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“You Can’t Legislate Morality!” (The Defense Series)3 min read

May 7, 2013 3 min read

“You Can’t Legislate Morality!” (The Defense Series)3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes[Welcome to the Defense Series. The aim of this series is to help Christians more effectively “make a defense” (1 Pet. 3:15) to those who challenge the teachings and values of New Testament Christianity. My prayer is that the following words will help and embolden you as you stand for Truth.]

Government has no right to legislate morality. What religion would be the standard? Not everyone is a Christian like you. Get over it,” one man said in a discussion via social media.

This point makes a lot of sense on the surface, and usually shuts down the discussion fairly quickly. Most Christians don’t know how to handle this argument.

The answer to the question is this: It is impossible not to legislate morality. Isn’t every man-made law created because of a moral value? Can you think of a law that isn’t? I can’t think of a single exception. Even tax codes* and traffic laws are examples of legislating fairness (which is a moral value) among citizens. The morality behind laws against murder and stealing are more obvious.

Every law imposes a moral value upon its constituents. What value or beliefs should our legal system use? Should society subscribe to secular values? Even secularism (a type of humanism) is its own belief system. Who has the right to say that secularism is a better belief system than Christianity? Why not Islam’s Sharia law? Why one over the other?

It is simply uninformed to say that government cannot legislate morality. The question needs to be, “What moral standard should the government use?

The United States of America is a representative democracy, meaning that to a degree the majority moral value rules. Christians have just as many rights secularists do in being involved with the political process (e.g. voting and running for office). This is simply a fundamental American freedom. Likewise, the 1st Amendment guarantees Christians the right to voice their opinions. They may speak, publish, preach, teach, and broadcast about Christian values on issues like homosexuality, abortion, drugs, and civil rights.

Christians, don’t bow to the uninformed argument that it is wrong and unfair to legislate morality (Doesn’t the argument itself imply a moral belief?). Yet, we must also recognize that civil legislation is not the answer to America’s moral problems. Gun laws are not the answer to gun crime, abortion laws are not the answer to abortion, and marriage laws are not the answer to the homosexual marriage debate. Such laws are simply representative of the culture in which we live. Every moral problem is a result of sin, and the only answer to sin is the blood of Jesus Christ through repentance and complete obedience to Him (Acts 2:38; 1 John 1:5-7).

We know that God instituted civil government; therefore (whether or not it recognizes Him) it is still bound to His Law (Rom. 13:1f). We also know that the only reliable standard for society is God’s Word (Psa. 119), not secularism. Yet our ultimate desire is not to improve the legal system of our nation, but to prepare lost souls for eternity. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:10-11).

*You may argue the fairness of the U.S. tax code.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the East Side church of Christ in Cleveland, TN. He and his wife Hannah have three children, Ezra, Colleyanna, and Eliza Jane. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has returned to pursue his MDiv. He has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series (Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation) and co-authored It's There In Black and White: 37 Questions about Racial Tension in the Church.
  1. Shane Robinson

    Nice treatment of showing the inconsistencies of the argument. Sort of reminded me of those who scream so loudly for tolerance yet they are the ones who are close minded and intolerant of your views. The Christian worldview is the only view that makes sense when you think about it.

  2. Audrey

    I love this one! I have also argued with some that atheism is a system of beliefs too and thus it is just a system preferred by some and imposed on others (especially in our school system). And the problem with using that standard is that it is a moving target. Only God's laws abide as the unchangeable standard that will always benefit mankind. I agree with you that our laws are a reflection of the society we live in. My argument to those who ask "What can be done?" is that the battle is for the minds and hearts of other human beings. No matter how much sin our nation legalizes, one still has a choice to engage in it or abstain from it. And that battle is won one heart at a time. That is the battle that we must enter in, the battle of information, logical thinking and conversion of other hearts to Jesus.

  3. Rebecca Oldham

    Hi Ben! I think you address some important questions in your post here about whether morality SHOULD be legislated. However, I think if you continue discussing this topic, I think it would be appropriate for you to answer some questions related to a different interpretation of the phrase, "You can't legislate morality."To me, the phrase is not about the rightness, fairness about legislating morality (i.e., You SHOULDN'T legislate morality), but the its effectiveness and practicality in our goal to bring others to Christ (i.e., You CAN'T legislate morality). If genuine morality is an individual's choice to do the right thing, because s/he believes it is right, then isn't coercive (legislated) morality not genuine morality at all? Similarly, you can't force someone to be a Christian - it is a personal choice based on genuine belief. In this sense, is the legislation of morality even POSSIBLE?This may seem to be a rather unimportant semantic question, but it has implications for a more important question: how effective is the legislation of morality in our ultimate aim to bring people to Christ? Does legislating certain moral behaviors for reasons not understood by secular society (e.g., homosexuality) make people more open to Christ or does it harden hearts toward religion/Christianity?I think these questions are all relevant to the alternative interpretation that morality is not practically/effectively legislated - that it CAN'T be legislated. That morality, especially the kind that leads to Christ, is inherently based on a personally motivated decision, not coercion. I think if you answer these questions, you will reach a wider audience and start a great discussion. I hope my suggested questions are helpful talking points for you.

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