of narcissists who
think the world deserves more of them or neo-Nazis who dream of cloning Hitler or
crackpots and mavericks and mischief-makers of all kinds, it is worth taking a tour of the
marketplace. We might just meet ourselves there.
“Imagine for a moment that your daughter needs a bone-marrow transplant and no one
can provide a match; that your wife’s early menopause has made her infertile; or that your
five-year-old has drowned in a lake and your grief has made it impossible to get your mind
around the fact that he is gone forever. Would the news then really be so easy to dismiss
that around the world, there are scientists in labs pressing ahead with plans to duplicate a
human being, deploying the same technology that allowed Scottish scientists to clone
Dolly the sheep four years ago?”
In the midst of the latest technological advances and opinion polls, Christians can draw
timeless wisdom from the Scriptures.
Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: People are made in the image of God.
Read Genesis 1:24-2:3, which describes the sixth and seventh days of Creation. Then read
Genesis 1:27, which declares, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he
created him; male and female he created them.”
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This simple phrase, “created…in the image of God,” is one of the most profound things ever
said of human beings. It’s critical to understand it in order to apply the Bible’s wisdom to
questions of human life and reproduction.
Unfortunately, Genesis does not define what it means that humans are created in “the image of
God.” Nor can we get much insight from studying the phrase elsewhere in the Bible, for “the
image of God” is rare—other than Genesis 1, it’s found in only two other places in the Old
Testament. Nonetheless, we may safely say the following things about what it means that
humans are created in God’s image.
A. People are created not as an afterthought; they are the crowning work of God’s
creation. Notice how grand and unique is the creation of humans. God specially
deliberates before creating them (Gen. 1:26 and 2:18), almost making a formal
announcement, which he does not do before creating anything else. In the Bible’s story
of Creation, God is (according to one ancient rabbi) “like a person who builds a palace
and, after having furnished and decorated it, ushers in its owner so it is ready for his
immediate dwelling.”
This is a radically higher view of human life than that in any other religion of the
ancient world. According to John H. Walton and Victor H. Matthews in The IVP Bible
Background Commentary, Genesis—Deuteronomy (InterVarsity, 1997), “In the ancient
Near East, the gods created for themselves—the world was their environment for their
enjoyment and existence. People were created only as an afterthought, when the gods
needed slave labor to help provide the conveniences of life (such as irrigation trenches).
In the Bible, the cosmos was created and organized to function on behalf of the people
that God planned as the centerpiece of his creation.”
B. People—all people, not just the king—have great dignity and worth. Scholar Victor P.
Hamilton writes in The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Eerdmans, 1990) that “…in
both Egyptian and Mesopotamian society the king, or some high-ranking official,
might be called ‘the image of God.’ Such a designation, however, was not applied to the
canal digger or to the mason who worked on a ziggurat. Genesis 1 may be using royal
language to describe simply ‘man.’ In God’s eyes all of mankind is royal. All of
humanity is related to God, not just the king.” This is an astounding view of human life
that gives dignity to every person. The Bible treats people like royalty.
C. People are somehow like God and represent God. People sometimes say that a child is
“the spitting image” of his father or mother. When they do, they’re echoing the truth of
Genesis—that God gave humans a special resemblance to himself. We somehow
represent God, carry God’s essence, or look and act like him.
It’s not clear, however, precisely what it means that humans are in God’s image.
Obviously, human beings are physically limited, while God is not. But there must be
some inner likeness. Over the centuries, Jewish and Christian interpreters have
suggested close to a dozen possible ways in which humans are in “the image of God.”
If time allows, you may ask your group members what they think are some of these ways. You
may want to write these on a chalkboard or easel:
Conscience; morality; the ability to distinguish right from wrong
Reason; mind; intelligence; intellect; understanding
Self-consciousness; self-awareness
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Can We Clone God’s Image?
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Creativity; imagination
Will; freedom to choose; the ability to choose actions based on reason rather than merely
on instinct or drive; power to subdue the senses
Capacity for love; ability to enter into relationship or partnership; ability to sympathize
Ability to know God and commune with God; a capacity for fellowship with God through
prayer and worship
10. Immortal soul
Role of superintending the earth
Ask these questions:
[Q] Is there anything we might add to this list?
In what other ways might humans be God’s image?
Leader’s Note: You might remind people that a suggestion must meet two criteria: (1)
it is true of God; (2) it is not true of animals or other created things.
[Q] Which of these qualities do you think is most important to being made in God’s image?
[Q] Describe a time when you felt the nobility of being created “in the image of God,” when
you felt you were like him or representing him.
Whatever “the image of God” means, it sets apart humans from animals and the rest of the
creation, and is apparently why humans are permitted to have dominion over creation.
Humans are, in the words of one Hebrew scholar, “in a form worthy of God.”
Teaching point two: We must guard against any technology or procedure that
would impair people’s ability to bear God’s image.
[Q] When God created humans, he commanded them to “be fruitful and increase in number”
(Gen. 1:28). Does cloning help us fulfill that principle, or violate it? Why?
Leader’s Note: Cloning theoretically will allow human life to be created that otherwise
(naturally) could not be. However, it will be human life of a qualitatively different kind.
When God gave humans the capacity of reproduction, that process ensured that each
person has, in Kass’s words, “a genetic independence.”
[Q] If a person is genetically identical, or virtually identical, to a parent or celebrity, does that
matter from a Christian perspective? Why or why not?
Remember the following points from the CHRISTIANITY TODAY interview:
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Cloning threatens human identity and individuality by creating exact replicas who will be
compared to the original. “There are also questions about identity and individuality that
come really from the fact that the clone, while not a perfect copy of the original, is at least
brought into being out of a desire to produce something like a replica of the original. And
the genetic distinctiveness is also a kind of emblem of the unique, never before to have
lived and never to be repeated again trajectory of an individuated human life from birth to
death. Here a blueprint of a life that has already lived is somehow being re-enacted once
again.” And, “…as bad as it might be to destroy a creature made in God’s image, it might be
very much worse to be creating them after images of one’s own.”
Cloning is unethical experimentation on nonconsenting humans. “Moreover, while
perhaps you could sympathize with those who seek to replace a dead child with a copy, or
to copy a parent or a relative or even a celebrity, I would be inclined to say that to create a
child to fulfill those expectations could be regarded as a form of child abuse. It would be
unsafe biologically, but beyond that these are experiments in identity, in being made a
design of somebody else. In the language of research ethics, these are unethical
experiments on the child-to-be, who cannot give consent to have that experiment foisted
upon him.”
[Q] Suppose you didn’t want to clone a child, but you did want to give it a certain quality—
intelligence, height, or hair color. Suppose you only wanted to correct some genetic
misspellings that your children inherited from you. Is that a problem from a Christian
perspective? Why or why not?
Again, be prepared to quote from the Kass interview as needed:
Cloning turns procreation into manufacture by allowing adults to select the exact genetic
blueprint for a child. “Cloning represents a very clear, powerful and immediate example in
which we are in danger of turning procreation into manufacture, sometimes referred to as
‘designer babies,’ in which parents and scientists impose their private eugenic visions on
the child-to-be. A child, therefore, ceases to be welcomed as a gift, as a mysterious
stranger whose genetic independence from the parents is a kind of emblem of the kind of
independence that all of our children are raised to acquire, and instead becomes a being to
work out the particular will that the parents have.”
Cloning is a perversion of parenthood because parents essentially control children as
objects. “…part of the reason that this bothers people is that it looks like a degrading of
parenthood and a perversion of the right relation between parents and children.” And “It’s
a short step from the belief that every child should be a ‘wanted child,’ the slogan that
defends abortion, to the belief that a child exists to satisfy our wants—and that if the child
doesn’t measure up to our wants, we go to genetic engineering to improve him…to get the
features we want, the product.”
[Q] Science allows us to predict and control certain events. If it gave us the ability to control
how our children turn out, what would be the consequences, both good and bad?
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Apply Your Findings
[Q] Suppose someone says, “I have a right to have children. If cloning is what it takes, who
can tell me I don’t have that right?” How could you answer that person?
Leader’s Note: You might quote Kass: “We do, in fact, restrict so-called reproductive
freedom. We do not allow polygamy, we do not allow incest, we do not allow the buying
and selling of babies so people can realize their reproductive aspirations in the case of
unwelcome infertility. The so-called right to reproduce is not an unlimited right.”
