Thoughts on Kirsten Powers, Grace, Ghettos, & Conscience

Thoughts on Kirsten Powers, Grace, Ghettos, & Conscience February 25, 2014

Kirsten Powers and Justin Meritt wrote a piece in The Daily Beast about How Conservative Christians Selectively Apply Biblical Teachings in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate. The presenting issue is recent laws in Arizona which allow individuals and businesses the right to deny service to same-sex couples. The laws came into effect in order to protect photographers, florists, and cake-makers who can be sued for refusing to provide services to same-sex weddings. In contrast, Powers and Merritt claim “Christians wrestling with this issue must first resolve the primary issue of whether the Bible calls Christians to deny services to people who are engaging in behavior they believe violates the teachings of Christianity regarding marriage. The answer is, it does not.”

Many have regarded Powers’ and Merritt’s argument to be a sort of betrayal to the evangelical cause. My dear friend Denny Burk is frustrated and annoyed by their response, stating: “Do Powers and Merritt realize that they ratify the arguments of Christianity’s fiercest opponents when they attribute our conscientious objections to animus and bigotry?”

Now I understand that this might have a bit to do with American libertarian culture which I’m admittedly an expert on and this issue is just one front in the culture war about sexual equality and religious freedom. That said, and with all due respect to my buddy Denny Burk, I think Powers and Meritt are basically right.

First, it does not seem biblically defensible or morally virtuous for Christians to discriminate against one group of people in the name of conscience. I do not understand why it is okay to discriminate against same-sex couples because of their unbiblical lifestyle and yet to happily provide services for straight couples who are cohabiting together, committing adultery, and then there is the entire quagmire of divorce and remarriage. Nowhere in Scripture are we told to shun homosexual men and women in the work place or to deny them our business because of their choice of sexual activity. Nowhere in Scripture is homosexual practice the one sin that is more perverse than all the others so we must flee from it at first chance. I understand if someone wants to be a Christian photographer and only do Christian weddings, then fine. That’s a niche market, operating within a particular network, and serves particular people. But there is no biblical warrant to discriminate against one particular group because it is the center of heated debates in the culture wars. So I entirely agree with Powers and Merritt:

Rather than protecting the conscience rights of Christians, this looks a lot more like randomly applying religious belief in a way that discriminates against and marginalizes one group of people, while turning a blind eye to another group. It’s hard to believe that Jesus was ever for that.

Second, I would say that refusing to serve people who are “homosexual” or “cohabiting” is actually unbiblical because it shows a failure to love one’s neighbor and inhibits our mission to be salt of the earth-people actually among the people. You cannot love your neighbor unless you are willing to talk to them, walk beside them, and work near them. The consciences of the weak – and by “weak” I mean “sensitive” not “inferior” – must not be allowed to circumvent the clear biblical command to love our neighbors and force us into some kind of Christian ghetto where gay and lesbian people are not allowed to venture. We are not Pharisees, we are not holy by separation from the world, but we are holy as we bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Third, the bigger issue is how Christians perceive their place in a pluralistic, pansexual, and postmodern metropolis. We are not in a position to bargain and insist that if we can’t Christianize the city, then we are entitled to our own private ghetto inside the city. My friends, listen up, as my good friend John Dickson once said, we are not living in Jerusalem any more, we are living in Athens. We cannot barricade ourselves in one little corner of the agora and say to gays, lesbians, greenies, and left-wing academics, “You shall not pass.” We don’t have the right to a ghetto, which is actually a good thing! We need to be out and about in the agora. Me, personally, I think the best place for a Christian photographer to be is at a gay Jewish atheist wedding, doing their job, doing it well, doing it for the glory of God, and doing it in such a way as to be praised for one’s professionalism, one’s fairness, one’s graciousness, and thereby win the chance to preach what one lives: the gospel of grace!

