Thursday, February 23, 2012

Contraception Mandate

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the contraception mandate:

Q:  Why has there been so much opposition among religious leaders about the government’s new mandate concerning insurance coverage for contraception?  Does the Bible say that it is a sin to use birth control?

Most news coverage of this issue has focused on the Roman Catholic Bishops’ public opposition to this mandate.  The particular reason for their opposition is because this policy would require them to provide contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization surgery in their health plans—all of which are forbidden according to Roman Catholic doctrine. 

Even though there is a narrow exemption covering churches themselves, the exemption does not extend to non-church religious employers, such as religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools, colleges, and social service agencies.  This results in a circumstance where many religiously-affiliated employers would be forced to pay for and provide drugs and procedures to which their doctrine and conscience are opposed or face extreme fines and penalties.  Even after the accommodation announced the following week by the administration, which shifts the responsibility of providing the services to the insurer rather than the employer, they argue that the cost of these services would still be paid by employers who self-insure their plans or passed on in their premiums in cases where the organization purchases insurance, thus forcing them to provide for services they consider morally wrong.

This mandate and the previously-mentioned opposition have sometimes been framed as a women’s health issue, but the opposition is not on the grounds of disagreements over the services offered, but rather on the grounds of religious freedom.  The religious leaders opposing this mandate are not asking that the services be made illegal, nor are they asking that other employers and insurers be forbidden from providing them.  Instead, they argue that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment forbids the government from requiring them to provide and pay for services to which they are morally opposed.

There are a great many non-Catholic Christian leaders who have joined the opposition to this mandate.  Their participation is not because of contraception, or even surgical sterilization, because their doctrine does not forbid it, but rather because abortion-inducing drugs, such as the morning-after pill are included in the mandate.  They argue that providing coverage for their employees to receive abortion-inducing drugs amounts to participation in murder according to the teachings of their churches because these drugs are known to cause the death of an already-conceived child.  Since the Bible treats unborn children as persons and speaks of them being already known by God and formed by Him, they consider abortion of any kind to be murder, and many of them have stated that they would be jailed rather than participate in such an act.

Many of the denominations which are opposing this mandate, including my own (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) typically avoid taking stands on political issues.  They refuse to endorse candidates for public office, the denomination and its leaders do not publicly affiliate themselves with any political party, do not have Washington offices or lobbyists, and do not accept federal funding to do their work.

They urge their parishioners to pay their taxes and participate in their civic duty even if the government acts immorally, and they believe in obeying the government, even when one does not like its laws.  At the same time they also believe, according to Acts 5:29, that Christians “must obey God rather than man.”  So, when this mandate was announced, they felt compelled to speak out, because the government was obligating them to materially participate in acts they consider immoral.  Their demand was not that the government obey the Bible, but rather that the government honor the nations commitments embodied in the Constitution by not interfering in their freedom of religion and conscience. 

As to the question of the propriety of birth control in general, the Bible, at all times, considers children to be a blessing to a husband and wife from God, and defends their lives, even while yet unborn, causing the majority of Christians throughout history to insist that aborting them would be murder, including contraceptive methods that could cause already-conceived children to die.  However, it is silent on birth control methods that prevent conception by use of barriers or preventing ovulation, leaving these methods as matters of conscience to be decided between husbands and wives.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wine or Grape Juice

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of wine in the Lord's Supper:

Q:  Why do some churches use wine for Communion and others use grape juice?  What did Jesus use in the first Lord’s Supper and what are the potential consequences if we use something else?  What alternatives does a person have who has been advised not to consume alcohol because of alcoholism or for medical reasons?

When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on the night He was betrayed, He was eating the Passover meal with His disciples.  This fact, along with the words Jesus used, does a great deal to reveal to us what was in the cup that Jesus was using on that evening. 

First, the wine was made from grapes, because Jesus refers to it as “fruit of the vine,” which would exclude wine made from any other fruits.  We also know that grape wine was used in the Passover meal and that the wine was fermented wine. 

In addition to the traditions of the Passover meal, the Greek word used in the Bible for the drink used in the Lord’s Supper specifically means fermented wine.  If it were anything else, the authors would have used a different word or modified the word for “wine” with an additional word to describe the difference. 

Further evidence can be found in that the Passover is celebrated in the Spring.  Because Pasteurization and Refrigeration had not yet been invented, it would only be possible for a person to drink unfermented grape juice immediately during the grape harvest, because within a matter of days, the juice would begin to ferment as a result of the heat and the natural yeasts found on the skin of the grapes.

Throughout history, churches have typically attempted to use the same elements as the original institution to the closest degree possible.  This is because God’s command includes specific elements and His promises are tied to those elements.  While we cannot say whether the wine was red or white, or what grape it was made from, or the particular alcohol content, we do know that it was fermented grape wine. 

For Christians who believe that Jesus body and blood really become present in the Lord’s Supper and that the Lord’s Supper does forgive sins, the consequence of changing the elements is that it has the potential to introduce doubt concerning whether the Sacrament is valid and capable of delivering the blessing God has promised. 

Typically, when grape juice is used exclusively in congregations, it is in congregations with one or both of two teachings as a part of their theology.  The first of these is a belief that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper represent or symbolize Jesus’ body and blood rather than being His body and blood.  As a result of this belief, using grape juice does not present concerns about the Sacrament’s validity for them. 

The second of these is that they have some level of discomfort with the use of alcohol by Christians, sometimes even to the point of considering all alcohol consumption sinful.  Since they cannot reconcile the use of fermented wine with this belief, they resolve the tension by using unfermented grape juice. 

Occasionally, even Sacramental denominations will offer unfermented grape juice as an alternative for those who struggle with alcoholism or have been medically advised not to consume alcohol.  However, in light of other alternatives many pastors are now finding even this concession unnecessary. 

For example, there are a variety of wines available on today’s market which have been fermented in the usual manner, but distilled to 0.5% alcohol content, resulting in a true wine that is virtually without alcohol.  Another option is to use the normal communion wine offered in the congregation, but dilute it with water to the point where the alcohol content is insignificant. 

Many have also found a return to using the chalice (common cup) as an excellent alternative, because the communicant can merely allow the wine to touch their lips rather than consuming the entire contents of an individual cup.  Many alcoholics also report that receiving wine during communion by the pastor’s hand from a common cup is such a different experience from receiving an alcoholic drink by their own hand that it eliminates the temptation to return to their alcoholic behaviors. 

In addition to these practical reasons, since we know that Jesus instituted Lord’s Supper for our benefit, we can have a faithful confidence that God would certainly not allow a Christian to suffer spiritual harm in a Sacrament intended to bless them.