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What Makes for a Good Elder?

Jul 10, 2014 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

This past week one of the best elders I ever served with went home to glory. I lost a dear friend. This has led me to reflect on what makes for a good elder. Of course, a good elder will fulfill the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. That is foundational. He must be a man of character, the Word, and prayer. He should be hospitable, not a lover of money, rule his own household well, and the husband of one wife. These are just some of the biblical qualifications. However, there are also qualities that make for a good elder beyond the actual biblical requirements for service. Here are some that I have noticed over the years:

Theological, but Fiercely Practical: He will know the scriptures and revel in the doctrine and theology of God’s holy Word. And at the same time, he will know how to apply those truths of Scripture to the lives he is privileged to serve. As this man ministers, those under his care do not receive platitudes. Neither do they need to have a PhD in theology to sort through his advice and counsel. He is theologically minded and fiercely practical in applying that theology.

Leader, but a Willing Follower: People look to him. He doesn’t wear a sign that announces he is a leader. He isn’t loud and demands that people follow, they just do. His character and life in Christ almost demand it. However, he is also willing to follow the pastors and his fellow elders in the church. He does not always need to be in the front. It is not a matter ego with him. It is not a necessity.

Dignified, but Wonderfully Approachable: An elder should have an air of dignity about him. He is serious about the Christian faith. He knows that life is short and he does not waste it. However, this air of dignity does not drive people from him, but rather compels people to him. All find him approachable. He is the type of man that one naturally feels as though they should sit at his feet, look up, and say, “Talk to me about the things of God.”

Listener, but Wisely Vocal: He is slow to speak and quick to listen. He has a discerning ear that can sort the important from the mundane. Others are encouraged by his careful listening. However, he is also willing to voice an opinion if it is needed. He is not silent. And when he speaks, men listen. When his voice is exercised, he does not dominate by force. Rather, he persuades through wisdom.

Courageous, but Pastorally Winsome: The pastors of the church know that this elder will “have their backs.” Every elder in the church knows that this is “a brother in arms.” He does not shy away from the hard discussions, the difficult conflicts, or the trying personalities of the church. He is a man that stands in the gap. But not with bravado. He is not a reluctant engager, but he is winsome. He isn’t looking for conflict, but he also won’t run from it.

Dogmatic, but Flexible: He is a rock on the non-negotiables. He will not be moved from the teaching of the Scriptures. However, he is flexible and able to concede points to others when he is proven wrong or the issue is not of extreme importance. He does not always demand or insist upon his own way. He is willing to compromise and even happy to do so if the subject is not central.

Gifted, but Knowingly Humble: His gifts are readily used to serve the body. He is aware of how the Lord has gifted him for service in the church. In turn, he is also keenly aware of the gifts which he does not possess. He happily yields to other pastors and elders more gifted than him in whatever realm of service that may be.

Officer, but Servant First: He recognizes that the office of elder is an office. He has a mantle upon his shoulders. There is responsibility and privilege. However, this is not a position by which he seeks to lord over others. He recognizes that the office of elder is first and foremost an office of service.

Churchly, but a Lover of Men: He loves the church as a body. This leads him to weigh-in on big decisions and think through methodological and practical issues in the church. They concern him. However, this is always driven by a love for men. He loves the church, because he loves its people. He is able to echo the sentiment of Paul when he said to the Philippian church, “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown…” (Phil. 4:1).

Loyal, but a Thoughtful Exhorter: There is a natural willingness to lend support to his pastors. He is inclined that way. He does not have a gate checker mentality. He is not a fault finder. However, when it is necessary, he is willing to challenge his pastors and fellow elders appropriately. He does not follow blindly.

Thank God for the elders he has called to serve in the church. I have had the distinct privilege of laboring alongside of some of the best men I have ever known. They have challenged, exhorted, encouraged, and shaped me. My friend was one of the best at doing so. Let us treasure them while we have them.

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Was Hobby Lobby All Wrong About Emergency Contraceptives?

