Reconciling the Law of the Land with the Law of God
There are times when it seems the teachings of God are at odds with the law of the land. These days, two growing areas of current and likely future tension relate to matters of non-traditional sexuality and the equality of women. We’ll talk about both these difficult topics on other occasions; today we’re writing about the general framing issues as to what we should do when we feel our faith conflicts variously with social pressures and legal obligations.
One thing is plain. It doesn’t matter what society thinks, or how it “evolves”. God is supreme (Revelation 1:8), his values are supreme, and the Church’s role is one of moral leadership, popular or not. Social values change over time, God’s law is unchanging (2 Timothy 3:16, James 1:17, Malachi 3:6).
But, and here’s the first hint of how God’s law coexists with mans’ laws. There are some subtleties within God’s law. Think of several of the Ten Commandments – for example, the prohibition on stealing. Stealing is defined as “taking (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it” and within that definition there’s a huge loophole. Do you see it? The phrase “or legal right”.
That’s why taxes are not stealing – sure, it is taking another person’s property without intending to return it, and sometimes without permission too, but the taking is with legal right.
Which brings us to a key point. In this case, God’s commandment includes a reference to earthly concepts. If the laws change, and what was formerly thought of as stealing is no longer considered stealing (or, vice versa, something previously normal is now considered stealing) then, in general (but see further discussion below), we should change our behavior to match.
Certainly, we Christians are no strangers to conflicts with the societies in which we live, but we are told to comply with lawful governments and their rules and requirements (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, Titus 3:1-2).
There are several aspects to this requirement and why we are commanded to comply with earthly government authority. First, most forms of government can be considered as preferable to anarchy, and any most versions of the rule of law are preferable to lawlessness.
Second, it may be that on occasion God may deliberately bring about bad and even evil governments and rulers, as a means of trial, of testing, of judging, and perhaps as part of his greater grand plan which we can’t hope to comprehend (see our article on Why Bad Things Happen to Good People).
Third, God doesn’t intend that we can arbitrarily exempt ourselves from the world we live in and its requirements and expectations. Being a Christian isn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Being a Christian adds to our obligations, rather than lessens them – we have to please both the earthly powers and God too. As we explain in the article on why bad things happen to good people, linked above, if being Christian miraculously changed our lives, everyone would want to become Christian, for selfish rather than Godly reasons. Being Christian brings us rewards in Heaven, not so much on earth.
But are there exceptions to this requirement to comply and conform to earthly powers? What if there is a clear conflict between honoring God and living a life that pleases him, and complying with the ever-changing social and legal values of the country we are within?
We need to look no further than the New Testament martyrs, starting with Jesus Christ himself, to understand that generally our obligations to the Almighty should take preference. Acts 5:29 states it very clearly
We must obey God rather than men.
And we are given approving examples of cases where people disobey their governments, for example, Hebrews 11:23 & Acts 4:18-20, and plenty more in the Old Testament. Indeed, in Exodus (Ex 1:15-20), we see a case where not only do people disobey the law of the land, they then lie about it to the authorities, and this pleases God.
Why would that please God, and how can it be reconciled with the admonition to follow earthly authorities? Perhaps in reconciliation of these two different edicts we see Matthew 22:15-22 and the expression
render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s
This suggests we attempt to distinguish between issues which are primarily to do with worldly government at all its different levels, and issues which are fundamental elements of God’s will and Christian faith. To put it in common vernacular, “Don’t sweat the small things”. In other words, we should distinguish between the earthly kingdom (or republic or whatever) that we live in currently, and the Heavenly kingdom that awaits us and which we are preparing for.
But if we find ourselves confronted with a clear conflict between earthly law and God’s law, God’s law must be followed because he is the supreme ruler and lord of all (Colossians 1:16-17, 1 Timothy 6:15, Psalm 103:19).
Perhaps a helpful analogy is with our legal system. Lower level courts can rule as they wish on disputes, while higher level appellate courts can overrule them, and of course, the Supreme Court provides the ultimate source of interpretation and authority. So too is it with the institutions of government – they derive their authority from God’s will (Romans 11:36), but if they act in conflict with God’s will, then his will overrides their edicts and has supreme authority in our lives.
In general, we should have the wisdom to distinguish between earthly matters and Heavenly matters, and should live a life that, as far as possible, avoids conflicts between them. One of the better forms of witnessing our faith is by example, and we look to the section of Romans immediately prior to the one cited above, indeed, the entirety of Romans 12 is well worth (re)reading. We’ll quote here part of the chapter, Romans 12:9-18, using the Amplified Bible translation :
9 Love is to be sincere and active [the real thing—without guile and hypocrisy]. Hate what is evil [detest all ungodliness, do not tolerate wickedness]; hold on tightly to what is good.
10 Be devoted to one another with [authentic] brotherly affection [as members of one family], give preference to one another in honor;
11 never lagging behind in diligence; aglow in the Spirit, enthusiastically serving the Lord;
12 constantly rejoicing in hope [because of our confidence in Christ], steadfast and patient in distress, devoted to prayer [continually seeking wisdom, guidance, and strength],
13 contributing to the needs of God’s people, pursuing [the practice of] hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you [who cause you harm or hardship]; bless and do not curse [them].
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice [sharing others’ joy], and weep with those who weep [sharing others’ grief].
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty [conceited, self-important, exclusive], but associate with humble people [those with a realistic self-view]. Do not overestimate yourself.
17 Never repay anyone evil for evil. Take thought for what is right and gracious and proper in the sight of everyone.
18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
The problem of course is knowing when and where to draw the line, what to accept, what conflicts to avoid, and when it becomes necessary to react and respond. Here’s a fairly impassioned article by a well-known activist that perhaps sets out one end of this spectrum and with reduced acceptance of the admonition to live at peace with everyone; while weak appeasement and passive acceptance of unGodly laws and requirements would be at the other end of the spectrum. Somewhere in the middle, the truth can be found.
We see nothing wrong with lawfully, as regular citizens of our society, working within society to help form it in ways we see fit, and of course, there is nothing wrong with advocating Christian values and supporting politicians who share those values. But our Christianity does not give us license to freely break the laws that we live under.
So finally, in closing, some words, again from Paul, in Ephesians; we’ve highlighted the verses we’re focusing on, and provide the others for context and further edification, Ephesians 1:15-21
15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,
16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,
17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,
18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might
20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
May you indeed receive the Spirit of wisdom and understand the working of his great might. Amen.