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Christian Ethics

Church and State

Lesson audio

Immoral and/or Illegal

It is a common failing of right-wing Christians to assume that anything that is clearly immoral should also be illegal. It is sufficient to point out the dangers and deficiencies of that view; this may, therefore, open some eyes.

Principle: enforcement

The first reason that something may be immoral but not illegal is the question of enforcement. There is no great sense outlawing something that the state cannot enforce. This brings up some practical objections:

  • First, does the general population support the law? No doubt we could make wearing a miniskirt illegal by anyone but anorexics, but would the people support this? Enforced against the will of the people, enforcement would soon collapse. (Think how you’d react if you were told you had to wear a Moslem burkha.)
  • Next, is it within the capabilities of the state to enforce it? Our technology may have the potential to detect it, but we may not be able to enforce it due to economic considerations. It should be illegal to pick your nose in public – but are we willing the spend the money to enforce such a law?
  • We might also look at the pure economics of strict enforcement. We have occasional, token enforcement of traffic laws – just enough to discourage bad behavior, with the resources to track down and collect the really egregious violations. Where’s a cop when you need one?
  • Finally, consider what harm might arise from such enforcement. Cameras in every bedroom should allow us to catch acts of adultery; but is it worth the price of knowing that husband and wife are not alone together, even in bed?
The state is…

Much of our view on church and state matters is tempered by our view of just what the “state” really is. There are some interesting views on this:

  • The Roman Catholic view is that the state is the “handmaid of the church.” In countries dominated by Roman Catholics, the state is assumed to have certain responsibilities for enforcing church doctrine. Abortion is murder; birth control is illegal. The state gets the job of enforcing.
  • The Protestant view is more along the lines that God has empowered the state for certain, limited purposes. What those purposes might be is a tough question, but (for example) stopping bank robbery is one of them. Prescribing right and wrong is not.
  • Often enough, however, the state is the enemy of the church. This is historically the most common situation. There are a number of reasons for this. A common one is that the state in question is in a Moslem country – where just being a Christian is grounds for the death penalty. If the state is a corrupt dictatorship, the teaching of the church (on honesty, for example) may be seen as meddling, not preaching. But ultimately we must recognize this as the “right” answer; the powers of this world, spiritually, are the enemies of the church. Eventually, the state and the church will both claim that the highest allegiance is theirs. When this happens (and it will here in America as well), the state will use its police powers to enforce such loyalty. The response of the church is yet to be seen.
Separation of church and state

The usual response from Americans is that there should be separation of church and state. It sometimes surprises us that this idea is a relatively new one, dating back only to the 16th century. Constantine’s attitude, for example, was one which asked, “How do we make sure that this God blesses the empire?” But since then, however, the phrase has grown in importance.

But trying to pin it down is like chasing a greased pig. To the liberal it means that the church should shun anything likely to bring the church and state into conflict. Even if this means changing church doctrine to fit the whims of the moment (like our current blessing of homosexuality.) To the conservative it means that the government should not interfere with the church, but the church by right must speak out on the moral issues of the day.

Jump to the other side of the fence with me, please. Should a Christian, whose ultimate highest loyalty is to Christ, be allowed to vote? We wouldn’t let someone whose highest loyalty was (for example) to Mexico do that. Why should we allow it for someone in the heavenly kingdom?

Social (Sexual) Issues

The limitations of the state are a reflection of our sinful world. We may take the principles above and apply them to some of the issues of our day.

Teenage Pregnancy

There is little doubt that teenage, unwed pregnancy carries with it great social cost. The debate is over the role of parents in dealing with the problem. The arguments can be summed up thusly:

  • Parents are morally and legally responsible for their children until 18 years of age. They should thus be notified; their decisions, not the child’s, should prevail.
  • This is a public health problem. If we involve the parents automatically, a great percentage of such pregnancies will end in secret abortions. Girls are afraid to face their parents; rebellion is now good. Be practical; birth control pills, condoms and legal abortions must be provided if we are to deal with this problem.

You can see the problem; there is no consensus on what is morally right in this situation. The liberal encourages teenage rebellion and certainly encourages teen sex. We are to the point that fornication is now a virtue; those who don’t engage in it are defective. The population as a whole simply will not support the Christian method, abstinence. Liberals find themselves therefore in the delightful position of taxing conservatives to pay for birth control, and encouraging the conservative’s daughter to defy her parents without the usual penalties. So what should the Christian do?


A similar situation might seem to exist with regard to prostitution. The Christians oppose it; the liberals think it should be open and explicit, right next to the hardware store. But prostitution carries with it the baggage of drug dealing, declining property values and the frequent destruction of families. There are some differences in view, however:

  • The liberal objects to prostitution for what it does to the prostitute. Hollywood to the contrary, the prostitutes life is generally a miserable one.
  • The conservative, of course, objects on moral grounds.

