Our duty as church is to preach God’s law, not to reform Caesar’s law. It should be clear to us that all of a Christian’s actions must be guided by God’s moral law, regardless of what the civil law of the land may allow. The means of promoting morality which God has given to his church are teaching its members God’s will as it is revealed in his law and motivating them with the Gospel. Equipped with such teaching, they will not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but will be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they test and approve the good, pleasing and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)
The church’s goal for those outside the church is not to regulate their conduct, but to change their hearts. This can be done only by a fearless preaching of God’s law, which produces contrition, and by the life-giving message of the Gospel, which produces the faith without which no genuine moral improvement is possible. The church’s primary concern in the area of law is to use the law as a mirror to expose and condemn sin, and then, when the Gospel has done its work, to use the law as a guide or rule for Christian life.
Nevertheless in this realm of sinners, the law must function also as a curb or restraint of evil doers. “The law is not made for good men, but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slavetraders and liars and perjurers.” (I Tim. 1:9) It is this restraining function of law which is the concern of the state. In fact, such a restraining function is the only purpose which civil law can serve. Offenses like adultery, pornography, drunkeness, drug abuse, etc are not person matters, but are harmful to society and may be regulated by law.
So the question remains, “How hard should a Christian fight to bring the civil laws of the state into agreement with God’s moral law?” This is a question of great practical importance when we consider laws concerning abortion, divorce and marriage, sexual conduct, pornography, capital punishment, and other matters.
Here again, there are two different, and in some respects, opposing factors which we must consider. The first is that God holds all nations responsible for their violations of his moral law and punishes them for such conduct. The Canaanites were exterminated because of their flagrant disregard for God’s moral law. When the sin of the Canaanites reached its full measure, the land vomited them out because their rottenness had become intolerable. (Gen 15:16, Leviticus 18:24-25) The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were burned to ashes as an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly. (II Peter 2:7) Isaiah cries out to the nations, “The earth is defiled by its people. They have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes, and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth. Its people must bear their guilt.” (Is. 24:5)
A nation is not excused for its sinful practices, simply because it is not a theocracy or a truly Christian nation. God’s wrath justly falls on those who suppress the natural knowledge of God and who sin against the inscribed law and their own consciences. God begins his judgment against such people by giving them over to uncleanness, to sinful desires, and to a depraved mind, so that they receive the due penalty for their error, even in their own bodies. (Romans 1 and 2) Although God temporarily spares the world from the general judgment which it deserves (Gen. 8:21, Acts 17:30), he already is sending warning judgments against those who trample on his moral law. The principle still holds, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Prv. 14:34)
As a general rule, nations as well as individuals reap what they sow. Respect for family life and for authority tend to contribute to the stability and welfare of a nation. Conversely, a society usually pays for the breakdown of the family and of respect for authority with increased crime and disorder. Sexual immorality and drug abuse exact both a physicial and emotional price. The first payment of the wages of sin is usually delivered already in this life. The life of a prodigal son leads to shame and ruin; the life of a Pharisee leads to earthly honor.
Of course there are apparent exceptions. Some of the guilty escape, at least for awhile. Sometimes the innocent suffer along with the guilty. Nevertheless, the general principle holds. This principle of divine retribution is one reason that Christian citizens are interested in good laws and in the outward morality of their land. Such morality contributes to the welfare and security of the land and its citizens. Immorality which disregards the basic principles of God’s law brings judgment on a nation. For this reason Christian citizens want the laws of their land to reflect the moral principles God’s law.
On the other hand, because of the darkness and hardness of human hearts it often is impossible for civil law to correspond with the ideal set forth in God’s moral law. Sinners have partially lost or suppressed the knowledge of what is right. Natural knowledge of the law is not clear and complete. It is partial and weak.
Sometimes people know what is right, but simply refuse to do it. Even the civil law which God gave to Israel made concessions to the hardness of the human heart. For example, divorce was permitted in the civil law, even though this was contrary to the will of God which was revealed when marriage was established.
The chief purpose of civil law is to maintain as much peace and order as is possible in a sinful world. If a woman had to remain with a husband who was embittered against her, great harm and disorder could have followed. The permitting of divorce, even on questionable grounds, could actually be a protection for the wife. She might be better off if she was sent away by a hardened, embittered husband, than if they had been compelled to remain together. The civil law accepted the evil of divorce to minimize the evil of bitter domestic warfare which would have been even more disruptive of the peace of society. (It should be mentioned that the divorce law in Dt. 24, does not encourage divorce or establish grounds for divorce. It discourages divorce by restricting the possibility of remarriage.)
