Thoughts on Privilege & Equal Rights

It simply can’t be denied that a great deal of our society, including the church, suffers from an ignorance of history and an inability to utilize logic when discerning truth from error, on all fronts. Just turn on the news (any network) or check your Facebook newsfeed. There is much to cloud our thinking today.

With all of the voices in our head and the messages bombarding us in our world (many of them cynical and angry), it seems that we’re no longer taught to think about things rationally (or from a faith perspective), but strictly from our gut and fickle human emotions.

Even the rationalists aren’t so rational anymore.

British comedian and actor, Ricky Gervais, tweeted this last February:

“Same sex marriage isn’t gay privilege, it’s equal rights. Privilege would be something like gay people not paying taxes, like churches don’t.”

Well, there you go. What’s unfortunate, and should be recognized, is that humor often has the power to slip misinformation by you, perpetuate nonsense, and get you laughing at the comedic rants of an atheist activist on an issue that is emotionally charged, without even stopping to consider if it’s a fair and reasonable assessment.

And notice that the church (the body of Christ) becomes the target.

It’s one thing to disagree and have an opposing opinion. It’s quite another thing to create bogus comparisons in order to get a laugh to stroke your own ego and gain followers to your cause. It’s not OK for any of us to do it.

I can’t help but notice the hyper-sensitivity to all things “privilege” in what is being passed off as a concern for social justice. I’m not denying that certain people or groups are (or have been) unfairly given an advantage over others.

I’m also not denying that some concerns about the so-called privileged are legitimate. I too feel a righteous indignation when a person is being treated unjustly because of race, gender, economic status, or creed.

What I want to challenge is the spirit of pervasive (albeit cryptic) individualism that turns every issue into one of privilege. Like the man who only saw nails to be pounded because all he had in his tool-belt was a hammer, so has become our society, even those “progressive” Christians who are upset about their fundamentalist upbringing and want to make a difference.

Those of us who were formerly conservative fundies, are in danger of becoming progressive fundies, which I’ve noticed is just a Liberal (in the theological sense) with a make-over. We can do better than that.

But still I see scores of Christians, many of whom I know personally and deeply love, leaving fundamentalism for what they believe to be a more authentic Christianity, but it’s really nothing more than ego-centric spirituality.

These folks struggle to envision a revitalized church that still maintains orthodox Christian teaching, so they take cues from the culture and join ranks with the growing mass of individualists who are becoming more self-centered and agenda-driven, even as I type up this blog post.

And in some cases… many have just left the Republican party and joined the Democratic party in their thinking. Hardly the Kingdom revolution that is needed in our personal lives and for a counter-cultural church practice.

So what is so wrong with Ricky Gervais’ comment?

I think Gervais is a funny guy, but I do wonder if Ricky knows anything about the historical reasons for privileging male-female marriage, and then why the church doesn’t pay taxes according to US law. After all, he is British.

It has nothing to do with “privilege” in the popular and polemical sense of the word, as it has been used to demonize those who affirm conjugal marriage.

The real reason is, like the historical institution of marriage, stretching back and affirmed by the ancient Greeks (i.e. Socrates, Plato & Aristotle), who were well aware of same-sex relationships, the church in America was given tax exemption status because it was recognized and affirmed as a private institution that served the public good of a democratic nation.

Therefore, there are historically certain “privileges” that have been afforded male-female marriage and the church because they are (or at least were) thought to be socially advantageous to society (e.g. procreation, broad domestic sharing, holistic human formation, moral & ethical stability, etc.).

That is the historical reasoning behind it, particularly the motivation behind US constitutional law. That’s not my opinion. That’s the fact of the matter. It has nothing to do with bigotry or deprivation of rights.

As far as Western civilization has been concerned in ages past, same-sex “marriage” infringes upon the moral and civic fabric of society and has nothing to do with “equal rights” for individuals (or same-sex attracted couples, threesomes, polygamists, etc.) but instead it’s about the good of the whole society, which means far more than one individual’s idea of personal freedoms and rights. This flies in the face of our self-absorbed culture that wants to believe we’re on the cusp of a great gay liberation, totally oblivious to history.

The ancient world understood this much better than we do today. And the church of the New Testament operated out of this collectivist mindset—putting the interest of the whole before individual “rights” to personal fulfillment.

