Conscientious Objectors in the Marriage Wars

The recent debates and fervor over religious liberty legislation in Indiana and Arkansas caused John Hammett, Senior Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern, to pause and think about the state of our (lack of) moral reasoning in this country. 

I have followed the recent debates over proposed religious liberty legislation in Indiana and Arkansas with sadness and dismay. I have not read the proposed laws; they may be poorly worded and in need of clarification. But surely we all know that the precipitating cause is the rise of same sex marriage, and the key question underlying the debate is clear: Is it permissible for a citizen in this country to believe that same sex marriage, while legal, is not moral, and to live accordingly, especially in their business practices involving weddings?

Historic Christian moral teaching has seen men and women as created for mutually enriching relationships with one another. That is seen in the account of the creation of Eve in Genesis 2. To seal and symbolize the union of the man and woman the gift of sexual union is given. This has been the rationale for limiting sexual relations to the context of heterosexual marriage. Only in that context can sexual union serve the purpose of facilitating an exclusive, committed, long-term relationship in which their differences can enrich one another. Premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sexual relations cannot serve that purpose and so have been seen as contrary to God’s intentions for human sexuality.

Whether that teaching is true or not is a valid question, but it has been the overwhelming Christian consensual moral teaching throughout the ages. And that is why weddings have been special occasions for Christians. They are not merely civic arrangements, in which the state bestows on persons certain rights, privileges and status. They are religious occasions, often occurring in churches and presided over by ministers and pastors. They signify God’s blessing on the unions involved.

This is why a Christian business owner, called on to be involved in such an occasion, may want to decline. He would have no grounds for declining to photograph the birthday party of a gay man, or cater the retirement dinner for a lesbian employee of a company. Indeed, they should provide their services regardless of sexual orientation of the persons involved, as there is no special religious significance to such occasions. But is it really hard to understand that a Christian photographer could not rejoice in taking the pictures of a wedding he believes is contrary to the couple’s true best interests? Or that a Christian restaurant owner would be conflicted over facilitating the celebration of an occasion that she sees as sad? Can it even be granted that their motivation for declining to participate could be love for the couple, since they believe that the marriage into which they are entering is contrary to God’s good purposes for their lives?

Whether their beliefs are credible or not, are humble and sincere or arrogant and hypocritical, is a fair question. But to dismiss them as hateful and discriminatory, and to array all the economic, political, and even athletic powers of society to compel them to conform or be excluded from American life, is profoundly contrary to the very ethic of tolerance they are professing to uphold. Can the outraged majority not see this?

Moreover, the comparison of this situation to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s is simply not appropriate. I lived through that transition, beginning my education in a completely segregated elementary school and later graduating from an integrated high school. It was tumultuous and my family was among those that long harbored racist sentiments. But I never heard those sentiments defended on the grounds of religious liberty, and it is not hard to see why. Allowing a person of color to attend a school supported by all the tax payers of a state, or serving a person of color a lunch at one’s restaurant is not an occasion with special religious significance; a wedding is. Allowing one to do something is different than personally participating in it.

If one wants to draw a parallel to the contemporary situation, a more appropriate one may be the conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. There were some who could not in good conscience participate in the Vietnam War. If drafted, they declined to participate. Some questioned their courage or patriotism, and some may have suffered legal consequences, but historically we have granted such persons a protected status as conscientious objectors. I think that is the status some Christian business owners are seeking in the contemporary wedding wars. Our courts are moving to legalize same-sex marriage, as our government authorized the war in Vietnam. But some acknowledged a higher authority than the government, and sought liberty to avoid involvement in a war they deemed immoral. Today some deem participation in same sex weddings as immoral and contrary to the better way they, in love, desire to show same sex persons. To see such persons despised as haters and discriminators is very sad. Have we in Western society lost the ability to think clearly and make moral distinctions?

Of course, some suspect that the ultimate end game here is the desire to suppress all dissent to the validity and morality of same sex marriage. That would be the truest betrayal of the ethic of tolerance and may be the fear motivating the proposals for laws guaranteeing religious liberty. It is all a very sad situation.

Briefly Noted: Hoping that the March On Washington Finally Reaches the Church

A recent edition of The Chronicle Review caused me to pause and reflect on the progress the United States has made, in terms of racial unity, but also on the long way we have to go. More particularly, it caused me to reflect upon how far we, God’s church in the United States, are from his ideal for racial unity. In the article, “Our Long Walk to Freedom,” Peniel Joseph reflects upon the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington (August 28, 1963), in which several hundred thousand Americans marched in a unified effort to address racial disunity, economic security, class struggle, and voting rights.[1] Peniel, Professor of History at Tufts University, is right that the 50th anniversary “provides an important milestone to reflect on race relations in America. It’s natural to ask: How far have we come? And what has brought us here?”

