On Religious Liberty and Gay Rights: Who Would Jesus Sue?

Christians today are all too ready to lawyer up. They should remember the way of Jesus instead.

It seems one has to be a lawyer, and for that matter a religious liberty specialist, to parse the fine details of the vetoed Arizona “religious liberty/license to discriminate” law. What kinds of business/service discrimination are permitted, specifically in Arizona, on the basis of religious liberty? Do those rights apply to churches only or might they be extended to cover private businesses run by religiously devout owners? Is the best legal analogy to the Civil Rights movement, and do we risk reinstituting a type of Jim Crow segregation? Or is it to the religious liberty exemptions offered to churches? Is a business — a flower shop, a cake decorating business, a catering company — more like a public accommodation or more like a church?

Why does it always come down to the lawyers? Why does every conversation default to rights-talk? Why are Christians today joining the parade to the law offices?

Why does every conversation default to rights-talk? Why are Christians today joining the parade to the law offices?

I wonder if anyone remembers what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6?

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels — to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer — and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud — and believers at that. (6:1-7, NRSV)

These words were written to a socially marginal little congregation in an outpost of the Roman Empire. They had no constitutional protections, no religious liberty exemptions, no social power. Their own stupid squabbles were seeping out into the Roman law courts, and about this the apostle was furious. This was an embarrassment to the gospel, a shameful Christian failure. This community that on the great Day of Judgment would help “judge the world” was not proving competent to judge their own trivial disputes.

Consider the implications of Paul’s payoff line: “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged?” The principle applies to lawsuits overall. “To have lawsuits at all . . . is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged?” How could Paul make such an argument? Doesn’t everyone need to defend their rights?

Not if their avowed Lord, the center of their faith, absolutely refused to defend his own rights, but instead sacrificed every right on behalf of the salvation of the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and resister, understood this. In his classic work Discipleship, he writes of followers of Jesus:

No rights they might claim protect this community of strangers in the world. Nor do they claim any such rights, for they are the meek, who renounce all rights of their own for the sake of Jesus Christ. When they are berated, they are quiet. When violence is done to them, they endure it. . . . They do not sue for their rights; they do not make a scene when injustice is done to them. They do not want rights of their own. . . . What is right for their Lord should be right for them.

Let us now imagine the person being invoked so much in this debate — the Christian florist who is asked to provide flowers to a gay wedding. She may believe that the Bible teaches that gay marriage is against God’s plan for sexuality. She may believe that she could claim the right, under the laws of her state or nation, to refuse to provide her services to this kind of couple. She may be afraid that offering this particular service would perhaps signal her approval of this kind of marriage, which she does not want to do. FlowerBouquetfinal

One option would be for her to support laws like the vetoed SB 1092 in Arizona, or lawsuits pressing toward the same goal. Another option would be for her to say to herself something like this: “I probably should not have to do this. But scripture teaches that resorting to the law and asserting my rights is not the most fitting way to proclaim my allegiance to Jesus Christ, the one who did not defend himself even while being unjustly tried and executed. So I will not claim rights here. I will lay them down.”

But more. There is something more to be said. Our devout Christian florist undoubtedly remembers that Jesus taught that wholehearted love of God and neighbor are the greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Christian love goes beyond renunciation of rights and into neighbor-love, which “does not insist on its own way” and which is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).

So our devout florist might say something like this: “Perhaps I could, but I will not insist on my own way here. I will be patient and kind toward anyone seeking my services. I will seek to do to them as I would want to have done for me. I will bear Christian witness to them not by rejecting them but by serving them in love. I will leave the judging to God and will be known in this situation by my love.”

Many conservative Christians feel embattled in American culture today. Their prior cultural hegemony and social power are fading. The issue of homosexuality, and now gay marriage in particular, has become the current leading symbol and proxy of that sense of embattlement. To give in here, many feel, is to surrender to an increasingly pagan culture. And so, having lost the “culture wars,” many such Christians are now fighting rear-guard legal battles that increasingly center on protecting their religious liberty rights. If Arizona is any indication, this too looks like a failed legal strategy and a damaging setback for Christians in America overall.

I wonder if my dear Christian sisters and brothers would consider the more radically devout step of looking to the way of Jesus instead. This is the way of service, sacrifice, and love, of rights-renunciation rather than rights-demanding. This, in fact, is the way that turned the pagan Roman Empire into a culture responsive to the gospel. It did not involve lawsuits or rights-talk. It might be worth rediscovering.

