A Millennial’s Take on Godly Civil Disobedience

on September 29, 2015

For those who were cut off from the outside world this past month, the culture war erupted in a fury following the jailing of Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk who refused to give marriage licenses on the grounds that granting them to gay couples violated her personal faith. Predictably, the LGBT community heaped contempt on her.

However, people of faith seem divided on her actions. Some, like Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, claim that she did the right thing and that she is proof that Christians are being persecuted. Others claim that she should have done her job or resigned.

So was Kim Davis in the right?

To answer this question we must approach the issue from two angles: the authority of government and the duty of the Christian in the face of unjust orders.

In Romans 13:1, Paul says that there is no authority except God. It is for this reason that we are to be “subject to the governing authorities,” as God put them there to praise men who do right and punish men who do wrong (Rom. 13:1-3).

The only time God permits disobedience to a governmental order is if there is a direct command to individuals that is contrary to what God has plainly and contextually decreed (Acts 5:29).

With this in mind, we now have to look at the American Government’s order to legalize gay marriage and grant gay couples marriage licenses and see if it meets this criterion.

What act of Congress made gay marriage the “law of the land”?

Congress did not pass such an act.

It came from the Supreme Court.

This is suspect; Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist #78 that the Supreme Court has “neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.” It has no authority to make laws. Nevertheless, the Court is within its bounds if its decision is born of a proper analysis of the Constitution’s original intent.

However, this is not the case. The Court conjured the command using “new insights and societal understandings” that are foreign to the Constitution.

In the end, not only is the Court’s mandate not the “law of the land,” it effectively doesn’t exist; there is no authority behind it.

From this angle, Davis committed no crime because she did not disobey a law. She refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s power grab, which defied both the will of God and the legality of the nation’s governing document. She was in the right because she followed the instructions of the Lord by being submissive to the “governing authority” of the Constitution, rather than the Court’s usurpation of the legislature.

However, Davis did not make this claim in defense of her actions. She simply said that she was faced with a choice between obeying God or men. For this, among other reasons, her actions must also be examined from the ethical perspective of the Christian response to unrighteous orders.

God demands that the Christian’s default disposition toward government is to be one of godly submission to both just and unjust masters (I Peter 2:13-20). Christians should not be rabble-rousers looking for a fight. They should serve the Lord by accommodating the orders of their governments as much as possible without compromising their faith.

That said, there are moments in the scripture, such as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s episode with the golden image, where heroes of the faith encountered a circumstance in which open defiance of an unrighteous order was the only option.

However, there are other occasions in the scriptures in which a collision between God’s law and man’s law did not necessitate an open defiance of a governmental mandate.

Daniel’s reaction to being served non-kosher food at the Babylonian court is illustrative of this matter.

Unlike the three Hebrews who were told to worship the golden image on pain of death, Daniel was not in a position where all non-civil disobedience options were exhausted. Rather than outright challenge the authority of Babylon, he appealed for an accommodation with a reasonable alternative (Dan. 1:8-16 ESV).

Kim Davis’ situation resembles Daniel’s ordeal. She was not “forced” to do anything. It was not a choice between prison and gay marriage. Other options were on the table. Despite this, she openly defied the order to give licenses.

Hypothetically, if the mandate to recognize gay marriage came from a legitimate source of authority rather than a judicial power grab, and Kim Davis followed this same course of action, could one really say that she is the icon of Christian civil disobedience?

Some would say yes, appealing to John Calvin’s lesser magistrate doctrine, in which lesser government officials disobey greater officials, such as kings who breach their God ordained limits.

However, Calvin’s advice appears to assume that all other alternatives have been exhausted. This is not the case with Kim Davis. Requests for accommodations are possible, as is resignation.

In his book Evangelical Ethics Dr. John Jefferson Davis, a professor of ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, outlines some guidelines for Christian disobedience. He claims that for civil disobedience to be godly it must be resisting a law that is

“unjust and immoral, clearly contrary to the character of God….legal means of changing the unjust situation should have been exhausted….disobedience must be public rather than clandestine…[and] those who consider civil disobedience should be willing to accept the penalty for breaking the law” (Davis, 227-29).

Kim Davis performs well under this rubric. She was disobeying a command that violates God’s character, she made no secret of her disobedience, and she was more than willing to face the consequences.

However, she had not yet exhausted all alternatives. She did not seek accommodations, nor did she resign.

Therefore, her situation is not a clear-cut example of a Christian being forced to respond with outright defiance to a government.

In short, she is right to resist a power grab from the judiciary, but better care should have been directed to making sure alternatives were thoroughly exhausted.

How then should Christians respond to the Kim Davis saga?

