Sometime between now and June, the U.S. Supreme Court will render its decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. This is the case in which owner and cake artist Jack Phillips was taken to court because he could not in good conscience design custom items that celebrate events or express messages in conflict with his religious beliefs. Jack Phillips is motivated by his Christian beliefs and is attempting to faithfully fulfill his deeply rooted religious beliefs. He is seeking justice in the arena of law.
Another case—this one in Arizona—is Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix, in which Christian owners Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski are seeking to stop an overreaching city ordinance from forcing them to design and create custom artwork expressing messages that violate their core religious beliefs. Without the invalidation of this city ordinance, Duka and Koski are potentially liable for fines and jail time if they decline to create artwork for same-sex weddings. They too are seeking justice in the legal realm.
But why should Christians care about cases such as this? Do cases like this take us away from the centrality of gospel proclamation? Shouldn't Jack Phillips, Joanna Duka, and Breanna Koski just lay down their rights in the face of opposition for the sake of being like Jesus, who "while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting him to him who judges righteously" (1 Peter 2.23)?
I want to argue that the pursuit of justice is not only a good in and of itself but, also, that these legal cases can serve the cause of the gospel.
Christians in the Public Sphere
Christians who make use of the legal system to ensure that government respects their freedoms protected by the First Amendment do this out of a sense of obligation to honor God. Their deeply held religious beliefs about God and the Bible move them to stand for truth in the public realm. Their devotion to God and the Bible is not merely a private affair of the heart. Christians believe the truth of Jesus and his kingdom morality are matters that touch all of life. The most basic Christian confession, namely that "Jesus is Lord," has implications for the public and political domain. Theologian John Frame aptly notes:
"As God's Spirit penetrates people's hearts through the gospel, those people become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). They take their faith into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education, and the arts. And in all these realms, they seek to glorify God."
In his essay "Why Christians Should Influence Government for Good," Wayne Grudem lists a number of reasons why Christians can and should be involved in the political and judicial realm. His list includes the following:
- God calls Christians to do "good works."
- Influencing government for good is a way to love our neighbors.
- Obeying what God tells us is doing spiritual good because it glorifies God.
- Good and bad governments make a huge difference in people's lives, and in the church.
- Christians have influenced governments positively throughout history.
I will leave it to readers to read Grudem's full discussion of these points, but he details the many biblical examples in both the Old and New Testaments where believers have exercised significant governmental influence. Examples include Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, the prophets, John the Baptist, and Paul.
These insights from Frame and Grudem are enough to justify the Christian's concern and involvement in the political and judicial arenas. In addition to this, however, there is the example of the apostle Paul in the book of Acts that shows how a proper use of legal redress actually serves the gospel and the mission of the Church.
Paul's Use of the Courts in the Book of Acts
The book of Acts is filled with legal settings, and nearly a quarter of the book is occupied with Paul's trials and defenses. In particular, a section from Acts 16 will illustrate something of Paul's interface with the Roman legal system and allow us to draw some applications for our time.
That chapter contains the narrative of Paul's ministry in Philippi. As is often the case in the book of Acts, Paul's ministry causes controversy. The specific cause in Philippi is the exorcism of a slave-girl being pimped for prophetic profit. Paul casts out a "spirit of divination" from the girl, and when the men using this girl for financial gain see their potential for making money diminished, they bring Paul and Silas before the Roman governmental authorities. The judgment is swift. They are beaten with rods and thrown into prison. There are then some exciting details about an earthquake that opens the prison doors and how the jailer and his family come to faith in Jesus Christ. For our purposes, however, the focus is on verses 35-40:
35Now when the day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen, saying, "Release those men." 36And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, "The chief magistrates have sent to release you. Therefore come out now and go in peace." 37But Paul said to them, "They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out." 38The policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates. They were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, 39and they came and appealed to them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city. 40They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.
We could ask a number of potential questions about this event. When given the information of release, why did Paul not simply leave? Paul knew from Jesus that he was called to suffer (Acts 9.16). Why not just receive the suffering and go forward? When other apostles were unjustly persecuted, they left their accusers "rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name" (Acts 5.41). Why didn't Paul do this? Why protest and demand legal redress in light of his Roman pedigree?
