I don’t know Russell Williams, and Russell Williams doesn’t know me. However, since he has written a Facebook post that seems to represent the feelings of many (liberal) Christians and non-Christians alike, and since I am the Feral Apologist, please allow me to weigh in on the case of Russell Williams weighing in on Kim Davis. I’ll go through his post one section at a time.
“Since I am a pastor of a southern Baptist church please allow me to weigh in on the case of Kim Davis, the lady in Kentucky who refuses to issue a marriage licenses to a same sex couple.”
It’s not apparent why being a pastor in a southern Baptist church gives him any particular weigh-in on this issue. He says “since” as if what follows will be an obvious cue that his views will add to the debate because he has a pertinent connection to it. Unfortunately, being a pastor of an SBC church is largely irrelevant, unless he is using that title to establish himself as an authority on the subject matter – which he doesn’t do. I’m inclined to believe he mentions it so he will be influential among Southern Baptists, which is a possibility, or in order to say, “Hey – I’m a conservative Christian, and even *I* think this lady is wacky!” Either way, what really matters is the quality of his arguments. So, without further ado:
“First: This is not a case of the government forcing anyone to violate their religious belief. She is free to quit her job. If she quits her job to honor God surely God would take care of her.”
This is a remarkably absurd statement. It construes “forcing” so narrowly that one wonders what exactly would constitute the government to be forcing someone. Would it be necessary for the government to actually put a gun to Kim Davis’s head in order to constitute “forcing?” Or does a government agency have to actually grip her hand and physically force it to make the motions of signing a marriage license?
Most people can recognize that saying to someone “Do this or lose your livelihood” is a form of forcing someone to do something. I’m curious to know just how Williams would react if he were told by the government, “Perform a same-sex wedding or lose your job as a pastor.” Perhaps he would resign. Or perhaps he would refuse and not resign because he believed that he would be wrong to give up his God-ordained position of ministry and wrong to perform a same-sex wedding. What he probably wouldn’t do was pretend that there was no coercion – no “forcing” – involved. Yes, perhaps Kim Davis could have quit her job to avoid issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but let’s not pretend that’s not a form of “forcing.”
As for the idea that she could have quit her job to honor God, and that God would have taken care of her, perhaps it is true that God would take care of her if she quit her job. But let’s not act like she was obligated to have quit her job, simply because God would have taken care of her if she did so. There is no reason she can’t honor God while also keeping the job God gave her. There are both theological and legal points to be made here. Theologically, there is no indication that God expects a Christian placed in a position of doing something immoral in the course of his or her job to simply quit. One can easily find examples of this in scripture. The four brave men in the book of Daniel will do quite nicely. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were placed a position of joining all of king Nebuchadnezzar’s servants in worshipping a statue that the king had had made of himself. They didn’t step down. They didn’t simply call in sick or not show up to work that day. They didn’t do anything, except obey their God.
“But when the trumpet sounded the whole world bowed, three men stood there all alone. They said, ‘Not gonna bow to your idol…’”
Likewise, Daniel’s famous adventure in the lion’s den was precipitated by his civil disobedience. How was Daniel caught? Did you ever notice that Daniel prayed with the windows open? I don’t get the impression that Daniel was even trying to hide the fact that he was praying three times a day – do you? But couldn’t Daniel have left the region? Surely, if Daniel stepped down from his position and left the region to honor God, God would take care of him!
As for the legal point, Williams seems to leave out the existence of an RFRA law, making the choice of “issue marriage licenses or lose your job” a logical fallacy called a “false dichotomy.” The federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” was passed in 1993 with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Clinton. It was originally sponsored in the House by Congresman Chuck Shumer (D-NY) and in the Senate a similar bill was sponsored by Ted Kennedy (D-MA). There was overwhelming support for this bill. Kentucky’s RFRA is modeled after the federal version. Like many state RFRAs and the federal version, the Kentucky RFRA requires that the government not “substantially burden” the sincerely held religious belief of an individual without showing that it has 1) a compelling government interest that is 2) being pursued in the least-restrictive means – even for a law of general applicability. What this means is that the government has to accommodate Kim Davis’s sincerely held beliefs, or show that a compelling government interest is being harmed and they have no other reasonable way of obtaining the outcome they need. The RFRA is not a silver bullet; it doesn’t guarantee that the government will lose a case against a religious person, but it does set clear standards for what the government must do if it wishes to substantially burden someone’s sincerely held religious beliefs. And yes, Kim Davis’s situation could be construed as “substantially burdening” her from a legal standpoint. RFRAs protect many people of many religions, and we shouldn’t act as if it doesn’t apply to Kim Davis as well. At any rate, shouldn’t it perhaps be slightly relevant to discover, before you attack a Christian sister for breaking the law, whether or not she has actually done so?