This is what has been lost in the church discussion, as individualism and an obsession with personal freedoms, especially when it comes to sexual expression, has trumped the greater good. As the apostle Paul said, “I’m free to do anything, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12) for himself or for the whole of any group, especially those who belong to Christ.

In this case, and cases like it, I submit that “privilege” and “privileges” are not the same thing. Western society and culture has largely lost the ability to discern the difference between the two, as it has championed individual “rights” over and against the good of the collective whole.

It is my observation that this pervasive individualism, and the “personal freedoms” mentality, is currently the greatest threat and obstacle to churches in America maintaining New Testament Christianity. It is a battle between the Bill of Rights and the Christ of the Gospels—America vs. the Kingdom.

In the end we know who wins. So the question is… what side are you on?

Are we for Christ or against him? For the Kingdom or culture? I know… I know. That sort of language isn’t always right or helpful. But that’s now where we’re at in our churches. Let’s not forget that it’s the rhetoric of Jesus (Lk 11:23).

There is a growing segment of society that is deaf to this logic and moral reasoning. Nevertheless, we need to know that this goes far beyond the teachings of Christ and the beauty of the Christian faith.

I highly recommend reading What is Marriage?: Man & Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George.

The book was first published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. It is a formidable defense of traditional marriage that is based purely on reason, offering a philosophical and historical case for conjugal marriage.

The follower of Christ ought to be aware of Scripture—from Moses, Jesus, to Paul (e.g. Gen 2:18-24; Matt 19:1-11; Eph 5:25-31)—and the historic Christian tradition on marriage, but it’s also helpful to hear what reason and experience have to say—including the experiences of those who haven’t embraced the gay identity in order to remain faithful to their belief in Christ and the Scriptures. Those voices have been drowned out by the noise of LGBT activists.

As Paul said, walk as the wise in this dark world, not as the unwise (Eph 5:15-17). Brothers and sisters, rise above the culture and its use of words like “privilege” and “equal rights” to distort the truth. Instead, speak the language of Christ and the Kingdom and join a different movement that doesn’t shift the blame, point fingers, and use shame to get its way in the world.

We’ve not been appointed as moral guardians of society, but we are called to be moral guides by way of our example.

May the world look to our local congregations and see the difference, and hear real liberating language as we bless the poor of all races, the outcasts of every group, and those who demean us, even persecuting us for our faith.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

16 responses to “Thoughts on Privilege & Equal Rights

  • Seth

    This is a most excellent and relevant article. May it go from sea to shining sea waking up those who are still willing to engage their reasoning faculties under the headship of Christ.

    • Seth

      By the way the sea to shining sea statement was a bit of humor but in all seriousness the article reflects what has been on my mind and heart for some time and growing. I believe you are correct when you say this is quickly becoming a dividing factor for the western church.

      • David D. Flowers

        Hey Seth, thanks for chiming in! Yeah, in the last couple of months I’ve become convinced that the time for people and churches to choose has come. The only “third way” of approaching this is to be welcoming, but not affirming. Those who want to remain faithful to Scripture and tradition will teach transformational inclusion.