In sum, (1) If you want to live and work in a Christian bubble in order to protect your conscience, go ahead, but don’t expect to be able to selectively apply Christian standards to those who are not Christians in the post-Christian market place; (2) Christians need to think less about preserving their own holiness from fear of contamination and starting working out instead how their holy-state-in-Christ might be a contagion in the work-place where God has called them (HT: Craig Blomberg); and (3) Its time to remember that we cannot retreat to some  ghetto to preserve our way of life and instead we should focus on being the salt and light of the world. Look, Christians live in the market place and think in the public square, we cannot retreat because we are surrounded by non-Christian culture, so there is literally nowhere to go. Our escape route is cut off, there is no cavalry coming to save us, there are no wagons to circle. So its time to set up shop, get busy as tinkers, tailors, and candle stick makers or  get on as journalists, academics, and pastors in the place where God has put us!

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  • David Dollins

    Michael, I like the way you have approached this issue (to some extent) and somewhat agree with you. I hear your heart. Certainly seems the way Jesus would approach it, as we are called to be the salt of the earth and a city on a hill. Plus He would have pursued them to the very end. But, here is my question. What do you do about the minister who has been asked to officiate a wedding yet has declined the request because he (or she) doesn’t believe that Scripture supports it? For me, I would have to draw the line and say, ‘no’. If they want civil union, then fine. That is a government thing. But marriage is a spiritual union or contract before God. So I think the ramifications extend well beyond photographers and bakers. As a minister, I would have to decline. BTW, love your blog and books!

    • David Dollins

      As a re-opener, aren’t those who are objecting or declining to perform various wedding services doing so in a similar way as the minister scenario I mentioned above? Because it may very well be for the same reason. It runs against Scripture.

      • Michael Bird

        David, I would differ between a persons secular/public employment and a religious ceremony. Obviously the state cannot compel churches to perform church ceremonies for people whom are not in good standing with that church. That would be a brazen violation of church and state.

        • David Dollins

          I think, though, that therein lies the problem Michael. In other words, many Christians I know, and it’s my personal position, believe that all of life is worship. There is no dividing of secular and sacred. All of life is meant to glorify God. So what we do with our gifts is an extension of the sacred. Therefore, one’s vocation is not the issue. It is a matter of calling and gifting. And these people who are bakers and photographers are walking out their lives as “witnesses unto Him”. (Acts 1:8)

          • David, I get the calling and gifting and witness unto him. I really do. But I don’t understand how a line can be drawn between a legal business request (no one is asking someone to perform something illegal) and what most of us would see as overt discrimination.

            Many cry foul when we compare this to race. But I don’t know how we can legally say it is illegal to discriminate in one area and not another.

            There are people that claim (certainly fewer now than in the past) that discrimination against Blacks is religiously motivated.

            So at some point there is a line where religious freedom is drawn. Courts recently have been saying parents do not have the religious freedom to prevent their children from accessing medical care. And many Christians agree with that position.

            But we live in a pluralistic society and somehow we have to figure out how to make religious freedom work legally. So it has to be able to work for the minority as well as the majority.

          • Douglas

            I agree. This would be the reformed view on the public life. There is a same sex couple suing the Church of England – in England – because the parish refuses to officiate their wedding. It’s only a matter of time before this happens in the United States.

  • Bradley

    Surely we don’t want to refuse someone a general service because we don’t like the way they sin, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. The issue is whether or not people are being forced to participate in a ceremony they find illegitimate. That’s what we’re seeing with Christian bakers and photographers – not that they want to refuse service to homosexuals in general, but to avoid being participants in something they conscientiously object to.

    • JG

      Exactly. This isn’t an issue of serving gay people burritos. It’s about participating in the very thing you object to.

      • Dr. J

        I think the key issue is that Christians seem to be selectively focusing on gay marriage. The argument is about consistency. A wedding vendor refusing to participate in a gay wedding ceremony should then refuse to participate in wedding ceremonies that are not pleasing to God. To me, that does not seem to be the case.

        I know two colleagues who were married and divorced their spouses after meeting each other. Now they are getting married. Would a Christian wedding vendor refuse to participate in their wedding because they divorced under adulterous circumstances?

        Personally, if I was that photographer or wedding cake baker asked to participate in gay marriage ceremony, I would take the job and take this opportunity to share the gospel with them.

