The Colson Center’s 2023 Great Lakes Symposium on Christian Worldview was held on July 27 in Bay Harbor Michigan and featured the Colson Center’s President and CEO, John Stonestreet, Kristen Waggoner, President and General Counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Jim Daly, President and CEO of Focus on the Family. The discussion focused on how Christians can live in a contemporary culture which is hostile to Biblical faith and yet be faithful to Christ.
Stonestreet observed that “we never do any part of our lives as humans outside of a cultural context … Culture is just whatever happens when people get together.” But in the wider world, the overall culture is shifting rapidly. “Things went from being unthinkable to be … unquestionable overnight.” Practically speaking, culture is “whatever seems normal.” He said it is difficult to convey an idea of righteousness to young people “because you have seen the definition of normal change.”
Today, Christians “are in a moment that’s going to require a level of courage.” Belief in God or that Christianity and the Bible has value in it is unlikely to be punished, but belief in and adherence to a Biblical understanding of sex, marriage, and the family may result in being penalized, perhaps legally, but particularly by ostracism. Critical Theory is pervasive, and may well be dominant in the business, professional, or educational situation in which one finds oneself. What Christians are really contending with is not the specific issues Critical Theory addresses, but its overall approach to reality – what human beings in fact are, and what is meant by good and evil. In the “mood” that Critical Theory has engendered, we see people “not as made in the image and likeness of God,” but rather as whatever category they identify with, “some tribe that they belong to.” He said that “being a part of the Christian tribe doesn’t put you in very popular moral standing anymore … This is the cultural moment that God has placed us in.”
Stonestreet said that both guests at the symposium “have the courage to say what is true, and the courage to love like Jesus.” This, he said “is not easy.” It is getting “harder, and harder, and harder” not only to “say what is true, but not get co-opted into saying what is not true.”
Practical Philosophy Everyone Should Know
Religious freedom and free speech are not given by governments, but by God, Waggoner maintained. Such a right is a “universal human right.” Everyone should benefit from it. “The government has no right, ever, to coerce faith.” Such coercion, she said, “would actually violate the Scripture.” But on the other hand, the state has no right to deny Christians “the right to embrace our faith and to peacefully live it out in the public square.”
She said that while many countries in the world have constitutions and laws that guarantee religious freedom and free speech, “those written documents are no longer worth the paper that they’re written on. Activists and judges have essentially gutted them of any meaning.” India, for instance, guarantees religious freedom, but now sometimes jails people who “have a Bible study in their home.” She said ADF has assisted “in the release of 800 Indian Christians in the last two years.” Censorship is also “flood[ing] the Western world. Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, all of Europe, and U.K. right now we’re seeing people arrested because they’re engaging in silent prayer outside of abortion clinics.” In one of the most alarming cases, two Mexican politicians convicted of “gender based political violence” for issuing “a public statement questioning transgender ideology.” She said that “America is the last country in the Western world that is resisting the kind of censorship laws that we see everywhere else.”
Waggoner said that “historically coercion has never been our nation’s answer to bad ideas, it has always been debate and persuasion.” She said that “Christians have an obligation to stand for these rights in the public square.” This is for three reasons. First, we must love our neighbor. Religious freedom and free speech are conducive to a nation’s prosperity and civil peace. Secondly, these freedoms “remove unnecessary obstacles to bring people to Christ,” and thirdly, democratic government requires freedom of religion and speech. Requiring silence or forced speech “is the tool of tyrants and failed nations.”
She reviewed the cases of Jack Phillips and Lori Smith, both of whom serve LGBT identifying customers (which is generally not mentioned in the mass media) but are not willing to express ideas in their work that they do not agree with. She referred to Mike Johnson as well in Washington state, whose Yakima Union Gospel Mission is required by Washington’s law to hire people “who do not share” this religious organization’s faith (a requirement that includes churches). Similarly, Brian Tingley is a counselor in Washington state who wants to counsel people to be at peace with their biological sex, something that is scientifically known that the great majority of gender dysphoric minors can achieve.
