Kentucky Baptist children’s agency faces ‘ethical dilemma’

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Bill Smithwick serves as the president of Sunrise Children’s Services, a Kentucky Baptist agency that has cared for hurting children for more than 150 years. The agency has always fought to retain a commitment to biblical hiring standards, meaning that open and avowed homosexuals were not eligible for employment. However, in a shocking about-face, Smithwick argued in a letter to churches of the Kentucky Baptist Convention that Sunrise enacting an anti-discrimination policy and hiring homosexuals as caregivers would be for the “greater good.” Citing the likelihood that the government will eventually require such a policy, he asked, “Do we walk away from the pain, suffering, loneliness and brokenness of the kids we serve over our hiring practice or continue ministering to young children who desperately need someone to show them God’s love?”

The phrase “ethical dilemma” is often used to denote the quandary we face when choosing between moral imperatives. The choice can be paradoxical, where rational people could make a logical defense of each choice to make either seem the “right” thing to do.

Consider the quandary for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Should they bow and worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold to maintain their positions or face the fiery furnace? Surely their compromise could be justified if they bowed down. They could help many of the hurting Israelite refugees in Babylon from their positions as administrators of the government’s wealth and relief programs. What good could they do the world from the ash pile? What about the first two of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me…and you shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod. 20)?

Likewise, Peter and John faced their ethical dilemma as they stood before the Sanhedrin and were commanded “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). With imprisonment or even martyrdom waiting in the wings, surely their fellow believers would understand a concession. Moving forward, they could transition from a preaching ministry to support roles. Or they could be a part of a social ministry that would still find them being helpful to the poor and hurting. Did not the Lord himself endorse soup kitchens and clothes closets in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats? Unlike Daniel’s friends, they weren’t being asked to commit idolatry. Or, were they? Is disobedience to the Lord’s Great Commission in order to obey the laws of man an idolatrous act?

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Peter, John and a host of other biblical figures faced their ethical dilemmas. For choosing to obey God rather than man, some found their lives cut short. Today, under the altar of Heaven, they impatiently wait for justice (Rev. 6:9-11). The encouragement they receive from the Spirit of God has an ominous ring for Christians alive today: “They were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” Ethical dilemmas can be serious business. Deadly serious.

While ethical dilemmas often have been deadly serious for people of the Christian faith, that rarely has been true for American Christians, at least those who live in America. Growing hostility toward biblical Christianity in America could cause us to question how long tolerance will be extended to the religion that once dominated our land; but for now, we are blessed with freedom.

Acceptance, however, is another matter. For example, Catholic Charities in Illinois was once a willing partner in the state’s efforts to provide foster and adoptive families to children removed from homes due to abuse or neglect. Catholic views on homosexuality are no longer acceptable. When the state required the Catholics to jettison their views and begin serving as an adoption and foster care agency to persons who unrepentantly practice homosexual acts, or any other sexual activities forbidden by Scripture, they chose to abandon state contracts rather than abandon their beliefs. Some criticized them for abandoning the children; but those children are still cared for by the state, and Catholics in Illinois still use their resources to minister to hurting kids. However, they no longer use the government’s money.

After an outcry from Baptist churches all across Kentucky, the Sunrise board of trustees rejected Smithwick’s recommendation. While the government is not currently demanding Sunrise change its hiring policies, the day may come. At that time, the organization will be faced with a real ethical dilemma rather than an envisioned one: Give gospel-centered care to as many kids as possible with church funds, or continue to be a steward of government money even when it means compromising God’s word.

Seemingly complex problems often have simple solutions. Peter said it best, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Dilemma solved. Biblical ethics don’t evolve.

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  1. mark payton
    Posted November 18, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your leadership in this Paul. I still don’t understand why the trustees didn’t reject his offer to begin with… maybe they have lost their creditability also. Afraid they only did this because they felt Ky Bap. forced them too.

  2. Bill Patterson
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Superb ethical, historical, and biblical descriptions, Paul. Very well said.

    Bill Smithwick’s letter espoused utilitarianism–most good for the most people. As your excellent column shows, that approach often conflicts with clear, biblical principles. Thank you for your leadership in these issues and for laying out the problem for all to read.