If parents are going to educate children in the unique dignity of human beings, they will need to
do two things, which Leon Kass saw in his parents:
Live as a moral example: “As to the integrity of both of my parents—I can’t shine their
shoes. There was a remarkable moral example, and a kind of explicit moral conversation.”
Lead a moral conversation: “The [questions] of how to live righteously and nobly and well
and with dignity were the questions of their home.”
[Q] Which of these suggestions—”live as a moral example” or “lead a moral conversation”—is
the harder challenge for today’s parents? Why?
[Q] Suppose a friend said to you, “I don’t know how to talk about important issues with my
kids.” What would you suggest?
Study prepared by Kevin A. Miller, executive editor of and
editor-at-large of LEADERSHIP Journal.
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Can We Clone God’s Image?
Today’s advances in biomedicine give parents unprecedented
power to select and shape their children.
But should they take advantage of it?
Read the following verses, and pause to meditate on these key phrases:
a. 2 Corinthians 4:4—”…the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
b. Colossians 1:15—”the image of the invisible God.”
c. Philippians 2:6—”who, being in very nature, God.”
d. Hebrews 1:3—”the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his
Unlike us, Christ not only resembles God, he exactly represents God. He not only
has a similarity to God, he has the precise identity of God. Jesus Christ is the image
of God in a perfect and complete way. What difference does this truth make in your
life? What difference would you like it to make?
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Defender of Dignity
Leon Kass, head of the President’s Council on Bioethics, hopes to thwart the businessbiomedical agenda.
An interview by Nigel M. de S. Cameron, for the study, “Can We Clone God’s Image?”
President George W. Bush made two announcements in his
televised speech on August 9, 2001. First, he would permit federal
funding for experiments on stem cells derived from human
embryos, but only on cells derived from embryos already killed by
August 9. Second, he would appoint a Presidential Advisory
Council on Bioethics, led by Leon Kass, to review this and other
Longtime professor on the University of Chicago’s prestigious
Committee on Social Thought, Kass is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in
biochemistry who has a background in National Institutes of Health research. He was
a founding member of the board of the Hastings Center, the nation’s premier bioethics
think tank. I met with Kass at his American Enterprise Institute office in Washington.
(Kass noted that his comments do not reflect the position of the federal government.)
How do you see the work of the President’s Council on Bioethics?
Our first task is to do fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance
of these advances in biomedical science and technology—not just pronounce them
good, bad, or indifferent. Second, we shall seek to delineate the ethical and social
issues that particular advances may raise, and serve as a national forum for
discussion. Finally, we need also to explore ways for fruitful international
collaboration around some of these matters. The challenges that confront us are not
mainly issues of good versus evil but rather issues of competing goods. Because the
council has been liberated from the need to produce consensus, we are free to develop
the competing arguments at the highest level.
It’s very important that everybody in the discussion acknowledge that the other
side also has something vital to defend here. For example, people who care about the
sanctity of life should understand that the scientists who wish to experiment on
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Defender of Dignity
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embryos are also defending something very important when they seek in this way to
cure disease. And the scientists have to understand that people who worry about the
fate of the embryos are not simply practitioners of some narrow religious doctrine, but
are defending the dignity of our humanity.
What kind of people has the President named to this body?
I don’t want to call them experts; I rather distrust the “expert” label. But they are
people who have backgrounds in medicine and science, law and public policy,
philosophy and theology, and in the humanities and social sciences. Some of these
were names I suggested, but the selections were made in the White House from a list
of several hundred people.
What distinguishes this group of people is that they have been chosen with some
view to their openness, to their thoughtfulness. They see that in some way the human
future is at stake in these questions, and they are willing, with fear and trembling, to
search for the wisest possible course as opposed to the cleverest possible
This is a council on bioethics, rather than a council of bioethicists. By bioethics I
mean the domain of difficulties that arise when human life as ordinarily lived is
challenged by ideas and practices coming from modern biomedical science and
technology. To address these concerns adequately, we need to go to deeper ground
than that now occupied by mainstream bioethicists. We need thoughtful reflection
about the riches and goodness (the ethics) of human life (bios), as they might be
fostered and threatened by these new advances. The Greek word bios didn’t simply
mean life in the sense of animal life. Bios was a human life, the human life that is lived
humanly. It finds its place really in the word biography, the writing of a human life.
Biology meaning the science of all life is a late notion.
Let’s move to your own background—what has prepared you to take
this role?
To give a quick answer: I suffer from a late-onset, probably lethal, rabbinic gene
which has gradually expressed itself, and it has taken me over. I think a number of
things count. I’m a first-generation American raised in a Yiddish-speaking, proudly
Jewish but secular home, with no religious rearing whatsoever. There were socialist
leanings, and strong moral teachings. My parents were both immigrants, neither of
them schooled. But the moral questions and the question of how to live righteously
and nobly and well and with dignity were the questions of their home. I don’t just
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mean that you were exhorted to be good, but that there were dinner conversations
about “What do you think of so-and-so’s behavior?” One was somehow encouraged to
pay attention to conduct and to character. As to the integrity of both of my parents—I
can’t shine their shoes. There was a remarkable moral example, and a kind of explicit
moral conversation.
At the University of Chicago, I realized that there were real questions, whereas
previously I only had answers. Although I was headed for biology, I was introduced to
some of the questionable philosophical assumptions that are at the foundations of
modern science—to which we mostly just don’t pay any attention, because we see
science as progressive, and more is better and truer.
I was headed for a career in academic medicine. Then in 1965 my wife and I went
to Mississippi to do civil rights work. I came back with this question: Why was there
more honor and dignity and things that I admired in these ignorant black farmers in
Mississippi with whom we lived than in my well-educated, privileged fellow graduate
students at Harvard University? I had been taught that education, opportunity, and
privilege would banish poverty and superstition, and enable human beings to flower
morally into the kinds of creatures that only the stinginess of nature and their
ignorance prevented them from being. If that was true, why this discrepancy between
these very smart people who were around me, many of whom you would not want
your sister to marry, and these very fine, simple, uneducated men and women?
I really had questions, because if a kind of simple Enlightenment progressivist view
of morals on a purely secular foundation was correct, this couldn’t be right. And if
what I believed was wrong, what was in its place? That began a series of readings. A
friend gave me Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences to read, and I read
Aristotle’s Ethics and Physics with him. He also gave me C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of
Man to read, and Huxley’s Brave New World. And I was off. On the side of science,
there were certain assumptions about nature, and human nature, that set the
metaphysical questions aside so that we can get on with the power to predict and
control events. On the other side, there were certain questions about the foundations
of morals that advances in science all threaten to make more complicated.
I also learned gradually that what I thought had been the socialism of my home
was, in fact, a terrestrialized version of prophetic Judaism. It was the Prophets
without the Law. This was true of that whole generation. Many of these people who fell
for Marxism did so out of a longing for justice, and belief that one didn’t have to wait
for the messianic age, one could build it here and now. Especially when our children
were born, I realized that one shouldn’t live as a parasite on a tradition that one knew
nothing about. So I joined a synagogue, I began to do some studying of the Torah. I
don’t regard myself as a good enough Jew by a long shot, either in terms of learning or
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practice. But I’ve come to treasure the biblical strand of our Western tradition more
than the strand that flows from Athens.
The bioethical issues have come together in a dramatic way in the
debate about human cloning. How have you come to your
conclusions about it?
I’ve been opposed to human cloning from the very beginning. Cloning represents a
very clear, powerful, and immediate example in which we are in danger of turning
procreation into manufacture, sometimes referred to as “designer babies,” in which
parents and scientists impose their private eugenic visions on the child-to-be. A child,
therefore, ceases to be welcomed as a gift, as a mysterious stranger whose genetic
independence from the parents is a kind of emblem of the kind of independence that
all of our children are raised to acquire, and instead becomes a being to work out the
particular will that the parents have. So part of the reason that this bothers people is
that it looks like a degrading of parenthood and a perversion of the right relation
between parents and children.
