Cakes and Conscience

300px-supreme_court_front_dusk*This post originally appeared on the Land Center blog at https://thelandcenter.org/cakes-and-conscience/.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on December 5 in the highest profile case of this term. Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is an important First Amendment case with significant implications for both freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Jack Phillips is the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in the Denver area. In 2012 Phillips was asked to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins to celebrate their same-sex wedding ceremony. Phillips refused to bake the cake, and he was subsequently found in violation of Colorado’s anti-discrimination statute. Amy Howe reports, “The Colorado agencies responsible for enforcing the state’s anti-discrimination laws ruled that Phillips’ refusal to provide the custom cake violated those laws and that he had ‘no free speech right’ to turn down Craig and Mullins’ request. They told Phillips that, if he decided to create cakes for opposite-sex weddings, he would also have to create them for same-sex weddings.”[1]

Based on his convictions as a Christian, Phillips believes that only a man and a woman can enter into marriage. Therefore, he refuses to design wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies. Phillips also refuses to design cakes to celebrate Halloween, divorce, or any message he considers to be lewd.

What is at stake in this case? There are a few points of particular interest to free speech and conscience protections involved in this case.

First, can the government compel speech? When we think of free speech, we generally think about the prohibition against government restricting speech. In this case, Jack Phillips wants to restrict his own artistic expression, which he argues is a form of speech, but the state of Colorado is attempting to compel him to make artistic expression that violates his conscience. Compulsion of speech is a direct violation of the First Amendment. The question is whether artistic expression through custom-designed wedding cakes is protected speech.

Second, does religious freedom extend beyond the walls of a place of worship? Phillips argues that he has the right to express his religious convictions through the bakery that he owns. He closes the store on Sundays, and he refuses to bake items celebrating various activities that violate his religious convictions. There has been a trend in recent years to see religious freedom only in the context of formal worship; however, religious freedom has not always been interpreted in such a way. Phillips claims that his religious freedom extends beyond the church and into the public square where he operates his business. The decision in this case has the potential to set a significant precedent for how freedom of religion and freedom of conscience will be applied for generations.

Third, does protection against “dignitary harm” supersede other constitutional rights? In his amicus brief for this case, Sherif Girgis defines dignitary harm as “the harm of being told (even by polite refusals) that decisions central to your identity are wrong.”[2] Andrew Walker notes, “The rise of ‘dignitary harm’ arguments aims to achieve desired legal outcomes on the basis of a perceived slight or personal offense.”[3] In essence, dignitary harm arguments are built on the idea that a person has the right not to be offended. If one is offended he can then sue the person who offended him. The responsibility is then upon the prospective offender not to offend even though there is no way for him to know for certain whether or not what he might do or say could offend someone else. Recent cases, especially related to same-sex marriage, have raised the profile of dignitary harm. The most substantial problem with this line of argumentation is that the opinions of the majority tend to be protected and the minority is most likely to commit dignitary harm. In contrast, most of the rights protected in the First Amendment are designed to protect the minority opinion from discrimination, not the reverse. The Court would be right to see Phillips as the one whose opinions and decisions should be protected.

What can we expect as the outcome of this case? It is difficult to say. Numerous reports suggest that the majority of justices are leaning toward support of Jack Phillips, but Howe warns us that “making predictions based on oral arguments is always dangerous.” In the coming months we should hear a decision from the Court, and it will likely prove to be the most significant religious liberty decision in generations.

[1] Amy Howe, “Argument analysis: Conservative majority leaning toward ruling for Colorado baker (UPDATED),” SCOTUSblog, December 5, 2017.

[2] Sherif Girgis, “Brief of Amicus Curiae Sherif Girgis Supporting Petitioners,” Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2.

[3] Andrew T. Walker, “Into the looking glass: Why the impact of Masterpiece Cakeshop at the Supreme Court matters,” ERLC.com, December 5, 2017.

Five Tips for Thriving after Seminary

rotundaIt’s the most wonderful time of the year—unless you’re a student. Let’s be honest, most students are in survival mode at this point of the semester. There are tests to be taken, papers to be written, and assignments to be submitted. This time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be one of the most stressful periods for any student, including seminary students. For students graduating this semester, the pressure can be even greater. They are looking for ministry positions and considering housing options after they move off campus. They may even be praying that a professor or two will overlook a few errors in their final papers.

