Shouldn’t Christians Just Obey the Law?

If there’s one thing today’s secular progressive enjoys, it’s telling Christians how to be Christians.

It feels funny when it happens. A bit like getting combat training from Jane Fonda or Cindy Sheehan.

But they mean well.

And they know a verse. Their favorite verse is Matthew 7:1, which says “judge not lest ye also be judged.” They quote it every time a Christian expresses an opinion because their years of deep theological study have shown them that Matthew 7:1 means it’s wrong to have an opinion. About anything. After all, an opinion is a judgment and you can’t do that.

Says so right there.

Red letters even.

The urge to lecture Christians on how to be Christian is almost irresistible in the dispute over whether businesses can be forced to participate in same-sex weddings.

“I thought you were a Christian. Aren’t Christians supposed to follow the law?”

For the moment, let’s put aside the far-from-resolved debate over whether the law really does mandate involuntary servitude for same-sex weddings.

For the purpose of this conversation, we will assume that it does.

Shouldn’t Christians just obey the law?

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote one of the greatest commentaries ever written about what Christian citizenship requires.

It is also instructive to remember the context in which the letter was written. It was a letter written to his fellow clergymen who were concerned about his activities.

At the time, not everyone appreciated his demonstrations the way we do today.

Specifically, they expressed “anxiety over [his] willingness to break laws”. He acknowledged the apparent contradiction in urging people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools and demonstrating in ways that the law forbid.

“How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” he asked rhetorically.

His response is instructive both for the Christian and for those who seek to understand what motivates Christians,

“The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Well how do we know whether a law is just or unjust?

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

And this is where everyone starts to get uncomfortable. Is that MLK or Jerry Falwell?

Then he gives some examples:

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. 

I wonder if that would include laws that let one person decline to bake a cake with a message they disagree with but not another person. Doesn’t he understand that these people offend me?

The left isn’t going to condemn MLK anytime soon because they like what he did. But their failure to appreciate or even acknowledge why he did it causes them to miss a much larger point.

Fundamental to Christianity is the idea that there is a law higher than man’s law.

The compulsion to obey God regardless of what the law says is the reason the Civil Rights movement was a movement of Christians. It is the reason Quakers violated the law to be an integral part of the Underground Railroad. It is why Christians rallied against the ancient practice of exposure in which infants were set out to die immediately after birth. It is why Christians worked in India to eliminate the practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

This isn’t an attempt to provide an exhaustive history of Christianity. I’m confident I don’t need to remind you of the challenges the Christian church has had. That’s what President Obama is for.

But context is important.

The reason Christians violated the law to free slaves, save babies from exposure, and rescue widows from funeral pyres is the same reason Christians today feel they cannot be part of a same-sex wedding ceremony. We are bound to a higher law.

And before you start lecturing your Christian friends about why their position is actually not the Christian position, stop and ask yourself this question. “Do I actually know what I’m talking about?” If you haven’t read a Bible in a year, the answer is likely no.

Besides, the fact that you may not understand why someone feels something is wrong should not prohibit you from respecting their conscience anyway.

Nevertheless, the idea that there is a law that is above government is not simply just a Christian idea, it is an American idea as well.

The Declaration of Independence reminds us that our rights are endowed by our creator not our government and that governments are created to secure rights, not to create them.

We are a constitutional republic (rather than a democracy) with a Bill of Rights specifically because our Founders understood that the majority can be wrong; a position that assumes a moral law exists above legislated law.

Therefore, even if everyone knows I’m a terrible, horrible, very bad guy, even ninety-nine percent of the public can’t vote to take away my right to free speech, the free exercise of religion, or a fair trial.

Your rights transcend your political popularity and the government exists to protect those rights, not appease the mob.

This structure protects us all because, as the gay lobby has so clearly demonstrated, neither political popularity nor political powerlessness are necessarily permanent conditions.

While the right not to participate has historically been protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee to the Free Exercise of religion, some now claim the obligation to participate is required by the “duly enacted” non-discrimination statute.

The majority said you can’t use religion as an excuse to “discriminate”, so you can’t.

But the majority isn’t supposed to be able to “duly enact” away the First Amendment. That’s why it’s the First Amendment.

But again, we’re assuming none of that matters.

In a world in which the law is in conflict with the Christian conscience, the response from many on the left is a cold, “Just obey the law.”

To which the florist responds, “I will obey the law, I just won’t obey your law.”

And from his perch in heaven, Martin Luther King Jr. says, “You go girl!”

25 replies
  1. Harlan
    Harlan says:

    The law of God we as Christians are talking of are those of the old and new testaments of the Bible. He speaks clearly. Other moralities have other gods.

    Reply
  2. Ronald Czarnecki
    Ronald Czarnecki says:

    “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law”

    This is fine thinking for Christian religion but there are religions that feel family honor killings is just God’s law and man laws do not allow stoning or honor killings.

    So how does this teaching apply to other religions.

    Reply
    • Heather Mathias
      Heather Mathias says:

      American law and the founding of our republic were based on a thorough understanding of the Bible by our founding fathers and an expectation that our Republic would only be safeguarded by understanding and teaching Christian morality. All religions are not equal and our founders understood that Christianity was the source of truth. Read their writings and unequivocably they endorse Christianity.

      Reply
  3. luminmary
    luminmary says:

    Oh Lord and Savior, allow wisdom, integrity, truth, courage, and faith to rule our free country. Stop vicious attacks from those who choose to ignore You. Help those who stand up for righteousness in our government. Jesus we need You.