There are also questions about identity and individuality that come really from the
fact that the clone, while not a perfect copy of the original, is at least brought into
being out of a desire to produce something like a replica of the original. And the
genetic distinctiveness is also a kind of emblem of the unique, never before to have
lived and never to be repeated again trajectory of an individuated human life from
birth to death. Here, a blueprint of a life that has already lived is somehow being
reenacted once again.
Greg Pence, one of the most articulate cloning advocates, argues that this is simply
an issue of “reproductive freedom”—just another option, building on in vitro
fertilization and other technologies.
Well, we do, in fact, restrict so-called reproductive freedom. We do not allow
polygamy, we do not allow incest, we do not allow the buying and selling of babies so
people can realize their reproductive aspirations in the case of unwelcome infertility.
The so-called right to reproduce is not an unlimited right. Moreover, while perhaps
you could sympathize with those who seek to replace a dead child with a copy, or to
copy a parent or a relative or even a celebrity, I would be inclined to say that to create
a child to fulfill those expectations could be regarded as a form of child abuse. It would
be unsafe biologically, but beyond that these are experiments in identity, in being
made a design of somebody else. In the language of research ethics, these are
unethical experiments on the child-to-be, who cannot give consent to have that
experiment foisted upon him. In those terms, it fits with all kinds of other restrictions
we place on people’s freedom to do things to their children and to experimental
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What is your perspective on the abortion debate, and on the bearing
that it has on these new questions?
These matters both are and are not connected to the abortion controversy. How
one looks upon nascent human life is part of what it means to stand reverently or
irreverently before our humanity. And I don’t think you need to believe that the twoday-old human embryo is a “person” or a full human being to feel that something is
being violated if one is casual about its fate or its destruction.
The abortion controversy, though it has been largely fought over the question of
the fate of the fetus, is also important for what it says about our stance toward
procreation and children altogether. It’s a short step from the belief that every child
should be a “wanted child,” the slogan that defends abortion, to the belief that a child
exists to satisfy our wants, and that if the child doesn’t measure up to our wants, we go
to genetic engineering to improve him—to get the features we want, the product.
There is also a coarsening of the sensibilities of a society that practices abortion,
which may carry over into how it looks upon its children that are born. The
biotechnologies raise equally grave, if not even graver, questions above and beyond
the so-called life questions.
What’s wrong with Huxley’s Brave New World is not that there is destruction of
embryos. It is that we have somehow taken our humanitarian principles to cure
disease, relieve suffering, eliminate grief, and so on in a way that has robbed human
life of almost everything that makes it worthwhile. There is no art, there is no science,
there is no religion, there’s no love, there’s no friendship, there’s no self-governance—
it’s a world of trivial pursuits.
Both sides have tended to settle really on what I would call the basement level of
this discussion. The basement is important because if there is no foundation there is
no building. On the other hand, what we’re really arguing about is whether, when this
building is finished, the ceiling is going to be so close to the floor that the human
beings that are going to live in this basement will be midgets, humanly speaking.
That’s why, as bad as it might be to destroy a creature made in God’s image, it might
be very much worse to be creating them after images of one’s own.
Do you sense that the steady collapse of our culture and its moral vision will
undermine our best efforts to set a human frame around these wondrous new things?
Will technique plus marketing write the next chapter?
The technical is not just the machinery. The technical is a disposition to life. The
technological way of thinking has infected even ethics, which is supposed to be
thinking about the good, and instead it’s trying to solve various problems so we can go
on to the next problem. And I would be just a fool to be simply naïvely optimistic
about the prospects. One of the regrettable things about the stem cell discussion was
the hype that the proponents used, taking advantage of desperate people’s desires for
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cures and promising them cures just around the corner, when truth to tell we don’t
even have animal examples of anything remotely resembling a cure for any of these
What is absolutely new is the economic power of biotech. And we’ve just seen the
beginning. Whether this will go the way of the dot-coms or whether this will, in fact,
grow with burgeoning power is an open question, though I suspect they will learn to
be effective in doing the things that are promised. By the way, the neuroscience area—
which is absolutely in its infancy—is much more important than genetics. Genetics is
crude, but neuroscience goes directly to work on the brain, and the mind follows. And
we know next to nothing of what we’re going to know in 20 or 50 years.
So, at the moment, we have on one side scientists with prestige, knowledge, and
power backed by powerful economic interests. And on the other side there are those of
us who are putting hard questions about human values. How many divisions does the
pope have? In this discussion, not very many. One of the things that I hope our council
will be able to address is not just the moral arguments or even just the human goods
that are at stake, but also do some institutional thinking, so that after this council
disappears, there might be some proposals for institutions that would take up these
questions and have some kind of regulatory force. In the absence of that, it does seem
that the steamroller may simply have its own force.
But there is one last thing on the other side. There are certain resiliencies in the
human spirit. We’ve seen it in this country since September 11. The culture might be
said to be debased, and certain cultural forms have lost their roots. But I would be
slow to predict simply the disappearance of the regard for the things that make us
human. I teach in the university in a culture which is very debased; students come in
with the most shallow thoughts on the tips of their tongues. But if you put good things
in front of them to read that force them to talk about love and friendship or citizenship
or the virtues, it turns out they’re capable of it.
Also, there is a renewed interest in religion. The interest in religious questions and
religious studies among the younger generation is palpable. Perhaps the events of
September 11 and their aftermath provide an opportunity for thinking not only about
safety, but more deeply about how best to spend our allotted three score and ten. If
that happens, then it seems to me that a kind of thinking which is not technocratic has
an opportunity for a renaissance in this country.
Read a fuller version of this interview at CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s website
—Nigel M. de S. Cameron is director of the Council for Biotechnology Policy
( at the Wilberforce Forum and a CHRISTIANITY TODAY
contributing editor.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY, June 10, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 7, Page 42
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What Are We Eating?
How is genetically modified food affecting our world—and our souls?
Since 1996, the United States has been producing genetically modified
crops. Scientists are spreading the techniques of industrial-style farming
around the world. The U.S. also leads the world in producing and
consuming convenience and fast food. Technologically enhanced food has
made eating cheaper and easier, but is it better for us? For the earth and
future generations? For the world’s hungry? What are a Christian’s
responsibilities in a world where food is big business?
In the recent BOOKS & CULTURE article “Food™,” author Eric Miller
observes that “we’ve gone from raising crops to worrying about them.” In
this Bible study we look at the biblical roots of a Christian approach to food.
Lesson #12
Genesis 1:1–2:3; Leviticus 19:1–12; Psalm 104; Luke 22:7–23
Based on:
“Food™,” by Eric Miller, BOOKS & CULTURE, May/June 2004, Pages 14–15
What Are We Eating?
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each person the article
“Food™” from BOOKS & CULTURE magazine (included at the end of this
Growing food, as even weekend gardeners know, is hard work. But the last
hundred years have brought an explosion of food technologies that have
revolutionized agriculture, as well as animal husbandry, around the world.
The first wave of innovation included fertilizers, pesticides, and new forms
of machinery; the most recent waves harness genetic technology, whether
in the form of new breeding techniques or genetic modification (GM),
which directly inserts genes into plants like corn and soybeans to confer
resistance to pests and disease.
This technological explosion has dramatically changed our relationship to food. The process of
growing, harvesting, and even cooking food has become both bigger business—managed by
major corporations and industrial farms—and a smaller part of the average Westerner’s life.
When we buy prepackaged foods like boneless, skinless chicken breasts, fully prepared meals
from the freezer compartment, or processed foods that contain GM ingredients (60% of
packaged foods in U.S. supermarkets do, according to Scientific American), we usually have no
way of knowing where our food comes from; we just know it is—generally—tasty and cheap.
Food technologies have been life-saving good news for the world’s hungry. Largely because of
technology, food production has more than kept up with the dramatic growth in the world’s
population. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization believes there will be enough food
for the world’s population through at least 2030. But as Miller points out in “Food™,” our
technologies may not work as well in the next century as they did in the last. Pests are
becoming resistant to pesticides; the productivity of current methods is leveling off; and new
techniques like GM may have unexpected consequences.
Can we safely leave the problems and promises of “techno-food” to scientists, engineers, and
corporate leaders? Or is there an important biblical perspective on food?
Discussion starters:
[Q] Food production has changed dramatically in just a few generations. How is your
relationship to food—where you get it, how much you know about its origins and
ingredients, how and where you eat it—different from that of your parents and
[Q] How concerned are you about the quality and safety of the food you eat?
