Thursday, July 9, 2015

The perils of being a Christian florist, baker, clerk, etc.

Is the legalization of same-sex marriage a threat to religious liberty? According to this article, many Christians think so, especially after the Supreme Court ruling making it legal in all 50 states. Christian caterers, bakers, photographers, florists, and clerks are refraining from serving same-sex marriages, claiming that to participate would impinge on their religious liberty. This is a step beyond previous applications of religious liberty which simply let faithful separate themselves from institutions they can't support in good conscience rather than refusing to serve others. The subsequent ridicule and persecution of these individuals (and, in some cases, businesses) for taking a stand on their beliefs is seen by many Christians as a form of persecution by an irreligious culture that we can only expect to get worse. Rachel Held Evans has written a very sobering article analyzing and critiquing this "persecution complex", which is a heart check well worth reading, even though I ultimately disagree with her support for same-sex marriage in the church.

The refusal to serve same-sex couples for the sake of "religious liberty" presupposes, of course, that abstaining from having any part in same-sex weddings is morally obligatory for Christians, even those who normally serve weddings as their job. It is to this assumption that I would like to offer a response in four parts. At least two of these I have already stated in previous posts but would like to reaffirm and clarify here. All four take the form of distinctions that I think it is important, now more than ever, for Christians to keep in mind in order to live faithfully in a culture which, undeniably, is increasingly rejecting God, or indeed any kind of transcendent power or value beyond the cause célèbre of "liberty" in all its forms.

The legal institution of marriage is not the sacrament of marriage.

As I have said, I have previously made this point, but I don't think it can be repeated too often now. In the Bible marriage is not referred to as an "institution", but as a "mystery" (Eph 5:32)—or, in the Latin which has become the basis for our English word, sacramentum. In Orthodox teaching a "sacrament", or mystery, is a particular, visible means by which we receive the grace of God to a certain end. As Fr. Thomas Hopko explains, the goal for Christians and for the Church is for all of life to become "sacramental", lived in mystical and life-giving union with God; the sacraments are simply special examples of this union; unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church has never restricted the term "sacrament" to just seven rites. "In the sacrament of marriage," Hopko says, "a man and a woman are given the possibility to become one spirit and one flesh [Gen 2:24] in a way which no human love can provide by itself." Christian marriage began simply as the formal recognition or blessing of the love between a man and a woman, a union designed by God not merely for our enjoyment, but to visibly depict the unyielding, transformative, covenantal love of Christ for his bride, the Church.

My point is that this dimension of marriage has obviously always been distinct from the one recognized by the state. This was obvious in the early Church, which (in a curious reversal of the modern situation) blessed marriages that the empire was not willing to sanction, e.g. between two people of radically different social classes. Even in later centuries, when the Church was nearly coterminous with the state, the legal institution of marriage was distinct from the spiritual mystery believed to be taking place. It is becoming increasingly evident again today: though most couples still find it advantageous and desirable to have their marriage recognized in the eyes of the state, this remains, as it has always been, distinct from their sacramental union in the eyes of their church. The state can do whatever it likes with the civil institution of marriage, but it has no power whatsoever to redefine the sacrament of marriage.

Increasingly today, there is a disconnect between the character of legal and sacramental marriage as well as their nature. This article talks about how the sacramental view of marriage has largely been replaced in our culture by what the author calls a "therapeutic view" of marriage, one whose main point is the happiness, betterment, and self-fulfillment of two individuals. This is a much more pragmatic and self-oriented approach than marriage as a sacrament, one which is able to be dissolved at any time if the marriage turns out to no longer be mutually beneficial. The replacement of the sacramental view with the therapeutic one in our culture (to say nothing of our churches!) was and is a far greater threat to the "sanctity of marriage" than the legalization of same-sex marriage or even the rise of "no-fault divorce", not least because it made these things seem not only acceptable but desirable. Why is it so rarely questioned, in stark contrast to the public and ugly protests against same-sex marriage?