Waggoner observed that there is a grave injustice when people cannot voluntarily receive counseling on sexual issues because the state forbids goals set by the client, or when homeless shelters can no longer serve people in need because it can no longer take account of biological sex in serving homeless or abused persons. These are “not just bad laws, they are enabling our spiritual enemy who comes to steal, kill, rob, and destroy.” Increasingly “good is evil, and evil is good, sweet is bitter and bitter is sweet.” But Christians such as Phillips, Smith, Johnson, and Tingley are both “radiating Christ’s presence and standing for the truth” despite intense opposition. In this way, they are effecting change in their communities.
Although the comforts of conforming to the wider secular culture may be tempting, “we need to remember that we are not ashamed of the gospel, not one word of it.” God does not require us to succeed, she said, but he does ask us to “be faithful.” As Peter and the apostles said in Acts chapter 5, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and what we have heard.”
Daly said that “the church as at a fork in the road.” Christians must not use secular means to fight the war being waged against truth and reality, but rather take guidance from II Tim. 2:24-26:
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
Daly spoke of a human rights lawyer in communist Romania, who was severely persecuted at the time, but one day was called to her daughter’s school where her daughter had refused to write a letter to the dictator thanking him for her schoolbooks. The daughter knew he did not buy the books. The girl’s teacher responded that “I know it’s a lie, but we can’t tell the truth in this culture.” People in America and the West are increasingly in the same position of being required to speak lies. Daly referred to Dr. Mark Yarhouse, who sits on the American Psychological Association’s panel for transgender youth. He indicated to Daly the now well known fact that 70%-90% of gender dysphoric minors self-correct by age 19. But this is often not the basis of public policy, and people speak as if self-proclaimed gender is immutable and an identity independent of the body.
Yet Daly emphasized Scripture verses that command love of enemies. We must remember that “this isn’t the last stop, this is a short-term waystation, where we get to prove our faithfulness to Christ.”
Ongoing Conflicts Christians Face
Stonestreet asked whether Jesus’ first and second commandments (to love God and neighbor) are in conflict. Waggoner said “they’re not.” Instead Scripture emphasizes the importance of abiding in Christ. We reflect who we are with. She said that at ADF “the most important thing our team does before going into court … is spending time with Christ so we can reflect him to our opponents.To me that’s more important than winning in court, candidly.” Daly said the problem with many Christians is attitude. They are simply trying to win. They should instead present Christ, and then “let the Holy Spirit do his work.” He said that “the more you’re expressing concern for that person in opposition to you, the more they feel sincere love from you, there is something in the spiritual DNA that God has created in all of us, it cracks open, and people begin to listen, and they hear what you’re saying. They may totally disagree with you, but if they feel loved and respected by you, their crust will open.”
Waggoner added that confidence in the position one is taking is important, “and that confidence comes from Christ.” Knowing “who you are and who God created you to be” is vital, a viewpoint that Christians should impart to their children. Stonestreet said that Christians often don’t know why they believe what they do, but this is needed to give “clarity, confidence and courage.”
A questioner asked about the new hate speech law in Michigan. In that state, and about 100 other jurisdictions across the country, the law requires the use of “preferred pronouns” (expressing self-defined gender rather than natural gender).
Waggoner said that if Michigan attempts to enforce the law as the news media is reporting the meaning of the law to be, it will violate the First Amendment, as interpreted by the 303 Creative vs. Elenis decision, and numerous other Supreme Court decisions. Litigation will certainly result. But she said that she is even more concerned about the counseling ban in Michigan, which prohibits even voluntary counseling to help a minor feel comfortable and identify with his or her biological sex. She said that “the science is on our side” on this issue. It is the advocates of “gender transitioning” that are “experimenting on children.” She said that with the testimonies of young women “who have undergone permanent sterilization, who have had their breasts removed, who will experience pain for the rest of their lives how can you not as a Christian stand up to that evil.” The ban on counseling in support of natural sex “is viewpoint discrimination, and violates the First Amendment, and it has to be challenged.”
