Monthly Archives: February 2014

Discrimination, Religious Liberty, and the Gospel

By Michael Wren

Much has been made over the past few days about Arizona bill 1062, which Governor Jan Brewer vetoed.  That the bill was vetoed was not surprising.  By the time the bill reached the governor’s desk both political parties and numerous major businesses within the state were urging it.  The governor argued, in part, that the bill was worded very broadly and could have led to some unintended consequences.  For the moment neither her reasoning nor her decision to veto the bill concern me.  I am much more concerned about the conversation that has erupted around the bill.

As anyone who has paid attention to the news is aware, many conservatives were urging for the passage of the bill through the legislature in order to defend religious liberty—so that those who disagree with same sex marriage as a matter of religious principle would not be forced to violate their conscience by participating in such a ceremony.  This is an enormously important issue.  Baptists have been at the forefront of religious liberty since the beginning of the Baptist movement in England in the early 1600s.  Early Baptists in the United States were crucial in championing the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the U. S. Constitution.  Religious liberty is essential to a free society and has been a cornerstone of the American experiment.  And as of now, both sides on this issue are striving to maintain the inviolability of religious liberty.

hot doughnuts

Three of my favorite words

Many are perplexed and, honestly, troubled, that conservative Christians would claim that the right to choose not to do business with a gay couple is a matter of religious liberty.  I would argue that, based on the teachings of Scripture, Christians ought not refuse to do business with gay couples in every situation.  In most business ventures, the owner can transact business with his or her customers without any knowledge or approval of the customer’s lifestyle.  If I owned a doughnut shop (which oddly enough would be kind of awesome), I could not in good conscience refuse to sell doughnuts to gay people.  They are created in the image of God, and by God’s common grace they have the opportunity to eat the blessed manna that we call doughnuts just like everyone else.  God does not, in his word, declare that gay people cannot buy, sell, and make a living in this world.  To refuse them service is to make a distinction that God does not make.

But making a cake for their wedding I would consider a different matter, since God explicitly declared that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Doing business in this situation would require participating in a falsehood, and to do so would be unethical.  Thus the freedom to refuse to be a vendor for a gay wedding becomes an issue of religious liberty.

But is this an act of discrimination?  A friend of mine, in a blog posted Thursday, complained that Scripture should not be used as a cover for discrimination.  She pointed out that Christians used Scripture to defend slavery, support Jim Crow laws, and assert that the AIDS virus was a curse sent by God to destroy homosexuals.  I cannot agree more that Scripture ought to be interpreted properly, and I concur that the examples she cited are important to consider as we wrestle with this moral revolution happening before our eyes.  In each case she cited, the parties involved relied on erroneous interpretations to support their claims.  We should consider them for a moment.

In the case of slavery, antebellum Southerners mistook the description of slavery as a reality in the worlds of the Old and New Testament for the assertion that slavery was a God-ordained institution.  Just because God recognized the existence of slavery and revealed laws for the proper management of the institution does not mean that God approved of the institution.  It is a subtle distinction, to be sure, but an important one.  The teachings of the New Testament make clear that slavery is an institution that exists because of the presence of sin in the world.  Just because it exists doesn’t mean it’s good.  And one thing Southerners should not have missed (which reveals the depth of their blindness on this issue)—slavery was never race-based in Scripture.  Antebellum Southerners, for all of their savvy in interpreting Scripture (I focused my doctoral research on this), simply abused Scripture on this point.

Jim Crow sign

Signs like this were typical in the Jim Crow era.

Jim Crow laws were likewise supported by faulty interpretation of Scripture. The main theological pillar for segregation was the belief that blacks were an inferior race.  This, of course, was built off of the famous “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9.  But their interpretation was nothing more than wishful thinking on their part.  The curse Noah leveled against his son that had violated him was actually targeted at Ham’s son, Canaan.  The writer of Genesis includes that curse to prepare us for what will come in the books of Joshua and Judges—when the Canaanites were either destroyed or enslaved by the 12 tribes of Israel.  It had nothing to do with race at all, and certainly nothing to do with the black race.  Again, Scripture was used tragically to support segregation.  Thankfully, segregation, like slavery, has now been discredited in our culture.

