God’s Law and the Law of the LandEvangelicals have not always connected well in the political arena. It would help to follow God’s lead in relating biblical moral values to the public sphere.
I was a young pastor in the USA in 1976 when Evangelicals reconnected to the political arena. There were many factors at work in that reconnection, not the least of which was the American bicentennial celebration, and the ongoing effects of this are most evident in what is commonly called the Christian Right. A principle as basic as love for all our neighbours leads naturally to involvement in politics to seek the common good for all humans, but we have not always done so with an adequate philosophy. Evangelicals have been prone to ad hoc participation, often in a reactionary and defensive mode, and have sometimes done little more than quote isolated biblical texts.
… we cannot (and ought not) make the parameters of societal discipline the same as those of church discipline.
So where can we find God’s instruction about the right way to relate revealed moral values to the public sphere? The New Testament does not provide much explicit help, due to the simple fact that the apostolic church was a tiny minority within the Roman Empire with no opportunity to shape public policy. What we need is some indication of what God would do in governing a nation, not a church within a nation, some glimpse of how God would relate His values to the life of an actual community of sinners. And that is actually what we have in the Mosaic Law, in particular the case laws that are designed to govern the experience of the nation.
What we find in Mosaic case law is this: God’s moral law and the laws that God provides for society are related but not identical. God’s concern for human welfare shapes the laws given through Moses, but it is not as simple as saying that whatever is immoral is therefore criminal. Viewed in light of God’s fuller revelation through Christ, it is obvious that God sometimes tolerated the existence of evil while regulating it in the direction of justice. To illustrate: Exodus 21:20-21 accepts the reality of slaves as property and allows a slave owner to beat a slave without penalty as long as the slave recovers in a couple of days. If the slave dies, the owner is punished, but his action is not treated as murder. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 accepts both polygamy and easy divorce by allowing an Israelite soldier to take a captive of war as his wife and to divorce her at will, albeit he is not allowed to sell her as a slave. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 accepts polygamy and gives regulation to protect the inheritance rights of a man’s actual firstborn son over against the firstborn son of another wife.
Perhaps the most significant illustration lies in the area of divorce law. There is actually very little prohibition of divorce at all in the Mosaic Law, and there was no unanimity in the rabbinical interpretation. Both Matthew and Mark record an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees on the subject of divorce, and Jesus gives us an authoritative interpretation of God’s intent in the Law. Jesus makes it clear that God’s intent for marriage is permanence—a consummated marriage of one man and one woman is a union not to be broken. But how does that relate to the provision for a man to divorce his wife as articulated in Deuteronomy 24:1-4? Jesus declares that the case law does not describe the moral ideal concerning divorce, but instead God’s concession to the hardheartedness of Israel. God accepted divorce as a reality and provided some minimal regulation to protect human interests.
Assuming that God’s action is worthy of imitation, it follows then that our task in relating moral values to the public sphere, in particular to legislation, is not to simply demand that biblical morality be the law of the land. Our task is to seek laws that regulate evil for public good insofar as that is possible. For example, laws about marriage and divorce should promote fidelity and protect the interests of husbands, wives, and children, but we cannot (and ought not) make the parameters of societal discipline the same as those of church discipline. To take another example, there is good reason to desire a law regulating abortion, but any law that could be passed and enforced would certainly have to allow exceptions beyond what most Evangelicals would accept as a moral ideal.
God’s shaping of the Mosaic Law to fit the condition of the nation shows us that legislation depends on a social consensus. Laws are always designed for a particular social group and will have to take the nature of the group into account, rather than being formulated in a vacuum. This means that if we are serious about relating biblical values to the public sphere, then we must seek to persuade the wider public that there are benefits in what we believe to be divinely revealed values. Since biblical authority is not affirmed by the general population, we will have to make our case on a wider basis. Furthermore, we will have to make common cause with people of other faith commitments (or no faith commitment) who share our values but for different reasons. Scripture assumes that there is a significant core of moral values that is widely understood by humans in general (see Romans 1-2), and that means that there is hope for some measure of moral consensus.
As Christians we need to think carefully and strategically about our attempts to move society in a positive direction, and we need to recognize the complexities of the political process. The Canadian situation concerning abortion is a perfect example of this need. In January 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion law as unconstitutional. In 1989 the federal government brought forward a new law that treated abortion as normally illegal, but with some exceptions that seemed capable of generous interpretation. The proposed law passed the House of Commons and was handed on to the Senate. The Senators were urged by people at both ends of the spectrum to reject the legislation, on the pro-choice side because it criminalized an act that should be left to the individual woman, and on the pro-life side because its exceptions might make the prohibition meaningless and unenforceable. And in the end, the Senate killed the bill, and we are left with no abortion law at all.
If pro-life Christians had supported the abortion law, would that have been a compromise? Yes, it would have been compromise, but God Himself has shown us that some kinds of compromise are necessary and right. We have not always followed God’s lead in the way that we relate moral values to societal standards, but we don’t have to perpetuate that failure. We can be intelligent and strategic in a godly way.
Stan Fowler serves as academic dean and professor of theology at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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