April 18, 2013

Should We Boycott Starbucks?

by Nathan Busenitz

StarbucksI was asked that question last week, as a result of some controversial statements made last month by the coffee company’s CEO in which he publicly supported gay marriage.

If I were a coffee snob, I probably would have answered that we should boycott Starbucks because they burn their beans. But I’m not a coffee snob. And I knew that wasn’t really the heart behind the question.

My actual response went something like this:

If your conscience is pricked by drinking Starbucks coffee, then you should not drink Starbucks coffee. That is a decision that you ought to make in your own heart before the Lord. But if other believers choose not to join you in your boycott (because they don’t share that same personal conviction), you should not judge them for responding differently than you do.

While it is not an exact parallel, the situation regarding food offered to idols (addressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8-9) provides us with principles that apply to these types of situations.

In our day, the issue involves purchasing coffee from a twenty-first century company that publicly supports gay marriage. In Paul’s day, the controversy centered around buying food from first-century vendors who had openly offered it to idols in the local pagan temple. Though the specifics are clearly different, both situations raise a similar moral question: Are believers at liberty to purchase food (or coffee) from an openly anti-Christian source?

Paul’s response to the first-century dilemma is instructive for us today. It provides principles for thinking through issues (like the Starbucks controversy) that involve both conscience and Christian liberty.

For some of the Corinthian readers — especially those raised in Judaism — eating food offered to idols was a difficult issue to swallow. Their consciences were stricken by the thought that they were somehow participating in or advocating pagan worship. Paul’s instruction to those belivers was straightforward: Don’t violate your conscience, but recognize that you can’t impose those personal convictions on other believers.

Other members of the Corinthian congregation had no conscience-issue with eating food that had been offered to idols. Addressing those believers, Paul affirmed that it is within the scope of Christian liberty to eat such food. But he cautioned those believers to be sensitive to their fellow brothers and sisters who felt differently. His instruction to those with a stronger conscience: Don’t violate the weaker consciences of others, and don’t impose your liberty on them.

So where does that leave us when it comes to drinking coffee that has been “offfered” to a secular, immoral, idolatrous worldview?

Based on 1 Corinthians 8-9 (and the parallel passage of Romans 14-15), I believe the apostle Paul’s answer to our 21st-century dilemma would have been two-fold. (1) To those who feel compelled to boycott Starbucks for the sake of conscience, feel free to do so. But don’t impose your convictions on other believers or judge them as a result. (2) To those who have no issue drinking coffee from Starbucks — in spite of the anti-Christian agenda of its CEO — it is within the scope of your Christian liberty to enjoy an occasional venti iced coffee. But don’t impose your liberty on other believers. Be sensitive to their convictions, and never pressure them to violate their consciences.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • R C

    Excellent Nathan, really… just simple, logical, and of course… biblical, excellent! Thanks!

  • dcsj

    Nathan, how in the world is drinking coffee at Starbucks like the meat in question in 1 Cor 8-10? BTW, the whole argument goes through to chapter 10 where Paul’s conclusion is, don’t eat it, except in very select circumstances. But really, read chapter 8 carefully. It is referring to eating meat IN the IDOL TEMPLE, not just eating meat in a neutral setting. Read Gordon Fee or Tom Constable on this.

    The parallel just isn’t there – the situation in Corinth doesn’t parallel drinking coffee at Starbucks, unless you can equate the coffee shop with an idol temple.

    As for the modern issue… I don’t know, I haven’t been drinking their coffee lately – many other options out there. There are lots of corporations out there that support a lot of bad causes. I’d probably have to go without coffee entirely if I was going to let their support of bad causes guide my decisions. I think the reason people are up in arms about Starbucks is that their head honcho has been so blatantly “in our face” about it. There is a natural reaction to want to just give back as good as one has gotten. Not sure if that is the best decision or not.

    You prompted my comment by your pushing my 1 Cor 8-10 button. I think most people badly misunderstand the passage and thus mis-apply it as well.

    • grinder

      Hey dcsj – just wanted you to know that I learned something today because of your post. I had never made the connection from 8 all the way through 10. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi dcsj,

      Thanks for your comment. I would agree that there are some obvious differences between the current controversy (Starbucks) and the first-century situation (food offered to idols). I pointed out in today’s post that the two are not identical; but perhaps you feel I did not emphasize that dissimilarity enough.