Jul 09, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Pills-570x433The Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Hobby Lobby had nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of contraceptives. The morality of abortion and abortifacient drugs was not the issue. Neither was the scientific debate about how emergency contraceptives prevent pregnancy. The Supreme Court came down in support of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mandel because it concluded they were protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed unanimously by the House, 97-3 by the Senate, and signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. The Greens could be mistaken in their beliefs about emergency contraceptives and still have the legal right not to be forced to violate their consciences and give up their religious liberty.

But, of course, the debate about contraception–what it does and how it works–matters a great deal in the court public opinion. So it’s not surprising that many media outlets are suggesting Hobby Lobby had its “facts” all wrong about how emergency contraceptives actually prevent pregnancy.

In the New Republic piece “The Medical Facts About Birth Control and Hobby Lobby–From an OB/GYN”, Dr. Jen Gunter argues, “There is no evidence that Plan B, Ella, or the Mirena cause abortion by any definition.” She acknowledges that under a “religious” definition of pregnancy, anything that prevents implantation or terminates an implanted embryo constitutes a form of abortion. But in her “summary of the best available medical evidence” she concludes that of the four contraceptives objected to by Hobby Lobby, three (Plan B, Ella, Mirena) definitely do not prevent implantation and the fourth (Copper IUD) most likely does not. Thus, if conservatives would only look at the scientific facts, they would see that there is no “rational basis for refusing to pay for these contraceptives.”

But what do the contraceptives say about themselves? Each of the four pills or devices in question have their own websites full of medical information provided by the manufacturer and/or the Food and Drug Administration.

Plan B

Although Plan B is the most widespread of the four contraceptives, its website provides the least amount of precise medical information. In the “About” section, we find that Plan B “is a backup plan that helps prevent pregnancy,” but is not an abortion pill like RU-486 and will not affect an existing pregnancy. There is no detailed scientific information on the website about how Plan B works. Instead, there are links to several external websites for further information.

The paucity of information is probably intentional. In 2012, the New York Times ran an extensive article about the efforts of the maker of Plan B to have the FDA remove from the Plan B label the implantation effect as one of the possible means of preventing pregnancy. To be fair, the article presents several pieces of evidence suggesting that Plan B may not adversely affect the chances of implantation. But it also notes the FDA’s continuing refusal to remove the implantation language from Plan B’s label, which reads in section 12.1 “Mechanism of Action”:

Emergency contraceptive pills are not effective if a woman is already pregnant.Plan B One-Step is believed to act as an emergency contraceptive principally by preventing ovulation or fertilization (by altering tubal transport of sperm and/or ova). In addition, it may inhibit implantation (by altering the endometrium). It is not effective once the process of implantation has begun. (emphasis added).

Some have argued that the implantation language is based on inferior science and should be removed. But considering the maker of Plan B has been lobbying since the drug’s approval in 1999 to have the language removed, it’s not too hard to imagine that at least part of the effort to change the label is to boost sales and remove possible objections religious persons may have about using Plan B. There’s a reason the Plan B website does not link to its own label.

Ella

Ulipristal acetate (or Ella, actually ella with a lowercase “e”) is a progesterone receptor modulator, which means it fools the women’s body into thinking its pregnant. It works differently than Plan B and has been shown (section 8.1) to cause “embryofetal loss” in pregnant rats and pregnant rabbits. In 12.1 of the Ella label, in the section entitled “Mechanism of Action,” we read:

When taken immediately before ovulation is to occur, ella postpones follicular rupture. The likely primary mechanism of action of ulipristal acetate for emergency contraception is therefore inhibition or delay of ovulation; however, alterations to the endometrium that may affect implantation may also contribute to efficacy. (emphasis added)

According to its own information, Ella should not be used by nursing or pregnant women and it may prevent pregnancy by adversely affecting the implantation of a fertilized egg (see also “Does the Drug ‘ella’ Cause Abortions?”).