        • pduggie

          Weddings can be legit and still not pleasing to God. If my son marries an unbeliever, he has displeased God (and me). if my son “marries” a man, he hasn’t really married him. The state is telling me I have to AFFIRM that this is a legit marriage. That I won’t do.

          I mean, polygamy was ‘legit’ though not pleasing to God. The point about gay marriage is that it isn’t even legit. Its calling the tail of a donkey a leg.

          Some people claim to marry themselves, or marry a japanese body pillow or Real Doll. I think I’m on good grounds refusing them service.

    • Michael Bird

      Bradley, okay, I understand the “partiicpation” issue, but why don’t Christians refuse to rent out a room at a bed and breakfast to a non-married couple? Why is no one complaining about having to bake a cake for a wedding where there is remarriage (side stepping the issue for now)? Why is it only be applied to same-sex marriage? That’s my point. It is conveniently and ungraciously selective.

      • Peter G.

        “but why don’t Christians refuse to rent out a room at a bed and breakfast to a non-married couple?” Kind of like Bulls in the UK.

        But more on topic, when can a Christian not use their creative talents without being complicit in the wrongdoing?

      • Bradley

        I can see how it could be viewed as inconsistent, but I don’t think it’s ungraciously selective. What’s happening at a wedding is something sacred, blessed by God. I wouldn’t want to communicate that I’m sharing that blessing at a union by using my creative gifts to be a part of it. I think the issue of renting a room to a non-married couple is completely different. Most hotel owners/clerks don’t know the sexual histories of their guests, but it’s almost impossible not to know you’re taking part in a same-sex union.
        As for the issue of remarriage, I think that *can* still be viewed as a legitimate marriage. I’d have to think more on that. One issue would be how you get certain information regarding the couple. Certainly, if one knew there was an issue of that nature, they should be encouraged not to participate. As a minister, I’ve had to decline performing ceremonies for a family member, because I failed to see biblical warrant for her prior divorce.

      • Jeff Martin

        But you were arguing more than just the “consistency” issue Dr. Bird. Are you saying now you only want to argue about the inconsistency of the thing? That is a different issue.

        The real issue is why Christians should have those jobs to begin with that would require them to support the lifestyle.

      • pduggie

        if I make wedding cakes, I make cakes for a thing I think is a legitimate wedding.

        If i rent rooms to sleep in, I rent rooms to do sleep.

        (I actually think xian B&B people could and should refuse cohabiters; hey maybe they do. Does anyone know if they don’t?)

        • This is a very good point. I would, if I were a B&B owner, but then how would I know? I am not going to quiz a prospective renter. But if they tell me, that is different. Once I know I am complicit in the action. As Paul admonishes regarding participating in the eating of meat offered to idols, if you don’t know, then eat. But if they tell you it’s offered to idols then don’t, not for your conscience but for theirs. See my two more detailed posts on this issue if you want.

      • Anne-Marie

        I so agree with you Michael. I’m able to be a liberal but biblical Christian in so many arenas but have great difficulty with how unevenly we approach this one in the church. But there are many places in scripture that make me feel conflicted about being easy with either gay marriage or cohabitation. My teen son wants me to stand true, but to what and how? And then there’s that little Jesus thing – you know – hanging out with prostitutes and disliking the established church, oh, and dying for all of us who cannot tow the line in so many areas of our own lives. Thank you for this very thought provoking discussion.

  • Jeff Martin

    I have to disagree with you Dr Bird. But kinda sideways. If you are offering your services to the public what do you expect but to get requests from these types of situations? So Christians should only offer their services to members of denominations that agree with their stance or not at all.

    I don’t see how providing flowers, or photos, or catering to gay couples is any different than providing services to a meal that would have been held in an idol’s temple. It seems to me that this is something Paul would frown upon.

  • mike wittmer

    This is an interesting debate that seems to be quickly dividing Christians. I hope that Christians on both sides will take care not to shoot the other in the public square. This may already be happening.

    I do wonder why it is praiseworthy for a pastor to refuse to officiate a gay wedding on moral grounds but the opposite of praiseworthy for the florist or photographer in his congregation to respectfully refuse to participate, for the same reason.