      Nonetheless, I remain convinced that there are principles found in 1 Cor. 8-9 that apply to situations like this — principles that relate to the exercise of Christian liberty within the context of issues of conscience. I could list a dozen commentators who approach 1 Cor. 8-9 through that same lens, in terms of its application for today.

      My post was not intended to be an exegetical treatment of 1 Corinthians, but rather an extended application of some of the principles found there.

      The discussion that prompted this post began with a friend who has a conscience-issue drinking coffee from Starbucks. He asked how he should respond, and whether or not other believers should respond the same way. Today’s post was a summary of my response.

      Thanks again for your feedback.
      Nate B.

      • dcsj

        Personally, I think conscience is better addressed by Rm 14.22-23 rather than 1 Cor 8. Many people confuse the two passages and think they describe the same issues. They do not. One has to do with activity clearly associated with evil (idolatry, 1 Cor) and the other has to do with completely neutral items and conscience (Rm 14).

  • Cher

    Great article. I was kind of confused after I was tagged in one of those boycott starbucks things on facebook. It was on my wall for like a day or two, and then I erased it. I just didn’t see the problem with it. I shop at stores and eat at restaurants, all of which may have a secular sinful worldview when it comes to marriage. So I am not going to worry about that, and have my venti soy green tea iced latte.

  • Eric Davis

    Good stuff. Thanks, Nate.

  • pk

    IMO, not all boycotts have the same motives behind them. In my case, I’m choosing not to give them my business–not because it bothers my conscience or because I believe it would be wrong, but because I’m hoping to make a statement to them as a company. I suppose that’s where the food-offered-to-idols analogy breaks down.

    • Chris

      I am not sure the analogy “breaks down” as much as it doesn’t apply in your situation. It’s still a good analogy.

      What statement are you trying to make?

  • John_D_11

    Anyone boycotting Starbucks probably shouldn’t be reading this online blog post either. There are some awful things on the internet. If we boycott Starbucks because of some anti-Christian content, we better boycott the internet too.

    • GumSandal

      John, you got me to thinking, what if the person picked an ISP that was not associated with a notable instance or stance of debauchery and further had filters to block objectionable content? They are not boycotting all coffee or sources of caffeine but rather a single provider of it. I think we have liberty to deny our commerce to a “worst offender” among many providers for the purpose of making a point or drawing attention to an issue, but we should not put pressure on another who declines this avenue of protest. If it is presented as, “This is the way I am responding to this issue, please consider joining me,” and not, “If you buy their product you are in sin,” I think it would be fine.

      • John_D_11

        Interesting point. But I’m thinking that would be a lot of research, and perhaps wasted time if you were to dig that deep into every commercial decision you made. I was once part of a very healthy men’s bible study group that met weekly at Starbucks, and feel I was able to deepen my walk with the Lord and extend his kingdom by making disciples, thanks in part to the commercial services Starbucks provided.

      • John_D_11

        One other thing that gives me the heebie jeebies about Christian protests is a situation where a Christian group once boycotted a certain clothing Brand because that company supported abortion. For every Christian picketer that showed up to protest, the clothing company donated $10 to Planned Parenthood. Thy boycott quickly (thankfully) dissolved.

        My point in sharing that is, like many things, it’s the power of the gospel that changes CEOs, not boycotts. I wonder, have any Christians tried to sit down for coffee with the CEO of Starbucks and give him the gospel? That is a tactic I’m sure every Christian would agreeably support, and if the gospel changed his heart and he was regenerated, his support of gay marriage would change immediately.

        • Erasmus Fong

          The CEO of Starbucks is Jewish (at least ethnically) so I don’t think the Gospel is a starting point — not that it *couldn’t* work, just unlikely to have an immediate effect.

  • Thank you for this blog!

  • Boycott? boycott? We don’t need no stinkin boycott. 🙂

  • Michael Coughlin

    With all due respect, if I understand the context correctly – the food sacrificed to idols ‘controversy’ was about whether it was ok to even eat the food because it had been sacrificed to idols, NOT whether it was OK to support the sellers of the food.

    The idea being that it was irrelevant whether purchasing the meat supported the false religious system of the day. But what was relevant were these facts:

    1. God declared all food clean.

    2. Therefore, it cannot be said to be sin for any man to eat that meat (in and of itself).

    3. But some men, WEAKER of faith, who do not understand this have been instructed not to violate their own conscience by eating the meat.

