Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mailbag: Is It Discrimination to be Against Gay 'Marriage'?

Hi Randy,

Question I hope you could help me with: There have been a few stories recently - both here in the UK and I think in the USA too - about bakers who refuse to bakes cakes for gay couples who wish to celebrate their weddings. What's your position on this? Some people say, "Well, it's freedom of religion, so the government shouldn't force Christian bakers to go against their consciences."  People on the other side, however, say "Well, you can't discriminate based on things like race , gender, and sexuality. After all, do we really think society should allow bakers to refuse to serve women and blacks?."  I also heard an atheist earlier say, "What about a baker refusing on religious grounds to bake a cake for a Bar Mitzvah or Holy Communion? Isn't that the same as refusing to bake a cake for a homosexual couple's wedding?."  I have a pretty good idea of how to answer this (e.g., the Bible condemns homosexual acts not orientation, so it's not the same as discriminating against race and gender which are in-born) but would appreciate your input.

God Bless,


Hello James,

I certainly am not qualified to answer this from a legal perspective, particularly as it relates to UK law (I just don't have the faintest idea of how it works!). I can, however, philosophically evaluate the arguments as you've represented them. Specifically, I'd want to address the argument of whether or not those wanting to get married are analogous to gender or race.

As you have pointed out, there's a difference in what the Bible addresses: in point of fact, nowhere does the Bible address "orientations" where "orientation" is something like a disposition to be attracted to the same or multiple genders. But notice something even further: "race" and "gender" are taken to be things over which one has no control. Analogously, the argument is supposed to be that one's orientation is something over which one has no control. Thus, if it is unfair to discriminate based on factors outside of one's control, then certainly homosexuals apply here too. I have a number of responses.

First, it's not clear that it's always wrong to discriminate against someone for a factor over which they have no control. Let me explain. Discriminate is one of those words that has come to take on an almost wholly negative use, but if all people mean by discriminate is "to eliminate by choice" or something equivalent then we all discriminate based on a variety of factors every single day; the vast majority of these are fairly innocuous. The WNBA presumably does not allow males to compete on the basis of their gender; high school locker rooms presumably are not co-ed, on the basis of gender (though who knows, that might begin to change!); scholarships made available for people of certain ethnic or racial origins are available to them based on their ethnicity or race, and are not available to others based on ethnicity or race; the examples can go on and on. And yet, most people don't take these to be negative examples of discrimination based on race or gender, factors over which people have no control. So if negative discrimination (the bad kind) is defined as choosing against someone for a factor over which they have no control, then all of these should be viewed as paradigmatic examples. Yet they are not. This tells us there is something over and above the standard use that makes it negative discrimination. That "over and above" factor is plausibly intent or the absence of good reasons for the discrimination. If one has good reasons for the discrimination, but intends to damage the one being chosen against, then I think negative discrimination is at work. If one has a good intent, but has no good reason for choosing against someone for a factor over which they have no control, then this is plausibly an example of negative discrimination.

Second, there is a marked difference between what one is and what one does; there is a difference between the orientation and the acting on that orientation. While the homosexual may not be able to control, and may not have caused, their same-sex attraction (though this is not at all clear, it's incidental), they do control their behavior. Thus, in the context of someone asking a Christian pastor, say, to perform a homosexual "wedding," saying "no" is not discriminating against them for a factor over which they have no control. The reasoning is plainly not, "You have a homosexual desire, therfore, I will not perform the ceremony." This is because, presumably, he wouldn't perform the ceremony even if the couple-to-be both had heterosexual desires. The factor that rules out the Christian pastor performing the "wedding" is the attempted marriage, a factor over which they have complete control. The only way to argue otherwise is to argue that no one has control over their behavior, in which case even the alleged negative discriminator has no control over his/her behavior, so that to place blame on the negative discriminator is itself negative discrimination, which seems crazy.

Third, notice that many people speak out of both sides of their mouth on this issue. For example, in contexts wholly unrelated to religious freedom and homosexual "marriages," people will use "gender" as a malleable term; that is, according to many of these same people, one can switch genders, and hence, so long as all else is equal (finances and availability of doctors, for example), gender is in fact a factor over which someone has control. Of course, I don't buy that gender as a concept is so malleable, but they do. If they do, then the prohibition on gender-based discrimination, at least in the majority of the Western world (US, Canada, UK), is based on a mistake: it is a factor over which someone has control. One must choose: either gender-based discrimination that otherwise would be marked as negative has warrant that is undercut, or else gender as a concept is not truly malleable.

Finally, I'd like to go back to the first point about negative discrimination. What is happening when the Christian, asked to provide a direct service for specifically homosexual behavior, refuses? Is it negative discrimination? Let's apply our criteria. First, does he or she have good intent? Of course, we cannot know: perhaps she does have negative intent. But it's not charitable (and it's question-begging) to assume this; it's more charitable to assume they are being sincere, unless evidence to the contrary surfaces. So she doesn't hate nor is she trying to prevent the behavior of the person; she simply intends not to be the one to perform the task (the legal status of gay "marriages" is an entirely different discussion). Second, does she exert discrimination against a person for a factor over which they have no control for no good reason? No, for at least two reasons. First, the gay "marriage" to be is a behavior, and hence a factor over which they do in fact have control. Second, she has a good overriding reason not to perform the task: her conscience, informed by her religious beliefs, preclude her from taking part in the task.