A couple of answers are worth noting. Paul is concerned for justice and the people of God. First, consider the issue of justice. Paul knows the Roman law code and appeals to its provisions, which forbid a magistrate from beating a Roman citizen without due process of a trial conviction. No one is claiming the Roman law code is a perfect manifestation of justice, but Paul can appeal to a common grace provision in that law code which is consistent with justice. Although Paul is called to a path of suffering as announced by Jesus, there is no divine mandate to maximize suffering. As theologian Steven Tracy notes,
"Scripture does not sanctify avoidable suffering. Christ repeatedly avoided physical assault, most often from the Jewish leaders (his authorities) by hiding (John 8:59), by maintaining physical separation from his abusers (Matt. 12:14-15; John 11:53-54), and by eluding them (John 10:31, 39). Other godly individuals in Scripture, such as Paul and David, also repeatedly fled physically abusive authorities (1 Sam. 19:12; 27:1; Acts 9:22-25; 14:5-6; 17:8-10, 14). Jesus did not teach his disciples simply to accept abuse (evil); instead he taught them to pray that God would deliver them from it (Matt. 6:13)."
At this point, someone may ask why Paul did not assert his Roman citizenship rights earlier—before being beaten with rods? One can only speculate given the silence of the text, but it is possible that he and Silas did assert their citizenship but were drown out in the confusion of the event. Whatever the explanation on that issue, it is clear that Paul does eventually assert his Roman citizenship by appealing to Roman law for justice.
But there is more. This is not a mere quest for personal justice. There is also a strategic concern for the gospel ministry which has birthed the fledging church in Philippi. To allow this injustice to stand might mean the civil magistrate would be emboldened to perpetuate further injustices upon the newly formed group associated with Paul and Silas. By seeking proper legal redress, Paul and Silas provide protective covering for the church. New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce comments:
"Paul's insistence on an official apology may have served to some degree as a protection to the members of the church which had been planted in Philippe during the period of his stay there."
Fellow New Testament specialist I. Howard Marshall also recognizes that for Paul and Silas to simply have left without seeking justice "could have set a dangerous precedent for the future treatment of missionaries and also could have left the Christians in Philippi exposed to arbitrary treatment from the magistrates." So, in this instance, seeking justice is good for the missional advance of the gospel.
Understanding the Text and the Times
Paul's example in Acts 16 is only one case from the New Testament, but it is a perspective to take note of since it demonstrates concern for public justice and the gospel. The interplay between moral mandate and contemporary application is always tricky. Even within the New Testament itself, there is a spectrum of responses to the civil government. Torleiv Austad, in his essay, "Attitudes Towards the State in Western Theological Thinking," argues that the New Testament's perspective regarding the state was neither principled renunciation nor uncritical acceptance. He writes,
"The apparently contradictory attitude can be illustrated by comparing Romans 13 and Revelation 13. In both cases Christians are confronted with the Roman state. While the governing authorities according to Romans 13 respect elementary civil rights, the same state in Revelation 13—about forty years later—is seen as the beast from the abyss. Therefore the attitude of Christians has changed from obedience to disobedience. Within the eschatological horizon of the NT the relationship between Christians and the governing authorities is never fixed; it is complex, sensitive and changing."
In this quotation, Austad stresses the believer's response of either obedience or disobedience to the governing authorities. His general line of thinking can be expanded to include the kinds of responses the governing authorities have to the believer's concerns. It may be the case that an ever-increasing secularized civil sphere is becoming less concerned with Christians' concerns for justice, but this ought not to stop Christians from appealing to those common grace notions embedded in our legal traditions. This is what Paul did in his Roman context. Similarly, when Christians today in the United States seek legal remedy for the diminishment of their constitutionally protected freedoms, it can serve the cause of justice and the gospel.
The constitutionally governed law codes that Americans navigate at the local and federal levels are seasoned with common grace elements of justice. As long as possible, we ought to utilize these elements in the cause of justice and the gospel.
Christians should eagerly support and pray for the efforts of Jack Phillips, Joanna Duka, Breanna Koski, and others like them as they seek justice before the courts of our land. Much like the apostle Paul, their victories will continue to hold open the door of religious freedom for all of us.