Church

Debt and the Seminarian

student-loan-debtEvery spring semester I have the opportunity to speak to our Spiritual Formation students (mostly first-year master’s students) about stewardship. In that discussion, I explain to them that stewardship is about managing resources that belong to someone else. From a spiritual standpoint, God owns everything, and he has entrusted some of those resources—money, time, talents, etc.—to us to use for his Kingdom. Although I attempt to reinforce to my students that stewardship involves much more than money, I spend a significant amount of time talking to them about money and specifically the impact of debt on the ministry. For some of these students, it is the first time they have ever been confronted with how debt could impact their future.

I was reminded of this today as I read a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about student loan debt repayment. Here are some highlights:

  • “Many more students have defaulted on or failed to pay back their college loans than the U.S. government previously believed.”
  • “The new analysis shows that at more than 1,000 colleges and trade schools, or about a quarter of the total, at least half the students had defaulted or failed to pay down at least $1 on their debt within seven years.”
  • “No college saw its repayment rate improve under the revision, and some schools saw their seven-year repayment rates fall by as much as 29 percentage points.”[1]

In my experience teaching stewardship and working in financial aid in the seminary setting, student loan debt is one of the most crushing debts that seminarians face. While my seminary does not participate in any federal loan programs, many students still enter seminary carrying debt from their undergraduate programs. A recent study reported that 68% of graduates from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 had student loan debt. The average amount of debt per borrower was over $30,000.[2]

If a seminary student enters with this level of debt, he is most likely to defer that loan until he completes 3-4 years of seminary. Over that time, that loan will have accrued interest, and it is possible that he may have even taken on further debt in the form of credit cards, vehicle loans, or medical expenses. Once he graduates from seminary, he may be in debt well over $40,000.

Now let’s couple that debt with a relatively low wage for pastors when compared to careers with similar education levels. According to LifeWay, the average full-time senior pastor of a Southern Baptist church with 75-99 in attendance is $46,981 per year.[3] For the typical seminary student, a salary over $40,000 may sound fantastic. But we have to remember that ordained ministers are considered self-employed by the IRS, so nearly 15% of that salary will be allocated for self-employment taxes (approximately $7,000). Then, the typical seminary student living on campus does not pay market rates for housing, so his overall housing expense goes up. Compound that with other expenses of moving and setting up a home, and the typical seminarian may find it difficult to make payments on his student loans. Then he will become one of the statistics mentioned in the WSJ article.

Helping students avoid the traps of bad debt is one of the goals in my Family and Church Financial Stewardship class at Southwestern Seminary. I don’t want students to question whether or not they can “afford” to accept a call to a church. I want them to be free to go where God calls them because they have been wise stewards of God’s money that he has entrusted to them.

In Proverbs 22:7 we read, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” I want my students avoid the slavery of debt and to serve God without the albatross of debt hanging around their necks.

If you’re a student at SWBTS, it’s not too late to sign up. The class meets on Mondays at noon, and I’d love to see you there.

[1] Andrea Fuller, “Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than Believed,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2017.

[2]Project on Student Debt,” The Institute for College Access & Success, 2016.

[3]Compensation by Average Attendance of Church: Senior Pastor Full-Time,” LifeWay, 2016.

Interview with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Back in November I had the privilege of sitting down with Scott Corbin from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) for an interview. The interview is now available as part of the CBMW podcast series.

Over the course of about 20 minutes, we covered topics ranging from why I chose to study and teach ethics, the nature of marriage, the place of friendship, and the work of the church.If you endure to the end, you can even here a quick synopsis of the paper I presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (aka, my nerd convention) about third-party gamete donation in assisted reproductive technology. Is the use of donor sperm and/or eggs adultery? Listen to find out what I concluded.

You can listen to the interview at the CBMW website or download it here.

The Threat to Religious Liberty from Inside the Church

prayerEven in our truncated news cycle where this hour’s breaking news is yesterday’s story in a matter of minutes, the issue of religious liberty has maintained a lingering presence in the American consciousness for most of the last few months. From the rhetorical flourishes of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision and dissents to the jailing and release of a county clerk in rural Kentucky for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, much has been made of this “first freedom.” While we typically think of threats to religious liberty coming from an increasingly secular culture, the most dangerous threats actually originate from within the church.

The first threat to religious liberty from inside the church is ignorance. Like many Christians, I have found myself struggling to articulate a biblical basis for this freedom. There is no passage of Scripture to which we can turn and read, “Thou shalt not infringe upon the religious liberty of your fellow citizens.”

What should we do, then? Should we dismiss religious liberty as an American invention that conveniently serves those of us who sometimes find ourselves outside of the mainstream culture? This should not be the case if we remind ourselves of the historical and biblical basis for this freedom and overcome the ignorance that threatens to undermine it.

