Pastors, be aware of subtle threats to religious liberty

August 25, 2015

The summer of 2015 will go down in American history marking the radical cultural transformation our nation is enduring. Just days after the landmark SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, the dominions began to teeter. Two days after the highest court’s ruling, Mark Oppenheimer, the religion columnist for the New York Times, commenced a call to end tax exemptions for churches and non-profits, both secular and religious. Oppenheimer's call was not a shock to religious leaders; from the moment Solicitor General Verrili uttered the words, “It is going to be an issue,” it was easy to see where things are heading.

While the various SCOTUS decisions of 2015 will have a dramatic effect on religious institutions, other more subtle changes are threatening religious liberties. Take, for instance, the Nonprofit Revitalization Act signed into law by New York's Governor Cuomo in December 2013. This piece of legislation intends to correct antiquated nonprofit laws in New York while enhancing governance and oversight of nonprofit corporations. Given the abuses of the past decade in corporate America, this bill passed overwhelmingly in both the New York State House and Senate. Although there is much to be praised in this bill, one major consideration did not seem to come up: How will this legislation affect the local church?

In attempts to guard against corruption, lawmakers included a provision requiring all non-profit boards to be led by a board of trustees chaired by an “Independent Director.” What is an “Independent Director?” One who receives no compensation from the non-profit. The amendment seeks to protect nonprofits from having the board leader serving where there might be a conflict of interest. On the surface, this seems to be a wise and laudable provision; until one considers how this might affect ecclesiological concerns.

With one stroke of the pen, New York State stripped many church pastors of their position as “first among equals” on their elder boards. Because New York State views the “elder board” as synonymous with a “corporate trustee board,” there was no consideration as to how this provision might violate a church’s ecclesiological order. On July 1, 2014, countless churches found themselves in violation of the law of New York State, putting their not-for-profit status in jeopardy.  

I’m a church planter in upstate New York. My church, like other church starts, incorporated with the board of elders acting as the governing body. In accordance with 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, our board consists of qualified elders, called by Jesus, to serve as under-shepherds in the leadership of his church. The elder board serves as an interdependent group, but allows the lead pastor to direct the vision of the board as a first among equals.

The new law of New York State makes it illegal for the lead pastor to serve as the first among equals on the elder boards if that man receives compensation from the church. Subsequently, the new law strips a lead church planter or pastor from exercising their leadership gifts in a formal way. Inadvertently, New York State amended the Scriptures as well as the state's nonprofit laws. Under the state's new interpretation, 1 Timothy 3:3 would read something more like this: “An elder must not be a drunkard, not be violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and also must not receive compensation from the church for his labor.”

It would seem lawmakers never considered the far-reaching implications this legislation would have on a church's right to govern itself based on the Scriptures. Of course, churches are not forced to comply with this legislation, but failure to comply would result in the loss of tax-exempt status. To comply with the law churches can choose to not register as a religious not-for-profit. Was this a goal of the legislation?

While the threat of same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act present a frontal attack on the financial viability of religious non-profits, other more subtle threats are coming from our local municipalities and state legislatures. The laws and ordinances from local and state authorities tend to be passed with religious leaders having little to no awareness of their impact. These lesser-known statutes open the door for violations much less spectacular than whom we do or do not marry—and the outcome will be equally as damaging.

As we prepare to live as an increasingly marginalized class, it will be vital for leaders to stay abreast of lesser-known laws coming from state legislatures across the country. At the pace we are moving, it is likely that the church will be faced with regulations and laws that will radically change the way we structure ourselves sooner rather than later. The landscape is rapidly shifting in North America; no longer can the church live as though it is a privileged class.

Wise leadership must get ahead of the curve and begin preparing for strategies that will allow the church to operate in a hostile post-Christian nation. History has not given the church examples of exile from a nation founded on Christian ethics. Therefore, the days we are entering will truly be uncharted waters. One thing's for sure: The threats coming to the church will come from multiple theaters and will both subtle and far-reaching.

Dan Trippie

After ministering in the Southern US, Dan Trippie returned to his hometown of Buffalo, New York in 2008 to plant Restoration Church. Dan has traveled to seven countries for mission and church saturation endeavors, as his desire is to see gospel-centered churches planted throughout the world, especially in Western New … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24