How We Christians Lost Our Moral Credibility


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Having noted the widely divergent responses (both Adventist and non-Adventist) to Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling on California's Proposition 8, I decided to read for myself what he’d said. So for a Saturday night’s entertainment recently, I read through all 136 pages of the judge's opinion, word for word.

I don’t know if Judge Walker’s decision will or won’t be overturned on appeal. But I definitely get the feeling he has tried to cross every “t” and dot every “i” to give his ruling the best possible chance of survival. Judges whose decisions routinely get reversed begin to lose credibility, so most try to do their homework well. And judges aren’t the only ones who lose credibility by having their rulings overturned.

As I read some of Judge Walker’s observations about now-discredited religious arguments of the past, it struck me that a long list of decisions that we ourselves, as Christians, have overturned may have left our collective credibility more or less in tatters. It works like this: When the decisions of Christianity’s grandparents (i.e. some earlier generation) are subsequently “appealed” to Christianity’s grandchildren (i.e. some later generation), it’s amazing how few of the original “rulings” remain intact. Allow me to cite just a few examples.

Based on their interpretation of a number of scriptural passages about attire and adornment, the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony actually codified their religious conclusions as law. On September 3, 1634, the civil court in Massachusetts Bay made the following pronouncement: "The Court, taking into consideration the superfluous and unnecessary expenses occasioned by reason of some new and immodest fashions, as also the ordinary wearing of silver, gold, and silk laces, girdles, hatbands, etc., hath therefore ordered that no person, either man or woman, shall hereafter make or buy any apparel, either woolen, silk or linen, with any lace on it, silver, gold, silk or thread, under forfeiture of such clothes, etc.

"Also, that no person, either man or woman, shall make or buy any slashed clothes, other than one slash in each sleeve, and another in the back; also, all cutworks, embroidered or needlework caps, bands, and rayles are forbidden hereafter to be made and worn, under aforesaid penalty; also, all gold or silver girdles, hatbands, belts, beaver hats are prohibited to be bought and worn hereafter, under the aforesaid penalty, etc."

But do Christians today feel that wearing such attire brings dishonor to God, let alone should be punished by the government? No. Most of us would say our forefathers, their sincerity notwithstanding, were wrong in their biblical understanding—wrong both in the standard they considered mandatory, and wrong in their belief that such standards should be the subject of civil legislation and enforcement.

And what about slavery? Pulpits throughout the South (and many more in the North than some realize) once resounded with denunciations of the abolitionists who sought to disrupt a social order that many alleged was ordained by God and that had existed for millennia. Scriptures were quoted in abundance. But we'd say today that those people were wrong. Slavery was indeed evil. And those who tried to use the Bible to perpetuate it used the Bible wrongly, however well-meaning they might have been.

Scarcely was slavery abolished in the United States than Black men were given the vote (at least in theory). Even these just-emancipated male slaves were considered more qualified to vote than were women––White or Black—irrespective of their level of education. As one New England pastor described it back in the 1830s, it was a woman's high privilege to daily participate in the "ordinance of subjection." Didn't the Bible say that a husband and wife are one? So she already had the vote—through him. And didn’t the Bible say a wife was to be subject to her husband? So why bother with having to count all those wifely votes, which were going to be duplicates of how the husbands voted, anyway?

The nation’s pulpits rang with warnings from scripture. Nevertheless, women eventually got the vote. And just how many Christian women today voluntarily refrain from voting because of what was once considered the Bible's teaching? And how many men would say that, for the so-called biblical reasons once put forward, we should rescind the already-granted right for women to vote? How many would argue that failing to do so is to ignore the clear and express teachings of God? But Christians said those things aplenty back during the 19th and early-20th centuries.

The list goes on. Bible texts were used to support the racially "separate but equal" approach that prevailed for decades across the United States. Separate it was, but equal? Yet how many Christians today would argue that Blacks should be banned from White hotels and White restaurants? How many would say that Blacks should sit at the back of the bus? Or that they shouldn't be admitted to White schools? How many would use the Bible to call for a return to that social structure? Few indeed, because we recognize that it was contrary to the overall spirit of the scriptures. Yet the Bible was once used as a pillar of support for just such practices.

Oh, and while we're on Black and White issues, let's not forget that, thanks in great measure to "biblical" arguments, mixed-race couples once couldn't get married in the United States. It was the law. The fact that they loved each other was irrelevant. It was contrary to the natural order of things, Christians claimed.

Doesn’t the Bible say that everything was to produce "after its kind"? And the races of humans constituted different "kinds"—at least according to the biblical interpretation that once prevailed. Yet how many church boards, Adventist or otherwise, would take action against a mixed-race couple today? How many would refuse use of the church for such a wedding?

I almost forgot: There's also that vexing problem of equal pay for women. It wasn't that many decades ago that our own Seventh-day Adventist leaders declared that it was part of our body of spiritual belief that women should be paid less than men. That’s what the Bible teaches, they said. But when the courts declared that such beliefs didn’t provide religious groups with a license to discriminate, we as a denomination decided that the better part of valor was to fall into line with the law and raise female pay.

I'm amazed at how many Christians who currently oppose gay marriage declare themselves supporters of civil unions and express abhorrence concerning any kind of discrimination against gays in housing or in hiring or in any number of other contexts. Yet when those battles were being fought, Christians were at the fore in seeking to deprive and condemn even on those fronts—based on what were declared to be the clear teachings of scripture. But with those hurdles having been systematically knocked down and kicked aside rather decisively, a fascinating recalibration has taken place.

What judge—or any onlooker, for that matter—who has studied history is going to take our collective pleadings and posturings seriously? Our track record as Christians isn’t stellar. We’ve too consistently used our Bible to defend what almost all of us (in retrospect) admit was indefensible.

This essay isn’t about gay marriage or gay rights or gay anything else. It’s about Christian credibility. And we Christians have a problem. The problem is that our track record is a lot like that of the boy who repeatedly cried, “Wolf!” when there was no wolf. When time after time after time such cries are later acknowledged to have been unjustified, people begin to ignore the cries. The source of the warning is simply no longer credible.

Maybe we should direct our energies toward figuring out how to restore our collective Christian credibility rather than just denouncing Judge Walker, as many Christian commentators have done. After all, in discounting religious arguments as he has, he may well feel that he's simply witnessing another chapter in a consistent pattern of Christian behavior––the ultimate outcome of which he probably feels quite certain he can predict.

James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2615