What should a Christian do when convictions violate a tolerant society?Question: "What should a Christian do when convictions violate a tolerant society?"
Answer: There is much controversy in our culture today surrounding Christian businesses being forced to photograph gay engagements, bake cakes or provide flowers for gay weddings, or rent rooms to gay couples. Some bakers have refused to provide service for homosexual weddings, incurring lawsuits, media invective, and the world’s ire. Other Christians see no problem with providing service to gay weddings. There’s no way to make a blanket statement on this issue that would apply to all believers in all situations.
Here is one general principle: the only way the unbelieving world will hear the gospel is if Christians live it and proclaim it (Romans 10:14). Totally avoiding everyone who lives in sin would require us to leave the world (1 Corinthians 5:9–11). We live in a fallen world, and we cannot avoid contact with the fallen without moving to Mars—and then we’d still have ourselves to deal with! We can’t be salt and light (Matthew 5:13–15) unless we engage the world. Light has to shine into darkness in order to be meaningful—light that doesn’t shine isn’t really “light”; and salt has to get into the food in order change the flavor—salt does no one any good in the salt shaker.
Tolerate literally means “to put up with” something one does not like; tolerance does not require approval or support. So, there’s a good argument to be made that Christians ought to be as (literally) tolerant as possible, in order for our loving character to be as visible as possible (Matthew 5:16). Serving someone coffee, selling him a car, or even renting him a hotel room requires no expression of personal conviction. It’s reasonable to say that most business transactions do not imply moral accord. In most cases, then, the best approach, both legally and morally, is probably to interact, be a witness, and tolerate whatever we disagree with.
On the other hand, some business dealings do imply a certain level of moral or social agreement, because they involve a direct form of expression. Musical performance, specialized foods, artwork, photography, and so forth require a person’s direct investment of creativity and emotion. In the case of a patron acting in blatant rebellion against clear biblical teaching, a Christian business owner has a much stronger moral case to refuse service, especially if such service would require a measure of his participation. For example, a Christian baker should not be forced to violate his conscience by writing an offensive message on a cake any more than a Muslim artist should be forced to draw a picture of Mohammed or a Jewish restaurant forced to cater a pig roast.
At some point, interaction with the world begins to look like endorsement, and even tolerance becomes inappropriate (1 Corinthians 5:1–7; John 7:24). What message would be sent by a church holding “interactive” services with a witch coven? What if a judge decided to “tolerate” perjury—he allowed it in his courtroom, even though he personally “disliked” it? What if a surgeon began to “tolerate” septic conditions in his operating room?
We are told in the Bible not to violate our Spirit-led conscience (Romans 14:22–23), but where that line falls is something each believer has to determine as the situation presents itself (2 Thessalonians 3:16). Legally, one would like to say the Constitution prohibits forced participation in something a citizen feels is immoral. Unfortunately, the political climate in the United States is rapidly succumbing to a hostile, oppressive attempt to force Christians to do just that. More and more frequently, Christians will be forced to choose between spiritual success and secular success. Like it or not, persecution is not just a possibility for Christians; it is something we should expect (Luke 21:12–19).
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use every tool at our disposal to stand up for what we believe in. The apostle Paul was not afraid to exercise his legal rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37–38; 21:39). Socially, we need to be aware of our rights, involved in choosing our leaders (1 Samuel 12:13–25; Proverbs 28:12; 29:2), and vocal about defending our faith against those who would slander it (Proverbs 14:34). Spiritually, we need to pray for wisdom, search the Scriptures, and then follow our conscience. We must demonstrate Christian love and righteousness, exemplifying how truth and love can coexist. In every situation, our conduct should be such “that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:16).
Recommended Resource: The Intolerance of Tolerance by D.A. Carson
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What should a Christian do when convictions violate a tolerant society?