Freedom of religion is a valued tenet of American life. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or impeding the free exercise of religion.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage, which caused many Christians to fear their first amendment protections were eroding. Following this ruling, two Christian bakery owners refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. They believed they were demonstrating their personal convictions and their faithfulness to the Scriptures. Another situation has been in the news where one Christian owner of a flower shop refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding on the basis of their religious convictions. Though the vast majority of Christian business owners serve the general public without hesitation, conservative Christian pundits have praised the few who have denied service to same-sex couples saying they are standing for their faith. But are they?
As I’ve participated in missions work around the world, I’ve stayed in hotels and eaten at restaurants owned by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and a long list of other faiths. In the United States, I’ve often stayed in Marriott chain hotels, which are owned by Mormons. The gracious hospitality these establishments showed me did not indicate to me that they endorsed my Evangelical Christian faith. It meant they recognized me as a customer and treated me courteously and humanely. I appreciated it. Their willingness to trade with me earned them income and provided me the things I needed to fulfill my Christian calling. If they adopted the ideology of only doing business with those who believe and practice their same convictions, we Bible-believing Christians would be out in the cold and hungry, having been discriminated against because of our faith.
So let’s take this ideology to its logical conclusion. If we Bible-believing business owners refuse to serve those with whom we disagree or who violate our Christian convictions, we will run into a problem. Jesus taught that anyone who marries a divorced person is committing adultery (Paul gives us limited exceptions). So should Christian florists avoid selling flowers to those who are celebrating their second, third, or fourth Christian wedding? The Bible teaches that we should not forsake the gathering of ourselves together. So should a Christian bakery refuse to provide pies and cakes to a family that does not attend church? And the Bible is very clear about the necessity of praying without ceasing. Does this mean we should refuse to do business with people who do not have a consistent prayer life?
Of course these examples sound absurd. But they are no more absurd than a business owner refusing to serve someone in the public under the guise that the customer violates their core religious beliefs. Where do we draw the line? Just with same-sex couples? Or with those who don’t participate in our denomination? Or with those who are in our denomination but don’t practice their faith the way we think they should? With this way of thinking, a devout Catholic car salesman wouldn’t sell to a Protestant, a good Baptist would refuse to rent a room to a Church of Christ member, and the Dalai Lama would starve to death trying to travel in Europe, America, or the Middle East.
Religious leaders mislead Christians when they state Christians are being denied religious liberty when the businesses and corporations they established for the purpose of serving the public, are, in fact, required by law to serve the public. Serving the public is simply serving the public.
Nothing in the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage requires us as individuals or churches to attend, support, endorse, or perform same-sex marriages. Actually, the Supreme Court decision articulates that this decision must never be construed in any way to restrict religious worship or expression. But just as Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu hotel owners rent me a room and provide me meals while I am in their cities for Christian meetings, so should Christians who own public business serve the public, without passing judgment on their customers’ personal choices. This practice does not violate our Christian faith.
How do we know? Because of the way Jesus responded to sinners. Just one of many New Testament examples is in Matthew 9:10-11 which reminds us, “Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher [Jesus] eat with such scum.’” Another would be when Jesus fed the multitudes, he did not exclude any particular sinners. Certainly Christ had no problem at all serving the general public, even sinners. He did that very thing on the cross.
I am confident the Christian owners of bakeries and flower shops are well aware that it is not their self-righteousness that saves them, but Christ’s righteousness freely given to them by God’s grace. It might be wise for all of us who are enjoying the grace Christ has given us to extend that same grace to others. We might even go so far as to let them eat cake and enjoy some flowers too.
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