    4. Therefore, stronger brothers ought to also abstain out of love for the weaker (at times).

    At no time was boycotting the industry altogether part of the discussion.

    The essential component of the conscience-driven argument is that it must be said that the act is NOT inherently sinful. No Christian would allow another Christian to lie or practice sexual immorality under the guise that the believer’s conscience was OK with it.

    So the question is – Is purchasing coffee at Starbucks in this context actually sinful? Can it be said that in light of what we know that it is an evil act to continue to support this organization? Or is Starbucks like any other organization which buys and sells and provides services.

    Would you say it was OK for me to go to a Planned Parenthood in my town which does perform abortions if they also provided great man care at a good price? I could use the money I save going there to support a missionary.

    Or what if Starbucks came out and said, “If you will not deny Christ, do not buy our coffee.” Would that be outrageous enough? Ought a Christian feel his conscience pricked by that? What if they just said, “Deny Christ and receive 50% off.” Would it be wise to do that in order to save money and give to a Xian cause?

    Maybe it cannot said to be sin if someone doesn’t participate in the same boycotts. But Christians may do well to consider how to be wise when distributing the money God has given them.

    Just some food for thought. What do you think?

    • Michael Coughlin

      Do you see the part about conscience? You can’t simply declare that someting doesn’t violate your conscience and then do it. First of all, you are in effect calling anyone who believes it to be sin weaker. Secondly, maybe it is your conscience which doesn’t happen to be sensitive enough to sin and you are not rightly judging yourself and your actions!

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your response. I don’t think your extreme examples fit the Starbucks controversy (since they clearly involve acts of sin). Obviously, no believer would want to cause another Christian to sin.

      The Starbucks situation is a bit different. After all, it is not a sin to buy coffee. It is also not a sin to purchase products from a non-Christian company. So, in this case, I would contend that it is not a sin to purchase products from Starbucks.

      However, it is a sin for believers to violate their conscience. So, if a brother or sister has a conscience issue with buying coffee from Starbucks, then for them to do so would be a sin.

      Paul lays out those basic principles in 1 Corinthians 8-9, which is why I find those chapters to be instructive for us regarding the contemporary situation.

      As I explained in my reply to dcsj, 1 Corinthians 8-9 provides us with principles for thinking through matters of conscience vs. Christian liberty. I believe those principles fit scenarios like the Starbucks controversy.

      Thanks again for your feedback.

      Nate B.

      • Michael Coughlin

        Thanks, Nate. I would tend to agree with you that the current 5bucks controversy is a conscience issue (although if someone wanted to argue otherwise I’d thoughtfully listen).

        If you will indulge me a little more, would you answer this question?

        Would you say it was OK for me to go to a Planned Parenthood in my town which does perform abortions if they also provided great man care at a good price? I could use the money I save going there to support a missionary, plus get great health care. I, of course, would not get an abortion.

        Secondly, from the first line of my initial comment, the question really is: Is it sinful to buy coffee? I agree with you, NO.

        But my followup would be – Can it ever said to be sinful to buy a product, or support a particular company either by a donation or by purchasing from the company?

        I hope I don’t sound argumentative; I’m honestly looking for opinions from Cgate authors.

        It seems to me that in Acts (I think chapter 19) there was quite an uproar because Christians no longer bought idols. What if a well-meaning Christian decided to help the smith’s out he would buy a few idols, just to keep the economy going? I mean, an idol is nothing anyway he may suppose. Would that be ok for a Xian to do based on conscience do you suppose?

  • MP

    Yes I agree with dcsj, consuming food sacrificed to idols is a completely different issue. We need to factor in 1 Cor 10:20-21 in addition to the rest of 1 Cor 8-10. Also as dcsj says if we look at moral values held by corporations, and not buy products from companies whose valued are contradictory to scripture, we’d practically not be able to survive.

  • If any of your conscientious objectors have any leftover Starbucks beans, please mail them to me in Africa, where we can’t get any.
    Nate, I agree with your application of the 1 Cor passage. What might help the commenters who object to its use is if you remind them that drinking Starbucks coffee is not a sin. A sin is a transgression of God’s law. So, it would be sin to be unloving to a weaker brother, but the Starbucks abstainer is as weak a brother as the Corinthian vegan, right? And let’s all commit to be consistent too. If the CEO of your cable company married his boyfriend, would you toss your TV out the window? Me neither.

  • tammy

    Great article! Thanks for sharing.

