30 June 2014

Hobby Lobby, Corporate Personhood, and Religious Liberty

Today the Supreme Court handed down the highly anticipated decision in regards to two family-owned businesses claims that the contraceptive mandate within the Affordable Care Act violated their personal religious liberty.  In a 5-4 decision the Court ruled in favor of Green family (Southern Baptists) who own Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores, and the Hahns family (Mennonites), who own Conestogo, a company that makes cabinets.  The majority reasoned that the contraceptive mandate did violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.  The aim of that legislation was to prevent government from making laws that would substantially burden individual's in regards to their free exercise of religion (1st Amendment).  The RFRA does allow for the government to interfere in person's religious freedom if there can be demonstrated a compelling interest for the benefit of the whole.  In addition, if the government discerns a compelling interest that curtails religious freedom, then they must employ the least restrictive way in regards to the individual to accomplish its purpose.

In the Hobby Lobby case the Court decided that the government failed to show that imposing the contraceptive mandate at the owner's expense was the least restrict means of furthering its own interest in providing that form of health care to women.  In other words, the Court told the government to find another solution rather than tread on the religious consciences of these business owners.  Essentially, this is no different than the exceptions that have already been granted to religiously based non-profits like hospitals and schools.

Another big question in this case was whether or not a corporation like Hobby Lobby had the same rights as individuals.  The idea of corporate personhood was upheld for some corporations.  This decision was applied because these two businesses were defined as "closely held corporations" (i.e. family businesses).  The ruling doesn't necessarily apply to giant corporations.  Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated, "Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies."  In other words, the business owner does have a religious freedom that should be protected from government laws that violate his or her religious conscience.  This is a huge ruling with broad implications. 

Of course, the dissenting judges and the left-leaning folks out there, believe the Court simply set up the proverbial slippery slope.  Now, it's simply a matter of time before every crazy religious group out there will start claiming this case as precedent to justify all kinds of dissent against laws they don't what to obey.  All I can say to this is, we'll have to wait and see.  Most of that rhetoric I believe is just fear mongering.  The decision made today was reasonable.

What we need to realize is that the contraceptives under scrutiny in this case (morning after pill and the like) will still be provided for employees.  The government will just have to figure out who gets to pay for it.  The Green and Hahns families will not be paying for it in their companies, but someone will.  And you've probably guessed it - the tax payer.

Like many other Christians, I'm happy for this ruling, but I believe it to be only the beginning of a continuing and growing collision of federal government law and personal religious liberty in regards to the social issues of abortion and homosexuality.              

25 June 2014

Phoebe the Deacon: Should Women Serve in the Role Today?

I have been preaching through the book of Romans for quite some time.  This past Sunday I delivered the 49th message from the epistle on the first two verses of the last chapter.  Paul is making his closing remarks to the Roman Christians in this remarkable letter.  In doing so, he mentions Phoebe the deacon.  In fact, Paul commends her to the Romans as a sister in the faith and a deacon of the church of Cenchrea, a port city near Corinth.  Commentators overwhelming agree that Paul refers to her in such a way to indicate that she is the one bringing the letter to the Roman Christians.  He asks for them to receive her graciously, helping her in any way that she might need.  He adds that she has blessed and assisted many, including Paul himself.

I call Phoebe a deacon because that is what Paul calls her, even if your English translation renders it as "servant."  The Greek word Paul employs to describe Phoebe is diakonos.  In the New Testament era this word was used in reference to another person who simply rendered help and assistance to another person.  In most places it appears in the New Testament it is used with this general meaning.  For example, in Matthew 20:26 Jesus states, "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your diakonos." In John 2:5 at the marriage celebration John records, "His mother said to the diakonois, whatever He says to you, do it."  Paul describes the human government of men with the same word.  "For it [government] is a diakonos of God to you for good" (Rom. 13:4).  In 1 Corinthians 3:5 Paul wrote, "What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Diakonoi through whom you believed."  Many other examples could be given of this kind of generic use of the word.

However, we also clearly observe that diakonos is beginning to take on a more official meaning as the New Testament church developed.  It appears that the first group of men designated in an officially recognized capacity as deacons occurred in Jerusalem.  This is recorded by Luke in Acts 6:1-6.  Although the word diakonos does not appear here, it is generally agreed upon that the description is of the election of the first seven "servants."  They were chosen to assist the apostles in administering benevolent ministry within the congregation. 

The letter to the Philippians further indicates that the general understanding of servant was becoming linked to a specially designated role within congregations.  As Paul opens his letter he writes, "Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons [diakonois]."  By coupling this word with overseer, it appears Paul is recognizing a specific ministry within the congregation in addition to just fellow believers, which Paul typically, like he does here, refers to as saints.