Finally we should consider the claim that the AIDS virus was a judgment by God upon homosexuals—another good example of faulty interpretation of Scripture.  This claim breaks down logically as well.  If the AIDS virus was intended by God for this purpose, why has God allowed it to run rampant in Africa?  That consideration alone should cause one to reevaluate that claim.  But turning our attention to Scripture, we must be careful how we interpret God’s activity in this world.  Prophets in the Old Testament could interpret specific events as God’s judgment because of a particular sin.  Daniel did this before Belshazzar.  The nameless prophet did this before Jereboam (1 Kings 13), and there are plenty of other examples.  All of these examples had one thing in common—God specifically spoke to the prophet about that exact situation.  We do not have that revelation.  Does God work through a hurricane?  Yes.  Does God work through the spread of a disease?  Yes.  What exactly is God doing in these specific situations?  We cannot say with certainty.  We must remain humble before him.  That’s all we can say.

So, then, what do we conclude about our current ethical dilemma?  If we make a distinction (which is all discrimination is, by the way—making distinctions), it must be a distinction that God has revealed we ought to make.  If we go beyond those bounds, we treat people in a way that is contrary to God’s will.  Should Christians do business with gay people?  In general, to deny gay people business in most situations would be to deny them something that they have as much right to as anyone else.  It suggests that a gay person is less of a person than straight people are.  What about the case of being a vendor at a gay wedding?  If God has spoken clearly about marriage, then we have a different story.

The legislation in Arizona may well have been worded too broadly.  I don’t know.  Defending religious liberty is definitely a complicated matter, and standing up against illegitimate forms of discrimination is certainly important.  But denying service to gay people in order to avoid participation in a gay wedding does not seem to be an illegitimate form of discrimination, based on the Bible’s definition of marriage.  The world is changing quickly.  Christians must stand boldly for the truth of God’s word and shine the light of the gospel with love.  This is a tall order in any generation.  But it seems especially challenging in our day.


The Venice Project


Piazza San Marco, Venice, at high tide

By Michael Wren

In case any of you hadn’t encountered this, last weekend was established as Evolution Weekend by a movement known as The Clergy Letter Project.  Across the world, 597 congregations dedicated their weekend services to reflect on the relationship between science and religion in order to demonstrate that numerous clergy around the world have embraced the theory of evolution and find it fully harmonious with religious faith.  In last week’s debate over creation and evolution, Bill Nye pointed out at least twice that millions of religious people around the world affirm the theory of evolution.  They do so because of two convictions: 1) The Bible conveys important religious truths, and 2) the scientific consensus regarding evolution and the age of the earth cannot be denied.  They desire earnestly to demonstrate that Christian truth is not opposed to the scientific consensus.

If so many Christian leaders hold this conviction (and nearly 13,000 have signed the Clergy Letter stating these convictions), why would evangelicals attempt to deny evolution?  If so much evidence is stacked against a creation model, why would anyone attempt to stand against the inexorably rising tide?  The effort reminds me of the beautiful city of Venice, with a rich history, a thriving culture, and a vibrant populace that sees more of their city underwater with each passing year.  Are we living in a sinking city?

The answer to this question is not found by debating merely about fossils and rocks.  The core issue is about the nature of truth and authority.  Why do we believe what the Bible teaches?  How do we know that the Bible contains important religious truths?  How can a human know about God in the first place?  The Clergy Letter states that the Bible conveys truths “about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation” in a timeless form that is capable of being passed down from generation to generation.  However, religious truth is different from scientific truth: “Its purpose is not to convey scientific information, but to transform hearts.”  On this model, the Bible is believed to contain spiritual truths, while science conveys empirical truths about the world around us.  We learn about spiritual things from the Bible and about the world around us from science.  The two “comfortably coexist.”

There is no question that the findings of science and the teachings of Scripture ought to coexist comfortably.  However, the truth statements found in the Bible cannot responsibly be understood the way the Clergy Letter seeks to define them.  If the Bible made no claims about nature or history, there would be no tension to try to resolve.  But it does make such claims.  It does not claim to present to us “timeless tales,” but rather, to relate to us actual historical events.  Both our Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul teach that Adam and Eve were actual historical figures.  Jesus bases his teachings on marriage upon the fact that God had created male and female and placed the first couple together in marriage (Mat 19:4-5).  Similarly, the Apostle Paul teaches that just as Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, and his sin had consequences for all of humanity, so the Lord Jesus died on the cross, and his death carried with it consequences for humanity.  Important biblical teaching on marriage and the atonement are based upon the historical existence of Adam and Eve.