  • Levi Baker


    The impetus for this law was actually a case in which a christian couple who owns a photography business were sued because they declined to provide services for a lesbian wedding. I think that this law is probably an overreaction which was rooted in a right desire to protect the rights of individuals to not be forced to violate their conscience. It does seem like you’re arguing for something more than consistent application, but I might be misunderstanding you. Do you think that in this case that a court is right to rule that this Christian infringed on the lesbian couple’s rights by denying them this service?

  • cameronjwest

    I wonder if the dissenters would argue a person’s right to selectively refuse to provide haircuts/cakes/flowers for an inter-racial wedding if that were against their conscience?

  • Corbin

    Dr. Bird. Please continue to write about this issue based upon your reactions to the comments and your understanding of Paul’s teaching on the subject of homosexuality.

  • maximus15

    “Nowhere in Scripture is homosexual practice the one sin that is more
    perverse than all the others so we must flee from it at first chance.”

    The Biblical insight is to be found latently in Leviticus, where the sins against nature are described as “abominations,” a very rare word in Hebrew, limited to evils that are in their essence hardly imaginable — bestiality and incest are included, and the vilest of idolatries, such as burning your child to a crisp in sacrifice to Moloch. It is to be found with absolute clarity in Romans 1 where St. Paul says that the pagans did have knowledge of the Creator from the things that were created, but turned away from him and worshiped the creatures instead, whereupon God delivered them over to their vain imaginations — and that included the unnatural forms of intercourse that Paul denotes. It is obvious, too, that what Paul is condemning is not pederasty, but the sheer unnatural union of members of the same sex.

    Christians who think they can come to a modus vivendi with sodomy are not thinking clearly at all.

    • Erik Dubasak

      Homosexuality is not the unforgivable sin, and Christians often cite the Bible referring to homosexuality as an abomination (Lev. 18:22), but we must be careful. The Bible also refers to injustice (25:16), pride (Pr. 16:5), and lying (12:22) as abominations too (same Hebrew word).

      • maximus15

        So? What’s your point?

        • Erik Dubasak

          Your point that the Hebrew word for abomination is only used for “evils that are in their essence hardly imaginable” is obviously false if the same word is used for injustice, pride, and lying. Yet, you characterize those who disagree with your interpretation as “not clearly thinking at all.” I just think that not only is your assessment factually in error, but it also is undercutting the great point being made in this article that we should not single out homosexuals and treat their sin disproportionately worse than others, which you seem to trying to justify.

      • maximus15

        I condemn injustice, pride, and lying too. So we’re in agreement?

  • MeanLizzie

    I think you mean Jonathan Merritt.

  • RLWebbJr

    The proposed law may or may not be the answer here. But to say that Christians who disagree are being selectively inconsistent is to misunderstand their reasoning. Here’s why:

  • Ryan Schlinkman

    Should a Jewish T-shirt company be forced to make T-shirts for a neo-Nazi group?

    Should a Christian plumber be forced to fix a sink in an abortion clinic?

    Should a gay poster company be forced to make posters for a Westboro Baptist protest?

    Should an African-American carpenter be forced to make a cross for the KKK to burn?

    Should a Christian photographer be forced to photograph a swingers’ party (and everything that goes on during one)?

    Should an early 1940’s German Christian be forced to fix an oven in a Nazi concentration camp?

    • ahermit

      Comparing to people in love making a commitment to one another to Auschwitz is exactly the kind of ridiculous demonizing that has contributed to the marginalizing of evangelicals. Well done sir…

      • Ryan Schlinkman

        I never said that they were on the same level. I used an extreme example to make a point. Obviously, 99% of people would object to fixing the oven on grounds on conscience. It’s a reductio ad absurdum.

        • ahermit

          It’s well poisoning is what it is; a desperate attempt to avoid addressing the real issue; which is unlawful discrimination in the marketplace.