David Gushee
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  • orthopraxis

    It’s interesting that only conservative Christians are told not to use the law to defend themselves. Should MLK and African-American Christians have been told during the 1960’s to just accept the “status quo” and not resort to nonviolent means of legal and political action? Should Quakers and Anabaptists have not worked as much as possible for protections of conscience during Vietnam and other unjust wars? Should 19th Social Gospel Christians have not tried to use legal changes, as limited as they were, to fight against slavery? Should victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church not have turn to the court system when it was clear that their local bishops/leadership were not taking serious action?
    Christians should not make the law into an idol, yes, but we should try to use it to protect ourselves and others, especially when other forms of reconciliation have been extinguished and the well-being/dignity of our neighbors are at continued risk. Your reference to Romans is simply not relevant. This refers to conflicts between Christians that should have been handled in the context of the community rather than a public court.
    It is appalling to me that a “Chirstian ethicist” would rather accept praise by the likes of the wider media by telling other Christians to basically “put up or shut up” rather than at least listen and sympathizing with their concerns. The impression I get among the vast majority of “orthodox” Christians is that we do not expect to win the cultural wars. Gay marriage is a reality as is Roe vs. Wade for the time being. What we are asking is not that the rest of society agree with us but that they respect our values and not equate conservative opinions on certain ethical issues with stupidity, ignorance, and bigotry. If not, then we are not far from a time when being opposed to gay marriage (even when saying this in the most kind, pastoral, loving way possible) will be equal with “Jim Crow” and white supremacy. Sad that Professor Gushee would not use his legal and philosophical skill to stand for the freedom of such Christians in the public square.

    • Not stupid

      Thank you for your reply to this article. The writer of this article is part of the problem on why people are leaving the church.

  • Kimo

    This has nothing to do with lawsuits. This has to do with recognizing basic religious freedoms that up until recently people believed were protected by the laws of the United States.

    Scripture specifically says that approving of behavior against the laws of God is the same as being involved in them. Romans 1:32. Christians cannot be endorsing sexually immoral behavior, especially ceremonies which make a mockery of God’s law on marriage. So what’s next? Should a Christian photographer be forced to participate in the production of pornography? Can a Christian bookseller be forced to make pornography available in his bookstore?

    This guy totally misses the boat.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      By the same logic, should a Christian Scientist be allowed to withhold medical treatment for one of their children because it contradicts their religious beliefs?

      The courts have normally overturned laws that interfered with an adult practicing their beliefs But have stopped Short when those practices interfere with public accommodation. The same cries of religious freedom were screamed from the pulpit in the south when the courts struck down segregation laws. I see no difference in the desire of many Christians wanting the right to discriminate against gays today in the public sphere than Christians wanting to discriminate against blacks 50 years ago. Both are discrimination justified in the name of religious freedom.

  • Freedom’sBell

    Interestingly Bonhoeffer was so willing to ‘not make a scene’ that he attempted to kill Hitler.

    Do you think Bonhoeffer would be so renown today if he sat quietly in his pew?

    • Richard

      Bonhoeffer was arrested as part of the conspiracy to kill Hitler. There’s actually pretty good evidence that he wasn’t involved in the plot to kill Hitler but was collaborating with that circle in other ways and thus ensnared. Bonhoeffer is renowned for refusing his personal safety or rights and choosing to suffer with his fellow Christians in opposition to his government.

  • The Evangelical Norm

    Not only have you twisted the meaning of love your neighbor, you have twisted the entire purpose and reality of these laws. First, Jesus did come as a servant and told us to love our neighbor, but in no logical interesting of scripture does that translate into “violate your conscience and assist the homosexual couple in thumbing their nose at God, and denying the absolute fact that God considers that lifestyle an abomination”. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus, he did not acquit her and then compel her accusers to build her a better structure to entertain married men without the possibility of being interrupted by a mob. He forgave her and instructed her to “go and sin no more”.
    Second, these laws are being considered to PREVENT the devout florist from being sued for refusing to violate her conscience. You can’t give me one example of a Christian business owner running to a lawyer because their business was patronized by a homosexual, but I can give you at least 10 examples of homosexuals ruining to the courts to have the government force the Christian business owner to violate their conscience or be fined or shut down.
    Again by your logic, do we expect the government to force to gay printer to make “God hates Tags” signs for the Westboro Baptist Church? or compel the black carpenter to build a long burning cross for the local chapter of the KKK? how about we make the Jewish deli owner make non kosher food to cater the Neo Nazi annual convention?
    Simply put, every premise of this article is wrong!

    • Tom from North Carolina

      Does your definition of abomination include the other references in the bible where that word was used? It seems to me that many Christians cherry pick those sins which they consider abominations while ignoring the rest. Homosexuality in particular seems to be hoisted up as the ultimate sin. But the bible says that god classified lots of actions as abomination, most of which seem to be ignored. Pride, calling someone a fool, lying, divers weights (whatever those are), a scorner, the thought of foolishness, incense. I could go on but you get my point. There are literally dozens of actions/things that god classified as abomination; why the maniacal focus on who someone loves?

  • Mark Gomez

    I read the article because a friend pointed it out. It is interesting, but it is not what I would imagine to be a right response. Oh, and no ire here, just simply recognition of what is wrong thinking.

