Christians are in Conflict in the Culture and the Courts

  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

Paul wrote the words above to people who lived in the capital city of the Roman Empire. Like any capital city, it had a large population of people from countries with a broad diversity of religions and cultures. The local residents considered themselves to be an elite and exquisite culture. Like many contemporary intellectuals they thought that their tolerance of diversity made their culture superior. At the time Paul wrote, the conflict between emperor worship and Christian monotheism was not yet the hot button issue it would become by the end of the century. It was possible for a Christian to live peaceably with most Romans and other cultures as long as they kept quiet.

Then, as now, Christians could survive without being threatened as long as they stayed under the cultural and legal radar. Then, as now, there were Christians who tried to live this way. Don’t make waves. Don’t rock the boat. Keep your head down.

The problem with that attitude is that it constitutes actual disobedience to the last command Christ spoke as he ascended to heaven. The Message puts it this way:Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life. Matthew 28:19a

Every Christian who actually tries to obey this command immediately encounters another problem. When any Christian speaks of his commitment to any Christian teaching, somebody is sure to recognize and point out any failure of the evangelist to live up to the teachings he claims to believe. Paul wasn’t kidding when he said that we all fall short, and those we meet in our daily comings and goings know all about our shortcomings. It makes it hard for us to stand firm on any principle. This doesn’t mean we should stop having principles, but it does mean we should be ready to deal with our own failings.

Currently, a lawsuit in New Mexico is a prime example of the way this situation can develop.

In July it was reported that Hope Christian School in Albuquerque had rejected the application of a three-year-old for its preschool program, because the child lived in a household headed by two men who live in a homosexual union. The letter of rejection said, in part, “Same gender couples are inconsistent with scriptural lifestyle and biblical teachings,” and “Home life doesn’t reflect the school’s belief of what a biblical family lifestyle is.”

The school is perfectly within its right, according to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, to express the faith principles of the administration of the school. However, the school administrators applied that same amendment to their acceptance of a grant of about $60,000 from government at some level not identified in the article, and this money has muddied the waters of the argument. Peter Simonson of the ACLU weighed in saying, “We don’t think agencies that discriminate or use religion to discriminate should be receiving our federal or government funds.”  The school almost certainly felt entitled to apply for the funds the same way any other school did, and felt simultaneously protected by the First Amendment in the expression of religious principles within the administrative operations of the school. The school believes it is in the right. Other citizens feel that this acceptance of government money completely invalidates the school’s right to act in faithful testimony to Christian teachings. The right of the school to administer a grant from government in accord with the religious principles of the school administration creates contention that is hard to separate from the school’s fundamental right to accept or reject applications from prospective students.

First Amendment or not, New Mexico’s Human Rights Act forbids “any person in any public accommodation to make a distinction, directly or indirectly, in offering or refusing to offer its services … to any person because of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, spousal affiliation, or physical or mental handicap.”  A lawsuit filed by the two men who claim to be the legal parents of the rejected child asks for “equitable relief, including their son’s acceptance into the school, and compensatory and punitive damages”  on the foundation that the school is engaged in public accommodation according to the New Mexico law. If the school meets the legal definition, then it is prohibited by state law from engaging in the listed forms of discrimination. However, the school states that the rejection was not wanton discrimination, but rather thoughtful expression of religious principle. The defendants had not published a response as of the most recent news available at this writing, but it seems possible that the definitions used as the foundation of this state law could be restrained by the liberty protected by Constitutional law. It remains to be seen.

The comments that accompany the many articles discussing this case make it clear that the culture is quick to judge, and not necessarily on the basis of the laws. Comments indicate that in the eyes of the secular culture, the very acceptance of government money means that the school accepted government standards. Nothing in the history of such grants actually supports such an assumption, but the assumption is pervasive. Many, many commenters were outraged that the school had even applied for the grant, but once the school accepted the grant, the culture jumped to the conclusion that the government owned the school and that the school had forfeited all its rights to Christian principles. Faithful Christians operating services such as schools, hospitals and adoption agencies routinely expect to be able to apply for such grants to cover all sorts of expenses. They all expect to be protected by the First Amendment in the use of the money while working within their Christian standards. It seems likely that this grant will not actually figure in the proceedings of the lawsuit, but it also seems likely that this case and others like it will result in cultural pressure on lawmakers to change the way grants work. How lawmakers will respond to that pressure, given the protection of the First Amendment, is not predictable, but the comments indicate that this issue is unlikely to go away.

Other comments show that the culture in general has a skewed impression of what Christian teaching is. Christians cannot try to be responsible for the cultural misconceptions, but it does make it difficult to speak of Christian convictions and Christian teachings when people who have never studied Christianity or the Bible assume that they really do know what Christians believe. This state of affairs makes it incumbent on every Christian to remember what Christ said about being called to account for ourselves. Jesus said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12) In other words, Christians need to be fervent in worship and prayer, nurturing the disciplines that draw them near to Christ and build the relationship with him. That relationship will bear fruit in the sort of cultural conflicts that are expressed in the comments surrounding the story of the Hope Christian School. The lawsuit is only about the school, but the comments reveal that this event is only one episode in an ongoing confrontation between the secular culture of the US and those who take Christian faith and life seriously.

Christians must be aware and attentive to news about cases like that of the Hope Christian School. It is a matter that calls for each Christian to draw near to Christ and to examine himself with the eyes of Christ. We need not fear the culture. Jesus said that the world would hate us, because it hated him first, and we can simply expect that. What we must fear is our own weakness and sinful nature that can rise up to destroy our testimony if we try to rely on our own wit and character in the fray. Each of us is always at risk of a confrontation similar to that of the school, and each of us is terribly at risk of having some Achilles heel in our lives that will make our enemies feel the way the enemies of Hope School feel when they see that the school received a government grant. We must do what Jesus taught us. We must stay close to him and trust that the Holy Spirit will teach us what to say and do. We can never be intellectually smart enough to defeat all the evil wiles of Satan, but we can trust the Holy Spirit to defeat Satan every time. The administrators of Hope Christian School need our prayers for their faithful submission to Christ in this time of trial, and while we are praying for them, we should pray for ourselves as well. The battle is fully engaged. If it is up to us, we must live peaceably, but it stops being up to us when we are asked to sell out our principles. We must stay close to the One who alone is able to defeat evil in time and eternity.

In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world! (John 16:33)