Recently, Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt wrote an article for the Daily Beast accusing conservative Christians of hypocrisy and unchristian behavior for suggesting that some persons’ consciences won’t allow them to use their creative gifts to help celebrate same-sex weddings. Since I was a key example of this hypocrisy, I’ll respond to that charge.
At issue is a response I made, reposted this week over at the Gospel Coalition, helping a Christian wedding photographer think through whether he ought to work for a same-sex wedding. In the photographer’s question, he grapples with the question of how his conscience ought to play in this decision not only as it relates to weddings of people who, for all he knows, might be involved in all sorts of unbiblical behavior. Powers and Merritt suggest if he refuses to photograph one “unbiblical wedding,” he ought to “refuse to photograph them all.”
As a matter of fact, they say, to do anything else is to be “seen as a hypocrite” and to “heap shame on the gospel.” More specifically, they point to my advice that the photographer doesn’t have a moral obligation to ferret out the circumstances behind every wedding he shoots. I am telling him, they say, to do something “wrong” as long as he doesn’t investigate the background. “Apparently, ignorance is bliss.”
This sort of sarcastic response could just as easily apply to the biblical text at the root of our conversation: the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the conscience in the context of the marketplace in Corinth. Paul tells the believers there that they have no obligation to investigate whether the meat set before them was sacrificed to idols. If something’s put before you, Paul says, eat it to the glory of God, no questions asked.
But, the Spirit says through the Apostle, if the food is advertised as sacrificed to idols, abstain from it for the sake of the consciences around you (1 Cor. 8:7-9). I suppose the first-century Daily Beastcould have sarcastically dismissed this with “ignorance is bliss.”
The article quotes me telling the photographer that he need not investigate the background of every wedding he performs, but they do not quote the next sentence: “But when there is an obvious deviation from the biblical reality, sacrifice the business for the conscience, your own and those of the ones in your orbit who would be confused.”
Here’s why this matters. The photographer has, in most cases, no ability or authority to find out the sorts of things a pastor or church elders would about a marrying couple. Most evangelical Christians, this one included, believe there are circumstances in which it is biblically moral for a divorced person to remarry. And all Christians—regardless of what we think about a church’s responsibility—think that marriages between otherwise qualified unbelieving men and women are good things, grounded in a creation ordinance.
It’s possible, of course, that the man and woman who’ve contracted with a wedding singer are just marrying to get a green card. It’s possible that they don’t plan to be faithful to one another. It’s possible that she’s already married to three other men. It’s possible that their love is just a reality show stunt. Or, to take us back to Corinth, it’s possible the blushing bride is the groom’s ex-stepmother. But unless the photographer has a reason to think this, he needn’t hire a private investigator or ask for birth certificates and court papers to make sure it’s not.
In the case of a same-sex marriage, the marriage is obviously wrong, in every case. There are no circumstances in which a man and a man or a woman and a woman can be morally involved in a sexual union (I have no reason to assume that Powers and Merritt disagree with apostolic Christianity on this point. If so, they should make that clear).
Now, the question at hand was one of pastoral counsel. How should a Christian think about his own decision about whether to use his creative gifts in a way that might, he believes, celebrate something he believes will result in eternal harm to others. I recognize there are some blurry lines at some of these points. But what isn’t blurry is the question of state coercion.
It’s of no harm to anyone else if Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt (both of whom I love) think me to be a hypocrite. It’s fine for the Daily Beast to ridicule the sexual ethic of the historic Christian church, represented confessionally across the divide of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. It’s quite another thing for the state to coerce persons through fines and penalties and licenses to use their creative gifts to support weddings they believe to be sinful.
That’s broader than just homosexuality. I don’t want wedding singers forced to use their lyrics and voices to tell us how great it is that Herod and Herodias or Henry VIII and fill-in-the-blank wife’s name are soul-mates.
This article maintains that there are no circumstances in which the Bible “calls Christians to deny services to people who are engaging in behavior they believe violates the teachings of Christianity regarding marriage.” Really?
Does that apply only to the morality of marriage? Should a Christian (or Muslim or Orthodox Jewish or feminist New Age) web designer be compelled to develop a site platform for a legal pornography company?
