The Story: The governor of Georgia recently attempted to make a “biblical case” against the state legislature’s new religious liberty bill.
The Background: Lawmakers in Georgia have been working to protect the religious liberties of the state’s citizens by passing legislation that would prevent them from having to participate in commerce related to same-sex marriage. But the state’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, has warned that he will reject any measure that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith.”
Deal has made it clear that he doesn’t really care if any religious liberty bill passes during this session. “It’s not on my agenda item,” Deal said. “It’s not one of those issues that I have been pushing.”
In making the case that Christians should not “discriminate” Deal claimed that he was taking a position that was supported by the New Testament:
What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world. . . . We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.
What that says is we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs. We are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs or who may not even agree with what our Supreme Court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.
Why It Matters: Gov. Deal proposes a “compromise” position: Christians will be forced to compromise their conscience on the issue of serving same-sex weddings.
The claim that we must violate our conscience because Jesus would not want us to “discriminate against anybody” is incoherent and unbiblical. But it’s Gov. Deal’s direct threat to the religious liberty of Christians that is most offensive.
If this poor exegesis was made by an ordinary Christian layman it would be an excusable offense. Low levels of biblical literacy combined with a desire to fit in with the secular culture have led many Christians to draw similar conclusions. Most ordinary Christians, however, do not have the power to compel Christians to violate their conscience or face the wrath of the state in the way that Gov. Deal does. And he is implying that he’s willing to use government force to compel anyone who thinks differently about the issue than he does.
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to the state of Georgia. When it comes religious liberty, this type of Scripture-twisting is likely to become a common tactic used by Christian politicians. Just as many liberal politicians have found a way to reconcile their faith with support for abortion, many conservative politicians are now finding ways to justify abandoning religious liberty—all in the name of Jesus.
But conscience is too important to leave to compromising politicians. Our conscience is a part of our God-given internal faculties, a critical inner awareness that bears witness to the norms and values we recognize when determining right or wrong. Conscience does not serve as a judge or a legislator; that is a modern take on the concept. Instead, in the biblical sense, conscience serves as a witness to what we already know. (Rom. 2:15, 9:1).
Our conscience is therefore only trustworthy when it does not lead us to choose our will over God's will. As R. C. Sproul explains,
[W]e have to remember that acting according to conscience may sometimes be sin as well. If the conscience is misinformed, then we seek the reasons for this misinformation. Is it misinformed because the person has been negligent in studying the Word of God?
A prime example of the way our conscience may lead both Christians and non-Christians to sin is when we violate, or advocate for the violation, of creation ordinances. Among the creation ordinances is the clear injunction to preserve the sanctity of the marriage bond between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:1-3). Our conscience bears witness to the reality and truth of the marriage ordinance, and we are guilty of sin when we deny or break them
Are we guilty of violating this creation ordinance by directly participating in same-sex marriages? Many Christians think so. And many formed their belief after a close, prayerful reading of Scripture. They don’t just base their opinion on what they remember from college Bible classes taken 50 years ago.
Violating one’s conscience is a sin. Requiring that someone violate his or her conscience is therefore an extremely serious matter and should not be done out of fear of upsetting large corporations. If a politician doesn’t posses the moral courage to defend the conscience of Christians against the pressures of Big Business, then her or she should consider a different vocation. And believers should consider whether we can, with a clear conscience, continue to support politicians who refuse to clearly support our rights of conscience.