Volume 41 - Issue 2

The Woman from Kentucky

By D. A. Carson

American readers of this column will know to whom the title refers, but because this column is read in many countries I must begin by recounting a little history that identifies the woman to whom the title makes reference.

1. The Narrative and the Challenge

On June 26, 2015, SCOTUS (=Supreme Court of the United States) issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. SCOTUS determined that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Kim Davis, serving as County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, refused to issue marriage licenses. The ACLU (= American Civil Liberties Union), representing four same-sex couples, sued Davis in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Kentucky, which ordered her to issue the licenses. She refused, stating in front of cameras that she was “under God’s authority.” Initially she declared that even if one of her deputies issued the licenses, the demands of her conscience would not be met, since her name was on the document. In due course she was jailed for contempt of court. Her release came five days later, when her deputies started issuing the needed licenses, and Kim Davis affirmed that she would not interfere with them when they did so. In due course her name was removed from the form.

These are the bare bones of the story. I’ve ignored many layers of complexity in the narrative—layers of complexity that ensure that ongoing debates demand the continued attention of lawyers and legislators. Certainly there was a lot of political fallout. Mike Huckabee, then a presidential candidate, devoted a lot of press time to using Kim Davis as the premier example of the loss of freedom of religion in the United States. Ted Cruz was not far behind. But for our purposes, we shall use this Kim Davis saga as a kind of “test case” as we think through the rising number of situations in many Western countries where the direction of our countries and their laws is away from the Judeo-Christian heritage with which we have traditionally comforted ourselves. These trajectories place Christians in a position where they must decide between going along with what they are convinced defies God and will bring judgment on the nation, and standing against these developments and paying the consequences.

People appeal to biblical texts to support both positions. On the one hand, Paul instructs us to be subject to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1–7), and Peter writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to comment those who do right” (1 Pet 2:13–14). On the other hand, what are we to do if the governing authorities command us to do what is wrong? Surely we must then adhere to another of Peter’s utterances: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). Don’t the examples of Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, count for anything (Dan 3, esp. vv. 16–18)—as also the example of Daniel himself (Dan 6)?

If Kim Davis had been trying to argue theologically, she might have aligned her stance with that of Calvin’s “lesser magistrate” (Institutes, Bk IV): a magistrate may disobey the commands of a superior in order to keep others from sinning. By refusing to issue marriage licenses to those who, according to God’s revelation, cannot legitimately be “married,” she is ensuring that they do not sin in this regard.

2. The Narrative and the Options

Granted Kim Davis’s moral commitments, what options does she have?

(1) She could resign. The advantage is that she would then face no further crisis of conscience. Some think of this as the easy way out, the soft option—but is that quite fair? By resigning she would lose her income, and granted the headlines she might find it difficult to find another job with similar remuneration. Her conservative friends might treat her as a quitter. Recall, too, that this is an elected office: if her constituents don’t want her in the job, all they have to do is vote her out at the next election. Worse: resigning may signify to many that a Christian who has no opportunity to provide salt and light chooses instead to hide the light under a bushel basket and spread the salt on the ground. And there are further entailments, even dangerous entailments. In California, some voices in the medical community argue that if certain people are unwilling to perform abortions, they should not become medical doctors. In one or two states, a Christian adoption agency has in effect been shut down because it refuses to place kids with same-sex couples. If Kim Davis resigns, is she not lending support to people across the country who want to exclude those who cannot with a clear conscience participate in certain actions that the government rules not only admissible but good? Doesn’t the “resign” option solve a personal problem at the expense of weakening the hands of those who insist that better options must be found to accommodate the religious convictions of those who cannot buy into the latest social-cultural trends? Might not resignation therefore serve to weaken, however unwittingly, the First Amendment?

