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Friday 4 September 2015

Persecution is Almost Always Legal

A lot of people will be a least partially aware of a small town county clerk in Kentucky USA called Kim Davis. For those of you not fully aware of the situation, Davis has just been remanded in jail for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, indeed at one point she refused to issue any licenses, citing religious liberty and the constitution of Kentucky as her reason.

Now I am no expert on U.S law, or law in general for that matter, I have a degree in theology, so the only law I can claim any indepth of knowledge is biblical law. I am only partially aware of the issue of State’s rights, and state constitutions vs. the federal constitutions in the U.S., for a more accurate and American perspective on these things here’s a couple of places to start reading:, Though I will state that I am sure there are different arguments to be made on the specific legal issues, so I don’t take either of these brief online articles as the final word on the matter, and leave that to the American legal system.

There is only one thing I want to address in this blog, and then leave the reader to make their own thoughts on the current issues facing the church. I want to address those people, both Christian and non-Christian who are saying this about Kim: she is not being persecuted, she broke the law, failed to do her job properly, her religious beliefs have no right to interfere with her professional duties, etc., etc. She is just facing the legal consequences of her decision. All I can do is say, ‘What? Haven’t you read any church history, or taken a brief look around the world?’ Persecution is more often than not a legal matter, and done through legal means.

We see this from very early on in church history in Acts 4 when the Apostles were arrested for preaching the message of Jesus, they were thrown in jail, the authorities were within their rights to do this at the time. It was legal, they were eventually released, and commanded not to preach or teach in the name of Jesus, but look what happened: “18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18-19). At this point they were threatened and released. Later they were again arrested for doing the same thing, this time they proclaimed directly, “29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). For their response they were beaten and then released (Acts 5:40). They continued to break the legal command of the Jewish leaders and proclaim the message of Jesus. They upheld God’s law over man’s law. They set the standard for every generation of believers to come.

Now this has been one of the major struggles of the church in every century, when is it time to disobey man, because God’s word comes first? It’s often easier to see it clearly from a historical perspective then when you are in situation as it is happening. So let’s take a glance through history then.

When the Roman’s persecuted the Christians, it was legal persecution. The Caesars commanded that all Roman subjects place Caesar as lord of all, it was Roman law. The Christians refused and at certain points the Roman leaders enforced the law and persecuted them, brutally. Remember the Romans were incredibly permissive towards worship of all kinds of gods…as long as you agreed Caesar was Lord. The dastardly Christians refused to comply with Roman law and suffered brutal legal recourse. But they did the right thing in refusing to obey man’s law over God’s.  

When the Catholic leadership persecuted the reformers in the 16th century for opposing corruption, it was legal persecution. Remember this was an age where there was no such thing as religious tolerance. Church and state loyalty were one, and so to break with the church was to commit treason. Thankfully for a man named Luther the German leaders stood up for their man and used their military might to protect him and oppose the Holy Roman Empire (this was the beginning of what would become nationalism). During the various inquisitions throughout Europe when people were executed and persecuted for not being the right kind of Christian, or for printing Bibles, or for being Jewish or Muslim, remember this was due to legal decrees of the state, and therefore was legal persecution. Christians, and others, were being executed, punished, or banished, due to enforcement of the current legal code.

When Anabaptists were being baptized unto literal death in the 16th century by Catholics and Protestants, this was legal persecution. They were in rebellion not just to the various Protestant and Catholic churches, but also to the state, because in breaking from the church and starting their own church communities, they committed treason. Ironically it was these same Anabaptists who first argued that someone should never be killed for their beliefs, a little something we take for granted in today’s western world, but was radical at the time.

When Christians were being deprived of their homes, liberty, churches and even families under the Dhimmi laws in the various lands conquered by the Muslims where these laws were applied, this was legal persecution. The law required conversion, suppression of other beliefs, or taxation and a second class status. We may not agree with it, but it was legal.  

The suppression of the underground church in China in the 20th century, and even still today, is again because Christians refused to obey the laws of the land, and obey God before man. It is legal persecution.

I could give countless other examples, but my point is simply this: because Kim Davis is in trouble from the law, does not mean it is not persecution. In fact this is consistent with persecution throughout the ages: it is more often than not brought through official legal means, and is the result of Christians placing their obedience to God above the state, and therefore breaking laws and facing the consequences. Yes Christians are required to submit to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), but our highest authority is God and if our nation asks us to go against his teachings, then God’s law always is to come first.

We are yet to see what will become of Kim, or how the church in Kentucky and the U.S. will deal with the new state of affairs in their nation. But one thing is for sure: throughout history Christians have been willing to undergo extreme circumstances in order to place obedience to God above the demands of the state. The Apostles’ response was this: “41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Atcs 5:41).

As the tide of society again moves further and further away from what Christians believe, there will be times when Christians have to choose between man’s law and God’s law – times where we may face legal consequences as persecution. I wonder how we in the west, who have had it so good for so long, will respond? Only time will tell, but I hope I have helped add a little perspective to the debate.