Originally published in the Council News October 2002 for the Council on Biotechnology Policy www.biotechnology.org http://www.biotechnology.org

Recently at a conference for Pastors and church leaders I struck up a conversation with a pastor seated next to me at a luncheon. The pastor began to talk about the sermon text for Sunday taken from 2 Samuel 21. The big idea was ‘standing vigil against desecration’; the story of Rizpah putting on sackcloth and standing vigil over her two son’s bodies, killed by the Gibeonites and now lay exposed on the hill before the Lord. Because of Rizpah’s vigil, David was able to gather up the bones of those killed and have them buried.

We then got into a discussion on modern day examples of standing vigil against desecration. We talked about Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and the vigil they hold for those innocent people killed by drunk drivers. Mark Klass, in his efforts to protect children from abduction, was another example of a vigil held on behalf of abducted children. The pastor then turned to me and asked, “Can you think of any illustrations of standing vigil against desecration in the field of bioethics?” Without hesitation, I offered the example of the Christian disabled communities standing vigil over the desecration of human embryos, killed for their potential contribution to a medical cure. The pastor looked at me and said simply, “I don’t think I want to go there.”

This pastor’s response is very telling of the unwillingness of the church to extend its boundaries to include biotechnology issues. Herein lays the problem.

Why do you think this pastor, or perhaps your pastor would not want to “go there?” Perhaps embryonic stem cell research is seen as too political and not suitable fodder for Sunday morning pulpit time. Maybe the pastor knows there are couples in the congregation with ‘spare’ embryos on ice. Perhaps this pastor sees a false dichotomy between science and religion. Furthermore, the congregation may be divided on the issue of whether or not human embryos are persons. Quite frankly, if pastors don’t talk about these matters – issues the whole world is talking about, then the Church is not fulfilling God’s plan for its role in this world. Now is the time to discuss these issues, to weigh-in with a Christian view of the new technologies being discussed – like embryonic stem cell research and cloning. Let us not lose sight of the multi-faceted nature of the role of the church, to go and make disciples of Christ, to speak for God on issues of science and ethics and to be protectors of our God-given human dignity. Two points to consider in helping the church fulfill her role should be considered: First, the church must not lose sight of her prophetic role first to God’s people and second to the culture at large. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his timeless book, Christ and Culture, reminds us “the church needs to bear witness to the truth”. This truth needs to be imparted first to the church and then more broadly to the culture. There is no such thing as a naked public square — is your church bearing witness to the truth to your local congregation and in the community that you serve?

Second, the church must not acquiesce to the ideas of privatization of our faith and radical autonomy. It is the role of the church to be involved in personal and individual decision making. Prime examples are, issues such as infertility and reproductive technologies, where they are addressed between individual church members and their private family physician without seeking counsel from those trained to understand these issues from a theological viewpoint. We will do well to remember that science asks the question, “Can this be done?” while the church must ask the questions, “Should this be done?”. Does your church willingly and regularly discuss issues that are complex and controversial? Are people willing to apply the comprehensive message of the Gospel to every area of their lives, and to talk more openly about ways in which this can be done?

If we believe that the church should be involved, engaged and interested in policy matters, specifically biotech issues, then we must be bold enough to talk about them, preach about them, teach on them and counsel about them. May it never be that the Church is silent on issues surrounding biotechnology. Her silence will be perceived as approval of that which God does not condone. For at the end of the day, God’s Church carries within her the only answers to these very important questions.