Should we legislate morality?

Farmville Enterprise February 8, 2017

A hot topic in the United States right now is the question of whether or not biblical principles should apply to our government’s way of doing business. How should our nation’s policies regard the refugee, the immigrant or the unborn? Should our legal system look to the Bible for its stance on the death penalty or to Jesus’ definition of marriage? Should we “legislate morality?”

In many ways we do. It is illegal to steal, to murder or to lie under oath. It is illegal to sexually assault someone or to use children in the making of pornography. Some of our laws reflect or used to reflect the Ten Commandments. In sixteen states it is illegal to commit adultery, although these laws generally are not enforced. Blue Laws prevented places of business from being opened on Sundays. Of course, citizens were never forced to worship on the Sabbath or to refrain from coveting their neighbor’s goods. How do we decide when and where biblical principles should be applied in our civil society? Arriving at a consistent answer is difficult and will be left up to the reader.

We must remember that Old Testament Israel, an ancient culture in the Middle East, was a theocracy. It was a country ruled directly by Yahweh. The Israelites were God’s chosen people and were instructed specifically to worship the Creator above all else, live in communion with him and remain separate from the surrounding pagan nations. They were not to intermingle or intermarry. They were to be consecrated to God, their king. God gave Israel criminal and civil laws, as well as family laws to deal with issues like inheritance, marriage and divorce plus religious or cultic laws to give instructions for sacrifices, offerings, cleanness, festivals and the priesthood. There were “compassionate laws” regarding how to treat debtors, immigrants, the poor, and widows or others without families. In the New Testament it is made clear that Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, fulfilled all sacrificial laws through his death and resurrection. Ceremonial sacrifices were no longer necessary. After the earthly life of Jesus, dietary laws did not have to be followed, as pointed out in the Acts 10 description of Peter’s vision. The New Testament helps us understand the difference between the old and new covenants.

In reading Scripture we always must ask, “To whom was this directed and what was the author’s original intent in writing to that audience? What was the historical context and the situation being addressed?”  We run the risk of misinterpretation if we try to apply things that were not intended specifically for us. Often, however, we can extrapolate a general principle that is helpful. In the New Testament there are many portions that are directed to all Christians so application is clear.

Finally, we must remember that the United States is not a theocracy. We are not God’s chosen people. As The Reverend Robert Austell noted, “No government is obligated to follow biblical or Christian teaching. But the Christian, first a citizen of God’s Kingdom, is obligated to speak for, act for, and work for (i.e. seek first) that Kingdom even as we live in our own communities, countries, and cultures.”

Christians should vote for candidates who reflect their values. We should work to promote policies we consider best for the ordering of society. In our personal lives we clearly must obey what Jesus calls the greatest commandment. Love God and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)


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