As a Christian watching this policy debate unfold, I have been especially perturbed with the potential conflict between individual religious liberties and individual civil rights, such as the right to marry. I have genuinely struggled with the question of whether business owners and private citizens should be forced to participate, directly or indirectly, in activities or ceremonies with which they have sincere objections of conscience. Should a business owner be compelled by the state to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony? Should a physician be compelled by the state to perform a circumcision that is not medically necessary? Should a kosher deli be compelled to sell ham sandwiches? I confess, I have not arrived at a satisfactory conclusion to these answers on legal and/or policy grounds.
But as I’ve struggled with these questions that I have yet to answer for myself, I have, I’m pleased to say, arrived at an answer to a related question, and that answer may be helpful in addressing these other issues, to wit: Would Jesus, today, as a business owner, refuse service to a homosexual customer?
The answer, I submit, is decidedly no.
And here’s why.
Time, and time, and time again during Jesus’ ministry on earth as recorded in the Gospels, instances arise in which the Lord seems caught in the middle between pious, religious, “righteous” folk, and dirty, different, “sinner” folk. Often in these situations, those who professed spiritual enlightenment were the “scribes and Pharisees,” the elite class of religious leaders who were educated in Jewish custom, huge fans of Moses, wholly unable to wrap their heads around this new message of grace and love from a lowly carpenter from Galilee. In one such instance (Luke 2:13-17), the elite, self-righteous class wondered why it was that Jesus, a clearly divinely endowed prophet/teacher/miracle worker, would hang out with “publicans and sinners,” a legitimate question to which He adeptly replied, “People who aren’t sick don’t need doctors.” That’s simple enough, but it’s also a profound insight into how Jesus approached connecting with people, and how He ultimately changed the lives of those who had the courage to get to know Him. Jesus didn’t define people the way most people tend to do. He didn’t classify people according to their profession, or their failures or successes for that matter. He saw people, He loved people, and He helped people.
Another classic example of Jesus’ take on ministry involved a woman with a slightly less than stellar reputation (John chapter 4), who also happened to belong to an ethnic group with which Jewish society “had no dealings.” This is the story of the woman at the well, with whom Jesus shared the transformational spiritual truth about “living water,” and “never thirsting again,” the idea that spiritual rebirth is the only true source of satisfaction this side of Heaven. Did he deliver this sermon in a polished temple to thunderous applause and raised hands and hallelujahs? Nope. He imparted this powerfully divine message to a woman who was shocked that a Jewish man like Jesus would even give her the time of day. Yet He gave her so much more than that, and certainly much more than His contemporaries would have dared. To a Samaritan woman, with a troubled past and a future that didn’t look much better, Jesus spoke healing, empowering, saving words of truth, words that changed her life and the lives of many who knew her. After all, how many millions of people have read this passage and experienced a changed life based on its inspiring message?
What if Jesus had just walked on by? Surely the woman wouldn’t have thought twice, and probably no one else would have either. But He saw an opportunity, and what powerful results have ensued because He didn’t subscribe to society’s standards of who, and who wasn’t, worthy of His attention.
These are only two examples, powerful though they are, of the many times Jesus defied society’s standards, broke barriers, and focused His attention on the individual who needed His help. They exemplify nicely His overall message of winning people over through divine love, certainly not ignoring that they were imperfect, but helping them discover the solution instead of hitting them over the head with the problem.
So can we, today, apply the mentality Christ espoused back then to modern culture? Sure. Setting aside, for a moment, the question on the morality or immorality of homosexual relationships, let us consider a broader, more basic question: Would Jesus even see people as “gay” or “straight”? Would He classify people that way, and further, would He ever treat people differently based on such a dichotomy? It’s a strain to answer that question in the affirmative. Would the same Jesus, who apparently didn’t care for assigning people with labels like “Jewish” or “Not-Jewish,” the Jesus who had no problem eating with outcasts and prostitutes and who more often than not took the side of the underdog, would He refuse to provide service to someone simply because He may have disagreed with their lifestyle?
I don’t think so. It wasn’t His style then, why would it be now? More importantly, why should it be ours?
Look. What the Bible says about human beings is that we have all fallen from grace. We’ve all fallen short. All of us. There isn’t a single person alive on the planet who is exempt from that inherently human condition. We are imperfect, and pathetically so. And that was just as true when Jesus walked the earth as it is today. If Jesus, who WAS perfect, who COULD (but DIDN’T) authoritatively judge, condemn, reject, and refuse people who arguably “deserved” to be cast out and turned away, people who most certainly had become used to being treated that way by society at large, and if perfect, divine, holy savior Jesus accepted people for who they were and rejected only the labels society ascribed to them, who in the world do we think we are we to do things any differently?
I get the struggle, I really do. I’m not addressing here the question of whether the state should fine a small business owner for refusing to provide a service based on religious objection. To be clear, I’m not addressing that question, as it is a question of law and policy that warrants a different kind of analysis.
I’m answering the more personal, philosophical question that frankly I’ve asked myself many times since this debate became a part of our national conversation. “Would I refuse to provide a professional service to another person based on my religiously rooted opinion of their lifestyle?” Is that a stand God has asked me to make? Is this an “obey-God-rather-than-man” issue, like the one Peter and John confronted in Acts? Is this a "refuse-to-bow-down" Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego issue? I just don’t think it is. I think as Christians, a decision to refuse to bake a cake for a wedding, or to refuse to record a video, or to tailor a tux, or whatever it may be, doesn’t align with the life, ministry and message of the One whom we profess to follow.
The U.S. Supreme Court is very likely, in my opinion, to soon issue a ruling that settles, as a matter of law, the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. If and when that decision is issued, you can be assured that same-sex marriage ceremonies will become more and more common across the United States. And guess what? If you subscribe to the belief that the Bible does not condone that particular lifestyle, no one is going to try to change your mind, and you have every right to believe as you will. No doubt, Jesus had major issues with the lifestyle choices of many of the people with whom He interacted. But He did not define people by the choices they made, instead He inspired them to experience a new life that only He could empower them to live.
And He never turned people away. Neither should we.