Chinese Church Voices

How American Christians are Responding to Pluralism

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


The online publication Territory recently published a piece titled “In a Pluralistic Society, How are we to deal with those who hate the church?” Writing to an audience of Chinese Christians, the author presents the current religious landscape in the United States, particularly as it relates to issues such as so-called same-sex marriage and religious liberty. It’s a good reminder to Chinese believers that, even in a land known for religious liberty, there are (growing) tension points between the church and society, and that Christians need to be prayerful and wise in managing these tensions and divisions so as not to further alienate people from the church and the gospel.

‪In a Pluralistic Society, How Are We to Deal With Those Who Hate the Church?

‪In recent years, because the issue of same-sex marriage has been pushed to the fore, traditional American views of marriage and morality have been greatly challenged. As a result, there continues to be conflict between sexual discrimination and religious freedom. Most people are familiar with the accounts of Mozilla's CEO being forced to step down due to his support for a traditional view of marriage. Chick-fil-A's boss also received a lot of flak, including a boycott, for supporting a traditional view of marriage.

‪With its legalization in various states, Christians believe that same-sex marriage changed the definition of marriage. This has created a contradiction by violating believers' faith and consciences. For example, some cake shop owners, photographers, and florists who refused to service marriages of same-sex partners have been taken to court. Recently, Kim Davis, an employee of a county in the state of Kentucky, refused to issue a marriage certificate for a same-sex marriage, causing a nationwide uproar.  Davis was also taken to court.

‪In all of these legal cases, without exception, the advocate for equal rights for gay marriage has won. The person fighting for religious freedom has lost. Aside from any legal discussions, what other overlooked insights can this type of conflict reveal to us? In a pluralistic society, in the face of challenges to religious freedom, how should Christians speak and act in order to have more influence while sharing truth?

‪Religious Freedom Does Not Mean That Christians Are Not Required to Follow the Law

‪The United Nations' "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" states in Article 18, paragraph 1 that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching."

‪As can be seen, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion are inseparable. In the United States, ever since Congress passed the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the separation of church and state, were completely assured. Various states therefore amended their religious policies.

‪"Religious freedom" at the very least means freedom of religious belief, and that believers and the church are completely free from government interference in their doctrine, worship, moral precepts, and religious practice. For example, although same-sex marriage is legal in the U.S., the government cannot force clergy to preside over a same-sex marriage; this is within the parameters of religious freedom.

‪However, the applicable parameters of religious freedom are often beset by challenges because of the other forms of freedom with which it comes into contact, or because the boundary between church-state separation is breached. Take, for example, the "freedom" to implement public prayer in public schools. This custom has been in place for many years in various places in the United States. After society gradually became more pluralistic, some problems arose. On the one hand, it seemed as though atheists were forced to participate in prayer, which was a violation of their religious freedom. On the other hand, this violates the principle of church-state separation. In 1963, the US Supreme Court declared any form of public prayer in public schools illegal.

‪But, this is only the start of a chain of events in the dispute over religious freedom, and it is a big issue that America must face as it moves toward becoming a pluralistic society.

‪Let's review a minute. In 1955, because he had encountered various troubling cases of "religious freedom," California Chief Justice Roger J. Traynor summed up his position on religious freedom in the U.S. by saying that he believed religious freedom does not mean one does not need to obey the law. He said, "Although freedom of conscience and freedom of religion is absolute, freedom of action is not absolute."

‪Because federal law always overrides state law, if a law is in accord with state law but violates federal law, the state law will be ruled illegal. But laws or regulations also have their good and bad points. What kind of laws would be considered as "draconian?" According to Wikipedia, "All oppressive and unjust laws (poor treatment), as well as absurd, self-contradictory laws are 'draconian.'" Although there is perhaps a lot of room for interpretation here, nevertheless the spirit of the law is very clear.

‪In 1963, in response to an open letter from eight religious leaders who criticized him for not obeying the law, Revered Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from a prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He said, in the world "there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.'"

‪To counter draconian laws, Revered King presented a practical means of expression: civil disobedience. Acts such as speeches, sit-ins, marches, hunger strikes, etc. were all peaceful means of protest. In contrast with radical violence, Revered King's "civil rights movement" used public, peaceful protests as a means to finally accomplish their goal of changing the law. In 1964, Congress passed the "Civil Rights Act," and then the 1965 "Voting Rights Act," signed by President Johnson, officially became federal law.

