Friday, April 24, 2015

Religious Freedom?

            There has been much stir of late about the various state legislatures passing laws loosely being described as “Religious Freedom” laws.  They seem to be a response by conservative law makers to the anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage that will most likely result in mandating that every state allow same sex marriage.  The gist of the law appears to be that business owners can refuse services to a person or a couple or group representing beliefs and/or behaviors to which the business owner or service provider objects on the grounds of religious views.  The example often cited is the one where the owners of a wedding cake business  refused to make a wedding cake for the wedding reception of a same sex couple. The owners refused services to the couple on the grounds that their union, though at the time legal, violated the owner’s religious views on homosexuality.  

            The discussion has added fresh inflammation to an already sensitive area of public discourse.  One side sees the legislation as protection for those who disagree with the concept of same sex marriage on religious grounds.  While the orthodoxy of all three major religions in America (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) shares the view that same sex relationships are immoral and outside the limits God places on sexual expression, the common view is that this legislation is about protecting the free expression of the Christian faith. Those who share this view believe that people of faith should not be legally required to participate in or validate beliefs or behavior that, legal or otherwise, stands in violation of their religious views.   The wedding cake business is one example but others abound.  Restaurants, resorts, reception venues, churches and ministers will all be scrutinized to see if sexual preference will be an issue over which they might be willing to create public stir over moral views. 

            The other side of the public debate tags this legislation as not just allowing but promoting discrimination against the LGB/T community.  They cite the plight of pre-civil rights African-Americans being denied service in restaurants and retail venues because of the color of their skin.  They fear that these laws will be seen by some as permission for the open persecution of gay and lesbian individuals and couples. Refusing to make a wedding cake is bad enough they say but what if it comes to refusing emergency medical services or a life-saving organ transplant based on sexual orientation? 

            The public debate will certainly rage on but each person of faith will need to come to their own personal stance on the issue.  In my personal reflection on the issue I have found that it is not easy to reach a resolution I feel at peace with.  In scripture the same God who eats and fellowships with prostitutes also condemns those who are greedy and dishonest.  That to some would seem contradictory but it is actually consistent with God’s purpose and design.  He is always pursuing the lost with loving offers of mercy and grace but challenging the faithful to higher levels of compliance with His will.                

            So what is the proper Biblical view on such an issue?  How should Christians position themselves in the public debate?  Before I go further I feel the need to remind you that I do not hold myself up as the one who defines the Christian or even the Church of Christ position on anything.  I could say I define the Tripp family position on such things but I would need to get Lenore’s permission before doing so!  My objective here is not to tell anyone what they should believe about such things.  I just wish to give fuel to the discussion and make points that each might want to consider in formulating their own position.

            Landing on a position with which to frame the public debate is difficult given our culture’s obsession with sex and insistence on the free expression of one’s sexual desires.  It is also difficult when we see that Jesus ate with prostitutes and chose common sinners to be his closest followers.  Pair that with the fact that while he openly fellowshipped with sinners he often had open disdain for the pious who he called self-righteous and hypocrites.  But that seems to be a consistent thread between Jesus and the Spirit led authors of the New Testament.  Welcome the sinner with open arms in the love of Christ but hold believers to the high standard of holiness of being “imitators of God therefore as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us…” (Eph. 5:1-2).  It is clear that spirit-filled believers in the New Testament are held to a much higher standard than those who are outside of the body of Christ.  The objective is never to force the unbeliever to follow Christian values and views but instead to reach to them with God’s love and forgiveness.  Once they are touched by the amazing love God has for them and they respond to the offer of forgiveness by committing themselves to life in Christ then they must consider what it is like to “take off the old and put on the new” (Eph. 4:22-23).

            We have another thing coming if we believe that we can be relevant in an evangelistic way by requiring the un-churched to look and act like us before they understand God’s desire for them to be holy.  As we consider how to form an opinion on “Religious Freedom” we need to remember the foundational call of all Christians is to “go and make disciples of all nations” NOT to ‘demand that the world follow the teachings of scripture and accept only those who agree with you.’ Any view that challenges to objective of making disciples in light of the offer of love and forgiveness just might be the wrong view.

            So ‘what would Jesus do?’  Let’s look at an example and see how the Lord would have us to respond in light of his will.  Let’s say that Barbara is a dedicated, godly Christian woman who is also a real estate agent.  She is approached by two men who make no effort to hide the fact that they are a couple and wish to use her expertise to assist them in buying a home in the area.  Let’s say Barbara lives in a state where it would be within her rights to refuse service to them based on their sexual orientation.  What would be the right thing, the godly thing, the Christ-like thing for her to do?

            Her basic options are to either refuse services because she might feel that helping them find a home would be seen as approving of their lifestyle, validating a path that might lead to their eternal destruction or agree to help them in hope of building a relationship that might in some way draw them closer to the Lord.     

            You are welcome to differ with me but it seems obvious that when dealing with ‘sinners’ and unbelievers, Jesus and his followers in the New Testament nearly always chose enlightening, loving, healing relationships over the hands off approach.  When there were exceptions it was because of complications (hypocrisy, ulterior motives, evil intent – see the story of Elymas in Acts 13:6-12).  Jesus routinely broke with cultural conventions and built relationships to people others would have ignored (see the Canaanite woman – Matt. 15:21-28, the sinful woman – Luke 7:36-50, the woman at the well – John 4:1-26, and others).  His example to us was to value people who are struggling with sin, honor their strides toward godly thinking and godly actions and readily forgive others of their offenses as quickly as possible.

            In a recent commentary on the issue, a friend of mine, Eric Johansen suggested a fine guideline.  He said that if the service violates ones conscience then it might be refused (e.g. a Christian counselor being asked to do relationship counseling for a same sex couple). However if the service does not violate the conscience (baking a cake or looking at homes) then it should be done regardless of the customer/client in the spirit of directing the light of God into a place that needs it. I think putting the emphasis on the service rather than on the lifestyle of the customer/client is an excellent way of looking at it and a great way to shine the light of Christ to a world that needs him.