Justin Thacker

Gay Cake judgement: A good day for secular values, a bad day for Christian ones

This post, as with all my posts, represents a personal opinion only

Earlier this week, there was much news coverage of the decision by the supreme court to reach a verdict in favour of Ashers bakery in the so-called ‘Gay Cake’ row.  The Christian press, and especially the evangelical Christian press, responded enthusiastically to this judgement. The Lord’s side had won the battle.web-gay-cake

But I am not so sure. In questioning the outcome, I am in no way challenging the justices’ findings on the matter of the law. I am sure that from a legal point of view they are correct. My concern is a moral one.

What I doubt is whether this really was a triumph for Christian values, for it seems to me to be precisely the opposite. Christian Concern, one of the organisations which had supported the Ashers’ case saw the outcome as Victory for Freedom of Expression. Many other Christian commentators have framed the result in the same way. The court has adjudicated that Christians (and those of other faiths) are now allowed to express their views, or as in this case not express views they disagree with, without fear of sanction. Such opinions may well be correct that this is a triumph for libertarian free speech, but such libertarian free speech is a fundamentally secular value, and has nothing at all to do with how Christians are meant to conduct themselves in public debate.

The Bible is replete with injunctions that we need to be careful in how we speak, especially in regard to outsiders. Colossians 4:6 tells us that our conversation should always be “full of grace”. Titus 3:1-2 tells us to “slander no-one”, to be “peaceable, considerate” and “gentle”. James 1 say we should be “slow to speak” and chapter 3 of the same book describes the tongue as “a fire, a world of evil”, and there are numerous references in the Wisdom literature to the need for us to careful in what we say (Prov 10:19; 17:9; 21:23; 26:20; Ps 141:3 etc). My point here is not to debate the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage (though my own position is that I’m in favour of it); my point is simply that complete free speech is NOT a Christian principle. The Christian value is that we should be careful with our tongues, that we should not cause offence, that if what we say creates trouble then we should be slow to express such opinions. All of that is miles away from a free speech principle that sets much lower restrictions on what can and cannot be said. The Ashers case may well have been a triumph for free speech, but the free speech it upheld is a fundamentally secular value, not a Christian one.

At the same time, the Ashers case betrayed the specifically Christian value of hospitality. Nowhere in Scripture does it suggest that we are meant to live in a theocracy in which the law of the land is synonymous with Christian regulations. The message of the gospel is that people are invited to follow Christ, they are not forced to do so. Imposing behavioural conformity does not bring people into the kingdom of God, for the gospel is first and foremost about a change of heart and mind. What this means is that in the present context God’s grace reigns over both the just and unjust; the wheat and tares really do grow up side by side (Matt 13:24ff). To put it another way, God has ordained things such that we live in a world where as Christians we are going to rub up alongside views that we disagree with. The question is how do we respond in such circumstances? We can, of course, choose to isolate ourselves from others – but that is a denial of our missional imperative. We can spend our time fighting the world in every jot and detail – but I am not convinced that is effective missionally either. Or we can choose to do what Jesus asked us to do which is be in the world, without being of it. And being in the world means that if we have any kind of secular engagement there will be issues and opinions that are not our own, and that we have to work with. I imagine any Christian working for any secular publisher or print house will at times be involved with works that they profoundly disagree with; even as a citizen, I pay my taxes despite profoundly disagreeing with how some of those taxes are spent. I suspect that Christian teachers believe that the relentless focus on exam results is a betrayal of the gospel’s image of the whole child; I suspect that Christians who work in healthcare have major concerns about the way NHS resources are mal-distributed, with not enough being invested in mental health services; and I suspect that Christians in parliament or the civil service are repeatedly having to propagate, uphold and even defend policies that from a Christian point of view jars with their conscience. My point is that if we live in the world as we are commanded to then it is inevitable that there are some issues we will just need to live with. Such compromise with the ‘world’ is not to betray my Christian principles, it is to recognise as Paul did that in this time between the times, we have to engage in behaviours or be party to activities that are not what we would choose.

Paul’s advice in this regard seemed to be to be pretty clear: don’t conduct yourself in public in anyway that brings the gospel into disrepute.  One of the issue of his day was of course slavery, and that was precisely his injunction to those who were slaves. I don’t for a minute think Paul was in favour of the institution, but he asked the slaves to comply for the sake of the gospel.