Mirena

Mirena is an intrauterine device (IUD) designed to prevent pregnancy for up to five years. According to its own website, Mirena “prevents pregnancy, most likely in several ways:”

  • Thickens cervical mucus to prevent sperm from entering your uterus
  • Inhibits sperm from reaching or fertilizing your egg
  • Thins the lining of your uterus

Immediately following these bullet points, we read:

Mirena may stop the release of your egg from your ovary, but this is not the way it works in most cases. While there’s no single explanation for how Mirena works, most likely, the above actions work together to prevent pregnancy for up to 5 years. (emphasis added)

By its own admission, Mirena does not normally work by preventing ovulation, but from a combination of three factors, one of which is making the uterus inhospitable for a fertilized egg.

Paragard (Copper IUD)

Paragard is a copper intrauterine device designed to prevent pregnancy for up to ten years. On the Paragard website, the first sentence under “How Does It Work?” reads:

The copper in Paragard® (intrauterine copper contraceptive) interferes with sperm movement and egg fertilization. Paragard® may prevent implantation. (emphasis added)

Again, the implantation language is up front and explicit.

Conclusion

Some may argue that the FDA labels should be changed, or that recent tests suggest none of these pills/devices work as abortifacients. And yet, that’s not what the contraceptives say about themselves. At best, the way in which these pills and devices work is disputed and uncertain. But if all four contraceptives, in their official information, are explicitly said to adversely affect implantation, how can Hobby Lobby’s objections to providing these contraceptives be considered unscientific or irrational? If one has a moral objection to providing pills and devices which may terminate nascent life, the contraceptives themselves do nothing to allay these fears. In fact, a careful reading of their medical information suggests the concerns are well founded.

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Evangelicals and Cities: A Discussion in Need of Clarity

Jul 08, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

I love cities. I’ve spent time in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago this summer. I love the energy, the opportunities, and the history of our nation’s big cities. I have no desire to discourage any Christian from moving to the city for ministry. Our cities have lots of people, and so they need lots of Christians, lots of churches, and lots of evangelical institutions. I’m all for evangelicals and cities coming together.

But what does that mean?

The evangelical advocacy for the city is a discussion in dire need of clarity. Case in point is yesterday’s First Things article by Gene Fant, This Time Narnia is a City. Fant argues that “something is afoot in Christian higher education,” and that something is “urbanization.” In explaining why he recently joined the administration at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Fant notes that he was “following a very specific sense of God’s leading to serve in an urban context.” He then lists several other examples of evangelicals moving to cities.

I have dear friends who have recently joined other urban campuses, notably David S. Dockery, the new president at Trinity International University / Evangelical Divinity School and Gregory Alan Thornbury, president at The King’s College in New York City (19.9M in metro area; began serving in 2013). In Chicago, Dockery joins Philip Ryken at Wheaton (started in 2010) and others who are serving a population of some 9.5M. Pres. Michael Lindsay (started in 2011) is poised to take Gordon in the Boston area (4.6M residents) to new heights. In 2012, Pres. Daniel Martin began serving at Seattle-Pacific, with a metro area of 3.6M.

Fant is careful not to denigrate suburban or rural ministry, but he believes the movement of Aslan in our day is a move to urban settings. Fant’s final exhortation is a summons to the city: “The moment we face as American Christianity is whether or not we will shed our suburban comforts for the challenges of urban life.”

Let me say it again, I am thankful for people who feel called to an urban context. Whether it’s to alleviate poverty or embrace diversity or influence cultural elites or simply to be where lost people are, I have no problem with evangelical appeals to be involved in cities. In fact, I am entirely for it! But if this ongoing discussion about evangelicals and cities is to be profitable, we have to figure out what we actually mean by cities.

What makes one’s setting “urban”? On the one hand, Fant exhorts evangelicals to leave the comfortable suburbs behind, but then he mentions a number of “urban” evangelical colleges and seminaries which can only be considered urban in as much as they belong to a large metropolitan statistical area. I love Trinity and Wheaton, but both institutions are in the suburbs. Gordon College (my wife’s alma mater) may be a part of the Boston metro area, but the campus is 45 minutes away on the North Shore, nestled with woods and water in one of the most idyllic, non-urban setting you can imagine.

