303 Creative has finally been decided, and Christians — and all Americans — won. In a 6-3 landmark decision on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that graphic designer Lorie Smith can’t be compelled to affirm values that conflict with her deeply held religious beliefs about marriage by designing wedding websites for same-sex couples.
As we celebrate this victory — and we all should because, as the majority rightly stated, “The First Amendment’s protections belong to all, not just to speakers whose motives the government finds worthy” — it’s worth reflecting on how we got here. Smith isn’t the only one to have fought this battle, and she won’t be the last. Life-destroying left-wing lawfare came for cake artist Jack Phillips and florist Barronelle Stutzman all the same.
Of course, a major piece to the puzzle is that we live in what Aaron Renn astutely terms the “negative world.” This era of Christian living began around 2014, just after Phillips first declined to design a cake celebrating a homosexual union and just before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision cemented Christians in what Renn called a “new low status.” In this negative world, church attendance has plunged, intolerance of traditional religious values has skyrocketed, and Christians have been dragged into court for their faithfulness — many into the court of public opinion, if not an actual courtroom.
We’d be foolish to ignore the other contributing factor, however, and it’s not one that can be wrapped up into a nice little bow called Obergefell and draped around the necks of our political foes. No, this other factor comes straight from within the church.
Go Forth and Be Charming?
It’s called “winsomeness.” Being winsome is not a novel idea, obviously, nor even a Christian one. To be winsome is to be charming, attractive, or appealing with one’s demeanor or character — an admirable goal, to be sure, and one that should apply to Christians.
But in coopting the idea into a veritable doctrine, Christian leaders morphed winsomeness from a desirable trait into a hermeneutic through which they judge all Christian conviction and conduct. Thus as America hurtled toward the negative world, and Christian leaders were suddenly faced with the prospect of a Trump presidency, winsomeness became a trump card in matters of spiritual significance. Religious and thought leaders, such as Russell Moore and David French among many others, became victims of the mind virus and infected hordes of others.
It might have started as an understandable — if short-sighted — response to Donald Trump. Just be nice. But then it spread vindictively, and with each mutation, it looked a little more like worldliness and a little less like godliness. The gist of the “winsome” ethos is that for Christians to be faithful, they must be perceived as kind and likable by the unbelieving world they hope to evangelize. And the symptoms are easy to identify. Appeasement to radicals. A tossing of other faithful Christians under the bus. Race-baiting wrapped in Christian-ese. An unwillingness to celebrate God-given victory if the “wrong” leader made it happen. Deference to tyranny. Hatred of masculinity. The list goes on.
But there’s a glaring problem with the “winsome” worldview: It ultimately measures a Christian’s fidelity to the gospel based on how he is perceived by God’s enemies — and in the process, it implies Christians who aren’t adored by their unregenerate neighbors are unloving.
So you put your obvious pronouns in your email signature because everyone else at work does it, and you don’t want to be known as “that bigot” in your office. Or you post a black box on Instagram because even though you know it serves more to divide people by the color of their skin than to unite them, it looks virtuous. Or you party at your gay friend’s wedding because even though you know that union defies God’s design for marriage, you don’t want to have an awkward conversation or risk jeopardizing a relationship. Or you say yes to a design job for a woman’s group that promotes abortions because you don’t want them to pass over you for the next opportunity.
This version of Christianity doesn’t work. What you end up with on the one hand are craven Christians who pat themselves on the back for their likeability while being largely untethered from all principles save the approval of man (which conveniently endows worldly status and prestige, such as a perch at The New York Times). On the other hand, you have steadfast believers like Smith and Phillips and Stutzman, who despite relentless persecution faithfully embody the fruits of the Spirit most difficult to cultivate: love, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.
Yet the world still hates them.
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus promised his followers would be the result of their commitment? The world hated Him, and so it will hate His disciples too. The implication is obvious: If the world doesn’t hate you, are you actually following Jesus?
A More Courageous Way
There’s a lesson to be learned from the aforementioned heroes, whose mission is not winsomeness but fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That means that when a lost soul demands Lorie Smith violate God’s divine law by approving of sexual sin, she can’t capitulate with a modest smile and an accommodating website in hopes of wooing him to Jesus. She instead prays for courage to say, No, I will not design that, and like Phillips and Stutzman continues to love her customer by the grace of God anyway.
Scripture provides inspiring examples to emulate too. It no doubt would have been easier for Daniel’s buddies to have bowed to the statue of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar at his command. After all, showing respect and submission to the king would have cemented the young men in his good graces and perhaps given them spiritual sway down the road. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s operating principle wasn’t likeability or world-defined niceness. It was a fear of God and undivided devotion that empowered the young Jewish exiles to look a fiery death squarely in the face and say with confidence We will not bow.
The winsome doctrine forfeits many of these sanctifying trials, which crop up in countless ways and serve to condition the human conscience in varying degrees. But it also creates major consequences for Christians trying to be faithful. Again, it implies their fortitude is a sign of hatred. And worse, it tilts the world a little more toward a fake gospel of tolerance and away from the true gospel — the only one with any power to save suffering people: “Repent and believe.”
The legal assaults and character assassinations won’t end with a single court victory — or two or three. Just ask Jack Phillips how the past decade has gone for him. So Christians must be ready with an unwavering answer when a lost world asks something of us we know we cannot do — no matter how big or small — and then be prepared to carry that cross.
Remember the courage of Lorie Smith, Jack Phillips, and Barronelle Stutzman, pray God gives it to you too, and start practicing it — whether the watching world interprets it as charming or not.
This article has been updated since publication.