So, her reason for not performing the task is not, "You are homosexuals," but rather, "My religious beliefs preclude me from taking direct part in a homosexual 'wedding,' because marriage is between one man and one woman; and this is a homosexual 'wedding,' not between one man and one woman." Note the overarching reason has only implications for homosexual behavior; it is not itself about homosexual behavior. Her religious beliefs include that marriage is between one man and one woman, and thus the discrimination is not about homosexual behaviors, but rather is an implication from other religious beliefs. This can be seen in two aspects. Suppose the woman bakes cakes. In the first instance, a homosexual comes in and orders a cake for his partner's birthday. She disapproves of his lifestyle, but makes the cake. Why? Because she's not an active participant in something that violates her religious beliefs (assuming she thinks celebrating birthdays is OK); the actions that her religious beliefs would imply to be negative are not directly related to her actions in making the cake. In the second instance, a man walks in and announces he needs a wedding cake--five of them, in fact--one for each of the women he's marrying in a ceremony. She refuses, even though the man is a heterosexual involved in a heterosexual reason, for precisely the same reason she refuses to make the homosexual wedding cake! This last part is enough for me to believe that there's just no negative discrimination going on.

God Bless,

Randy Everist

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Keeping the Sixth Commandment

The Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue states “Thou shalt not kill.” Most people have understood this not to be purely pacifistic (as other parts of the Law, and the Old Testament itself, contradict this interpretation), but rather more like “You shall not murder,” which is definitely more distinct for our society (they would not have been confused).

So how can we keep the commandment not to murder? “Easy,” you might say, “Don’t kill anyone!” And that seems obvious enough. And it is true. However, that is not all there is. Why is it wrong to take a life impermissibly? Well, because, you are not permitted to do it! That is true but altogether unhelpful. Why is it that it is impermissible?

Jesus gives us a clue in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says if someone has hated his brother in his heart, he has violated the Sixth Commandment. This always struck me as austere. Is it really the same thing if I get unduly upset with my brother or if I stab him to death? This interpretation results in people saying things like, “If you hate your brother, you might as well go ahead and kill him!” This is wrong for two reasons. First, killing him would be an additional wrong, not the same instance of wrong, so at the very least there would be more sin in acting on the intention than merely the intention itself. Second, it genuinely seems worse to kill someone in action than in the mind. Note, I’m not saying it’s permissible.

But how then can we reconcile this? I think we reconcile our moral intuitions with the teaching of Jesus by understanding why the prohibition in the Sixth Commandment was made. Human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26, 2:7). There is no higher being that could ever be other than God; to the extent we reflect him, then, we are in that sense priceless. Thus, to kill a fellow human unjustly is to disregard the image of God in him, and thus is an affront to God himself (after all, what is rejected in image is a rejection of the one behind the image [to burn something in effigy is nothing else but to wish harm upon the one being caricatured; so to despise the image of God is nothing else but to despise God himself]). If we agree that God is the most holy, and he alone is to be worshipped and not supplanted, then the image of God in all human beings must be respected.

But this means that you cannot hate in your heart your fellow man. Why? Because that too fails to recognize the image of God in man (or worse, explicitly despises it) and thus does violence to the sacredness of God. Thus, whenever you hate your brother in your heart, you are despising the One who created him. So we can see a positive command in the prohibition: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (sound familiar? This is linked to the First Commandment, and is called the greatest by Jesus!). Another implication: we are to respect all of our fellow human beings as created in the image of God, not just in word but in thought and deed. It can be expressed like this: Love your neighbor as yourself (sound familiar? Jesus taught this as the second-greatest commandment. Both of these can also be found in Deuteronomy 6). Thus, the Sixth Commandment is intricately involved with the issues of human life: worship toward God and love toward man.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Keeping the Fifth Commandment: Honor Your Parents

In continuing this series on the Ten Commandments, since I’ve already done one on the Fourth Commandment, I want to proceed on to the Fifth. This one is the one that children dread and parents love: honor your father and mother. (Disclaimer: This, and Ephesians 6:1, served as my parents’ all-time favorite verses!) Notice something right off the bat: the commandment is not addressed to “children.” Though it obviously goes without saying that anyone who is instructed to honor his parents is the child of his parents, the “children” part would have served to identify the demographic (as it does, for example, in Ephesians 6:1, coming as it does in the immediate sub-context of familial relationships). Thus, we can conclude age is not of primary import.