What constitutes city ministry or an urban setting? Is it population density? Is it being within the city limits of a municipality with more than, say, half a million people? Or is it a million? Is it being in one of the country’s major metropolitan areas? Is it being in a center city environment? Depending on your definition of city, most of us are already in one. According to the U.S. Census bureau, 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Most of us don’t have to go anywhere to become urban. But if urban really means “center city,” then Moody Bible Institute qualifies, while Trinity, Wheaton, and Gordon do not. Most people would not consider Covenant College in a city setting. It is, after all, literally on top of a mountain. But Lookout Mountain, GA (pop. 1,617) is counted in the census as part of a metropolitan statistical area (Chattanooga) with 541,000 people. So depending on your definition, Covenant is urban.

I’m not trying to be pedantic. Defining our terms and using them consistently is critical to this whole discussion. Either Americans are already overwhelmingly urban (which includes suburbs like Deerfield, IL and little hamlets like Wenham, MA), in which case the call to leave the suburbs is self-defeating. Or, if what we really mean is that Christians should move to our nation’s urban cores, then most of the institutions mentioned in Fant’s article do not fit the bill.

On a related note, we should also think more carefully about whether “population in proximity” is the best way to assess possible strategic influence. Is Princeton less influential for being located in what amounts to little more than a nice village? Is working at School A with 1500 students in a metropolitan area of 7 million more strategic than working at School B with 50,000 students in small city of a couple hundred thousand? And does this skip over the exegetical question of whether there is any discernible city strategy to the mission of the early church?

We need Christians wherever there are people, and so it stands to reason we need more Christians where there are more people. Please, please, please, do not take anything in this post as a deterrent for serving in cities, moving to cities, or caring about cities.  This is only meant to be a genuine and friendly appeal to clarify what all of that means.

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Monday Morning Humor

Jul 07, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Bonus MMH!

This is what happens from watching too much soccer.

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Monday Morning Humor

Jul 07, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

I should have known the Imperial headquarters would be in Germany.

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Bio, Books, and Such: Andy Naselli

Jul 05, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

During the summer I’ll be posting micro interviews on Fridays (mostly–today is Saturday). I’ve asked some of my friends in ministry–friends you probably already know–to answer questions about “bio, books, and such.” My hope is that you’ll enjoy getting a few more facts about these folks and getting a few good book recommendations.

Today’s interview is with Andy Naselli who serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary.

1. Where were you born? San Jose, CA

2. When did you become a Christian? Probably when I was 8 or 12 years old

3. Who is one well known pastor/author/leader who has shaped you as a Christian and teacher? Don Carson

4. Who is one lesser known pastor/friend/mentor who has shaped you? Mark Minnick

5. What’s one hymn you want sung at your funeral? Before the Throne of God Above

6. What kind of nonfiction do you enjoy reading when you aren’t reading about theology, the Bible, or church history? Biographies

7. Other than Calvin’s Institutes, what systematic theology have you found most helpful? Grudem, Systematic Theology

8. What are one or two of your favorite fiction authors or fiction books? (a) The Chronicles of Narnia; (b) Harry Potter

9. What is one of your favorite non-Christian biographies? Unbroken (though it’s not entirely non-Christian)

10. What is one of your favorite books on preaching? Richard L. Mayhue, ed., Rediscovering Expository Preaching: Balancing the Science and Art of Biblical Exposition

11. What is one of your favorite books on evangelism? Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions

12. What is one of your favorite books on apologetics?  John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction

13. What is one of your favorite books on prayer? D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers

14. What is one of your favorite books on marriage? Timothyand Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God

15. What is one of your favorite books on parenting? Bunmi Laditan, The Honest Toddler: A Child’s Guide to Parenting

16. What music do you keep coming back to on your iPhone (or CD player, or tape deck, or gramophone)? Bach, especially this and this

17. Favorite food? Chipotle chicken burrito bowl with guacamole

18. After the Bible, a hymnal, and a shipbuilding guide, what book would you want with you on a desert island? BDAG

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Jul 04, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

It has often been said that America was founded upon an idea. The country was not formed mainly for power or privilege but in adherence to a set of principles. Granted, these ideals have been, at various times in our history, less than ideally maintained. But the ideals remain. The idea persists.

