November 22, 2017

Conscience and Disobedience

Wally Morris

The human conscience is a pesky part of all of us. Our conscience seems to interfere with our lives at the most inconvenient times and create (or make us aware of) knotty ethical problems which often do not have easy or simple answers. The Bible tells us that our conscience can be convicted, good, blameless, clean, pure, bear witness, purged, weak, defiled, wounded, seared, and evil. Similar to our conscience is our heart, a broader word describing our entire being, which includes our conscience. Our heart is capable of almost unlimited characteristics. Proverbs, for example, refers to our heart over 90 times, with many different characteristic and possibilities.

One problem with people in general, and some Christians as well, is that our conscience works poorly or inconsistently, not bothered by very much which we do or which happens. The heart can become hard, and the conscience can become seared so that significant events don’t seem so significant.

Although many Christians (and even many who are not Christians) are very concerned about the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent decision about homosexual marriage, those implications have not affected most of us yet. But for those whose jobs involve public office, such as county court clerks who issue marriage licenses, those implications are not theory but present reality.

The most well-known of these clerks is Kim Davis in Kentucky, who was sent to jail for contempt of court when she refused to obey the court’s order to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Her reasons for refusing to obey are based on her conscience, which, because of her religious beliefs, will not allow her to issue marriage licenses for homosexual couples. She believes that putting her name on the marriage license implies approval of the marriage. So she decided not to issue any marriage licenses to anyone, hoping to eliminate any accusations of discrimination. She attends an Apostolic church and says she became a Christian a few years ago after a very difficult life. Aside from the fact that many Apostolic churches have some beliefs which contradict Scripture, her present beliefs about morality and marriage are Biblical and seem sincere.

Many of those who criticize her actions believe that she should obey the law or resign her position. She was elected to her office and apparently cannot be dismissed except by the state legislature. Some of those who criticize her have previously admired people who took similar actions for reasons of conscience, such as some in the civil rights movement, the homosexual rights movement, or even those who violate immigration laws such as sanctuary cities. Normally, people admire someone who takes principled postions and actions based on conscience. And how often have we heard the wish for more people of good principles in public office? But homosexual marriage is a different issue, with often irrational behavior and arguments substituting for common sense and Biblical teaching.

What should Christians think about Kim Davis’ actions? Romans 13 is the classic and well-known text which describes our relationship and attitudes to higher authority. In verse 5, Paul tells us to submit to authority because authority has the power to exercise “wrath” and because our conscience requires that we submit to authority. Your conscience may reassure you when you do right and may convict you when you do wrong. God uses your conscience to restrain your sin nature (Rm 2:14-15). Your conscience tells you that you should do right and may give you some idea of what is right. But by itself, your conscience cannot determine what is right. How effective and accurate your conscience is depends on how well you have been taught.

Your conscience may be completely wrong. For example, Paul believed he was acting properly when he persecuted Christians (Acts 7:58; 8:1; 26:9; 1 Cor 15:9; 1 Tm 1:13). But after he met the resurrected Christ, he realized how wrong he had been and his conscience bothered him about it (1 Cor 15:9; 1 Tm 1:12-13). We are to act in such a way and obey the law in such a way that our conscience doesn’t convict us. Authority works best when people have a conscience that is still sensitive to right and wrong. Because this sensitivity is decreasing today, many cities are experiencing higher rates of violent crime and abuse towards police authority.

The Bible warns us about ignoring our conscience. Actions must be based on faith and convictions, which include the conscience (Rm 14:22-23). James 4:17 tells us that knowledge of what is right leads to an obligation to do what is right. Not following this principle is sin. (This also assumes the ability to do what is right). Disregarding your conscience can eventually produce a hardened conscience which has lost its sensitivity to right and wrong.

If a person objects to parts of his job because of moral reasons based on conscience (which is hopefully based on Biblical teaching), then that person cannot perform those parts of his job. To do so would violate personal conscience, something which the Bible cautions us about. Whether we agree or disagree with what Kim Davis is doing, the fact that she is claiming conscience as her reason should give some degree of support for her actions.

One problem with her taking a conscience-based position on this issue involves previous situations where she did not refuse to issue marriage licenses. What about those past situations where she issued licenses for people who are getting married for the third or fourth time and who divorced for unbiblical reasons? Aren’t those marriages immoral and wrong as well? Is she being inconsistent in objecting to homosexual marriages but not objecting to other marriages which are wrong? Or is the difference a matter of degree since the other marriages were between a man and a woman? Does her role as county clerk involve deciding which marriages are proper and which are improper? Or is her role simply to authorize the legal paperwork for county and state records?

Does the county clerk’s name on the license imply approval of the marriage? The county clerk is not “approving” anyone’s marriage by issuing a license. The clerk is simply recording basic information for legal purposes and records. However, homosexual marriage is so contradictory to Biblical teaching that even issuing the license for legal purposes could violate someone’s conscience, as legal polygamous marriages could in the future. Davis apparently believes that homosexual marriage is so abnormal from Biblical and common law that she cannot in good conscience allow her name on the legal documents.