So I would like to state one more time that it is misleading and arguably dangerous to simply refer to marriage (whether in a civil or religious context) as an "institution", and to think, speak, and act under the assumption that what is said and legislated regarding this institution in civil or political discourse somehow affects its spiritual nature, or vice versa. The ongoing redefinition of marriage in our culture may be a strong sign that it is becoming (or has already become) post-Christian, but it is no threat at all to the sacrament that continues to be performed in American churches, and Christian activists do themselves and their brothers and sisters few favors by believing otherwise.

Tolerating sin is not condoning sin.

As I said in my virally popular post on same-sex marriage, we still have a lot to learn from Jesus in how we treat other people. (Understatement of the year?) I'll simply quote myself for a moment:
who did Jesus associate with, besides His disciples? Tax collectors (like His disciple Matthew, Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14), "sinners", (Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 15:1-2), Samaritans (John 4:4-42), and Gentiles (Matthew 15:22-28, Luke 7:1-10)—in general, the castoffs and outcasts of His society. It was the Pharisees, the "holy" men who claimed the moral high ground, for whom He reserved most of His scorn (see Matthew 23). Obviously there is much that Jesus could have condemned about the lives the people around Him were leading, yet in most cases He says nothing; He stays and eats with them and attracts them to His teaching. ... Yet Jesus does not endlessly tolerate peoples' sin or treat it like it's no big deal. The difference is in the order in which He does things.
For many American Christians (or at least the ones who make it onto the news), the prevalent attitude towards gays seems to be one of condemnation: confronting people with the truth, telling them the "bad news" of their sins so they can receive the good news of the gospel. Even when this is done out of "love" rather than unconcealed hatred or disgust (of which RHE gives some chilling examples), holding out peoples' (particular) sins in your witness, to the point of being willing to disrespect them or even to refuse to serve them in a professional capacity, is incongruous with our Lord's example. Except for the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he never used peoples' sins as a reason to treat them badly—more often as an occasion to treat them with love and grace, knowing that this would more effectively lead them to repentance. I would say more on this, but it leads very closely into the next distinction...

The church (much less an individual Christian) is not the "moral police".

To put it more clearly, the role of the Church, at least in the present time, is not to pass judgment on the world; it is instead to judge those already in the Church. St. Paul says this 1 Corinthians 5, saying pointedly in verses 12 and 13: "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. 'Drive out the wicked person from among you.'" It is God's place to judge the world; it is ours to judge ourselves and each other (Mat 7:1-5), and to make known his gospel and salvation to the world.

I don't understand what Christians passing condemnation on homosexual behavior in the world are trying to do. Do they expect non-Christians to abide by a roughly "Christian" ethic of marriage, despite not understanding or partaking in its sacramental, grace-filled depths? Our culture has arguably lost the vocabulary and very ability to do so, having traded the Church's sacramental, covenantal understanding of marriage for language of self-fulfillment, personal liberty, individual rights, and the pursuit of happiness. We cannot expect anyone to recover this understanding without first being converted. In light of this, expecting those outside the Church to play by our rules when it comes to marriage is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive.

What I mean by this is that refusing to do something as basic as bake a cake for someone (as part of a business transaction) because of your religious beliefs makes them feel (in the words of the New York Times article) "judged and mortified" and will very likely have the effect of driving them away from having anything to do with those beliefs. Even if you consider warning people of their sin a "loving" thing to do, in such a case as this they will likely only see it as "loving" (rather than hateful) after they have been converted; until then, it may create a formidable (and unnecessary) obstacle to that conversion.

The Church reads Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the weeds, as a warning against judging those outside for these reasons. In seeking to root out the "weeds" (sinners, enemies of the kingdom of God) in this world, we may also uproot the "wheat" (those who are or would become Christians) along with them. It is trumpeted nowhere as clearly as in evangelical Protestantism that you don't have to get "cleaned up" before coming to God in repentence, and this sentiment is very true. Why does homosexuality work any differently? Why this insistence on calling gay couples out on their sin, to the point of claiming that being required to serve them would be a violation of your religious liberty, of your rights as an American citizen?

Paul, it turns out, has much to say about the use of "rights" or "liberty", specifically in 1 Corinthians 8-10. As a faithful, Messiah-following Jew, Paul is very much aware that idols have no real existence, and that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat. He is at liberty, therefore, to eat such meat without any wrongdoing. But in 8:9 he warns, "only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." The popular perception that Christianity teaches bigotry and discrimination is definitely a stumbling block in our culture. Do we contribute to it through the exercise of our "liberty"?