If one sentence captures the quintessential idea of America, surely it the famous assertion contained in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Almost every word of this remarkable sentence, 238 years old today, is pregnant with meaning and strikingly relevant.

The United States of America began with the conviction that a nation should be founded upon truth. Not simply values or preferences, but upon truths. Self-evident truths that were true, are true, and will remain true no matter the time, the place, or the culture.

And central among these truths is the belief that all men are created equal. No one possesses more intrinsic worth for being born rich or poor, male or female, artisan or aristocracy. Of course, this truth, as much as any, unmasks our history of hypocrisy, for 3/5 of a person is an eternity from equality. But truth is still true. We all come into the world with the same rights and the same dignity-whether “gated community” in the world’s estimation or “trailer trash.”

These unalienable rights, we must note, are not granted by the Declaration of Independence. Our rights do not depend upon government for their existence. They are not owing to the largesse of the state or the beneficence of any institution. The rights of man are the gifts of God. The Creator endows; the state exists to protect. These unalienable rights can be suppressed or denied. But they cannot be annulled. We possess them-no matter what kings or parliaments say or presidents and congress decree-by virtue of being created in the image of our Creator.

And what are these rights? The Declaration mentions three: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Obviously, these rights are not untethered from all other considerations. Life should not be lived in a way that means death for others. Our pursuit of happiness should not make others miserable. The Declaration is not calling for anarchy. It believes in government, good limited government rightly construed and properly constrained. But the rights enumerated here are still surprisingly radical. No matter how young, how old, how tiny, how in utero, or how ill, every person deserves a chance at life. Every one deserves a chance at self-governing. Everyone has the right to pursue his self-interest. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers did not wax eloquent about safety and security. It’s because they believed freedom and liberty to be better ideals, loftier goals, and more conducive to the common good.

I understand the dangers of an unthinking “God and country” mentality, let alone a gospel-less civil religion. But I also think love of country–like love of family or love of work–is a proximate good. Patriotism is not beneath the Christian, even for citizens of a superpower.

So on this Independence Day I’m thankful most of all for the cross of Christ and the freedom we have from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But I’m also thankful for the United States. I’m thankful for the big drops of biblical truth which seeped into the blood stream of Thomas Jefferson and shaped our Founding Fathers. I’m thankful for our imperfect ideals. I’m thankful for God-given rights and hard-fought liberty. I’m thankful I can call myself an American.

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Two Cautions for Conservatives

Jul 03, 2014 | Jason Helopoulos

Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

I am a conservative. I am a conservative in religion, politics, family values, and even fashion. I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, prefer less government to more government, believe marriage is to be between one man and one woman for life, and believe men should never be allowed to wear open-toed sandals. I am by all accounts, a conservative. I don’t wear it is a badge of honor or as my identity. I am happy to move from any position I hold if convinced by a contrary argument, whether it is considered a liberal, moderate, or conservative position (though, you will never convince me that men should show their hairy toes in public). However, having said this, I find that I am usually one of the more conservative people in any given room. This has led me to watch and observe others who tend to lean conservative. There are two cautions that I would offer to myself and others who tend to be consistently conservative.

First, conservatives shouldn’t get nervous when someone is to their right in thought, ideology, or position. Young conservatives seem especially prone to this anxiety; as if there is something wrong with not holding the most extreme conservative position on any given issue. When some conservatives find a position to the right of their current conviction, they feel compelled to move with wild abandon to this more conservative belief. My friends, the furthest right position is not always the right position. This is true in theology, politics, family values, and “yes,” even fashion.