    Reply
  4. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    It is important to remember when we go to prison for disobeying such a law, that we do so meekly and humbly rather than whining about how our rights are being violated and without saying hateful things about our adversaries. If we are advocating civil disobedience, we have to practice it correctly.

    Reply
    • Julie
      Julie says:

      When YOU go to prison, YOU can choose how you are going to act when YOU go! I had no idea untill now that there was a “correct way” to be falsley imprisoned. Learn something new everyday! Yes, the Left would like us to go “meekly”!

      Reply
      • Beth
        Beth says:

        Because that’s where the submitting to the authority God has put in place comes in. Our example is Christ, who was more falsely imprisoned than anyone, and didn’t complain. And never once did Paul or the other disciples play the “rights” card. The closest thing to it is when Paul asks if it’s lawful to scourge a Roman citizen, and once he doesn’t even mention it until after they’ve already beaten him. It’s looking like Christ in these situations that makes people take notice.

        Reply
        • Jon
          Jon says:

          Beth – Democracies are not put in place by God, but by the arrogance of man. The Bible refers to God as King of Kings and monarchs as “God’s anointed”, but there is no such thing as an “anointed Republic”. The verses you are referring to are to be loyal servants of Kings. We have no King, therefore, to whom do we owe our allegiance?

          The contradiction of a Republic is such that they claim we owe our allegiance to a piece of paper called the “Constitution” written by men who rebelled against their government. So in a sense, to be “loyal” to this nonsensical Republic requires rebelling against the “usurpers” who have perverted it. Our “King” in America is our Romulus and Remus, the Founding Fathers. Until the day our Presidents openly call themselves Emperors and declare the Constitution null, we do not owe them allegiance. Ironically, if they became Emperors they would likely have to uphold family values as they would have to claim divine right to rule, rather than use popularity (democracy) which always appeals to the most vulgar elements of society.

          Reply
    • myepinion
      myepinion says:

      I understand the comment about not saying hateful things about our adversaries,” but why not speak up regarding violations of our rights? MLK certainly did. It is not wrong to point this out to the authorities and others who can make change.

      Reply
    • Heather Mathias
      Heather Mathias says:

      American law and the founding of our republic were based on a thorough understanding of the Bible by our founding fathers and an expectation that our Republic would only be safeguarded by understanding and teaching Christian morality. All religions are not equal and our founders understood that Christianity was the source of truth. Read their writings and unequivocably they endorse Christianity.

      Reply
    • Heather Mathias
      Heather Mathias says:

      It is our duty as Christians to talk about the rights given to us by our Creator. That is why our founding fathers put that in the declaration of independence. To be arrested for standing up for our rights and not to speak out about our rights would be foolish.

      Reply
  5. R.D. Calvert
    R.D. Calvert says:

    Thank you for this great article and may God continue to bless your efforts!
    In addition to this (and other) excellent commentary by Joseph Beckholm I’d also recommend reading “The Christian and CIvil Government.” A book authored by Pastor John Weaver (PO. Box 394 Fitzgerald, GA 31750 – ISBN # 0-9626379-2-0). In it he gives a good Biblical explanation of the authority and boundaries of civil government upon Christians and our duty and obligations when they stay within God’s stated purpose and our requirements to obey God when civil authorities exceed God’s boundaries.
    Being a Christian encompasses every area of life…not just Sunday mornings and/or Wednesday evenings. We must not be afraid to look at all areas of the temporal through the eyes of the one who assures eternal life.

    Reply
  6. Rod Fuller
    Rod Fuller says:

    Best commentary I’ve seen on the topic yet! Thank you, Joseph. You are a blessing and an encouragement in these ever-darkening times.

    Reply
  7. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Well written. I wish Christians felt this strongly about abortion. We will be judged by God for our complacency regarding the law allowing abortion in this country.

    Reply
  8. Bill Fowler
    Bill Fowler says:

    Good word, Joseph. I’ll be sharing this in our Tuesday evening Bible Study tonight. As a pastor I hear the argument that Christians are not to impose their beliefs on the rest of the culture, and to do so is tantamount to being a hatemonger. Of course that viewpoint doesn’t line up with the life and ministry of Jesus or His apostles. Jesus was full of grace and truth, not grace at the expense of truth.

    Reply
  9. Diana Wakefield
    Diana Wakefield says:

    Thank you Joseph for clarifying which laws are just and which unjust and how we as Christians need to stand for just laws given by our Creator for our good and the good of the culture we are in. There is only One Judge and He will make it all things clear when each of us stand before Him. “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

    Reply
  10. Linda Thomason
    Linda Thomason says:

    Astute Truth! Thank you for profound conversation and encouragement to aid and instill discernment and courage. We must live out the Truth, and it “shall set us free!”

    Reply
  11. Moki
    Moki says:

    Very well said, Joseph Backholm. and we did need the Christian history lesson. I would be willing to bet that many people today don’t know about Christians defending the lives of newborn babies centuries ago, of Christians defending the lives of widows in India, Christians working to abolish slavery and spirit slaves to freedom in the United States just prior to the Civil War, Christians in England working to outlaw the slave trade, or even realize that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian who was obeying his conscience and breaking an unjust law.

    Reply

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  1. […] In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote one of the greatest commentaries ever written about what Christian citizenship requires. It is also instructive to remember the context in which the letter was written. It was a letter written to his fellow clergymen who were concerned about his activities. ……More by Joseph Backholm Family Policy Institute […]

  2. […] Shouldn’t Christians Just Obey the Law? […]

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