Welcome to this special weekend edition of the Ask Pastor John podcast. In the last week or so we have gotten about 50 emails from listeners about Kim Davis, a county clerk in the state of Kentucky. Here’s one such email from Sherry, one of our faithful podcast listeners, who simply asks, “Pastor John, is Kim Davis wrong for not signing same sex marriage licenses?”
I don’t know Kim Davis’s heart, so I can’t assess her motives. And I don’t know her theology. It is possible to do right actions for wrong reasons, and so be wrong in doing right. So I will just try to say something about her actions and what appear to be some of her convictions and perhaps touch on some wider implications.
First, I think she is right in rejecting so-called same sex marriage as contrary to God’s design for what marriage is. And she is right in assessing this departure from God’s will as massive, not marginal, and as personally and culturally deadly, not trivial. And therefore it’s not something that you can just go along with as if that were a loving thing to do.
The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 that the endorsement of same sex practice — which is what the approval of so-called same sex marriage does — endorses the destruction of persons (along with idolatry, greed, theft, drunkenness). Those who impenitently practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Calling such behaviors “legal” in no way removes the capital punishment that will follow in eternity. Therefore this judgment of the Supreme Court is massively evil and deadly for persons. Kim Davis is right if she believes that. It seems she does.
Second, I think she is morally right and probably legally right to refuse to put her name on the marriage license of two men or two women. She is morally right because God has given civil authorities to the world to reward the right and punish the evil. So when those authorities promote evil and punish good, those authorities may rightly be disobeyed for the sake of obeying God. Here are the two key texts.
1 Peter 2:13–14, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” So be subject to governors as they are sent to punish evil and do good.
Romans 13:1, 3–4, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God. . . . For [here is the ground] rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. . . . He is God’s servant for your good.”
Now I don’t think Peter and Paul are naïve in writing this way. This is what governments do. They reward the good. They punish the evil. What they mean is that this is what governments ought to do. This is the way it ought to be. For example, when Paul says, “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct” (Romans 13:3), we are liable to scratch our heads and think of a hundred cases where governments have slaughtered people in great wickedness. What in the world, Paul?
Well, Paul says rulers are not a terror to good conduct, like when a dad says to his children, “We tell the truth in this family.” That is the indicative statement of what ought to be. “We treat other with kindness in this family. That is what we do.” He doesn’t mean sin never happens in this family. The kids are not always good. He means this is what we ought to do. And when we don’t act this way, we are acting out of character. It ought not to be. Something should change. So it is with governments. They exist to support the good and resist the bad.
And here is an interesting thing: A few verses later in 1 Peter 2:18, 20, Peter gives an illustration of how slaves are to be subject to masters. So he is carrying this submission theme through for governments and slaves and wives and husbands and children and so on. And then he says, “Servants, be subject to your masters, even to the unjust. . . . For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Peter envisions someone under authority doing something good that gets him a beating. Authorities don’t ordinarily punish people for being completely compliant.
Now of course, it may be the slave was slandered and then punished for something he did not do. That is possible. But that is not what the text says. It seems to me he has done something good. Maybe he stood up for a fellow Christian slave or maybe he shared the gospel. Or maybe he refused to have sex with the master. When you do good, suffer, and endure, this is a gracious thing with God. So it may well be that this slave or citizen or wife knew he would pay a price. And that was a gracious thing with God to suffer for doing good.
Now I think Kim Davis was right not to sign the marriage licenses and thus to not treat evil as marriage. It is not marriage! If she blesses with her authority and her signature a union which leads to destruction, she endorses and participates in that destruction. Encouraging homosexual behavior is the participation in someone’s destruction. I think she is right not to do that. Now I said she may be also legally right and not just morally right. This thinking is complicated, but here are just a few observations:
Was she legally bound to resign instead of obstructing the licensing process? Now there are two angles on this question — two ways to come at it. One is to observe that perhaps she is not the one breaking the law, but that that Supreme Court broke the law by their ludicrous claim that they found in the Constitution a right to the non-existent illusion called “same sex marriage.” That is absolutely ludicrous that they could find such a thing in the Constitution. They came up with that out of thin air, because they want it to be. There comes a point when people with eyes look at the Supreme Court and say: This strutting court has no clothes on. They may wear a tiny little one-inch-across tyrannical crown on their heads, but they are not robed with the royal power to make the Constitution condone the killing of children nor to condone so-called ‘same sex marriage. It cannot be done. Out of nothing they create mirages.
The other angle that suggests Kim Davis was not only morally right, but, perhaps, legally right, is that she was drawing the line — the hill to die on — not at whether so-called “gay marriage” could be authorized by anyone in Kentucky, but by whether it would have to be authorized by her. The specific issue was whether her name or her official authority as clerk was put on the licenses.
So the legal question is, “Does an employee, even an elected employee, have to comply with every aspect of the job description if it compromises the conscience? Or are there legal — that is the key word here — legal provisions that mandate an employer adjust the employee’s job requirements to avoid a conflict with conscience?” And the answer is yes. Both the federal Civil Rights Act and Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act have such provisions in them. And so the question for the court, if she pursues it this way, is whether the adjustment in her job description can be made without an undue burden on that office — on the employer.
Kim Davis’s case is not unique. People need to really be aware of this issue. Can she keep her job and not do part of her job because of her conscience? All of these are real litigations:
- Can nurses, who have religious objections to participating in abortions, keep their jobs and not participate in abortions, even though the hospital says they must?
- Can Muslim truck drivers not transport alcohol?
- Can a pacifist postal worker not process draft registration forms?
- Can a Jehovah’s Witness employee not be required to raise the flag at the school?
- Can a vegetarian bus driver not be required to hand out hamburger coupons?
Those are all real cases I read about — whether or not legally one can have his job description adjusted without resigning so as to avoid the conflict with conscience.
So for Kim Davis the legal question is, Can she be given an exemption so that she can carry out her clerk’s duties while not giving any of her official authority to the licensing of so-called “same sex marriage”? And the answer is, We will see. I don’t know what is going to happen.
Morally, she is in the right. She is, of course, just one prominent case of what will be hundreds in the months and years to come as Christians and others draw a line of conscience beyond which they will not go. And the upshot for us, all of us, is that we should all be pondering now what that line is in our vocation, in our schooling, in our civil life, in our finances, and in our friendships. Because if we are not fixed and strong in our resolve and we are taken off guard with the threat of loss, we will cave in. Now is the time to be clear and resolved — before they knock on your door.
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