The Exchange with Pastor Josh: Ethical Issues – Part 1

Jesus commanded that we are to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). It is a command that can be joyfully obeyed especially when done together with other Jesus followers. That is what “The Exchange with Pastor Josh” is all about. The questions and insights that are shared are not from Pastor Josh but rather emerge from a group of Jesus followers discussing and interacting with one another. I have tried to faithfully capture the insights and flow of the conversation here so that others can be inspired to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” as well. My acknowledgement and gratitude goes to the group of Jesus followers gathered for The Exchange on April 14, 2001. The Lord and you know who you are.

Soli Deo Gloria

Question: How do we biblically wrestle with ethical issues? Specifically, is it wrong to receive a vaccination developed from aborted fetal cells?

The framing of this question is excellent! How do we biblically wrestle with ethical issues? Everyone wrestles with ethical issues. Not everyone, including Christians, even attempt to wrestle biblically with ethical issues. How do we typically wrestle with ethical issues? Let’s consider a few examples related to the second question, the reception of vaccinations developed from aborted fetal cells.

First, consider an argument in favor of receiving vaccinations that were developed using cells derived from fetal tissue using reason. Joe Carter begins with the assumption that abortion is morally wrong and on par with murder. He then states that it would be immoral to receive the vaccine if there was “material cooperation with the evil act of abortion.” He defines “material cooperation” by specifying that “if the abortion was conducted in order to harvest tissues that were to be used for the vaccine, then it would be clearly immoral.” He then goes on to say, “But in the case of the vaccines listed above, the abortion was carried out for other reasons and the tissue was acquired post-mortem for the purpose of medical research.” To clarify his reasoning, Carter offers the analogy of a murder victim whose organs are offered to a Christian in need of a transplant. While the murder victim did not give consent, it is not a situation in which people are murdered in order to provide organ donation. That, Carter concludes, would be clearly wrong. He then says, “the use of the vaccines is not increasing the number of abortions that are being carried out every year.” Therefore, while the origin of the tissue being available was wrong (murder), the use of the tissue to save lives after that fact is not. One might add on to Carter’s reasoning that the use of “immortal cell lines” such as the ones used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines is a case against ongoing abortions. The tissue needed is readily available to the medical community and ongoing abortions are not morally justifiable even for research.  

What kind of ethical reasoning does Carter present? Note that no reference to the Bible is made at all in Carter’s essay. Clearly, he is operating from a Christian world view informed by the Bible, but he did not point to a particular place in Scripture to make his argument. This is not then an example of biblically wrestling with an ethical issue, but it is a fine example of a well-reasoned ethical argument. Using reason in this manner is a common method for Christians because the Bible does not specifically address the issue at hand.

While the Bible addresses the sanctity of human life and the morality of taking a life, the technology utilized in “immortal cell lines”, much less the very idea of a vaccination, is foreign to the text of Scripture. It is a new issue with which Christians must wrestle. But there is another way that is common for Christians to wrestle with ethical issues including the use of vaccinations.

The second kind of argument often sounded regarding new ethical issues is an argument from experience. It may be articulated in different ways, but one example would be for someone to say, “I just don’t feel right about taking it.” Before discounting such a statement as “mere experience,” it is important to listen carefully to what the person is saying. Often a past personal experience is shaping the current response. For instance, a person may say, “I don’t feel right about taking the vaccine,” and then go on to share that they are a survivor of an attempted abortion or that their doctor advised them to abort their child because of an anticipated birth defect. These deeply emotional experiences shape the way a person views the issue inescapably. To dismiss such experiences as irrelevant risks ignoring the council of Martin Luther that “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Even worse, pressuring someone to dismiss their conscience would be to “despise a brother or sister” over a “disputed matter” (Romans 14:1, 10). We are instructed to “pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another” and to act in ways that do not “make your brother or sister to stumble” (Romans 14:19, 21). The issue presented in Romans 14 is an evil act of offering sacrifice to idols and then benefiting by eating. The Apostle Paul recognizes that some will have no issue of conscience because they did not commit the act of idolatry, but others will have an issue of confidence because they know where the meat came from. Likewise, some Christian brothers and sisters will not be concerned since they are not participating in the moral evil of abortion while others will be knowing that there is any connection to that moral evil at all.

Note carefully that the ethical wrestling from experience shares with its counterpart in wrestling from reason that the Bible is not the primary voice. The voice of reason or the voice of experience are often the most dominant in these discussions. Given the silence of the Bible on these new ethical dilemmas, is there a way to biblically wrestle with the issue? Richard Hays, professor of New Testament at Duke University, answers with a definitive, “yes!” in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (2013). Hays’ approach will be the subject of Part 2.

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