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Is Perfectly Legal Morally Right?

A common occurrence in recent times is to see a president, senator, or representative proclaiming vigorously to the press, "I have done nothing illegal." Somehow such statements fail to convince anyone that the speaker has been acting irreproachably. Yet the implication is that whatever is legal is also ethical and moral--at least to a satisfactory degree.

Before expelling a student for buying a term paper or dismissing a faculty member for sexual misconduct, a university will often consult a lawyer because an action that seems morally justified may in reality be legally untenable and open the school to damaging litigation. Just because an act causes Christians to feel righteous indignation does not necessarily mean it will be punished by a court of law.

What is the relationship between legality and morality? Are some actions legal but immoral? Are Christians free to do what is illegal as long as it is ethical? Are Christians free to engage in any and all legal activities? May Christians skirt the law as long as no Christian ethical rules are broken?

For example, there is a tax penalty for married couples: Under current tax codes, a married couple pays more taxes than two singles living together do. Is it ethical for a young Christian couple to exchange vows in church before God and their fellow Christians and yet avoid higher taxes by never securing a marriage license that would make the marriage official?

Eleanor Holmes Norton (1938- ), the representative of Washington, D.C., in the United States House of Representatives, has said, "The law is not a system of values but a system in search of values." Yet Christian lawyers and accountants sometimes make their living by suggesting practices that, while they may have the appearance of impropriety, are in reality "perfectly legal." In this way, the law becomes the minimum standard of values by which the propriety of any action may be tested. The law deems acceptable anything that meets its minimum standards.

Lawmakers may write laws contain wording or loopholes that favor certain special interests. For example, laws may exact harsher penalties for "blue-collar" crimes than for "white-collar" crimes. Do some acts seem more wicked than others because certain social or racial groups engage in them more frequently than one's own particular group?

As American society becomes increasingly post-Christian, lawmakers may even begin to write laws that Christians consider to be wrongheaded or immoral themselves. Laws that protect gay and lesbian rights, for example, may force a Christian landlord to rent to homosexual couples. In the past, Christian pacifists have disobeyed draft laws by refusing military service. Many Christian groups have opposed legal decisions that accord doctors the right to perform abortions. How are Christians to react when what they believe is a moral duty becomes illegal?

Profanity, pornography, homosexuality, adultery, divorce, drunkenness, slander, abortion, and gambling have already been decriminalized either partially or wholly by the legal system. It is imprudent, therefore, for Christians to legitimize automatically whatever the law allows. The legislative actions that have legalized highly questionable or openly sinful practices underscore the reality that our governments are not Christian theocracies. Lawmakers have found it inadvisable and usually unworkable to force Christian ethics upon non-Christian citizens. This separation of legal codes from ethical codes makes the law an uncertain moral authority for Christians.


1.From a Christian perspective, is it ethical for a millionaire to pay no income taxes at all because of questionable yet technically legal tax shelters? Is it fair to society when the rich pay few if any taxes?

2.Can a Christian be morally right but legally wrong? Give an example. Does the silence of scripture make something morally permissible? For example, the Bible does not condemn speeding in a car. Is it morally wrong to exceed the speed limit?

3.Aside from the examples given in this chapter, can you think of other behavior that is perfectly legal yet morally wrong for Christians? What about laying off thousands of long-time employees in order to increase profits? Under what circumstances could that be unethical for a Christian executive?

4.How scrupulous does Christian morality have to be? For example, if your auto insurance policy does not list your teenager as the principal driver of a particular car, are you justified in let him or her drive it on a regular basis? If this is neither illegal nor immoral, is it unethical? How so?

5.It is not illegal to charge interest on a loan. In light of Deuteronomy 23:19-20 and Psalm 15:5, may a Christian charge interest on loans to other Christians?

6.The gay rights movement illustrates the conflict between societal values and Christian morality. The law in some states prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing. To what extent should the legal values of justice and fairness take precedence over the biblical teaching that homosexuality is sinful? Would you rent an apartment you owned to a homosexual couple if the law required you to?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 28, 2007 3:55 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Is It Ever Permissible to Lie?.

The next post in this blog is Are Christian Ethics Relevant?.

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