  • Aleona

    I don’t have a problem generally with saving our money, but my conscience personally is not led to have to boycott them. Costco, Microsoft, and most large American companies now support gay marriage. In the same way that most Americans support pre-marital sex and a host of other things we disagree with.

    However, every believer is different. If you feel less inclined to support them, thats totally fine too.

  • It is not possible, in a world driven by global corporations, to maintain a “Christian kosher” perspective. On nearly anything.

    Is it wrong for workers in Chinese factories to work 18 hours a day and not be able to see their families for weeks on end? Is it wrong to drive down prices so farmers in developing countries can’t make a livable wage? Is it wrong that the graphic designer who designed the boxes at the fast food restaurant beats his wife? And on and on.

    There is not a single product or service you and I use in a day that is not tainted in some spiritual way. We are either free in Christ or we’re not. I’m choosing the freedom. I recommend it for others too.

  • Nate: I’d like to point out that, in point of fact (and despite your denials), you ARE a coffee snob.

  • Mike Halpin

    Nathan, my family has chosen to join the boycott of Starbucks (see my take at my blog, appliedheart.wordpress.com). While appreciating your desire to link this to a close biblical parallel, like another comment below, I find the rationale from 1 Corinthians tenuous.

    In Corinthians the meat itself is the issue- is it okay to eat, or will it make me unclean or will it tie me to idols since it’s been sacrificed to another god? Here, the product, coffee, is not the issue- no one thinks Starbucks coffee will make them unclean or tie them to same sex “marriage”, whatever their take on the quality of Starbucks “burned” beans.

    Also, in Corinth, the gospel was being introduced into a pagan world- a world where God’s norms were not the norm. The call to worship one God and do so with sexual fidelity, among other things, was a new concept being introduced by the Church to the larger culture. Here, Starbucks is eschewing, and urging others to leave behind, the biblically informed cultural norm of marriage for a distorted version of marriage not even ancient Rome condoned.

    Starbucks is advocating pagan temple worship, so to speak, not just meat or coffee. Starbuck’s advocacy may be less like a pagan temple selling meat in the Roman market, than a Jew setting up a barbequed pork stand.

    Each of us draws lines in the sand at some point and I appreciate that we all won’t draw the same lines. My goal in these judgments is to err on the side of promoting what God promotes. When the head of a major corporation says he’s breaking ranks with the cultural and historic norms of marriage to support, as a business entity, a
    policy that rejects not just norms, but what is basic to God’s design to bless families and nations, it’s not a hard call for me to say I don’t want to be part of supporting his support. To Clint’s jab below, we left cable TV long ago.

    Last, thanks to you and the other Cripplegate writers for one of my favorite blogs; we read you and recommend you regularly. Cheers!

  • Lauren

    I don’t love that this article makes “pro-gay rights” and “anti-Christian” synonymous. To my knowledge, this CEO never made any remark regarding Christianity. To assume that he is “anti-Christian” from his position on gay marriage alone is an error. I like to think that the Christian faith is comprised of more than just one’s opinion on what comprises a legal marriage.

    • Lauren, this is off-topic, but since we’ve addressed it elsewhere I thought I’d respond briefly and point you to those posts.

      The Christian faith is built upon the foundation of the Word of God. To reject the authority of God’s own Word is to reject God and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because God’s Word clearly condemns homosexuality as sin, the only way to be “pro-gay rights” is to reject the authority of Scripture, and thus be “anti-Christian.”

      • J

        To be pro equal rights is not to be pro gay or anti christian, as a Christian Jesus taught us above all to love one another and not to persecute those who view differently than we do. Jesus was not anti rome, anti adulterer, or anti sinner. He simply preached and showed love and we are called to do the same. In a boycott you are in fact hurting your fellow believer who may work there and could loose hours in a boycott. Companies all over the world do things that are as you describe anti christian and we dont boycott them are we then not a bunch of hypocritical people because we jump on someone for suppoting a life choice that is different from our own?

        • To be pro equal rights…

          To cast the question of homosexual “marriage” as an “equal rights” issue misconstrues and obfuscates the issue, and begs the question. Legalizing same-sex “marriage” is not an issue of equal rights, but an issue of redefining marriage all together.

          …as a Christian Jesus taught us above all to love one another…

          It is not loving to affirm someone in a lifestyle choice that robs them of true, abiding satisfaction and leads them to eternal destruction. We love like Jesus loves when we graciously and patiently proclaim a message that has the power to free people from the bondage of their suicidal love affair with their sin.

