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Ben Mitchell notes ‘sobering questions’ facing church at dawn of ‘biotech age’

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Great benefits can be derived from genetic engineering, cloning, cybernetics and other biotechnologies yet to be invented, said Ben Mitchell in the annual Scudder Lectureship April 18-19 at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“But the future may also portend human tragedy, a loss of human dignity and a world increasingly hostile to concerns which transcend the purely materialistic world of contemporary scientific research,” he acknowledged.

Mitchell, who spoke on “Finding a Prophetic Voice in a Biotech Century” at the Kansas City, Mo., seminary, is assistant professor of biotechnics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Ill. He also is a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“Does the church have anything to say about biotechnology?” Mitchell asked. “If not, why not? If so, what? Can we afford not to speak to these issues? Can we afford to mis-speak on these issues? These are sobering questions for Christians who are witnesses to the dawn of the biotech age.”

Quoting from a report from the now-defunct U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, Mitchell noted that biotechnology is “any technique that uses living organisms (or parts of organisms) to make or modify products, to improve plants or animals, or to develop micro-organisms for specific uses.” While biotechnology has been part of the human experience since 7000 B.C., when microbes were used by the Sumerians to make beer, it has now progressed to the unlabeled sale of bioengineered plant and animal products in grocery stores and the use of gene therapy to cure some diseases.

What may come next, Mitchell said, is mind-boggling and potentially frightening.

Referring to a book by Richard Oliver, “The Coming Biotech Age,” technologies that scientists are working on include “the creation of life in a lab, predetermination of the sex of children and their genetic makeup, the ability to clone mammals including humans, animals which grow replacement organs for humans who cannot find a donor, and new materials that swell and flex like muscles to replace human muscle and machine power in factories.” These technologies are not only currently under development but will also be patented, Mitchell said.

In 1984 there was virtually no recognizable biotechnological industry, Mitchell continued, and by 1993 nearly 1,300 biotechnology firms in the United States were employing more than 80,000 individuals, with annual sales of $6 billion annually.

In addition to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which lobbies in Washington for decisions favorable to the biotechnological industry, Mitchell said there are now more than 2,000 biotech firms in the United States with a total investment of $83 billion to $93 billion and more than 1,000 firms in the European Union. With all of this has come a new language which describes human beings in “machine” terms, he noted.

“At what point does the patenting of human body parts stop being technology and start being the ownership of human beings?” Mitchell asked. The underlying question here is what is the percentage of the human body which can be patented and owned by a company without that ownership becoming slavery?

“Unless there is a context for Christians to discuss these technologies within the framework of a biblical ethic, there is no hope they will be able to make informed decisions about the use of these technologies.

“The corporate and visible church plays an extraordinarily critical role in the world,” Mitchell said. “As ambassadors of Christ, those who are called by his name are to represent him in all of his offices. Not only do individual members serve in these threefold offices, at one and the same time the people of the covenant, namely, the church, functions as prophet, priest and king. Under this biblical/theological schema, the role of the church in the world, including its role in biotechnology, may be understood.”

The church in its prophetic role functions both as a “forth-teller” (proclaimer) and as “fore-teller” (predictor) of the Word of God, Mitchell continued. For instance, the church in its prophetic role can declare that the worth of human beings is not derived from their so-called uniquely human qualities such as “reason, volition or awareness,” but from the fact that human beings are created in the image of God and are valued by him to be of unique worth.

This biblical understanding of human beings “forth-tells” against reducing humans to patented parts, Mitchell said. It also allows the church to “fore-tell” of the consequences of violating God’s ideal concerning the sanctity of human life, he said. In addition, the church can also “fore-tell” of the blessings which follow obedience to God and his Word.

Biotechnology is not inherently evil, Mitchell said, and all research, when kept within moral and ethical limitations, is beneficial to mankind. “Each of these technologies will require laws or policies to regulate or, in some cases, outlaw their use; for example, the cloning of human beings.”

Through coalitions and agencies like the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Christians have both an obligation and an opportunity to help frame public policy and make laws related to biotechnology, Mitchell said. Nevertheless, relatively few Christians and even fewer churches are informed about these issues. What is more alarming, they do not know how to impact the public policy process. This must change if the church is to be a faithful prophet to her culture and to her members,” Mitchell insisted.

His recommendations for the church to fulfill its prophetic ministry in a biotech century include both education and action. “The church will have to make it a priority to teach Christians ethics in general and bioethics in particular,” he said.

For example:

— “Pastors should preach and teach biblical anthropology with intentionality since all of these technologies impact human beings positively or negatively.”

— “Seminaries must carve out either curricular or extracurricular opportunities for students to learn about the developments in biotechnology and be provided skills to interpret those technologies from a Christian worldview.”

— “Church educators must reprioritize the educational ministry of the church, giving increased attention to bioethical issues, including biotechnological issues.”

— “Southern Baptists should increase funding and personnel resources to agencies and commissions that have a direct impact on biotechnological policy, including international policy.”

Mitchell added, “Christian students should be encouraged to pursue vocations in biotechnology and the sciences. Individuals can impact biotechnology at the local level by bringing their convictions to bear in their own vocations. We must not retreat!”

The annual Scudder Lectureship honors the contributions of C.W. Scudder, the seminary’s former professor of Christian ethics.

    About the Author

  • Larry B. Elrod