  • Alan Stanley

    I agree with you Mike. You make some good points. I see the point some are making but I’m not sure I see that point anywhere in Scripture. 1 Peter would be the obvious place to find it and it’s not there, in fact the opposite–submit to Nero. Similarly Paul. If Paul can tell Christians in Rome to pay taxes to Nero (who would have been using the money for all sorts of things abhorrent to Christians) (Rom. 13) and if Jesus can wash Judas’ feet before he goes off to carry out Satan’s bidding (John 13), then it seems to me that we as Christians need to think more about what it means to embody the gospel in these kinds of situations rather than becoming obsessed about what non-Christians do best, namely, disobey God’s law. Hope all is well down there, Alan

  • Erik Dubasak

    First, I never said some sins are not worse than others. Jesus clearly says this when he says to Pilate that “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (Jn. 19:11). Furthermore, in the grand scheme of sins I do think that sexual sin is more serious than other kinds of sin. Second, who ever said anything about “winking” at sodomy? I never said that and this article doesn’t say that either. The article is addressing how to treat people who are committing those sins by not unjustly discriminating against them. How is making a cake participating or taking pictures participating in sin and winking at it? I worked as a waiter and I served homosexuals the same as I would any other person. In the same way, if homosexuality is an “abomination” and lying is also called the same thing, then by your reasoning Christians shouldn’t take photos or bake cakes for liars. Is that what you are advocating? If you say no, then you are making distinctions that Scripture does not make.

    • ObiJuan

      The notion that you cannot take MORAL objection with your business, labor, etc is evil. The entire religious liberty argument rests on the reasonableness of making a moral judgment about sodomy. Behaviors (unlike race) are valid moral criteria. And most Christians believe the practice of sodomy is immoral.

      Just because some Christians think it’s quite alright to use their creative expression to celebrate sodomitical relationships doesn’t mean that the rest of Christianity (and orthodox Judaism and Islam) must be coerced into doing the same. Leave private actors free to make reasonable moral judgments and distinctions in their economic activities. Competitive markets can best harmonize a range of values that citizens hold.

      “Homosexuality” is not a sin, if by that term we mean the temptation to sodomy. The act of sodomy is a sin, wicked by nature (not by circumstance) as clear moral reasoning demonstrates. It is no ordinary “sexual sin.”

      I do wish that people would cease labeling themselves by their temptations. That is ontological nonsense and psychologically damaging. People who are tempted to have intercourse with women to whom they are not married are not “adulterals”. People who are tempted to say bad things about others behind their backs are not “detractuals.”

  • I just love these kind of questions intended to provoke Christians, kinda like the scribes asking Jesus about the woman who married the seven brothers and whose husband will she be in the resurrection? It is not too surprising I suppose that those that do not believe the Bible is the Word of God don’t really know what it actually says, nor are they familiar with the transformative power of the
    Gospel. As Jesus said, “You neither know the scriptures, nor the power of God.”

    First, regarding co-habitation, one has to understand that there really is no such thing according to the Bible. The Bible doesn’t define marriage as a government certificate or a piece of paper. God sees two people married when they are joined sexually. Paul describes this for us in the New Testament rather bluntly when he says even sleeping with a harlot is tantamount to marriage in the eyes of God. This means anyone that has had more than one sexual partner in their lifetime has been and is currently divorced. Even our common law marriage statutes reflect this to some extent, though not to the same degree that the Bible does.

    Secondly, Paul gives important clarification on when a person is free from a marriage, and that also isn’t dependent on a piece of paper, but rather upon the death of the spouse or the spouse choosing to depart. In both cases a person is free from the marriage bond. This is the Biblical basis for divorce. What the authors are doing is conflating state marriage law as descriptive of biblical
    principal when it is not and interpreting a single statement of Jesus without
    putting it within the greater contextual framework of the New Testament. Finally, they miss the whole point the gospel itself, which is a new creation, and that forgives and releases one from past mistakes. That is what the gospel is all
    about. A person can be forgiven for adultery and/or divorce, and move on with their life, with the admonition of the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more.