Beyond the stress of the end of the semester, I have also seen seminary students and graduates struggle with post-seminary survival. Recently I overheard a handful of former students talking about being survivors of seminary and how difficult it was to listen to a sermon, study the Bible, and enjoy fellowship after spending years in the formal academic setting of seminary. I understand what these former students are talking about, but I also want to offer some tips for thriving after seminary that I learned during my ten years as a seminary student (yes, I said ten years) and more than a decade of teaching seminary.

  1. Be humble. I was one of those first year seminary students. You’ve seen them. They are the ones carrying a Greek New Testament to church and pretending to follow along in the text as the pastor preaches. Honestly, I was pretty good at Greek. I could translate from most passages on the fly by the end of my first year of seminary (second year of Greek), but if I got asked to read aloud in Sunday School, it might get ugly. Or if the pastor was preaching from the Old Testament, I was in trouble. Here’s deal… whether it is Greek, Hebrew, theology, or hermeneutics, seminary provides an unmatched opportunity to delve into the formal study of Scripture, but completing a few semesters of a subject does not make you an expert. When I watch some of my faculty colleagues who teach Greek or Hebrew follow along in chapel with a Bible in the original languages, I know that they have years of continued study and training beyond the basic 2-4 semesters of a language. I also know they are spending hours on their own refining their craft of translation. Even in my own field, I am constantly reading books and articles related to ethics just to stay abreast of current thought. The people in your church will be grateful for the time spent in seminary and the education you have received, but that little old lady who has been faithfully studying her Bible for the last 70 years may actually know more than you do. Be humble about your education. You still have a lifetime of learning ahead of you.
  2. Study the Bible for your personal discipleship. It is really easy to allow the formal academic study of Scripture to replace personal study and discipleship. A good friend of mine from college went to a different seminary a couple years before I did. I will never forget when he told me a story about one of his professors. He was overwhelmed with the volume of reading required in his classes so he sought out one of his professors for advice. He wanted to know how to devote time to his own devotional study of the Bible when so much was required of him already. Unfortunately, his professor gave him terrible advice. He said that there will be time for devotional study when you graduate. I think many students who lose their passion for God’s Word while in seminary do so because they forsake the study of Scripture for personal discipleship. Academic study is good and necessary, but it is not the end. Personal holiness and devotion to the Lord are more important than grades. If you are having difficulty maintaining a personal time of devotion, then schedule it just like you do for your classes.
  3. Stop being critical. After a year or so of seminary, it became difficult to listen to sermons. I paid attention in chapel and church, but mainly for the purpose of catching an exegetical fallacy or theological error. Then something very helpful happened to me—I took a preaching class. My professor required us to preach in class and receive feedback from our classmates. Most of my classmates were kind to me and only minimally critical. Then my professor required us to watch videos of our own preaching. Ouch! I was bad. I wanted to be the next Adrian Rogers, my childhood pastor. Instead I was just a cheap imitation in an ill-fitting suit. Watching myself preach was a humbling experience. I still don’t like to do it because I feel that I have so far yet to go. Will the pastors you listen to make errors along the way? Sure. Are your sermons perfect? Not a chance. In fact, those faithful but unknown pastors who put their time and study in faithfully each week will likely have a deeper impact on their people than the celebrity preachers on your podcast list. Stop being critical and start reflecting on how you can faithfully feed your people.
  4. Invest in the ministry of a local church. At least once a semester in seminary I heard Paige Patterson say that he prayed our first church would be filled with the type of members we were while seminary students. There was often an audible silence after that statement. Thankfully, I heeded his advice. I joined the choir, served as a deacon, taught Sunday School, went on mission trips, and even volunteered in the nursery occasionally. None of these roles were paid positions. Even today I volunteer as a deacon, choir member, children’s Sunday School teacher, and other roles. In those roles, I’m not Dr. Lenow. My students on Sunday call me Mr. Evan. In the choir loft, I’m just one of the guys in the bass section. It’s refreshing, and it’s healthy for my spiritual life.
  5. Share the gospel. Sharing the gospel is a key aspect of the Christian life. We don’t do it to get another jewel in our crown, but we do it because we care about the souls of other people. When I share the gospel, I realize a few things. Most people truly interested in hearing the gospel don’t really care about theodicy, eschatology, or hermeneutics. They want to hear the life-changing message of salvation. Sure, those other doctrines may become important later, but right now the most important thing is for them to hear a clear articulation of the gospel in the style of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. If you can’t share the message of the gospel in a clear, straightforward fashion, it’s time to get some practice.