    First, the passage of scripture used here is concerning Christians taking other Christians to court. The passage from Corinthians does not apply to how we respond to non-Christians.

    Secondly, in Acts 16 Paul invokes his rights as a Roman citizen to not be mistreated by non-Christians. This, I think is a better application of scripture regarding such issues, not the passage from Corinthians.

    I truly believe that the Church in America has been ruined by celebrity pastors and the cult of cool in our gatherings which have disabled us and our ability to endure hardship. What is coming is real turmoil for the Church and she has been led into foolishness rather than discipleship. We are not prepared for real persecution.

    But, that being said, I am prepared like Paul to die for Christ. But I am not prepared to be needlessly mistreated just for the unreasonable demands of ignorant people. So, like Paul I will invoke my rights as an American citizen (not a Roman) and resist this unrighteousness.

    • Kimo

      Amen–The Gospel calls for us to be salt and light in our world, not to be overcome by it. We need to speak up against the sexual immorality that is destroying our country, whether it be homosexuality, pornography, the hookup culture, prostitution or sexual slavery. When Paul was stoned and left for dead, did he stop speaking the Truth? No, he went right back into the city and continued. We must do the same.

  • Sylvia Ulmer

    Jesus sacrificed his life, but he did so in opposition to the earthly authorities. He did not compromise his message of truth for a moment, no matter what kind of pressure or punishments the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate brought down. The early martyrs were imitators of Christ in this way. They were the exact opposite of your florist because they broke the law rather than lift a single pinch of incense to a Roman god.

    Christ, by telling us to serve others, didn’t mean for us to be subservient to unjust laws. And by telling us to love, he didn’t intend that we participate in sinful acts to pacify others, whether by arranging flowers for a homosexual union, or by throwing incense at a pagan altar. He intended that we speak the TRUTH in LOVE, and God help us, Christians should be speaking that truth in the secular courts, in the streets, and anywhere it needs to be spoken.

  • mel mariner

    Perhaps those that God has not put in the position of having their faith tested in this way should keep their opinions to themselves. How do you know with all certainty that you are not being like Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar? Everyone is speaking with such authority about something they cannot be positive about.

    • Mark Edwards

      The fact that it is before the highest secular court in the land makes it fair game to weigh in – the outcome will have far-reaching consequences whichever way it is decided.

  • Jonathan Watson

    My question here is, what action is going to open the door for conversation about who Jesus is? Suing them or serving them?

    Jesus didn’t affirm anyone’s sin, but he had dinner with sinners and tax collectors all the time. Literally sat at their kitchen table.

    • Kimo

      No Christians are suing gay people. The threats and litigation are coming the other way, and the gay activists seek to compel Christians to agree with them and participate in ceremonies that violate the Word of God, or face the loss of their businesses and livelihoods. The question is what should the response of Christians be, to cave and do things against the Gospel, or to refuse to comply no matter the cost? In the Roman Empire, thousands of Christians were put to death for refusing to offer incense to idols of the Roman Emperor and declare he was God, even though they were told it was just a formality to show they were loyal to the Empire and really didn’t mean anything.

      • Jonathan Watson

        The gospel is that Jesus did not deal with us according to our sin, but instead abdicated his throne in heaven and gave his life to the point of death.

        Who am I to refuse service to anyone that God loves?

        As per your statement about the first century church, one of the key reasons the church grew so fast was they maintained relationships with outsiders and loved people the “Roman elite” refused to love. They did not lock themselves in their churches and fight for their right to worship free from Roman tyranny.

        • saneandreasonable

          You did not address the point of the poster. If it violates my conscience guided by the Holy Spirit and scripture, I should not have to provide the service. Gays want everyone to abide by what they think is okay and even righteous, and it, gay marrriGe is not righteous,

          • Mark Edwards

            By that same logic then, Muslim business owners can refuse to serve unaccompanied women, white businesses can refuse to serve people of color, Hindus can refuse to serve people wearing leather coats – all based on religious belief. Is that the kind of public accommodation envisioned here? The Poster’s article is bringing out a whole lot of “me-centered” comments here which is not in line with Christian faith as I have received it.

      • Tom from North Carolina

        And yet your focus on homosexuality while ignoring all the other abominations is very telling or should I say cherry picking. The bible is full of things god finds to be abominations.
        Isaiah 1:13 – Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me;

        What is it about homosexuality that makes it so important while you happily ignore all the others?

  • Julie Pennington-Russell

    Beautifully said, David Gushee. Makes me wish I could be a florist for a day. 🙂

  • juan_valdez

    Why is it so important to reject and avoid gay people? Doesn’t the bible equally reject adulterers? Should a Christian hotelier require a marriage license from every couple to which they rent a room. Why is being gay, a non-violent act between consenting adults, cause so much concern when many of the revered republican politicians are serial repeat adulterers?