Denny Burk on the “Least of These”: Are They the Photographer, the Florist, or the Baker?

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Denny Burk.  Burk is professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He writes about the well-known phrase “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 46) which is commonly understood to mean the poor.  He then argues that this phrase does not refer to the poor, but instead to Jesus’ disciples.

Now don’t get your panties all up in a wad over the wrong thing here.  Note that Burk is not going off the deep end advocating something completely novel that flies in the face of Christian belief.  Others have held and taught this view of “the least of these”, including Scot McKnight, Justin Taylor, and many other commentators both contemporary and ancient.  Also note that caring for the poor is taught and commanded in many other places in Scripture, so regardless of how this phrase is interpreted, it changes nothing with respect to our obligation to show care and concern for the poor.

The following quote offers a representative summary of Burk’s argument:

This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.

And herein lies the point:  that the baker who refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, the florist who refuses to bring flowers to the gay man next door, the multi-million dollar corporation that refuses to provide birth control to its employees, are to be seen as Gospel-bearers who by these actions are proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  Reject them, and you are rejecting Jesus Christ, and it will not go well for you on judgment day.

Okay.  Christian persecution is real in many parts of the world, and has been for most of church history.  But to place the baker/florist/photographer in the same class as Christians who have their heads cut off by Islamic radicals is wrong.  Failing to support “religious freedom” laws which would permit so-called Christian businesses to refuse to do business with gays does not rise to the same level as the actions of Islamic militants, and it takes some very creative thinking to make the case that it does.

This is a big deal, people.  It strikes at the very heart of what sort of people we are and are becoming as evangelicals, what sort of communities our churches are and are becoming.

Dianna Anderson, a feminist blogger, offers her reaction to Burk’s argument.  Much of what she says comes from within the framework of liberal political and theological commitments which would make many evangelicals uncomfortable, yet the larger point remains:  The baker who won’t bake cupcakes for a same-sex wedding, the florist who won’t deliver flowers to the gay man next door, the corporation that won’t provide birth control benefits to its employees, all represent a massive failure to be like Christ.  To count these as our persecuted brothers, the broken ones who need lifting up…well, there is something dangerously close to a disconnect here.

What sort of people are we as evangelicals becoming?  What sort of communities are our churches becoming?  Are we becoming a people that protects its own while heaping judgment and condemnation upon those who differ from us on the issues of the day that matter to us?  Or are we becoming a people defined by faith expressing itself through love–a love for the poor, the despised, and the outcast that shocks and scandalizes the watching world?

This is a big deal, people.  We cannot allow the Mohlers and the Owen Strachans and the Denny Burks of the world to win this argument.

Earlier this year our church did a sermon series entitled “Brand New“.  One of the overarching ideas of the series is that all of our decisions in life should pass through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  So when you come to this issue, ask yourself that question.  Are you doing what love requires of you when you refuse to provide cupcakes, flowers, or photography for a gay wedding?  Are you doing what love requires of you when you advocate for “religious freedom” measures that make it legal to do these things?  Are you doing what love requires of you when you hold the baker, florist, and photographer who do such things up as examples of faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Are our churches going to be churches that do what love requires of us?  Are we as evangelicals going to be a movement that does what love requires of us?  Or are we going to close ranks and protect our own, modeling for the watching world a God who extends a closed fist of judgment and condemnation to all who differ from us on the issues that matter to us today?

That is what hangs in the balance here.