My desire is for this graduating class of seminarians to thrive after they graduate. I don’t want them to look back on these years as some from which they need to recover. These five tips are not a magic solution to some of the difficulties of life after seminary, but they should help ease the transition.

The New Marriage Battleground: Polygamy, Polyamory, and Open Marriage

polygamyThis post originally appeared on Theological Matters at https://theologicalmatters.com/2017/10/10/the-new-marriage-battleground-polygamy-polyamory-and-open-marriage/.

Students who have taken my Christian Home class are familiar with a diagram I draw on the board each semester. In this diagram, I visually depict the difference between polygamy and polyamory—two marriage arrangements that contrast monogamy. I then tell my students that such arrangements will most likely be legal in the United States in just a matter of years and that the church will need to be prepared to address them.

The timeframe for normalization of these alternative marriages may have accelerated in recent months as a series of articles have been published touting the advantages of various forms of multiple marriage. It is important for us to understand what these are and to critique them from a biblical perspective.

The Marriage Alternatives

Until the last couple of years, laws in the United States only recognized marriage to be between one man and one woman. The 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges opened the door to same-sex marriage. Now we see a push for different types of marriage that infringe upon monogamy.

Polygamy is a marriage arrangement where one individual is married to multiple partners. Historically this is primarily a man married to multiple women. This form of marriage is the one most clearly set up for legalization through the Obergefell decision.

Polyamory literally means “many loves” and describes “consensually non-monogamous relationships [where] there is an open agreement that one, both, or all individuals involved in a romantic relationship may also have other sexual and/or romantic partners.”[1] Polyamory differs from polygamy because all partners can be in multiple marriage-like relationships. While a recent Christian blogger has stated that polyamory is not about sex,[2] the basic premise of this type of relationship is that the various partners are in multiple intimate, romantic, sexual relationships.

Open marriage is the third alternative in the marriage battleground. This arrangement involves couples in the marriage being open to romantic, sexual relationships outside the context of their own marriage. In some respects this is similar to polyamory, although the outside relationships may not be formalized as marriage. Proponents of open marriage argue that as long as both spouses are in agreement with the arrangement then it does not break the fidelity of the marriage bond.

The Battle Ahead

Are these marriage alternatives really going to become mainstream? Numerous articles have appeared over the last year promoting these different marriage arrangements. New York published an article promoting consensual nonmonogamy.[3] The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed philosopher Carrie Jenkins about her new book What Love Is and What It Could Be in which she promotes polyamory.[4] NPR even ran a story about the cultural moment for polyamory stating, “Lately, I’m seeing ‘polyamory’ everywhere. It’s not a new word or concept of course, but it seems to be having a cultural moment.”[5] Polygamy is popularized on the television shows Sister Wives and Polygamy USA.

From a Christian perspective, progressive Christian blogger Chuck McKnight is currently publishing a series of blog posts promoting polyamory and open marriage based on a “love-based ethic” in which our ethical actions are judged by only the question of whether they are loving. McKnight believes that polyamory can be loving and therefore not biblically prohibited.

The Christian Response

In response to the cultural push for acceptance of these marriage alternatives, Scripture gives us a couple of clear ideas about marriage.

Scripture communicates a consistent message about the monogamous nature of marriage. Beginning in Genesis, we see that God’s design for marriage is a comprehensive, covenantal relationship between one man and one woman. Genesis 2:24 provides this divine commentary on the nature of marriage:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

God designed that the man (singular) would be joined to his wife (singular) in marriage. All subsequent descriptions of marriage relate the ideal of monogamy. While there are examples of polygamists in the Old Testament (for example, Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon), their polygamy is not depicted as ideal. In fact, their polygamy is the source of great strife and conflict in their homes. Despite the presence of such polygamy, the overwhelming testimony of Scripture points to monogamy as the standard. Both Jesus and Paul affirm the monogamous standard. In Matthew 19 and Mark 10, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 and then describes two becoming one flesh. He never inserts a third or fourth individual into the marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul states, “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Paul clearly communicates the idea of monogamous marriage here. The message is consistent throughout Scripture.