  1. Christians should consider her spiritual infancy and be gentle with their criticism.

By her own admission, Davis is a recent convert to Christ. One cannot expect her to have a total grasp on all the nuances of Christian civil disobedience. While Christians should not see her as the perfect heir to the persecuted Christians of old, they should consider the level of her spiritual education and judge accordingly (James 3:1).

  1. Christians should applaud Davis’ courage.

Davis was convinced that she was caught between the orders of God and man. In that mindset she chose to stand by her Lord without hesitation. That someone so young in the faith would demonstrate such great loyalty to Christ is nothing short of amazing.

  1. Christians should learn from Davis.

Davis’ devotion to Christ should be emulated, but her mistakes must be noted. One should not be so quick to invoke Acts 5:29. It should be viewed as the nuclear option to be used as a last resort.

  1. Christians should seek to change the legal status quo.

Christians need to stress that the Court was out of line with its decision and specify exactly how it bungled the interpretation of the Constitution. Laws should also be changed to accommodate Christian convictions, while we seek to reverse this ungodly trend of sexual deviancy in both the legal and cultural nerve centers of society.

  1. Christian should pray for the kings and the Christian family.

In I Timothy 2:1 Paul insists that we should pray for “kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” For now, the government is shifting away from this paradigm. Christians are to pray that the kings’ hearts be changed (Prov. 21:1). We should also pray for Davis herself, who will no doubt be targeted by those who see her as an icon of opposition to their cause (Hebrews 13:3).

These are my reflections on the matter. There are no doubt better, more experienced men who have addressed the topic of civil disobedience and its specific application in this situation.

My intention is not to settle the debate, but contribute to it.

If there be any who noticed things I did not, or identified things I misunderstood, please offer your input.

  1. Comment by DavidHart-slowlyboiledfrog.com on September 29, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Nobody seems to address the very first question. Did Davis have a reasonable objection? She claimed that having her name on a pre-printed government form connoted her approval of same-sex marriage. No more than Jake Lew’s signature on every five dollar bill used to buy a burger and fries suggesting that he is an advocate of cholesterol.

    Davis is not a private citizen. The boundaries are different. Otherwise we end up with the Muslim employee at the DMV refusing drivers licenses for women. You accept a job in government service — you accept certain limitations on your freedom.

    Whether you approve or not gays now have a constitutional right to marry. The Court determines rights accorded by the Constitution as it has done so many times as in Brown v. Board of Education. I find it interesting that the arguments are very similar as are the locales. Our right to counsel and Miranda warnings are not acts of Congress. Neither was the decision in Heller which limits the constraints of municipalities on guns.

  2. Comment by DavidPHart on September 29, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    I hope Kim Davis wears all the mud flung at her like a badge of honor. She took a stand, she’s been slandered and libeled and (to borrow a phrase from our Head) “persecuted for righteousness sake.” The comfortable and cowardly “Christians” who have denounced her chose to side with the world, and they will share the destiny of that world.

  3. Comment by charles.hoffman.cpa on October 1, 2015 at 4:50 am

    The only sacrifice that Ms Davis need have made was to resign her position. Were she a pacifist and war broke out she might be required, as a county clerk, to register men for the draft. Should she insist on holding her job while refusing to perform her duties – or she do the right thing and quit.

    To be a martyr is to be pure in spirit. When there is a rational alternative, there is no martyrdom – just showmanship.

  4. Comment by Panoptes on October 1, 2015 at 11:43 am

    The idea that same-sex marriage is not legally protected because it was not decided by Congress but by the Supreme Court is horrifyingly ignorant of the American judicial process. The Supreme Court was established by the US Constitution specifically to rule on how the law is applied. Obergefell v. Hodges very clearly ruled that the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause applies to state marriage laws, such that same-sex couples cannot be discriminated against. Agree or not, it is in fact the law. Despite the author’s contorted and fallacious reasoning otherwise, that’s the way our system works.

    I have no issue that Kim Davis’s personal morals are informed by what she thinks the Bible says…. that’s not a problem until she infringes on someone else’s protected rights that do not share her view. If a Roman Catholic county clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses to divorcees, because it is against his faith for divorcees to remarry without an annulment, you are ok with that? That is, after all, the clerk’s interpretation of God’s law and we should, as is often argued, accommodate that “sincerely held belief”.

    Let’s be clear. Kim Davis’ signature on a marriage license is not an endorsement of the marriage. No one needs a county clerk’s personal approval to get married. All her signature means is that she certifies that the applicants meet the requirements of the law to receive a license, whether she agrees with the law or not. When you get a state vehicle safety inspection sticker, it doesn’t mean the mechanic personally likes you car. It just means your car meets the state standards for safety.

