In the past few weeks, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has been called both a hypocrite and a martyr.
Supporters of marriage equality have pointed out that thrice-divorced Davis seems to be in violation of Jesus’s instruction not to divorce. Even though Davis’s divorces took place before her baptism as an Apostolic Pentecostal, her Christian character has been called into question. Conservatives, on the other hand, have seen her as a casualty in the war on Christianity.
In a breathtaking display of historical ignorance, Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential hopeful, said Thursday that, “for the first time in history, a Christian woman was put in jail for standing up for her beliefs.”
In denouncing or supporting Davis, both sides can appeal to scripture to support their position. On one hand, Jesus said to “love your neighbor” and 1 Peter 2:17 instructs Christians to “honor” the emperor; on the other, Jesus instructed his followers to stick by their beliefs when confronted by the authorities.
But, whatever Cruz thinks, this is not the first time that a Christian has encountered a fundamental incompatibility between public office and religious beliefs. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, but early Christian writers gave considerable thought to how to navigate the tension between rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and rendering to God what is God’s.
The following Christian women from history were jailed or put to death for their beliefs: Perpetua, Felicity, Catherine, Joan of Arc – all who were later made saints – along with Lady Jane Grey, Anne Askew and Rosa Parks.
One model, when such tensions arise, is for the state to provide accommodations. There are denominations of Christianity that continue to take extremely seriously the New Testament prohibition on oath-taking.
Quakers, for example, have refused since their foundation to swear oaths, on the basis of Matthew 5:34-37. In the case of the Quakers, a denomination with deep American roots, they have been exempted from the requirement to swear oaths when providing legal testimony.
At the same time, one of the earliest manuals for church order, the second-century Apostolic Tradition, would disagree. It includes a list of professions that the author finds incompatible with the Christian way of life. Prohibited professions include actor, prostitute, sculptor and soldier.
Among those that must be abandoned before baptism are positions in government both as “rulers of cities” and holders of “the purple” (emperors). One assumes that in the 21st century this would include all kinds of political office.
If it seems that the author of the “Apostolic Tradition” is overly authoritarian, we should note that he considers the financial difficulties individual Christians might run into by abandoning their positions. For example, he allows for teachers who have “no other trade” to continue their work.
The motivation behind prohibiting Christians from holding political positions is to prevent them from carrying out tasks that would compromise their Christianity. In the Roman world, as in colonial America, public officials were often called upon to take oaths to support the emperor, in violation of the Gospel of Matthew’s absolute prohibition on oath-taking. The “Apostolic Tradition” would prefer that Christians avoid professions that elicit clashes between religious freedom and civic obligation.
But, as the “Apostolic Tradition” shows, there is a clear Christian precedent for the idea that – in a conflict between religious conscience and professional responsibility – the onus lies on the individual Christian to recuse himself or herself from public office.
For some in the early church, the solution wasn’t to embrace punishment for failing to act in accordance with the law, but rather to avoid positions that might force one to do so.
It is a via media between martyrdom and collaboration that takes seriously the depth and sincerity of a person’s beliefs. Arguably, the Christian answer to Davis’s quandary is to resign.
Candida R. Moss is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.