Predictably, there has been much comment from Christians about the Phil Robertson controversy, and (just as predictably) quite a diversity of viewpoints expressed. I concur with Mike Kruger’s commentary. But I also want to comment on a particular kind of response to the controversy, which goes something like this:
C’mon, guys! Compared to the kind of persecution Christians suffer in other countries, this is small potatoes. Christians in the US need to get a sense of perspective and move on. This really isn’t a big deal.
Here are four reasons why I think this sort of response is quite misguided.
1. The New Testament is clear that Christians who try to live a faithful Christian life should expect persecution (John 15:18-19; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 2:20-23; 1 John 3:13) and that God ordains persecution for our good (Rom. 8:28; Phil. 1:29; 1 Pet. 3:14-17). However, it doesn’t follow that persecution is therefore a good thing (still less that it should be sought out or romanticized). Persecution, especially persecution of God’s people on account of their faith, is always an evil and should be condemned and opposed by Christians. If this were not the case, then (for example) ministries like the Barnabas Fund shouldn’t campaign for the repeal of blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, which are typically used to marginalize and persecute Christians.
There’s no question that what has happened to Phil Robertson is nothing like what has happened to Saeed Abedini. No one is seriously suggesting otherwise, so it’s a red herring to make such comparisons. Nevertheless, all persecution, great or small, whether of Christians or of non-Christians, is unjust. (I cannot think of an example of a persecution that would be just.) Robertson has been treated unfairly and unjustly: he and his family have been punished simply because he expressed his Christian convictions about sin and affirmed what the Bible explicitly teaches (specifically, 1 Cor. 6:9-10). Christians should be concerned about any injustice, no matter the scale. Certainly we shouldn’t deny that some injustices are greater than others, and we should apportion our concern and opposition accordingly. But at the same time, we shouldn’t suggest that some injustices don’t really matter and can be overlooked. God doesn’t overlook any injustice. Every injustice is an affront to the Righteous One.
(By the way, if you think the word ‘persecution’ is too strong to use to describe the way Robertson has been treated, fine — I won’t argue about words. But you should agree that it was an injustice, and that’s all I need to make my point here.)
2. It’s not unreasonable to think that what happened to Robertson (not to mention many other incidents involving ‘ordinary’ Christians that don’t make the headlines) represents the thin end of the wedge — and perhaps some way into the wedge. Large-scale persecution hardly ever arrives fully formed. It begins as small-scale persecution: verbal abuses, public shaming, marginalization, withdrawal of privileges, and so on. The Nazi persecution of Jews didn’t come out of nowhere. It had its roots in anti-Semitic sentiments and practices that had been present (and growing unchecked) in Europe for decades. Surely the best way to prevent the greater persecution is to counter the lesser persecution.
3. Many people assume that this is about Christians wanting to protect their own rights. That’s partly true, but it’s not only about Christians looking out for Christians. We believe that homosexual behavior is not only sinful, but destructive to individuals and to society. If Christians (along with other conservative religious believers) are punished for speaking out on this issue, then the slide into self-destructive practices will accelerate. This isn’t merely a matter of private religion; it’s a matter of the public good.
4. This controversy isn’t ultimately about homosexuality. That’s just the presenting issue in this instance. This is ultimately about the freedom of Christians to proclaim the biblical gospel. Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality came in the context of his bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was asked the question, “What, in your mind, is sinful?” He gave several examples, one of which was “homosexual behavior.” (As I noted, he paraphrased 1 Cor. 6 as part of his answer. This wasn’t merely his private opinion; he was echoing historical biblical Christianity.)
I believe Robertson’s real offense wasn’t to say that homosexuality is sinful. No, it was to assert something far more fundamental: that there really is such a thing as sin. His offense was to suggest that we aren’t autonomous beings, that we don’t actually have the right to do whatever we please, and that there really is a God who created us and therefore has absolutely authority over our lives. His offense was to imply that God gets to set the rules and that all of us have broken them at many points. His ‘sin’ was to be serious about sin.
Christians cannot faithfully proclaim the gospel without affirming what the Bible says about sin. If our freedom to speak plainly about sin is infringed, then our freedom to preach the gospel is infringed. And every Christian should be very concerned about that.
Trust me: unbelievers are quite capable of making the connection between homosexuality, the Bible, and the gospel, whether or not we care to make that connection explicit. They know that the book from which Christians claim to get their gospel, and their mandate to proclaim that gospel, is the very same book that views homosexuality as sinful and a repudiation of God’s design for humans. They can figure out that 1 Cor. 15:1-8 comes from the same book as 1 Cor. 6:9-10, and that Romans 3:21-26 comes from the same book as Romans 1:24-27. As they say, it’s not rocket science.
So when a fellow Christian believer — even a very wealthy one — is punished for simply repeating, in his own unvarnished way, what the Bible clearly says, that should be of great concern to all of us. It is a big deal. If we care about the gospel, and those who need the gospel, we must not fail to speak out when our freedom (legal, political, and social) to preach that gospel is being eroded before our eyes.