  5. Comment by MarcoPolo on October 8, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Your description of the case in point is precisely spot on.
    Thanks for the cogent clarification, Panoptes!

  6. Comment by Kingdom Ambassador on October 8, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    God forbid that Kim Davis went to jail for religious freedom. She was instead imprisoned for Christian liberty, and it’s crucial that Christians recognize the difference.

    Christian liberty was formally sacrificed on the altar of religious freedom in 1789 when the First Commandment (found intact in some of the 17th-century Christian Colonial Constitutions) were replaced with the First Amendment’s First Commandment-violating Free Exercise Clause.

    It’s one thing to allow for individual freedom of conscience and private choice of gods, something impossible to legislate to begin with. It’s another matter altogether for government to enable any and all religious to proliferated through the nation and evangelize our posterity to their gods.

    For more, see online Chapter 11 “Amendment 1: Government-Sanctioned Polytheism” of “Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective” at http://www.bibleversusconstitution.org/BlvcOnline/biblelaw-constitutionalism-pt11.html.

    Then find out how much you really know about the Constitution as compared to the Bible. Take our 10-question Constitution Survey in the right-hand sidebar and receive a complimentary copy of a book that EXAMINES the Constitution by the Bible.

  7. Comment by Norm on October 8, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    Those arguing that the Court somehow “passed a law” (contrary to its power) or that Congress “didn’t pass a law” (so rendering the court’s action ineffective) are making a false argument. The Court did not “pass a law”. It simply ruled, per its constitutional power as the Supreme Court to interpret the law, that an EXISTING STATE LAW was unconstitutional based on the equal protection clause of the14th amendment. Article 6 prohibits any state from enforcing a law that violates the U.S. Constitution. Further, despite Mike Huckabee’s astonishingly uninformed claim to the contrary, the state of Kentucky does not need to pass any new law legalizing same-sex marriage before the ruling is effective. That is never a requirement following any Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of an existing law. Kentucky has a marriage law on the books. The clause banning the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex applicants is null and void and cannot be enforced per the highest court in the land. End of debate. Kim Davis can either obey her oath of office or not. If she does not, she should not hold the office.

  8. Comment by RhondaStar on October 8, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    Very good overview. I would add that I don’t believe resignation should be considered an actual accommodation especially as described in Title VII which allows both public and private employees to KEEP their jobs in such situations. That being said, Kim Davis did have one accommodation offered to her — to allow her deputies to issue the licenses — but Mrs. Davis had a conscience conviction against taking this option because her name/title was still printed on them. And Rom. 14 tells us to respect the differing conscience convictions of fellow believers so Christians should be more sympathetic to her predicament. What is also most interesting in this case is the fact that she is currently doing exactly what Judge Bunning forbade her from doing — removing her name/title from the license and having Deputy Brian Mason issue them. So, in other words, Kim went to jail for no real good reason since it could have all been easily avoided if the judge had simply allowed her to do what she’s currently doing. (The ACLU is taking exception to the removal of her name, and it is yet to be seen as to how this will all play out in the courts).

  9. Comment by Jerry Hastings on October 9, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Agreed: The supreme court has no authority to make laws. The court did not make any law in this case. It did what it is supposed to do….interpret the laws and constitution. It determined that some state laws regarding marriage did not meet the requirement of the US constitution. This is nothing more than the opinion or judgement of the court. But in our system the supreme court’s opinion is the final one.

  10. Comment by Bob on October 9, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    We wouldn’t even consider such a debate if we had Jesus as our head and his standards as the foundation of all decisions.

  11. Comment by Dr. Daniel Mercaldo on October 9, 2015 at 9:40 pm

    There is another factor in this case. When she swore to uphold the law, marriage was legally between a one biological man and one biological woman. That law was not changed by the legislative body that established it. The Supreme Court overstepped its authority and Congress should hold it accountable. Therefore, there is a question as to whether or not she violated her oath of office. I wish she had stressed that argument as the basis for her decision. It any event, we must prepare our defenses now. Thanks for your insightful article to help us in that process.

  12. Comment by Whatever on October 25, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Good point.

  13. Comment by Gregory Alan of Johnson on October 10, 2015 at 1:27 am

    Davis upheld STATE OF KENTUCKY (inc) statutes, which is her first order in her position. SCOTUS cannot make laws or statutes/codes, and hasn’t. They give “opinions/decisions”, which are not law or statutes. She did the correct thing. It is interesting the Sodomites that traveled far (outside their own counties) to take their war to her.
    I stand it’s past time to end the illegitimate authority of the municipal corporations masquerading as gov’t.
    How we got here:

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