A Kentucky clerk is standing her ground in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Is this a proper example of Christian civil disobedience, or is she out of line? Presidential candidates are weighing in, with Carly Fiorina having caught the spotlight most recently. Carly’s take is essentially, public employee = arm of the government = must deal with the law as it stands and follow all lawful orders.
In the past, I’ve considered this issue more with regard to teachers in public schools. Christian teachers in governmental settings can’t use their classes to evangelize students in lieu of teaching and must assign textbooks approved for use in the school district. As agents of the state, they may need to present a neutral stance on certain issues. But they are still individuals accountable to God, and so neither should they make assertions they know not to be true or instruct students that it’s perfectly ok to do something they know is immoral. Finding the right balance is a difficult challenge, but to abandon the public schools and leave the job of educating entirely to unbelievers would be unthinkable.
A county clerk is an entirely different animal, and Carly’s statement makes more sense in that context. But to use a lion’s den reference, Carly’s missing the Daniel/Darius distinction. Both were government officials, but one was obligated to defy a law that the other was obligated to enforce, by virtue of their relationship to the law. Once the anti-prayer law is enacted (regrettably by Darius himself), his hands are tied because the very nature of Darius’s job is to enforce the law, even if he disagrees with it. After seeking every means within the system for a way out, he defers to the law. The Book of Daniel treats Darius’s situation very sympathetically even as he does so. This is the rule of law. It is the predicament of every policeman who arrests conscientious objectors whose cause he supports, and of any soldier who must kill enemy fighters who are honorably serving a country with which we are at war. The judges and other superiors involved in this case are Dariuses; however sympathetic they may be to the clerk’s situation, they may have no choice but to order her to issue the licenses and provide at least a minimal penalty if she does not. Daniel defied the anti-prayer law, as his three friends had defied a similar order decades earlier, uncompromising but respectful and accepting of the legal penalties. And like this clerk, Daniel’s friends were ordered to sin in their capacity as government officials. Their position was not one of enforcing or applying the law (for which one’s obligations and priorities are often strictly set), but of following it, living and working within laws that may be subject to higher laws. To take a mundane example, a restaurant worker may have to disobey a shift-manager whose orders are contrary to policies set by the owner of the store. This clerk is a Daniel, and as such she may need to defy the Dariuses even if they are right in doing their job. That is the Christian understanding of civil disobedience, that we submit to human authorities as to the Lord, except when doing so would require us to sin, in which case, “We must obey God rather than men.”
This clerk’s case is yet more complex, however. Unlike a pastor who (as of this writing) may officiate a wedding or decline for any reason, a clerk must issue licenses indiscriminately, at least within parameters such as blood tests, residency requirements, statutory age, and other legal factors. Otherwise, the state would be endorsing or opposing individual marriage choices, which is obviously unacceptable in a free country. Thus the clerk would have known going into her job that she could not deny licenses to immature couples, a believer marrying an unbeliever, those planning on an open marriage, or others whose marriages she might object to as a Christian. In those cases, a clerk concedes to the choice of the citizens by issuing the license sought as long as they meet the legal qualifications. The same would apply to gun licenses, hunting/fishing licenses, driver’s licenses, etc. But to consider a more apt analogy, suppose the government suddenly required clerks to issue an adultery license that would confer certain government benefits for extramarital affairs. This would not be the job she agreed to do when she became a clerk, and it is hard to imagine that Christians would have a moral obligation to issue adultery licenses even if the law required it. Also, a clerk in that situation may choose not to resign, but rather hold firm to establish the rights of Christians to remain faithful to their Lord without being ejected from an entire occupation. After all, unjust laws don’t just change on their own. It seems to me that, at least within this woman’s conscience, same-sex marriage licenses are inherently wrong as a category, similar to the concept of an adultery license, rather than a mere concession to the choices of any particular persons coming before the state. She has in fact called this “a heaven or hell decision.” I take that to mean that earning a living by issuing such licenses would call into question the credibility of her claim to be a follower of Jesus.
I don’t have personal knowledge of this specific case so as to say definitively whether Kim Davis is doing the right thing (which is why I haven’t used her name while discussing the issue theoretically). That would depend on her heart attitude, the spirit with which she has spoken to people, what efforts she’s taken to resolve matters as graciously, locally, and within-the-system as possible, and other factors I’m not privy to (although the reporting I’ve seen suggests she is right on target). I’m also uncertain about the practical Constitutional merits of her case, since the Constitution was already misread in the SCOTUS decision that brought about this whole situation. It’s also true that whatever the legal outcome, the large-scale success of one person’s protest depends on follow-up, as Rosa Parks’ disobedience was fruitful because of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed. But I believe civil disobedience, practiced biblically, is a valid response for someone who reasonably believes the law is requiring them to sin, and that would seem to apply here.
Finally, what of the evangelistic impact? Wouldn’t it be more winsome to simply go along for the sake of peace? Being loving and gracious is one thing, but enabling sin or validating the persecution by shutting up and stepping aside is quite another. Our Sunday School class just finished studying Revelation, and that book makes clear that those who bear the testimony of Jesus are not those who compromise their faith (even to win others) but those who stand strong in the face of persecution. Jesus has nothing but praise for John the Baptist, who is imprisoned for identifying Herod’s sin, and the martyrs who “did not love their life even to death” overcome Satan by their faithfulness to God’s word. In any case, be assured that this is not one person’s struggle. The decision to stand by God’s word or be ashamed of it on this issue will soon confront all of us.
Sources: http://www.hughhewitt.com/carly-fiorina-on-the-amendment-to-the-cnn-debate-rules/ http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/clerk-gay-marriage-fight-wage-moral-war-33473636 http://www.naco.org/sites/default/files/documents/Role%20of%20the%20County%20Clerk.pdf Daniel chapters 3 and 6 Revelation 1:2, 9; 2:8-10; 12:10-17; 19:10; 20:4; 21:8 For further reference, see Exodus 1:15-22; Matthew 22:15-22; Acts chapter 4; and Romans 13:1-7.