Legislating Morality, Four Views

I recently read an old (1990s) pamphlet written by Bible Presbyterian minister G. W. Fisher titled “Should Morality Be Legislated.” It was a valuable read, well thought out, and fair in explaining the positives and negatives of legislating morality. His major conclusion in the final section titled “So What Is The Church To Do?” was this: “We can never expect our nation again to embrace the concept of moral government unless first there is a change in the hearts of men. God has given to us this gospel of truth to reach out to men. If we want to see a change in our nation, we would do better to throw our energies into reach men for the gospel while necessarily trying to maintain legislative morality.”

While I’m not clear on what Fisher means in “necessarily trying to maintain legislative morality,” I do well take to heart his emphasis that the church is to foremost preach the gospel and so pray that the Lord changes hearts in its hearing.

The general topic of legislating morality brought back in my mind studies I made some years ago on the subject. Studies in which I never was fully satisfied in any answer. Many, including Fisher, have likely studied the question of the Christian and the Law in far more detail than myself, but I do believe that I can add something to Fisher’s work in specifically identifying four actual positions advocated by Christians and giving some reason for accepting the one that I do. While many can agree that morality SHOULD be legislated, the next question—and the trickier one—is WHAT morality is to be legislated?  Four positions I know of on legislating morality are as follows:

  1. Natural Law Only. (Lutheran)
  2. Only the 2nd Half of the Commandments. (Paul Elliot)
  3. The Ten Commandments and General Equity. (Westminster Confession)
  4. All of the Law. (Bahnsen, etc.)

The first position is the argument that there is a law written on the heart so that there is no need to “push” specific Biblical laws of morality upon the populace and so detract from our Christian mission of evangelism and anger the heathen. I believe the Lutheran Church generally holds to this, though perhaps Luther himself did not. Many other Christians hold to this position, fearing any more Biblical approach.

The second position is that of Paul Elliot and the now-defunct Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian Church denomination. I think John Robbins may have held to this. And it is enticing to Christian libertarians. The idea is that the first part of the ten commandments (the vertical commandments) are between God and man and cannot or should not be legislated, but the second part of the commandments (the horizontal commandments) are between man and man and should be legislated. This position may solve some tricky issues, but to divide the commandments in such a way has no Biblical support.

The third position is that of the Westminster Confession and, I believe, Reformed history. It can be a bit hard to understand. All of the ten commandments have continuing validity. The civil laws are done away with but for the “general equity” remaining. This position has it that the ten commandments (and the case laws of the Old Testament showing them in action) are to be applied today but perhaps in some different ways given our context.

Finally, the last position is the Theonomy of Bahnsen and various similar writers with slightly alternative positions. Here, it is said, all of the laws of the Old Testament (meaning the moral and civil) are to have continuing validity and be enforced in a more or less rigid way. While Bahnsen tried to hold this together with the Westminster view, Rushdoony came to argue that Westminster was wrong.

Well, as a Presbyterian minister, I naturally agree with the Westminster position. This does not mean there are not yet remaining questions in my mind. There are plenty.