In the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, there were people—including religious leaders who should have known better—who complained that civil rights laws violated their religious freedom, saying that their religion required them to segregate the races. It took a couple of decades for this to settle down, and now it is a dead issue.
Now it is happening all over again! There are people—both lay and clergy—who claim that their freedom of religion is violated if the law requires them to issue marriage certificates, bake wedding cakes, arrange flowers, or even conduct funerals for people who don’t meet their religious standards.
Since they invoke Jesus to justify their position, whether they are on the right side of history is not as important as whether they are on the right side of Jesus.
The gospels contain a surprising amount of information about this issue.
Do Christians Have the Right to Identify Sinners?
Apparently not. Jesus told us not to judge others and reserved judgment for Himself. So for most of us, it stops right here. If we can’t determine who the sinners are, we can’t use that as a justification for denying them anything. But let us ignore that for the moment and go on:
The Woman Taken in AdulteryJohn 8
We learn think we learn two lessons from the woman taken in adultery, but there are three. We understand the point that no one is without sin. We understand the point that mercy is better than justice. We miss the point that our religious and moral beliefs do not apply to the way we treat others, even if we are convinced that they are sinners, and even if we can “prove it with the Bible.” The men who were gathering stones could “prove it with the Bible” that adultery was a sin.
Under Jewish Law, it takes two or three witnesses to determine guilt. When Jesus said, “whoever is without sin may cast the first stone,” all the witnesses went away. Without witnesses, there can be no trial, no determination of guilt, and therefore no punishment. Case dismissed.
Jesus pardoned a sinner’s capital offense.
The Woman With the HemorrhageMark 5:24-34
Jesus was on the way to heal a synagogue leader’s daughter, who was near death. A crowd of people accompanied him. There was a woman in the crowd who had been suffering menstrual bleeding for twelve years, despite all medical treatment. She reached to touch the hem of His clothes, hoping that would cure her. According to the values of the crowd following Jesus, the synagogue leader was prestigious and the woman was not.
According to Leviticus 15:19-30, the woman with the menstrual bleeding was unclean (which means “not kosher”). Everything she touched and everyone who touched her would become unclean and would have to undergo a lengthy process of cleansing. Under normal circumstances, this was not a bad thing, because it would exempt her from household duties and would prevent her husband from bothering her. However, in this woman’s case, it meant twelve years of isolation, and it also meant any other rabbi in Jesus’ position who came in contact with her would become unclean and would not be able to heal the synagogue leader’s daughter in time to prevent her death.
In a very loud voice, Jesus asked who had touched Him, to call attention to the woman’s faith and healing, and to make it obvious that the kosher rule works in reverse in His case. Since Jesus is God, He is intrinsically kosher. If anything or anyone that is not kosher is about to come into contact with Him, it must instantly become kosher before there is actual contact. Thus the woman became kosher and was healed of her bleeding.
Jesus healed a woman, even though she was unclean.
The Canaanite WomanMatthew 15:21-28
Jesus took His disciples on a field trip to an area bordering on a Canaanite settlement. A gentile woman who understood that rabbis could cast out demons pleaded with Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. The disciples wanted to send her away because rabbis weren’t supposed to associate with gentiles and because Canaanites worshipped idols. Jesus waited until the situation nearly got out of hand. He even told the woman outright that that they were right; it was against His religion to give her what she wanted, but she persisted. Then he surprised His disciples, rewarded her faith, and cast the demon out of her daughter.
Jesus cast a demon out of an idolator’s daughter, even though idolatry is against His religion.
The Tax CollectorLuke 19:2-8
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Roman tax collectors had a quota, but they were permitted to seize anything they wanted. It was essentially a license to steal. The difference between what they collected and what they had to hand over to the Romans was their livelihood. Because tax collectors were invariably presumed to be thieves, the Romans recruited tax collectors from among the members of the local community who had nothing to lose because they were already unpopular. Jesus had dinner at the tax collector’s house, which meant, first, that the tax collector was Jewish, and second, that, contrary to neighborhood gossip, the tax collector was honest.
Jesus had dinner with a man who had a bad reputation.
