Christianity & Civil Disobedience

kmdvs2Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who was jailed for refusing to process marriage license applications for same-sex couples, offers a poignant segue into the issue of whether civil disobedience is an appropriate response for professing Christians.

Some folks would rather sojourn down the rabbit trails of peripheral issues, such as pointing out that Davis is hypocritical in her stance because she has had several divorces. While her past may not make her the perfect poster child for one “standing on principle,” it would matter to me whether the improprieties occurred before or after her Christian conversion–an important distinction that would make little difference to her critics.

The publicity garnered by Davis demands that we reexamine the issue of civil disobedience from a Christian perspective.
Recently a secularist quoted a familiar biblical passage as “proof” that resistance against the civil authority is hypocritical.

Romans Chapter 13: 1-3
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.”
Of course, this individual forgot to mention other passages which modify or mitigate the unqualified application of this passage.

Acts 4:18-19
“18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!”

Acts 5:29
“29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!”
So the question is whether we have a hopeless contradiction, or a historical theological perspective able to reconcile and synthesize these apparently opposing themes.

Paul wrote the book of Romans at a time when the brutal dictator Nero was in charge, so he could hardly have been ignorant or naïve regarding the reality of unjust and evil rulers. It should also be noted that while many people argue that First Century Christians never engaged in civil disobedience, their acts of refusing to worship Caesar as God were considered political sedition, not religious heresy.

Many Christian theologians have argued that the passage in Romans is “prescriptive” and not “descriptive,” that is, it articulates the ideal design for how things ought to be, rather than commenting on how things actually are happening. If rulers are to reward the good and punish the bad, is there any legitimate procedure for opposing the ruler who does the opposite? Are there any guidelines for when a Christian is allowed or even required to oppose an unjust law or ruler?

We shall briefly mention three documents developed during the Reformation.

Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos- Defense of liberty against tyrants.
This 16th century document, drafted by French Huguenots, is a catechism-like question and answer treatise which supports the idea of resistance when ruler is deemed not to have faithfully executed his responsibility under God.

Lex Rex–“The law and the prince“, sometimes rendered The law is King
17th century document written by the Scottish Theologian, Samuel Rutherford, making points similar to Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos.

Doctrine of the lesser magistrate–John Knox–Appelation
Knox developed this doctrine beyond the scope of his predecessors, believing that the right to rebel belonged to common people and not just the civil authorities. He was more careful then his predecessors to cite biblical references. Knox makes it clear that it is the duty of lesser-magistrates to resist the tyranny of the chief magistrate when he acts or makes declarations which are in rebellion to the law of God, or acts in a manner that exceeds his rightful authority. The general stipulation was that if a ruler did not faithfully execute his duties, he could be deposed in a rebellion led by a lesser magistrate.

The website Got has a page that distills the perspective of these documents into contemporary language and situations with four bulletin points as articulated below.

• Christians should resist a government that commands or compels evil and should work nonviolently within the laws of the land to change a government that permits evil.
• Civil disobedience is permitted when the government’s laws or commands are in direct violation of God’s laws and commands.
• If a Christian disobeys an evil government, unless he can flee from the government, he should accept that government’s punishment for his actions.
• Christians are certainly permitted to work to install new government leaders within the laws that have been established.

It should be emphasized that being faithful to biblical standards might require enduring civil punishment, just as Kim Davis discovered. Being faithful to God does not exempt anyone from civil punishment no matter how righteous they deem their cause.

We have surveyed a brief history of civil disobedience from a biblical perspective, and in the next piece we will explore practical applications of these ideas.
Before we delve into an example of civil disobedience, we should touch on how the government and religious consciousness came to be so adversarial.

A Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789. It begins as such…

“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…”

This message is in response to gratitude at the framing the First Amendment. While the Amendment recognizes a functional and jurisdictional separation between the institutions of church and state, there was never a call for a separation between the providence of God and the administration of the government. This is the fiat of modern secularists. Washington makes it clear governments have a duty under God, and quite likely, even the least religious founding fathers would have had no qualms with the supposition that governments had a duty to God.

As the late, great Christian philosopher Francis Schaefer might have observed, church and state were never…
God and Caesar, but rather…

While Caesar is distinct from the church, Caesar is under the authority of God. The contemporary secularist sees not merely a functional and jurisdictional separation of the institutions of church and state, but an absolute sequestering of biblical precepts from public policy. The word “secular” has morphed from meaning “non-ecclesiastical” to connoting “anti-biblical.” Thus, the hostility increased as we decoupled government from its rightful position under God, while making it an wholly autonomous entity.

Several examples of reactions involving civil disobedience have been popularized in the discussions concerning the defiance of Kim Davis. Some people have suggested that Davis should have resigned, as did Thomas More when he disapproved of Henry The Eighth, because of his marital conduct. To resign would have been constructively consistent with the “flight” response as articulated in the bulletin points from my preceding piece: Fleeing if possible. I don’t deny resignation is a noble response, but the problem is that if every Christian who is a public official resigns, it only exacerbates the trend toward cultural secularization already in place, since more and more in the government service will become non-Christian.

An example of civil disobedience I will examine involves Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. was incarcerated in the Birmingham city jail. From there he penned a letter justifying his activism, and directed it to fellow clergymen who were critical of his acts of protest, by claiming that they violated the state laws of Alabama. While many of the clergyman were in sympathy with the cause of racial equality, they believed that King should have waited for the issue to be resolved by the courts. One quotation provided King’s rationale for civil disobedience.

“…One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘”an unjust law is no law at all.”‘ “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law..”.

Dr. King claimed that a just human law must square with the law of God. Dr. King evokes Sir William Blackstone as well. Who was Blackstone? The English legal luminary that served as the benchmark for legal philosophy at the time of America’s founding. Blackstone suggested that proper man-made law was merely the discovery of what God had encoded in the natural order. While many people today celebrate Dr. King’s activism, how many would concur with his theological rationale?

The accusations that Davis was not doing her job in refusing to process marriage applications, merely presumes a secularized understanding of the duties of public officials–service to the state without thought of conscientious obedience to God. Accordingly, any devotion to ‘religious’ belief can only be properly expressed in private settings. When this is the case, it inordinately narrows the scope of what ‘free exercise’ encompasses. No quarter is given for legitimate conscientious objection. Further, it should be noted that Davis did, in fact, wait for the courts to resolve the issue before protesting.

For many people, Davis’ protest constitutes the last of a dying breed of bigoted remonstrations and stubbornness. With the benefit of hindsight we must ask if Dr. King’s willingness to be incarcerated underscored an obvious injustice we all recognized at the time, or is that merely the perception based on the success of the civil rights movement?

Will free exercise of religion and liberty of conscience meet the opposite fate?

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