Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Changing Times: the Christian in a secular society

The case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull was the subject of discussion recently both at the Westminster Fellowship and (very briefly) at a session of the Affinity Theology Study Conference at High Leigh. This is an article not a report; some of the better ideas are gratefully borrowed but I name no names and attribute no opinions; the interpretation of views is entirely my own, and I take full responsibility for its contents.

The legal background

Mr and Mrs Bull are the Christian hotel owners who refused on principle to allow a homosexual ‘couple’ to share a room in their private hotel, were sued by the ‘couple’ (with help from the Equality and Human Rights Commission) and subsequently ordered to pay £3600 in damages. The Christian Institute supported Mr and Mrs Bull.

In his judgement Judge Rutherford remarked on the changing social attitudes of the last 50 years which lay behind this case. He also accepted the homosexuals’ assertion that it had not been a ‘set up’ by Stonewall, and also accepted on behalf of the Bulls that they applied their policy fairly to unmarried heterosexual couples as well as homosexuals. Mrs Bull asserted that their concern has been to support marriage and not to discriminate against anybody.

In a statement on a breakfast TV programme Mike Judge of the Christian Institute said that Christian rights, particularly the evangelical beliefs of the Bulls, being a minority, needed to be protected as much as anyone else’s; he also made the point that legally an issue was that the judge in the case equated a civil partnership with marriage, which was not the case when the legislation came into force.

A further issue has been that the hotel was also the couple’s private home.

It is understood that the matter is going to appeal so the case is not yet closed.

So where do right and wrong lie from a Christian perspective? One has every sympathy for the Bulls, indeed admiration for them in making a strong and consistent stand to uphold biblical principles as they saw them. Homosexual practice is biblically wrong; it is sin, contrary to the seventh commandment and to nature. But how do we relate to such things when we are living and engaging in business in a society that allows homosexual partnerships a status almost (if not actually) identical to marriage?

What is our duty to God?

A starting point is Acts 5:29 – we must obey God rather than men. But what is it to obey God in such a case as this? To obey the commandments. But, Mr and Mrs Bull were quite evidently not in breach of any commandment. They were trying to ensure that the breach of God’s law did not take place under their roof – as someone said to me, they were seeking not to facilitate sin.

Now let’s deal with one aspect at a time. Was it their private home? That it was is a point emphasised by many of the Bulls’ supporters. But at the same time it was a home which they had opened up to the public, they were running it commercially and were operating it as a hotel. In a way they had forfeited the right to claim it as their ‘private home’ once they began running it as a business. The relationship between them and their guests was not as ‘father’ or ‘householder’ who is biblically responsible for his home and the behaviour that goes on in it, but as business people with customers, receiving money for services rendered.

What if they had been owners of a fifty room hotel, managed by someone else, a hundred miles from their home? Would they have operated their policy? Presumably yes; one assumes they want to uphold marriage in any property of which they are owners. So in a way the ‘private home’ issue is a bit of a red herring.

So then – the broader issue is - is a Christian biblically bound not to ‘facilitate sin’? Am I under an obligation not only to ‘not commit adultery,’ but to make sure as far as I can that others do not either? The answer may seem screamingly obvious – of course I am! But look at it a bit more broadly. What if no sexual act had taken place between the homosexuals that night – would that have satisfied the hotel owners? If they would not be satisfied with that, then presumably the fact of homosexual partnership is the problem, but then – why offer them single beds, as they were willing to do? Or, suppose that (as someone put it in one of the discussions referred to above) adherents of other religions, heterosexually married, carried out an act of idol worship in the bedroom before retiring for the night? Should I not be concerned to uphold the first commandment and the second as well as the seventh? Perhaps it would be argued that such an act of idolatry would not be as directly linked to the letting of a room as sexual relations. But the question remains: why privilege marriage as a ‘good’ to be protected; or, from another angle, why privilege the seventh commandment as a law to be preserved?

In other contexts, suppose a plumber takes on a job at a house only to find half way through that it is being used for immoral purposes? Is his work ‘facilitating sin’? What if I engage an odd-job man and he asks to be paid ‘in cash, please, guv’? I may have a strong suspicion why – but am I obliged to pay by cheque to try to stop HMRC being cheated? Does a Christian chemist (or let’s say, the manager of a chemist’s shop) only sell contraceptives to married couples? Do all Christian lawyers back out of family law because the divorce laws are unbiblical? Does a hairdresser refuse to give a lady an expensive hair-do because she feels very strongly that this lady is going to use it to attract men on a Saturday night and in addition to be very proud of it – and so sin upon sin is ‘facilitated’? Am I only concerned to prevent sexual sin? Why? Does it all depend on how much I know? When does ‘strong suspicion’ become ‘knowledge’?

