Vol. 11 No. 7 July 2009
Which Laws of the Land Must Christians Obey?
Louis Rushmore, Editor
I have a question, and it’s weighing on me. Do all ordinances of men (laws concerning speed limits) have eternal ramifications when not followed in accordance to 1 Peter 2:13-14? I read a piece saying that one could go to hell for exceeding the speed limit, no matter how much he exceeded it.
A number of New Testament passages harmonize and complement each other in teaching that Christians are obligated to abide by the laws of the land in which they live. Consider these:
“Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:17-21).
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Romans 13:1-7).
“Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates…” (Titus 3:1).
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:13-15).
Obviously, in general, Christians disobey God when they disobey the laws of the land in which they live. However, are there laws, though, that Christians may ignore? On what basis, if any, may Christians disregard some laws of the land? How are Christians to decide which laws they are to obey and which laws they do not need to obey?
Some Christians rationalize that various laws of the land do not need to be strictly obeyed, maybe arguing that the real laws are the ones that are enforced. Of course, that would mean that one cannot know for sure what law he has to obey until he is cited for disobeying it! That’s hardly an acceptable way to handle the laws of the land (or for that matter, the laws of God). Others may rate some laws of the land as comparatively insignificant and inferior to other laws (e.g., traffic laws), but who is to decide which such laws Christians must obey versus laws that do not matter, and for which God will not hold the child of God accountable? Is it matter of personal subjectivity? Honestly, who can believe that?
In truth, whether to obey a law of the land is not rightly a matter of subjectivity, but a matter of objectivity. In other words, the only laws of the land that Christians are not obligated to obey (no matter how bad the law may be or how much we detest it) are laws that definitively conflict with the higher law of God. “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This was the apostle’s response to the Sanhedrin, which had commanded the apostles to stop preaching and teaching about Jesus Christ. Paying taxes, obeying traffic laws and a host of other laws do not conflict with the New Testament, and hence, we have no basis for ignoring them.
Yet, there is a significant difference between sinless perfection and obedience. Even with the laws of God, it’s not about perfection, but about obedience. If it were all about perfection, and we could conduct ourselves perfectly, Jesus Christ would not have had to come to earth and sacrifice Himself on Calvary’s cross. If it were all about perfection, and we could not conduct ourselves perfectly, we would be hopelessly lost. Rather, despite our imperfections, Jesus Christ is the Author of salvation toward them that obey Him (Hebrews 5:9). Our obedience enables God to extend to us grace (Ephesians 2:8) and mercy (Titus 3:5).
What this means is that we are supposed to obey all the laws of the land in which we live, except specific laws that may require us to violate the higher law of God. In purposing to obey the laws of the land, though, we may inadvertently fail to keep perfectly all the laws of the land. We may be cited or otherwise legally penalized (or even if our infraction is never discovered and punished), but because we tried to obey the laws of the land, God’s grace and mercy cleanses the faithful Christian from any corresponding sin. However, under no biblical provisions is any willfully disobedient soul excused from violating either the laws of the land or the laws of God (Hebrews 10:26).