  • Tyler Shenk

    David,
    A few thoughts: (please forgive the length)
    -Imagine I said, “Women should not be allowed to participate in politics because, at least when it comes to leadership, they are inferior to men. This has been understood throughout human history (including Greek history). Allowing women, who are clearly poor leaders by nature, to vote would be detrimental to society. ” Would my concern for the good of society and continuity with the Greeks preclude me from accusations of discrimination? Should I be especially surprised to find that to those who disagree with me about the competence of women think that I’m being discriminatory? (Please understand that my point here is about the charge of discrimination itself, not any more-than-surface-level parallels between women’s and LGBTQ rights.)
    -“So the question is… what side are you on? Are we for Christ or against him?” . . . Someone was bound to comment on that, so I may as well be that guy. Haha. A) I’m not sure if that kind of language actually does anything except further polarize the issue (A relevant quote from St. John Mayer: “Is there anyone who can recall ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud once?”) b) I believe that you are correct in that Jesus did use that kind of language from time to time. So did Christians from previous generations who opposed women’s rights, slavery, etc. Perhaps further justification is necessary. c) It’s not fair to make it as simple as “are we for Christ or against him?” As with a massive range of theological and social issues, it’s just not that simple. Ironically, I know Christians who would tell you that you’re being anti-Jesus by not supporting gay rights. D) You should ask an open theist what he or she thinks about conservatives who talk like that about open theism 😀
    -Briefly, about Progressive/Liberal Christianity: You say that progressive Christians are “upset about their fundamentalist upbringing” and claim that they are “just [Liberals] with a makeover.” It appears to me that a) you’re making a guilt-by-association argument instead of engaging respectfully with progressive Christian beliefs (which I, at least, think you ought to do, if not out of respect for fellow Christians, at least out of respect for fellow humans), b) you’re trying to dismiss progressives based on their supposed ulterior motives instead of, again, respectfully engaging with their ideas, and c) you’re ignoring the fact that post-liberalism IS different than classical liberalism (due to the influences of postmodern philosophy, narrative theology, Barth’s critique of classical Liberalism, etc.) – a good parallel to your mislabeling may be the way that some Progressives intentionally and polemically mislabel Evangelicals as Fundamentalists. It’s both incorrect and, perhaps, a bit rude.
    -Perhaps more sensitivity on the issue of homosexuality would be appropriate. [warning: I’ve known personally more than one Christian who has contemplated suicide because of shame, self-loathing, and frustration resulting from his homosexuality. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard more heartbreaking stories. So please understand where my reaction is coming from.] If you’re concerned with the ill effects of homosexuality, perhaps you could write about ways of reducing the horrific suicide rate among homosexual teenagers in this country. Surely thousands of dead teenagers are at least as serious a problem as [legally] married homosexuals. If you wrote about suicide prevention among teenagers, you may even be able to get Gervais to tweet a link to your blog! 😀

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Tyler, thanks for commenting. I’ll be brief here.

      There is much I could have elaborated on, as I did anticipate certain questions/responses, but as you know this is a blog post and not an essay. I don’t find the first comparison to a woman’s right to vote even remotely close to the issues (historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, etc.) surrounding marriage and the relatively recent “gay identity” espoused by about 3% of the population. Without addressing women and slavery directly, I tried to make my case with marriage only. I hoped that folks would infer that women’s rights and slavery don’t even belong in the same category. Apples to oranges.

      The book I recommended addresses your concerns better than anything I’ve seen yet. And it doesn’t use Scripture to do it.

      I understand your reaction to my mentioning of Jesus and the “for me or against me” rhetoric. I gave that a lot of thought as I wrote it. I kept coming back to Jesus’ insistence to “bring a (metaphorical) sword” of division between families and groups. There is clearly a time for it. Is this one of those times? I think it has come to that in the church.

      My use of the phrase merely describes where we are… we’re as polarized as it gets in the church on this issue. It will come down to accepting or rejecting same-sex marriage. All people will move toward one pole or another by the very nature of it. Sure, there are Christians that think Jesus would support same-sex marriage. I’ve made some of my case as to why I believe they are gravely mistaken. Someone is terribly wrong. Both can’t be right on this issue.

      I think we’ve discussed that before in person. 🙂

      I can see your point about my comments regarding “progressive” Christians. However, this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned them at my blog. Also, we may have a different idea of a “progressive” Christian. I’m not sure. I acknowledge that I’ve simplified the terms a bit, according to how I understand it. I don’t mean to misrepresent. Again, I’m trying to keep it as succinct as possible, assuming that most folks are following my blog already, or have a good idea of what I’m confronting.

      I’m curious to know how I might have been insensitive? I never used “homosexuality” in this post, and for good reason. I deeply lament the pain and struggles of those with same-sex attraction, and it is horrific to continually hear stories of suicide. This post was aimed specifically at the use of “privilege” and “equal rights” when it comes to the issue of marriage and the church. It wasn’t a condemnation of any sort. I do believe these are all serious issues.

      I will likely write more in the future.

      Blessings,
      David

      • rwwilson147

        Well thought out and sensitive responses, despite the emotional conundrums Tyler posed.

      • Tyler Shenk

        Thank for the response, David!

        I would’ve been surprised if you hadn’t given that rhetoric a lot of thought before using it. But I’m still surprised that you ended up deciding in favor of it. Based on our in-person conversations, I think I can safely assume that you’ve heard fundamentalists use rhetoric like that with issues like inerrancy, women in ministry, open theism, evolution, etc. etc. Maybe your experience with fundamentalists has been different than mine, but personally, I’ve found that such language prevents dialogue, which prevents any possibility of persuasion and, in some cases, very damaging to the person who genuinely disagrees about biblical interpretation/ethical reasoning/etc. I understand (I think) why this issue is so important to you, but I guess I don’t understand why, especially having experienced fundamentalism firsthand, you decided to go this route in express that opinion.