I do not have as many answers as questions, but I suggest that once we take the ‘private home’ issue out of the equation and realise we are talking about the possibility of ‘facilitating sin’ in the course of business, it seems to me we are on very slippery ground in refusing to serve certain people because of the sins we feel sure (or even know) they are going to commit. Once we take the emotive homosexual issue out of the equation too, I wonder if quite a bit of the steam goes out of the case.

Rights, freedoms and duties

Much has been said about Christians’ rights and freedoms and the erosion of them in the face of the onslaught from secular pressures, in the van of which is the homosexual issue. In seeking guidance about how Christians should behave in such matters we need however to make an important distinction between rights and freedoms on the one hand and duties on the other.

‘Duties’ are what I owe to others, from a Christian point of view first to God but also under him to others. When duty to God and duty to others (notably the state) conflict, then I must obey God rather than man. At this level I am concerned that I am not compelled to sin and at this point a Christian may have to be prepared to suffer the consequences of disobedience to the state, unless the state allows ‘conscience’ clauses – a ‘right’ to opt out.

‘Rights’ are what I can insist on; their existence implies a duty in others to respect and protect them. These are usually enshrined in civil law but may be seen as rights of ‘natural justice’ such as are reflected in Human Rights legislation. In reality these depend on the law of the land at any given time. From a Christian point of view they are a privilege of which the Bible says very little, though when one has them (as Paul had rights as a Roman citizen) it is not wrong to insist on them and to fight within a democratic society to keep them or even expand them. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that if rights are taken away we are losing anything essential to being Christian. They were probably in short supply when Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7. The loss of rights may make a Christian life harder; it won’t in itself cause us to sin or fail in our duty to God. Historically, ‘rights’ are very much a product of western democracy in the last few centuries. The New Testament church lived in a very different world. Must we get more used to that?

‘Freedoms’ are the space the law gives us – something I can exercise at will but without obligation. They are good to have; they are not essential to being Christian.

A lot is said about Christians now no longer being able to exercise their faith in the ‘public square’ and therefore suffering discrimination. The exercise of such ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ however is not of the essence of being Christian; it depends on the legal framework in which a Christian lives. Western Christians have enjoyed privileges in this regard previously unknown in history. It is sad to lose them; in a democratic society we can do what we can to fight for them; but as they disappear we are not losing anything essential to Christianity.

The truth is that Christians are finding life increasingly uncomfortable in a society in which attitudes, as Judge Rutherford acknowledged, are changing, nowhere more so than in relation to sexual morality. The Bulls have fallen foul of this; so have some street preachers. In another case of a hotel owner against whom a Muslim brought a complaint, the law has supported the Christian. So it is not all one way.

We may feel that our ‘rights’ are being infringed – to have my morality (which as God’s morality is of course valid for all but which I cannot enforce in the case of other people) respected. But what ‘right’ has been infringed? What right do I have to insist on enforcing the Ten Commandments on others? Do others owe me a duty? They may owe a duty to God to obey – but then it is God’s prerogative to hold them accountable. He is the Judge. A right to define the morality of my own home? But then - harsh as this may seem – do not open up your home on a commercial basis. If you say ‘ but people should be able to determine who comes into their home’ then fine – but that is a matter of civil law, applicable to everybody, not a specifically Christian issue.

The conscience is also often mentioned. But what ‘right’ do I have to insist that others behave in certain ways so as not to offend my conscience? I may argue that the state should not offend my conscience, that is, by causing me to sin, but when I enter the business arena, do I have the right to demand that people do not offend me, or that they do not sin themselves?

What duty then do I have? To obey God. But how absolute is my obligation to God to avoid sin by others? I may do what I can within the laws of the land and in my own home, and do all I can to diminish sin; a love for my neighbour will cause me to try to stop him sinning so far as I can; but if I am to operate in society at all it is inevitable that in some way I will find myself ‘facilitating sin’. Otherwise I will find myself in the invidious position of judging others; discriminating between sins; and risking trivialising sin, as I inevitably focus on the more obvious ones and forget the awfulness and pervasiveness of sin. We are not, after all, to withdraw from the world (1 Corinthians 5:10).

I would have to conclude then that much as I sympathise with and admire the Bulls, I do not think their stand was biblically necessary to fulfil their duties to God. They have also found that they do not have the freedoms or the rights which perhaps they thought they had under the law. The Christian Institute will no doubt do the best they can for them here. But if they are to remain in business as hoteliers, they could, I believe, do so, allowing homosexuals to take rooms, without any compromise of their duty to God.

