Can You Legislate Morality?
Today’s Live Q&A is hosted by Enduring Word Board Member, Pastor Miles DeBenedictis. Miles is the lead pastor of Cross Connection Church in Escondido, California.
Can you legislate morality?
Today I’ll begin by talking about an issue that comes up from time to time in conversation. Nonbelievers will often argue that you cannot legislate morality. This statement is often used to dismiss the moral concerns of conservatives and to argue that laws should be based solely on practical or rational considerations rather than moral values. Frequently, this bold assertion is an intimidation tactic, intended to shut down debate. But the question arises whether this dismissal is valid? Is it true that you cannot legislate morality?
To adequately assess that proposition, I think it’s helpful to agree upon the definitions of the terms being used in the phrase, “You cannot legislate morality.”
You cannot legislate morality: First, who is the “you” in this statement? If the “you” is directed singularly at a specific individual, then it challenges an individual on their ability to impose their own personal moral proclivities upon society at large. You as an individual cannot impose your morality on other people.
However, if the “you” of that statement is the corporate, then we must think deeply about the truth of that claim. Western societies are largely democratic. The People, or their democratically elected representatives, enact the laws of that society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government. The laws instituted by the democratically elected legislative representatives are, or should be, the consensus of the people who put them into office. They are the ones who are determining the rightness or the wrongness – the morality – of behavior in that society or culture. This begs the question: who, if anyone, has the right or the authority to legislate? That is a heavy question, which shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed.
You cannot legislate morality: Next, consider the word “cannot.” If this is a declared impossibility, it questions the possibility of establishing any civil society in any place. Since few people in the Western world would regard it as impossible to establish a civil society through legislated laws, then I would grant that the word “cannot” is not a declared impossibility. But rather, it’s more of an ought not or a should not. That makes it more of an ethical statement: “you should not legislate morality.” However, this becomes problematic because this statement is an imposition of a moral view.
You cannot legislate morality: The next word is “legislate.” An understanding of the word legislation is important. For any group of people to function as a community, a rule or code of behavior is necessary. We would call this a law. The community at large agrees on what is considered to be right and wrong. In our current cultural climate, there is not a lot of agreement as to what is right and wrong. But a legislative body is an individual or group that sets a system of law.
When legislating or establishing the rules of behavior, there must be some consensus on what those things are. In America, legislators are elected to represent the beliefs, convictions, and morals of the people who put them into office. They represent the common good, the general welfare, and the liberty of those being governed. That’s the central focus of our compact here in the United States. The opening words of the United States Constitution establish its intent as, “To form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to ensure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare, and to ensure the blessings of liberty.” Though America may not be a perfect union or system, it has done considerably well to ensure those tenants since the nation declared its independence in 1776. Societies cannot be maintained without some form of agreed upon legislation which establishes what is right and wrong.
You cannot legislate morality: The word “morality” can be challenging to define. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines morality as, “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good or bad behavior.” That’s a pretty good definition. The problem is that people in our culture define morality in different ways, so not everyone agrees upon that definition. There is a wide range of views on morality; the landscape of moral theory is pretty broad.
For example, there is a philosophical view in moral theory called consequentialism. This view defines morality by consequences or outcomes. An idea or action is judged as good or bad based upon what it produces; that’s consequentialism. Another view is utilitarianism, which determines right or wrong by an action’s ability to promote the greatest happiness or well-being for the greatest number of people. Those are two different perspectives of moral theory in our culture. There is also the Judeo-Christian view on morality, which is that God defines what is right or wrong, good or bad. It is a virtue ethic, established by the virtues and values of God as we find them in the Scripture. There are many further ideas on moral theory. But considering just these three views makes it hard to answer the question, “What is morality?” It doesn’t take long for us to discover that we don’t have a unified moral theory.
For most of the history of the United States, the primary foundation of morality was a virtue ethic based upon the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. That went pretty well for a while. The assertion that you cannot legislate morality comes up when individuals in our culture deviate from or reinterpret the principal underpinnings of what is right and wrong in our culture. As our culture continues to drift away from a biblical ethic, we can expect the challenges to a Judeo-Christian morality to increase. This is already evident.
Now it is right to acknowledge that there are some places where we should probably agree with the statement that you cannot legislate morality. This proposition is true in part. The Apostle Paul, one of the principal authors of the New Testament, alludes to this issue in his letter to the Romans. He says that the law does not and cannot make one righteous. Primarily, Paul is making a theological statement. The law – meaning the Law of Moses, the Mosaic Law, the Torah – cannot make us judicially righteous before a perfectly holy God. There’s no way that the law can make me righteous.