Finally, we must ask what should happen if the government continues to promote practices that violate Christian beliefs. Should Christians quit their positions of influence and authority in droves, immediately yielding as soon as changes are made to their duties that offend their consciences? (We shouldn’t neglect the fact that Kim Davis is a county clerk who had the law inexplicably mutate during her term in office.) Is the answer to be that every Christian with a moral backbone gives up for lack of a political or social one?
“Second: This is not a case of someone trying to uphold the sanctity of marriage. If she wanted to uphold the sanctity of marriage she should not have been married four different times. If she is worried about her name being affixed to a marriage license that goes against a biblical definition of marriage, she should not have her name on the last three marriage licenses given to her.”
Given the circumstances of Kim Davis’s life, it is embarrassing to have such a statement as this come from the mouth of a Christian. The entire point of Christianity is that we can be forgiven of our sins by repenting and turning to Jesus for forgiveness and leadership in our lives. Kim’s four marriages were prior to her becoming a Christian, so why should we be shocked that, upon becoming a Christian, she adopted a Christian view of marriage? How is that any way to discredit her? I can only imagine Williams’s interaction with the woman and the well in John 4 and the woman caught in adultery in John 8* if he caught them campaigning for marital chastity: “You women have no business trying to uphold the sanctity of marriage! If you wanted to uphold the sanctity of marriage, you should not have been married five times and now live with a sixth man! If you wanted to uphold the sanctity of marriage, you should not have committed adultery! If you are worried that women need to save their bodies for their husbands, you should not have given your bodies to all these men!”
Of course, even if Kim Davis’s prior marriages hadn’t been before she became a Christian, that would do nothing to show that she was wrong – only possibly hypocritical at best. But at the heart of these accusations is a cynicism towards the fundamental principles of Christianity that cannot be ignored. How can someone preach repentance and obedience to God, and then snidely denounce the one who repents and endeavors to live obediently to God? Does the man believe his message or not?
Hurling these accusations is, unfortunately, far more like Satan that God. Bringing up the evil that someone has done as a means of exhortation to repentance is a good thing. Bringing up the evil that someone has done and has already repented of for the purpose of guilting, controlling, or silencing them is a tactic of Satan. This is why Satan is sometimes referred to as the “Accuser of the Brethren.” My prayer is that Williams abandons this tactic and focuses more on building up other believers in love because“love covers a multitude of sins.”
“Third: This seems to be a case of someone looking to cash in on the religious right. Churches all across the south will throw money at her to come and tell congregations how the evil American government put her in jail because of her faith in Jesus.”
The cynicism evident in the Williams’s second point rears its ugly head again in the third. Is Williams so cynical and disingenuous that he cannot believe that a conservative Christian would object to same-sex marriage merely for popularity and money? Do we have an indication that Kim Davis was cognizant of the possibility of becoming so well known in so short a time frame, or an indication that she was assured of being able to get out of prison? Any indication in the quiet way in which she politely declined a marriage license to a belligerent gay couple who shouted in her face that she was actually doing it for popularity among a group that is steadily losing its share of the general population, and whose views are increasing contrary to the rest of culture? I am beginning to wonder if Williams was among those who loudly lauded Bruce Jenner’s “courage” in “becoming” a “woman.”
“This is why we are losing.
This is why people have such disdain for evangelicals.
Not because we disagree but because we don’t take the bible seriously. If ever there was a case of “he who is without sin cast the first stone”, this is it. If ever there was a “take the log out of your eye” moment, this is it.”
Are we losing? Christianity continues to grow in many parts of the world, and very rarely are things like same-sex marriage supported by Christians in a region where Christianity is growing.
