The commands of Christ include things like “love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:37), “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). These are not private obligations that happen behind the closed doors of a church. These obligations are carried out when Christians go to work or attend school or buy groceries. Jesus does not allow disciples to cordon off any aspect of their lives from these commandments—including baking cakes, taking pictures, or making floral arrangements.
Frank Bruni‘s illiberal New York Times column over the weekend has been rightly panned for being absolutely inimical to religious freedom. I encourage you to read responses from Ramesh Ponnuru, Albert Mohler, and Andrew Walker—all of them very well done and exposing the weaknesses of Bruni’s piece.
I agree with the sentiments above. Bruni’s argument constitutes extreme religious intolerance. He limits religious freedom to freedom of worship, arguing that Christians and other people of faith can follow their faith in their hearts or in their places of worship but have no constitutional right to practice their faith in the public square.
This is an understanding of religious freedom that has no basis in our nation’s laws or traditions, but that appears to be lost on Bruni. More concerning is that it is probably lost on your average secular American who in the main seems to be unfamiliar with our nation’s laws and traditions on this point. But that’s a discussion for another day.
I want to clarify why Bruni’s truncated definition of religious freedom will not work for American Christians. Indeed, it not only won’t work but would likely lead to a social conflagration that would effectively outlaw the Christianity. I know that may sound hyberbolic, but it’s not. Here’s why.
Commenting on the spate of recent cases in which state and local governments have coerced Christian business owners into participating in gay weddings, Bruni says this:
So why should a merchant whose version of Christianity condemns homosexuality get to exile gays and lesbians?
Baking a cake, arranging roses, running an inn: These aren’t religious acts, certainly not if the establishments aren’t religious enclaves and are doing business with (and even dependent on) the general public…
And I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts.
But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you.
Here’s the problem with this argument that ought to have been rather obvious. Christianity requires a commitment of one’s total life to Christ. It’s not just a matter of what goes on in one’s heart or in a church building. Christianity always has been and always will be a totalizing religion.
The commands of Christ include things like “love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:37), “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). These are not private obligations that happen behind the closed doors of a church. These obligations are carried out when Christians go to work or attend school or buy groceries. Jesus does not allow disciples to cordon off any aspect of their lives from these commandments—including baking cakes, taking pictures, or making floral arrangements. The apostle Paul says it this way:
And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father (Col. 3:17).
Jesus also says things like this to his disciples:
You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).
Jesus expects his disciples to live in such a way that their devotion to Christ is conspicuous to outsiders. In other words, Jesus says that our good works are to be manifest in public places where the unbelievers can see. To put a fine point on it: Among other things, that means that we not only follow Christ’s commands about marriage when we meet in our churches. It also means that we follow his commands when we are outside of our church buildings.
That is why so many Christian florists, bakers, and photographers are happy to employ and serve gay people. But they do not feel that they can in good conscience participate in their same-sex wedding ceremonies. To do so would be to deny Christ’s word, a denial that is not compatible with being a Christian. Jesus tended to be an absolutist on this point:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).
In other words, if you treat Jesus as Lord inside the walls of your church but do not treat him as Lord elsewhere, then you really aren’t his disciple. You are a religious hypocrite. His Lordship requires a commitment of the whole life, not just part of it. That is why Christians cannot hold a view of marriage in public that is in open contradiction of what Jesus says about marriage (Matt. 19:4-6).
It is also why Frank Bruni’s argument is so toxic. He wants to constrict religious freedom so that Christians are prohibited by law from following Christ outside the walls of the church—at least insofar as following Christ contradicts the values of the sexual revolution. Does he realize that his argument is intolerant of Christianity altogether? That is the logical conclusion of his case whether he realizes it or not.
There is no space for biblical Christianity in Bruni’s vision of America. It would effectively end religious freedom as we know it. I’m hopeful that most readers will recognize such extremism for what it is.
Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.