The Anabaptists cited several texts of Scripture to support their claims for religious liberty. Matthew 13:24–30 is Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. In this parable, we see that an enemy has sown bad seed amongst the field of wheat. Rather than pulling up the tares and risk destroying some of the wheat, the farmer tells his slaves to allow the wheat and tares to grow up together. It is at the time of the harvest that the tares will be thrown into the fire and the wheat will be stored in the barn. For the Anabaptists, this was evidence that there would be people who would arise in the community and even the church that were sown by the enemy. These are heretics and heathens who do not belong but are allowed to remain so that the true believers will not be harmed by their removal. This does not mean that believers neglect to share the Gospel with these individuals, but that the true judgment is left up to God. It is not the job of the government to judge and remove these people for their unbelief. God will judge them, and His judgment is final.

We also see the biblical foundation for religious liberty in the government’s role of ensuring civil peace, not doctrinal purity. This particular teaching can be found in Romans 13:1–7. Notice some key concepts about government that we see in this passage. First, government is ordained by God. It is God who has given government its authority. It does not have any authority that He has not given it. Second, we are to submit to the government’s authority because we submit to God. Refusing to submit is to oppose the ordinance of God. Third, government functions within the scope of authority God has granted it. The government is a minister of God for those who do what is good. It exacts punishment on those who do what is evil. This is not a theological function but a civil one. Its role is to keep peace and restore order when that peace is violated.

The final biblical foundation for religious liberty we want to consider is that we have the right to persuade others of the Gospel. In Acts 18:12–17, we see that Paul is brought before Gallio and accused of disturbing the peace in Corinth. Notice the specific charge: he is accused of persuading people to worship God in a way contrary to the law. Before Paul can even defend himself, Gallio dismisses the case. He is not concerned with Jewish laws or customs of worship. Paul is free to do as he pleases, persuading men to follow Christ. The Jews exact their revenge on Sosthenes, but the government official is unconcerned about the religious dispute that is brought before him. In the very next chapter, Paul spends months in Ephesus speaking out boldly, reasoning, and persuading people to follow Christ. When he can no longer do so in the synagogue, he moves to a public forum. Over and over, we see the apostles reasoning and persuading men to follow Christ. No one is coerced to confess Christ on threat of his/her life or livelihood. People are free to accept or reject Him.

These biblical principles set a foundation on which we build the idea of religious liberty. Implicit in the text of Scripture is the idea that government has a specific function. It cannot tell people what they are to believe about God. At the same time, the church does not have the authority to use force in converting unbelievers. Therefore, both heathen and believers coexist in this world until the day of God’s judgment. It is our duty to warn, exhort and persuade these unbelievers with the Gospel, but we cannot force conversion upon them.

The second threat to religious liberty originating inside the church is arrogance. This is the idea that Christianity (and particularly conservative, evangelical varieties) is guaranteed protection while all other forms of religion are not worthy of protection against unwarranted government intrusion or restrictions. This attitude stems from an arrogance that has been developed since the days when proto-evangelicals, and Baptists in particular, were not the favored denomination.

Recent examples of this threat have been seen as some Christian leaders have attempted to block the building of houses of worship and cemeteries by religious groups that do not garner the political favor of the citizens in those locales. The fear in some of these cases is that a particular religious group will gain a majority in the government and begin to restrict the liberties of others. As long as the liberty being granted does not infringe upon the liberty of other religious groups, then such restrictions can only be classified as arbitrary. Any attempt to have a government entity impose arbitrary restrictions against a religious group that happens to find itself out of favor with mainstream citizens at this time will result in restrictions against our own religious preferences in the future.

If this type of arrogance is not corrected, then we as evangelicals—and Baptists in particular—will face the consequences of our own arrogance. The tables will turn when our religious preferences are not the preferences of the culture. In fact, that has already begun to happen. However, when we appeal to religious liberty claims to protect our own consciences, our appeals will ring hollow because we fought for discrimination against others when their time had come. This may actually be the most significant challenge to religious liberty in our day, and we are the source of that challenge.

Should we be concerned about the infringement of religious liberty from a secular government and culture? Certainly. But we also need to address the threats to religious liberty coming from our own camp—inside the church. This is a battle on two fronts. We must be prepared to stand for religious liberty both inside and outside the church.

*This post originally appeared at Theological Matters, the blog of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Facilities Policies: Changing Your Church’s Constitution and By-Laws

wedding ringsThis is the fourth installment of a multi-part series addressing why churches need to consider updating their organizational documents. The series is written in conjunction with Waylan Owens. This post is Part 4 and was written by Dr. Owens, originally appearing here. For the first three parts are “There’s No Time Like the Present,” “We Believe…,” and “Wedding Policies.”

