Exile and Political Engagement: Civil Disobedience and Conclusion

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and OutlinePost 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political EngagementPost 3: Submission and Taxes, Post 4: Government ServicePost 5: Justice and AdvocacyPost 6: Voting)

Civil disobedience

Finally we must turn to that element of political engagement which is “negative” wherein we actively work against the governing authorities. Submission is the norm for Christians, but civil disobedience is always an option. The question is, when should we disobey the government?

The question of disobedience always comes down to authority. A truly Christian act of disobedience is always an act of obedience to a higher authority. If the authority of the government is in opposition to the authority of God then the Christian is obliged to disobey the human authority in order to obey the divine authority.

When Daniel’s practice of prayer came into conflict with the human decree to pray to no one other than the king, Daniel chose to obey God, thus disobeying the human laws. When the command to worship no other gods came in conflict with the nations call to bow down to an idol, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego chose to obey God, thus disobeying the law of the land. When the religious authorities commanded Peter and John to stop preaching the gospel, they refused, stating that it was better for them to fear (and obey) God, rather than men. Christians are called to disobey the human authorities when obedience to that law would directly cause them to disobey God’s law.

Examples of justified civil disobedience include Christians hiding Jews during Nazi Germany and Christians in China and other “closed” countries gathering as part of an underground church. Some examples of Christian civil disobedience are obvious, but often the line is blurry. Consider, for instance, the recent case of Kim Davis, the county Clerk who refused to sign marriage licenses for gay marriages.

As the news of the Kim Davis case started to come out some Christians called for her to resign[1]. The arguments were two-fold. First, it was argued that Davis’ “principled” stance came off as hypocrisy (because of her prior divorces and political aspirations) and therefore on the whole hindered the message of the gospel. It is worth noting that her divorces happened before she became a Christian. Nevertheless, as my professor Mike Wittmer put it: The optics are bad.

The second argument borrows from Martin Luther’s understanding of “two kingdoms” as it relates to government officials. Luther argued that “Christians who are employed by the state must at times commit acts that would be wrong to do as individuals. For instance, it is wrong to kill another person, but that is what a Christian executioner must do on behalf of the state. Luther said the Christian executioner will put the condemned person to death in a Christian way, with loving respect rather than from hateful revenge, but he will perform this role on behalf of the state.”[2] In this way Davis could have signed the marriage license, not as an individual “condoning” or “celebrating” gay marriage but simply as an agent of the state following the laws of the land. In this way, the case of Kim Davis is different from the case of a baker/florist who is simply acting as a private citizen or a pastor, who is acting as an agent of the church. Finally, if she could still not sign the license with this reasoning based on her conscience and was thus unable to perform her job, she could, instead of obstructing the law, resign.

On the other hand, others argued that she was justified in refusing to allow her office from issuing marriage licenses.[3] At the time she did not have the option (from the perspective of her conscience) of simply allowing others within her office to issue marriage licenses since all the licenses would bear her name. Her initial proposal was actually quite modest – allow her office to issue licenses without her name on it, but the State of Kentucky was not quick to respond to her request. The result was that the situation escalated and got a lot messier than it needed to.

By not resigning, Kim Davis forced an important legal point. It is true that citizens of a state should be able to expect the state to provide those services allowed by law. In this case, based on the law of the land, a same-sex couple should be able to expect the state to issue them a marriage license. However, demanding a service from a state is not the same as demanding that service from an individual and individuals should be able to opt out of specific tasks for reasons of religious liberty so long as the State can still reasonably provide the service (i.e., there are others who could issue the license). The reasonable challenge for the State is to provide services under the law without compelling individuals to break their consciences.

Other States, such as North Carolina, have been able to resolve this issue through legislation. The law in this state “protects magistrates who object to performing solemnizing ceremonies for same-sex marriages and clerks who object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses. It also makes clear that no one can be denied a marriage license, but magistrates or clerks could recuse themselves from the process behind the scenes should they have sincere objections to same-sex marriage.”[4]

So there are some interlocking questions: Could Kim Davis have signed the license simply as an agent of the State, and not as a personal solemnization of marriage? Since in her conscience she couldn’t perform this aspect of her job was she obliged to resign or was she right to shut down issuing all licenses in her county and face the consequences? How does her apparent hypocrisy play into this? Does the legal battle unnecessarily damage the message of the gospel? These are difficult questions[5] and my goal is not to answer them all, only to point out some of the basic questions we must ask before engaging in civil disobedience.

Thankfully, in this case, it appears as though States should be able to accommodate conscientious objectors wherever they are found, either in the military (for which we have a long-standing tradition) or in a county clerk’s office.


Restating a few of the principles above. God, not man, reigns. In Him we have ultimate hope. In the meantime, Christians are free and obligated to engage the political process at some level – obeying the law, paying taxes, serving within the government, and sometimes even disobeying the laws of the land in order to avoid disobeying God. In all this our motivation should be to glorify God and love our neighbor, seeing the government as a potentially good institution.

But while we can see engagement in politics as a potential good we must remember that at best it is only a relative good. As foreigners and strangers we have an obligation to an ultimate good, sharing the good news of Jesus. The gospel trumps politics in terms of priority, even while the gospel has political implications.

[1] Mike Wittmer, “Kim Davis should resign” https://mikewittmer.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/kim-davis-should-resign/

[2] Wittmer, Ibid.

[3] Joe Carter, “Why Kim Davis was Right to not Resign” http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-kim-davis-was-right-not-to-resign

[4] Ryan T. Anderson “Kentucky Clerk Not Issuing Gay Marriage Licenses Causes Uproar. North Carolina Shows Better Way.” http://dailysignal.com/2015/09/01/kentucky-clerk-not-issuing-gay-marriage-licenses-causes-uproar-north-carolina-shows-better-way/

[5] I realize that for some the statement “these are all difficult questions” is one of the most offensive things I could say since, from your perspective, the answer is actually very simple. To this I would only say – please be open to viewing this highly controversial issue from multiple perspectives.