Hobby Lobby was big news last summer. In June, the United States Supreme Court decided Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, one of the most anticipated decisions of the Court in recent years.
Through regulations under Obamacare, the US Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) had mandated that businesses provide its employees insurance coverage for contraceptives, including those that induced abortions. The question before the Court was whether HHS could demand that a family-owned business (like Hobby Lobby) provide abortion-inducing contraceptives in violation of the family’s religious convictions. The 5-4 decision of the Court was that the HHS demand violated federal law. The case was everywhere in the media last summer, and people on both sides of the issue believe that it was an important case about fundamental rights.
In important cases, “friends of the court” (who are not parties in the case) often file legal briefs in support of one side or the other. These briefs, called “amicus briefs,” are submitted by groups, individuals, and scholars who care about the outcome of the case, even though they are not part of the case. Eighty-four amicus briefs were filed in the Hobby Lobby case.
A friend asked me if I would be willing to play a small role in drafting an amicus brief, outlining some arguments in support of Hobby Lobby. It was a unique brief, filed on behalf of a mix of Protestant theologians and pastors, detailing a Christian perspective on vocation and ordinary work. The hope was that it would show the Court that Christian business owners see themselves as serving God and their neighbors in the running of their business. The point was that the Hobby Lobby owners ought to be free to exercise their religious convictions, even in the context of a profit-making enterprise, and that orthodox Christian doctrine supports this position.
I was thrilled to help. Working on the brief provided me the opportunity to engage, all at once, in an amazing and serendipitous mixture of the animating worldview issues that have driven my own calling for most of my adult life.
Finding My Reason
As a law student at the University of Texas School of Law many years ago, I often found myself sitting in class, wondering, “Is this all that there is to say about this area of the law, or is there more to it?” or “Does God have something to say that I’m not hearing here?” As I entered law practice, there were actually more questions and only a few answers. I found that I had less time as a practicing lawyer than I did even as a busy law student to stop and consider the voices in legal and Church history that have spoken to Christian views on law, jurisprudence, and legal institutions. It was more difficult than I had imagined to think well and faithfully about the law in the midst of a busy law practice.
So when the Lord presented the opportunity for me to teach at Regent University, a Christian law school, I jumped at the chance. I suddenly had a job where I could help students think Christianly about the law and law practice, and continue my own exploration of God’s purposes in human law and legal institutions. It is an exploration that continues to this day – an exploration that has served as the foundation of most everything I do in my professional life. In that work, I found my reason.
In my eighth year on the Regent law faculty, I developed a project aimed at serving students at law schools around the country. The goal was to create a resource center that would address foundational questions for Christian lawyers and law students. “What is human law for?” “What does God think about corporations?” “Should a Christian even be a lawyer?” Eventually, this project was funded in part by the Christian Legal Society, where I eventually became a staff member as part of my work with Regent Law School. Less than a year later, I joined the faculty of Worldview Academy on my continuing journey of exploration of what God might have to say about law. I had found my reason: helping high school, college, and law students around the country navigate the waters in which I had floundered not so many years earlier.
Not surprisingly, the foundation of much of my work is based on the question of Christian vocation: how can ordinary work, like law practice, be a “vocation” – a “calling” – from God, and what does it mean to be “called” as a worker?
5 Must-Read Books on Vocation
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Our calling—as human beings and lawyers, doctors, and plumbers—is lived out in response to the two great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbors. In the words of Os Guinness,
Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something . . . .
Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or the practice of law or to art history.
We might say that our primary calling—the call to Him—is the center of the “great and first commandment.” Our secondary calling—to the practice of law or art history—involves our response to the second great commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our ordinary work is one of the primary vehicles through which God loves our neighbors. As Gene Veith points out, “God does not need our works, but our neighbor does.”
There are numerous and varied “secondary” callings. Some are called by God to be a wife or a husband, a son or daughter, a citizen, an employer, or an employee. And most of us are also called to particular “good works” through our ordinary work, like law practice, cabinet making, or selling craft and hobby supplies.
Which brings us back to Hobby Lobby.
