A Christian Worldview Response to Current Bioethical Issues (Part 2)
The last fifty years have brought many advances in healthcare, but they have also brought challenging moral dilemmas. On one end of life, its beginning, people are pressed by American culture to accept what is described as “a woman’s right to choose” when for many Christians that seems an inappropriate response to life in the womb. At the other end of life people are offered the benefits of medical science that can resuscitate and sustain bodily functions through extraordinary means, even when there seems no hope of recovery. In between, people struggle with illness and disease needing someone to help. In this article I consider how Christians can and should help, whether they work in healthcare themselves or simply understand and support others who have such careers.
In the first article in this series, I surveyed biblical materials and identified three important principles relevant to Christians confronting contemporary biomedical issues: (1) Human life is good and a great blessing from Him who created us in His image; however, life is not an absolute value to be preserved at all costs. (2) Though He is our Healer, God does not always immediately heal people of all diseases or injuries. (3) People created in the image of God should show His mercy to others (Pack 3-15).
Bringing our Christian perspective to life’s challenges is how we should respond. Remembering the temporary blessings life offers people in this world, we strive to deal with illness and disease and help others cope as well. Lessons from the actions of Jesus provide examples of how Christians can follow Him in the way of godliness—showing God’s mercy to all who struggle with the challenges of life.
Faith-Changing Patient Care
Not all Christians are able to take on the challenges of careers caring for the sick and aging, but those who do have very important roles reflecting the love of God and the mercy of Jesus. Their faith should inform their work. When Christian medical professionals discover mission and ministry in their work, jobs are “transformed from a mere occupation or profession to a vocation, a call from God to a specific way of gaining one’s own salvation and assisting others to their salvation” (Pellegrino and Thomasma 75). This approach to medical practice means that Christians:
. . . must strive earnestly to act for the sick, to advocate their cause, and, when their interests require it, to expose ourselves to the dangers of infection, inconvenience, the invasion of private time, financial sacrifice, and ingratitude. Rudeness, inaccessibility, abruptness, refusal to treat for economic reasons, discrimination because of social class, ethnicity, etc., are not reconcilable with a charity-based ethic of medicine. (77)
Physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and other healthcare workers or support personnel reflect a Christian worldview when they pursue their work as those who live to the glory of God, His love and mercy evident in their intentional behaviors.
Pellegrino discussed such faith and professional life on many occasions. For example, in a 1977 convocation address at Texas A&M and in a 1978 commencement address at UCLA, four key words were said to reveal the moral imperative tied to the fact that one is a physician. Profession is crucial because it represents what it means when one professes to help a patient. The patient comes to a physician as a vulnerable human in distress entering a relationship of inequality where relief and healing are rightly expected. Compassion is not pity for the sick, but feeling the burden of sickness; and similarly, consent represents that felt connection on the ground between the patient and the professional where both agree to what needs to be done in hope of healing (222-27). In the 1970s his characterization of the physician/patient relationship was made in terms of human interaction. Later accounts of this basis for the moral imperative were expressed in terms of Christian belief (or faith) and charity/love—an agapeistic ethic (Pellegrino and Thomasma 75-81).
Faith must inform daily practice while Christian healthcare workers juggle workloads, national quality measures, paperwork, legal liability, etc. A Christian physician has more than just a diagnostic moment when approaching a patient. It is an opportunity to show respect for another human being created in the image of God and to bring experience of the love of God to someone struggling with illness. Scientific training, medical knowledge, surgical skills, and appropriate bedside manner must all be brought to this encounter; but, for the Christian physician, faith must also ground the interaction. For people of faith, nothing is more important than letting the gracious gift of God’s light shine into that dark moment being faced by the two of them—patient and physician. Similarly, though not always as obvious, this is true for Christians with other roles in healthcare.
When thinking of Christian faith and healthcare, it is natural to focus on medical missions. The 2014 news stories of medical missionary, Dr. Kent Brantley, portray one who let faith affect his education, career choice, and practice. That he was caring for Ebola patients in West Africa when he became infected was undoubtedly associated with Brantley’s embodiment of faith in action to help the sick. His commendable and heroic involvement is a great illustration of active and sacrificial faith, one physician’s faith visible in the encounter with tragically ill patients.
