May We Legislate Morality?
May we legislate morality? By this I mean, are we allowed to legislate morality? We are not talking about ability so much as we are discussing permission. Again, may we legislate morality?
That question is often asked when things go awry and people begin to wring their hands and wonder “What to do? What to do?” Someone will say, “Well, we need to make a rule that says a person is not allowed to do X, Y, and Z.” Another soon chimes in and says, “Wait, wait, wait—we can’t legislate morality!”
As we try to find the answer to the question “Can we legislate morality?” we must ask a couple of questions to lead up to that question. First, “Has God legislated morality?” And second, “Does God expect, accept, or allow man to legislate morality?”
The word legislate is defined thus by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:
To perform the function of legislation; specifically: to make or enact laws
The word morality is defined by the same dictionary as: “moral conduct,” so we dig deeper to define the word "moral." Moral is defined as: relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.
Putting it all together, our definition of legislating morality is:
To make or enact laws relating to principles of right and wrong behavior.
Second, we need to recognize what we are not saying. We are not stating that a person has the ability to force another person to do a certain thing. People are not our slaves to push around, nor are we cult leaders who force people to obey.
That being stated, it is certainly consistent with the nature of God to “make or enact laws relating to principles or right and wrong behavior.”
Yet, again we understand that God does not force people to obey those laws. He simply gives the laws, and then explains the rewards for obedience to the laws, and the punishment one will receive for not obeying those laws.
Has God Legislated Morality?
Of course He has. We will simply list one such occasion. Exodus 20:1-17 is where the Law given to the Israelites was written on stone, and expected to be obeyed. These commandments are as follows:
- You shall not have any other Gods besides me (See Acts 14:15)
- You shall not carve idols for yourselves (see 1 Thess. 1:9)
- You shall not take the name of God in vain (see Eph. 4:29)
- Six days you shall work, but the 7th day is the Sabbath. (Note that this is not a moral law; it was a law given to one group of people, and has been nailed to the cross) (Col. 2:14-17)
- Honor your father and mother (see Eph. 6:1-2)
- You shall not kill (see 1 John 3:15)
- You shall not commit adultery (see Heb. 13:4)
- You shall not steal (see Eph. 4:28)
- You shall not bear false witness (see Col. 3:9)
- You shall not covet (see Eph. 5:5)
So, we see that God has indeed legislated morality. God says the following in Deuteronomy 26:
This day the Lord thy God hath commanded thee to do these statutes and judgments: thou shalt therefore keep and do them with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.
In Chapter 27 of Deuteronomy, God hands out a number of curses to people who do various immoral activities. He then gives the blessings in chapter 28 to those who will keep His legislation. As He comes to verse 14, He states:
And thou shalt not go aside from any of the words which I command thee this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee...
He then spends the rest of the chapter describing the consequences of their disobeying the legislation that He has laid down (Deut. 28). It is clear to anyone who is familiar with the Bible that God has indeed already legislated morality.
Does God Expect, Accept, or Allow Man to Legislate Morality?
Let us see what God has ordained for the governments of men:
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 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)
God expects people to abide within the law of the government (except in cases when the government’s law seeks to distort God’s law—see Acts 5:27-29).
Let's continue by noticing the legislated morality discussed in Romans 13:9:
For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The Hebrews writer, writing to Christians says:
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.(Heb. 13:17)
Notice that there is a group of people (elders) who are to make rules (legislate). And there are people who are instructed to submit to their rule.
God has allowed and expects leaders in both governments and congregations to make rules—rules that deal not only with civil matters, but matters of morality as well: legislation that is consistent with the laws and the nature of God Himself.
Notice what God (through Paul) instructed the congregation in Corinth to do:
It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.(1 Cor. 5:1-5)
This was a moral wrong. It was against God’s moral legislation. God and Paul fully expected this congregation to practice church discipline in order to win this soul back.
Notice the end result of the congregation’s obedience (2 Cor. 2:6-8):
Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him.
Apparently this man had repented, and now Paul’s instruction in the letter based upon his repentance was that the congregation was to treat him with much love, having forgiven and comforted him.
While this example is a little beyond our intended purpose, the point is clearly proven: God has indeed legislated morality. God expects governments to legislate morality. And He expects the eldership of a congregation to legislate morality.
Again, we are not saying that we force people to do anything. We simply live according to the laws of God. Leaders make laws consistent with the nature and laws of God. And we leave it up to the individual to choose to obey or not, understanding the consequences of his choice.