Second, conservatives have to work harder at getting their points across, because rightly or wrongly, we are often considered to be “cranks.” There is almost something natural in concluding that someone to the right of us is harsh, uncaring, and judgmental. Sometimes it is warranted, but often it isn’t. However, this perception is common.

Therefore, if I want my point of view to be heard as a conservative, I need to be more careful than others with how I express it. Now don’t get nervous! This isn’t motivated by “fear of man” or worry about offending. Rather, it is motivated by the goal we have in expressing that opinion. A good conservative shouldn’t want to express their view just to express their view. Rather, the goal is that others might hear the point and hopefully being convinced by it. Therefore, in most circumstances my conservative voice needs to be overly gracious, winsome, and careful. As the proverb says, “He who loves purity of heart and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as a friend” (Prov. 22:1). Or as the writer of Ecclesiastes stated, “The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor” (Ecc. 10:12). How do you speak the truth with grace and winsomeness? I don’t know that we can give a ten-step “how to” list, but we all know when we have seen it done well.

Having said all of this, it doesn’t mean we need to pander, shrink, flatter, or be apologetic. In no way does it mean that we shy away from our convictions, refrain from speaking, or pressing our beliefs in conversation, print, or meetings. It just means that we need to be careful and thoughtful about how we do it in order that the message itself is not lost by throwing unnecessary impediments into the way of its hearing.

At the very least, these cautions are what this lone conservative thinks are helpful considerations. But sometimes, I am just not very gracious or winsome. I can be a crank. At times, I gladly run to the most extreme conservative position and it is warranted. On that note, men, cover up those nasty, hairy, big, sweaty feet of yours. Socks were invented for a reason!

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10 Promises for Parents

Jul 01, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

You probably have a book mark somewhere with promises to pray for your children. You probably have good kid verses on your refrigerator about obedience and kindness and sharing with others. You probably have a few standby verses you share with the little ones when they start to get defiant and lippy. All good.

But do you have any verses for yourself?

My kids need Bible promises, but on most days I need them even more. I’m prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I want them to love.

So here are ten promises from the Bible that every Christian parent should remember, especially the Christian parent writing this blog.

1. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). Since the verse refers to trials of various kinds, I assume that James is talking about more than martyrdom and death. Sleepless infants, tortuous bedtimes, muddy feet, spilled orange juice, moody teens–they all count too. And we should count them all joy, even when they feel like the biggest pain. God promises he’s at work to produce steadfastness.

2. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). You’re tired, scared, defeated, weary beyond all reckoning. Good. Get low, and God promises to lift you up.

3. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It doesn’t depend on me. It’s not about me. My kids are not for me. Stop freaking out. Stop trusting in horses and chariots.

4. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3). They are. They really, really, truly, actually are. Whether you have one child or two or ten or twenty, God has given you those children because he loves you. The world thinks they are burdens. God tells us they are blessings.

5. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Yup, that verses is for parents too. The anger in our kids is from their hearts, but the mouthy way they learn to express that anger may be from our example. Why do I think my gasoline will help put out their fires?

6. “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). The only way to be a strong parent is to be a parent with self-control.

7. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Parenting is hard work. Period. But parenting up to the expectations of your (fill in the blank: mother, mother-in-law, girlfriends, next door neighbor, own little taskmaster) is impossible. Parent for Christ’s sake. He promises not to weigh you down with impossible burdens.

8. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). God knows that you sacrifice your time, your desires, your sleep, your money, and often your own dreams for your children. He sees and he smiles.

9. “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4). Everything is a mess, all the time. What else did we expect? We have dirty oxen running around. But there’s joy, memories, laughter, sanctification, and gospel growth from those wild animals too.

10. “But he gives more grace” (James 4:6). Ah, sweet grace. Grace to forgive your impatience (again) and your laziness (again). Grace to get you off the ground. Grace to get you walking. And grace to lead you home.

