Thursday, January 9, 2014

Wedding Cakes, Pornography, and the Christian Conscience - Christians in the Marketplace, Part 2

My article from this week's newspapers is a follow-up to last week's answer about Christians in the marketplace:

What about a Christian business owner – should they participate in transactions that are related to events with which they do not morally agree?

This question addresses the other side of one that was begun in the previous question addressed in this column, and both deal with the question of how Christians live out their moral convictions in the marketplace.  When the Christian is the customer, it does not seem to be their responsibility to be their concern what the business owner’s incidental use of their income outside of the transaction in question. 

However, when the Christian is the service provider, the question is perhaps more complicated.  The Christian, as customer, agrees with the merchant for a product or service and is not substantially involved once the transaction is complete, but the Christian business-owner finds themselves in a more difficult position.

This begins with the business owner’s own conscience.  So, even though their name may not be associated with the immoral act and their service may not directly support the immoral act, they may face a trouble conscience over contributing to the act. 

I can think of an occasion where this was the case when I was working as a service technician repairing computers.  Some of our technicians were uncomfortable with servicing a computer whose use was related to pornography while others, while not supportive of pornography themselves, saw their service of the computer as separate from its use with pornography. 

This issue became even more complicated on an occasion where the computer was not used merely to access pornographic images, but was used in the actual production of pornography, and technicians who were comfortable working on the previous computers were troubled by the prospect of servicing this particular machine.

An even greater level of objection occurred when on on-site service call was received to install computer equipment at an adult entertainment venue near the store.  Technicians who had not been uncomfortable with the previous scenarios now found this to be beyond a level that their conscience could bear. 

This illustrates the variety of levels of involvement a Christian might have when providing a product or service in the marketplace.  Certainly the Christian merchant is not responsible for every action taken with the product they have sold.  Nearly every product can be misused in some sinful way, so the Christian business-owner would have to interview every customer about their intended use of the product, and even then would be confronted with the possibility that the customer had lied.  Obviously, the Christian merchant does not need to trouble themselves with these sort of concerns. 

Some services involve a higher degree of participation than others – either by the nature of or the proximity of the service.  So, for example there is a significant difference between the plumber who fixes the bathroom sink at a strip club and the audio-video technician who designs and installs a system for mass-viewing of sexually-explicit entertainment. 

Likewise, take the example that has made frequent headlines in the news in recent years where services are sought for weddings, but the merchant declines the job because they cannot support the marriage that is occurring.  It seems that here there is also a question of degree here.  The caterer who is providing a meal probably faces less uncertainty about the morality of their involvement than the owner of the venue which hosts the event, and the baker who is tasked with writing the message on the cake or placing the figures of the couple on top is most likely to face a question of conscience for their involvement. 

While I would be uncomfortable instituting church discipline to require or forbid individual Christian participation in business transactions which cause questions of conscience, it seems that it is certainly necessary to respect the weight which such decisions place on people of moral conviction.  One would hope that state and federal law would recognize this by protecting the conscience right of merchants, while at the same time those merchants ultimately have the obligation to follow Acts 5:29’s instruction to “obey God rather than man,” in matters of conscience, regardless of law to the contrary.

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