[Q] What is most important to you when you shop for food—freshness, nutrition, appearance,
taste, price, where it’s grown? Have you made changes in your food buying habits in
recent years?
[Q] What do you know about GM food? Did you know GM food is created using advanced
laboratory techniques to directly change a plant’s genetic material, rather than through
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traditional breeding techniques? Does this trouble you, or do you trust that the scientists
and food regulators have your best interest in mind?
[Q] Are you surprised to learn that 60 percent of processed foods in our supermarkets include
GM ingredients, without any indication on the label? Do you think these foods should be
labeled, or do you consider GM food to be just as safe and healthy as other food?
[Q] Genetic modification yields more crops in less space and requires fewer pesticides. Do
you think this is a step forward for food production, or do you think we need more time to
evaluate GM’s long-range effects? What limits, if any, do you think food manufacturers
should observe in applying technology to food?
Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: Our original calling is to be stewards of God’s world,
especially living things.
The first chapter of Genesis paints a sweeping and beautiful picture of the world the way God
meant it to be. Read Genesis 1:1–2:3, and notice how much attention the writer pays to the
creation of plants (Gen. 1:11), sea creatures and birds (Gen. 1:20–21), and “livestock, creatures
that move along the ground, and wild animals” (Gen. 1:24–25). After each of these acts of
creation, “God saw that it was good.”
God made humanity in his image and appointed us to “rule over” all the creatures God made
(Gen. 1:26). Furthermore, God blessed us—that is, he declared his good purpose for our lives—
by commanding us to be fruitful, fill the earth, and rule over all of his creatures. The creation
was not complete, not “very good,” until God installed his image-bearers as its rulers (Gen.
1:31). Similarly, the story of the Garden of Eden says, “The LORD God took the man and put him
in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). Our purpose on earth,
according to Genesis, is to care for God’s world.
[Q] What do you think it means for us to rule over other living creatures, based on the
evidence of Genesis 1–2? Since human beings are made in God’s image and likeness, what
can we infer about the kind of rule we were created to exercise over the natural world?
[Q] Have you ever had an experience of working and taking care of a part of God’s world—
perhaps a garden, a farm, or an animal—that led you to see it as “very good” in a new
[Q] How well do contemporary practices of agriculture reflect the picture in Genesis 1–2, in
your opinion? Are we living up to our status as God’s image-bearers in the way we tend
the world he has made?
The writer of Genesis stresses the creation of plants and animals, “each according to its kind.”
GM techniques can borrow genetic material from disparate species (even, occasionally, from
animals) to create new kinds of plants.
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[Q] How should we view this practice in light of the creation account? Do you see the creation
of new species as an act in the image of God, or as an infringement on the good order of
God’s creation?
[Q] Opponents of biotechnology often warn of the dangers of playing God. What does it mean
for us, as God’s image-bearers, to play God in the world? As agricultural techniques
become more and more industrial, do we become more and more like God by having
increasing control over the world, or less and less like God by having a less personal and
intimate relationship with the world?
Teaching point two: Biblical agriculture is always concerned for the poor and
The book of Leviticus contains hundreds of commands for the people of Israel. Twice (19:9–10,
23:22) it refers to the practice of leaving gleanings for foreigners and the poor. Read the
instructions about gleaning in the immediate context of Leviticus 19:1–12.
While some instructions in Leviticus are principally ceremonial in their purpose, or designed to
reinforce the unique status of God’s chosen people, in this section God also repeats several of
the Ten Commandments, suggesting that the practice of leaving gleanings is central to God’s
purposes. (For a description of how gleaning worked, read Ruth 2.)
The practice of gleaning ensured that even strangers like Ruth who wandered through Israelite
territory would have enough to eat. It established a tradition of connecting agriculture with the
needs of the poor and the alien. It also put limits on how efficient agriculture could become—an
Israelite who attempted to harvest too efficiently would violate the commandment to preserve a
surplus to meet the needs of the poor.
In our day, most poor and hungry people live far from the places where food is produced, so
simply allowing gleaning would not provide for them. But the gleaning principle suggests that
all agricultural practices should be designed with the hungry in mind.
This principle can put debates about GM food, in particular, in a new light. At least some GM
techniques are designed to increase crop yields in poor countries. While most hunger in the
world currently is the result of poverty and inadequate distribution, not inadequate production,
GM advocates say that increasing crop yields is good for the stability of food supplies and good
for the environment (less land needs to be used for agriculture and fewer pesticides are used).
However, consumers in many prosperous countries, especially Europe and Japan, are unwilling
to eat GM food. This has led countries like Zambia and Angola to reject shipments of GM grain
that might relieve famine, for fear that their crops would be contaminated and not be able to be
sold to Europe.
[Q] Do you think the concerns of countries like Europe and Japan are trumping the needs of
the world’s poor? Why or why not?
[Q] With food production becoming an increasingly commercial and corporate enterprise, is
there a danger of efficiency crowding out the needs of the hungry? What should gleaning
look like in an age of farming technology? What steps should individuals, businesses, and
governments take to ensure that gleaning is still possible?
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[Q] How much should the potential of providing less expensive and more abundant food to
the world’s hungry weigh in decisions about new technologies like GM?
[Q] At the time that the Bible was written, most people were directly involved in food
production. Now that we are mostly food consumers, are there ways that we need to
incorporate gleaning into our consumption? How does techno-food make it easier or
harder for us as food consumers to participate in providing for the needs of the hungry?
Teaching point three: Food reminds us of our dependence on God’s provision.
From Genesis 1, where God provides food for human beings and animals alike, to Revelation,
where the redeemed eat “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9), food is first and last a
gift of God. Read Psalm 104 and look at how the psalmist describes food. Notice especially the
echoes of Genesis 1–2, and how the psalmist focuses on our absolute dependence on God for
food: “These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time” (Ps. 104:27).
[Q] How can we keep the psalmist’s sense of awe and dependence in an era of techno-food? Is
it possible for food technologies to be used in a way that preserves our sense of
dependence on God, or do they dull our awareness of God’s provision?
[Q] What ways have you, your family, or your church found to express praise to God as you
For Christians, the most significant use of food came at a crucial moment in the life of Jesus,
when he took elements of the Jewish Passover meal and offered them to his disciples as his
body and blood. Read Luke’s account of the Last Supper in Luke 22:7–23. As we consider the
role of technology in food production, it is noteworthy that the elements of the Supper are
bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. The elements of the Supper combine natural processes
with human ones; indeed, baking and managed fermentation are early food technologies that
turn wheat and grapes into bread and wine. The elements that Jesus describes as his body and
blood are not raw food.
And yet bread and wine still taste vividly of the flour and grapes from which they were made—
unlike highly technological food like, say, goldfish crackers and soft drinks. Near the end of his
article, Miller quotes the Indian writer Vandana Shiva: “The nonsustainable, nonrenewable,
and polluting plastic culture is at war with civilizations based on soil and mud and the cultures
of renewal and rejuvenation.”
[Q] What is the significance of Jesus using bread and wine in the Last Supper?
[Q] What do you think Vandana Shiva is referring to when she identifies a “nonsustainable,
nonrenewable, and polluting plastic culture”?
[Q] Does eating a McDonald’s hamburger or a genetically modified tomato reduce our
dependence on God? Why or why not?
[Q] Do you think it is healthier to eat food from local farmers than food from a distant
production facility? Why or why not?
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Apply Your Findings
Note to leader: Provide some magazines and newspaper food sections.
Take some time (perhaps in pairs) to look at how magazines and newspapers depict and talk
about food—both in the articles and in the advertisements. Ask how well they apply each of the
three biblical principles:
1. Do they make the world seem good or do they separate food from God’s good creation?
2. Do they make it possible for the poor and hungry to be included in the production and
consumption of food, or do they leave no margin for gleanings?
3. Do they foster a sense of dependence on God or a sense of independence and control?
[Q] What concrete actions could we take to make ourselves, and the enterprises that provide
us food, better stewards of God’s world?
[Q] Are there ways we could start paying attention to gleaning and incorporating the needs of
the poor in our daily lives?