‪Although the U.S. civil rights movement is different from the issue of religious freedom, it is however closely related to the issue of freedom of conscience. A speech based on biblical principles delivered by Revered King impassioned the entire nation's sense of right and wrong, and captured the public's imagination.

‪Then why is it so difficult to arouse sympathy today from the American people for the debate today over religious freedom and the Bible?

‪Public Uproar Triggered by a Cake

‪Oregon state law prohibits any discrimination by public commercial businesses (e.g. shops, restaurants) against homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered people. In January of 2013, a lesbian couple, Bowman and Cryers, went to the Kleins' bakery to order a wedding cake. After the Kleins became aware of the couple's whole story, they refused service on the grounds that it would violate their Christian faith. We know that the wedding cake would have had two female figurines on top and the word "congratulations" written on it.

‪The result is that Bowman and Cryers reported the Kleins to the Department of Labor and Industry claiming that they had been discriminated against. Many people think, "A cake doesn't cost that much money. If this shop doesn't want your business, why don't you just go to a different one? Is it really that serious of an issue? Do you really have to sue them? Why not respect other people's beliefs?" But, at the same time other people believe, "This is clearly discrimination and violates the consciences of homosexuals. They must report it."

‪The Department of Labor and Industry decided the case in July and ruled against the Kleins, ordering them to compensate Bowman and Cryers a total of $135,000 dollars. Why was the punishment so severe? A cake, even an expensive one, is less than $100 dollars.

‪At the same time, sympathetic Christians set up a fund online for the Kleins.  Supporters leapt at the chance to donate money. The total of $372,000 received in donations was more than enough to pay the fine! On the surface this seems like a happy ending, but it is not.

‪When the Kleins refused service to Bowman and Cryers, they were loyal to the faith and did not use any other excuses. They read Leviticus 20:13 to Bowman and Cryers, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them." They never thought that Bowman and Cryers would not only be unappreciative, but also that they would become enraged with them.

‪After Bowman and Cryers sued, the Kleins posted all of their private information, including their names, address, phone number, and email on Facebook. As a result, Bowman and Cryers received various threats, verbal abuse, and ridicule. The court held that this was a kind of malicious attack (i.e. "doxx").

‪Not only that, but Bowman and Cryers have two adopted children. After they were exposed, the state government warned them that if they could not protect the children's stability, the state government would consider withdrawing their parental rights, which made them very frightened. On top of that, although they refused any interviews, they received a lot of media attention. And, they were subject to constant harassment and even death threats. They were on the edge of losing custody of their children.

‪Yet at the same time, the Kleins became darlings of the media, giving interviews and receiving a lot of sympathy. But, because of the media attention the Kleins and their children were also subjected to harassment and death threats. Out of fear of being harassed they closed the bakery, suffering a rather large economic loss.

‪Public opinion has become polarized regarding this incident. A civilized society that has always emphasized religious freedom and justice has suddenly become so critical with the conflict and division brought on by the same-sex marriage issue! Perhaps this is something the founders of the nation never expected, right? This is a situation worth reflecting on.

‪"Three Ways Christians Turn Off People from Church"

‪How should people in a pluralistic society where people hold different religious, moral, and ethical views treat each other? Although the Kleins cited Scripture to Bowman and Cryers, it was ineffective because Bowman and Cryers perhaps do not accept the authority of the Bible. They probably thought that this was just a threatening power game. Both sides probably did not relax their stance, transparently laying out their opinion, and come with a sympathetic heart to try to understand each other's position.  Therefore both sides became very upset and their subsequent actions only deepened their animosity.

‪In other words, many people in civil society lack a fundamental attitude of respect toward each other. The problem is not only how to tolerate dissent, but how to treat each other in a positive way. For Christians, a very important issue is how to reduce people's unnecessarily resentful attitude toward Christianity.

‪Vince Antonucci is a Las Vegas church pastor. His church is a "church for people who don't like church." He recently wrote an article in Relevant Magazine entitled, "Three Ways Christians Turn Off People from Church." He pointed out that there are three attitudes and practices that distance people from the church.