Toward the beginning of the article, he notes that during the 2012 presidential election, black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout for the first time. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 66.2 percent of blacks turned out to vote, which (in contrast to 64.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites), which “represents a potential game changer for American politics” (B10).

Peniel writes that Democrats and Republicans read this data in different ways. Democrats see it as evidence of an emerging political consensus built around minorities. Republicans argue it is a result of Obama’s (2008) election itself and thus only an outlier in the otherwise normal voting trends. Joseph argues however that both narratives underestimate “the political intelligence and sophistication of black voters.” According to Joseph this is an intelligence and sophistication founded upon the hard, culture-shaping work of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Democratic Party was not always the party of minorities, or especially of blacks, in America. By the late 1960s, however, the “Democrats found themselves identified primarily with the struggles of black and poor people” (B11). Though George McGovern was trounced in the Presidential election of 1972, as were most democrats from 1968–88, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream of a multiracial democracy did not die. It was, in retrospect, simply deferred: a sleeping giant waiting for demographic changes to come.” According to Joseph many of those changes may have come. The recent so-called “browning of America” “may turn the [Democratic] party’s identification with racial minorities from a political negative into an enduring electoral majority” (B11).

The possibility of such “an enduring electoral majority” has its beginnings, and its most important era, in the 1960s. As Joseph states, “The historic makeup of the Obama coalition can be directly traced back to events that took place a half-century ago.” Officially titled “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the demonstration pointed toward public policy issues such as economic security, class struggle, and voting rights that lay “beneath the surface of a battle for equality that many viewed, then, primarily through a racial lens” (B11). These issues arose again and again throughout the 1960s in the midst of conversation, debate, and outright battle over racial equality.

The March on Washington occurred in the most significant, and most tumultuous, year of that decade: 1963. The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation witnessed several epoch-marking events. King was imprisoned in Birmingham, but from there wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it he evoked the nation’s founding as the “well of democracy” from which the civil rights movement was nourished. On June 11 of the same year, President Kennedy “voice full-throated approval of King’s words.” After asking “who among us” would like to switch places with King or other black Americans, Kennedy “concluded by defining civil rights as a ‘moral issue’ as ancient as Scripture but in dire need of public policy, as well as spiritual, intervention” (B12). Following Kennedy’s speech, the next day, Medgar Evers was assassinated.

The same month King served as keynote speaker at the Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was at that time the greatest demonstration of the civil-rights era. That was until the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. This event “seemed to cull the year’s triumphs and tragedies to carve out what King described as a ‘stone of hope’ from a mountain of despair” (B12). Indeed more tragedy followed, with the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (which killed four girls) and Kennedy’s assassination in November. Yet these events, especially Kennedy’s assassination, “created the moral high ground that was absent while [Kennedy] was alive” and enabled President Johnson to enact several landmark legislative acts. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) are two of the most notable.

Such progress would seem to indicate that the U. S. presidency of “a son Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas” would be marked by an increasing resolution of race relations. Yet, as Joseph notes, these relations “remain contested” (B12). President Obama, for example, received 39 percent of the vote of whites in 2012, compared to 43 percent in 2008. Furthermore, John Kerry (2004) and Michael Dukakis (1988) both scored higher on this measure than Obama in 2012. Though young voters are less concerned with a candidate’s race than any previous generation, the racial tension remains and progress continues “in fits and starts,” according to Joseph (B12).

The recent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman touched off a series of nationwide protests. President Obama reflected publicly and personally on the effect of the verdict for many black Americans. Such tension, then, marks Obama’s generation. He did however strike a hopeful tone with regard to the next generation: “they’re better than us” (B12). Joseph also comments on the disproportionate number of blacks imprisoned on drug charges as evidence of remaining racial tension. More generally, Joseph states, “blacks and whites are still more likely than not to live, work, socialize and die apart” (B12). (One may also think of the oft-quoted line, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”)

Good and bad fruit has come from the events of the 1960s, but no doubt fruit has come. Joseph sees this 50th anniversary as landmark for several reasons. “The most profound lesson that 1963 has to offer the present is about the power of collective, organized action . . . . Most of all [the civil rights activists, especially King] promoted a radical vision of American democracy with a tenacity that has almost allowed us to forget the long road we’ve traveled since then, and to pay scant attention to the hard journey that remains” (B12).

Some Reflections

In response to Joseph’s article, I’ll limit myself to four theological reflections which, taken together, underscore my hope that the March on Washington will finally reach the church, that our churches and seminaries will increasingly be places known for racial diversity, racial unity, and interracial healing. For the deepest and truest racial reconciliation is wrought by the cross of Christ, just as the ultimate reasons for honoring and loving our racially-different brothers and sisters are theological rather than social or political.