But there’s a practical side to this as well. One does not become a good and upright and moral individual merely by the dictates of the law. Now, it would be nice if we just told people, “Do X, Y, and Z, and then you’ll be morally good and perfect.” That would be wonderful, but that’s not how it works. The legislation of moral statutes (right and wrong) does not cause societies or individuals to become morally good. Laws can and do govern the actions of those within a given society. They may promote the general welfare, and even restrain evil, but good laws do not lead to perfectly good individuals or societies.
This begs the deeper question about the innate nature of human beings. Are we innately good, or are we evil? But that’s beyond the scope of what I’m talking about here. I’m a Christian pastor, and I believe in original sin; I do not believe that we are born perfectly good. I do not hold to Rousseau’s view of the innate human goodness of man. Jesus certainly did not teach that we are innately good. In Mark 7:20, He very clearly explains that evil thoughts and evil actions proceed out of the heart. So, people are not innately good.
I would also say that we cannot make people good or morally upright by the dictates or legislation of goodness. To say, “You cannot legislate morality” is also to say, “You cannot make people good just by telling them these are the laws that will make you good,” because we have this problem of original sin. Does that mean that we should not have law? No. Good laws govern the bad behavior of men, and they can restrain evil. But we cannot make people good by legislation. Furthermore, you cannot legislate morality into man.
Now, it would be unjust for me to force my personal views of right and wrong upon others. I do not personally have the legislative authority to dictate or to determine morality. I cannot impose my views of what is morally right or wrong upon you or upon society, even if I’m certain that my views are right. This necessitates that we have a strong and persuasive civil discourse and debate in our society about what is right or wrong. I think we Christians could do better in this area. We could be more persuasive in sharing apologetically, giving a defense for the views that we have about what is right or wrong. And that would require longer conversations, not just a shouting match. We need to have persuasive civil discourse and debate in society, expressing to people what we believe is wrong or right and why we believe those things. We also need to elect better legislators and make better laws.
So, I have several points of agreement with this idea. First, I cannot impose my moral views upon somebody else. Secondly, I cannot make people holy or good just by telling them that these things are the law. Thirdly, if the morality being legislated is something that I find to be abhorrent, I would as a conservative wholeheartedly agree with a progressive in saying that you cannot legislate morality. This relates to my own personally held beliefs. If I find another person’s view to be immoral, I don’t want them to legislate that view. Nonbelieving individuals who hold an opposing political view to mine don’t want my moral views imposed upon them. Conversely, I don’t want their moral views imposed upon me or society either.
Abortion is a current issue. I believe that abortion is immoral, and that it’s the killing of an innocent preborn child. Those on the opposite side of the debate don’t want me to impose my moral view of abortion upon them or society. An issue like this requires that a persuasive civil debate in our society. That has been going on for a very long time, and sometimes it becomes rather uncivil, but we need to be persuasive and civil. Another progressive belief is that same sex marriage is morally right and good. I don’t want their moral views imposed upon society relating to that issue.
Both of these examples open up a proverbial Pandora’s box of debate and discussion, which goes beyond the focus of my talk here. But we see that these issues require civil conversation and debate. I would agree with those on the other side of the political spectrum that we cannot legislate morality. I do not want their moral positions with which I disagree imposed upon me or vice versa. So it requires vigorous civil discourse and persuasive debate. On the other side of the political spectrum, we must civilly and persuasively defend our moral perspectives, to try to move those things to be codified into law.
All laws are a form of moral legislation at some level. Is there any law which is not some form of moral legislation? I don’t think so. There is a deep motivation of morality behind every single law. Every culture where we can observe the increase of human wellbeing and the common good is a culture that has a commonly agreed-upon moral code. This becomes a real issue for us in our current cultural moment in the Western world. People define right and wrong and good and evil in such different ways that we don’t have that common moral code anymore. This will eventually lead to some real problems in our society; we’re already seeing that in a big way. Even cultures which have unfortunately devolved into totalitarian states have an underlying universal code. CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity and the Abolition of Man about these things. The Apostle Paul also deals with this in Romans 2, when he talks about the law being written upon people’s hearts.
Every culture has an internal understanding of what is right and wrong, even if we disagree about what those things are in the current moment. The founding documents here in the United States declare that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” There is a moral underpinning beneath everything. While you can argue about the religious faith of the American founders, there is little argument that they had a strongly principled view of a natural law in which they believed.