[Q] How could we shift our consumption and production of food toward foods that involve
human cooperation with, rather than control over, the natural world, and that remind us
of God’s creation and redemption?
—Study prepared by Andy Crouch, a columnist for CHRISTIANITY TODAY and
co-author of The Church in Emerging Culture (Zondervan, 2003).
Additional Resources
“Eating the Supper of the Lamb in a Cool Whip Society,” Andy Crouch, Books &
Culture (January/February 2004); explores food as an example of high technology,
available on line at
The Economist magazine regularly covers biotechnology and agriculture; a
backgrounder on GM foods (free) provides links to recent articles (subscription
required) at
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (HarperCollins, 2002; ISBN 0060938455);
explores America’s dependence on food technology
Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto—The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest,
Peter Pringle (Simon & Schuster, 2003; ISBN 0743226119); a thought- provoking
view of the economic, ecological, and political controversies surrounding genetically
modified food
Good Eating, Stephen H. Webb (Brazos Press, 2001; ISBN 1587430150); explores a
biblical view of animals and food, recommending a moderate vegetarianism
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The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon (Modern Library, 2002; ISBN
0375760563); a Christian celebration of cooking, eating, and feasting
“Survey: Food,” Emma Duncan, The Economist (12-11-03); an in-depth survey of
global trends in food and health, available online (subscription required to access
entire survey) at
The Union of Concerned Scientists offers a cautious but balanced perspective on
biotechnology and food; see
The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Wendell Berry (Sierra Club
Books, 1986; ISBN 0871568772); a passionate warning against the loss of local
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How we’ve gone from raising crops to worrying about them.
By Eric Miller, for the study, “What Are We Eating?”
Does the thought of eating cloned pork turn your stomach?
Do you find yourself steering clear of “farmed” salmon? Is
“organic” an ever-more appealing adjective?
You’re not alone. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, a
reliable barometer of matters political and cultural, catches the
mood: in an age when “storybook children who used to visit
grandparents on their farms now visit them at golf course
condos,” she writes, “freedom from the farm is starting to feel
like disconnection… . We’ve gone from raising crops to worrying
about them.”
It’s a worry that seems altogether rational. “Industrial fishing practices have
decimated every one of the world’s biggest and most economically important species
of fish,” reports the Washington Post’s Rick Weiss. The Scripps Howard News Service
warns that due to the heavy use of pesticides consumers should “thoroughly wash
produce” and “peel fruits and vegetables like cucumbers and apples whenever
possible.” Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report warning
about the dangers of genetically modified organisms and calling for more effective
“bioconfinement strategies.” A study issued in February by the Union of Concerned
Scientists found that crops of maize, soybeans, and canola have been “pervasively
contaminated with DNA sequences from GM [genetically modified] varieties.” A U.S.
Department of Agriculture study discovered that “60 percent of the 35 major beef
slaughtering and processing plants fail to meet federal standards for preventing E.
coli,” leading annually to an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations,
and 5,000 deaths. Speaking of beef, how many Mad Cows are being “processed” at this
To be sure, in terms of food production the 20th century figures as the most
remarkable in history, when the triune juggernaut of science, government, and
commerce carried agronomic expertise and abundant grain to hungry people
everywhere. Experts judge that world famine was averted due to these efforts, and if
so, we should marvel, humbly, at this feat. But the economic and technological
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trajectory of that century continues, and where it is taking us is by no means certain.
Many seeming agricultural gains are now netting losses, or at best breaking even, and
the emerging record of agribusiness is revealing error, flaw, and corruption in all
arenas—scientific, economic, political. Nonetheless, the juggernaut rolls on. To where?
That’s where the controversy begins.
Mark Winston wants to put us at ease. In Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone,
Winston, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, takes on issue
after issue in a moderating, judicious key. Along the way his frequent references to
“communal comfort zones” and “potential middle grounds” tip us off that he’s leading
us carefully through a minefield.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick’s rhetorical blast at the European
Union exemplifies the sort of thing Winston is up against. “European antiscientific
policies,” Zoellick thundered in January 2003, “are spreading to other corners of the
world.” Zoellick, it turns out, was referring to the EU’s longstanding ban on genetically
modified food, which, the Bush administration claims, is influencing impoverished
African nations to reject the importation of American crops, despite the threat of
Is GM food—or, as the Brits have dubbed it, “Frankenfood”—the serious threat so
many Europeans believe it to be? Winston thinks not; if anything, transgenic
technology for him is part of the solution to a problem far more ominous: the reliance
of industrial agriculture on the heavy use of pesticides, which, unlike GM foods, are
already known to be hazardous to humans. Ever since scientists in the 1980s
succeeded in inserting virus- and vermin-destroying genes into the DNA of corn,
soybeans, and other staples, the hope of pesticide-free corporate agriculture became a
possibility, and North American farmers have been voting with their plows ever since:
between 1996 and 2001, GM crops in the U.S. increased from four million acres to 125
million acres, 68 percent of the worldwide total of GM crops.
Critics of this shift have not been silent, and to his credit Winston treats them with
more than a veneer of respect. He acknowledges that “science as a discipline has not
responded well to moral objections,” including the notion that “genetic engineering is
the sole province of the deity.” In the end, though, his political and epistemic home is
the university laboratory; he is convinced that what that perch enables him to see is
sufficient to make moral and political judgments on these matters. When he
announces that “Today we are selectively, deliberately, and surgically reinventing the
plant world,” and when he revels in the emergence of “an even more complex,
multinational, and corporate way of doing farming,” we get the picture. Yes, he’ll
concede, some problems remain for experts to solve, but for the most part we have
every reason to remain hopeful. The biggest challenge of all, by Winston’s lights, may
simply be persuading the masses to respect Science and the world it has made.
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Richard Manning’s vision of the cultural and political landscape differs markedly
from Winston’s, even if their conclusions on genetic engineering are in some ways
parallel. In Food’s Frontier, Manning—a journalist whose work centers on
environmental concerns—recounts the McKnight Foundation’s recent efforts to
bolster agricultural efforts through its funding of nine projects around the world. The
foundation teamed up scientists from nations as diverse as China and Chile with
scientists based in American universities in order to work on regional problems that, if
solved, would substantially improve the food circumstance of each particular place.
With quiet sympathy Manning etches the dance between culture and agriculture
that is our fate as a species, showing through story after story that to disrespect the
latter is to endanger the former. The “Green Revolution,” the mid-20th-century
agricultural boom that staunched famine throughout the world through industrial
farming, has run out of gas, he contends: its productivity has been leveling off as its
methods are proving to be, in the telling euphemism, “nonsustainable.” Meanwhile,
the world’s population continues to soar; some predict that the demand for food will
double by the year 2020.
Needless to say, the pressure is on to provide solutions, and organizations like the
McKnight Foundation are responding. Manning for the most part likes what he sees.
The “second green revolution,” he hopes, will center on genetic modification made
possible through the collaboration of researchers and farmers in discrete locales,
rather than in distant laboratories. “The Green Revolution at its most fundamental
level treated all the world the same,” he writes, “but the lessons being learned in
agriculture now are all local.” His own writing delightfully reflects that conviction, as
when he travels up to Mexico’s Sierra Norte de Puebla and finds local markets so rich
and meals so tasty that he ends up reexamining his understanding of “poverty.” He
discovers, in this region deemed unuseful by the broader national and global market,
people who cultivate 250 species of edible plants and 300 more that have medicinal
uses. What, on second or third thought, makes one “wealthy”?
So Manning embraces the local, and especially the rural, but not to indulge
romantic fantasies of pastoral bliss. Rather, it’s the sight of Mexico City’s millions
living in squalor that turns him away from the city for hope. Instead of going the route
of “development,” he urges those devoted to ameliorating the crisis of global poverty
to embrace a rural, decentralizing vision, in which networks of organizations serve
needy people around the world through practices that nurture particular peoples and
their habitats. While skeptical of the wonder-working power of genetic engineering, he
recognizes that, as he puts it, the “genie is already out of the bottle, way out”; best now
to seek to harness it with exceeding care, always making the health of the local the
measure of the technology’s worth.
For now, Manning’s vision of a global network of voluntary nongovernmental
organizations helping to nurture local agriculture is but a hope. The world we live in,
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whether it be western India or western Pennsylvania, is dominated by multinational
corporations with huge stakes in the global food industry—and huge stakes in
preserving their place in it. They are committed to going wherever humans need food.