Some Christians may also choose careers that allow them to make healing or helping the sick a focal point for their lives—not only as medical missionaries, but also as physicians, pharmacists, nurses, scientific and medical researchers, or other professions related to healthcare. All such careers provide special opportunities to reflect the love of God—mercy reminiscent of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). On a physician’s daily rounds or a nurse’s routine care for patients on the hospital floor, loving faith can touch the lives of sick and needy people. It is not just in the work of a minister or chaplain visiting hospitalized people where faith meets suffering. All Christian healthcare workers can let the love of God shine through their lives. Hospital staff working with admissions can help the patient or the patient’s family cope with challenges of their crisis. Every technician, from phlebotomists to MRI staff, can make the unfamiliar or uncomfortable a bit more tolerable with pleasant reassurance refusing to let the occasion be “just one more bother” in their day. When the patient is being dismissed, those handling the financial account or those helping the patient leave hospital premises can show tender awareness of the awkward and unpleasant moments faced by those coping with injury or illness. That is the right and good thing for Christians to remember and reflect in their own daily encounters. That is a biblical Christian response to current bioethical issues.
People who are sick are struggling with damaged humanity. They are not whole. Christian healthcare workers have unique opportunities to help. Their careers give them special opportunities to help others in need. It is easy to lose that vision when there are so many to care for, so much paperwork, so many other tasks that provide distractions from the important opportunity to serve as emissaries of God’s love.
Jesus helped the sick and taught His disciples that godliness means reaching out to those in need—the injured, the sick, the dying, and their families. Though this was not His primary message since He had come “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), Jesus did have a message of Good News that included support for the needs of the sick.
Mercy in the Life and Teaching of Jesus
In the first article, an important question was introduced and briefly answered: “Who is it that shows God’s love to those injured and in need of care?” (Pack 10). The ones who show mercy are the ones who reflect God’s love (Luke 10:37). Christians need to be responsive to those in need of care. Jesus made that evident by His own example on many occasions. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that Jesus healed those with infectious skin diseases (Luke 5:12-13; 22:50-51). He healed the paralyzed (Luke 5:18-25), a woman with bleeding (Luke 8:43-48), those with shriveled limbs (Luke 6:6-10), the blind (Matthew 9:27-31; 20:29-34; Mark 8:22-26; Luke 9:1-7), the deaf (Mark 7:31-37), and so many others. Choosing to help those vulnerable, distressed individuals who come as patients is a good and merciful calling in the tradition of Jesus and His own work.
Understanding the lessons from Jesus’ personal example and His teaching can be enhanced by a consideration of the terms used for mercy in the New Testament text. Three different Greek nouns along with their related root forms, verbs, and modifiers are involved—eleos, oiktirmos, and splanchna. The first is an expression of feeling pity, the second is an exclamation of pity especially in the sight of another’s lamentable circumstances, and the third refers to an experience of pity in one’s inward parts—heartfelt pity. Luke 1:78 uses two of those terms together (splanchna eleos) referring to John the Baptist as part of God’s plan for “tender mercies” in Jesus. Paul pleads for internal Christian life-changes in Colossians 2:1, calling for “bowels and mercies” or “tenderness and compassion” (splanchna kai oiktirmoi). In Romans 1:29-32, Paul’s list of sins makes “unmerciful” or without mercy (aneleemonas) the final step away from the knowledge of God.
The above terms and associated behaviors are best seen in Jesus and His teaching. He was moved with tender compassion (esplanchnisthe) when observing the people who were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34), the same way He felt when seeing the widow from Nain whose son had died (Luke 7:13). When teaching about what it means to be godly sons of the Most High, Jesus spoke of being “merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). His parable of the Good Samaritan reaches its high point in “compassion, pity, and mercy” (Luke 10:33, esplanchnisthe); and we have evidence the lesson was learned in the lawyer’s reply that the one who acted as neighbor was the one that showed mercy (Luke 10:37, eleos). Similarly, in the parable of the prodigal, we observe deeply felt mercy in the father’s response running to his returning son (Luke 15:20, esplanchnisthe). A proper view of mercy is needed whether thinking of our response to the sick, our own need for changed hearts as forgiven people, or the salvation of lost sinners. Such a view of mercy is crucial to our biblical Christian worldview.
A Balanced Life
When pursuing professional life in healthcare careers, balance must be preserved. Some dedicated healthcare workers have lost their families, their connection to the church, and their own spiritual stability due to over-whelming demands of professional life. Jesus realized that He could spend all His time with the sick, but knew that was not the entirety of His mission. Time for maintaining His relationship with the Father, training His disciples, and proclaiming the Good News had to be preserved. Christians who recognize the significance of being created in the image of God treat others with mercy, kindness, and respect; and they balance career demands with other crucial aspects of their own lives.
Some healthcare staff members may have jobs that allow them as much freedom and family time as other workers outside the profession. However, some in healthcare have chosen work that demands long hours. For example, some doctors, nurses, or pharmacists with assignments in a hospital may have traditional forty-hour weeks. Others like surgeons, intensive care specialists, or professors in pharmacy or medical schools with clinical assignments may work 50-80 hours in an average week (Marrero 2013).