Davis believes that she has a moral duty to oppose homosexual marriages by refusing the licenses. Why should she have to resign her position and give up her job? The government “changed the rules” by making homosexual marriage legal, whereas before it was illegal. What if the government decided that marriage between a mother and son is legal and no longer incest? Would we support county clerks who opposed that or tell them they should resign and get another job (which would in effect let someone else provide the legal paperwork for the marriage)? If the proper officials decide to remove her from her job, that would be part of the consequences for principled beliefs, consequences which Christians and others have always been willing to assume for principled decisions. (Note Daniel, Peter, and John, for example.)

Christians should not be compelled to violate personal conscience in the performance of our job or any other action. Although that conscience may be wrong, that isn’t the issue. To compel someone to violate their conscience will begin to damage that conscience. If the conscience is wrong, then we must give that person proper teaching to correct the conscience. But until that happens, the conscience must be respected.

However, we must be honest in recognizing that allowing people to refuse to obey the law due to conscience may open a “Pandora’s Box” of other situations. For example, more people are now living in America whose religious beliefs are based on Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist teachings. Suppose they object to laws which reflect America’s Christian heritage, such as businesses traditionally closed on Sunday. Will we support their conscience-based beliefs as well?

What Kim Davis is doing is not so much civil disobedience (a term originally associated with Henry David Thoreau) but Sacred Obedience. When authority asks you to do something which contradicts Biblical teaching, your responsibility is to obey God. We call this Sacred Obedience because we focus on obeying God, obedience to a higher law and a higher power. Yes, when we obey God rather than the authority, we are disobeying the authority, which is why disobedience has penal consequences. But we should always try to emphasize that we are seeking to obey God, not seeking to disobey authority. Ideally, we want to obey both, but sometimes we cannot. Sacred Obedience, when it involves civil disobedience, is a public and nonviolent breach of civil law because conscience, based on Biblical teaching, will not allow the Christian to obey that civil law. Sacred Obedience may include a desire to change the law but must always include accepting the penal consequences of obeying God’s law rather than civil law. Accepting the penal consequences reveals respect for the rule of law. Kim Davis accepted in a nonviolent way the consequences of her actions, whereas many who have engaged in civil disobedience, such as some of the recent racial protests or homosexual rights protests, have not willingly accepted the consequences of their actions. The difference in testimony is revealing.

Many of the examples in the Bible of these situations take place where God’s people are in the minority and in places where the culture is antagonistic to God or indifferent to God.

Therefore, as our country moves more and more away from any memory of Christian teaching, we can expect these situations to become more common. The book of Daniel is very helpful for these situations, although I would love to know more about how Daniel navigated his way through his many years of government service in a pagan culture.

A mistake some Christians make is thinking that these issues don’t matter, that they will save their obedience to the Lord for the big issues. In other words, they compromise or stay silent on small issues, thinking they will do what is right on big issues. But they deceive themselves.

If we won’t do what is right on the small issues, then when the big issues come, we won’t have any moral character left to do what is right. Compromise will have eaten away at our soul and conscience to the point that we will excuse and justify more compromise and silence.

I am not a lawyer, although I did take Constitutional Law in college. The legal issues can become complex. But I support Kim Davis’ conscience-based, principled stand concerning homosexual marriage and her job. I am not comfortable with aspects of her past, some of her church’s beliefs may be wrong, and she may be inconsistent in how she has issued marriage licenses. But on the problem of requiring her to issue marriage licenses with her name on them for homosexual couples, I believe she has good reasons to object. I do not believe she should resign from her job. That would give her superiors an easy way out of their dilemma. She should keep her position and force others to remove her from her job or develop a compromise where she does not have to be involved in licenses for homosexual marriage. She is attempting to prevent government from condoning sin, from using her name to do it, and willing to accept the consequences of that refusal. That seems to fit the Biblical precedents and civil disobedience political theory.

Regardless of how her specific situation is resolved, her refusal to participate in licenses for homosexual marriages illustrates the dilemma many Christians will eventually face. All Christians need to decide which ethical and Biblical principles are so important that we will not allow higher authorities to disregard them or compel us to disregard them. The Bible does not teach that authorities higher than us have the right to compel us to disobey Scripture or participate in their disobedience. When authority requires a Christian to do what the Bible prohibits or when authority prohibits a Christian from doing what the Bible requires, Sacred Obedience takes precedent over human authority. Unfortunately, many Christians in America are so preoccupied with sports, work, and other pursuits that they have not given much thought to how they would respond when forced to make ethical decisions. Protesting on Facebook is easy and does not cost us anything. But to protest with the possibility of losing your job is admirable.

We do not live in a perfect world, at least not yet. Many political theorists espouse philosophies which, if practiced, would result in a world more dangerous than the one we live in now since they minimize or ignore sin nature. Thoreau, for example, would prefer not to have any government at all, which would then allow evil to take advantage of those without defenses. Some type of government is always necessary, even when Christ rules, since He will be the government. Even the best human government still has imperfection and sin because of that one word – “human”. Therefore all human government needs to be continually improved, corrected, and even confronted. Sometimes that confrontation will involve Sacred Obedience in the form of civil disobedience.

Pastor Morris is pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Huntington, IN. The church blogsite is He has also published A Time To Die: A Biblical Look At End-Of-Life Issues by Ambassador International.

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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