(2) She could resign and withdraw—that is, withdraw, so far as it is possible, from the political and cultural life of the nation. In short, she could pursue the Amish option. On this reading, Christians must turn the other cheek, so they cannot become police officers or join the military. They would never want to invest in companies with questionable activities, so they cannot establish portfolios with banks and investment firms that are invariably compromised. Sleaze is endemic to the entertainment and advertising worlds, so it is much better to avoid those worlds. Some minimal involvement is doubtless unavoidable (e.g., paying taxes), but the default stance must be to withdraw. Yes, of course, God has given the sword to the state, but since Christians must eschew the sword, they cannot participate in the state, beyond the bare minimum necessary to survive. This second stance, then, is a more systematic form of the first stance, and usually presupposes some sort of supporting community. Form a commune, join a monastery, live in a hut in the wilderness. Once again, the same objections surface: exactly how does this option discharge one’s obligation to be salt and light? Yes, Christians are to be counter-cultural, but which apostle decided the way forward was to establish a series of monasteries?

(3) She could stay on the job, and bear the consequences. Initially, at least, that’s what Kim Davis decided to do. But one might argue that she did not stay the course. Both the federal Civil Rights Act and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act have legal provisions for re-structuring a person’s job if religious conscience issues come into play. It would have been useful to see how appeal to those pieces of legislation might have worked out in relief—but almost certainly Kim Davis would have spent more time in jail before matters were resolved. Instead, what started off as principle (whether you agree with it or not) quickly degenerated to political grandstanding.

Moreover, the price Ms. Davis was paying was not simply jail time. The hatred and vituperation poured out on her around the country demonstrated once again (if such demonstration were necessary) that many outlets simply cannot discuss these matters rationally, but fly immediately to slurs and name-calling. One article by The Seattle Times was titled, “Religious Liberty Looks a Lot Like Intolerance from Here.”1 The Huffington Post declared, “In a homophobic political stunt poorly veiled in ‘religious beliefs’ . . . Davis denied marriage licenses to LGBT couples”—thus refusing to consider that Kim Davis might have been motivated by moral principle rather than fear and hatred.2 Several voices rejoiced when Ms. Davis went to jail, and suggested that this was the time to re-think the Hobby Lobby decision.

But this third option is not as clean as some might think. A handful of questions need to be raised.

(a) Why, in this matter of marriage licenses, should we focus on the particular sin of homosexual union? After all, when it comes to divorce and re-marriage, although scholars may disagree as to which re-marriages are permitted in Scripture, virtually all Christian interpreters who want to shape their views by Scripture insist that some re-marriages are forbidden. So should not a country clerk refuse to issue marriage licenses in such cases as well? Why fasten on the issue of gay marriage—apart from the fact that this is the current hot topic in cultural debates? Otherwise put, if Kim Davis wants to argue that she is under God’s authority when she refuses to issue a marriage license in the case of a homosexual pair, shouldn’t she see herself under God’s authority when it comes to prospective marriages that the Bible condemns on other grounds?

(b) In September 2015, when the Kim Davis matter was capturing a lot of attention in the press, another religious freedom lawsuit captured little attention, but was no less interesting. Charee Stanley, a flight attendant with ExpressJet, a regional airline, converted to Islam two years earlier. Only recently, however, did she come to realize that as a Muslim she should not serve alcohol. She explained the problem to ExpressJet, and accommodations were made—at least initially: the other flight attendant served all the alcohol. Inevitably, one flight attendant objected to the extra work she was required to do because Ms. Stanley was not pulling her weight. ExpressJet suspended her from her job. Ms. Stanley therefore sued ExpressJet for religious discrimination. As far as I know, the issue has not yet been resolved. When the matter is discussed in the press, some try to isolate the differences between the Charee Stanley case and the Kim Davis case, others associate them, and still others huff and ask why Mike Huckabee defends Kim Davis but not Charee Stanley. What is very clear is that the mainstream media have not subjected Charee Stanley to the same volume and heat of condescending vituperation they have poured out on Kim Davis. Nevertheless, the question must be asked: If we think that Kim Davis should be allowed some kind of accommodation on the grounds of her religious convictions, on what conceivable ground could we deny some kind of accommodation to Charee Stanley?