        Briefly, on progressives: I believe I’ve read all of your previous statements on them (including the post in which you acknowledged that you’ve “heard Jesus” in dudes like Rob Bell and McLaren), and I think my original comment applies to those posts as well. In my understanding, “progressive Christianity” is more-or-less synonymous with “postliberalism,” which I believe includes popular writers like Bell, McLaren, and even guys like Marcus Borg. I was under the impression that postliberalism was an umbrella term for general state of what started as classical liberalism, but has been significantly altered in the past 50-or-so years, especially in reaction to the work of Barth and postmodern philosophers. And I just don’t think it’s fair to write off progressives as a bunch of overreacting ex-fundamentalists who are stuck in passé liberalism.

        And lastly (and most importantly), my point about sensitivity and same-sex-attraction: You know how people talk about “first world problems”? The idea that’s usually conveyed with that phrase is that the seemingly life-shattering “problems” (a good example being “I ate too much, now my stomach hurts.”) of those of us in the first world are blown way out proportion, and, if you think about, it’s kind of insulting to people in the third world who have more serious problems.

        While FWP are by no means a perfect analogy to this situation, I think that that concept roughly approximates the angle that I’m approaching this issue at hand from. It’s just hard for me to understand why there is so much to be said about the legalization of gay marriage or the ordination of gay ministers, or the unfair treatment conservatives are receive from atheists like Gervais, but much less to say about the issue of suicide. I’m not trying to trivialize your concern for those issues; it just seems insensitive to me that you discuss the danger of homosexuality in the way that you do without addressing the life-or-death danger.

        • David D. Flowers

          Tyler,
          Right. I have heard fundamentalists use it. And all of the issues that you mentioned are peripheral issues that are not a matter of Christian discipleship (belief & behavior), nor do they, when properly understood, distort the image of God and undermine the very order of creation, as does same-sex “marriage” and the acceptance of the gay identity (e.g. Gen 2:18-24; Matt 19:1-11; Eph 5:25-31).

          This is about what goes on in the church. This is not about politics.

          Let me be clear. My blog is not for unbelievers, though at times I do write with skeptics in mind. I clearly state this in the purpose of my blog. The message of this post is for Christians in the church who are well aware of the internal dialogue that is occurring throughout all denominations.

          I see both sides (because in reality a person is on one or the other regarding this issue–“for or against”) are treating this the same way. It’s right or it’s wrong. Jesus approves or he doesn’t. I think most folks understand that. So I don’t see how my language shuts conversation down, since that wasn’t my primary point anyway.

          Bonhoeffer put it this way: “discipleship never consists in this or that specific action: it is always a decision, either for or against Jesus Christ… Christ speaks to us exactly as he spoke to them.”

          This issue is a total game-changer. I worry that an inability to see that is because we’re not viewing the matter through the lenses of Scripture (worldview), and instead are thinking in terms of American civil liberties and no-harm-no-foul. Sexuality in the Scripture, and therefore for the church community, is not a private matter. It impacts the entire group.

          Everyone that is close to this issue, and the current church conversations that surround it, know that this is unlike debates about women in ministry, open theism, or evolution. I’m speaking of the many church pastors and leaders I’m in touch with. We all are aware that soon churches must choose which way they will go.

          The only “third way” that I see is for churches to affirm the Scripture and tradition and move on to create space for folks who live with (in one way or another) same-sex attraction. That is to welcome but not affirm. I know of churches that do this well.

          We are in agreement about “progressive” (for the most part) being post-liberalism. I should have clarified in my last comment that I didn’t mean that ALL self-identifying progressives are alike or operate out of frustration.

          I hear your concern. The truth is I can’t say everything in one post. Of course I’m concerned about those who struggle and contemplate suicide.