So what does this mean for us? Some have taken it to mean that one is to obey his parents regardless of his age. Thus, if a son in his early 30s wants to marry, but his parents order him not to, he is under biblical obligation to obey. This sounds nice (actually it doesn’t sound nice at all, but whatever), but the language doesn’t bear this argument out. “Honor” in Hebrew is not the same word as “obey,” nor does it necessarily contain the same idea (although it may). The word for “honor” is kabad, and in the particular stem in which it appears in Exodus 20 it means something like, “to make honorable, honor, glorify.”[1]

The principle of bringing honor may indicate obedience, as it does for children who are under the care or supervision of their parents. Think about it: is it really honorable for a child to disobey the instruction of his parents? Absolutely not! But it would (and should) go further than this. For, as Proverbs tells us, the wise one should heed his parents’ instruction (or wise instruction at all, for that matter). Thus, merely following the letter of our parents’ instruction is not always sufficient. So, for a child under his parents’ care, taking to heart their wisdom is honoring to them as well (and it would be dishonoring one’s parents to ignore or otherwise not profit from their wisdom).

So what about those of us who are no longer under our parents’ care or supervision? What about adults? Do we need to obey them? Not necessarily; we are no longer under their care, and are expected to be responsible for ourselves. However, we can still profit from their wisdom. Thus, if they give us wise instruction, it is honoring to them to live that out (even if we end up living it out better or worse than they did—it is an honor to try to live out their wisdom).

What if we have parents who are not wise, or even not “worthy” of honor? How can we honor them? First, we can treat them well. Second, we can choose to take care of them. I always joke with my mom that she can’t come live with me when she is old (that’s why I have brothers—live with them!), but the honest truth is that if putting your parents in a home is your primary objective when they become dependent, that’s not honoring them. And no, I’m not talking about people whose parents have severe or extenuating issues. I’m speaking to those who could take care of their parents (it’s not too serious or severe as to require a higher or professional level of care) but they don’t want to.

Before anyone gets upset, let me give the non-legalistic illustration/interpretation of this commandment. Jesus is answering the Pharisees legalistic interpretation of the Law in Matthew 15:4-6 when he says, “For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor thy father and mother,’ and ‘He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.’ But ye say, ‘Whosoever shall say to his father or mother, ‘It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me,’ And honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free.’ Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.”

What was the point? Jesus references the Fifth Commandment, but the Pharisees found a “loophole.” Israelites well knew that the honoring of parents in the fifth commandment included taking care of them financially and providentially in their old age. However, the Pharisees came up with an ingenious idea: we just tell our parents that what we would have given to them to take care of them we gave to the Temple instead, and that relieves the obligation (since giving to the Temple is good, and we cannot be expected to give what we do not have!). To make it explicit, this did not even entail actually giving one’s goods to the Temple: it was the idea of dedicating one’s whole self and possessions to the Temple in an idealistic sense, and thus they are “unavailable” to be used by one’s parents. What kind of a son or daughter would do that? One who does not honor their parents, that’s what kind!

We can see that God gave us parents to take care of us, so that when they are old and need care, we would care for them (in any way we can, financial, health, etc.). And hopefully, if we become parents, when we are old, our children will take care of us. Mom, you still need to live with Tim. ;)

[1] Thanks,

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Keeping the Second Commandment

In a previous post, we discussed the implications of the first commandment, and what it really means and how we can keep it. I’d like to continue that discussion with a brief comment or two on keeping the second commandment. What is the second commandment? Well, paraphrasing, in Exodus 20 it says that Israel was not to make any graven images, of anything in heaven or earth. Why? Is it because statues are inherently evil? No, not quite. A good number of translations translate the prohibition against idols. I think that captures the spirit of the commandment, but it doesn’t explain why it makes that interpretive decision.

I think there are two primary reasons for making this commandment, and when we see them, we will see how we can apply the commandment and keep it in our everyday lives in our contemporary context. The first reason is that cultures around them in the ANE were often consumed by idol worship; it permeated their very way of life. God is invisible, and whatever deities were postulated by these ANE cultures needed representation that could be seen and touched (if not actually heard). The carved idols out of wood and stone fit the bill perfectly. However, these idols were not the true God; they were false gods. So why is it that they could not carve an image of Yahweh, the true God? Because if they were to worship it, they would be worshipping a representation, and not the real thing.

The second reason stems from this: there is a legitimate representation of God. There is an exact representation of his being, and there is an image of the invisible God. His name is Jesus Christ. If the Old Testament involved the shadows or beginnings of revelation that culminated in the fulfilling of the Law in Jesus Christ, then it only makes sense for the OT believers to need to “leave room” for the tangible representation of God on the Earth, the man Christ Jesus, who is the Second Person of the Trinity. In short, we are not to have carved representations of God because there is a representation of God, Jesus Christ, and he is to be worshipped.

Thus, we can see the correlating positive command of the second commandment: we are to worship God in Christ Jesus, and accept Jesus as sent from the Father, doing the works of God as very God and very man, relying on the Holy Spirit in his incarnation, and always doing the will of the Father, perfectly fulfilling the Law and atoning for sin in our place. Keeping the second commandment needed to be framed, initially, as avoiding the constructing of idols. But just as a more mature person has more and more positive, as opposed to negative, instruction in his life, so too the people of God received more and more positive revelation; we know more on this side of the cross than we would have if we lived earlier than it. We must honor Jesus Christ, and remember that in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form.