Monday, March 03, 2014

On Wedding Cakes and Religious Freedom

A few weeks ago, I had a hard conversation with someone who wanted my pastoral counsel.  A woman who owns a remodeling company was contacted by a family who wanted her to renovate a building they use to celebrate something she strongly opposes.  If she accepts the contract, she will, in her mind, be serving the interests of people whose lifestyle clearly violates her deeply held beliefs.  If she refuses, and the reason is discovered, these individuals could take her to court, and she could lose her business.

Thankfully, I had just finished reading this piece,  and in the same spirit, told her that remodeling a building isn’t an endorsement of what goes on in that building.  It’s just a job.  Furthermore, she should not first consider her convictions, but instead think of others and serve their interests.  Finally, after about an hour of back and forth, I honestly got tired of her struggle and told my transgendered friend to “suck it up” and say yes to re-modeling the WestboroBaptist Church.

That story not end the way you thought it would?

For several weeks now, I’ve followed the banter on both sides of a national discussion that is nearly out of control.  Though a number of legitimate issues have been raised from religious freedom to compassion and understanding, to tolerance and Christian servitude, this conversation predictably, and regrettably, became incredibly polarized. (We Americans are getting really, really good at that)

I’m not a pundit, a news commentator, a pie in the sky blogger or a politician.  I’m a pastor who currently serves a network of churches, all of whom are asking serious questions about these issues.  After the cameras are turned off and all the online news and blog sites cool down from this recent controversy—after Jonathan Merritt and Rachel Held Evans have moved on to other pots to stir--our churches will still be left to navigate the minefield that is left behind, and they will do so with both a desire to honor their convictions, and an equal desire to serve people in the name of Jesus.  And if we don’t start admitting that these issues are far more complicated than current discussions suggest, we will do neither.

Where this issue is concerned, my convictions as a follower of Jesus lead me toward two unavoidable conclusions that, on the surface, would seem to conflict.  On the one hand, the Scriptural concept of the imago dei brings me to conclude that no individual should be denied essential services, or otherwise treated as “subhuman,” regardless of who they are, or what they may be involved with that I might find objectionable.  As I understand it, the recently debated Arizona “religious freedom” law would have potentially created that kind of environment, and so I was disappointed that so many Christian leaders would thoughtlessly stand behind such a reckless piece of legislation.  I don’t want to live in a country where someone could be denied service in a restaurant because they are gay anymore than I want to live in a country where a cab driver can refuse to take me to a Baptist church because he thinks we are all ‘full of hate.”  Additionally, I tend to agree with Andy Stanley, who has recently stated that serving people who are not like you and disagree with you is, in many ways, the essence of what it means to be Christian.

On the other hand, I’m very concerned that religious freedom is being significantly diminished.  For 238 years this nation, with few exceptions, has been a model for complete and unfettered religious freedom.   I also believe that faith isn’t something that can be merely confined to what happens on a Sunday in a building, but spills over into one’s daily life and includes one’s vocation.  Contrary to those who contend that baking a wedding cake, taking pictures, or any other service-oriented task is “just a job,” 1 Corinthians 10:31 would seem to indicate that nothing a follower of Jesus does is “just a job,” and should be undertaken with this solemn realization in mind.  In light of that recognition, I want people to be able to think deeply and meaningfully about how their faith is best expressed without the outside compelling influence of Caesar—or fellow blogging Christians screaming “hypocrite!”

To be sure, some of those bloggers are asking some VERY legitimate questions: “Why would you photograph the wedding of a heterosexual couple who lived together, but not a gay couple?  Aren’t we all sinners?  Isn’t there something in Scripture about ‘going the second mile’?”  These deserve deep, prayerful reflection for churches to formulate a response.  Unfortunately, the same folks asking these questions are also insisting that those they ask be forced by law to simply comply.  To be sure, there is something quite ironic about telling your brothers and sisters in Christ to “suck it up,” and not be concerned about freedom of conscience.  “Just do what a follower of Jesus should do.  And in the event that you don’t know what to do, never fear.  We will tell you.”

Trouble is, religious freedom and the Christian responsibility to serve others aren’t mutually exclusive enterprises, and I’m alarmed at the dismissive approach to this issue that seems to be taken by more progressive evangelicals.  As a follower of Jesus, my mandate is to serve both conscience and people, and legislation from either side of the aisle won’t bring about that end.

The reason this issue is more complex than most in the media recognize is four-fold:  First, evangelical Christians hold to a sexual ethic rooted firmly in Scripture that speaks clearly to a number of things, including homosexuality. Sexuality isn’t the center and circumference of who we are, Jesus is.  But among the innumerable things over which Jesus has declared His Lordship, our sexuality is included.  As His follower, I can’t simply play the M.C. Hammer game of “can’t touch this” if I’m going to be faithful to His entire counsel, and on this issue, His counsel is clear.  I’m amenable to discussions of Biblical authority.  Send me a Dan Savage who saysthe Bible is “full of B.S.” any day and I’ll have an open, honest conversation with that guy.  But please, let’s have no more of the laughable hermeneutical acrobatics some in the evangelical world are attempting in order to harmonize a high view of Scripture with the affirmation of gay relationships.  The sheer exegetical incoherence and academic dishonesty inherent in those discussions makes me nauseous.  Disagree if you want with what the Bible says.  We can have radically different views of the authority of Scripture and still be friends.  But first let’s be real and admit that on this issue, Scripture speaks clearly.

