In regard to the Kim Davis imprisonment the matter is much simpler than some imagine:
- A Christian is under a constant and invariable duty to the moral law of God (as fallibly as we live that out).
- That law is summed up by Jesus as loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
- The laws of men are subsidiary interpretations and applications of this higher law.
- When they are contrary or contradictory to the laws of God, the laws of men are invalid.
- They are false assertions of power without the authority of law.
Here’s a great example of this kind of moral thinking from one of the most influential American Christian ethicists:
“One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. 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.” Martin Luther King – Letter from Birmingham Jail
But Christians can disagree about what the laws of God entail in regard to a particular matter civil of law.
There are two reasons that Christians are falling on both sides of this issue:
1) They might think obedience to the given law falls within that which is allowable within the scope of obedience to the moral laws of God. In other words, that there is no real disobedience to God in obedience to the laws of the land. That, unfortunately, is arguable and not in itself obvious. When that happens reasonable people can disagree. They aren’t disagreeing on principle but on the application of the principal. Most disagreements happen this way and give a lot of latitude to the Christian conscience in regard to arguable matters. So Christians that affirm the priority of the moral laws of God can differ on if some action is indeed a violation of those laws.
For example, there are a lot of Christians that are for and against abortion.
2) They might think that under certain circumstances we are to obey men rather than God. That if there is a contradiction between the moral laws of God and the laws of the land that our duty is obedience to the laws of the land. This is Enlightenment religious ethics and is often exhibited through thinking in terms of the separability of the religious from the civic life, the separation of church and state as a metaphysical doctrine, or the idea of civil and spiritual spheres.
For example, “two Christians who hold the same beliefs about marriage as Christians may appeal to neighbor-love to support or to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage.” (Horton)
Notice that in the first case, whether what someone does is legal or illegal is not the most important issue.
In the second case, that is the most important issue.
So those that hold to the first, are arguing about whether or not Davis is being caused to violate the laws of God and conscience while the later are arguing about whether or not this is something allowable by the state of Kentucky, the Constitution of the United States of America and the effects of certain recent decisions of the SCOTUS.
Of course you can argue about both but without clarifying what you’re arguing “for” it will be confusing.
Is there room for disobedience to the laws of men for the sake of the laws of God? When? Under what circumstances?
Now here, I’m a bit of an absolutist in that I would say one never violates the moral laws of God in order to obey the laws of men; thankfully, God’s laws are that we love God and love our neighbor as ourself and so it should be rare that we need to violate one to keep the other. At the same time, it does come up; the Puritans (who are veritable heroes of civic and political freedom) left England because they were under constant persecution for the sake of obedience to the laws of love.
The difficulty isn’t in recognizing the duty, it’s in identifying the scope. If the state asked you to physically murder the innocent it would be so easy to say, “this is not a loving act, and so it violates good conscience and the moral laws of God, and so I shall not participate and will oppose this action of the state.” But it almost never looks like that. It usually looks something like a minor state government official being asked to participate in the legal procedure of issuing a license for someone else to do something that she thinks is against the moral laws of God. That… is hard. What exactly is her duty here? Where is the line? It can’t be as simple as to do her job because what her job is is part of the debate. It can’t be as simple as to obey “the government” because she is the government and governments are wrong all the time. It can’t be as simple as to obey the moral laws of God because there is a good measure of interpretation involved in getting from the circumstances to the violation of the moral law.
I think we can all agree that an immoral law is no law at all, so we will assume that and pass it by in confidence.
The Bible speaks to this issue quite a bit, and one famous consideration takes place when, “Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29
I understand that this leaves the Christian in a particularly difficult situation. On the one hand they have the duty laid upon them by God that they should obey the civil authorities in all good things (Romans 13). This is why Christians make such good citizens wherever they go. They subject themselves to the government of any land (Christian, pagan or secular) with God’s own command. Submission to these governments is thus submission to God in as far as it is not also disobedience to God. But there is the rub; submission in all things up to but not in contradiction too, the laws of love for our God and our neighbor. When we take the full breadth of scripture into account it’s clear that “all things” means all “good” things and not in anything that is not good. We are not to obey governments in doing evil, worshipping other Gods, murder, adulteries, prostitution, drug abuse, even if such things are legal under the laws of the land they are not legal for the Christian.
The examples in scripture are so many as to overwhelm the conscience from the stories of David’s disobedience to Saul to why Daniel ended up in that lion’s den (the book of Daniel is fat with the theme of disobedience to the contrary laws of men by those obedient to the laws of God). But in the New Testament also from Jesus to Peter and Paul their disregard for unjust or contrary laws is powerfully consistent.
We should remember that the very Gospel of Jesus Christ is woven through with the fact of his accusation, conviction, imprisonment, punishment and execution in accord with the laws of the Jews and the Romans, acting in concert.
Should Jesus have submitted Himself to the duly ordained authority of the state? Well, He did of course. That’s a powerful example of obedience with a cost. But He did not do so in agreement with them or because they were right. And they took him by force. He did not resist but that’s a different situation. He could have resisted and won but he was submitting his guiltless self for our guilty selves, submitting to a punishment that we did deserve. Through the rest of the Bible he destroys men and nations regardless of their religious bias for violations of the moral laws of God. He doesn’t ask their permission nor does he seem to have an objection to measuring and judging Jews, Gentiles, Pagans, Atheists or Empires. The presumption of scripture is that he is over all of them and judges them all according to a perfect rule of righteousness. He plainly expects all governments to exercise their granted, inferior authority according to justice, and that justice is neither arbitrary nor left to the nations to choose.
And this is one of the most difficult things for Enlightenment Christians to come to terms with; Jesus had light regard for the laws of the state. He was almost dismissive of its presumed authority. Sure, He asked, “Whose face is this on this coin…” and it was Caesar’s and He said give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s but some people miss the powerful intent of the statement. The coin has Caesar’s face on it so we give the coin to Caesar but everything is God’s including Caesar and the coin, and everything else, so give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. The idea that Jesus was affirming Caesar’s independent authority and relegating the authority of God to the “spiritual’ backwaters of the universe is a horrible misreading of the text.
Jesus, the Apostles, Daniel, Jeremiah and whomever else you might have going were always innocent (morally) of any crime but guilty under the laws of men. They broke them willingly and without regard to conscience because they were doing the right thing. A great deal of the biblical message is about disobedience to civil authority when it is wrong.
So here is that very uncomfortable rub in that a Christian has an always present duty to love God before men and to obey the laws of God when contrary to the laws of men, and yet to obey the laws of men in whatever might be conformable, though sometimes that hard to figure out.
Sometimes it’s hard to say whether or not some law allows something the Christian does not think should be allowed or demands something that they may not obey.
So how do we decide?
Well, let each one of us be certain in our own conscience between ourselves and God and take the consequences as they come.
So Kim Davis must do what she is doing. She has no other Christian choice. In any case, every matter should be decided according to principal and not pressure.
She might even be wrong but “to act against conscience is neither right or safe.” Luther
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