Now, again, we might debate the best ways to see to it that consciences are protected by law and in the courts. But acting as though those concerned about such things are the reincarnation of Jim Crow is unworthy of this discussion. Moreover, the implications for conscience protection are broad and long-lasting. This isn’t just a tit-for-tat Internet discussion. The lives and livelihoods of real people are on the line, all because they won’t render unto Caesar (or to Mammon) that which they believe belongs to God.
And we might disagree about what sort of pastoral counsel should be given as a Christian seeks to live out his or her life in the marketplace, but in order to do so we’ll have to deal with what the Bible teaches about our responsibility both to love our neighbors and to testify to what we believe to be true: That they, and we, will face a God who has revealed himself in our consciences and in the Scriptures. We might disagree on whether or when to bake the cake, but surely we ought to agree that it’s worth at least asking the question of whether and when the icing on the cake might imply, “Hath God said . . .?” (Gen. 3:1)
The other night I took to Twitter to say that A&E’s suspension of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson is ridiculous. If the reality TV star’s suspension was due to his stated views on homosexuality then I hardly think silencing him can be called open-minded. In fact, it’s the sort of censorious cultural fundamentalism that is neither “progressive” nor “pluralistic.”
Let me stipulate that I’m not really much of a fan of reality television. I think it’s largely inane and not worth watching. But I don’t think that means it ought to be pulled off the air. That’s why there’s an “off” button on the remote control.
Admittedly, A&E didn’t hire Robertson to be Charlie Rose or George Will. They hired him to be comedic and sometimes shockingly homespun. Now, I thought his reported anatomical comparisons were ill-advised and crude. But that doesn’t seem to be where the controversy lies.
The comments that seem most offensive to people are his moral assessments of sex outside of conjugal marriage, which were more or less just a recitation of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is lord over sexuality, and he says that sexuality is expressed rightly only in the marriage of a man and a woman. That’s not new. We also think we’re all sinners, and that God calls us all to repentance. That’s not new either.
We’re a divided country on sexual issues. That’s why every news cycle brings more controversy. Why not engage one another, and have the debates in a civil fashion, without attempting to silence one another. I don’t agree with David Letterman’s views on divorce and cohabitation, but I don’t want him suspended for voicing them. I’ll bet I don’t agree with MTV’s Nev Schulman of the popular Catfish show on sexual ethics, but it wouldn’t put me in the fetal position under the table to hear him voice them.
Let’s have the sort of cultural conversation that allows us to seek to persuade each other, not to seek to silence one another with intimidation. That’s what real diversity is all about.
A generation ago, preachy censors wanted the Beatles and Elvis Presley off the air because they were too “subversive” to be heard. We roll our eyes at such now. And that was when there were only three or four television options. Now, I’m not sure I could find Duck Dynasty on television in quicker than ten minutes because A&E is situated among hundreds of cable options. If I don’t like that he’s gutting a deer in front of his granddaughters, I can turn the channel. If I don’t like that he goes to a church with a different view of baptism than mine, then I can go on the Internet and say why I think he’s wrong. And if you don’t like his religious views on sexuality (views held also by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and evangelicals as well as by many Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and the Dalai Lama), you’re free to say why you think he’s wrong. And you’re free to change the channel.
Let’s have genuine diversity, meaning let’s talk honestly with one another about what we believe and why. Muting one another isn’t what debate is for in a free society. It’s what remote controls are for.
Sometimes I learn a lot from conversations I was never intended to hear. This happened once as I was stopping by my local community bookstore. It’s a small, quiet store, so it was impossible not to eavesdrop as I heard a young man tell his friend how much he hated Christmas. And, you know what, the more he talked, the more I understood his point.
This man wasn’t talking about the hustle and bustle of the holidays, or about the stresses of family meals or all the things people tend to complain about. What he hated was the music.
This guy started by lampooning Sting’s Christmas album, and I found myself smiling as I browsed because he is so right; it’s awful. But then he went on to say that he hated Christmas music across the board. That’s when I started to feel as though I might be in the presence of the Grinch. You know, when every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing; they’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Who’s would start singing. The sour old green villain didn’t like that.
But then this man explained why he found the music so bad. It wasn’t just that it was cloying. It’s that it was boring.
“Christmas is boring because there’s no narrative tension,” he said. “It’s like reading a book with no conflict.”
Now he had my attention.
