Should Christians try to bring biblical law into civil society?

With the run-up to the general election, Christians from a whole host of wide ranging backgrounds are urging one another to sign the Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience (which you can sign following the link if you so desire). The declaration itself is an attempt to encourage those in authority to uphold certain ‘Christian’ moral standards and allow people of faith to act freely in accordance with their consciences. From this flows an important question: should Christians seek to impose a ‘Christian’ morality on a multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious society? It is not my intention to comment specifically on the Westminster 2010 Declaration nor do I want to encourage or discourage people from signing it. Instead, I simply want to explore the question of whether Christians should seek to implement their morality on society.

Some argue that where the Bible makes clear and direct moral statements, such as in the Ten Commandments, these constitute a Christian moral code. As such, they aver, this is the best moral code for all people. Therefore, being the best moral code for all people, it must be right to enforce this code into civil law.This view, however, causes a number of difficulties.

The Apostle Paul tells us:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20, ESV).

This verse highlights the fact that the purpose of the law, summarised in the Ten Commandments, is to bring knowledge of sin. According to Paul, keeping the law does not justify anyone, it exists so that we can know what sin is. This is entirely in line with Moses own view of the law as stated in Deuteronomy 31:26. Such verses, however, present a two-fold problem for the view that we should bring the Ten Commandments into civil law.

First, given that we are all by nature sinful (cf. Rom 3:23), by bringing the Ten Commandments into civil law we introduce legislation into society that nobody – including those who want to implement it – can keep. If the OT law exists to show us our sin, to highlight our need of a saviour, then it is not compatible with civil law by which we are all compelled to live. The basis of civil law must be achievable otherwise we will all continually fall foul of the law, even those that are supposed to police it (just as the religious leaders, who sought to police the OT law also did cf. Matthew 5:20).

Second, there are clear spiritual implications of the Ten Commandments that cannot be policed. We know that Jesus stated:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mat 5:27-28, ESV).

and:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council;  and whoever says, ‘You Fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire (Mat. 5:21-22, ESV).

Jesus claims that even our impure thoughts are as though we have physically broken these commandments. If we introduce the Ten Commandments into civil law we still cannot police sinful thought. Ultimately, this leads us to enforce only a partial command. Worse still, by only enforcing the commandments in part, we give the impression that sinful behaviour is merely a physical act and not inclusive of our thoughts as well. In this way, by seeking to enforce the Ten Commandments through law we water them down and make them less effectual. We change their purpose from highlighting sin to coercing righteousness and, in so doing, we achieve neither.

We must consider what our motivation is for seeking to enforce the Ten Commandments through civil law. In one of the verses quoted previously, Paul makes it abundantly clear that keeping the law does not justify us in the sight of God. As such, we will not bring anyone into the kingdom of God by enforcing the Ten Commandments through our legal system.If our motivation is not simply to bring people to God but to encourage a good moral standard for society we are equally going to fail. Without the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ there will be no change in behaviour. John tells us clearly that:

the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (John 3:19-20, ESV)

Unless we are changed by Christ there will be no change in our moral behaviour. Even where such things are enacted through civil law, and as we have seen they cannot be properly enacted and end up weakening the commandments themselves, behaviour will remain unchanged. This is witnessed throughout the Old Testament where the Israelites fell time and again away from the commandments that were enacted through their own civil law.

In reality, for the Christian, rather than wasting our time on changing a moral, outward law we should instead focus our time and attention on spreading the good news of the gospel which can change the hearts of men and women. By enacting moral laws we cannot hope to change the morality or sinful nature of anyone. By bringing people into a saving knowledge of Christ their hearts will be changed which, in turn, will cause them to live lives pleasing to God without the need for coercive legislation.

So if we cannot implement the Ten Commandments, on what basis should we enact laws? The Bible tells us all men, women and children are equally made in the image of God (cf. Gen 1:27). As such, all people command a level of respect and dignity that extends beyond cultural, religious and ethnic differences. Due to the imago Dei they demand equality and respect. Sinfulness cannot be a basis for removing such rights from people as the Apostle Paul notes, quoting the Psalms, ‘None is righteous, no, not one (Rom 3:10, ESV)’. Moreover, we cannot argue that some sins warrant removal of these rights and others do not. The Apostle James notes ‘for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (Jam 2:10, ESV)’.  As such, we are all sinful (Rom 3:10) and therefore all accountable for the whole of the law (Jam 2:10). Given that we are all guilty of the whole of the law, sin cannot be grounds for removing these basic rights, inherent by virtue of being made in God’s image.

If we accept that there are basic rights that extend to all people, the basis of our law can only be as follows: everything is lawful that does not impinge upon the common rights of others. Such a basis will inevitably mean that certain of the biblical commandments will be enacted in civil law. For example, if we accept that every person has the right to life, murder clearly becomes illegal as it impinges in the most direct way upon this basic right. However, other biblical commandments would not be enacted in civil law. For example, an unmarried couple who decide to have a sexual relationship do not impinge upon the basic rights of anybody else in society. As such, despite the biblical teaching on the matter, there is no justifiable reason to legislate against such behaviour in civil law.

As Christians, we must be careful to differentiate between the civil law which governs us and the moral law of the Bible by which we are called to live. We must recognise, first and foremost, that without saving knowledge of Christ any attempt to enact biblical law in society is simply a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We cannot change the moral thoughts and behaviours of people through civil law – this can only be done through Christ. When we recognise this, our focus should become less on seeking to change moral behaviour and more on seeking to change hearts with the gospel.

This should also change our view of civil law. Rather than seeking to enact a moral code that can never be truly kept, we can instead support those laws that uphold the basic human rights that extend to all people worldwide by virtue of the fact that they are made in the image of God. Moreover, sin is not a basis for removing such rights and our law should reflect this. As Christians we are called to highlight sin through the preaching of the gospel, not to punish it. It is not through civil law that people will come to know sin but by the preaching of the gospel. Therefore, we should not concern ourselves with punishing sin through civil law. Instead, we should focus on preaching the gospel, upholding those rights that extend to all people and allow all behaviours in law that do not impinge on such rights. This does not mean that we cannot highlight sinful behaviour in the preaching of the gospel but it does mean that we should have no part in condemning or punishing people by law for such behaviour.

8 comments

  1. I always think about the “Moral” Society of the 40's and 50's. When this country was “Christian” and everyone went to church. When this happens you have a religious society, who think they are getting to heaven because they dont break the Christian laws of the country.

    I cant help thinking that all the problems Christians have today, is in effect, a backlash from the previous centrys idiocy on enforceing law and works rather than Faith and Grace.

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  2. I do agree with you in some respects. I definetly agree that there shouldn't be laws passed for unmarried couples having sex etc but I can't help but think that if there were more christian laws passed then it would make christians a lot more free to live without so much pressure from the world to sin etc. I think it would be so much easier to live as a christian if the world wasn't so openly sinful. But i guess we're never going to completely eradicate sin anyway and there will always be temptation. I'm thinking outloud and have come to the conclusion that I agree with you.

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  3. Sarah,

    I would briefly say in addition to your comment that its not really our aim “to make it easier to live as a Christian”.

    I think it is supposed to be something that is not easy – death to self and conformity to Christ. I think believers often are guilty(and I myself am as guilty as any!) of always asking for the easy option/what we'd like when actually we need to be thinking more in terms of “God is changing me to be more like himself – One day I will be with him, I want to be like him and will accept anything he gives to me to attain that goal”.

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