(This article was originally published on March 3, 2014 www.reformedvirginian.com)
Last week saw yet another major battle in the so-called “culture war.” The State legislature of Arizona passed a bill to protect religious liberty in the face of mounting efforts to force conscientious objectors–Christians in particular–to participate in same-sex “marriage” ceremonies through their professions. In other words, the legislators were trying to protect a Christian baker (for example) from having to bake a wedding cake for a homosexual ceremony and thus violating his conscience. Other examples include a Christian wedding photographer or florist being legally protected from doing likewise. Yet these examples aren’t hypothetical, but real instances in which the civil state sanctioned believers because they refused to violate their consciences. And there will certainly be more of these cases over time.
Sadly, the Governor of Arizona folded to political and economic pressure. It illustrated Matthew 6:24 quite well. She vetoed the bill and “gay rights” advocates declared victory. The Jacobin movement for “equality” is on the march and seemingly unstoppable. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that secular humanism is now the state religion in America. This is indeed a moral revolution, one which fomented rather slowly since the decade of the 1960s. The Sexual Revolution (as it came to be known) is now entering its final stages, the redefinition of marriage itself being the last major offensive in this long cultural war to destroy what’s left of a once vibrant Christendom. While the erosion of the Christian ethos has been a steady process, the movement to normalize homosexuality has taken off at a rapid rate over the past decade. What began with the legalization of no-fault divorce has now morphed into a situation in which marriage is no longer recognizable.
In the debate over the religious freedom bill in Arizona, we heard the familiar mantra about discrimination and the need for “equal rights.” Discrimination itself is spoken of today as if the term itself were a dirty word. Yet what does it mean to discriminate? Both the term as well as the practice are not inherently sinful. In times past, we used to talk about discriminating between two things rather than discriminating against something. Everyone discriminates in life, even if they don’t want to admit it. Anyone who expresses any kind of preference is exercising a form of discrimination. It is not an inherently hateful or wicked act. Quite the contrary, the Word of God requires us to discriminate in all sorts of ways. Yet even some professing Christians refuse to acknowledge this, submitting instead to the humanist dogma that “non-discrimination” is a virtue.
There are some voices in the visible church who actively opposed the Arizona legislation, citing this principle of non-discrimination and twisting Scripture in order to buttress their ideological commitments. ”The church should not be promoting discrimination,” they say. Yet the New Testament clearly requires the church to discriminate in all sorts of ways. Every time a pastor administers the Lord’s Supper, an act of blatant discrimination is taking place. And this is a good thing. The Word of God tells us to fence the table, excluding anyone who is not a baptized believer in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:27-34). Those who are under church discipline are also barred from partaking in the sacrament. Of course there are other instances of legitimate discrimination which can be found in Scripture, but the sacraments are, in my mind, the most obvious and powerful examples.
Are there ever wicked examples of discrimination? Absolutely there are, but the religious freedom bill in Arizona wasn’t one of them. Simply put, this was a matter of defending the sacred rights of conscience of the citizens of that State. The bill was intended to make sure that no Christian would be forced–by virtue of being a business owner–to celebrate the wickedness and depravity of others. Yet absolute conformity to the moral revolution is demanded by the cultural and political Left in America. Matters of conscience on this issue are seen as an impediment to what they view as inevitable progress. Giving up Christian sexual ethics and smothering one’s own conscience have become the sacrifices necessary to participate in society, especially if you are a business owner. Do this or go under. This imposition will inevitably lead to the marginalization of the church within the broader culture.
Our increasingly secular society has no patience for the Christian conscience whatsoever. The humanist argument goes something like this: “You may worship and carry on all you like within your church or home, but don’t live out your beliefs beyond those areas.” This attitude fits very well within the modern American paradigm of life as a compartmentalized structure. By contrast, the Christian life is interconnected in all its parts. Jesus Christ is Lord over every aspect of our lives, including what we do in the workplace, how we relate to the civil magistrates, our choices of entertainment, and so forth. Hence, it is impossible for the Christian to relinquish this or that area of life to the world without committing gross sin. We would be guilty of idolatry and denying Christ before men (Matt. 10:33). Our allegiance is to Christ above all else and that is the very basis of our conscience.
For a very long time, the church in America has taken religious liberty for granted. Yet this was not always so. I won’t labor the point by quoting numerous individuals from the Colonial Era or bringing up the history of religious freedom in gross detail. Instead, I’ll just point out that the victories won for religious liberty in America (thanks in large part to Baptists and Presbyterians) are relatively rare in church history. That we can still enjoy the freedoms we have today illustrates the fact that we’re living on borrowed capital from our ancestors. This capital diminishes more and more each day. Yet some in the church saw this coming along time ago. In 1897, the Southern theologian Robert Lewis Dabney prophetically stated: ”You may deem it a strange prophecy, but I will predict that the time will come in this once free America when the battle for religious liberty will have to be fought over again, and will probably be lost, because the people are already ignorant of its true basis and conditions.”
While we should not idolize religious liberty by any means, neither should we diminish its importance or consider it superfluous. We ought to pray often that God would soften the hearts of civil leaders (here and around the world) that the Gospel would not be silenced. To be sure, the loss of religious liberty is not primarily a political problem. It doesn’t begin with the civil magistrates. The fact that there are those within the visible church who apparently desire to see the state trample the consciences of Christians demonstrates where the problem really is. It’s noteworthy that the churches which fought for and sustained religious liberty were those which were also confessional. When a congregation’s doctrinal statement can fit comfortably on a postage stamp (so that they don’t offend anyone), there’s not conviction there to stand for much of anything. These are congregations which are tossed to and fro by every trend of worldliness. As we are reminded in James 4:4, friendship with the world means enmity with God.
If the Lord’s hand of providence provides us with less religious liberty than we’ve previously had, then we must learn to be content with this. I know that’s not an American way of looking at it, but our Christianity should always trump our favorite American virtues. Ultimately, this is good for the church in our land. There’s a time for standing up for our rights, but submission to our sovereign God is an essential part of the Christian life. In Philippians 1:29, we are given the stunning reminder that suffering on behalf of Christ is a gift from Him. It is an honor. Let these truths simmer in our minds and hearts such that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may bear much fruit in the days to come.