BreakPoint Blog

The Laws of God and the Laws of Man

This week’s Two-Minute Warning features BreakPoint chairman of the board and Beeson Divinity school dean Dr. Timothy George. Following the theme of freedom of worship vs. freedom of religion, Chuck Colson prompts the topic of civil disobedience. As Dr. George explains, the primary purpose of the Manhattan Declaration and of any Christian understanding of civil disobedience should not lie in the assumption that we desire such disobedience -- in fact, we hope disobedience never becomes necessary. Yet we are caught in the tension of living under the authority of both God and man.

Dr. George explains that the government does not have the right to pass laws that violate our conscience; thus there may be areas of life in which the government ought not to rule. The law intrinsically functions as a moral guide, for better or for worse. As Augustine pointed out, an unjust law is no law at all.

Now for your thoughts. When is a law unjust and how should we respond?


"do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God"

What about prudence? Or is that simply making sure justice works out in practice?

There are a lot of laws which would be just in theory that would have results that would make it unjust in practice.

For instance the Washingtion Naval Treaty gave the Imperial Japanese Navy three tons to every British and American five. That was perfectly fair as far as it went as Japan had less to defend. The result was to help make Japanese think they were being treated as international inferiors. The treaty was perfectly just, but helping cause world war 2 is obviously not so. While one excuse would have done as well as another for the Japanese army-mafia of the time, the whole thing wasn't helpful even though all participating governments had a theoretical right to do so.

A worse example was the infamous literacy tests in the south. In itself the idea isn't so bad if you wish a criteria for the franchise. However it was applied as a means to exclude blacks(according to one tale one black who could read classics in the original was excluded because the test was "fudged").

These are examples of laws which were not unjust but which had unjust results. That is what is called the "law of unintended consequences"(in the second case it was intended, but it would have sounded well enough to an outsider). And while unintended consequences can't always be predicted some can, and the wisdom to be able to is a form of justice.

Nonetheless I usually count "justice, mercy, and prudence", as the three virtues of state even though the later is about the first two.
I have several books on jurisprudence at home that I will tackle when the sky turns gray and mottled. (Yes, another little poke at Ben W. I'm saving the one about how for me, half the time the sky is black with little white dots.) The small amount I've read in them so far leads me to believe that any law that is not founded on Biblical principles (principles such as "do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God", for example) is an unjust law. Justice occurs when people are treated equally. Mercy occurs when the transgressor is treated as fully human. Humility means inverting the power pyramid, making the greatest into the servant of all.

So civil disobedience is necessary when a law is favoritist, inhumane, or allows someone to lord it over someone else.

What is really fascinating about the jurisprudence books is that without a Biblical foundation, laws are based simply on consensus. This puts leadership into the hands of sinners - with predictable results.

So in fact one can critique and criticize laws based on their theological underpinnings.
Civil Disobedience
I think the most important thing to remember in the concept of civil disobedience is that when we see it in the Bible, it is a usually exercised as a testimony rather than a protest. Too often we resort to the worldly tactics of confrontation style protests that were common among 60s radicals. The power of our exercise of civil disobedience comes we understand that when our faith requires us to break even the most unjust law, authorities have not only the right, but the obligation to hold us accountable. This is how we can obey God in submitting to governing authorities while exercising civil disobedience.
All laws have to weigh justice, mercy, and prudence. Saying when a law is definitely unjust is harder then it sounds though some laws are. As far as civil disobedience goes, the form we usually regard as civil disobedience I have sometimes thought to be humbug; using pacifism as political theater is using it as a weapon and thereby compromising it.

However there does come a time when it is necessary to disobey. I think a handy rule of thumb is simply when it is no longer possible to obey without sinning. The early church did not make civil disobedience protests against circuses and infanticide. And by the time it did bring it's attention to these things, it was already an institution in the Empire. The early churches disobedience was simply the refusal to worship Caesar.