Which is, of course, everywhere.
The tenacity with which these corporations have pursued this grand prize of
controlling the global food supply is revealed with revolting clarity in Lords of the
Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, by Daniel Charles, and Marion
Nestle’s Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. You’ll
finish these books with one big question: Why are we trusting these people with our
food, of all things?
Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, flatly states that “nutrition becomes a
factor in corporate thinking only when it can help sell food.” After years of working in
the academic, corporate, and political spheres, she has all the evidence she needs to
proclaim “a national scandal,” featuring food companies that “routinely place the
needs of stockholders over considerations of public health”—not at all unlike the
recently disgraced tobacco companies.
Since the leading causes of death in the United States now find their common
source in what she describes as “chronic diseases associated with excessive (or
unbalanced) intake of food and nutrition,” one would hope that federal and state
governments would step up to provide leadership, a clarifying voice, even, for
confused citizens. But Nestle tells a different story, in alarming detail, of federal
officials and government agencies succumbing to corporate influence, and of
corporations that make it their explicit aim to co-opt nutrition experts into supporting
the products the market (allegedly) demands.
The examples she provides astound: she quotes from a corporate manual that
instructs its reader that “the experts themselves must not recognize that they have lost
their objectivity and freedom of action.” She notes that in 1998, the UC Berkeley
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology sought and obtained an exclusive
partnership with an industry partner, Novartis, in order to secure steady and deep
funding; the agreement gave Novartis the right not only to select participating faculty
but also to review the faculty’s research results prior to publication! The question
Nestle leaves us with is this: If neither the government nor the academy nor the
corporate world is taking responsibility to foster public health, who is?
Daniel Charles corroborates Nestle’s tale. At the heart of Lords of the Harvest lies
Monsanto, a massive, domineering multinational chemical and biotech company.
Even as it promised in the 1980s to create “a bright, clean, hopeful new world,”
insiders knew Monsanto as a “tumultuous place that chewed up talent and tossed it
aside,” Charles writes. “They promised to transform a world they barely understood.”
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Monsanto was among the pioneering companies that created and marketed the
first genetically modified plants. Along the way it fought hard and dirty against any
observers, activists, and critics who voiced seemingly sane concerns about, in Charles’
troubling term, “the growing corporate domination of plant life.” One former
Monsanto CEO went so far as to admit that while the company was developing the GM
crops with which it was intending to change the world, “There wasn’t even one
discussion of the social implications. I never thought of it.” The only harm Monsanto
was consistently concerned about was the harm done to its bottom line. This is how we
change the world?
Both Nestle and Charles deliver devastating perspectives on the recklessness with
which the exorbitantly financed, do-or-die world of global capitalism has approached
the most basic task of provisioning. Both authors rightly despise key aspects of that
world while resigning themselves to working within its limits. But is there another
path? Is making the world safe for industrial capitalism all that’s left? Or might
Christian faith call for a more excellent way?
The mammoth organizations to which we’ve outsourced our provisioning “love
control, efficiency, and predictability,” Charles observes—loves that may well be the
source of their (and our) eventual demise. But Charles goes on to draw a contrast
more illuminating than he perhaps knows: agriculture, he notes, “is a holdover from
an earlier era; it’s dirty, messy, and unpredictable.”
Agriculture, that is, is of a piece with other forms of local life: families,
neighborhoods, towns, marriages. In every arena of local life, to avoid the mess is to
avoid the thing itself—tempting, for certain, but surely not satisfying of our truest
ends, and so not truly satisfying to us.
A simple question: Might it be that when a people seeks to evade the everyday
practices of agriculture, they end up evading life itself? Put differently, might it be that
what theologians call the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1-2 is doomed to fail apart
from the foundation of a faithful, collective enacting of the agricultural mandate the
Lord first gave Adam: to tend and care for the earth in discrete, local places?
The Indian physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva, despite her
religious differences with Christians, would affirm the moral necessity of a carefully
calibrated symbiosis between culture and agriculture, region by region, place by place.
In her book Water Wars, she looks at her own country and suggests that “The
nonsustainable, nonrenewable, and polluting plastic culture is at war with civilizations
based on soil and mud and the cultures of renewal and rejuvenation.” Indeed, Shiva
sees the interplay between culture and agriculture as fundamentally a religious issue,
as does the writer Barbara Kingsolver, whose pursuit of this same renewal and
rejuvenation has led her family to try to grow much of its own food. In an arresting
confession, Kingsolver explains in Small Wonder: “I’m not up for a guilt trip, just an
adventure in bearable lightness. I approach our efforts at simplicity as a novice
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approaches her order, aspiring to a lifetime of deepening understanding, discipline,
serenity, and joy.”
It’s a confession we all might consider making—a deeply human confession, one
that promises to take us into unpredictable places, where gardens grow and neighbors
dwell. Perhaps even places where a Maker walks with his creatures, and where the
hungry find food. Good food.
—Eric Miller is assistant professor of American history and director
of the humanities program at Geneva College.
“Food™,” BOOKS & CULTURE, May/June 2004, Vol. 10, No. 3, Pages 14–15
Books discussed in this essay:
Mark Winston, Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone (Harvard Univ. Press,
Richard Manning, Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution (North Point,
Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and
Health (Univ. of California Press, 2002).
Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food
(Perseus, 2001).
Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (South End,
Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder: Essays (HarperCollins, 2002).
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A Christian View of the Death Penalty
Christians need to think through this life-and-death issue.
Whether the death penalty is right or wrong has been hotly debated for
many decades and will probably continue to be debated for many more.
What has not received much discussion, however, is the matter of how the
death penalty should be applied. How can biblical guidelines on the death
penalty ensure justice and fairness? What should be the church’s position
on capital punishment?
Lesson #13
Genesis 9:5–6; Exodus 20:13; 21:12–17; Matthew 5:17–26, 38–48; 22:37–40; John 8:3–11; Romans 12:17–21; Philemon 8–20
Based on:
“Punishable by Death,” by Daniel W. Van Ness, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, August 1987
A Christian View of the Death Penalty
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Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each person the article from CHRISTIANITY TODAY
(included at the end of this study).
As the Roman Empire became Christianized, church leaders were assigned
increasing civic responsibilities. By Augustine’s time, Roman law
empowered a city’s Christian bishop to impose a settlement, by arbitration,
on consenting parties.
Augustine’s reputation for fairness brought many litigants—pagans,
heretics, and Christians—to him. On occasion he would skip all his meals
in order to settle the cases before him that day.
Some situations pitted the principles of justice and mercy against each other. In 408 at Calama,
where Augustine’s friend Possidius was bishop, local pagans staged two riots. They raided the
deacon’s lodging, killed a monk in the street, and went looking for Possidius, who heard from
his hiding place, “Where’s the bishop? If we don’t get him, we’ll have wasted our time!”
Peace officers did nothing to stop the violence and looting. But when the rebels came to their
senses, they realized how serious their acts were. So when Augustine came to Calama a bit later
to visit Possidius, a group approached him, begging him to intercede for them.
Nectarius, a respectable pagan in the group, wrote to Augustine urging him to use his influence
so that extreme penalties (torture and execution) could be avoided. Nectarius admitted that the
rioters should be punished, but it is not for a bishop, he argued, to seek anything but the
welfare of individuals and to obtain pardon from the omnipotent God for the offenses of others.
Augustine replied that, while he had no desire to see anyone tortured or executed, he did wish
to see justice served. Also, as similar acts of terrorism were on the rise throughout the empire,
he hoped the Calama case would serve as an example to other would-be rioters.
After eight months of inaction, the government imposed heavy penalties on the pagans, though
not the death penalty.
Nectarius again appealed to Augustine, asking for a general pardon because “as the Stoics were
in the habit of saying, all sins were equally great,” and no one deserved special censure. This
Augustine would not endorse, and he removed himself from the matter. [Bruce L. Shelley, “The
Bishop at Work,” CHRISTIAN HISTORY (Issue 67), pp. 21–22]
Discussion starters:
[Q] Why is the death penalty controversial, even among Christians?
 What has happened historically in our country to make people question the morality
and legality of the death penalty?