The idea that we cannot legislate morality assumes that human beings are innately good, and that if left to themselves, they will tend toward good behavior and away from evil. To that claim, I don’t think the evidence is there. Now, I try not to argue against that position merely from a theological perspective on the innate sinfulness of man as we find it in the Scriptures. But I find it a pretty dubious claim, by the mere observation of humanity, to argue for the fundamental goodness of man. We are morally broken. That does not mean that the irreligious cannot be good; they can. But it does mean that malevolent evil is the inevitable outcome when the natural law in the conscience is abandoned or seared. That happens all too often.
In summary, the proposition that you cannot legislate morality is a flawed proposition and a self-refuting claim. The individual who confidently asserts that you cannot or should not legislate morality is in effect legislating a moral position. It is an ethical and moral statement.
How can we know if our prayers are being hindered by sin?
Can we know that our prayers are being hindered in any way by our own sin or the sin of somebody else?
The first verse that comes to mind when considering the idea of our prayers being hindered is:
1 Peter 3:7 – Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.
Peter alludes to the idea that your prayers could be hindered. How do we know if this is happening? One indication is if your prayers are not being answered. Now, that does not mean that every single time you pray and ask God for something that He’s going to say yes, and He’s going to do it.
Generally speaking, there are kind of three answers to prayer from God. Yes, is an answer we are always grateful for. But sometimes he says, No. In the long run, we often discover that we are thankful for the No that God gives. The third way God answers prayer is, Wait. Yes, no, or wait. There’s even a song that says, “Thank God for His unanswered prayers.” Looking back over my life, I’m thankful for some unanswered prayers. But one way to know whether or not your prayers are being hindered is that they’re not being answered.
The Apostle James brings up an issue about prayer in James 4:
James 4:1-3 – Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.
This passage concerns the context of prayer. Later in James 5, we read about the effective, fervent prayers of a righteous individual availing much, based on the example of Elijah who prayed diligently. James teaches us that we should pray diligently. But we also have this warning that our prayers may not be answered if we are asking purely from a selfish and self-focused motivation, “asking amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
It is possible for your prayers to be hindered because, as 1 Peter 3 explains, you’re not walking in rightness before God. Or your prayers may be hindered because you are asking them from an impure motivation. Or sometimes we just need to be more diligent and persistent in our prayers, like Jesus said in His teaching about continually asking, seeking, and knocking (see Matthew 7:7). In my own prayers, I am sometimes too quick to give up in prayer. We need to just continue to seek the Lord in prayer.
We need to even ask Lord, as David did in Psalm 139:24, “Lord, search me and know me; see if there’s any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We want to make sure that we are seeking to walk in alignment with God. This is a key thing that we sometimes miss in prayer. At times we may think our prayers are intended to move God. But the Scriptures and my own experience agree that God is seeking to move us into alignment with His will. We see this from Jesus when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, “Not My will, but Yours be done” (see Luke 22:42). James also agrees that our attitude should be, “If the Lord wills, we will do this or that” (see James 4:15). We want to make sure that we’re walking in that way.
Can people accidentally do the will of Satan?
Can people accidentally do the will of Satan, satanic things, or Antichrist things, without meaning or intending to? Perhaps like how the Pharisees were merely protecting the sanctity of Yahweh, from their point of view, by doing the will of the accuser?
Great question. Can Christians stumble into doing something that is not the will of God, but actually the will of the devil? That’s a frightening thing to consider. It reminds me of the great conversation between Peter and Jesus in Matthew 16. Jesus was with His disciples at Caesarea Philippi, where they saw the worship of pagan deities. Jesus asked His disciples, who do men say that I am? They respond, “Some say you’re this, some say that.” And He says, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter says, “You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus tells Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” He goes on to say, “And on this rock I will build My church.”
Immediately after that, Jesus begins to tell His disciples that He’s going to Jerusalem and that He’s going to be delivered up and crucified. Peter begins to rebuke Him. Jesus responds to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (see Matthew 16:23). What a striking statement. Peter has just spoken the words of God. God has divinely given him this inspiration to say, “You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yet a moment later, Jesus is rebuking Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan, you’re an offense to Me; you are not mindful of the things of God, but of the things of man.” Without realizing it, Peter thinks he is speaking right and true and good things when he says, “No, Lord, that’s not going to happen to You,” but he stumbles into this.
Another example is the Pharisees, who thought they were doing the work of God. Think of Saul of Tarsus, before he was Paul the Apostle. He persecuted people, thinking he was doing the will of God, but he was actually doing the will of Satan. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks to the religious leaders and says to them, “You are of your father, the devil.” That’s a striking thing to say.
