Theology and the Courts

by Jackson Watts

Recently the United States Supreme Court handed down several rulings on cases heard during their most recent term. This was nothing extraordinary. Typically during the summer months Americans hear from the highest court in the land—sometimes prompting relief, and other times bewilderment. Nevertheless, this is part of our unique civil experience.

Many Christians concerned with religious liberty were especially interested in one recent decision: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. By now, most readers will be aware that at the heart of this case was the refusal of several privately-owned, closely-held companies to provide the comprehensive contraceptive coverage as required by the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as “Obamacare”). Specifically, these business-owners, driven by their religious convictions, argued they had legal grounds to refuse to pay for contraceptive devices or medications which were believed to be abortifacient (abortion-inducing). In a narrow 5-4 decision, the Court agreed with them.

The reactions to this decision have been nothing short of astounding. Reihan Salan of National Review and Fred Clark of Patheos both have articles here and here, respectively, which survey the range of responses to the Court’s decision. Naturally, anything that smells of the culture wars, and more specifically health care policy, will summon everyone from their respective corners of the ring.

Christians should take interest in such political moments for several reasons, though here I will highlight only two. First, this case concerns religious liberty and matters of the conscience. Second, the multi-faceted nature of this case reveals something deeper about the nature of theology and its relationship to politics.

Concern for the Conscience

The Scriptures caution us in numerous places to never use our freedom in Christ (often called “rights”) as a means to do evil, or trample over our Christian brethren (Acts 16:3). Depending on the context of these commands, sometimes they are aimed toward facilitating the relationships among Jews and Gentiles, while in other places they appear to relate more generally to Christian faithfulness in a fallen world (1 Pt. 2:16).

On the other hand, we find the apostle Paul appealing in several instances to his rights as a Roman citizen, apparently in order to advance his evangelistic ministry before the rulers of his day (Acts 26:32). Is there a conflict between rights and responsibilities? A complex relationship exists between these two, both in terms of civil life and Christian ministry. In short, however, I think Russell Moore is correct when he says that religious freedom is a good thing for everyone:

The ruling isn’t just a win for evangelicals, like the Southern Baptist Greens [owners of Hobby Lobby]. It’s a win for everyone…A government that can pave over the consciences of the Greens can steamroll over any dissent anywhere. Whether you agree or disagree with us about abortion, every American should want to see a government that is not powerful enough to set itself up as a god over the conscience [1].

While this argument will not be an obvious one to many secularists who find their own views (read religion) enshrined in government policy and leadership, the principle itself is worth some sustained attention. Christians take an interest in such cases because it reminds them that their faith is never truly a private matter. Thus, it will occasionally—and perhaps more frequently—bring them into conflict with the spirit of the age as it is manifested in public policy.

Politics as Theology

One of the challenges for the church and even ministries such as that of the Commission for Theological Integrity, is to adopt a sound framework of theological judgment. This entails the faithful instruction of biblical doctrine and the capable defense of that same doctrine. In many respects, Free Will Baptists have done these effectively compared with other Protestant denominations.

However, there is a lingering challenge reflected in the way we speak about theology. Because formal theological instruction has primarily been given through the discipline of Systematic Theology, this has had the tendency to truncate theology by reducing it to an outline of propositions Christians should affirm. We should quickly point out that Systematic Theology need not be approached in this way. Leroy Forlines, for example, has shown how ethics, counseling, preaching, and worldview analysis can be theologically-driven. It is unfortunate, then, that so many reduce theology to doctrinal affirmations. This leaves churchly practices like evangelism and worship, or even civil concerns like politics or economics, substantially uninformed by a decidedly theological perspective.

The Hobby Lobby case is an excellent example of how a full-orbed theology can help us exercise discernment. This case raises a host of profound questions: “Do corporations, that is, groups of people in business together, have religious liberty?” “Does concern for the reproductive rights of my neighbor require me to curtail my moral convictions?” “Does some of Hobby Lobby’s other business practices potentially expose them to charges of moral hypocrisy, or are those separate questions?” “In what ways do providing financial resources implicate one in the decisions of the recipient of those resources?” The list of questions could easily be continued.

When we consider these kinds of questions, we are forced to think deeply about several issues. We cannot resolve such questions by simply reviewing the Bill of Rights. We have to decide on what it means to be a moral agent. We must determine if going into business necessarily requires moral compromise. What does love of neighbor obligate one to in the realm of employment?

Some of these topics are traditionally addressed in moral philosophy (ethics). But historically one will find Christians—often ones we consider “theologians”—dealing with such issues. This is a helpful reminder that the courts, and the idea of government in general, are far more theological than we could ever imagine [2].


[1] Russell D. Moore, “Why Hobby Lobby Matters,” accessed on 15 July 2014.

[2] The work of Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan in Desire of the Nations and The Ways of Judgment has informed my thinking on this subject.

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