    Finally, no one is saying that divorce (if unjustified) or adultery is not a sin.
    This is no way comports with the gay marriage proponents who are arguing
    that it is not a sin at all. Christians treat both the same way, saying that repentance and faith forgive both past homosexual behavior and past heterosexual behavior, allowing one to move forward in their new life to go and sin no more. It is those on the opposite side of the debate that are hypocritical, and treat the two differently. In effect, the authors don’t know what they are talking about, and like the scribes, lawyers, doctors of the law and Pharisees only reveal their ignorance of the scriptures and the power of God in spouting such arguments.

  • Another more practical difference is in the knowledge level of the participation. If a couple comes to buy flowers for a wedding, or rent a hotel room from a Christian business owner, the owner doesn’t know the sexual orientation or status of the client, unless the client tells them. I have never heard of a Christian business owner quizzing clients to find out information that they choose not to share, have you? For instance, I recently went to a convention with another Christian man from our congregation. We got a hotel room together, to reduce the cost. No one asked me if we were a gay couple or not. Why would they? So how would a business owner find out such a thing? In most cases regarding same sex issues it is because the prospective clients are looking for a confrontation, they want to sue someone, so they make sure the owner knows in order to provoke them.

    However, Paul gave us very clear instructions on how to deal with participation in such issues. He said if someone offers you meat that may be offered to an idol, go ahead and take it, asking no questions for conscience sake. But it the person tells you that it is offered to an idol, then refuse, not for the sake of the believer’s conscience, but for the sake of the conscience of the one offering it. Why would Paul say this, and why should a Christian be concerned about the conscience of the unbeliever? This is because it is important that those outside are aware of what God considers to be sin and that God’s people represent that to them in their actions so that they have no excuse before God that they did not know. In this way we are the salt of the world, and a candle set on a hill, setting Gods standard before the nations.

    However, the proponents of these types of laws that force Christians to participate in behavior that they find morally objectionable have an agenda to shut out the voice of God from the public square. They feel that by doing so they can legitimize the behavior, but they have yet to realize that man is the creation, and doesn’t have the authority to change the law of God. They worship the creature, rather than the Creator, and for this reason God has given them over to a reprobate mind. They cannot think straight on this issue, even if they try (no pun intended). According to Paul in Romans chapter 1, this goes not only for those that commit such things, but those that affirm and support them also.

  • tomr

    Kathy has a bakery. Her dad comes in one day and orders a cake for his wedding. He is marrying the woman he left mom for. The affair crushed Kathy. She still loves dad, but doesn’t want to take part in his wedding. Any part. Nothing. Dad, please find another baker. Does she have that right?

    • RustbeltRick

      The Arizona case is about denial of service to a group of people; the bill was basically a license to hang “Straights Only” signs outside of your cafe. Your example is about one baker who is creeped out by her own father. If it’s a crime to be angry at an individual family member, we’re all in trouble.

  • Like Powers and Merritt, you are fighting a straw man. The issue is not whether Christians should be allowed in the name of religious liberty to refuse service to homosexuals or anyone else. I dare say there a Christians who are serving homosexuals in Arizona without complaint even as I write these words. The issue is “a same-sex marriage ceremony” which, at least in the minds of those the proposed law was seeking to protect, is an oxymoron and an anathema. To coerce participation in an event which one deems to be undertaken in defiance of God does violence to his conscience.

    It is quite frustrating to see you join Powers and Merritt in claiming the moral high ground while misrepresenting the argument of the other side.

  • David Volsky

    I agree with the premise of this article wholeheartedly, except that it seems to overlook one detail. In catering a wedding, setting up flower arrangements at a wedding, taking wedding photographs or decorating a celebratory cake for a wedding, there is a participatory element. It is not as cut and dried as is implied here. There is a sense of affirming the union of two men or two women by participating in the ceremony. It is not the same as simply selling someone flowers, taking his or her picture or baking someone a cake. From my understanding, in each of these cases, the business owners were more than willing to do business with them and accommodate them in other ways, where it did not include them participating in the ceremony in some way. I don’t think these people were excusing bigotry by appealing to Christian conscience. Rather, they were genuinely acting upon their conscience. I’m not saying this defensively, but I do think it is worth mentioning. There are 42 other comments here, so perhaps this has already been addressed.