Through my years preaching in congregations in the southern states or on the Atlantic Coast, I have had healthcare professionals tell me about duties and schedules that kept them away from worship on Sundays. Some say they meet awkward questions or feel ostracized when they return to worship after missing, especially if they miss several weeks in a row. Some church members or congregations do not seem to understand anything getting in the way of assemblies scheduled by the church, especially when authorized by the elders. At least a few report that they were actually told that it might be better for their families or their spiritual lives if they found other employment. Some were told: “People can find jobs in a doctor’s office or some other setting that will not require them to miss worship.”
Not all healthcare workers have the same experience. Not all Christians or congregations are so judgmental. For example, one physician told me of his experience where the brethren had no misunderstandings of his work. He said during his medical residency if he had to leave worship or was absent, no one worried about him. He worked in a community hospital in the emergency room and was often “on call.” However, the congregation seemed to know that when not in church assemblies he was at the emergency room taking care of one of their relatives or acquaintances.
In contemporary medical practice, some jobs simply require medical personnels to work schedules that make them unavailable at traditional worship times on Sundays. I have known many nurses who work twelve-hour weekend shifts for two weekend days because those times allow them to be home with their children the rest of the week. Someone needs to staff hospitals even if these alternative hours are not advantageous to families. Rather than twelve-hour or twenty-four hour shifts, some hospital workers are required to be available on alternate weekends. Necessary support personnel (nurses, medical technicians, cleaning and food preparation staff, and others) make 24/7 medical care possible not only in hospitals, but in rehabilitation centers, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes as well.
Christians working in such settings need to maintain some balance in their lives. From time to time, it may be appropriate to ask: “How can I pursue my career and yet stay linked to the local congregation, family, and worship?” Just like continuing education programs or other necessary distractions from patient care, per se, family and church need attention and time. Healthcare workers must find time for attending to their own health, their families, and their spiritual life while at the same time caring for their patients. Likewise, congregations of the church need to ask themselves: “How can we schedule worship and other activities so as to include healthcare workers?”
Helping fellow Christians respond to the needs of the sick and aging around us can also be part of the role of health care professionals in the church. Such response was important in the early church. Programs for aging widows were a part of life in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1-7), and active concern for the aging was expected to be part of life in the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 5:1-20). Many examples of concern for the sick and their care can be found like the touching information shared about Peter’s contact with disciples at Lydda and Joppa and their connection to Aeneas and Dorcas (Acts 9:32-39).
Both individually and collectively it is important for Christians to show mercy. So Christians and the church should strive to follow the example of Jesus. Christians in their daily work should demonstrate love and faith, but the church also should let mercy shine through both its family interactions and its programs encountering the world. The church in its response to sickness, disease, and aging in the modern world should be as active as the early church. Congregations located near major hospitals and medical centers have great opportunity to support the sick and those caring for them. Congregations with less immediate access have periodic opportunities when local members or neighbors struggle with crises. All are surrounded by an aging population with special needs; and, even with the best healthcare resources in history, our world still struggles with sickness and disease. Responding to needs of the sick and aging is grounded on a solid foundation of Christian examples, in the life of Jesus, and in the biblical text. Addressing these needs is fundamental to showing the mercy of God to fellow human beings, and such a response can become the foundation for evangelism sharing the Good News just as it was in the life of Jesus and in the early church.
Christian healthcare professionals should use their unique opportunities to reflect the nature of God. They bring their own faith to crucial moments in the life of others. Their sick patients need mercy like that shown by Jesus during His ministry. Caring for the sick and aging should not prevent healthcare workers from preserving their own spiritual relationship with God and the church. Training, experience, and opportunity allow Christian caregivers to affect their patients and to influence their fellow Christians for the better. Similarly, the church must look for opportunities to “seek and save the lost” while serving the sick and those caring for them.
Rolland W. Pack
Marrero, Efrain. “Ethics Colloquium for Baccalaureate Health Sciences Students.” Freed-Hardeman University. Fall 2013.
Pack, Rolland W. “A Christian Worldview Response to Current Bioethical Issues.” Sufficient Evidence. 4.1 Spring 2014: 3-15.
Pellegrino, Edmund D. “To Be a Physician.” Humanism and the Physician. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1979: 222-30, 242.
Pellegrino, Edmund D. and David C. Thomasma. The Christian Virtues in Medical Practice. Washington, D. C.: Georgetown UP, 1996.
Rolland W. Pack earned the M.A. degree in Christian Doctrine from Harding University with Thomas B. Warren as his mentor. He earned the Ph.D. in Philosophy with an emphasis in medical ethics from Georgetown University. He was a research and teaching fellow of the Kennedy Institute for Ethics while at Georgetown. The former Professor of Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Freed-Hardeman University was also Dean of the Honors College and Associate Vice President. Dr. Pack is 2014-15 Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Heritage Christian University. He may be reached at Rolland.Pack@gmail.com.