What part should Christianity play in the law?
I don’t think that many people — Christians included — want to live in a Christian theocracy. We know that, however good our intentions are, we are broken and sinful and everything we do has unintended consequences. It’s fairly likely, then, that a legal system strictly enforcing Christian beliefs and practices won’t end particularly well for the project of evangelism (a common theme in Christian history). I think that using laws backed by state power to make people conform with Christianity also tends to produce nominalism, which does Christianity a disservice in the long run even though it can be comforting for our society to seem religious at face value. I agree with the point CS Lewis made in Mere Christianity that “…Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives”. Lewis was writing specifically on the topic of marriage, but I think this a wise principle that can be applied more generally.
However, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that, as Christians, we must separate our “Christian” values from our “other” (some might say “normal”) values, and only act on the latter when participating in civil society. Secular commentators sometimes claim that this is what the separation of church of state requires, usually when they see Christians participating enthusiastically in a public debate.
It’s impossible for us to separate our Christian and non-Christian selves. God doesn’t just get a part of us — He gets all of us, and our faith in Him will (and should) influence every aspect of our lives, including our views on any particular legal, political, social or economic topic. Trying to deny God’s authority over our views, and the way we act on them, would, I think, be pointless.
So, when Christians have power to change the law (whether by voting, sitting in parliament or lobbying), how do we reconcile God’s authority over all our decisions with our own sinfulness, fallibility and tendency to produce unintended negative consequences?
Answering that question could be a PhD topic, but for now I think there are 4 principles that can help guide those decisions:
- Every human being has the imago dei: we are all made in the image and likeness of God. This idea, which was novel and ridiculous in the ancient world, is one of Christianity’s great contributions to our civilisation and I think it’s a legitimate basis on which to make legal interventions into citizens’ lives — Christian or non-Christian — because everyone has inherent value and dignity that should be protected.
- While the law itself is not a good tool for evangelisation, our goal should still be to have a legal, political and social system in which the gospel has the capacity to flourish. The most obvious example of building and protecting such a system is by religious freedom laws, but I think this also requires us to protect human life from things that interfere with a person’s will (and therefore their ability to hear and accept the gospel), for example, things that are inherently destructive or addictive.
- The state is not the ultimate judge of right and wrong, only what is legal or illegal. There are plenty of examples of practices that Christians would consider immoral but which are legal because regulating the practice would be impracticable, would require an unreasonable invasion of privacy and liberty, and so on. When engaging in debate or discourse we also shouldn’t attribute to the state moral power it doesn’t possess: just because the law says we cando something, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right.
- Points 1, 2 and 3 are merely broad principles. Christians acting in good faith will disagree on how they should be applied to any given situation, and so we shouldn’t try to label our personal way of doing things as “the Christian way”.
by Rebecca Lynne
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