 Why is the Old Testament model of the death penalty not enough for many
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[Q] In what ways has United States policy acted in accordance with biblical guidelines for
capital punishment?
 In what ways has the Supreme Court sought to make the punishment fit the crime?
 How has the Constitution required adequate legal representation for all persons?
 How has the Supreme Court tried to ensure fairness in legal proceedings?
 So why is the death penalty sometimes administered unfairly?
[Q] Van Ness seems to believe that the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty
in the courts has been basically resolved. But what about the ethics of capital
 What is the reason for the death penalty? Punishment? Justice? Rehabilitation?
 How does this reasoning contrast with our country’s current philosophy of dealing
with those who have committed crimes other than murder?
[Q] Is human error a justification for problems in applying capital punishment?
 How can human error be minimized?
 In what ways might the biblical guidelines Van Ness lists decrease the chances of
mistakes being made?
The Scriptures
“Because the Christian believes in the inherent worth of human personality and … supports
the emphasis in modem penology upon the process of creative, redemptive rehabilitation …,
we therefore recommend the abolition of capital punishment.”
—American Baptist Convention (1960)
“We must never allow misguided compassion to erase our concern for the hundreds of
unfortunate, innocent victims of bestial criminals.”
—J. Edgar Hoover
[Q] Read Genesis 9:5–6, Exodus 20:13, and 21:12–14. Why did God institute the death
penalty in the Old Testament?
 What do these verses say about the value of human life?
 Many people opposed to capital punishment use Exodus 20:13 to justify their view.
To whom was this commandment directed?
 To whom was the Exodus 21 commandment directed, and why was it given?
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A Christian View of the Death Penalty
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[Q] Read Exodus 21:15–17. Do you think proponents of capital punishment today would
consider kidnapping and the physical or verbal abuse of parents grounds for execution?
 How do we decide which of the Old Testament laws are applicable today and which
are not?
 Van Ness uses Old Testament Scripture to describe how the death penalty should be
carried out. Yet even the Old Testament guidelines do not always apply to our
modern situations. Should we draw only on the New Testament for answers? Why or
why not?
[Q] Compare Matthew 5:17–26 with 5:38–48. What do these verses say to us about the death
 Who is Jesus speaking to? See 5:1–2.
 What is Jesus’ main point in verses 17–26? How are we to respond to the law as
followers of it?
 What is Jesus’ main point in verses 38–48? How are we to respond as victims of
 Do these verses apply to government as well? See verses 23–26.
[Q] Read John 8:3–11, Romans 12:17–21, and Philemon 8–20. What examples does the New
Testament give us for responding to lawbreakers?
 The adulterous woman and Onesimus both committed crimes punishable by death.
Jesus forgave the adulteress, and Paul pled for clemency for Onesimus. Both were
saved from punishment. What do these situations tell us about how we personally
should respond to lawbreakers? What might these situations say about how the state
should respond to lawbreakers?
 Romans 12:17–21 uses the words “avenge” or “retribution.” What is the difference
between justice and revenge?
[Q] Both proponents and opponents of capital punishment base their beliefs on “‘the message
of the Bible as a whole.” Read Matthew 22:37–40. How might these verses present cases
for both camps?
 Read aloud the above quotations by J. Edgar Hoover and the American Baptist
Convention. In each statement, to whom is Christian love directed?
 Whose life is held to be sacred?
 Is it possible to show love to both lawbreaker and victim?
 Can justice be served and the sanctity of life ensured in both cases?
 How would such a response be demonstrated?
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A Christian View of the Death Penalty
Page 5
The Application
“Is [capital punishment] ever justifiable? I answer Yes, provided society can in no other way
be secured against a repetition of the culprit’s offence.’’
—Horace Greeley
“Our civilization has lost the only values that, in a certain way, can justify the death penalty.”
—Albert Camus
[Q] How would you change our nation’s present approach to the death penalty? Would you
abolish it altogether? If so, what would replace it? If not, what biblical guidelines would
you use to reform the system?
[Q] Regardless of whether Christians approve or disapprove of capital punishment, what
should be our attitude toward lawbreakers? How does this attitude affect your views of
our penal system?
 How does God respond to our sin and to us as sinners?
[Q] Van Ness says that instead of criticizing lawyers who represent potentially guilty clients,
“churches should … encourage lawyers to take capital cases to insure that the defendants
receive fair and effective representation.” If you were a lawyer, how would your
representation of an alleged murderer differ from that of a non-Christian lawyer?
[Q] Because of your beliefs concerning justice and righteousness, the sanctity of life, and love
for enemies as well as friends, how would you treat your client?
 How would you approach preparing your case?
 If your client was found guilty, what punishment would you petition for?
Additional Resources
The Death Penalty: Historical & Theological Survey, James J. Megivern (Paulist
Press, 1997; ISBN 0809104873)
Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning, edited by Eric Owens
(Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004; ISBN 0802821723)
Executing Justice: The Moral Meaning of the Death Penalty, Lloyd Steffen (Pilgrim
Press, 1998; ISBN 0829812199)
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Punishable by Death
Constitutional questions about the death penalty may be largely resolved, but the
moral issues persist.
By Daniel W. Van Ness, for the study “A Christian View of the Death Penalty”
The American Constitution, unlike Scripture, says little about
the death penalty. It does not require it, although two
amendments included in the Bill of Rights assume its existence
and offer protections to those facing it. (The Fifth Amendment
refers to capital crimes, and both it and the Fourteenth
Amendment forbid being deprived of life without due process of
Scripture, on the other hand, has a great deal to say about the
death penalty. The Old Testament Law lists 18 crimes for which
the offender could be put to death and provides direction concerning how it was to be
implemented. But it is the relative silence of the New Testament, together with the
redemptive work of Christ, that has led some Christians to question whether the death
penalty should be used today.
For example, at a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, Myron
Augsburger, in what he acknowledged to be a minority view among evangelicals,
suggested that when the Old and New Testament works of God are considered, there
emerges, in effect, a moral imperative against the use of the death penalty. On the
other hand, Lynn Buzzard presented the view that while scriptural teaching on
whether to use the death penalty is ambiguous, there are biblical principles
concerning how it should be administered.
Most evangelicals, however, probably agree with Carl F. H. Henry, who, at the
same convention, argued that while modern states (not being theocracies) are not
required to use the death penalty, Scripture presents at least a moral imperative for
the execution of deliberate murderers.
For most of American history, it was assumed that the death penalty was a
constitutionally permitted sanction. While an abolitionist movement has existed since
the time of the colonies, until recently its efforts focused on legislative advocacy to
repeal death penalty statutes. By 1800, neither Pennsylvania nor Kentucky conducted
executions. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to repeal its death penalty statute,
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and by 1917, 12 states in all had abolished it (although 4 reinstated it during World
War I). The relatively few death penalty cases brought to the Supreme Court
concerned the constitutionality of certain mechanics of the death penalty, not of the
sanction itself. For example, In re Kemmler, decided in 1890, upheld the use of the
electric chair in executions.
However, the matter is still hotly litigated, the issue being whether the death
penalty violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual
punishment. While it clearly was considered neither cruel nor unusual when the
Constitution was ratified, the Supreme Court ruled in 1910 that “cruel and unusual”
did not have a static definition, but must reflect “the evolving standards of decency
that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
Three key decisions appear to have settled the question of the constitutionality of
the death penalty itself. But although these cases have resolved the question of the
death penalty’s constitutionality, a series of additional cases have clarified the
procedures the Constitution requires of those states that choose to impose it. One
sometimes hears the complaint that a criminal avoided the death penalty “on a mere
technicality.” Interestingly, the principles for applying the death penalty that have
been discussed before the Supreme Court—the “mere technicalities”—are similar to
the guidelines found in Scripture.
How may the death penalty be used?
Scripture does not simply address the “whether” of capital punishment, it also
speaks of the “how.” Elaborate technical procedures were established for admitting
evidence in capital cases, and for conducting executions. These procedures may be
distilled into seven principles.
Proportionality. The Old Testament law restricted how much punishment
could be imposed for various offenses: “But if there is a serious injury, you
are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for
foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex. 21:23–25).
Punishment was to be proportionate to the offense. The extreme sanction
of death was to be considered only for the most serious offenses.