Any departure from monogamous marriage is a form of sexual immorality. Scripture consistently condemns adultery, but two specific passages come to mind in response to the current challenges to marriage. In Romans 7:3 we read, “So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress. . . .” Paul describes a standard monogamous marriage (a wife with one husband) and equates any union with another man as adultery. In addition the author of Hebrews tells us, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).

If Scripture depicts God’s design for marriage to be monogamous, and if any departure from monogamous marriage is equated with adultery, then the various alternative marriage arrangements—polygamy, polyamory, and open marriage—are all forms of adultery that are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore, Christians should not endorse these forms of “marriage,” nor should they tolerate them within their midst. Just as Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for tolerating the man who had married his father’s wife, we too should rebuke those who promote and tolerate such distortions of God’s design for marriage.

[1] Rhonda N. Balzarini, et al., “Perceptions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory,” PLoS ONE 12 (2017).

[2] Churck McKnight, “What Polyamory Is Not,” Hippie Heretic (September 11, 2017).

[3] Drake Baer, “Maybe Monogamy Isn’t the Only Way to Love,” New York (March 6, 2017).

[4] Moira Weigel, “‘I Have Multiple Loves’: Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory,” The Chronical of Higher Education (February 3, 2017). Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is: And What It Could Be (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

[5] Barbara J. King, “A Cultural Moment for Polyamory,” NPR (March 23, 2017).

The Uncertain Future of the Ministerial Housing Allowance

267px-logo_of_the_internal_revenue_service-svgU. S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued a ruling on October 6 declaring the ministerial housing allowance to be unconstitutional. This was the second time that she has issued such a ruling, the first coming in 2013. The lawsuit was brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) challenging that excluding the housing allowance from taxable income is unfairly biased toward religious leaders.

Judge Crabb ruled in part that the housing allowance exemption “violates the establishment clause because it does not have a secular purpose or effect and because a reasonable observer would view the statute as an endorsement of religion.” This is the same conclusion she reached in 2013 but was overruled by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that FFRF lacked standing to sue since no one affiliated with that foundation had ever filed for a housing allowance exemption from the IRS. During the intervening years at least two employees of FFRF have done just that. Therefore, Judge Crabb essentially invoked her previous ruling since she believed that the FFRF now had standing to bring the lawsuit.

The law in question is 26 U.S. Code § 107, which reads:

In the case of a minister of the gospel, gross income does not include—

(1) the rental value of a home furnished to him as part of his compensation; or

(2) the rental allowance paid to him as part of his compensation, to the extent used by him to rent or provide a home and to the extent such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.

Of particular importance is the second paragraph which allows ministers to exclude a portion of their income that is used to provide for a home when a church does not provide a parsonage. Prior to 1954, ministers could only exclude from taxable income the fair rental value of a parsonage provided by the church. The Internal Revenue Service code was amended by Congress in 1954 to allow the same exemption for ministers who provided their own housing.

Judge Crabb believes this is an unfair benefit for ministers that does not also apply to non-ministerial employees. She writes, “Ministers receive a unique benefit under § 107 (2); it is not, as defendants suggest, part of a larger effort by Congress to provide assistance to employees with special housing needs. A desire to alleviate financial hardship on taxpayers is a legitimate purpose, but it is not a secular purpose when Congress eliminates the burden for a group made up of solely religious employees but maintains it for nearly everyone else.”

Much of the defendants’ case is built upon the idea that ministers have a unique challenge for housing because they are expected to live in the general vicinity of their churches and be on call at all hours of the day. Similar housing allowance deductions are given to federal employees working overseas and members of the military. Judge Crabb rejected this argument in her decision.

Another element of the defendants’ case addresses the ecclesial differences among denominations. Not all denominations have a practice of providing parsonages, and some do not provide them for theological reasons. Joe Carter offers a good summary of this distinction as he writes, “The parsonage exemption, for instance, provides a preference for institutional churches whose ecclesiastical properties are owned by a central governing body (e.g., Roman Catholic). Smaller, independent, local churches often have less money to provide a parsonage. It also presents a bias in favor of wealthy, established churches over younger congregations and church startups. Many church plants that can’t afford a church building would be unable to afford to buy a parsonage.”[1]

The similar case from 2013 was ultimately overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but a similar outcome may not happen this time. The case will undoubtedly be appealed to the same appellate court, but the issue of standing will not be in play this time. In an interview with  Baptist Press, Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey states that the precedent of interpretation of the establishment clause by the Supreme Court may bind lower courts to decide in the same way that Judge Crabb did.[2] This could lead to a showdown at the nation’s highest court.