I’m sure this man had thought this for a long time, but maybe he felt freer to say it because we were only hours out from hearing the horrifying news of a massacre of innocent children in Connecticut. For him, the tranquil lyrics of our Christmas songs couldn’t encompass such terror. Maybe we should think about that.
Of course, some of the blame is on our sentimentalized Christmas of the American civil religion. Simeon the prophet never wished anyone a “holly-jolly Christmas” or envisioned anything about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there’s our songs too, the songs of the church. We ought to make sure that what we sing measures up with the, as this fellow would put it, “narrative tension” of the Christmas story.
The first Christmas carol, after all, was a war hymn. Mary of Nazareth sings of God’s defeat of his enemies, about how in Christ he had demonstrated his power and “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk. 1:52). There are some villains in mind there.
Simeon’s song, likewise, speaks of the “fall and rising of many in Israel” and of a sword that would pierce the heart of Mary herself. Even the “light of the Gentiles” he speaks about is in the context of warfare. After all, the light, the Bible tells us, overcomes the darkness (Jn. 1:5), and frees us from the grip of the devil (2 Cor. 4).
In a time of obvious tragedy, the unbearable lightness of Christmas seems absurd to the watching world. But, even in the best of times, we all know that we live in a groaning universe, a world of divorce courts and cancer cells and concentration camps. Just as we sing with joy about the coming of the Promised One, we ought also to sing with groaning that he is not back yet (Rom. 8:23), sometimes with groanings too deep for lyrics.
The man in the bookstore knew that reality is complicated. There’s grit, and there’s tension. Without it, Christmas didn’t seem real to life. It’s hard to get more tense than being born under a king’s death sentence (Matt. 2:16), and with an ancient dragon crouching at the birth canal to devour you (Rev. 12:4). But this man didn’t hear any of that in Christmas. I’m glad I overheard him.
We have a rich and complicated and often appropriately dark Christmas hymnody. We can sing of blessings flowing “far as the curse is found,” of the one who came to “free us all from Satan’s power.”
Let’s sing that, every now and then, where we can be overheard.
A version of this article originally ran on December 18, 2012.
We tend to idealize holidays, but human depravity doesn’t go into hibernation between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. One thing that will hit most Christians, sooner or later, are tensions within extended families at holiday time. Some of you will be visiting family members who are contemptuous of the Christian faith and downright hostile to the whole thing.
Others are empty nest couples who now have sons- or daughters-in-law to get adjusted to, maybe even grandchildren who are being reared, well, not exactly the way the grandparents would do it. Still others are young couples who are figuring out how to keep from offending family members who are watching the calendar, to see which side of the family gets more time on the ledger. And others are new parents, trying to figure out how to parent their child when it’s Mammonpalooza at Aunt Judie’s house this year.
And, of course, there’s just always the kind of thing that happens when sinful people come into contact with one another. Somebody asks “When is the baby due?” to an unpregnant woman or somebody blasts your favorite political figure or…well, you know.
Here are a few quick thoughts on what followers of Jesus ought to remember, especially if you’ve got a difficult extended family situation.
1.) Peace. Yes, Jesus tells us that his gospel brings a sword of division, and that sometimes this splits up families (Matt. 10:34-37). But there’s a difference between gospel division and carnal division (see 1 Cor. 1, e.g.). The Spirit brings peace (Gal. 5:22), and the sons of God are peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). Since that’s so, we ought to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14).
Often, the divisiveness that happens at extended family dinner tables is not because an unbelieving family member decides to persecute a Christian. It’s instead because a Christian decides to go ahead and sort the wheat from the weeds right now, rather than waiting for Judgment Day (Matt. 13:29-30). Yes, the gospel exposes sin, but the gospel does so strategically, in order to point to Christ. Antagonizing unbelievers at a family dinner table because they think or feel like unbelievers isn’t the way of Christ.
Some Christians think their belligerence is actually a sign of holiness. They leave the Christmas table saying, “See, if you’re not being opposed, then you’re not with Christ!” Sometimes, of course, divisions must come. But think of the qualifications Jesus gives for his church’s pastors. They must not be “quarrelsome” and they must be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:3,7). That’s in the same list as not being a heretic or a drunk.
Your presence should be one of peace and tranquility. The gospel you believe ought to be what disrupts. There’s a big difference.