In chapter 9 Paul goes on to describe his rights as an apostle, but also expresses a radical willingness to renounce these rights in order to win as many people with the gospel. (9:15-18) "For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more." (9:19) Throughout these three chapters Paul shows how he elevates the salvation over others above his concern for himself: "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. ... Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved." (10:24, 32-33) The example he thus sets is of one who is willing to lay nearly everything aside, including rights and liberties (or maybe even his own salvation; Romans 9:1-5), to win people over to the gospel. Discriminating against same-sex couples for the sake of your "religious liberty" has the opposite effect, and seems to reflect the American worldview a good deal more more than Paul's.

Elsewhere he well describes the attitude that Christians are to assume, not least of all at times such as this. (Note how the beginning of verse 16 implies that verses 14 and 15 describe the attitude Christians should hold towards those outside the Church, even those who persecute them)
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. 17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but [rather] give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance [is] Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. 20 Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Rom 12:14-21 NKJV]
Paul did not believe that Christians should antagonize or behave callously towards those in "the world", but rather (leading by example here) that they should live uprightly and graciously, giving no occasion for criticism or scorn except for their proclamation of Jesus Christ. (cf. 1 Cor 10:32, 2 Cor 6:3) The Lord's promise that the world will hate us for his sake (Jhn 15:18-21) is by no means an invitation to seek out such hatred, or to dismiss it without self-examination when it flares up.

Doing your job for someone is not an approval of their decisions or lifestyle.

But isn't it still important to avoid participating in sin? Isn't this even more basic than winning people for Christ? Indeed it is. But is simply having anything to do with a same-sex marriage "participating in sin"? Not necessarily; in most cases it is simply doing your job. How far can this attitude be taken? Should Christians working in printing companies refuse to make invitations for same-sex weddings? Should Christians at rental companies refuse to lend them tables, chairs, or ice cream machines? Should Christians in commodities firms make sure they don't sell any precious metals or stones to jewelers who might in turn sell wedding rings to gay couples?

The more general question to be asked is this: when is it acceptable to apply your own religious beliefs to others in your capacity as a worker (as opposed to an individual, and as opposed to personally sinning)? To which I would tentatively answer: if it is your job to apply your beliefs to others. That is, if you are a spiritual leader under whose religious authority they have placed themselves. If you are a pastor or priest, if the scope of your job actually includes sanctioning and blessing the union of a couple through the sacrament of marriage, then by all means do your job properly and be discriminatory in whom you marry. You have the constitutional right to do so, and to do otherwise would be a corruption of the teaching and practice of the Church.

For the rest of us, I don't think it's appropriate to use your job to apply your beliefs to others, at least not if it means doing your job poorly or not at all (all things being equal, isn't it better for Christians to be known as good rather than bad employees?). Simply doing your job for someone doesn't mean accepting everything about how they are living or what they are doing. Again, this is not the same as abstaining from work that you regard as actually sinful. It also does not rule out sharing and living your faith as an individual, as long as it doesn't detract from your work.

Try to apply this to case of a Christian (say) baker tasked with making a cake for a same-sex wedding: you are being asked to make a cake, not to officiate at the wedding or to justify it in God's sight. So do your job and make the cake. It is not yours to call the couple out for whatever kind of sin they may be living in, but rather to search your own heart for sin, such as fear or intolerance of your neighbor. If your Christian faith comes up, by all means express (as a Christian individual) that you believe God intends for marriage to be between a man and a woman, but that (as a Christian baker) you are nonetheless happy to serve them. If your mere disapproval induces the couple to look elsewhere for a cake, then you will not be the "intolerant" or discriminatory one.

Postscript: After some more reflection, I don't think the separation I just drew between being an individual and being an employee is absolute. It is fairly straightforward if you are simply tasked with making something or performing clerical work for a wedding. If your job actually involves personally participating in a wedding (e.g. as a photographer or musician), it becomes much harder to make such a distinction, and (in my view) more justifiable to abstain from serving a same-sex wedding for conscience's sake—especially if you are already selective in the jobs you take on.

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