But the Bible continues to make historical claims after Genesis three.  One of the most important is found in Genesis 12, where God selected one man, Abraham, to be the bearer of an incredible promise that would bring blessing to the whole earth.  Later in Scripture, God refers back to that promise repeatedly as the foundation of his relationship with Israel.  If Abraham didn’t exist, Israel’s faith was based upon fiction.  Likewise, the Ten Commandments state plainly that Israel’s relationship with God was founded upon historical fact: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2).  And then what about our Lord Jesus?  If the historical existence of Adam and Eve or Abraham or the Exodus isn’t critical to our faith, then what about the death and resurrection of Jesus?  Sure, very few people would be willing to deny that Jesus existed, or even that he was crucified, but what about the resurrection?

In short, Christian theology is grounded upon the conviction that God acts in history.  If we allow our beliefs to be suspended pending further scientific and historical inquiry how are we going to determine what is true about God at all?  Did Jesus rise from the dead?  Was King David a real person?  Did God really part the Red Sea?  Was Abraham real?  Scientists want to tell us, “We’ll let you know when we figure it out.”  What does this leave us with?  Some heartwarming stories?

And this brings the disagreement to its most critical issue: do we decide for ourselves what God is like and how He has acted, or does the Bible inform us of this? If you embrace the model affirmed by supporters of evolution, the answer is that we decide this for ourselves.  Ian Barbour, former Bean professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Carleton College, demonstrated this repeatedly in his renowned Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen (1989-1991).  Barbour stridently maintained that God guided the process of evolution, but also believed that the evolutionary process happens through chance mutations.  He then redefined God’s providential role over creation to account for the existence of chance.  You see, if we take the responsibility to formulate Christian theology based upon our own ideas, it is not only our view of the natural world that will be affected.  We will redefine the nature of God, the nature of humanity, the doctrine of salvation, and the doctrine of last things.  All of theology will be affected.

On the other hand, the Bible maintains that the truth of God must be revealed to us if we are to know it.  Repeatedly the prophets spoke only because God had spoken to them.  The Apostle Paul stated the problem succinctly: “For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools,” (Rom 1:21-22). Sin has corrupted our ability to think about God clearly.   God must speak, and thankfully He has, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.”

It seems as if, in this modern world, evangelical Christians are putting up sand bags trying to hold back the rising tide, or worse yet, casually strolling the streets of our great city while water reaches to our ankles.  We are, however, convinced that God must reveal himself, and that we do not have the ability to figure out what He is like on our own.  We still believe that science and Christian teaching should coexist, and it is for this reason that we explore other scientific explanations for the early history of the universe.  I would be more comfortable if the current scientific consensus were in harmony with Scripture, but as it currently stands, I will place myself on the side of God’s revelation and hope for harmony at a later time.  After all, Jesus has promised us that our city is not actually sinking.  He said in fact, that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it,” (Mat 16:18).


Keep Your Chin Up, Kentucky. We Still Love You.

bill-nye-ken-ham-debateReflections on the Creation/Evolution Debate

By Michael Wren

If you did not watch the debate, which took place at the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, you can find the entire event on YouTube for a short time.  Like most debates, last night’s event featuring Bill Nye and Ken Ham is unlikely to change very many minds.  Debates generally don’t change very many minds.  However, if they are good debates, they bring the core issues to the fore for consideration and reflection.  This debate was no exception.  Neither Nye nor Ham had much chance of making an impression on the opposing constituency, but their debate was revealing.  Here are a few reflections.

1)      The question posed for debate favored Bill Nye from the start.  The question was “Is creation a viable model of human origins in today’s modern world?”  In a debate, the affirmative is always more difficult to defend than the negative.  It is much easier to shoot holes in something than it is to demonstrate that a position is without flaws.  Ham had a considerable challenge in front of him.

