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Mitchell reflects upon 40-year ministry among Southern Baptists after retirement from Union

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) — A newly married C. Ben Mitchell and his wife Nancy were living in Marietta, Ga., and looking for a church home. The search had frustrated them.

One church would be “dead as a doornail,” Mitchell said. “We’d go to another church, and the pastor would be running up and down the aisle, waving his white handkerchief, screaming and yelling.”

Mitchell still remembers the time, in the midst of that frustration, when he turned to Nancy and said, “If we’re ever going to hear the Gospel again, I may have to preach it.”

That comment marked the beginning of Mitchell’s 40-year ministry among Southern Baptists, which started with the pastorate and later transitioned into academics and Mitchell’s role as the denomination’s leading bioethicist. Mitchell describes himself as a “translator” for Southern Baptists in speaking about ethical issues.

“I’ve been able to take these big questions and difficult issues like human genetics and explain them to pastors, church leaders and church members,” Mitchell said. “That’s been very satisfying to me because that’s one way I see my role — standing as a bridge between the scientific community, the ethics community and the church.”

Mitchell, who has served as the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University since 2009, has announced his retirement from the university effective Friday (July 31). But although he is retiring from full-time employment, Mitchell is not retiring from his vocation and calling. He will continue to write, teach courses at Union, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and continue serving the denomination in a variety of ways.

He’ll also spend time caring for his aging father — a responsibility that factored into his decision to retire.

“I’m trying to honor my father at the end of his life,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know what it means to do that yet. I’m learning as I go and also trying to celebrate the sanctity of human life toward the end of life with my dad. That’s an extension, personally, of a pro-life, pro-family ethic, if you will.”

Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, president of Union University, said Mitchell has been a blessing both to Union and more broadly to the Southern Baptist Convention.

“He is a towering intellect, and he uses that good and beautiful gift to point us to the truth,” Oliver said. “He is a passionate teacher and helps individuals, groups, congregations and the larger public understand issues more deeply and through a biblical lens.”

Oliver said Mitchell is also a thoughtful writer, a generous mentor and friend and a faithful steward who serves and leads well.

“I have been incredibly blessed to serve together with him and look forward to the ways the Lord will use him in this new season of service,” Oliver said.

The issues Mitchell has helped Southern Baptists think about over the past four decades are still at the forefront of public debate. What does it mean to be human? What are the ethical issues at the beginning of life and the end of life? Then there are relatively newer issues, such as gene-altering technology.

“How do we find appropriate therapeutic uses of the technology without violating our very humanity?” Mitchell asked. “Those kinds of questions are really the front burner questions now that we’re now grappling with.”

At the same time, Mitchell said many of the same pastoral issues haven’t gone away. He gets regular requests to talk to couples who have questions about how to handle frozen embryos from in-vitro fertilization.

David S. Dockery, president of the International Alliance for Christian Education and distinguished professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Mitchell was a pioneer in helping Southern Baptists understand issues related to abortion, euthanasia and other life-related issues.

“Ben has helped provide a moral and ethical compass for Southern Baptists, particularly as it relates to bioethical issues,” Dockery said. “He has been at the forefront of that conversation as much or more than any Southern Baptist in the past 40 years.”

Originally from Tampa, Fla., Mitchell graduated from high school in southern California. He moved to Dalton, Ga., where he planned to spend the summer before returning to California to play junior-college football.

During that time in Georgia, however, while attending a Southern Baptist church, Mitchell became a Christian. He changed plans and never moved back to California. He met his wife Nancy in Dalton and began attending Southern Tech, an engineering technical school in Marietta.

He soon decided to follow God’s call into the ministry. After briefly attending Covenant College, Mitchell took a pastorate at a small church in Mississippi. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Mississippi State and his Master of Divinity from Southwestern Seminary before earning his doctorate in philosophy with a concentration in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee.

Over the years Mitchell served at the SBC’s Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission), at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has consulted with think tanks and government agencies, written books, chapters, articles and reviews, edited an international journal and provided multiple testimonies before congressional hearings.

In addition to his work in distilling complex issues for Southern Baptists, Mitchell has also been a voice on behalf of Southern Baptists to the scientific community, providing scientific experts with a biblical worldview perspective.

“Although it would be impossible to speak for every Southern Baptist, I have had the opportunity to bring SBC concerns before scientific, ethical and policy-making groups, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when addressing issues like human cloning, fetal tissue research or genetic modification,” Mitchell said.

Tom Strode, the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, was Mitchell’s colleague for many years with the ERLC. He described Mitchell as a “world class ethicist from an evangelical perspective to teach Southern Baptists and represent Southern Baptists in the world, in the public policy area and in academia.

“And yet, with his excellence, he is humble. He is wise in his statements, and always gracious in every encounter that I’ve ever had with him.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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