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Not All Things are Beneficial

Today we welcome guest-blogger, Josh Bode. Josh is minister of the Woodstock Reformed Church, in Woodstock, New York.

What happens when we think about the recent Hobby Lobby decision of Supreme Court from a Christian theological perspective?  Not first from a legal or economic perspective, but from a theological perspective?  I believe my reflections are in the same ballpark as Scott Hoezee’s recent post here on The Twelve.

Let’s grant that limited liability joint stock corporations (closely held or not) can go by the term “person” as defined by law.  I get that there are good reasons in the eyes of the law and the market why corporations should be seen as something like persons.  But for theological and biblical reasons I don’t like it.  It misleads Christians to call them persons.  Let’s also grant that limited liability joint stock corporations (closely held or not) can have “rights” as recognized by law.  I get that there are good reasons in the eyes of the law and market why corporations should be recognized as having something like rights, if not rights themselves.  But for theological and biblical reasons I don’t like it, since this too misleads Christians. 

Thinking theologically first rather than legally or economically raises some troubling considerations for Christians with respect to the court’s decision.  Even more it raises questions about the style, spirit, and tactics of Hobby Lobby’s owners, and so often of American Christians.  I am thinking of Paul’s claim that “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial” (I Corinthians 6:12).  We Christians can legally form limited liability joint stock corporations and avail ourselves of the benefits and protections thereby provided, but should we avail ourselves of all the protections?  Specifically, should Christians want to add religious liberty to the list of rights legally granted to corporations?  Whether or not it’s intelligible for corporations to have religious liberty, I question whether it is beneficial for the church in the American context.

The trouble comes when Christians form joint stock corporations (closely held or not) for legal and economic reasons and then also seek to benefit from all the limited liability aspects.  (Even though I am a minister and churches also so benefit, I admit to having moral qualms about that arrangement.)  If the government tells you to do something and you want to take a contrary stand for reasons of faith, as Christians who follow a crucified Lord, why not accept the cost for your stand?  Why try to get the law changed through the courts, where we’re made to speak the language of the law?  The concern here is that speaking the language of the law confuses Christians into thinking that it is our first language.  Why not choose the tactic of disobedience, accept the consequences, and pursue a moral case in the public square?  Why shelter behind the legal creature called a “corporation” which happens to provide certain protections?  Why would Christians want to seek those protections?  Why shift the financial burden of your faith-based stand onto others?  It may be lawful, but can we make sense of it from a theological perspective? 

I am not unaware of the worthy argument that we ought to seek not to sin, or to help others sin. But even beyond the fact that we’re always bound to pick and choose which sins we oppose, I can’t help but think that there are deeper theological truths that should come before sincere and righteous concern about sin.  There are deeper theological truths that should come before liberty.  Religious liberty is of course extremely important—maybe it’s even the root of all other liberties—but we Christians think liberty only works when it comes second to responsibility. 

Luke Bretherton argues that hospitality, not liberty, should frame Christians’ relationship to non-Christians in the public square.  He sees the cross and subsequent exaltation of Jesus as the pattern for Christian public engagement.  For Jesus, true freedom came after his submission to crucifixion, and through it.  The Supreme Court can’t reason that way, but Christians can.

Ultimately, I guess I don’t get why Christians would want to fight the culture wars.  I am so tired of the style, spirit, and tactics with which so many Christians engage in the culture wars.  The redoubtable Christian legal scholar Robert P. George ends his analysis of the Hobby Lobby case with a rallying cry:
     Friends of religious freedom must respond swiftly and strongly to the claims and political
     machinations of    their adversaries.  We must wield the sword of truth against the falsehoods
     and gross exaggerations that will become the currency of the other side’s attacks.  Without
     resorting to their tactics, we must match their intensity and determination.  Key elements
     of our religious freedom hang in the balance.

The cross speaks to power and privilege even before it speaks to freedom.  In the American context, where lots of Christians have great power and privilege, I wish we paid better attention to the theology of the cross.  I get worried when people of great privilege—in this case, it happens to be wealthy, white American Christians—feel their rights hang in the balance.  When people of power feel put upon, I get scared.  And when those people of power are Christians, I worry for the American church.  When Christians of power and privilege start wielding the sword of truth, I wish we’d consider that the sword of which Jesus spoke, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, was the cross.


Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

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