Religious liberty needs a fixer upper

December 1, 2016

When it comes to religious liberty, America is in need of a “Fixer Upper.” The erupting controversy over Chip and Joanna Gaines reveals that religious freedom is as polarizing as ever.

Earlier this week, both Buzzfeed and Cosmopolitan published articles highlighting comments on homosexuality made by Jimmy Seibert, the pastor of Antioch Community Church, which Chip and Joanna attend. Seibert and the church he pastors affirm traditional Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality. Shocked that these beloved celebrities would belong to a church with such beliefs, both authors began an inquisition. The articles demanded Chip and Joanna speak out about their beliefs on homosexuality. And this ignited a firestorm. Since Tuesday, the Gainses have been further criticized in articles and on social media while others have criticized both the articles and these attacks.

This particular religious liberty flap is personal to many people, including me. I was born and raised in Texas. I have friends who grew up in Waco who cannot fathom how the show Fixer Upper has turned this quaint central Texas city into a tourist destination. I even know a number of friends who take longer routes to travel across Texas, just so they can visit the Magnolia Market and see the silos.

Even though I would not consider myself an enthusiast for shows like Fixer Upper, I have seen the playbook the left is using to malign this couple before. Those who expect the culture to affirm the redefinition of marriage went after Brendan Eich until it cost him his job as CEO of a major tech company. Chick-fil-A spent months under siege for comments made by its CFO affirming a traditional view of marriage. Hobby Lobby faced years of scrutiny for their refusal to surrender to the sexual revolution by offering abortifacient contraceptives that violated its owner’s consciences. Countless other examples proving the left’s culture war aggression could be offered.

This situation with Fixer Upper reveals several common threads about religious liberty that every Christian must understand.

First, religious liberty controversies often emerge in a battle between religious freedom and sexual freedom. The reason that sexuality is often pitted against religious liberty is that, for many, sexual freedom is itself like a religion. The culture teaches that you are your sexual identity. So, it should not be surprising that religious liberty earthquakes often happen along the fault line of sexuality. What is surprising in this instance with Fixer Upper is that some, even within the LGBT community, are pushing back on Buzzfeed because they don’t agree with how they have harassed Chip and Joanna Gaines.

Second, religious liberty controversies often involve reluctant culture warriors. The left is often the culprit for controversies surrounding religious liberty, making non-culture warriors like the Gainses the victim in these scenarios. Chip and Joanna Gaines were not seeking the spotlight at the center of a cultural controversy. Instead, from the people I know that work with them, they are simply trying to be faithful in the midst of the amazing opportunity God has given them. It’s frustrating for many Christians to see this couple they watch every week unwillingly thrust into the culture war. When Christians see a beloved celebrity couple needlessly criticized for holding to a biblical view of marriage, many feel as though they are being attacked themselves. If Chip and Joanna Gaines aren’t safe from the culture war, who is?

Third, religious liberty controversies often breed further skepticism and polarization. The Fixer Upper flap shows that, when it comes to issues of sexuality, the left has moved beyond disagreement to disdain for those who do not conform to their views. When controversies like this one emerge, it takes the embers of polarization remaining from the election season and reignites the flame. How can we restore unity in our country or protect our first freedom when polarizing episodes like this continue to occur and breed further skepticism of the media?

Fourth, religious liberty controversies reveal the centrality of the local church for equipping people to understand biblical views on explosive topics. Evangelical churches must provide their churches, not only with a biblical view of marriage and sexuality, but also a proper understanding of religious liberty. Furthermore, they must instill in Christians the courage to stand for their convictions ,even when it costs them something in the culture. In the case of the Fixer Upper controversy, a video of Antioch Community Church’s pastor defending a biblical view of marriage sparked a controversy the church probably didn’t anticipate. The same thing could happen in your community. How are our churches equipping their people to stand firm in the midst of cultural headwinds?

Even if you’ve never seen Fixer Upper, the premise of the show is simple to understand. A couple owns a fixer upper—an outdated house in need of repair. Chip and Joanna Gaines come in and help them identify problems and then develop cost-effective solutions. Rather than give up on the home through a demolition, they give it new life through a renovation.

When it comes to religious liberty, the left wants a demolition; but what it needs is a renovation. Christians must champion religious liberty for all in a winsome and compelling way that learns from the common threads that emerge in controversies like this one. Some people think religious liberty is outdated and unable to be fixed. Let’s hope this latest episode in the culture war brings us to a renewed perspective on religious freedom, because religious liberty needs a “Fixer Upper.”

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24