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When Is Discrimination Acceptable?

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This article was originally posted in February of 2014.

There has been a recent national discussion regarding religious discrimination and homosexuality. The most recent debate centered on a bill passed by the Arizona legislature that would have permitted a person or business not to serve someone based upon religious conviction. Central to the discussion was the example of a baker refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding. Gay advocates call that discrimination. Their opponents cited religious rights not to participate in sinful behavior. To the relief of many, the bill was vetoed by the Arizona governor.

For the purposes of this article I am not concerned with the law. My concern is what the Bible has to say about a difficult topic such as this.

What is discrimination? In politically correct speak, discrimination is to judge or unfairly treat an equal person in a demeaning manner based upon or because of a difference in race, culture, religious view, or any other number of traits. This view of discrimination is the primary concept that most people operate under. However, discrimination is not a bad word. People discriminate against others all the time, for many reasons, and never think twice about it. I recently read a news story about a couple with a special needs child that was enjoying a dinner at a restaurant. The child was a bit loud, perhaps a bit disruptive. The waiter heard a couple at a nearby table say that the special needs child “should be special somewhere else.” Upon hearing this, the waiter informed the couple that he refused to serve them and invited them to go somewhere else for dinner. When word of the waiter’s action went viral the public overwhelmingly praised the waiter for discriminating against the couple solely for voicing their private views about special needs children. Make no mistake, the waiter’s actions were a form of discrimination—but a form that we rightly praise. Why? Because his discrimination was based upon behavior. As a society we rightly look upon this form of discrimination as acceptable.

There is no moral equivalency between racial discrimination and behavior discrimination. Society has already had the racial conversation and most of us agree that racial discrimination is morally wrong and therefore, we condemn it. We also condemn religious discrimination though it is not, by definition, racial. This is because we have learned the lesson of history that religion forms people groups, a sub-culture of society, and we must protect these members of society as equal in value and citizenship. Just as we condemn discrimination against Christians, we should also condemn discrimination against Muslims, or Wiccans, or any other community-group based solely on what they believe. We may disagree with their philosophy and even in some cases call it wrong because we have a differing set of beliefs or values. But there is a difference between discriminating against a belief system or set of values and discriminating against the persons who make up that group. All of this is very pertinent to the recent national discussion regarding discrimination against the religious and the homosexual.

Should people be allowed to refuse products or services (of any kind) to homosexuals based solely on religious convictions? Since my concern in this article is with morality and the scriptures, I will try to address this issue solely from that perspective. There are others far more qualified than I am to discuss the historic or legal issues.

Question: Does the Bible encourage discrimination based upon homosexuality? First, I’d like to point out that you won’t find a Bible passage that says to refuse to serve someone because of their sin, no matter what it might be. However, the Bible does teach us, in very direct language, that we must not be participatory in that sin. Ephesians 5:11 states, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” At the same time the scripture also warns believers not to disassociate themselves from nonbelievers no matter what their sin may be. In I Corinthians 5 the Apostle Paul instructs us to maintain relationships with nonbelievers, even those, like homosexuals, who commit acts of sexual sin. The only people Paul says to disassociate ourselves from are believers who rebelliously commit these sins—but not unbelievers. Look at Paul’s wording: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges” I I Corinthians 5:9-13).

In light of systematizing these passages I think that framing the issue as a gay issue is, to a degree, missing the mark. I’d rather frame the question this way: “Does the Bible encourage discrimination based upon behavior?” To this question the answer is unequivocally, yes. The catch is, what does the scripture mean in Ephesians 5:11 when it tells us not to “participate” in such deeds? What qualifies as participatory?

In the early years of my faith I had a friend I knew since high school who once came to visit me at the Christian radio station where I worked. We had similar professions, in a sense. I was a DJ at a radio station. But he was a DJ at a strip club. During his visit he asked me where he could find the kind of mic boom that we used in our studios. He wanted the same kind for his DJ booth. Not being very strong in my faith and a little afraid of losing his friendship I gave him the contact information for the distributor that sold the mic booms. Though I was not responsible for the kind of work that he did, I nevertheless contributed to his work by helping him acquire something that would make his work easier or more effective. In other words, I participated in his success as a strip club DJ. By helping him in that way I violated Ephesians 5:11 and sinned—which I later confessed.

When are we participatory in someone’s sin? When we aid or provide some kind of support for the action of sin. Let’s use another example. Let’s say a prostitute and her john walked into a restaurant. They are there for a “date” before running off to a hotel room. They have general conversation. You take their order and serve their food. Are you participatory in their sin? In this case I’d say no. There is no sin in serving food to anyone. However, let’s say that their dinner conversation includes negotiating over the details of when and where their business was to take place. In such a case an illegal as well as immoral action is taking place and the restaurant is being used as a place of negotiation for an illegal act. Continuing to serve them, knowing what is happening, is participatory. In fact, you may even have a legal obligation to report them to the authorities.

Are we responsible for what a person might do with the product or service we may provide? In most cases, no. If we have no knowledge of a crime or sin in the making then we are innocent in serving that person. We are not participatory. But if we know what is happening then we have a decision to make. The important thing to understand is whether or not our actions or inactions directly facilitate the sin to be committed. If your restaurant is being used to arrange the details of a sin or crime, and you know about it, then you are morally obligated to withdraw service. You may discriminate based upon behavior.

If a gay couple walks into your restaurant for a meal, should you seat them? Yes. Their relationship exists prior to your service and your service of food doesn’t contribute to their lifestyle. Discriminating in this case would be unacceptable. However, if you rent them a hotel room for an hour that is another matter. Your service helps to facilitate their sin, which Ephesians 5:11 tells us not to do.
I can find no place in scripture where it is acceptable to discriminate against someone because he or she is gay. Nor can I find a place in scripture to discriminate against a person who was convicted or murder, or rape, or theft, or perjury, or any other sin. This is discrimination based upon status. There is no place in scripture that gives permission for discrimination based solely upon status. In addition, as a Christian, how can you show love and forgiveness to a person if you are unwilling to serve them? It is impossible to show God’s love to a person you refuse to serve.

What was Jesus’ attitude? Jesus condemned sin, but at the same time he extended grace to the sinner. Very often in these kinds of discussions some people refer to Jesus’ word in John 8:11 when Jesus told an adulterous woman, “Go and sin no more.” In fact, Jesus actually, said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In this context the woman was about to be killed for her sin. Had Jesus not intervened she surely would have been stoned to death. When Jesus said he did not “condemn” her he meant that he would not condemn in the sense that he wasn’t going to condemn her to death. But in terms of condemnation for sin he actually condemned her sin. Note that he said, “Go and sin no more.” His use of the word sin was condemnation and he warned her not to do it. But grace and forgiveness was extended at the same time when he said, “Go.” In other words, go free.

Churches regularly welcome homosexuals, and all types of sinful people into their doors without discrimination. In my 30 years as a Christian I’ve never attended a church where a sinner was not welcome, no matter what that sin was. Welcoming or inviting a homosexual couple to a church isn’t participatory in their sin. It is an extension of grace. But surely, over time, they will hear the message of the Gospel, that Jesus condemned sin on the cross.

If we want a truly Christian society then we cannot discriminate against a person’s status—gay or not. But at the same time we cannot participate or facilitate the actions of sin (behavior). In such cases we must discriminate, but like Jesus we should do so while expressing a love and willingness to forgive no matter what that sin may be or how often it is committed.