Breaking the Law and Cases of Conscience

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We all have a pretty good idea that when the authorities command us to stop preaching in the “name of this Jesus,” our responsibility is to keep on preaching regardless. We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). When it comes right down to a direct conflict between a commandment of men and “the gospel,” we go with the gospel.

But what do we do when the conflict is not quite so direct?

A Famous Anecdote

A famous story has made the rounds for a century or more, and in its first iteration it involved a gentleman named Lord Beaverbrook and a famous actress. It has also been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, W.C. Fields, and Gregory of Nyssa. Just kidding about that last one.

Anyhow, the main outlines of the gag go like this. In a game of hypothetical questions, a famous and powerful man asks a pretty young woman if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. She acknowledges that she probably would. Then the second question comes, which is whether she would do it for twenty-five dollars. She responds indignantly, “What do you think I am?” And he replies that this has already been established, and now they were just negotiating the price.

Like many such stories, there is a principle in there that needs to be applied more than it is. Now I am going to appear to be changing the subject, but that is just an illusion.

Suppose someone is maintaining that whenever the established authorities require you to do something, a faithful reading of Romans 1 and 1 Peter 2 requires all faithful Christians simply to comply. Suppose you are telling them a story about how you were out on a highway in the middle of Nevada, and the place was so desolate that you could see the curvature of the earth, and the highway was in great shape, and you wanted to see what your new car could do, and so you drove for a couple miles on the north side of 100 mph. Your friend rebukes you because “the law is the law,” and any transgression, however slight, violates the apostle’s instructions in Romans 13, etc.

Now if the friend doing the rebuking is someone who routinely drives 58 mph in a 55 mph zone, then he is in the position of the indignant young woman who wants to pretend that quantity is a determinant of moral quality. But 58 mph breaks the law as much as 102 mph does. Adam could not defend himself by saying he only took three bites of the fruit instead of ten.

Now here it is. If someone wants to argue that we ought not allow any private judgment of a law’s silliness, constitutionality, effectiveness, legality, morality, and so forth, and that person lives in full accordance with that strict code, then even if we continue to disagree with that person, we can maintain a high level of respect for him. But if he appeals to the high majesty of the law, rejecting every form of private judgment, when it comes to issues of great importance, but reserves to himself the right to disregard the law when it is “around the margins,” and in areas where he is the direct beneficiary, then it would make sense that our respect for the position is somewhat diminished.

Let me paint you a scenario. Suppose this socialist foolishness continues apace, and we eventually get single payer health care, and private medical services are now an illegal thing of the past. This includes everything, including all the dentists. Your kid gets a roaring toothache, and the powers that be in the Federal Bureau of Dentistry schedule an appointment for him two months out. They also, very graciously, put you on a wait list, in case something opens up.

Meanwhile, your next door neighbor is a retired dentist from the old days, and he takes a look at it. “I could come over this evening, and take care of that in a jiffy.” Since the introduction of Universal Health Blessings for All, he has been running a brisk business on the side, supplementing his retirement income nicely. The cost for fixing your child’s torment will be $25, with the additional cost of you realizing that you are purchasing goods and services on the black market.

Your choices are: 1. refuse to do it, and wait the two months; 2. go ahead and do it, while feeling conscience-stricken about it; and 3. go ahead and do it, while continuing to enjoy your liberty in Christ. I would opt for #3, whistling a hymn as I did so.

And the difference between #2 and #3 does involve private judgment, but not in the way you might expect. The guy in #3 is exercising his own private judgment over against the law of the land, but he is doing so in what he believes is submission to God. The guy in #2 rejects the idea of private judgment in theory, but in practice he is exercising private judgment over against the law of the land AND he is also exercising private judgment over against what he believes to be the will of God.

This is untenable. So if, in our current situation, Christians are going to start disregarding what the civil magistrate is telling them to do, which is starting to happen, we meed to make sure that it is a principled and obedient decision, and not a carnal pragmatic one.

If you are going to exercise your private judgment, make sure it is against the governor of Michigan, who sternly forbade you to plant any green beans, instead of against the God of Heaven, who commands you to provide for your families, even if it involves some illegal green beans, smuggled in from your back yard.

Two Kinds of Unbelieving Societies

In our current situation, one more distinction needs to be made, and it might be some help to those whose consciences are somewhat tender.

Not all unbelieving societies are the same. There is a great difference between a pagan society, one that is out-and-out pagan, and a society working desperately hard to relapse into paganism, after a millennium and a half of heavy Christian influence. There is a difference between an immoral hooker and an immoral ex-wife. There is a difference between a pagan culture and an apostate culture.

With an apostate culture, which is what we are dealing with, there are numerous vestiges and leftovers and reminders and laws from the old Christian order that the apostates are trying to ignore, suppress, and forget.

The reason they want to suppress them is because, according to them, almost all of their current shenanigans are illegal. The modern administrative state is not just a bad idea (although it is that too), it is also unlawful. The fact that the corruption of our constitutional system of governance has been proceeding very slowly does not mean that it has been proceeding lawfully. And it also does not mean that the process of corruption is somehow total or complete.

And this means that, when I get a child’s tooth pulled “illegally,” I am obeying God. But not only am I obeying God, I am also obeying the law of the land which forbids the kind of encroachments that are going on.

When I smuggle to the dinner table some green beans from the back yard, I am obeying the actual law of the land in Michigan. It is the governor who is being disobedient.

This obviously requires more development, which I hope to get to in the near future. But in the meantime, just ask yourself this question. Does our system of law recognize the possibility of rulers who try to seize more power than they have any right to possess? The plain answer is yes. And if they are resisted by the people, and by lesser magistrates, when they attempt such usurpations, who is the lawbreaker? The people? Or the person grabbing power they were never given?