The Centurion’s SlaveMatthew 8:5-13
A Roman centurion approached Jesus because he wanted Jesus to cure his slave of paralysis. The centurion was a high-ranking member of the Roman army, required by law to worship an idol of Caesar as a god. He told Jesus that he knew of the rule that a Jew could not enter the house of a gentile. He was accustomed to commanding people, so he understood that Jesus could command diseases without even coming to his house. Jesus was astounded by the centurion’s faith. When the centurion returned home, the slave had been healed.
Jesus healed the slave of a man who worshipped Caesar as a god.
This Is Nothing New!
This isn’t some new, innovative ethical principle that Jesus instituted for the first time in the gospels. All the way back in Genesis, Abraham showed us that we should give good things to people who do things that are against our religion:
When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.
After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him one tenth of everything. Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the LORD, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’”
—Genesis 14:14-23, NRSV
“Christians” who discriminate are not biblical. Genesis 13:13 establishes that Sodom is a sinful city, but it gives no details. Lot moves to Sodom and obviously condones its sin since he is still living there five chapters later. Sodom is conquered and taken into captivity. Lot’s uncle Abraham and his men fight Sodom's conquerors and restore the city. He did it for Lot, but all those sinners benefited. The king of Sodom offered Abraham the spoils of war as a reward, but Abraham refused it, saying he didn’t want to take from a sinful man.
If a Christian believes that gay marriage is a sin, and they wanted to be biblical, they would condone gay marriage as Abraham and Lot condoned the wickedness of Sodom. If someone wanted a gay wedding, they would tell the couple it is a sin, but they would provide the venue, the flowers, and the photographs for free.
What Would Jesus Do?
Sometimes people ask themselves the question “What Would Jesus Do?” which implies that He isn’t here and that He’s not doing it, and that someone must step in to fix the problem. They use the question as an excuse for arrogating to themselves Jesus’ divine authority to judge and punish people.
We should not ask ourselves what Jesus would do; rather, we should ask ourselves what Jesus commands us to do. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, not just with our hearts but with our hands. He gave us examples, which makes it easy:
- Jesus used a Samaritan as a model of loving one’s neighbor, even though Jews refused to do business with Samaritans for religious reasons.
- Jesus stopped to cleanse and heal a woman who, according to the rules, no other rabbi would even touch.
- Jesus cast a demon out of a girl who did not qualify for His services.
- Jesus had dinner with a man who, according to gossip, was a thief.
- Jesus honored the faith of an idolatrous gentile and healed a member of his household.
- Jesus never told a sinful person, a gentile, a Roman occupation soldier, or an idolator, “I cannot do this good thing for you, because I cannot condone your sin.”
What Does Jesus Command Me to Do?
The proper question is not “what would Jesus do” but “what does Jesus command me to do.” How should you treat people who are immoral, sinful, or bad, so far as you can tell?
Suppose you just moved in to a new neighborhood and you are looking for a church. You ask two neighbors, Elaine and Brian, about which church you should visit.
- Elaine tells you which neighbors don’t meet her standards and which ones you should avoid. She tells you disapprovingly that she isn’t certain, but she’s pretty sure that a young man named Johnny is gay. She invites you to her church, saying that if you do, you will meet an elite group of godly people with higher standards.
- Brian tells you that your neighbors are basically good people and which ones you can count on. He speaks highly about Johnny who shoveled his walk and dug out his car after the blizzard last year. He invites you to his church, saying that if you do, you will meet a friendly community that includes many of your neighbors.
Which church do you visit, Elaine’s or Brian’s? Now imagine: What if you agree with everything they teach about God, but have different opinions? Elaine’s church might reject you, but Brian’s church will surely accept you.
We have good reason not to climb upon the throne of God to judge people, or to withhold good things from them, because God might disagree with our “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Even if the people are immoral, sinful, or bad in some way, they are still alive, which means God isn’t finished with them yet. This is why we should follow Brian’s example, not Elaine’s, and do what Jesus did.
Our moral and religious convictions can actually harm our eternal destiny if we weaponize them against other people. They way we judge is the way we will be judged. We cannot avoid having opinions about the people around us, but we can control how we treat them. If we sin with our minds, we can repent with our hands.
God loved you while you were still dead in your sins. He used a loving person to help you up. Be that loving person for your fellow sinners: drive the gossip to the grocery store, take soup to the cranky neighbor who is sick, and bake a cake for Johnny’s wedding.