2.) Honor. The Scripture tells us to fear God, to obey the king, and to honor (notice this) everyone (1 Pet. 2:17). If your parents are high-priests in the Church of Satan, they are still your parents. If cousin Betty V. does Jello shots in her car, just to take the edge off the cocaine, well, she still bears the imprint of the God you adore.
You cannot do the will of God by opposing the will of God. That is, you can’t evangelize by dishonoring father and mother, or by disrespecting the image-bearers of God. Pray for God to show you the ways those in your life are worthy of honor, and teach your children to follow you in showing respect and gratitude.
3.) Humility. Part of the reason some Christians have such difficulty with unbelieving or nominally believing extended family members is right at this point. They see differences over Jesus as being of the same kind (just of a different degree) as our differences over, say, the war in Afghanistan or the future of Sarah Palin or the Saints’ winning streak this year.
Often the frustration comes not because of how much Christians love their family members as much as how much these Christians want to be right. The professional Left and Right cable-TV and talk-radio pontificators may value the last word, but we can’t.
Jesus never, not once, seeks to prove he is right, and he was accused of being everything from a wino to a demoniac. He rejects Satan’s temptation to force a visible vindication, waiting instead for God to vindicate him at the empty tomb.
Often Christians veer toward Satanism at holiday time because we, deep down, pride ourselves on knowing the truth of the gospel. The rage you feel when Uncle Happy says why “many roads lead to God” might be more about the fact that you want to be right than that you want him to be resurrected.
Plus, we often forget just how it is that we came to be in Christ in the first place. This wasn’t some act of brilliance, like being accepted into Harvard or some exertion of the will, like learning to put a Rubik’s cube together in 20 seconds. “What do you have that you did not receive,” the Apostle Paul asks us, “And if you received it, then why do you boast as though you didn’t receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:6-7)
Satan wants to destroy you through his primal flaw, pride (1 Pet. 5:7-9; 1 Tim. 3:6). He doesn’t care if that pride comes through looking around the family table and figuring out how much more money you make than your second cousin-in-law or whether it comes by your looking around the table and saying, “Thank you Lord that I am not like these publicans.” The end result is the same (Prov. 29:23).
Unless you’re in an exceptionally sanctified family, you’re going to see failing marriages, parenting crises, and a thousand other shards of the curse. If your response is to puff up as you look at your own situation, there’s a Satanist at your family gathering, and you’re it.
4.) Maturity. The Scripture tells us that if we follow Jesus we’ll follow the path he took: that’s through temptation, to suffering, and ultimately to glory. Often we think these testings are big, monumental things, but they rarely are.
God will allow you to be tested. He’ll refine you, bring you to the fullness of maturity in Christ. He probably won’t do it by your fighting lions before the emperor or standing with a John 3:16 sign before a tank in the streets of Beijing. More likely, it will be through those seemingly little places of temptation—like whether you’ll love the belching brother-in-law at the other end of the table who wants to talk about how the Cubans killed JFK and how to make $100,000 a year selling herbal laxatives on the Internet.
Some of the tensions Christians face at holiday time have nothing to do with outside oppression as much as internal immaturity on the part of the Christians themselves.
I’ve had young men who tell me they feel treated like children when they go home to see their extended families. Their parents or parents-in-law are dictating to them where to go, when, and for how much time. Their parents or parent-in-law are hijacking the rearing of their children (”Oh, come on! He can watch Die Harder! Don’t be so strict!”). Some of these men just give in, and then seethe in frustration.
Sometimes that’s because the extended family is particularly obstinate. But sometimes the extended family treats the young man like a child because that’s how he acts the rest of the year. Don’t live financially and emotionally dependent on your parents or in-laws, passively dithering in your decisions about your family’s future, and then expect them to see you as the head of your house.
Be a man (if you are one). Make decisions (including decisions about where, and for how long, you’ll spend the holidays). Teach and discipline your children.Your extended family might not like it at first, but they’ll come to respect the fact that you’re leaving and cleaving, taking responsibility for that which has been entrusted to you.
5.) Perspective. Remember that you’ll give an account at the resurrection for every idle (that means seemingly tiny, insignificant, unmemorable) thought, word, and deed. At the Judgment Seat of the Lord Christ, you’ll be responsible for living out the gospel in every arena to which the Spirit has led you… including Aunt Flossie’s dining room table.
Russell D. Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009). Visit his website at RussellMoore.com.