Wider issues

Moving on a little from the Bulls’ case, a wider issue is the question of the Christian conscience and whether it is a bit too tender among evangelicals these days. We are finding our rights and freedoms being taken away, and immediately leap to the idea of ‘conscience’ (which is essentially concerned with duty to God) to defend them. We perhaps need to think a bit harder about not only what my conscience demands, but what a biblically educated conscience should demand.

From another context, but not without relevance, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ views on the Christian in the workplace in his sermons on Ephesians 6:5-9 in Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home and Work are well worth looking at even though over fifty years old. He says for example of a Christian under pressure to go on strike, that he is part of the system and he should join it ‘whatever his personal views may be’ (Life in the Spirit, p.344). He writes of a Christian forced to work on a Sunday and says the issue is really: what would the Christian like to do if he had the freedom? If he really would like to be at worship, then the fact that his employment forces him to work makes it no sin for him. One may not agree with all his thinking, but his approach appears to be more robust (more in tune perhaps with Romans 13:1-7) than that of some evangelicals today who are very ‘rights’ conscious.

A recent booklet on employment law and the Christian does not clearly distinguish ‘feeling uncomfortable’ (e.g. about workplace policy on homosexuality) from an offended conscience, and equates being forced to miss Easter and Christmas with working on Sundays; and being asked to ‘lie’ by the boss with working a lottery machine. Now here are some clear breaches of the Ten Commandments put on the same level as things which make one feel ‘uncomfortable’. Maybe we need to return to a clearer understanding of the law of God! And while it may be a freedom or perhaps even a right to wear religious jewellery, it is hardly a Christian duty and therefore not a matter of conscience.

The conscience is far more than ‘feeling uncomfortable’ (and I am not at all suggesting this was the Bulls’ thinking). It is about my duty to God. In a ‘christianised’ society it is easy to slip into thinking that what have been assumed as rights and freedoms are to be equated with our duty to God; and what makes us uncomfortable is equivalent to sin. After all, did not Naaman surely feel uncomfortable with many things as he went back to serve his Syrian master? And, despite their personal purity, Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in his service of Nebuchadnezzar? And the ‘slaves in Caesar’s household’ (Philippians 4:22)?

This paper probably raises more questions than answers, but we do need to think hard about these issues and cases like that of the Bulls may help us to do just that.

12 comments:

  1. You said what I thought, but I had neither the eloquence nor the guts to.

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  2. Dear Mostyn,

    I have only read through your blog post quite quickly and while it seems shocking, you clearly have a point. You argue quite carefully, and no doubt with the professionalism of your legal qualifications too, so I am wary not to jump in and misinterpret you. Your argument needs to be read carefully and perhaps I need to read it again. I see the point about us not being able to stop the sinful actions of others, and especially when the law is against us. However I feel that you are missing something important about the battle that we are in and getting yourself into a pickle.

    I think that while in the early church Christians did indeed live in a very pagan society, and had no 'rights', the point is that Britain is a Christian country and should still have Christian laws. If a bad law has come in then it needs to be amended or repealed. Someone like a Wilberforce or a Shaftesbury needs to fight.

    Under Magna Carta we should not have to enter into contract or association with anybody unless we want to. That has been wrecked with Equalities Legislation.

    LIke you, I have also noticed the trap of Christians arguing for their 'rights'. Of course we are not arguing this from the standpoint of our "human rights" but from the point of view of what is right and wrong under God. What we need to do is to preach and to be prepared to back up our preaching with actions that may indeed by illegal if need be, such as refusing to sell a bed for the night to sodomites. Yes, there are a lot of other sins that we are not able to prevent others doing, but when we are able we should do what we can not to be aiding and abetting sin.

    Peter Ratcliff
    www.englishchurchman.com
    www.cofec.org/news/

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  6. Dear Peter,

    Many thanks.

    Could you just tell me please what you mean by a 'Christian country'?

    In grace,

    Mostyn.

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  7. We want to work towards society understanding again the right morality. So it can be helpful for people to see Christians' deep concerns and conscience values.

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  8. Does yesterdays judgment against the Johns change your view?

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  9. I assume this is the couple who weren't allowed to tell adopted or fostered children that homosexuality was wrong? I do not know the details so will not comment on that particular case but I don't think it would change my views on the Bulls. But I would want to know more about the Johns case before commenting further!

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  10. Wow time has flown!
    I think I can answer Mostyn's question very quickly as follows:
    We are a Christian Country because we have a Christian constitution.

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  11. May I simply add - it is righteousness that exalts a nation and therefore determines it's standing before God, hence no nation should consider itself especially protected by God's common grace if it does not demonstrate fear and respect for God. An unrighteous nation is open to the sport of the world, whatever that may be at the time, at the moment it appears to be economic failure and foolishness to say the least!

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