The aim of civil law is to produce the greatest degree of outward peace and order. Every law is an attempt to legislate outward morality. That is, every law is an attempt to prevent individuals from harming other individuals or the interests of society as a whole by imposing punishment on those who violate the standards of society. Civil morality is generally defined on a utilitarian basis. Whatever a society judges to be harmful is considered to be immoral and is declared illegal. When a society is convinced that an act is harmless, it becomes legal. A civil law will normally be effective only if the majority of the citizens are convinced that violating that law is harmful and if punishment is certain enough and severe enough to deter those who remain unconvinced.
No anti-abortion law will be effective, if most people believe that abortion is not much different than a tonsillectomy. No law restricting pornography will be very effective, if most people believe that pornography is harmless or even enjoyable. Capital punishment is of little value if public opinion is so against it that no judge or jury will use it. We cannot expect a country to have laws which uphold sound moral values if its people are abandoning even those moral standards which are supported by reason and the natural knowledge of the law.
The first priority for Christian citizens is to educate. We should help to bring society back to its senses by promoting sound moral values. We will have moral laws only when a majority of the citizens and public officials of our land recognize the value and necessity of such basic moral principles as the right to life, high regard for marriage and the family, and the accountability of every individual for his actions. On the basis of such standards, we can then promote good, moral laws. In doing this, we are not trying to force Christianity on anyone by law. Reason, the inscribed law, and the conscience of natural man all testify to these standards, and when we are promoting civil laws, we must argue on this basis.
Even if we are successful in obtaining good, moral laws, we must recognize the severe limitations of civil laws. Legislating and enforcing good moral laws does not make a nation and its people any more Christian or any more moral in a true spiritual sense.
Such laws cannot change the inner motivation of the heart. They only restrain outward conduct. For example, when we promote laws that restrict abortion, we are not trying to create hearts obedient to the fifth commandment, nor can such laws make an unwanted child wanted. The only thing which the law may be able to accomplish is to protect the life (and incidently the time of grace) of some of our neighbors who are unable to protect themselves. Laws restricting pornography can’t legislate chaste and decent hearts, but they may diminish temptations to sexual immorality, which harms society. They may help stem the shocking tide of sex crimes in our land. They may help restore an atmosphere in which stable family life, which is a needed foundation for society, can be maintained. All of these are only outward functions which do not touch the heart. Laws against racial prejudice cannot make anyone love neighbors of a different race, but they may prevent him from interfering with their life and livelihood.
In short, good laws cannot do anything to Christianize a nation or to promote true inner morality, but they have value as a curb which protects individuals and society from the evil effects of rampant immorality. As Christian citizens we should promote such laws as part of our concern for our neighbors’ life and property.
However, a number of cautions should be observed. Even when the cause is good and the case is clear-cut, as in the effort to gain laws which restrict abortion, we should be very cautious about trying to influence legislation as a church body or as members of church-affiliated societies. Such efforts can very easily re-inforce the common impression that the church is basically a moral reform agency, whose goal is to make the world a better place to live. As a church we should not substitute the goal of reforming society for our higher goal of reforming human hearts. Our tools are God’s Law and Gospel, not man’s law and sword.
Even in our efforts as citizens, careful discernment and balanced judgment are needed. We should remember that even when Christians are agreed on the moral goals that are desirable for society, they may disagree about the best way to achieve those goals in given circumstances. We may agree that pornography is evil. One of us may feel that a certain restrictive law is a partial solution. Another may oppose that law, because he believes that it is so broadly worded that it could threaten legitimate freedom of expression. None of us would argue in favor of having holdup-men shoot grocery clerks, but we might disagree on whether a specific law restricting handgun ownership would increase or diminish the possibility of that happening.
Even when we are agreed on identifying evils, we must be careful in prescribing a specific solution as the Christian solution because the problem may be very complicated in its nature and in its response to specific remedies.
Christians should apply Christian principles and sound thinking to public policy as best they can, but with a proper degree of humility concerning the remedies that they suggest. We need to find the balance between thinking we can reform the world by legislation and withdrawing into a shell and letting the world go its way.
Although we should seek good laws, we realize that civil laws will never conform to the standards which God’s moral law sets for us. Even when civil law is lax, we must always guide our conduct by God’s law. Even the best civil laws will never produce the kind of morality that God desires. None of this causes us to despair. Even when the standards of society crumble, we have a sure foundation to build on.
Today, many are echoing the despairing question addressed to David, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” It is important that we remember his answer, “The Lord is in his holy temple. The Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold. His eyelids test the sons of men. The upright shall behold his face” (Ps. 11).
No matter how much indulgent rulers, lax laws, and vile sinners undermine the foundations of God’s moral law, this truth still stands, “God’s solid foundation stands sure, sealed with this inscription: the Lord knows those that are his, and everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (II Tim. 2:19).
Source: WELS.net Question and Answer section