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Hobby Lobby and the Liberty of Conscience

Jun 30, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

The Hobby Lobby case was not ultimately about abortion or contraception. It was about religious liberty more broadly, and, as far as my untrained legal eyes can tell, about three disputed matters in particular.

Here is a good summary of the issues as presented in the Amicus brief filed by Michigan, Ohio and eighteen other states in support of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel:

The threshold question here is whether for-profit, secular businesses may exercise religion and therefore fall within the religious liberty protections of RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed unanimously by the House, 97-3 by the Senate, and signed by President Clinton in 1993]. It is a question that is basic to American democracy. Its answer requires this Court to return to first principles. And the answer is a simple one.

Americans may form a corporation for profit and at the same time adhere to religious principles in their business operation. This is true whether it is the Hahns or Greens operating their businesses based on their Christian principles, a Jewish-owned deli that does not sell non-kosher foods, or a Muslim-owned financial brokerage that will not lend money for interest. The idea is as American as apple pie. And RFRA guarantees that federal regulation may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion absent a compelling governmental interest advanced through the least restrictive means.

Any contrary conclusion creates an untenable divide between for-profit and non-profit corporations. All sides admit that RFRA extends its protections beyond individuals to at least some corporations. Despite assumptions made by certain of the judges below, nothing in the relevant state laws restricts corporate endeavors to the sole purpose of maximizing revenue at all cost. There is and should be no general federal common law of corporations. And nothing in RFRA limits its application to administratively certified religious entities.

The argument put forward by the United States is predicated on a view that seeking profit changes everything. Not so. The Hahns and the Greens, as do others, seek to operate their family-owned businesses according to religious principles. That they seek also to earn a profit does not nullify or discredit their beliefs. The federal courts cannot rewrite state law on corporations somehow to change this reality.

The Mandate also imposes a substantial burden on these family-owned businesses. Conestoga, Hobby Lobby, and Mardel are guided by religious principles affirming the inviolability of human life, and no one questions the sincerity of those beliefs in these cases. Courts should not become enmeshed in evaluating the interpretive merits or proper doctrinal weight of religious principles. Their religious propriety is not for the courts to second guess. And the government lacks a compelling interest justifying the substantial burden it seeks to impose when the businesses adhere to these guiding religious principles. The Affordable Care Act includes several sweeping exceptions. The claim that the Mandate must be applied to entities with a sincere religious objection is belied by the fact that it already excludes tens of millions of plan participants.

Government directives cannot confine religious liberty to the sanctuary or sacristy. Such a truncated view of religion threatens to create a barren public square, empty of the religious beliefs of ordinary Americans. This is an important principle, and it protects all persons.

So what does all that mean? There are three crucial points:

1. Individuals do not relinquish their First Amendment rights when they associate together in a for-profit business.

2. The healthcare Mandate imposed a “substantial burden” on the businesses in question.

3. Any compelling interest the government may have in providing contraceptives was not “advanced through the least restrictive means.”

That last point is especially important. When religious persons wax eloquent about the inviolable liberty of conscience, the quick rejoinder is “Yeah, but what if your conscience doesn’t allow you to cover blood transfusions or your religious conscience tells you it’s okay to discriminate against ethnic minorities?” Point taken. The appeal to conscience is not a right to unchecked liberty at any cost. Religious freedom does not mean we are free to do whatever we want. The government will sometimes burden the free exercise of religion, but, according to RFRA, only if  it has a compelling interest to do so and advances this interest through the least restrictive means.

In the end, the Court decided in favor of Hobby Lobby on the three crucial points listed above:

We hold that the regulations that impose this obligation violate RFRA, which prohibits the  Federal Government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

In holding that the HHS mandate is unlawful, we reject HHS’s argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships. The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs.

Since RFRA applies in these cases, we must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price—as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.

The free exercise of religion and liberty of conscience are God-given rights. We would surely miss them more than we know if they were done away with. We can give thanks that today, when they could have easily been undermined, they were instead upheld.

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