Another questioner asked how Christians should relate to a family member who identifies as LGBT. Daly said that this has to be dealt with on virtually a “case by case basis.” He said that the greatest “growth area” for counseling at Focus on the Family is counseling Christian grandparents whose adult children are encouraging their grandchildren to undergo “gender transitioning.” With familial relationships “the rope is love, and you have got to maintain that while speaking truth.” Love without affirmation of sin is difficult, but it means, among other things, not attending the same-sex wedding of a loved one, as that is a public affirmation of a sinful relationship.
Asked about the pro-life movement after the Dobbs decision, Waggoner said that ADF is defending the “trigger laws” (laws restricting abortion enacted before Dobbs in the event that Roe was ever overturned). Because abortion has been understood as a constitutional right for the last 50 years, people are still working out how to respond to a different regime (in pro-life states) that recognizes unborn children as human beings. This gives Christians a wonderful opportunity to influence the developing society with truthful discussions. Even elsewhere, Daly described a live ultrasound demonstration done by Focus on the Family in Times Square. People were moved to tears. Protestors of the event dropped their signs and joined in the event.
It was also asked how Christians should respond in work situations where “preferred” (false) pronouns are required. This is sometimes called “pronoun hospitality” to make it seem necessary for politeness. Waggoner said that false pronouns should not be used, since they are lies. She said that courts have recognized that words carry meaning and referred to a case in which a philosophy professor prevailed in his refusal to use false pronouns. He had offered to use only the personal name of the person demanding the use of the opposite sex pronouns, or to say nothing at all. The Sixth Circuit said that if the government can compel the use of false pronouns, it can also compel anyone to say anything the government mandates. She said that the 303 Creative case indeed speaks to this issue. The government cannot compel one to say something that one does not believe. But a single case, even a landmark case like 303 Creative, often does not end legal conflict over an issue. Activists will continue to test the legal standard against forced speech or silence.
On the moral side of things, one should look to what Scripture says, and then find the best way to honor its commands, admonitions, and truth. One should never use a false pronoun. It “presents a false gospel and presents a poor witness to those who are watching as well.” Sometimes there is a “third option,” such as using given names instead of pronouns. But Waggoner said that she is surprised at the extent to which transgenderism has become a problem for youth ministries. A young person in a youth activity may request to be in the group of the opposite sex rather than his or her own sex. But the church should not “affirm something that we know brings such harm and is counter to the gospel … God does not make mistakes, our bodies are not mistakes, and we don’t separate our minds from our bodies.” She said that a co-ed group might be a “third alternative” in this situation.
Daly emphasized that while we want to be loving toward the culture, we should also be bold to state the truth. Indeed, “let’s go to prison … if we have to.” He referred to Paul’s imprisonment. This, he said, was “an honor, and he didn’t do it belligerently. He started singing in jail. That’s the kind of jail time I’d want to do.” Waggoner said that when Christians are engaged and confident “so many times we see non-believers who will follow us later.” Initially, only a few were willing to speak against self-defined “gender,” but increasingly it is possible to form alliances with people who are neither believers nor even social conservatives. But she said that “so many times we [Christians] are not willing to play the long game.” People may become disheartened because of pressure, or because of some electoral or legal loss. “We can’t give up on truth.” Stonestreet said that the families supporting clients in litigation where truth and reality are being attacked are quite important. Support from church congregations is also important.
The admonition of Francis Schaeffer, based on Eph. 4:15, to “speak the truth in love” is particularly sound today, in a world in which claims to victimization have replaced truth. Ideologically driven terminology may be difficult to overcome in any given situation, but truth consistently and sincerely and lovingly stated is its best answer and will certainly be finally honored by God.