The principle of proportionality has been recognized by the Supreme
Court. One successful challenge to the death penalty was over the issue of
execution following conviction for rape. Coker v. Georgia held that
imposing the death penalty for rape of an adult woman was “grossly
disproportionate and excessive punishment” and was therefore cruel and
The Supreme Court has been asked to rule that the Constitution required
“comparative proportionality” as well. However, in Pulley v. Harris, the
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Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not require an appellate
court to compare sentences given to similar defendants convicted of
similar crimes to determine whether a sentence was disproportionate. It
noted, however, that most states have provided for such reviews in their
death penalty statutes.
2. Intent. The Old Testament provided that capital punishment could not be
imposed when the offender did not act intentionally. Numbers 35:22–24
exempts from the death penalty those who kill accidentally.
The Supreme Court, however, handed down two somewhat conflicting
decisions on intent. Enmund v. Florida involved a getaway driver who sat
in the car during a robbery. His codefendant killed the victims during the
crime. The Court ruled that Enmund could not be executed because he did
not kill, attempt to kill, nor intend to kill the victim.
But the Court ruled in Tison v. Arizona that the issue is not actual intent,
but whether the accomplice had a major degree of participation in the
crime and exhibited a “reckless indifference to human life.”
3. Due process. Several provisions of the Old Testament Law insured that
executions took place only after appropriate judicial procedure. Numbers
35 established cities of refuge to which a person who had caused another’s
death could flee. The victim’s family was prohibited from retaliating until
the case was heard and the accused had a chance to present his case.
The same chapter also required two eyewitnesses before a person could be
executed. And Deuteronomy 17:8–9 provided that priests or judges be
appointed to hear difficult or capital cases. The issue was not simply
whether the accused was guilty; it was also whether he had a fair chance to
prove his innocence.
As noted before, the two constitutional amendments that refer to the death
penalty require due process of law before a person may be executed. While
most litigation has concerned due process issues, the rulings mean little
unless they are actually made available to defendants facing execution.
This means, at the least, that they receive adequate legal representation.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Robert Wayne Williams was executed in 1983. His court-appointed
attorney reportedly spent only eight hours preparing his case for trial. In
the case of Ernest Knighton, who was executed a year later, the attorney
was reportedly handling 300 other cases at the time.
Some Christian attorneys with criminal defense practices have complained
that fellow Christians criticize them for representing people who may be
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guilty. Churches should instead encourage such lawyers to take capital
cases to insure that the defendants receive fair and effective
4. Individual responsibility. Deuteronomy 24:16 says one cannot be held
responsible for the crimes of his parents or children. This reflects two
aspects of responsibility: that one is accountable for his own actions but
not for the actions of another.
This principle is illustrated in the Enmund and Tison cases mentioned
above. Although Enmund had agreed with the codefendants to commit
robbery, he had not agreed to the murder. Following the principle of
individual responsibility, the Supreme Court held that he could not be
executed for his codefendant’s actions. However, the Tison case held that
an accomplice could be executed for a murder committed during a felony
by a codefendant as long as he was a key player and showed “reckless
indifference” for life.
Fairness. Recognizing that wealth could influence the outcome of legal
proceedings, the Old Testament Law stipulated that the rich should have
no advantage and the poor no disadvantage (Num. 35:29–31; Ex. 23:6–7).
The principle was that there should be equal justice regardless of economic
or social status.
One key reason the Supreme Court declared then-existing death laws
unconstitutional in 1972 was that they lacked fairness. Furman v. Georgia
held that rational standards must be established for judges considering the
death penalty, partly because the lack of such standards resulted in racial
But there is disturbing evidence that the death penalty continues to be
applied unfairly. Despite court-ordered sentencing reforms, the death
sentence is still affected by the race of the victim and of the offender.
6. Reluctance to execute. Although to some, the Old Testament sounds
bloodthirsty, it actually applied the death penalty with great restraint. In
Ezekiel 33:11, God laments: “As surely as I live, ... I take no pleasure in the
death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”
God himself was reluctant to impose the death penalty, preferring instead
that the wrongdoers repent. We see this reluctance demonstrated in his
dealing with David after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her
husband, Uriah.
There were overtones of reluctance in the 1976 Woodson v. North
Carolina decision that mandatory death penalty laws were
unconstitutional because they did not permit courts to consider mitigating
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factors. (If there had been mandatory death-penalty laws in biblical times,
David, Cain, Moses, and the adulteress of John 8 would all have been
executed.) The Court held that courts must duly regard the particular
circumstances of the crime and the character and background of the
But there seems to be a growing lack of reluctance to execute. As courts
have painstakingly reviewed capital cases, states have passed new death
penalty laws, and courts are imposing the death sentence more often.
Explanations offered for this increased use of execution include higher
crime and conviction rates, frustration with the courts for delaying
executions, and perhaps a false sense of reality, since the pace of actual
executions has been so much slower than imposition of the death sentence.
Whatever the reasons, the trial courts, legislatures, and general public no
longer appear reluctant to execute.
Certainty of guilt. Under scriptural procedures, before a murderer could
be executed, two eyewitnesses had to confirm his guilt (Deut. 17:6; Num.
35:30). As a practical matter, this meant that murder cases required a
higher standard of proof than other criminal cases, since in the others, the
victim could be a witness. Furthermore, those two eyewitnesses were
required to participate in the execution to underscore the seriousness of
the charge and encourage truthful testimony. Both requirements were
established to avoid convicting an innocent person.
The Supreme Court has not required certainty of guilt. Defendants have
been sentenced to death, who later were either acquitted in a new trial or
pardoned when others confessed to the murder. One study found 349
cases since 1900 in which innocent people were convicted of capital
crimes. While many of these convictions were overturned, 23 of these
defendants were executed.
Unlike Scripture, no state has required a standard of proof for capital cases
that is greater than the normal standard in criminal cases. Nor have states
established mechanisms to continue investigating evidence of innocence
after imposing the death sentence, to be sure of the defendant’s guilt.
Some have argued that the procedures required by the “guided discretion”
statutes of Georgia and other states will prevent mistakes. This is not
necessarily true, although they certainly may help. The case of Hill v. Stale
illustrates the potential and the limitations of such standards and
procedures. The case concerned a murder committed during a robbery by
Charles Harris Hill, Gary Watts, and James Brown, Jr. Although the
prosecutor believed that Watts was the person who had killed the victim by
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slitting his throat, he nonetheless permitted him to plead guilty in return
for a life sentence.
The jury found Hill guilty and sentenced him to death. The case went to
the Georgia Supreme Court, which affirmed the death sentence. It ignored
the issue of whether Hill actually had killed the victim, as well as the
question of proportionality raised by the life sentence given Watts.
At that point Hill dropped further appeals, though his attorney applied to
the Board of Pardons and Paroles for executive clemency. The board found
an unusual number of people who had been involved in the trial were
requesting commutation, including the judge and prosecutor. It
determined the victim had, in fact, been killed by Watts, and commuted
Hill’s sentence to 99 years.
The statutory protections had not helped. Fortunately for Hill, the Board of
Pardons and Paroles considered the obvious injustice of a life sentence for
the actual murderer and a death sentence for his partner as grounds for
Any system run by humans will result in mistakes. But is it necessary the
procedures be “mistake proof” in order to be constitutional? The Court has
not ruled on that, although Justice Bvron White, in his concurring opinion
in the Gregg case (see “Is the Death Penalty Constitutional?”), said this:
“Petitioner has argued in effect that no matter how effective the death penalty may be
as a punishment, government, created and run as it is by humans, is inevitably
incompetent to administer it. This cannot be accepted as a proposition of constitutional
law. Imposition of the death penalty is an awesome responsibility for any system of
justice and those who participate in it. Mistakes will be made and discrimination will
occur which will be difficult to explain.”
A life-and-death issue
With the Court’s ruling in McClesky v. Kemp that death penalty procedures are not
racially discriminatory, the final broad constitutional challenge to the death penalty
has been resolved.
But Christians must remain involved in the discussion. Biblical principles
concerning how to impose the death penalty are as important as the initial question of
whether to support it. We have something of great value to offer our culture, as judges
and legislators continue to grapple with this life-and-death issue.
“Punishable by Death,” by Daniel W. Van Ness, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, August 1987
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