By / Aug 25

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.

By / Feb 26

At this year's ERLC Leadership Summit on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality,” Andrew Walker will be speaking on the threats to biblical marriage in his session “Marriage Matters: Contemporary Threats to Biblical Marriage.” Walker serves are the director for policy studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. 

If you're interested in attending the Summit, go here.

At the ERLC Leadership Summit, you will be speaking on “Marriage Matters: Contemporary Threats to Biblical Marriage”. Why is this an important issue for evangelical churches to consider?

The gospel doesn’t come to us solely as individuals. We’re saved as individuals, of course, but the Christian life is lived out, more often than not, as spouses, so marriage is at the heart of our churches. Discipleship can never be disjointed from the institution that shapes our identity, which marriage necessarily does. I’d wager that our churches are only as strong as the marriage culture that is within them. Where apathy and a refusal to address the hard situtions crop up, we not only sacrifice our gospel witness, but we also catalyze human destruction.

When you think about biblical marriage, what is a key aspect of that issue that churches aren’t addressing adequately? Why is that the case?

The ship has sailed on subjects like same-sex marriage, but one reason it has is because we’ve fostered a “Happily Ever After” view of marriage in our churches. We’ve largely over-emphasized the personal dynamics of marriage and under-emphasized, almost totally, the public dynamic of marriage. Marriage is connected to personal holiness, of course, but it’s also tied to, for example, rates of abuse, neglect, and educational outcomes in our communities. Christians have a great opportunity to cast a larger vision for marriage not only in our churches, but also in our communities.

This conference seeks to apply the gospel to issues related to human sexuality. What are some ways the gospel relates to biblical marriage?

At the center of the universe, there’s a marriage banquet where Christ has prepared the table. From the creational aspects of marriage in Genesis 2, to the gospel-revealing contours of marriage in Ephesians 5, the Scriptures suggest—mysteriously—that marriage makes the gospel intelligible. Where we see faithfulness, long-suffering patience, and servitude in a marital context, the Scriptures announce that a gospel-like witness has occurred.

If evangelical churches transformed the way they handled the subject of biblical marriage, how would it reshape their congregations?

We’d see less divorce and, therefore, less human wreckage. We treat divorce as a spiritual blight—which it is! But in the wake of a divorce, there’s a host of lost relationships and a breakdown in human capital that makes life so much harder. Chiefly, I want to see pastors and congregants confront the breakdown or deterioration of marriage in their own congregation. From there, though, I hope I can cast a vision of marriage that connects the personal aspects of marriage to the public aspects of marriage. 

Register for the Summit here.