In a recent column for USA Today, Kirsten Powers uses some legislation in the Kansas state legislature as a foray for arguing that, for many Christians, the supposed fight for religious liberty is really just a fight for the “legal right to discriminate.” Pointing to recent efforts to protect a florist, a baker, and a photographer from being sued for their beliefs about marriage, Powers argues that these amount to the homosexual equivalent of Jim Crow laws.
Powers, herself a Christian, reminds us that Jesus calls us “to be servants to all,” which is, of course, correct. Yet, as many have already observed, those involved in these lawsuits have no qualms with serving gay customers. Their conflict, rather, is with the particular ends that such services would support. As Andrew Walker explains at First Things: “What’s at stake in this context is when individuals who provide material and artistic craft for weddings are then forced to take their talents and their creative abilities and use them for purposes that go against their consciences.”
Setting aside any differences over sexual ethics or the particular legislation at hand, it’s worth noting how Powers so decidedly divorces work from religion, and in turn, work from ethics. Are we really to believe that the ends of our economic activity are of no consequence?
Powers writes that most of those planning a wedding would be shocked to learn that their vendors and suppliers had some kind of religious principle or transcendent ethic driving their efforts. “Most people think they just hired a vendor to provide a service,” she writes. “It’s not clear why some Christian vendors are so confused about their role here.” Reinforcing this view, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley is quoted, advising Christians to “leave Jesus out of it” when it comes to discerning the shape of their economic output. Later, in a tweet responding to her critics, Powers still fails to see it. “Of all the pushback I’ve gotten on my column,” she writes, “not one person has explained when Jesus taught that baking a cake is an affirmation of anything.”
Of course, plenty of bakers, florists, and photographers don’t see their work as an affirmation of anything. For many, work is done solely for the purposes of filling their pocket-books, putting bread on their tables, providing an ample retirement, and perhaps yielding some smiles and satisfaction along the way.
But as Christians, we are called to affirm something and testify to someone — in all that we do. As Chris Marlink noted in response to Powers, Christians are called to put on a “new self,” complete with new practices. “Whatever you do, in word or deed,” writes the Apostle Paul, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Jesus served the sinner, but Jesus’ service — whether through acts of mercy, miraculous healings, feeding the thousands, or dying on the cross — was oriented toward redemptive purposes, the workings and arc of which were distinctly in the name of the Father. We are called to serve the sinner, but serve so that our sacrifice and generosity might bring light and life.
In a peaceful and pluralistic society, surely there’s a balance between (1) living peacefully and graciously among those with differing perspectives and (2) devoting our time, energy, and resources in the service of activities that which we deem false, destructive, and unethical. The market offers one solution to this problem, serving as an agnostic moderator of sorts, allowing for a flurry of diverse perspectives to emerge. But diverse and pluralistic markets require diverse sources, and Christians are simply asking that they retain a distinctive voice and influence amid an increasingly diverse economic landscape. When Powers downplays this witness by telling Christians they should just suck it up and “provide a service” like everyone else, she ignores the fundamental and wholly transformative mission we were called to in the first place. She moves the City on the Hill to the plains. She hides the Light under the bushel.
Yet I have a hard time believing Powers would carry this framework into other areas of application. Are poppy farmers in Afghanistan just providing a service? Is the Realtor brokering a deal for a brothel just providing a service? Is the IT professional who fixes the pornographer’s network just providing a service? I suspect that if Powers were a farmer, realtor, or web tech, she’d be uncomfortable providing any of these services, and rightly so. Jesus provided no specific instructions for or any prohibitions against any of these “services,” and yet each caries an undeniable moral weightiness.
Christian witness doesn’t happen accidentally or automatically. We cannot put a blindfold on our cake-baking, flower-arranging, or photo-taking and simply expect the Ultimate out of the Arbitrary. Transformation happens with an intentional, integrated approach to work, service, and the Gospel — one that includes grace, mercy, and justice, but in the context of rightly ordered and upwardly oriented ethics.
That is the debate, and those who gloss over it with platitudes about pluralism will surrender cultural and economic impact to those who hold up the standard, whatever theirs may be. The point may seem small, but properly sourcing and orienting our service impacts everything we do, from the work of our hands at the bottom to whether and how such work is unleashed or coerced from the top-down.
Christian service isn’t Christian service unless it’s Christianly, and Powers, Stanley, and far too many Christians appear all too eager to strip Word from Deed. The economic order needs light and life. Hide it under a bushel? No.