Can you explain the lukewarm church in Revelation 3:16? Are they true believers?
Could you clarify lukewarm church? In Revelation 3:16, are both “cold” and “hot” true believers?
Revelation 3:16 – So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.
This passage comes from the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation. This verse is spoken to the final church, which is at Laodicea. They are known as the “lukewarm church.”
Let’s say that a “hot” Christian is someone who’s on fire for Christ, doing what is right and good and walking in truth. I think that’s what God would want to see in the life of believer, that they’re on fire for Him. On the other side of the spectrum would be the “cold” person who is far from the Lord.
If you take a coal out of a fire and put it aside, it’s going to get cold relatively quickly. I would assume that the “cold” person in that passage would be a backslidden person who’s not walking in faith and is living in sin. It seems as if Jesus is saying, “I would rather that than lukewarm.” That’s an amazing thing to say. What does He mean? I think He might mean this. It is a horrible position to be in, where you’ve got one foot in Christ, and one foot in the world, and you’re lukewarm. You are that double minded person who is unstable in all of their ways (see James 1:8). Jesus is saying, “I’d rather you be living out in the world, because then it’s clear. It’s clear that you need to repent, it’s clear that you need to be evangelized and called to repentance.”
Sadly, there are probably a lot of people in churches all throughout the United States and the world who are living a lukewarm existence. They are a part of the church, they attend church, they might be a part of a Bible study. They might even serve the church or give to a church. But their lives also have secret hidden things, like pornography, alcohol problems, not treating their spouse or their employees very well, or whatever it may be. They are double-minded individuals. They can live in such a way because it’s not clear to everybody around them they need to repent.
On the other hand, consider the person who has walked away completely from fellowship and is living in very open and obstinate sin. It’s very clear and we can easily call them back to repentance. Jesus says, “I would rather that you either be hot or cold. But since you are lukewarm, I’m going to vomit you out of my mouth.” It’s a striking word picture from the Lord, and something to meditate on.
Why did the leper in Luke 5:12-14 need to follow the Mosaic law?
If we are not under the Old Covenant, but the new, who is Jesus? Why did the man with leprosy need to follow the Mosaic law if he knew who Jesus was? Because Jesus had yet to die for our sins. (Luke 5:12-14)
Luke 5:12-14 – And it happened when He was in a certain city, that behold, a man who was full of leprosy saw Jesus; and he fell on his face and implored Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then He put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And He charged him to tell no one, “But go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as a testimony to them, just as Moses commanded.”
The emphasis of this passage is in Jesus’ last words, “Go and show yourself to the priests and make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” He did not need to go and follow the law of Moses to be cleansed. He’s already been cleansed. Jesus had just cleansed him. But was told to go as a testimony to the priests. Why is this? To my knowledge, the only person in the Old Testament Scriptures to be healed of leprosy was a leper from Syria named Naaman. He was healed by the ministry of Elisha in 2 Kings 5. Interestingly, he was a non-Jewish individual. You could make the case that Miriam, the sister of Moses, was healed of leprosy after being struck by it for a short time. Regardless, very few people in Old Testament history were healed of leprosy. A very important sign of the Messiah was that He had the power and authority to heal even incurable disease.
Jesus told this cleansed leper to go and show himself to the priests, so that they could see what was taking place. It was a testimony to the priests, not something additional for his cleansing.
Where in Scripture did Jesus claim to be the Most High God?
We can say pretty definitively that it’s in the Gospel of John. The religious leaders responded to the claims of Christ by putting Him to death because of blasphemy. Someone may knock on your door from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or the Watchtower Society, saying that Jesus never claimed to be God. That’s too much of a surface level reading of the Gospel of John, or any of the Gospels. Jesus was specifically speaking to the religious leaders in the Gospel of John, and they knew exactly what Jesus meant when He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The religious leaders knew He was claiming to be the I Am, as God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3.
So, I think the best way to address that question is to consider how the religious leaders responded to Jesus’ claims. They knew exactly what He was saying, and they set out to kill Him because of it.
If a pastor makes a false prophetic claim, should he publicly recant?
Should pastors who announce that the Great Tribulation has started, when it hasn’t, recant publicly?
I would hope so. If you make a prophetic claim, and it turns out to be wrong, you’re on dangerous ground. I think you should be very careful about what you say and how you say it.
Should they recant it publicly? I would hope that they do. But I don’t think that they will. Oftentimes these individuals gain their platform or position because of the things they have said. It’s more common to hear them say, “Well, I was just off a little bit. Now we need to set a new date.” But I wish that they would recant publicly. When a person speaks on behalf of God, claiming, “Thus saith the Lord,” but speaks wrongly on His behalf, it gives the enemies of God an opportunity to blaspheme.
