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Kirsten Powers’ Understanding Of Sin And Conscience Lacks A Biblical Foundation

Kirsten Powers’ Sunday column on same-sex marriage and religious liberty is a masterpiece of Biblical ignorance.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul devotes ample space to the discussion of whether Christians should partake in ceremonies they believe to be sinful. His verdict? They shouldn’t. Unfortunately for Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt, that passage appears to be missing from their Bibles.

Powers and Merritt’s Sunday column on same-sex marriage (“Conservative Christians Selectively Apply Biblical Teachings in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate“) is a masterpiece of Biblical ignorance wrapped with a sturdy veneer of rhetorical sleight of hand. Powers/Merritt are clearly entitled to their own political beliefs, but they are not at all entitled to claim that the Bible somehow demands affirmation of sin from faithful Christians. The age-old game of “Did God really say ______?” (Genesis 3:1) has never turned out well for humanity.

The over-arching point of the Powers/Merritt column is that some Christians are being hypocritical and anti-Biblical by refusing to provide their services or products in support of a same-sex wedding ceremony or reception. They support their main point by making three different assertions: 1) that nobody’s conscience is actually violated since work and affirmation aren’t the same thing, 2) that the Bible never says Christians should avoid working to further activities or goals that are sinful, and 3) that a Christian who refuses to work at a same-sex wedding is a hypocrite if he or she doesn’t reject work that would further any and all other sinful activities.

It doesn’t take long for their column to go off the rails, as the title itself acts as a powerful indictment of their own supposedly Biblical arguments. Nowhere in the Bible can you find an affirmation for same-sex marriage or same-sex sexual relations. Marriage is defined as an institution between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24), and that very definition is later affirmed by Christ (Matthew 19:4-12). Before the Powers/Merritt argument can even get off the ground, it must first “selectively apply biblical teachings” regarding the very definition of marriage — one that is given to us as part of the creation story and again explicitly affirmed by Christ.

With that incredibly important point out of the way, let us turn to the three main arguments furthered by Powers/Merritt.

Society Cannot Cleanse My Conscience

Their first assertion relies on a clever (yet obvious) rhetorical dodge regarding conscience protections:

Many on the left and right can agree that nobody should be unnecessarily forced to violate their conscience. But in order to violate a Christian’s conscience, the government would have to force them to affirm something in which they don’t believe. This is why the first line of analysis here has to be whether society really believes that baking a wedding cake or arranging flowers or taking pictures (or providing any other service) is an affirmation. This case simply has not been made, nor can it be, because it defies logic.

Although they attempt to set up the paragraph with an affirmation that no individual should be forced to violate his or her conscience, they immediately segue to a discussion of who determines when a conscience has been violated. Is it up to me to determine that my conscience has been violated? Not according to them. Powers and Merritt write that “the first line of analysis here has to be whether society believes” that my conscience has been violated. If you want to know if an individual’s conscience has been violated, would it not be easier to ask the individual, rather than asking “society”?

While Powers/Merritt may certainly envy the power to determine whose conscience is clean and whose isn’t, that power thankfully does not belong to either of them:

I speak the truth in Christ–I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1).

Would Powers and Merritt, under the guise of Biblical Christianity, seek to deny faithful Christians the right to conform their thoughts and actions to the Holy Spirit, and instead force them, via the threat of government force, to conform to the whims of society? I hope not, but that appears to be what they are endorsing.

Yes, The Bible Does Say Participation Is Affirmation

Next, after asserting that your conscience can be cleansed or dirtied only by society, Powers and Merritt argue that it’s irrelevant anyway, since the Bible itself never says that working in furtherance of sinful behavior is the same as engaging in that sinful behavior:

Nor does the Bible teach that providing such a service should be construed as participation or affirmation. Yet Christian conservatives continue to claim that it does.

Again, this argument is without Biblical basis, which may be one reason why they offered no scriptural verses in support of it. As mentioned above, the teachings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 could not be more relevant to the discussion of whether Christians should partake in ceremonies they believe to be sinful. Although the passage may superficially appear to be related to idolatry and the worship of false gods, it is actually a discussion of sin, which requires us to elevate our own desires above those of God. You cannot sin until you have rejected God and replaced His teachings with the false idol of your own judgment.

So what does Paul say about whether Christians can in good conscience participate in ceremonies that willfully reject God’s commands (1 Corinthians 10:14-15)?

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.

