A friend of mine recently shared a post arguing that Christians should have the freedom not to participate in the celebration of same-sex “weddings.” In response, another friend of his came back with the usual argument in favor of forcing everyone to show approval of homosexual behavior:

Christian conservatives effectively ignore many Biblical dictates (they eat shellfish and tolerate women speaking in church, and men with long hair) and accept that some things allowed by the Bible are not moral (slavery) while claiming that they are constrained by religious belief to consider marriage an institution meant for one man and one woman (as this article says)– even though that is actually not what the Bible says (Exodus 21:20, 1 Kings 11:3, Matthew 5:17-18). I’d be interested to hear your explanation of why it’s not just a case of preference when one refuses to bake a cake for a gay marriage, but not for a Jewish wedding where the men will be wearing yarmulkes (1 Corinthians 11:4, 7), or where the groom has long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14), or where the women present at the service will be allowed to speak (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Answering these claims would take too much space for a Facebook response. So I decided to address the matter in a blog post.

The writer’s central thesis is that because Christians do not always comply with his understanding of all the teachings of scripture, therefore the government may forbid them to comply with any teachings of scripture that atheists find annoying.

The first problem here is that the writer misinterprets some Biblical teachings. Right up front we have the tired, old shellfish argument. This is a reference to the Levitical law’s ban on eating unclean animals. Clean animals, in this context, were limited to land-dwelling ruminants with cloven hoofs (e.g., cows, sheep) or water-dwellers with fins and scales (see chapter 11 of Leviticus). In fact, this particular part of the law applied only to the nation of Israel before the coming of Christ. Eight hundred or so years earlier, in Genesis 9:3, God had authorized humans to eat “every moving thing that is alive.” The Levitical law narrowed that permission for the nation of Israel. Then approximately 1,400 years after giving the Levitical law, God indicated that its dietary restrictions were being lifted with the coming of Christ (see Mark 7:19 and Romans 14:14, among others).

Second, not all Biblical teachings are equally clear. Now, I want to be careful in stating what I mean here. Possibly to a perfect mind, perfectly willing, without the slightest twinge of hesitation, to obey any command from God, everything would be perfectly clear. I’ll leave it to such minds to debate that point. Historically, Christians have found many teachings of the Bible to be unmistakably clear, while some others seemed less so. God’s utter condemnation of all homosexual behavior has always been in the former category. It has been something on which all Christians at all times have agreed. The Bible speaks very plainly about it. For example, First Corinthians 6:9-10 states that persons who practice homosexual behavior will not get to heaven unless they repent and forsake their sin (including the homosexual behavior) and believe on Christ. That’s as clear as it gets.

Next, not all Biblical teachings are equally weighty. Again I want to be careful in stating what I mean. Willful transgression of any known teaching of scripture is always a very weighty matter. But consider Christ’s reference in Matthew 23:23 to the “weightier provisions of the law.” In my discussion within this post, when I refer to less weighty matters, I’m speaking of ignorance or misunderstanding of some teaching of scripture in how it might apply to real-life circumstances. Ignorance of some teachings may be very weighty; others less so. For example, if one is to be a Christian one must believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, was the Son of God in the flesh, died for our sins, rose again, and ascended into heaven. That’s weighty. On the other hand, one may be a Christian and on his way to heaven while sincerely believing that a local church should have one elder or several. That’s a bit less weighty. In general, although everything God says is important, questions of who God is and how we can know Him are weightier matters than questions of how best to conduct the church. God’s clear commands on things He calls “abominations” (such as homosexual behavior) are weightier than areas of teaching about which some sincere Christians may have honest doubts.

We may be able to tolerate to some degree those who don’t understand the less weighty matters. I happen to be one of those Christians who believe that women should not speak in church and that men should not wear long hair (hair that hangs down from their heads). But I recognize that many others do not understand those teachings of the Bible. I’m not sure why, but many of these others do seem to be solid on the weightier matters, and so, while speaking up for the truth as I understand it, when it seems appropriate to do so, and in a way consistent with God’s love, I’ll tolerate my brothers and sisters who don’t see these things as I do. I’ll pray for them and hope they’ll do the same for me. Of course there are limits to such toleration, and each Christian must seek God’s leading about those.

Moving to the next points mentioned, God has, at some times and to some degrees, tolerated practices that were not in keeping with his program for man, but He still wants humans to strive toward the fulfillment of that program.

For example, during Old Testament times God to some degree tolerated marriage that was not strictly one man and one woman for life. Sometimes marriages deviated from this standard simultaneously, in the form of polygamy, sometimes sequentially, in the form of divorce and remarriage. Regarding this sort of tolerance, Jesus told his disciples, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (Mark 10:5). He then referred to God’s creation, in the beginning, of one man and one woman and pointed to that as the pattern for marriage. Today, sincere Christians disagree as to whether or not there are any circumstances in which the New Testament would still allow divorce. However, never in the Old Testament or the New did God tolerate any kind of homosexual behavior, much less same-sex “marriage.” Sincere, Bible-believing Christians have always been unanimous about that.

It is also true that both the Old and New Testaments similarly tolerated some degree of slavery for a time. However, a careful reading of both testaments will make it clear that even the degree of slavery then tolerated was extremely limited. It was a far cry from the chattel slavery of Africans in the New World from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century (of which the version in the United States was the mildest) or from the even worse form of slavery in the Moslem world from the seventh century onward, or from slavery in the ancient Roman Empire as it was practiced by non-Christians. Over the centuries, as Christians gained more influence over governments and societies in the western world, an application of Christ’s teaching we call the Golden Rule has led to the abolition of slavery. Abraham Lincoln summed up that Biblical argument against slavery thus: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

I’ve established thus far that Christians are not being inconsistent when they:  

  • condemn homosexual behavior and refuse to participate in ceremonies that celebrate it,

Yet at the same time:

  • do not follow the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament’s ceremonial law, and
  • do not shun fellow Christians who don’t agree with them about relatively minor matters of Biblical teaching, but
  • do condemn slavery.

So far so good. But what if they really were being inconsistent. Would the government have the right to force them to disregard certain teachings of Christianity because they were not consistently applying all the teachings of Christianity? No. The government has no right to tell a person how to interpret his own religion. Period. The same logic that would allow the government to force an inconsistent Christian to participate in anti-Christian ceremonies would also allow the government to force every atheist (because all atheists are logically inconsistent) to participate in Christian worship.

In a truly free society, government doesn’t tell people how to run their businesses. When planners at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, wanted to hire an artist to decorate one of their walls with a realistic mural of the Ark resting on the mountains of Ararat after the flood, the first artist they approached refused to paint the mural because he disagreed with its message. The museum leadership accepted that and went on to hire a different artist to paint the mural. That’s as it should be.

If it’s your business, you ought to be the one to decide what services to provide and to whom (so long as the services in themselves are not inherently immoral–e.g., a murder-for-hire business). If I don’t like your decisions on those matters, maybe I won’t patronize your business, but I shouldn’t have the right to sic the police on you and have you carted off to jail, or bankrupted, or put out of business–just because you won’t run your business the way I want you to. We all ought to accord each other that degree of freedom.