Monday, May 2, 2016

When You've Gotta Go...

Wil Reinowski

Americans nationwide have found ourselves in the midst of a huge debate in the aftermath of North Carolina’s HB2. The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act became law just last month by a majority vote, and it sets a precedent for similar laws to appear in other states. Reformed Christians directly and indirectly affected by it have a duty to understand the ways in which we may respond. Let us suspend for a moment the absurdity with which outside nations must view American politics and delve instead into a Reformed understanding of the conversation that has been dubbed "Bathroom Wars."

On the one hand, Calvin says that the duties of elected officials are “to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquillity.” The institution of government — not to be confused with the people of government — is thus a Divine-Ordained office, the primary purpose of which is to protect Godly things and our interactions with our neighbor (4.20.2). The line in the sand between church and state is drawn when one attempts to establish legislation solely according to his own understanding of God (4.20.3). Hence, the institution of government in the Reformed understanding is the highest, Godly calling of them all. (4.20.4) Our elected officials should in turn respect their duties as these duties are ordained by God. (4.20.6). Elected officials are bound to God and their elected office to uphold the image of God while carrying out their duties (4.20.6). Calvin qualifies his position further by noting that God instructs humanity to mind everything we do so as not to make baseness of our actions (4.20.6). 

While culturally we may hold different understandings as to the titles of our leaders, no matter our choice of words they all hold Divine appointments (4.20.8). Because of their heavenly duties and because of the historical evidence in scripture, the primary duty of a leader is to uphold religion and to restore Godly worship when it becomes corrupted. (4.20.9)

On the other hand, Calvin speaks to the nature of tyranny. He says that there may be times when humanity may demonstrate a need for Divine reprimand, and one possible way to view tyrants and outlandish laws is that they are a sort of God-ordered punishment (4.20.25). Calvin says that our hope in times of tyranny comes when we remember that God is ultimately in control of history and calls unexpected leaders to deliver his people as Moses delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh (4.20.30). All that said, Calvin strongly disagrees with tyrants and says, “I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance” (4.20.31).

So what is the Reformed response in this conversation of proper use of public restroom facilities? Is this a case of extremist religious views being imposed on a mass of humans in a tyrannical abuse of power? Should we view this as a reprimand from God? If so, what could we possibly have done to deserve this? Do we respond by physically attacking our politicians, or do we peacefully protest and exercise our "Moses rights" at at the polls? Calvin states the crux of this very argument at the beginning of this chapter, and repeats this Biblical chorus that location, culture, and gender have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God after the coming of Christ; it is the underpinnings of the law - love of God and neighbor - that are important (4.20.1).


  1. This is an interesting case study! My question, though, is this: is HB2, or any other so-called "bathroom bill", really about religious authority? I'm slow to scream "homophobe" - I just don't think those labels are helpful. But, are people maybe more motivated by fear of the "other" than by faith convictions?

    I think of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Phillip didn't seem concerned about putting him in his place on the basis of mutilated genitals; rather, they found commonality in scripture. Is this recent restroom crisis another opportunity to broaden God's reach vs. narrow the door to a restroom?

  2. I am not sure I understand the Bathroom War as a religious war, it seems to me that it is a war of acceptance. Gender identity is about acceptance, I think. Trying to imagine a fair way to handle the so called bathroom war, and thinking too of Calvin's comments and Scripture. We are called to be strong in our convictions but also to be understanding of those who are oppressed. What do I say when an individual feels oppressed because they have chosen a gender and are then not able to gain access to that gender-bathroom. At the same time, how are we (as a community as a nation, as a world) to accommodate every situation?
    Maybe move to unisex bathrooms, get rid of the urinals and the Vanity Mirrors and be done with it! :)

  3. This is great perspective! Thank you, Matt and Claire.

    Matt, I love the theme of common ground in scripture that you point out in your reference to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. I also agree that labels are unhelpful and to that I would add hurtful.

    Claire, you raise a really great point by asking what to do with someone who feels oppressed when they select a gender and can't then gain access to their selected bathroom. You are right, we should stand by our convictions and understand the oppressed. This is a very tall order! That's an interesting idea to move to unisex bathrooms as you describe.

    Claire and Matt, I think you both began with a similar question at the core - religiosity vs. acceptance. I confess that I don't have any data that would directly answer this question. I've seen studies that very strongly correlate homophobic behavior to religiosity, but I can't find any similar studies on transphobic behavior (remember, I'm speaking of the behavior itself and not the labels here). I'm very interested to learn more. I guess the main point that I agree with Calvin is that government should play a role when it comes to matters like religiosity and acceptance.

    Thank you both again for wading through the mud with me here!

  4. "When you have to go" is a catchy title. I am glad you were able to bring Calvin into a current event. It amazes me what we find in the world to cause division. Unity seems like it is only important when people agree on everything. Only when we can have healthy conversations about unity can we live more peaceful lives. One day it would be nice to wake up and have an entire news cycle about unity.