Many years ago, I (Waylan) attended my first wedding in a Roman Catholic church. Though not my first visit to a Catholic church, the wedding has lasted in my memory and still forms one of the bases of my experiential understanding of Catholicism.

When I pass by church buildings, I look for a sign. Then I think to myself, “That is a Baptist church” (or a Methodist church or a Catholic church, according to the message on the sign). Now I know that no denomination believes that its buildings are the church. Yet when I see a building or walk inside, I still think to myself, “So this is ‘Such and Such’ Church.”

And I attribute to that church whatever I see happening in and around the buildings. If I know that the Boy Scouts meet in the church buildings, I assume the church endorses the Boy Scouts. If I see the buildings used for the feeding of the homeless, I assume the church is benevolent, even though none of the members might participate in the ministry. If I see a wedding involving a couple of two men or two women, I do not think, “Oh, someone must have borrowed the building.” I think, “This church must approve of homosexual marriage.”

I am not unusual in this regard. This is a normal way of thinking for people, and for most non-members, the buildings of a church are the most consistent witness of the church. Because of this, it is vital for churches both to have policies for the use of its facilities and to be intentional in keeping them.

The Alliance Defending Freedom observes, “Put simply, a church has a right to only allow uses of its facilities that are consistent with its religious beliefs and to deny all other uses.” Notice that the key is that the facilities are used in ways that are consistent with religious beliefs only. ADF continues, “The best way to protect your church is to adopt a facility usage policy that outlines the religious nature of the church buildings and restricts usage of the facility to uses that are consistent with the church’s biblical beliefs.”[1]

To protect their witness and to simplify things, some churches have held to a policy that only church members may use church facilities. However, what happens when a church member, perhaps one on the church’s membership list but who has not attended church in years, decides to use the church facilities for events outside the church’s beliefs or in ways inconsistent with the church’s witness? What if an active member accesses the hall on behalf of someone else, a friend or a relative, who then uses it in such ways? Does every church member agree with every position of the church, or could a member who disagrees on some point knowingly use the facilities in ways of which the church body would not approve?

These questions and others beckon local churches to state clear facilities policies in writing. From our vantage point, we believe facilities policies should focus on, at least, four points:

  1. Church facilities have been dedicated to God and are to be used in concert with, and not outside of, the teachings and truths of His Word and His Great Commission as understood by the church.
  2. Church facilities give witness to the community of the church’s priorities, biblical beliefs, and moral standards, so no activities or use of the facilities should occur that are in any way contrary to the church’s biblical beliefs and standards.
  3. Church facilities are owned by the church and are not public accommodations and, therefore, give no implied right to anyone, including church members, to use except by express permission of the church.
  4. The authority to grant use of the facilities is vested in one group or committee. This group could consist of three to five of the most mature and trustworthy members who agree with and have a history of adhering to the church’s beliefs and moral standards. A church might allow one person to make these decisions, but this is a great responsibility that requires wisdom and accountability to the church. A church might set the congregation as the decision-maker, but this could be quite cumbersome, and it could keep the congregation’s focus off other urgent matters like the Great Commission.

A thorough facilities policy is a practical benefit, but given recent court rulings, a policy might become more of a legal necessity, it seems. We are not attorneys and are not giving legal advice, but one does not require legal training to see one important change in the legal landscape.

At least two Christian businesses, a bakery and a florist, have come under fire, including a court ruling against the bakery, for refusing use their creative talents to help put on gay weddings. (See here and here.) These things are happening first in states with anti-discrimination laws based upon sex or gender, and though such laws often have exclusions for churches, these efforts by homosexual advocacy groups are likely not to remain confined. Churches could fall under this sort of attack, especially if the church gives permission for use of its facilities in ways that are deemed to be arbitrary. And though the church might win, lawsuits can be costly in many ways. Many churches receive requests for the use of their facilities, and we believe the best way to protect the church’s witness is to enforce consistently a clear policy that is in line with its belief statements.

[1] ADF provides helpful information and a sample facilities use policy: http://www.speakupmovement.org/church/content/userfiles/Resources/ThreePoliciesAllChurchesShouldHave.pdf

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Disclaimer: This series of posts is not intended to provide legal advice regarding church law, membership issues, or lawsuits. While the posts have implications for potential legal matters, we suggest you consult an attorney for answers to any legal questions related to the subject matter of these posts.

Wedding Policies: Changing Your Church Constitution and By-Laws

wedding ringsThis is the third installment of a multi-part series addressing why churches need to consider updating their organizational documents. The series is written in conjunction with Waylan Owens. This post is Part 3 and was written by Dr. Owens, originally appearing here. For the first two parts are “There’s No Time Like the Present” and “We Believe…

Churches long have understood that not everything that is legal is acceptable in Scriptures or in the church. (e.g., see Exodus 20:7-12; Ephesians 4:25-31) Though adultery is legal in America today, few churches openly tolerate it among its membership.