‪First, we do not lead with love. People need to hear truth and love, and truth is precisely the message Christianity has to share. If you want to prevent people from becoming interested in God, a good way is to lead with truth. People want to hear the message of truth, but they do not want to hear it from a jerk. If you want to win the trust of another person by talking a lot about truth, you will encourage people to see you as a hateful person. In short, unless you take the initiative to communicate with people in love, your faith will become an obstacle to people knowing God.

‪Second, the church is the gathering place of "the saints." We do not first bring people before God, rather we first use our customary Christian lens to measure up other people. If the person's behavior does not measure up to our standards or does not conform to "saintly" propriety, we unthinkingly reject them as "not one of us."

‪Third, the church is a body of people with shared faith, rather than a gathered body of broken people. In general, the church congregation not only has a shared faith, but also has similar values and interest. Believers can come off as arrogant. And because they are unknowingly self-selective they exclude people who are different from them. However, if the church is a gathering place of spiritually broken people, then believers should be humble and more accepting of others. As Joni Eareckson Tada has said, "We are all beggars (spiritually broken, defeated, homeless). We remind each other where we go to eat.

‪So, what should a bakery owner do to avoid becoming an obstacle to people knowing God? This is a core issue to which we should give deep consideration.  And this is not just a struggle for religious freedom. Although there is nothing wrong with their doing it that way, that line of thought is passive, negative, and simply alienating. From a more positive view of social influence, their way of thinking is totally ineffective.

‪We are all broken and filthy and we need our feet washed.

‪Malcolm Gladwell, a top writer for the New Yorker and the author of such best-selling books as The Tipping PointBlink: The Power of Positive Thinking Without Thinking, and Outliers: The Story of Success, recently gave a speech at the Q Ideas forum on the topic "Legitimacy." He spoke on ways people deem authority (religion, law) to be legitimate. He gave three necessary factors:

‪First, respect others. Respecting the authority of others makes people feel that their views are heard.

Second, be fair and reasonable. Authority makes people feel that the rules of the game are fair and reasonable, that there is no discrimination or favoritism.

‪Third, be trustworthy. Authority gives people a sense of reliability that things will not unpredictably change or that one's words and actions are consistent.

‪If these three are lacking on any point, problems will arise in people's convictions. So, in the controversy over religious freedom, even though positions differ, do both sides check to see if they respect their counterpart's position and if they have closely listened to their viewpoint? In order to preserve the rules of the game in this controversy, do we form a fair and objective opinion? Are our words and actions consistent, or do we distort the truth?

‪Malcolm Gladwell uses the example of Jesus Christ washing the feet of the disciples to explain that, in the moments before he was about to change the whole world, at the Last Supper Christ demonstrated a posture and action of humble service to others. Christ instructed his disciples to use this same attitude to serve others, to make those similarly broken people experience hope from the loving heart of the disciples, to see the kindness of God that is given through the suffering Christ endured on the cross.

‪In a pluralistic society, each group has its own story, its own context. Each group wants to pass on its own values and to fight for their rights. Jesus may not be able to solve all the world's problems. But, through his washing of the disciples' feet, and through the cross, he presented a more universal context and a subversive message. We are all broken and dirty. We all need our feet washed, no exceptions. Jesus brought the greatest "tidings of great joy" in the history of mankind.

‪On September 14, 2015, Kim Davis went back to work after being released from prison for refusing to issue a marriage license for a same-sex marriage. A crowd of people came from all over and filled the streets to show support for her. They shouted at same-sex couples who had come to apply for marriage licenses. People held signs saying, "Destroy Sodom" and "Repent" and pictures depicting the Final Judgement. Obviously, they love Davis, they love the United States, and they are worried about the change in society's moral order. However, it seems no one was holding a sign saying, "We Are All Broken" or "Jesus Loves You." Why?

‪There are different reflections among Christians regarding the challenges to religious freedom in a pluralistic society. Yet, the principles of our actions should be the same and they should be interconnected. That is, this is not a power struggle. We bear the same compassion to let people know the origins and truth of the Bible.

‪The key is: How can we do this in a more influential way?

Original article: 多元化社会,如何面对那些厌恶教会的人?(Territory)

Image credit:By Jyri Engestrom (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jyri/2567462898/) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

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