          I think you missed my messages “on the individual” and “on human sexuality” at CMF. Please listen to those, or read the post from a few weeks ago. If you look closely, I’m slowly approaching what I believe to be a fresh way that the church should address same-sex attraction, helping those who are hurting, and offer up a new script for those who think they are gay, or have accepted a gay identity. The way forward is to point us ALL to the identity that Christ offers in exchange for one of flesh formed by the “pattern of the world.” This is where I see we begin to present a counter-cultural message. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

          Finally, I personally don’t like the “first world problems” retort that seems to attempt to trivialize the matter. I wouldn’t tell a family that their problems are insignificant because they’re not as bad as my family’s problems. Nor would I tell an adolescent that they are just being an emotional basket-case, that their problems are stupid from an adult perspective, and so they should instead go and stamp out hunger, and solve the AIDs crisis in Africa. 🙂

          Tyler, I really believe that the way of the culture is to use whatever means to shut up those who disagree. Just today I read an article of a family that allowed their 6 year old daughter to become a boy (transgender). Things have become absolutely absurd. And the pieces are being set in place to persecute those who would oppose the sexual revolution.

          I know the culture is gonna do what the culture is gonna do. My concern is that the church be aware of what’s going on, not be fooled about what’s going on, and be faithful to Christ and the Scriptures regardless of how we are slandered and defamed.

        • Tyler Shenk

          David,

          Thanks clearing up the issues with politics, your audience, and progressives – I’m sorry for misunderstanding you. And I am, of course, influenced by the culture of my generation which appears to be significantly more embracive of people across the LGBTQ spectrum than generations past. Also, I have listened to your sermon on human sexuality – it was really awesome, by the way!

          I’m sorry about the first world problems bit, though I’m not sure if I communicated it very well. (The point of FWP, for the record, is more to recognize the rampant entitlement in our culture than to trivialize problems for the sake of being cruel. Some hilarious internet memes have come out of it, which is always a plus.) And also for the record, if you ever accuse an adolescent of vastly overestimating the gravity of their problems and underestimating the extent of their undeserved blessings, especially if that adolescent happened to me, I will probably have to agree with your assessment. 😀 (Although – and I think this was your point – there are certainly a lot of bad ways and bad times to share this information with the hypothetical adolescent.)

          Anyway, at risk of repeating myself, my point here is not to trivialize the effects of growing affirmation of homosexuality within the church. My point is that the bigger picture seems to be being missed. Though I do not support discrimination against Christians who go the traditional route on this issue (and I’d include myself very cautiously in that group), what really frightens and offends me is the fact that many members of the LGBTQ community feel that they are hated and that there is no hope for them. It seems to me that the fiery indignation is misplaced here – the suicide rate statistics are a strong indicator to me that the people being most heavily persecuted, who really need defending, who really need to written on behalf of, are those who would include themselves in the LGBTQ community. And when all that is said about people like that is that their lifestyles are evil and that to affirm that lifestyle is to position oneself opposite to the Kingdom of God, it’s hard for me to fault the many who conclude that, at the very least, they are not welcome in Christian communities. This situation into which conservative-ish Christians may choose to speak about issues of sexuality strikes me as incredibly delicate, best handled gently instead of forcefully. I fear that actual self-identifying LGBTQ people are like innocent bystanders caught out in the middle of a war zone within Christianity.

          To me clear, I am well aware that you would never exclude someone from Christian community because of their orientation and I understand that, as you said in your sermon, you would never advocate shaming people. Also, please understand that my concern is not for “compromise” (if that means changing one’s mind for no reason than charges of bigotry); I am advocating extremely careful, gentle means ways of addressing homosexuality. It just seems to me that when lives are potentially at risk here, a delicacy (even if that means letting the other guys get away with a cheap shot) is most appropriate.

        • David D. Flowers

          Hey Tyler, good thoughts! Glad you found the sermon helpful.

          I hear what you’re saying. I think we should also keep in mind that there are extreme voices of LGBT that don’t represent the whole. Same goes for the church, as we know so well.

          Unfortunately, it’s those who would probably get along that are being trampled down, and obstacles put between them to hinder healing. I think it’s demonic at the core. I’m encouraged by those churches who affirm church tradition but have at the same time created space for folks to find love and community.

          Love ya, bro. I’ll miss seeing you this summer. Stay in touch!

  • rwwilson147

    Thanks David for this thoughtful biblical reflection on our spiritual/cultural context regarding sexual relations today.
    All the best to you in Christ, Richard

  • Chris

    Thanks for this, David. You might also want to check out “Making Gay Okay” by Robert Reilly from Ignatius Press: http://www.ignatius.com/Products/GAM-H/making-gay-okay.aspx

  • Sean Durity

    Very thoughtful work again. And I appreciate the pointer to the “What is Marriage?” book.

    Your diagnosis of individual rights/privileges trumping concern for others (and the collective society) is accurate and cutting.

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