So there is consensus here that prostitution, as currently practiced, is immoral. Therefore the state should continue to enforce laws against it. It is the future for which there is no consensus. Should we continue to pursue the present course, or should we legalize everything involved?


One area in which we are rapidly legalizing everything involved is gambling. How is it that gambling, once considered as immoral as prostitution, now flourishes everywhere? We can see the limitations of the state in this:

  • Gambling brings in large amounts of revenue to the state. It is therefore seen, from the state’s point of view, as “an industry.” For a state government strapped for cash, this is an important reason for approving.
  • Gambling is no longer considered immoral – just harmful. (A similar argument may be made for alcoholic beverages.) The compulsive gambler is a small negative; revenue is a large positive.
  • Perhaps most convincing is this: gambling allows us to raise the American Indian from poverty to affluence. It is seen as an instrument of social justice.

From the state’s point of view, we exchange a situation in which enforcement was difficult at best (do you really want to bust Grandma for playing bingo in the church fellowship hall?) to one in which the state benefits greatly. The church is permitted to ask for perfection; the state knows better.

The Problem of War

No problem of church and state is so consistently debated as that of war. As of this writing, there is still much debate over the war in Iraq. We will not rehash those arguments, but take a more general view.

Two approaches

In the broadest strokes, Christianity has come up with two approaches to the problem of war. They are pacifism and chivalry.


Pacifism’s reaction to war usually comes in three flavors:

  • The state may make war; the Christian is barred from participating. In this view, war is seen as interchangeable with evil. The Christian may not object (render unto Caesar) but also is forbidden to participate.
  • In another view, the Christian may not participate but is required to object to the war – any war. This is not as common as it once was, as the possibility of “just war” is more apparent.
  • Finally, the third view is that the Christian may participate in the war – but not kill anyone. The common example of this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses who become medics during war.

C. S. Lewis, writing in World War II, called pacifism a theological mistake and a practical disaster. Having been a soldier, I agree. But the pacifist-medic is worthy of a soldier’s respect.


This view holds that we shall have “wars and rumors of wars.” We therefore have those whose duty is to fight those wars. We see the solution most clearly portrayed in the Medieval knight. A man who is perfectly capable of conducting the slaughter of battle, but who is also a man who reads philosophy, writes poetry and otherwise behaves himself in times of peace. That’s our knight; a man who is fundamentally conflicted – and embraces the conflict. It is not his to choose what war to fight, but rather to fight it in a just manner.

Our own military has gone through various views on this. We may consider one problem to see how our thinking changes with the times – and technologies. In World War II it was common to have large formations of bombers fly over the enemy’s territory, dropping thousands of bombs to hit one particular industrial target. Gradually, the effect of such bombings on the civilian population was seen to be valuable – it affected the enemy’s will to fight. So we began to conduct fire bombing raids with the explicit purpose of killing as many enemy civilians as possible. The most devastating attack on Japan was not at Hiroshima, but Tokyo. One wonders what the knight would have thought of a tactic whose sole purpose was to kill the civilians.

Now, however, we see “collateral damage” as undesirable. This is greatly influenced by our ability to hit targets more precisely – but note that we now accept the idea that bombing innocent civilians is wrong, even if accidents do happen. Is our intent any less evil because we don’t want to “waste ammunition” on the civilians? Hmmmmm.

One thing chivalry still holds is this: if you become a warrior, you must be prepared to die. If you point a weapon at a man, you give him the right to try to kill you first. Chivalry obliges you to think about ultimate things.

Just War

The issue for the older ones of us is no longer one of service in the military, but rather do we support the war? In that regard, we look for what is called a “just war.” In other words, is this war morally approved or not? There are many criteria for such; we shall take the simplest, as given by Aquinas. He poses three questions which have not lost their usefulness today.

  • First, is the war waged by the supreme authority of the state? In his day the lesser nobility often desired to settle arguments by war; by forbidding this we have far less war. (Should California be allowed to wage war against, say, Wisconsin?)
  • Next, does the war have a just cause? That’s an object raised against today’s war in Iraq. If our purpose is to secure oil supplies – greed, in other words – then the war is not just. If it is to liberate Kuwait from the dictator who just stole it, the war is just.
  • Finally, do those who fight the war have just intentions? Are they signed up for the rape and pillage, or for other motives?


We have raised more questions than we have answered in this lesson. This is purposeful:

  • Do you now see that questions concerning Christian ethics are not necessarily “black and white?”
  • Do you see also that such questions can be debated rationally, and not needing personal invective?

If we have opened your eyes to the thoughtful side of Christian debate, then these lessons have achieved their purpose.

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