How to Walk and When to Stand

Since June 26, when five Supreme Court justices issued their majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the millennia-old idea of religious freedom in America has been colliding with the newly minted concept that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, went to jail briefly for refusing to issue marriage licenses. Oregon Judge Vance Day’s judicial “fitness” is being investigated because he sent same-sex couples to other judges for civil marriage ceremonies. Ohio Judge Allen McConnell said that, as a Christian, he can’t facilitate same-sex marriages and has petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court for an exemption. Alabama Judge Wes Allen and judges and clerks in Texas have also resisted.

As followers of Jesus, how do we decide between obedience to government as outlined in the Bible and the exceptions Scripture also embraces? The task is challenging.

The apostle Paul clearly said we should “be subject to the governing authorities,” adding, “for conscience’ sake” (Rom. 13:1, 5). Yet Paul also disobeyed the Roman order to exit the jail in Philippi, deciding to remain incarcerated temporarily to protest his illegal arrest and beating, both of which violated his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:35–37).

The apostle Peter’s first epistle teaches, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (2:13). Yet when the ruling Sanhedrin commanded Peter not to preach Christ, he replied boldly, “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

Paul and Peter illustrate the general rule of obedience to government, as well as some of the exceptions: exposing corruption or injustice, as in Paul’s case (see also Ephesians 5:11) and resisting orders not to preach the risen Christ, as in Peter’s case.

In the case of the Kentucky civil clerk and the various judges, the book of Daniel is helpful. Daniel was appointed an agent of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Dan. 1:4–6). He quickly faced a conflict of conscience: He and his Jewish friends could not eat the king’s food without violating Old Testament restrictions (v. 8). So he negotiated an accommodation, a compromise of sorts, with his supervising commander: The boys would eat only what was consistent with God’s command; and after 10 days, if they looked healthy, the commander would be free to decide whether to excuse them from the king’s order. In the end, the commander was satisfied; and Daniel and his fellow God-followers were exempted (vv. 8–16).

Negotiation, compromise, and accommodation do not inherently signal spiritual defeat. I believe Jesus’ paradigm to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21) suggests both are possible and, in many situations, can be accomplished simultaneously, without contradiction.

Daniel later faced a worse dilemma: Stop praying to the Lord and live; or disobey the king, pray to the Lord, and be executed. Daniel chose prayer. He was then thrown into the lions’ den to die. But God rescued Daniel, which resulted in the pagan king’s profession that the God of Israel was indeed God (Dan. 6:10–20).

As we navigate the troubled waters of post-Christian/postmodern (and increasingly neo-pagan) America, we need to apply these scriptural principles. There are two other considerations, as well.

First, we should be open to counsel from fellow believers. When Paul was ready to charge into the amphitheater in Ephesus to confront a bloodthirsty mob, his friends counseled him to refrain. He heeded their advice, and it probably spared his life (Acts 19:30–31).

Second, follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. When Paul was convinced the Lord wanted him to return to Jerusalem, he insisted on returning, even though he knew the risks and his friends warned him against it (21:4–14). If our action is in line with Scripture and consistent with the leading of the Holy Spirit, is there any other route for us to follow?

Of course, obedience to God does not guarantee personal comfort or deliverance in the here-and-now, as Paul’s later hardships illustrate. But isn’t that the very nature of faithful obedience in our walk with Christ? We never know with certainty how our personal stories will end. Having taken a stand, however, we do know who will write the ending.

We also know this promise in Philippians 1:6: “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” And that is something we can count on.

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