Why should we care about the future of the ministerial housing allowance? First, many ordained ministers depend upon this tax benefit to make ends meet. When churches are unable to provide adequate income, this tax deduction may make it possible for ministers to stay at a church. In fact, many churches include a housing allowance as part of an overall compensation package.

Second, the focus on the ministerial housing allowance is likely the first step in a larger plan to remove even more significant tax benefits that churches receive. The next set of lawsuits may attempt to overturn property tax exemptions for churches. If churches were not able to claim property tax exemptions, many would have to close their doors rather than pay large tax bills for commercial property.

Third, there is a growing trend to view churches as value-neutral institutions for a community. However, churches have been viewed historically as providing great value to communities. They often meet the needs of the sick and poor without placing a burden upon tax payers. They are organizers for community service to benefit their neighborhoods and cities. They provide a moral foundation for their members that often make them better citizens of the community. Viewing churches as value-neutral is shortchanging the role of churches.

As this case progresses through the appeals process, we may see significant changes for ministers and churches.

[1] Joe Carter, “Explainer: Why clergy get tax-free housing,” Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, October 12, 2017.

[2] David Roach, “Clergy housing allowance struck down again,” Baptist Press, October 9, 2017.

Guest Post: Watching the News Without Losing Your Mind (Or Your Faith!)

This is a guest post from my wife, Melanie. She originally wrote this post for Biblical Woman, the blog site for the Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The post originally appeared here.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about anxiety and the sovereignty of God. At that time, my children were preschool and young elementary age, and I struggled with worry over them. I found that article the other day and read through it, feeling like I was looking through an old family picture album.

The feelings of anxiety were fresh and I quickly remembered the worry I carried over keeping them safe, well-educated, and healthy. The idea that amazed me as I read back through that article was that – as much as things have changed in our lives – many things stay the same.

Yes, my children are older, but I still fight the temptation to become paralyzed in fear over them.  The situations might be different, but my heart at times can be the very same. Today, however, I find the anxiety not only coming from within, but also from around me.

The national news, the local papers, and social media are busting at the seams with shocking stories of pain, hurt, and trepidation for the future. There is a palpable feeling of worry, uneasiness, fear, and general anxiety among people today inside and outside of the Church.  The places that we used to turn to for help with anxiety (friends, church, even entertainment) are now over run themselves with the same anxious content.

What are we, as believers, to do in a world filled with uncertainty and fear?

First, we must remember that God has called us to be different. Christian women must stop falling into the same patterns as those around us. We have what the non-believer does not have. Because of our relationship with Christ and because He has given us His Word, we have the answers! The problem comes when we don’t access the power that we have been given. We turn into the gullible women of 2 Timothy 3 who might learn, but are never able to act on the knowledge of the Truth.

We must act on the wonderful, hopeful, freeing knowledge we have of who God is and how He is at work around us.  For if we do not, we will miss the opportunity to live out our faith, and no unbelieving person will ever want what our testimony of Christ proclaims.  Never forget, friend, that our Lord holds the future and He is still in control. Yet, if we worry just as much as our lost neighbor does, what peace do we have to offer her? It is only when we stand courageously on the truth of God that we can offer hope amid fearful times.

Secondly, we must train our mind and eyes on truth. The diet we feed our minds produces the fruit of our thoughts and emotions. Paul did not give the Philippians specific instructions on what to think on because it made for a pretty plaque on their living room wall. He wrote to them from a prison cell, during a time of disunity and heresy in the church. The Philippian Christians were surrounded by Gentiles in a town with a heightened military presence. I am sure the Christians might have been a bit nervous, so Paul charged them with exactly what to think on to prevent their mind from wandering into the back allies of fear and anxiety (Phil 4:6-8).

Lastly, we must rest in the sovereignty of God. A genre of writings that I find helpful in digesting the events going on in our world is biographies of heroes in the faith. What we are going through as Christian and as American women is not new. There are many who have gone before us and have gone through similar fears and challenges. God could have put us in any time of history, in any country.