American legislation long since left the Ten Commandments behind. Of the ten, one is selectively enforced—bearing false witness—and only two are normally illegal—stealing and murder.

The time has passed in which the church could assume that everyone in a community would understand, much less accept, its standards. The time is now for churches to spell out their beliefs and how those beliefs apply to the life and standards of the church clearly in by-laws and policies. And establishing current policies on weddings and wedding-related events is an important place to start.

Five Areas

In its wedding policies, we believe each church should speak to, at least, the following five areas:

  1. Biblical and Theological Understanding of Marriage
  2. Biblically Valid Marriage/Wedding
  3. Member/Minister Participation in Weddings
  4. Use of Church Facilities for Weddings and Wedding Receptions
  5. Church Discipline

In this series, the second post laid foundations for areas 1 and 2. This post will address areas 2 and 3, and subsequent posts will provide help with areas 4 and 5.

Two Keys

Upon two keys hinge the entire wedding policies of the church. The first key is to what degree pastors, employees, and members of a church may participate in weddings, particularly in weddings the church considers to be outside the realm of biblically valid marriage. The second key is to what degree church facilities may be used to host or in connection with weddings. In this post, we will focus upon the first key.

Churches generally have given pastors great latitude in deciding which weddings to perform and under what circumstances. While that has worked well in the past, we believe that this is becoming a dangerous practice for churches for at least two reasons. First, the church should protect the pastor who should not be left out on an island of shifting cultural and legal sands. Having clear statements and standards tightly affixed to God’s Word allows the church to take pressure off and to stand beside the pastor. Second, as churches come under review of the courts, inconsistency in the treatment of requests might make it more difficult for churches to defend denials.

Worship Services

Weddings, for Christians, are worship services. Even for the non-Christian, a wedding in the church has all the earmarks of a worship service: prayer, Scripture, music, sermon/homily, and commitment, everything but an offering.

Prerequisites

Therefore, we believe wedding policies, at a minimum, should answer the following questions related to prerequisites for a pastor, employee, or church member to participate in a wedding ceremony or related event:

  1. What biblical qualifications must the couple meet?
  2. What biblical standards of decorum and behavior must be accepted by those responsible for the wedding and whether those standards apply to any wedding-related reception or party, wherever those events are held?
  3. To what set of biblical beliefs regarding marriage must those requesting a ceremony adhere?

Couple

Marriage by or in the church should demand appropriate humility by the couple and deference to the holiness of matrimony as an institution established and defined by God. In setting qualifications for couples, the church should point directly to its statement on marriage, gender, and sexuality in its constitution and by-laws. Here the church would confirm that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. As can be stated in the by-laws and affirmed here, a biblically valid marriage is one between one man and one woman who: 1) have never been married or are widowed and are not engaging in sexual sin; or 2) who have a biblically valid divorce(s) according to the church’s understanding of the Scriptures as stated in its by-laws. A couple engaging in fornication or living together would be required to repent and to show evidence of repentance prior to the wedding.

Decorum

People attending events in the church facilities will receive a witness from the event. In fact, people who attend a church wedding can consider a reception/”after party” held elsewhere to be representative of the church. The church should protect its witness by establishing parameters of decorum both for the wedding and for any wedding-related events (rehearsals, rehearsal dinner, reception, even “bachelor parties”). These parameters include the sorts of decorations that can be used (Are cupid decorations consistent with the church’s witness?), the behavior of the wedding party (What if the wedding party comes down the aisle doing backflips? Have you seen the video? Or drunk?), the use of alcohol or marijuana or other drugs, dancing, music (Usually music must be approved by a pastor or designated member of the church.), etc. Churches might differ on some matters, but all churches should think on and state what a wedding is and is not.

Statement of Beliefs

The church should develop an abbreviated statement on marriage and weddings that comes directly from and refers to its larger statement. This statement should include key affirmations about marriage and the wedding, including, but not limited to, that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, that a wedding is a worship service, and that a church wedding gives a witness of the church to the community. The statement also should include statements on gender, sexuality, and other beliefs of the church on matters the church deems important to its witness (e.g., the use of alcohol, lewd behavior, coarse jesting and language, etc.). All involved in putting on the wedding should sign that they will adhere to the statement and will do nothing to change the church’s testimony in the community in this regard. (Note that “adhering” to a statement does not require “agreement” with the statement, necessarily.)

The church also should develop a facilities use policy, and we will address that in the next post.

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Disclaimer: This series of posts is not intended to provide legal advice regarding church law, membership issues, or lawsuits. While the posts have implications for potential legal matters, we suggest you consult an attorney for answers to any legal questions related to the subject matter of these posts.