I always tell my students that ethics is one of the most vibrant and challenging areas of philosophy, because it asks how moral principles apply to our everyday world–and while morality is objective and eternal, our world changes with all the speed and unpredictability of an overflowing stream. As technology, science, and politics toss up new challenges, we have to figure out the right course of action in situations which previous generations might never have encountered. For example, what should a Christian elected official do when a constitutional right to same-sex marriage is suddenly “discovered” and enforced?
Yes, this is another article about (or at least inspired by) Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who was imprisoned for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She was released from jail last week and announced on Monday that she would not block her deputy clerks from issuing the licenses, but even though her chapter of this story seems to be closing, her courageous stand raised issues for all of us to consider. I’m coming to the story late because, frankly, I wanted to take time to think about it. Morality doesn’t change, but human situations do, and Mrs. Davis’ particular flavor of moral dilemma has literally never existed before in history. I’m not just talking about same-sex marriage itself, but about the sudden imposition of same-sex marriage on a nation which is still unsure on the question and in which professing Christians hold elected offices which give them some degree of influence over marriage licenses. It is a unique moment, and one which calls for serious and prayerful thought about how those elected officials should respond.
As with many ethical dilemmas, the Bible is not intended to give us an obvious and specific answer. It would be convenient if they did, but the Scriptures just do not offer any instructions addressed directly to Christian county clerks in Kentucky. They do, however, tell us some important things about sex, marriage, and the nature of government.
According to the Bible, the model for Christian marriage is established in Genesis 2, where God made a woman to be a suitable companion for the first man. Both the Old and New Testaments are unanimous in their testimony that same-sex intercourse is a sinful rebellion against God. (I’ve written more on this point here, and even more here.) In fact, in Genesis 19, Judges 19, and Romans 1, God presents open and accepted homosexuality as a marker of a society in the last stages of depraved collapse.
This suggests that Christians ought to oppose government-sanctioned same-sex marriage because it offers misleading and dangerous validation for sin, undermines the moral health of society, and signifies a national rebellion against God’s will. But how should we oppose it? In theory, “opposition” could mean anything from verbal disagreement to civil war. What does the Bible tell us about the Christian’s role as a citizen under a secular government?
Writing to Christians living under the pagan government of Rome, Paul instructed them, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment,” (Romans 13:1-2). A few verses later, he admonishes believers to be faithful in paying taxes–taxes which surely would have been used, at least in part, for thoroughly wicked purposes by the Roman government. Elsewhere, Jesus instructed his disciples to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Nowhere in the Bible is there any hint that we get to opt out of obeying our leaders simply because they are secular.
But sometimes, leaders are more than merely secular. Sometimes our government engages in outright sin, and asks Christians to do the same. In such instances, the Christian duty to obey governmental authority is superseded by our duty to obey the higher authority of God himself. As the disciples told the Jewish rulers in the early chapters of Acts, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard… We must obey God rather than men” (4:19-20, 5:29). Similarly, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused their king’s command to worship his golden image (Daniel 3), and Daniel broke the law forbidding prayer to anyone other than King Darius (Daniel 6). When the government commands a Christian to sin, the Christian must disobey.
But Kim Davis did not have to sin by putting her stamp of approval on immoral unions; she could have resigned her post as county clerk, washing her hands of the issue altogether. Had she resigned, she could have avoided giving her personal affirmation to sinful same-sex marriages while still respecting the authority of our secular government, as Romans 13 instructs. The case for resignation seems to accommodate all the important biblical principles we considered above, so it’s no surprise that, when news of her solitary stand first broke, most Christian commentators seemed to feel that Mrs. Davis should have simply resigned rather than trying to actively block the imposition of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Despite the appeal of the “resign in protest” argument, though, I believe it misses a critical part of the picture. Mrs. Davis had been entrusted with a position of oversight and authority over the issuance of marriage licenses. The Obergefell decision sought to commandeer her office to sin against God in the name of the county she represented, and she was uniquely placed to oppose the change. As long as she did so, Rowan county would be restrained from the brink on which it trembled. But the instant she laid down the office that had been entrusted to her, it would be turned to evil purposes. Does that not impose a moral obligation to resist as long as possible?
Suppose I was the sheriff of a northern county when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, requiring all citizens and officials to assist in returning escaping slaves to their masters. Would it have been enough for me to simply resign my post and turn power over to a man who felt comfortable enforcing the law? Could I then watch with a clean conscience as shackled fugitives were marched back to torture and death in the slaveholding states, under the auspices of an office that had been entrusted to me?
Just as individual Christians must disobey a sinful law, it seems that when an elected official knows that stepping down will result in the position and powers entrusted to him being used for sinful purposes, he has an obligation to remain in office and resist that perversion, insofar as he can and as long as he can. In our increasingly post-Christian country, perhaps that means Christians will no longer be acceptable public servants. If so, that is just fine. The Bible never says Christians need to govern–our God is quite capable of managing the affairs of the nation without our help. In fact, political power has rarely been healthy for the church. But as long as Christians do hold political office, that imposes an opportunity and a responsibility which we ought not too glibly give up.