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?
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.