A County Clerk, Gay Marriage, and What’s Right

September 7, 2015 at 5:00 am 3 comments


Credit: Ty Wright/Getty Images

Credit: Ty Wright/Getty Images

It’s not often a small town county clerk becomes a household name. But Kim Davis has managed to pull of just such a feat after going to jail last week for refusing to issue marriage licenses from her office. The Washington Post reports:

The Kentucky clerk drew headlines for refusing to issue marriage licenses to all couples, gay and straight, after the Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that same-sex couples have the right to marry. An Apostolic Christian, Davis has said it would violate her faith to put her name on a marriage license for two people of the same sex.

She was sued by several gay couples and was ordered by [Judge] Bunning to begin issuing the licenses this week. When Davis defied the judge’s order, the couples asked for Davis to be held in contempt and fined.

But Bunning decided to jail Davis, saying fines would not be sufficient to compel compliance because Davis’s supporters could raise money on her behalf.

“The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed,” Bunning said.[1]

Not surprisingly, demonstrators, both in support and in protest of Mrs. Davis, gathered outside the courthouse where she was sentenced:

Ashley Hogue, a secretary from Ashland, held a sign outside the courthouse that read, “Kim Davis does not speak for my religious beliefs.”

“This is so ugly,” she said, wiping away tears. “I was unprepared for all the hate.”

Demonstrator Charles Ramey, a retired steelworker, downplayed the vitriol.

“We don’t hate these people,” he said, holding a sign that read, “Give God his rights.” “We wouldn’t tell them how to get saved if we hated them.”[2]

On the one hand, I am somewhat puzzled why Mrs. Davis, if she could not in good conscience carry out one of the duties for which state taxpayers are compensating her, did not simply resign her position.  After all, for Mrs. Davis to refuse to issue marriage licenses not only to same-sex couples, but to all couples, and to make it incumbent on the clerks who work for her to follow suit hardly seems the best way to handle a personal religious objection, as Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, makes clear in this thoughtful article.  Mrs. Davis explains her reasoning in the USA Today article: “‘If I left, resigned or chose to retire, I would have no voice for God’s word,’ calling herself a vessel that the Lord has chosen for this time and place.” Her explanation begs the question: would she really have no voice for God’s Word if she was not a county clerk? Couldn’t she be a witness for Christ in ways that involve less emotional, political, and rhetorical volatility than refusing to issue marriage licenses?  And what does she do when she has to perform other duties that could – and perhaps should – violate her conscience, such as legally licensing divorces for couples who are not splitting for biblically appropriate reasons?  I’m not sure I completely understand Mrs. Davis’ thinking.

On the other hand, I am also not unsympathetic to her plight. Here is a government worker who was thrown in jail because she, in her vocation, was seeking in some way to abide by what God’s Word says about sexual boundaries. A Christian theology of work says that no matter what we do, we ought to view ourselves as “working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).  Mrs. Davis seems to be trying to put this theological truism into everyday practice.  I should also note that she does not appear to have arrived at her practice of refusing to issue marriage licenses lightly. Her conversion to Christianity came on the heels of a history littered by broken marriages and broken hearts. Since her conversion, however, she has maintained a strong stance on biblically informed sexual standards.

This is one of those theologically, ethically, legally, and relationally thorny situations that seems to be increasingly common in our day and age. As Christians, how do we respond? Is Kim Davis right? Or should she resign if she cannot, in good conscience, issue marriage licenses?

In the book of Daniel, we meet a man who, like this county clerk, held a government job. Indeed, he held a very prominent government job. Under the reign of the Persian king Darius, this man Daniel “so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom” (Daniel 6:3). Daniel’s upward mobility, it seems, was virtually limitless until, one day, as he went about carrying out his duties, the laws of the land changed in a way that violated his conscience:

The administrators and the satraps went as a group to the king and said: “O King Darius, live forever! The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or man during the next thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. Now, O king, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered – in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” So King Darius put the decree in writing. (Daniel 6:6-9)

As a worshiper of the God of Israel, Daniel could not, in good conscience, follow the king’s edict to pray only to the king – even though he was serving the king as a public official. So what does Daniel do?

Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. (Daniel 6:10)

I have sometimes wondered why Daniel didn’t try to negotiate some sort of compromise. Couldn’t he have stayed downstairs in a private room to pray to the true God rather than going upstairs and kneeling before an open window so everyone below would know exactly what he was doing? Couldn’t he have simply put off praying altogether in order to comply with the edict without committing idolatry against his God? After all, the edict was only in place for thirty days. In this instance, Daniel, according to his conscience, could do neither. He had to live out his faith, even if his faith was in conflict with his vocation as a public official and his status as a citizen of Persia.

You probably know the rest of the story. Daniel’s sentence was not just a jail cell, but a lions’ den. Daniel was willing to go to his death for his confession of faith. But, miraculously, “God sent His angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions” (Daniel 6:22).

It’s not difficult to draw parallels between Daniel’s story and Mrs. Davis’ story, save that we do not yet know how Mrs. Davis’ story will end. For us who are looking on, there are a couple of lessons I think we can take away from Daniel’s story. First, Daniel’s refusal to obey Darius’ edict had nothing to do with a political victory and everything to do with theological fidelity. I fear that, all too often, we can prioritize the politics of an issue like gay marriage specifically over a biblical theology of what marriage is generally. Any stand that we make must never be simply for the sake of winning a political battle, but for the sake of staying true to God’s Word. If people perceive that our theology is being leveraged merely as a means to political power, they have every right to be cynical of us and even angry at us. I’m fine if people, as I’m sure they did when Daniel was willing to be thrown to the lions, question our sanity, but we must never give people a reason to question our spiritual sincerity. Second, Daniel served and supported his governing authorities in every way he could until he couldn’t. This couldn’t have been easy for him. The Persians, after all, were pagans who shared none of Daniel’s theological commitments. But rather than fighting them, Daniel supported them in his work. He took a contrarian stand only when it was theologically necessary. I worry that, because of the deep suspicion and animosity that plagues our political system, we have become so devoted to fighting with each other on every front that we have lost our ability to take credible stands on the most important fronts. This is not to say that we can never be engaged in the political process – we do live in a democratic republic, after all – but it is to say that our governing authorities are first and foremost gifts from God to be supported by our prayers rather than political enemies to be bludgeoned by our anger.

As I think about Mrs. Davis’ predicament, I can appreciate her stand.  My prayer for her, however, as she remains steadfast in her opposition to a Supreme Court ruling, is that she also proves stalwart in her commitment to love those with whom she disagrees. A strong stand may be good in the face of a morally untenable court decision. And she has decided to take one. But love – even when it’s love for the gay couple that comes walking through the door of the county clerk’s office – is absolutely necessary for Godly, gracious relationships.  I hope she’s decided to give that.

______________________________

[1] James Higdon and Sandhya Somashekhar, “Kentucky clerk ordered to jail for refusing to issue gay marriage license,” The Washington Post (9.3.2015).

[2] Mike Wynn and Chris Kenning, “Ky. Clerk’s office will issue marriage licenses Friday – without the clerk,” USA Today (9.3.2015).

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. JackDey  |  September 7, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    Zach.
    I wonder if Nazi Germany could have carried out its tyranny and bloodshed on humanity, if the silent Christian pulpits hadn’t remained silent.
    Regardless of Kim’s intentions and whatever this theologian or scientist believes, she has had the internal fortitude to be counted in this very destructive debate. We will all stand at the throne of judgement one day and I wonder whether The Lord will be impressed by a paper from some theologian or scientist and what our excuse will be then.

    Reply
  • 2. Kim E.  |  September 8, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Thank you for addressing this issue. I truly appreciate that you always look at both sides, our view and how Jesus would view the issue. In an ideal world, I wish we wouldn’t need abortions, gay marriages, anti-discrimination laws, etc. But Adam and Eve ruined it all too long ago. (Actually, me and my husband would have ruined it too had we been in that garden!) We ALL sin!

    Reply
  • 3. 2015 In Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 4, 2016 at 5:22 am

    […] Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and Pope Francis visits the United […]

    Reply

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