2)      Both debaters focused upon their strengths during their 30 minute presentations.  Ham pressed home the point that observations must be interpreted, and when you’re talking about interpreting the past, presuppositions play a major role in interpretation.  He also put more of a focus on biology, where Answers in Genesis has done considerable research developing a different model of the development of life than the evolutionary model.  Nye, on the other hand, stressed the point that evidence from geology and astronomy render to possibility of a young Earth untenable.  Since the question involved whether Young Earth Creationism was viable, he clearly felt this was all he needed to win the debate.

3)      Neither debater did well in countering the other’s main arguments.  Nye failed to adequately answer Ham’s criticism that presuppositions influence the interpretation of data.  He ridiculed the distinction Ham made between observational science and historical science (which was Ham’s way of pointing out this problem), but he did not answer the criticism.  Ham, on the other hand, did not answer in detail the evidence Nye brought forward arguing for an old universe and an old earth.  Ham pointed out the unreliability of various dating methods, but did not counter the critical point that the layering of rock layers and ice layers seems to indicate on old earth.  I know Answers in Genesis has theories on these points, but he did not offer them in detail.  This left his defense unsatisfying.

4)      Toward the end of the rebuttal period, one of the core issues finally came out.  Nye professed to be completely unsatisfied with Ham’s arguments because he has not explained how “natural laws have changed.”  He then claimed Ham was arguing for “magic.”  In other words, any force operating in the universe apart from the laws of nature can only be described as “magic.”  But this is the core issue, isn’t it?  And this was one of Ham’s main points, though he could have made it better.  If you believe in the existence of God, you believe in a power that can and does operate outside of the laws of nature.  So any involvement that God had in creating the universe will be basically unobservable.  You will not be able to account for it through scientific analysis.  Nye does not believe in God, and for this reason, he cannot accept that scientific observation will only be able to tell us so much about the origin of the universe.  Based on the speed of light, the universe does appear to be 13.7 billion years old.  But what if God created the universe out of nothing?  It would still appear to be 13.7 billion years old based on its size.  The existence of God is one of the core issues in the debate.

5)      Nye shared that one of his greatest concerns was that creation science would blunt the minds of America’s next generation and impede the development of technology and medicine.  However, he failed to answer Ham’s challenge to provide one example of a modern technological development that a creationist could not have developed.  Here, Nye failed to make his point.


Louisville, Kentucky. A great city.

6)      Nye clearly shares the opinion of many in the scientific community that creation science is nothing more than ignorant, backwoods fundamentalism.  This is nothing new.  In the famous Scopes trial of 1925, defense attorney Clarence Darrow ridiculed creationists as “bigots and ignoramuses” who are retarding the progress of American culture.  Nye followed this same tactic.  He repeatedly referred to Kentucky, where the Creation Museum is located, and ridiculed the state for having no programs in nuclear medicine.  He was clearly implying that Kentucky is backward, partly because of the influence of the creation museum, and that if it wanted to make an impact in the modern world, it would have to grow out of this fundamentalist conviction about creation.  First of all, I think Nye overestimates the museum’s influence in the state, particularly in its major universities.  I doubt very many at UK and U of L are sympathetic to Ham’s views.  Secondly, Ham offered substantive arguments.  Ridiculing him just makes Nye look arrogant.  For the record, I love the state of Kentucky.  My family and I spent eight of the best years of our lives there.   We still love you, even if Bill Nye doesn’t.

7)      This point just irked me.  Nye repeatedly maintained that Ham was arguing that only the Bible in its English translation was authoritative to solve the problem of origins.  In other words, he views Answers in Genesis as nothing but KJV only fundamentalism.  For the record, the Creation Museum repeatedly refers to the original Hebrew and demonstrates no preoccupation with the KJV.  Then again, Nye admitted he was no theologian.  That was obvious to anyone who watched the debate.

As I reflect on the debate, I wish Ham had presented a thorough argument about a creationists’ perspective on astronomy and geology, because this was Nye’s focus, and this is the area that most Christians who have any knowledge of science have questions about.  Perhaps this debate will provide enough of a platform for Answers in Genesis, and others, to pursue those questions more thoroughly.  Nye, on the other hand, came off as arrogant and unwilling to consider the substantive argument offered by his interlocutor.  Unfortunately, I’m not surprised.