Doing “Religious Stuff”
As part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) had mandated that employers purchase birth control for employees. Some of these birth control methods worked by inducing abortions. Companies like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties (also a party in the case) objected to the mandate, and many such companies asked HHS to come up with exceptions to the mandate based on a religious belief that it would be wrong to purchase such items, even for someone else’s use. While HHS did eventually include an exemption for some churches, there was no exemption for religious organizations, and nothing close to an exception for a for-profit business.
So can the government require that a business purchase abortifacients for its employees in violation of the owners’ religious convictions? In short, do business owners have religious freedom in the way they run their companies? This is no small question.
They exist to make money, and that surely doesn’t have anything to do with exercising religion. Does it?
It’s easy to see why a church or religious group should be exempt from government demands that conflict with their religion. After all, that’s what they’re in existence for—to do religious stuff. But businesses are “secular,” right? They exist to make money, and that surely doesn’t have anything to do with exercising religion. Does it?
It seems to me that God chooses to use the work of our hands as instruments of his grace in a variety of places, including our churches and our homes and our schools and our workplaces. It appears that He makes no distinction between “sacred” and “secular” works, at least with regard to our duty to submit those works to Him. And that’s what the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties thought, too. They, as business owners, actually believe that their companies exist as tools to love and serve their neighbors as tangible expressions of their own faith in God.
A “Vocation Brief”
The “Protestant Theologians brief” was filed to show that this position was sound Christian doctrine. After laying a foundation that Christian doctrine holds “that faith governs every aspect of a Christian’s life,” the brief went on to detail some important elements of the Christian doctrine of vocation.
First, the Christian view of vocation encompasses both overtly sacred and seemingly secular occupations. Work is divinely ordained and prescribed by God—God is a worker and He created us to work, so, “When you handle the Plough, or Handle the Axe, or use either Nerves or Brain in your Occupation, and whatsoever ye do, you may do all for the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Second, Christian doctrine teaches that Christians are called by God to specific occupations and activities. The brief points out that the “specificity of calling was a theme of the Protestant reformers. Martin Luther taught that every Christian had at least two vocations or callings: ‘the call to become part of the people of God’ and ‘the call to a particular line of work.’”
Third, the doctrine of vocation requires that Christians act in their work in accordance with their beliefs. In fact, the calling to ordinary work is a primary means by which God’s people love their neighbors. In short, God Himself does much of His loving work in the world through His people in their vocations.
It was Jesus, after all, who taught us that our “daily bread” comes from our Father in heaven. Yet I get my bread from Sunbeam, via Walmart or Kroger. So God’s grace provides, but He uses farmers and bakers and grocers, among others, to minister that grace to me.
This is profoundly good news: God is at work in the world, and no matter how insignificant our work may be in the world’s estimation, it is profoundly important when submitted to Christ. Jesus is King, and we are at work in His Kingdom.
My work on the Protestant Theologians amicus brief was a very small part of the real work on that brief. Very good and very smart lawyers from the Nelson, Mullins law firm did all the hard drafting, and many contributors, more accomplished than I, wrote lengthy sections and edited my few paragraphs. In the end, only a handful of sentences were really my work. Yet it was a pleasure to be a part of the team and the process, and in the end, of course, the court decided that the HHS mandate was a burden on the business owners’ exercise of religion.
This is profoundly good news: God is at work in the world…
Buy Mike Schutt’s book on vocation.
What exited me about this tiny role in the Hobby Lobby case was the chance to proclaim the good news that Jesus is King over all—our businesses, our money, and our families – not just our churches and charities. And we did just that in our brief.
After all, this is what should excite all of us about the everyday tasks of everyday life. The beautiful thing about being part of that brief was not that I was able to use my legal skills to “fight for religious freedom”—something for which I rarely use my training. No, the beautiful thing is that God uses us—with our unique mixtures of talents, gifts, experiences, resources, and relationships—as a small part of a bigger team for part of a bigger purpose: to love and serve our neighbors, that they may flourish in this world and in Christ’s kingdom.