But suppose we’re losing. Are we really losing because Christians like Kim Davis refuse to compromise their consciences, and attempt to have the government accommodate them in accordance with the law? Are we really losing because Christians celebrate and rally behind one of their own who was thrown into jail rather than being treated with the usual procedures for an elected official, especially in the face of such hypocrisy demonstrated on this very same issue by leaders in this very same state and others? Or are we losing because too many long-time Christians don’t know scripture, aren’t living holy lives, and don’t have the passion that Kim Davis, a recent convert, has for following God? Are we perhaps losing because Christian leaders, nay, even Southern Baptist pastors, jump on the politically correct bandwagon of bashing and berating a county clerk? Are we maybe losing because Christians have neglected the love of wisdom and reason, and so make foolish gaffes of knowledge and reasoning when attempting to articulate the truth of Christianity in the public square?
Do people have disdain for evangelicals? Well now, we wouldn’t expect that, would we? People have had disdain for Christians in general ever since the beginning. Perhaps it is a sign of American Christianity’s ease and comfort for so long that we feel that this is an odd state of affairs for which we may be responsible. To be sure, we do not wish to needlessly offend others, since the Gospel is, to those who are perishing, offense enough. There is no sense in provoking others and then claiming persecution when they react poorly, and scripture commands just the opposite. But this is not the case with Kim Davis did.
Do we not take the Bible seriously? How odd of us to keep referring back to it, attempting to derive our ethics and worldview from it. How strange that Kim Davis risked her job for it.
Which part are we not taking seriously? Is this really a matter where Kim Davis or the Christians who support her are blindly judging or attacking others? Is there truly hypocrisy in standing for what’s right in what is mostly likely a legally permissible way? Who is doing the stoning here? Because when I look at the way people have been treating Kim Davis for such a simple act, the stones aren’t in the hands you think they’re in, Pastor Williams.
“We must stop looking to the government to make America a Christian utopia. Our kingdom is not of this world. (Again, this is exactly how I feel. If you believe, your rewards will come later, so live how you want and try to help others – don’t force them.)
We must abandon all thoughts of fixing others and let Jesus fix us.
If we want sanctity of marriage then stop cheating, stop having affairs, stop looking at porn, stop getting divorces. That is the way for the church to stand up for the biblical definition of marriage, not by someone martyring their self-righteous self.”
Good. Most of this I can agree with. America isn’t our final hope, and the Kingdom of God is not a political entity in earthly politics. That much Jesus has made clear. I do believe that, utopia or not, we have a duty to do our best to take care of the nation with which we were entrusted, and to help people live better lives. And that may mean, in some cases, taking unpopular stands against our country’s debauched sexual ethics.
Cheating, affairs, porn, and divorce? All toxic to marriage. All are areas in which many Christians have succumbed. We must demonstrate for the world the beauty of the institution that God used as His primary metaphor for how He relates to His Church. Let’s show the world what marriage really is! And yes, sometimes that means fighting the redefinition of marriage, but it doesn’t simply stop there.
And now the “self-righteous self” comment. If only Williams had stopped one sentence sooner.. The accusation that Kim Davis is self-righteous reflects as much on the one making it as it does on her – maybe more. How does he know that she is self-righteous? Because she disagrees with you about the proper response to an unjust marriage law? Because, after being saved from being dead in her sins, she has the audacity to point to God’s standard? Let’s be honest; it is merely an assumption based on cynicism and a desire to be seen as moderate. It’s performing for men, rather than God.
This desire to take the Church’s cues from the culture and the disdain for and attacks on other Christians are the truly troubling things here. Feel free to disagree with me on Kim Davis. Feel free to believe that the best course of action to preserve her conscience and honor God was to resign. But don’t make this issue about what makes for a popular Christianity, and don’t make it about cynically attacking Christians acting in good faith. Don’t get in good with secular people by trumping up the supposed hypocrisy of a sister in Christ.
The controversy surrounding Kim Davis may indeed be an indicator of what is happening in American Christianity. But it may not be the indicator that many, including Pastor Williams, seem to think.
Edit: I would like to add the following disclaimer. Since writing this, I have learned that Kim Davis attends an “Apostolic Church,” which is of the Oneness Pentecostal variety. These beliefs are formally heretical, because they deny orthodox Trinitarian theology as understood by the church for its entire history. I do not wish my defense of Kim Davis’s actions to be construed as a defense of what may be her particular theology. Nevertheless, the attitude of Williams towards someone he perceives to be a sister in Christ is disturbing.
*Word to the textual-criticism wise: The first eleven verses of John 8 aren’t in the earliest manuscripts. I don’t bring them in at this point to make hard and fast theological point, but to serve as an illustration of what the attitude in question might look like were we to find it in the relevant passages of scripture.