Uniform 09.20.2015: Witnessing to the Truth

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Acts 5:27-29, 33-42

As you read this week’s text, you may think, as I did, that it offers an opportunity to talk about the jailing of Rowan County (Kentucky) clerk Kim Davis, who was found to be in contempt of court for refusing to issue any marriage licenses because of her opposition to same-sex marriage. And even if you don’t think the lesson offers such an opportunity, members of your class might.

Of particular interest, in light of our text, is Davis’s assertion that she refused to issue those licenses “under God’s authority.” When the Jewish religious authorities reminded Peter and the other apostles that they had been ordered at a previous hearing to stop teaching in the name of Jesus, they replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (v. 29). That seems to be the position that Davis claims to take; she evidently believes that her obligation to obey God supersedes her responsibility to follow the law.

Just in case, I thought it wise to suggest that we take great care in drawing direct parallels between the apostles’ predicament and Davis’s situation. Many differences exist between the two scenarios.

For one thing, it will be clear to your class members that the apostles were in fact obeying God, but it may not be clear to them that Davis is actually doing so.

We think that the apostles did the right thing in speaking in the name of Jesus, even though they had been told by the authorities not to. Let’s be specific, though: the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin), a group that had authority only insofar as their Roman rulers allowed them to exercise it, ordered the apostles not to preach. At this point, Christians were not in direct conflict with Roman law, which was the true legal authority in first century Israel. Such conflict would come, but that is not the situation in our text. So the apostles were not in violation of the law of the land.

Davis, on the other hand, is in violation of federal Judge David Bunning’s order that, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, she issue marriage licenses to gay couples. As Alan Blinder and Tamar Lewin said in the New York Times, “The legal issue — that no one, whether a government or an individual engaged in civil disobedience has standing to flout a court order — is well established” (“Clerk in Kentucky Chooses Jail Over Deal on Same-Sex Marriage,” nytimes.com, September 3, 2015.).

Still, I suspect that most if not all of us would agree that, if a person sees her or his religious convictions as being in conflict with secular law, religious convictions should be given first place.

But—and this is the second difference I want to point out—the apostles, unlike Davis, were not elected officials who had sworn to uphold the law. The fact that Davis is an elected government official in the constitutional republic of the United States of America is important. Here is the oath of office that she took: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of County Clerk according to law . . .” (There’s more to the oath, but it all has to do with affirming that you’ve not been involved in a duel, which, so far as I can tell, has nothing to do with the situation we’re addressing.) Davis’ oath of office requires her to uphold the Constitution of both the state and the country, not to uphold her particular religious or social convictions. Because she refuses to follow the law and to obey the court’s order, she is in violation of her oath of office. Davis asserts that, because the oath ends with “so help me God,” her obligation to uphold God’s law or moral law takes precedence over her responsibility to uphold civil law. But as constitutional law scholar Noah Feldman observes,

Whom you swear the oath by is different from what you swear to do. Officials in the U.S. definitively don’t swear to uphold God’s law. They swear to uphold the Constitution, which never mentions God at all. And they swear to uphold laws enacted under the Constitution — which means laws that are in compliance with the establishment clause that prohibits any established or official religion (“What the Oath of Office Means to a Kentucky Clerk,” bloombergview.com, September 3, 2015).

As Feldman also notes, if Davis believes that her religious convictions prevent her from upholding the duties of her office, she has the option of resigning. He says, “Given Davis’s statement of faith that it would violate her interpretation of God’s will to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, she should quit her position as county clerk. Indeed, she must — or she’d be living in a position of hypocritical sin.”

So that’s another difference between the two situations: Davis took an oath to uphold the law while the apostles didn’t.

For a third thing, the Sanhedrin barred the apostles from bearing witness to their faith, but no one has prohibited Davis from bearing witness to hers outside her role as an elected government official. As a matter of fact, she very publicly proclaimed her faith and preached her message immediately following her release from jail. No authority tried to stop her and no one tried to put her back in her cell for speaking out.

Those are the three differences between the situation in our text and the situation in Rowan County, Kentucky of which I think we need to be aware. There are others of which I have not thought. My point in raising those three is to caution us about drawing a straight line between the apostles in first century Israel and a county clerk in 2015 America. There is a lot of time, a lot of change, and a lot of difference between the apostles’ “We must obey God rather than human authority” and Kim Davis’ “On God’s authority.”

I’d like to mention two other matters that seem to me very important if you (or a class member or class members) decide that this issue should be discussed in relation to this week’s text.

First, be sensitive to the reality that different people will have different opinions on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. No doubt everyone in your class will agree that Christians should obey God. Some will agree with Davis’s belief that God means for marriage to be between a woman and a man. Like her, they base their belief on their reading of the Bible. But others in your class may think that marriage should be more broadly defined, and they also base their belief on their reading of the Bible.

Second, be sensitive to the reality that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are very personal and important matters for many people, and some of those people may well be in your class. A positive, loving discussion could encourage them. But a negative, judgmental discussion could hurt them.

Discussion

1. What other differences are there between the situation of the apostles in Acts 5 and that of Kim Davis?
2. Have you encountered any situations in which you had to choose to obey God rather than human authority? Have you ever chosen to obey human authority rather than God? What were those experiences like?
3. What guidance does Gamaliel offer us for thinking about and dealing with new movements or approaches that emerge in the Christian world?
4. The apostles, after they were flogged and released, “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (v. 41). How can Christians rejoice under such circumstances? Why should we?

Reference Shelf

Gamaliel’s Speech

The speech could have a significant impact on first-century Christian readers. A revered Jewish leader has laid forth a clear criterion by which to judge whether a movement is of God or of human origin: if it is of God, it endures; if it is of human origin, it perishes and is scattered. As Luke’s original readers read this narrative some- time in the last third of the first century, two facts confronted them: (1) the Christian movement was still enduring; (2) Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and the city’s inhabitants killed or scattered among the nations (cf. Luke 19:43-44; 21:24). The very Sanhedrin that Gamaliel addresses had been disbanded and was in the process of having to reorganize itself in the city of Yavneh. By the very criterion Gamaliel presented, it was clear which movement was of God and which one was not. The movement of the apostles still lived on. The priestly aristocracy, the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, and the temple were no more. The implications of Gamaliel’s words are quite clear: it was the Sanhedrin, and especially its priestly Sadducean leadership, that stood in opposition to God. It was the apostles who were doing the things of God. It is clear wherein resides the true leadership of “the vineyard” of Israel (cf. Luke 20:9-19).

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 96-97.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Uniform Series Curriculum Editor.

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