I work as a Bible study curriculum editor in my day job. One of my responsibilities is to write an every-other-week blog post (my Assistant Editor writes the ones for the intervening weeks, thankfully) offering additional commentary on the lesson for the upcoming Sunday. In one of those coincidences that sometimes happen, last Sunday’s Scripture seemed to offer an opportunity to apply the text’s message to a current event the discussion of which has been using up a lot of newsprint, airtime, and megabytes.
The Scripture is found in Acts 5, where Jesus’ apostles, having been called on the carpet a second time for teaching in the name of Jesus, respond, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29). The current event is the jailing and subsequent release of Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis after she refused to obey a court order that she resume issuing marriage licenses, which she had stopped doing due to her objections to same-sex marriage. Davis said that she refused to issue the licenses “under God’s authority.”
The parallel between the Scripture text and that event seems, at first glance, to be strong. Appearances can be deceiving, however. Since I thought that some cautionary words were in order for the users of our curriculum, I shared them in my blog post. Now I want to share them with you. In so doing, perhaps I can offer some helpful thoughts on the danger of trying to draw a straight line between events in the Bible and events in our time. And it can indeed be dangerous.
Put simply, we should take great care in drawing direct parallels between the apostles’ predicament and Davis’s situation because many differences exist between the two scenarios. I’ll mention three.
For one thing, the apostles were not in violation of a court order, while Davis is.
Most, if not all, of us would likely agree that the apostles did the right thing in speaking in the name of Jesus, even though they had been told by the authorities not to. The difference between their situation and that of Davis is that they were not disobeying the legal authority, while she was. It was the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin), not the Roman authorities, that ordered the apostles not to preach. At that point in history, Christians were not in direct conflict with Roman law, which was the true legal authority in first century Israel. Such conflict would come, but that is not the situation in Acts 5. So the apostles were not in violation of the law of the land. They were basically being told by one religious group not to speak of their religious convictions.
Davis, on the other hand, is in violation of federal Judge David Bunning’s order that, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, she issue marriage licenses to gay couples. As Alan Blinder and Tamar Lewin said in the New York Times, “The legal issue — that no one, whether a government or an individual engaged in civil disobedience has standing to flout a court order — is well established” (“Clerk in Kentucky Chooses Jail Over Deal on Same-Sex Marriage,” nytimes.com, September 3, 2015).
Now, that is not to say that Davis should not “obey God rather than human authority” if that is what she really believes she is doing. It is just to say that the kind of authority to which she refuses to submit is a different kind of authority than that to which the apostles would not give in. The situation in twenty-first century Kentucky is far different than the one in first century Jerusalem. Still, I suspect that most of us would agree that, if a person sees her or his religious convictions as being in conflict with secular law, religious convictions should be given first place by that person.
But—and this is the second difference I want to point out—the apostles, unlike Davis, were not elected officials who had sworn to uphold the law. The fact that Davis is an elected government official in the constitutional republic of the United States of America is important. Here is the oath of office that she took: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of County Clerk according to law . . .” Davis’s oath of office requires her to uphold the Constitution of both the state and the nation, not to uphold her particular religious or social convictions. Because she refuses to follow the law and to obey the court’s order, she is in violation of her oath of office. Davis asserts that, because the oath ends with “so help me God,” her obligation to uphold God’s law or moral law takes precedence over her responsibility to uphold civil law. But as constitutional law scholar Noah Feldman observes,
Whom you swear the oath by is different from what you swear to do. Officials in the U.S. definitively don’t swear to uphold God’s law. They swear to uphold the Constitution, which never mentions God at all. And they swear to uphold laws enacted under the Constitution -- which means laws that are in compliance with the establishment clause that prohibits any established or official religion (“What the Oath of Office Means to a Kentucky Clerk,” bloombergview.com, September 3, 2015).
As Feldman also notes, if Davis believes that her religious convictions prevent her from upholding the duties of her office, she has the option of resigning. He says, “Given Davis’s statement of faith that it would violate her interpretation of God’s will to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, she should quit her position as county clerk. Indeed, she must -- or she’d be living in a position of hypocritical sin.”
So that’s another difference between the two situations: Davis took an oath to uphold the law while the apostles didn’t.
For a third and final thing, the Sanhedrin tried to bar the apostles from bearing witness to their faith, but no one has prohibited Davis from bearing witness to hers outside her role as an elected government official. As a matter of fact, she very publicly proclaimed her faith and preached her message immediately following her release from jail. No authority tried to stop her and no one tried to put her back in her cell for speaking out.
Those are the three differences between the situation in our text and the situation in Rowan County, Kentucky of which I think we need to be aware. There are others of which I have not thought. My point in raising those three is to caution us about drawing a straight line between the apostles in first century Israel and a county clerk in 2015 America. There is a lot of time, a lot of change, and a lot of difference between the apostles’ “We must obey God rather than human authority” and Kim Davis’ “On God’s authority.”
The scenario offers us an excellent opportunity to think about the ways in which we read, understand, and apply the Bible to contemporary situations. The two are connected, but the lines between them are not always straight and easy to follow . . .
[An earlier and longer version of this post appeared at Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources, on September 15, 2015.]