Most clearly we see the office of deacon specified in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  Here Paul carefully explains to the younger Timothy the necessity of congregations choosing elders and deacons wisely.  He explains the kind of character both should have, summed up in the idea of "being above reproach."

From the meaning of the word itself and from the context of Acts 6, we can confidently assert that a deacon in the New Testament did not exercise administrative authority over a congregation.  This was the calling and responsibility of the overseers/elders/pastors.  The deacons functioned as those who had been recognized for their spiritual maturity and tasked with tending to the needs of the congregation in the areas of benevolence and care.

So, when Paul refers to Phoebe in Romans 16 as a "diakonon of the church of Cenchrea," what does he have in mind?  Does he simply mean generically that she was a faithful servant, like any good saint in her congregation or did he mean that she held the office of deacon in her congregation?  I'm certainly not alone by leaning toward the latter.  Many, including myself, conclude that the natural reading is to conclude that Paul is referring to her office in her church.  From the way he commends her to connecting the word diakonos to her church, suggests rather convincingly to me that he's using the word as a title.  Therefore, it would appear that the word here is in reference to a woman serving in the role.  This opens up an interesting discussion, especially among conservative Southern Baptists!  The question then becomes what to do with Phoebe. 

A critical, collateral passage to help us know what to do with Phoebe is the afore mentioned 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  Within this description of the qualifications of deacon is a difficult verse for translators.  In verses 8-10 and 12 Paul is addresses men explicitly.  In verse 11 he makes reference to women (gunaikas from the root gune, which simply means "woman").  In the Greek this is the only word used for women, whether in the most general sense or if reference to a married woman.  The context dictates how to understand the word specifically.

For example in Ephesians 5:22 Paul instructs, "Gunaike, be subject to your own husbands..." To translate this word "wives" in this context is clear because of the connection to the word husbands. In 1 Timothy 2:9 Paul writes, "Likewise, I want gunaika to adorn themselves..."  He goes on to write about them being modest and such.  Here the word appears to simply mean "women" in a more general sense.  Many other examples could be given to demonstrate how context determines whether to translate the word into English as "wives" or "women." 

For 400 years people have been familiar with the KJV's rendering of "wives."  Other modern English translations have followed suit, such as the NLT, ESV and HCSB.  However, others have broken with the KJV by rendering gunaikas as "women", such as the NASV, NRSV, and NIV.  The traditional translation has been "wives."  However, it begs the question if this has reflected a male bias that began with the original English translations over 400 years ago.  Modern translators disagree on this because the context doesn't dictate a clear choice.  In context, either "wives" or "women" can make sense.

The big question is this:  What did Paul have in mind in the passage?  Did he simply mean wives of male deacons or was he just naturally including women in the deacon role without any fanfare.  On the one hand, it seems strange for Paul to be addressing male deacons in verse 8-10, interrupt his thought in verse 11 by switching to thoughts about female deacons, then return to describing male deacons in verse 12.  Verse 13 can be taken as referring to deacons in general regardless of gender.  On the other hand, there are a couple of contextual items that may indicate Paul did indeed have women deacons in mind even though the parenthetical nature of the thought is awkward.  First, if Paul was addressing deacons' wives, one would reasonably expect that he would have addressed overseers' wives as well, but he didn't.  Second, the use of the word likewise in verse 13 makes it parallel with verse 8.  Before verse 8 Paul had been describing the qualifications for an overseer, which are clearly men.  In verse 8 he transitions to deacons (male) by saying, "deacons likewise."  Then he goes on to demonstrate that in the same way deacons must be men of good reputation and character just like overseers.  Then in verse 11 he does the same thing when he writes literally, "women likewise," then proceeds to explain the desired qualities for them.  Although, it is not unreasonable to translate gunaikas as "wives" here, I believe it is preferable to translate it more generally as "women", since the context doesn't clearly steer us toward the idea of married women.  But what tips the scale for me in favor of "women" over "wives" is the reality of Phoebe in Romans 16:1.  Since Paul does appear to be labeling Phoebe as a deacon in an official capacity, it makes it more likely to me that he has women deacons in mind as he writes to Timothy. 

In the past and now I think the thorny part of this issue has involved the status attached to the tradition of ordination in our Baptist tradition.  Whenever a discussion opens about the possibility of women deacons, we seem to instinctively leap right into a discussion of the appropriateness of ordaining women, which is truly a conversation about authority.  In our Baptist tradition ordination carries with it the connotation of calling, spiritual fitness, and the authority granted to one who lives up to the qualifications of the office, whether pastor or deacon.  So, our negative reaction to women in the role of deacon may be more about ordination than about the actual question of whether women served in the role in the New Testament.  Therefore, it probably is helpful to examine the biblical precedents on which modern ordination in our Baptist life is built.