But He chose to place us here; in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our churches. Just like those who have lived through history, I want to be found faithful to fulfill God’s purposes right where He has called me. I can only do this if I release my grip on fear and anxiety and trust God’s plan for my life and the lives of those around me.

Trust His sovereignty in your life. Whatever happens, He has you right where He wants you for his purpose and for His glory. We must live our lives in a way that, no matter what, we can testify to His goodness and power in our lives!

Show Me the Money: Bribery and Scandal Hit NCAA Basketball

636420161513221488-usp-ncaa-basketball-ncaa-tournament-first-round-m-89581795As my Adidas shoes lay on the floor next to my chair, I opened this morning’s Wall Street Journal to find sports news on the front page (not a normal occurrence for the WSJ) about Adidas’ involvement in a scandal with multiple universities. The headline spoke of bribery and kickbacks at major college basketball programs. Coaches have been arrested after a covert FBI investigation.

The WSJ reports:

In one of several alleged schemes outlined Tuesday by federal prosecutors in New York, a top Adidas executive worked with others including a sports agent and a financial adviser to funnel tens of thousands of dollars to the families of high-school recruits to induce them to sign with major-college programs including Louisville. In exchange, they were expected to sign with the agent and adviser and, when they turned pro, choose Adidas as their sponsor, prosecutors say.

Criminal charges against the Adidas executive, James Gatto, and others were unsealed Tuesday as part of a sweeping crackdown on alleged corruption. The case also involved alleged bribes paid to assistant coaches at the University of Arizona, Oklahoma State University, the University of Southern California and the University of South Carolina.

Prosecutors said Adidas paid high-school recruits through third-party intermediaries to attend schools with Adidas shoe contracts. Prosecutors also alleged financial advisers and agents paid bribes to the coaches with hopes of securing college stars as clients after they enter the National Basketball Association.[1]

Every year during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there are commercials touting the student component of the student-athletes participating in sports programs around the country. Many of these student-athletes are not on scholarships. They are at colleges and universities to get an education. Sports are merely an extracurricular activity. The image the NCAA wants to portray is an idealistic world where students put on the uniform of their educational institution for the love of the game.

Today’s news reveals what most of us already believed to be true. Major college sports programs are big business to many universities and can be the ticket to extravagant wealth for a handful of players, agents, and coaches.

With so much money on the line, some people involved in these sports have ventured far past the line of ethical behavior. ESPN reports that the coaches who were arrested could face up to 80 years in prison if convicted.[2]

What this reveals to me is that sports has become form of idolatry in our society. What else could drive coaches, players, families, and major corporations to participate in criminal behavior? Perhaps it is not the sport itself that is the idol, but the money it could bring. Either way, we are at an unhealthy place in our society.

Just this week I taught my Bible and Moral Issues class on the ethical implications of the Second Commandment. For the most part, we do not find ourselves fashioning graven images to worship in an American context. However, there are plenty of idols that we worship. In this case, money and basketball come to the forefront. Perhaps it is time for us to rethink the role of sports in our society. Particularly in the church, it may be time to focus our time, attention, and money on the things of God. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:19-21, 24)

[1] Rebecca Davis O’Brien, Ben Cohen, and Sara Germano, “Bribery, Kickbacks Alleged at Top NCAA Basketball Programs,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 September 2017.

[2] John Gasaway, “What you need to know about the FBI’s NCAA basketball investigation,” ESPN.com, 26 September 2017.

To Marry or Not to Marry: The Question for the Next Generation

Thisft_17-09-14_marriage_halfof week is Unmarried and Single Americans Week (September 17-23), so it seems appropriate to contemplate the changing landscape of marriage in America and its potential impact on our churches.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, half of all American adults today are married. This number is down from 59% twenty-five years ago and 72% in 1960. In addition, the median age for first marriage in 2016 was 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women. This age has risen 2 years over the past decade and nearly seven years over the last half century.

Pew Research also reports some interesting data regarding the desire to get married on the part of those who are unmarried:

Among adults who have never been married, 58% say they would like to get married someday and 27% are not sure if they want to get married. Still, 14% say they do not want to get married.