(c) More broadly: If in the light of our answers to these questions, we decide that Kim Davis’s initial stance was godly and right, and that it was the right hill to die on, shouldn’t the case have been allowed to work its way through the courts, with a willingness to face whatever sanction the court might impose, even with a certain joy that stems from being willing to suffer for Jesus (Acts 5:41; Heb 10:34)—rather than squandering the initial courage in a strange mix of pragmatic compromises? Or do the compromises indicate that this third option is not one that we seriously want to consider?

3. The Narrative and the Complications

Before we let this go, we should reflect on some of the biblical, theological, and historical realities that disclose just how complicated these issues are.

(1) The imperial government under which Paul operated was not a democracy. He spent the most fruitful part of his apostolic ministry under the cruel tyranny of Nero. That was the government which, he declared, was ordained by God. Certainly he saw that the alternative to governmental order is the chaos of anarchy. In any case, he entertained no expectation of changing the imperial order at a future election that was never going to happen. Protests and street marches were not on any Christian’s agenda. (See my Christ and Culture Revisited.3)

(2) By contrast, most who read these words live under one form of democracy or another. That means several things. First, there is opportunity, or at least the possibility, of voting out of office those whose leadership is, in our view, leading the country astray. Second, living in a democracy demands that we get involved with the political process (unless we adopt the stance of the Amish) in a manner that would have made no sense to Paul. That is part of our responsibility as citizens. Yet we must do this without ever forgetting that we owe primary allegiance to the kingdom of God, to our citizenship in the new heaven and the new earth. And third (and perhaps most importantly), we must recognize that democracy is not an absolute good. One recalls the quip of Winston Churchill: democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms. Democracy is a great system for getting read of leaders we don’t like without bloodshed, but it is no guarantee that we’ll elect the best people in the first place. Moreover, the majority of the populace may opt for a worldview or a moral stance that is far from anything Christians will approve. Just because the majority wants something does not guarantee that what they want is a good thing. The three hundred million American citizens are three hundred million sinners. Why should we imagine that three hundred million sinners will always vote for righteousness? And because Western cultures generally are moving farther and farther away from the Judeo-Christian heritage that once nourished them, Christians can expect to suffer a measure of cultural and political isolation. The years ahead may witness the rise of many Kim Davises.

(3) Owing to three things—first, the tendency to empower victims, ensuring that victims are multiplying; second, the growing sense of entitlement among millennials; and third, the rise of the new tolerance that teaches us that this tolerance is the supreme good—owing to these three things, I say, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold rational conversations about the most important things. In debate, thesis is followed by antithesis, which is followed by personal abuse. The entitled do not feel they owe a hearing to those who question their entitlements. In the name of tolerance, they shut down those who disagree with them by affixing to them the label “intolerant.” The culture breaks up into factional groups that hurl venomous epithets at other factional groups, with very few people trying to listen well and reason their way forward. Christians must not stoop to this level. We must continually commend the truth to the consciences of all men and women.

(4) Because of these cultural developments, and because we live in the tension between this life and the life to come, between serving as salt and light on the one hand, and laying up treasures in heaven on the other, we should never be surprised by opposition. We should expect opprobrium, and worse, for this is the way the Master went (Matt 5:10–12; John 15:18–25; Acts 5:41; Phil 1:29; 1 Pet 2:21–22; Rev 13). So we must try to speak the truth in love, to influence the culture in which God has placed us, and yet avoid the whining entitlement that surrounds us, while being entirely willing to suffer of Jesus’s sake—indeed, committed to rejoicing for the privilege of suffering for his sake (Acts 5:41).

In God’s wise providence, the narrative of the woman from Kentucky has many things to teach us.

[1] Leonard Pitts Jr., The Seattle Times, 6 September 2015,

[2] Sanjeev K. Sriram, “Now that Kim Davis is in Jail, Let’s Re-Think Hobby Lobby,” The Huffington Post, 5 September 2015,

[3] D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.

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