First, God built diversity into his good creation. In Genesis, we are told that God created the heavens and earth and declared it “good” and even “very good.” Part of that goodness is the multi-splendored diversity which marked both the human and non-human aspects of his creation. He could have created the world dully, grey, and monochrome. But instead, he created it pulsating with life and color. At the center of his creation stood humanity, who he created to live in a unified diversity, loving him and loving each other.

Second, Christ’s atonement enables the racial unity God desires and overthrows the racial arrogance he detests. During the dramatic narrative of Revelation 5, all of heaven’s inhabitants gather around the throne, as “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is a culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God who created humanity is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by black Americans and white Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans), and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship.

Third, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. As we noted, Revelation 5 depicts a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a corner by one tribe of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations.

Fourth, God calls us to shape our communities (socially and politically) in ways that preview his kingdom. As believers, we live in a time “between the times,” and one of our tasks is to bring every aspect of our lives (including social and political aspects) under submission to Christ’s Lordship. In so doing, God’s people provide a glimpse of the goodness that waits in Christ’s kingdom. In relation to racial unity and diversity, we are well served to ask three questions: what is God’s creational design for racial unity and diversity in the social and political realm? How has God’s design been corrupted and misdirected? How can we as Christians bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward Christ? To be concise to the extreme in answering those questions, God’s design is a unity-in-diversity fueled by Christian love. This design has been corrupted and derailed by racism and segregation at the personal and institutional levels, and often is perpetuated by our society’s mediating institutions (of which the church is one). Following the lead of men like Norman Peart (Separate No More) and Jarvis Williams (One New Man), we must build churches which picture the gospel in their racial makeup and witness, and which work hard in the social and political realm to make racial reconciliation and unity a tangible reality.

When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uni-racial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to win admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. In these days following the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, may we pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.

[1] Peniel E. Joseph, “Our Long Walk to Freedom” in The Chronicle Review (August 16, 2013: B10–12).

Honoring “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


By Mark Liederbach with Tom Iversen

April 16th marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Many (including us) rank his letter as one of greatest pieces of American literature ever written.  It is at once a powerful and elegant exposition of, and argument for, natural law as well as a sturdy call to repentance and an outright challenge for those who claim to be aligned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to stand up and be counted in the fight for truth and justice.  Fifty years later it is still poignantly relevant to a culture experiencing a full assault on notions of moral truth, ethical standards, religious conscience and rightly ordered freedom.

Sadly, too many evangelicals (both white and black) are unfamiliar with the masterpiece that is MLK Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But consider some of the astounding statements found within:

Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

The early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In considering the philosophical and biblical sturdiness as well as the theological and moral challenge present in the Letter, we can’t help but be drawn to the words and thoughts of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 that have a similar shaping influence on questions of justice, truth and morality.  There, in Athens, on Mars Hill, while engaging the Greek philosophers and bringing the truth of the Gospel into the marketplace of ideas, Paul made this remarkable statement:

and God made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being… (Acts 17:26-28. Italics added for emphasis). 

One Blood

In Him we live and move and have our being.

Ideas to rock the status quo and change a world.

One blood means there is only one race: the human one.  Thus, racism is fundamentally stupid and unbiblical.

In Him we live and move and have our being means all humans will only find hope fulfilled and a satisfied soul as each person rightly aligns him or herself to the God who created all things for His own glory.  And that can only happen through faith in Jesus Christ.

One important difference between Dr. King’s Letter and the Apostle Paul’s speech on Mars Hill relates to the audience to whom each was directed.  It is interesting to note that Dr. King made his argument not so much to unbelievers or those who directly persecuted him, but to his brothers and sisters in Christ.  His target audience was those tepid, timid “white churchmen [who] stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” and justify their inaction by saying “those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.”

Perhaps the reason the words of MLK Jr. and Paul are so powerful and transcend notions of race or ethnicity is not because of the elegance of the writing or the catchiness of certain phrases, but rather (and far more importantly), because truth always transcends categories of race and ethnicity.  And speaking truth in the face of injustice or ideas that stand in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of the key ways true Christ followers must “take captive” and “destroy” ideas and speculations that stand against the things of God in their own heats and in the culture at large.

It is for this reason that at the 50 year anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”  we are especially grateful to God for Dr. King and his calling all of us to be stand and fight not just for ending the moral stupidity of racism, but even more so, to be the kind of people who do not acquiesce to the ideas of culture but rather shape it for the Glory of God.

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood like a man and called all of us to be better.  Fifty years later he is still calling us up to be men with him.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is timeless work of ethics, philosophy, theology, amazing writing … AND a good reminder of two astounding truths: 1) The Gospel is thicker than blood (and therefore skin color) and; 2) our lives and our world can only be transformed into wholeness  through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

(Image credit)


Mark Liederbach is Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students, and is a Research Fellow for the L.Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Tom Iversen serves as an elder at North Wake Church in Wake Forest, NC.