Tag Archives: Christian ethics

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.

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