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We’re Not the Moral Majority

A Faithful Remnant in an Unfaithful World - Part 1

Anyone paying attention to American news reports over the last month or so will have heard of the “wedding cake controversy.” As background, earlier this year the state legislature of Indiana passed a law, modeled on a federal law signed by President Clinton, which laid out a process for courts to determine if government action and regulation imposes an undue burden on religious freedom, and for religious persons feeling burdened by the government to defend their actions in court.

The intent of the law as passed in Indiana was to protect religious believers from being forced to participate in events or perform services that violated their spiritual convictions—for example, a Christian baker who refused to bake a cake for a homosexual “wedding.” In some jurisdictions, similar incidents have occurred where Christians objecting to forced participation in homosexual “marriage” ceremonies have been penalized. This has happened very recently in Washington state, where a 80-year-old Christian florist refused to provide floral arrangements for a homosexual couple’s ceremony and was sued by the state’s attorney general for discrimination. The reaction from the homosexual lobby, the mainstream media, and progressive politicians was intense, equating Christians’ desire to uphold a biblical conception of marriage through their business activities as a return to the racist segregation laws of U.S. history.

Religious people in Canada, for their part, have been subject to similar attacks on their faith. Trinity Western University won a hard-fought victory several years ago before the Supreme Court allowing graduates of their teaching program to be certified to teach in provincial public schools, after teachers’ federations objected to TWU’s requirement of standards of Christian conduct—especially its prohibition of sex outside of heterosexual marriage—by its students. Nevertheless, TWU finds itself fighting virtually the same battle in several provinces and, no doubt, soon before the Supreme Court again, this time having to do with graduates of its law program and opposition by law societies to admitting them to the bar.

There have been other incidents. In November 2005, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal fined a chapter of the Knights of Columbus (a Roman Catholic charity) after the Knights refused to rent a church-affiliated community hall to a lesbian couple for a wedding reception. While the Tribunal affirmed the Knights’ right not to book the hall for the ceremony, it nevertheless fined the organization for the manner in which it canceled the appointment, even though the Knights had apologized and offered to pay for the printing of new invitations when the event was rebooked elsewhere. Most disturbing for Christians, the fine was levied because the Knights were deemed to have “violat[ed] their dignity, feelings [and sense of] self-respect.” As one Catholic official observed, “Of perhaps greater concern is the tribunal requiring payment for affronts to dignity and self-respect. These are very subjective feelings, to which either side might make a claim in cases of this kind.” We now live in a country where people of religious conviction can be judicially punished for hurting feelings.

Here in Alberta, a Red Deer pastor named Stephen Boissoin was fined and actually prohibited from speaking publicly on the topic of homosexuality by the Alberta Human Rights Commission. His “crime” was writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper in 2002, condemning homosexuality in very harsh language. When the newspaper published the letter, a homosexual activist complained to the tribunal. After a decade of legal fighting, Alberta’s Court of Appeal finally exonerated Boissoin and the newspaper and upheld free speech, but the very process required to have that judgment secured could be fairly considered a “punishment” in itself and a deterrent to Christians. It’s also quite disturbing that Alberta’s Human Rights Acts still retains a clause (specifically, 3 (1) (b) ) that prohibits speech that in the Human Rights Commission’s judgment “is likely to expose a person or a class of persons to hatred or contempt”—a clause common to Canadian human rights laws, and which has been so badly abused to repress free speech that the even the federal government felt compelled to remove it from federal legislation.

These incidents, with others, form a pattern that suggests that the freedom Canadian Christians have enjoyed for generations is swiftly being washed away from underneath our feet.

It seems so trivial to talk about low-level administrative and legal harassment at a time when we have brothers and sisters in places like North Korea or the Middle East who are very literally dying for their faith. I don’t mean to diminish their suffering or equate our inconveniences with theirs in any way. But I do think it’s necessary for the health of our churches here in the West to recognize that Western culture, far from being a “friendly operating environment,” is moving in an ominous direction. Legal harassment and punishment of Christians trying to live out and express their beliefs in the public square represents a deeper increase in cultural opposition to what we believe and stand for. What happens in the courtrooms, in the media, and in the legislature merely reflects the prevailing sentiments of society. Put simply, the world we live in is growing increasingly hostile to Christianity.

Think of it another way. I don’t think that Christian individuals should become too attached to income tax exemptions on their donations to their churches. I’m already advising other pastors to start thinking about how their churches will pay the bills when church giving is no longer sheltered by charitable status, and when churches have to start paying taxes on their payroll and on their property. And I think pastors need to be prepared for the day when their “clergy residence deductions” are taken away. Now, I don’t mean to be alarmist. These things may not happen for years or even decades. But too many Christians and churches have become functionally dependent on the goodwill of a society that no longer values institutional religion. We need to be honest with ourselves about the direction society is heading.

Even more, however, we need to recognize what the Scriptures say about the nature of God’s people in a fallen world. The hard fact is that while we Christians in the West have grown rather accustomed to having our cultural values predominate and Christianity serve in some sense as “the majority religion,” the Bible is quite clear that the true people of God has always been, and can on this side of heaven probably always expect to be, the minority.

To steal my brother elder Terry Stauffer’s phrase, Christians are called to “live skillfully” in the world. Well, living skillfully as Christians in the public square calls for a biblically informed understanding of how the church relates to the culture. That, in turn, calls for us to grasp the biblical “doctrine of the remnant,” which we will look at next time.