Even those who want to get married offer various reasons why they are not yet married. Pew Research notes:

Among adults who have never been married but say they are open to marrying in the future, about six-in-ten (59%) say that a major reason they are not married is that they haven’t found the right person. . . . About four-in-ten never-married adults (41%) who say they may want to marry in the future say that not being financially stable is a major reason they are not currently married, and 28% point to this as a minor reason. Fewer – but still a substantial share – say that a major (24%) or minor (30%) reason they are not married is that they aren’t ready to settle down.

ft_17-09-14_marriage_mostnevermarriedThe growing population of unmarried individuals in the United States has significant implications for the church, and it would behoove us to take note of both the positive and negative impact.

Positive Impact

There are several potential positive benefits that unmarried individuals bring to the life of the church. Here I will highlight two of them.

  1. Unmarried individuals have more time to devote to the work of the Lord. The Apostle Paul gave great encouragement to those who were unmarried in the church at Corinth. He said, “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Paul knew that unmarried individuals could focus more time on serving the Kingdom of God because their attention was not (rightfully) drawn to serve a spouse. Churches should not lose sight of this. There is an entire population of unmarried people in the church who can provide a great work of ministry while undistracted by the concerns of marriage.
  2. Unmarried individuals can move more quickly in fast-paced ministry settings. Both Texas and Florida were recently hit by devastating hurricanes. Calls went out form disaster relief organizations all over the country to provide supplies and volunteers to meet immediate needs. In many cases, unmarried individuals (particularly in my church) were some of the first to volunteer because they are able to act more quickly in these circumstances. Without the obligations of caring for a spouse or children, they can respond and serve when immediate needs arise that demand quick attention. Thus, churches would be well-served to cultivate this ministry mindset among the unmarried believers in their fellowship.

Negative Impact

As with the positive impact, there are potentially several negative consequences of a growing unmarried population in the church, but these two demonstrate some of the issues the church must address.

  1. Cohabitation rates are growing. One reason for a decrease in marriage rates and an increase in the median age of first marriage is that cohabitation rates have increased steadily over the last thirty years. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research (NCFMR) notes, “The percentage of women who have ever cohabited nearly doubled between 1987 and 2013. In 1987, one-third of women (aged 19-44) had ever cohabited, and in 2013, nearly two-thirds (64%) of women had cohabitation experience.” As I noted in a post earlier this year, the church is not immune to the problem of cohabitation. As more people cohabit, churches will be forced to address issues of church membership and discipline in a culture that is more accepting of cohabitation. And it is not simply the young about whom we must be concerned. NCFMR reports that the number of cohabiting older adults tripled between 2000 and 2014. In many cases these cohabiters are widows and widowers who choose to cohabit rather than remarry in order to avoid losing Social Security or pension benefits.
  2. Out-of-wedlock birth rates are growing. Just because people are waiting longer to get married or not marrying at all does not mean that there are no children being born. The National Center for Health Statistics notes that “the percentage of all births to unmarried women was 40.2% in 2014.” This means that 4 out of every 10 children in the United States are born to unwed mothers. CNN states that a third of women who give birth in a given year are not married. These are the children who will be coming through the children and youth ministries of our churches. In many cases, they will not have a father in their lives. Thus, the church will be called upon to fill in the gap for these children who do not have both mother and father.

Conclusion

There is no reason to fear the growing population of unmarried adults in our midst. But we cannot ignore them either. The church needs to minister to them and allow them to minister as a valuable part of the body of believers.

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U.S. Census Bureau, “Facts for Features: Unmarried and Single Americans Week: Sept. 17-23, 2017,” 14 August 2017.

Kim Parker and Renee Stepler, “As U.S. marriage rate hovers at 50%, education gap in marital status widens,” Pew Research Center, 14 September 2017.

U.S. Census Bureau, “Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1890 to the Present,” November 2016.

P. Hemez and W. D. Manning, “Over twenty-five years of change in cohabitation experience in the U.S., 1987-2013,” Family Profiles, FP-17-02, National Center for Family & Marriage Research (2017).

P. Hemez and S. L. Brown, “Cohabitation in middle and later life,” Family Profiles, FP-16-20, National Center for Family & Marriage Research (2016).

National Center for Health Statistics, “Births: Final Data for 2014,” National Vital Statistics Reports 64 (2015).

Stephanie Coontz, “How unmarried Americans are changing everything,” CNN.com, 21 September 2017.