Should believers obey commands that were given before the Law of Moses?
I have understood that we are not under the law. However, since circumcision and the forbidding of eating blood predates the law, should we still obey these laws?
That’s a great question. The New Testament portrays that Jesus Christ came as a fulfillment of all the law, and not just the law of Moses, but going all the way back. He is the fulfillment of all of the law.
In Acts 15, the Gospel begins to move out into non-Jewish territory. The Jerusalem Council included a discussion about specific things such as eating meat sacrificed to idols or eating animals that still have blood within them. I think this is really a cultural issue. Gentile believers came from a different background than Jewish believers, but they needed to be culturally sensitive and aware of how they were interacting with other brothers and sisters in the body of Christ who came from different backgrounds.
Circumcision predates the law, but it is the sign of God’s covenant to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have a new sign of the covenant in Christ: believers’ baptism. So, although circumcision does predate the law, it concerns a different covenant, the covenant of Abraham. It’s not a Gospel necessity. I would say that, from a health standpoint, it’s probably not the best to eat meat with blood in it. You could follow that if you want to, but we do have liberty in Christ. We should just beware that we should not use our liberty as an opportunity for sin.
What does the Bible say about the use of recreational drugs?
Where can we find direction against recreational drug use in the Scripture? I believe God does not intend for us to use recreational drugs, however, just curious about if it appears in the Bible.
None of the Scriptures, Old Testament or New Testament, have a word for narcotics like do. But in the Greek, we find the word pharmakeia, which is used in English words such as pharmaceuticals, pharmacies, and so on. Pharmakeiaseems to have a very direct connection to what we would call narcotics today. In Old Testament times, there were prohibitions against sorcery. A deep study of those passages seems to indicate some sort of narcotic use involved in some practices connected to sorcery. There has been some recent archaeological evidence in the last twenty years or so, suggesting that there was drug use in pagan temples, Eleusinian mysteries, incense containing cannabis being offered, and all kinds of crazy stuff. These things were being used in pagan temples, but God had forbidden His people to be involved in sorcery or pharmakeia.
In that respect, I think we should be very careful with these things. Many of these substances have a way of opening us up to other spiritual dimensions and other dimensional reality. The Bible tells us that we do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. So there is a spiritual dimension. I think that narcotic drug use can open people up to those sorts of things.
The question may arise whether the use of these substances medicinally is permissible for someone who’s going through treatment for cancer or some other disease. For that, I would point people to Proverbs 31:6, which says, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing.” In ancient times alcohol was used medicinally. It’s wise to take pharmaceuticals under the supervision of a doctor. Medicinal narcotics can be used for various treatments of ailments or illnesses, but they can become a real snare. The New Testament admonishes believers in Ephesians 5:18, “Do not be drunk with wine which is excess.” I would say that applies to any sort of narcotic or chemical substance which brings you under its hold or effects your consciousness. We need to be very careful with these things, including being drunk with wine.
Why did God give some people a higher IQ than others? Does this justify social Darwinism?
Why did God give certain individuals a genetically higher IQ than others? Does this justify social Darwinism?
That’s a great question. This could also apply to many other issues as well, including disabilities.
First, we should recognize that the effects of the Fall are massive. Romans 5:12 tells us that through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. Sin is a huge reality that has affected everything, even down to genetic mutation which has led to disease, mental illness, and many different things. I would say those things a result of the fall.
Secondly, we live in a very strange time and place in history. We live in a knowledge society, which means that a person would have a very hard time succeeding in American or Western culture in the 21st century if they cannot function at a certain level of ability to handle abstract information. This is an issue of intelligence and IQ. The problem is that there’s a very wide spectrum of IQ. Does that mean that God has no use for all people? No, God has a use for all of us, and we are all a part of the body. God has a specific intended purpose for each of us to be part of.
So, whether or not you have the capacity to land rockets on drone ships out in the middle of the Atlantic because you’ve got an amazing intellect, God still has a purpose and a plan for you in His kingdom. John 9 informs us concerning issues of disability. Concerning a man who was born blind, people ask Jesus, “Did this man sin or his parents that he would be born blind?” But Jesus said, “It’s not an issue of him or his parents sinning, but for the glory of God. This illness was for the glory of God.”
Whatever ability or disability that you have, mentally, physically, or emotionally, God can use it for His glory and for His kingdom. God has a purpose and plan for every single one of us.