          …and not to persecute those who view differently than we do.

          Insisting on a biblical definition of marriage is hardly persecution, and this isn’t simply an issue of “different views.” It’s an issue of the authority of Scripture, which couldn’t be clearer about the issue.

          Jesus was not anti rome, anti adulterer, or anti sinner.

          I’m not (and neither is Nathan in the original article) calling for anyone to be “anti-sinner,” as if the proper response is to hate people. But we are “anti-sin” and are called to preach the truth.

          He simply preached and showed love and we are called to do the same.

          Jesus preached repentance from sin, and showed love by calling people to forsake their sin and find true and lasting satisfiaction, and eternal life, in following Him, submitting one’s life to Him as their Master. The problem is you’re conceiving of “love” unbiblically.

          In a boycott…

          I haven’t advocated for boycotting anything.

    • Diane

      Lauren, if we were talking about your opinion or mine you’d be right. Neither is relevant. However, God Almighty has expressed His “opinion” in His word: Homosexuality is a capital offense (Lev. 18); marriage is between one man and one woman (Genesis 1-3, Ephesians 5, et al.) The Christian faith is founded on the word of God, not our opinions.

  • TracyJayne

    We are held accountable for what we know.

  • Starbucks is overpriced anyhow, but I agree with the earlier comment: it’s next to difficult to know where your money goes. I will say this, though, if you know that a place like Yoplait, or Lays, are funding Planned Parenthood, but supporting Komen, you should avoid buying their products.

  • PalmofTre

    Good stuff to think about. I do not buy Starbucks coffee because it is way out of my budget; and if I had more disposable income, I still would not pay $5 for coffee I can make at home for less than $1. I would rather use than money to donate to a worthy, upright cause. Second, if boycotting Starbucks for the reason of their support of gay marriage, than Florida and it’s tourism could fall into that category. To paraphrase a government officials’ take on supporting gay marriage…”it would be good for economy.” Sad but true. We can blog and blog, but when the church stands up as one, then God’s truth will be heard!

  • Erasmus Fong

    The Principal of our children’s Catholic school and our Pastor just released a letter stating that they will no longer be selling Starbucks cards via the scrip program, saying the following, in part:

    “You, of course, are free to make your own coffee shop choice, but as a school we can no longer encourage patronage to this company that has gone to such a degree to devalue traditional marriage and the sanctity of life.”

    I appreciate their expression of personal charity coupled with a sense of institutional responsibility. Well played.

  • Amber Lia

    Agreed. I also found this related article helpful as it reveals what was REALLY said by the CEO and how it was skewed in these popular articles blasting him: http://1peter315.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/starbucks-same-sex-marriage-and-getting-facts-straight/

  • CB

    Thankyou for your articles I enjoy them!

    Nathan does 1 Cor 8-9 infer a weaker brother? If so then would that mean that the person who is boycotting Starbucks is a weaker brother?

    Does 1 Cor 8-9 mean instead not mean weaker brother but rather a person with a different conviction?

    It seems like conviction and not weaker brother is the theme in Romans 14-15. Not sure about 1 Cor 8-9. Want your opinion…..

    Some have made the argument with 1 Cor 8-9 that church elder boards who say no to drinking alcohol are weaker than those who allow drinking. They use this verse to defend that position. Your thoughts?

    Another Topic:

    Interesting you talk about this I have a Muslim sister and a sister who knows Christ. The Muslim sister wanted to have a cow split between them (butchered) blessed to Allah. The Christian asked me what I thought? I advised my Christian sister no since it would look like you were OK with the event. However during Ramadan we go to her (Muslim) house and eat all her food given to here false god Allah. Why? We are not eating the food sacrificed to idols since Allah does not exist. However if she would have done it the other way it would have shown that she was giving homage to a false god. Your thoughts on this also?

  • Ernst

    I do not think that it is sin to buy or drink Starbucks coffee. This is not the issue at hand.
    Whether one agrees or disagrees concerning the passage of scripture used by Nathan to make his point, that is altogether a separate issue. But, the point is made very clear and should not be missed. If I want to protest against Starbucks by way of a boycott because of their blattant support for same sex marriage which clearly goes against God’s word which I highly value, then it is within my right to do so. It is not ok for me to judge another brother or sister who does not share my views, nor is it right for others who do not share my views to judge me. That is the point of the article. I get it and and I am ok with it.

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