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. (1 Timothy 6:1)

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10)

This does not mean that we simply obey the secular authorities irrespective of what they say. There does come a point where active resistance to the authorities is the right path to take: Nazi Germany is the obvious example. But I’m afraid baking a cake with a message you dislike is not. This is especially the case in the current climate where the church’s homophobia is doing precisely what Paul told us not to do, namely causing our teaching to be slandered and making the gospel less attractive.

Hence, baking a cake with a message you disagree with, or printing a document that you object to, or complying with a policy that you think is wrong – this is the bread and butter (forgive the pun) of what being a Christian in the world is all about. Pretty much every Christian in secular employment knows this. It is what it means to be a hospitable people. It is to say that Christianity is big enough and ugly enough that it can accommodate those views it disagrees with. It might well seek to persuade society that they are wrong, but in the meantime it will live with them, comply with them and accommodate them. As such, the Ashers baker would have been doing nothing wrong if they had baked the cake as ordered despite holding the views that they do – and actually, in the process, they would have been upholding the Christian value of hospitality in doing so.

So, I do not rejoice in the supreme court decision. It’s been a good day for secular values, but a bad day for Christian ones, and I find it strange that so many Christians are happy about it.

14/10/2018 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,

6 Comments

  1. Hi, Justin. The issues at stake here have been significantly considered in relation to Christian theological imperatives going back at least as far as the late seventeenth century, and John Locke’s examination of what it might mean to live in a more religiously plural nation with a less hegemonic or theocratic model of establishment. The dualism you construe between secularity and theology here is too stark: Locke worked from Scriptural principles to expound a paradigm of toleration which would precisely prevent the kind of compelled speech and sundered conscience that all five Supreme Court justices ruled would have been imposed on Ashers had they been forced to make the cake in question. It is crucial to note that by the same token, a Muslim or Orthodox Jewish baker would be protected from having to bake a cake bearing the legend ‘Jesus is God’, or, indeed, a slogan calling on support for gay marriage. Even it’s possible to infer from the Scriptures you cite about Christian generosity and hospitality that Ashers should have baked the cake, the point is that this would be an inferral that you shouldn’t expect them to have to make, and certainly not an inferral that you should expect the law to impose on them. That, ironically, would be to compound religious intolerance in the name of tolerance on gay marriage, and thus to perpetrate a ‘zero sum’ approach to tolerance in which one manifestation of it must trump another.

    Comment by David Hilborn | 14/10/2018

    • Someone’s swallowed a dictionary, eh?

      Comment by deepngreen | 16/10/2018

    • Just for fun, I just put your post through a ‘readability’ checker. It says “That’s really hard going. Your grade is about 12, which is at the same reading level as the Harvard Law Review. Chances are, you could do a few things to simplify it.” http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/ Please don’t take offence!

      Comment by deepngreen | 16/10/2018

      • Well, it’s considerably shorter than Justin’s original post! Sometimes concision requires compression. I was seeking to be accurate and precise, which often calls for the use of technical terms and references. Justin’s an academic, I’m an academic, and I was responding to him particularly at that level. He can take it! Serious philosophical, legal and theological issues are at stake here, and they deserve to be treated seriously. Given that the Ashers case has issued in a landmark legal judgment, analysis at the level of the Harvard Law Review seems appropriate enough – although in truth I’m not a legal academic and this register of language wouldn’t be so unusual in a serious political magazine like the Spectator, the New Statesman or Standpoint. That said, the basic case you go on to make isn’t so far from the case I was making – namely that the principle of free speech is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, and not a secular invention.

        Comment by Anonymous | 16/10/2018

      • Yes, Justin’s post was long. I nearly gave up on it during the 460 word paragraph. He would do well to put in some more paragraph marks or, better still, some bullet points.

        Comment by deepngreen | 16/10/2018

  2. Justin, I think I agree with David. But my problem with your post is the idea that ‘Free Speech’ is not a Christian principle. If ‘freedom of speech’ = ‘freedom to offend’ then I’m not for being offensive for its own sake, no matter how many ‘edgy’ new sit-coms I might start watching. However, I think the bible is clear on speaking the truth. This includes speaking the truth in the face of persecution (e.g. St Stephen), speaking the truth to the established church (St Paul) or speaking the truth to legal authority (as Jesus does frequently).
    I think the bakers were put in an invidious position and were right to stand they’re ground. And the court accepts that they were free to do so.

    Comment by deepngreen | 16/10/2018


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