However, it is not just for our own consciences that Paul instructs us to avoid participating in ceremonies that celebrate sin. He also commands us to abstain so that we may not corrupt the consciences of those who freely partake of the festivities. Why? According to the notes accompanying my copy of the NIV Study Bible, we must not partake because the other individuals, “whether believer or unbeliever, may think you condone, or even are willing to participate in” the sinful ceremony.

And then there’s the specific command in Romans to not offer yourself as an instrument of sin (Romans 6:13):

Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

The Bible says many, many things about sin, but it never tells faithful followers of Christ to actively condone sinful behavior or to use their God-given gifts and abilities to knowingly aid or abet sinful behavior.

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31-32).

It is simply impossible to simultaneously condone sin and work for the glory of God.

The Bible Does Not Demand Sinful Consistency

Powers’ and Merritt’s final implication, taken to its logical conclusion, is that if Christians haven’t perfectly rejected all sin, they must therefore accept and affirm all sin:

If you refuse to photograph one unbiblical wedding, you should refuse to photograph them all. If not, you’ll be seen as a hypocrite and as a known Christian, heap shame on the Gospel. As all Christians know, Jesus saved his harshest words for the hypocritical behavior of religious people. So, if Christian wedding vendors want to live by a law the Bible does not prescribe, they must at least be consistent.

At first glance, that particular paragraph seems to make a lot of sense: Christians should be consistent. It’s tough to disagree with that. We should be blameless (1 Thessalonians 3:13)! Unfortunately, that is not the world in which we live. Instead we are fallen and sinful and hopeless but for the grace of Jesus Christ.

The question, then, is how are sinful Christians to govern their behavior in a fallen world? Should we acknowledge our depravity and hypocrisy and give in to sin in the name of consistency, or fight the good fight knowing that our efforts will be in vain? When you dig a little deeper into that paragraph from Powers and Merritt and take it in context with the rest of the column, what you find is not a call for Christian perfection, but a demand that we accept our hypocrisy on sin A by affirming sin B.

The clear implication is that if you fail to perfectly apply your faith to all situations, then you probably need to support same-sex marriage to be consistent. To support their point, they cite evidence that some Christians provide services to weddings where the newlyweds are clearly engaged in sinful behavior and not sufficiently respectful of the Biblical institution of marriage. They have a point, to a certain extent. We Christians should seek to avoid sin in all its forms, rather than arbitrarily deciding when to be offended by it.

But they lose their grip on that point by conflating a pure institution (male-female marriage) that may nonetheless be corrupted by sinful people, with a Biblically impure institution (same-sex marriage) that is sinful by definition. For obvious reasons, Powers and Merritt would rather the discussion be about sinners and saints than about right and wrong: it’s easier to marginalize a sinner than it is to wave away sin.

But there is a reason so many faithful Christians, in spite of their sins, are so protective of the God-given institution of marriage. Biblical marriage is a sanctifying institution, which is one reason why many Christian denominations treat marriage as a sacrament on par with communion and baptism, both of which are freely denied by the Church when it is clear that its potential participants (or their guardians) have no interest in the underlying reason or importance of the sacraments.

More important than the distinction between pure and impure institutions, though, is the logical conclusion of the Powers/Merritt hypocrisy argument. According to their apparent reading of the Bible, Christ commands us not to be resolutely faithful, constantly striving to live according to the the perfect example He set for us, but to be consistently sinful: ’tis better to get everything wrong and avoid the charge of hypocrisy than to try and do good and inevitably fail. Unfortunately, that is the exact opposite of what the Bible commands us to do (Ephesians 5:8-11):

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

While they nearly stumbled onto an incredibly important point — hypocrisy is an evil that all Christians should strive to avoid because of its corrupting effect on both Christians and those who bear witness to their sins — Powers and Merritt stepped all over their point by snarkily implying that if Christians really want to be taken seriously, they should just work on behalf of all kinds of sinful ceremonies instead of consistently rejecting work on behalf of same-sex marriages:

Rather than protecting the conscience rights of Christians, this looks a lot more like randomly applying religious belief in a way that discriminates against and marginalizes one group of people, while turning a blind eye to another group. It’s hard to believe that Jesus was ever for that.

Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt are right. Jesus would never be for that, because Jesus Christ would never demand that his followers accept and affirm sin in the vain hope that their public display of sinful behavior, consistently applied, might eventually earn the approval of mankind.

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