 I love people, and I love to be loved by people.  In our current environment, I recognize that it would be much easier on me to capitulate on this issue—or to simply say nothing.  I have gay friends.  I have lesbian friends.  I have transgendered friends.  They are precious, image-bearers of God that I believe Jesus died to save.  My affections for them, combined with what I know God has revealed about this issue in His Word, compel me not to roll over.  Instead, I’m commanded to take “every thought captive” as I contemplate how to interact with those who are different from me.   The result of this will be obedience to my conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, as well as a God-given desire to reach out and love all people.  Followers of Jesus, don’t have the luxury of choosing one of these over the other.

Second, there is a broad way in which the balance of conscience and service will be struck among churches and those who are a part of them.  if asked by one of the roughly 10,000 people who attend our churches what they should do, I would encourage them to seriously contemplate “baking the cake.”  Personally, I’m in agreement with others who contend that there is a marked difference between solemnizing a ceremony and providing the accoutrements for that ceremony.  Additionally, I don’t know of any other way that people can feel the love of Jesus unless they are around people who belong to Jesus.  At some point, we have to think about how people can be surrounded by Gospel communities that not only preach, but live, a message of loving both God and neighbor.  So as I’m consulting with churches on this issue, I encourage them to have these conversations at a much deeper level than they experience in American media or on internet blog sites.

Third, I want our churches and those who are part of those churches to come to their own conclusions as to how to respond to this without outside coercion, because freedom of religion means, well, freedom.  We have a number of churches in our Association who have policies on things like divorce, ordination, et al that I personally disagree with, but if I know that the local body of Christ has come together and, within Scriptural boundaries, come to a consensus on an issue after long, mature and prayerful discussion, then I stand with them.  My role is to encourage them to think deeply and prayerfully.  Some may take my advice above, and some will disagree. For those in the latter category, I wouldn’t want them lending their resources to something they believed to be sinful any more than I would want my transgendered friend in the hypothetical example above forced to work for Fred Phelps.

Unfortunately, the rushed discussion around these issues doesn’t allow for that.  In the face of gay marriage being legalized in my state, many churches were quickly advised by attorneys to add language to their governing documents that on the one hand would protect them from a potential lawsuit that could drive them into bankruptcy, but on the other hand, has shut down the conversation altogether.  I want people in our churches to talk with homosexuals, not with attorneys about homosexuals.  It is tragic that our current environment actually encourages the latter.  We need a better, more mature, less trite conversation than the one we are currently experiencing.

And the more I listen to the voices on all sides of this discussion, the more I’m convinced that legislation and/or enforcement from either side won’t solve the problem.  Regardless of which side prevails in a battle of this nature, the inevitable result would be that the problem gets worse, not better. 

The simplistic logic, reactionary judgment, and vitriolic division that surrounds this current discussion illustrates clearly that this is a distinctly American argument.  Our realpolitik has, for decades, created the very culture in which conversations like this one naturally turn sour.  Followers of Jesus must aspire to a higher form of dialogue.  But to do so, our clear mandate to love our neighbor must continue to be informed by and balanced with our prime directive of loving our God.  Harsh, reactionary legislation on one side, and litigious efforts to put people out of business under a “Jim Crow” mantra on the other will ensure that love is the absolute last thing that characterizes any of us.


Marylee E. said...

Amen. IMHO, a job, whether contract work or longer, is a mission field. To say, "No thanks" to an opportunity where we may share the love of Christ, be light in the dark, results in depriving the mission field in being reached - and we miss out of the blessings of obedience.

Don Minshew said...

Joel, I understand the direction you are coming from, however, is not baking the wedding cake just a breath away from encouraging pastors to participate in modernization of those unions?

. said...

Hi Don. Thanks for writing. My short answer to your question is no. But your disagreement with me here actually points back to my original point. Churches and those who are a part of those churches, should have the freedom to talk through this issue as you and I would do if you were in my association. And, they should be able to do it without the outside coercion of government. Personally, you and I may disagree, but if you were to come to see things my way, I wpuld want it to be because you freely chose to do so and not because any particular response was being forced on you. Our Association has a baseline of belief on this issue, but our application will be varied depending on the context, since our region is also very diverse. I just want government to treat our churches with the same respect and freedom. And in response, Id also like Christian leaders to not so quickly back legislation that, in the end, is itself a slippery slope from religious freedom toward the denial of basic services. Our current environment of litigiousness and legislation is making this sort of reflective process nearly impossible. Hope that helps explain the larger point.