First, we have to admit that the New Testament gives no exact instructions for ordination. The tradition of recognizing certain individuals in the church for special places of service through the centuries has resulted in many forms and meanings in regards to ordination.  As we have noted, the New Testament indicates that the offices of elder/overseer/pastor and deacon are the regular offices for the church.  The idea of ordaining those in these positions is not unreasonable since we observe a certain ceremonialism in the early church connected to them.  However, what we actually observe in the early church is pretty simple compared to the tradition and meaning we have piled on top of these earliest examples.

In Acts 6 the men were chosen so they could be put in charge of the needed tasks of congregational care.  Once they had been selected Luke records, "And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them"(Acts 6:6).  This action of laying on hands was a symbol of blessing and dedication to the task.  In Titus 1:5 Paul instructs, "...and appoint elders in every city..."  In Acts 12:2-3 we read about Paul and Barnabas being commissioned for a missionary journey.  "And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away."  In Acts 14:23 we observe Paul and Barnabas "ordaining" elders within the congregations they had helped birth.  "And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."  And in 2 Corinthians 8:19 Paul mentions how Titus had been "ordained" by the churches.  "...he was appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work..."

What we actually observe in the New Testament church is that individuals were recognized for their callings, gifts and desire to serve, resulting in them being appointed or set apart with a more official recognition.  This recognition involved praying and fasting and the act of laying on hands as a physical and direct symbol of blessing and dedication to the task.  This act essentially was what we would call ordination, which comes from the Latin ordinare, which means simply to put something in order or arrange something in a proper manner.

In the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church allowed ordination of clergy to take on the connotation of a special spiritual class of people.  Ordination even became a sacrament.  Consequently, a division occurred between the ordained clergy and the laity.  Ultimately, this lead to the idea that these ordained individuals worked as the mediators between God and the regular people.  The Protestant Reformation rejected this notion and expressed the idea of the priesthood of every believer.  In other words, the clergy may serve a special calling in the church, but they are not of a superior spiritual class in which they become God's mid-level management.  Every believer has access directly to God.  Baptists inherited this understanding.   

However, after over 400 years of development, tradition and institutionalization, it would seem that some of that same class distinction creep has occurred.  In the area of the deaconship in the average traditional Baptist church, ordination has significantly come to be associated with authority and status.  This reality puts many modern deacon bodies at odds with the simple New Testament teaching that a diakonos is a servant who renders care to the congregation, not one who helps govern it.  I believe that the current form of ordination and the status attached to it has eclipsed the biblical function of the office of deacon and as a consequence squeezed women out of the position.

Some of the early witnesses to Baptist understanding and organization evidence that we had women who served as deacons.  John Smyth's 1609 Short Confession of Faith mentions "deacons, men and widows, who attend to the affairs of the poor and sick brethren."  Thomas Helwys' A Declaration of Faith from 1611 reads, "That the officers of every church or congregation are either elders, who by their office do especially feed the flock concerning their souls, or deacons, men and women, who by their office relieve the necessities of the poor and impotent brethren concerning their bodies."  Of course, one could give many examples of confessions that indicate an assumption of male deacons or explicitly state it.  As one would expect to find in Baptist history, there has been significant diversity on the issue.

Like most Southern Baptist churches, First Baptist Hazard endorses the current version (2000) of the Southern Baptist confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. This version caused some ruckus when it added the following sentence in Article VI, "The Church": "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."  While many fumed over the exclusion of women from the role of pastor, many may have missed that the confession leaves the role of deacon open.  I believe this was done because, according to biblical instruction and example, male headship clearly applies to the role of overseer/elder, but not so clearly to the role of deacon.  I agree with this assessment. 

It would seem that among the conservative ranks, there is a strong consensus that women did or very possibly did serve as deacons in the New Testament.  Where we get hung up is on ordination.  If many of us could get over our conditioning that ordination is a boys only club, we might be able to push through to some positive results in the area of deacon ministry.  One way to push through may be to change how we do ordination.  My suggestion is to change the ceremonialism, particularly by doing away with the bookstore certificate.  May I suggest that we consider a season of fasting and praying as we consider and interview candidates. Then once deacons are selected by the congregation for service, we simply observe the example of laying on hands in prayer as an act of dedication and blessing.  That's it! 

Ultimately, who serves in the offices of elder/pastor and deacon is up to each congregation (at least in Baptist life).  As a pastor, who is attempting to lead the congregation God has entrusting to me to think and act biblically, I would suggest that we have some discussion about Phoebe the deacon as a consequence of studying Romans.  For me, it's not a hill to die on, but all tradition and practice ought always to be measured by its faithfulness to the biblical witness. 

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