So here we are again in our great nation – after months of debate, many amendments and public outcries from all sides, the now infamous Religious Discrimination Bill has been withdrawn by the Government at the last minute following a backlash from at least five of its own members and some last-minute rushed amendments from the opposition which, if passed, would have created far more problems than the Bill would have solved. Is anyone surprised? This morning I am reading the wave of condemnation for our Prime Minister who promised this Bill would pass and has staked his leadership on its safe passage through parliament. But then I see the celebration of many prominent leaders within our community who were mortified to think that the hotch-potch final draft of this Bill may actually have become law yesterday!
It might surprise you to learn that a large number of committed Christians and Christian leaders never supported this Bill, even in principle. Whilst its whole purpose was to ‘protect people of faith against persecution,’ there are many Christians who question whether we should legislate morality and more importantly, whether such laws have any real impact on people’s behaviour. However, from what I have seen and read in recent days, I still think the majority of Christians believe, at least to some extent, that laws regulating moral behaviour are the best way to produce morality in people. They may not say it as directly as that, but in effect that is what they are suggesting in supporting such legislation.
I believe this position is troublesome because it misses the foundational truth of Christianity. Moral behaviour is not enough to save us from the penalty for our sins or restore our relationship with God. Rather, faith in Christ brings repentance, forgiveness and a restored relationship with God. That is what then produces a godly lifestyle in us as Jesus works in our hearts. As our nation adjusts to Christianity not having the type of cultural influence that it may have had in years past, many of my fellow Christians have grappled with the concept of morality in society just as I have. So, can you legislate morality? Does Jesus want morality to be legislated? Is doing so effective?
When I use the term ‘legislating morality,’ I’m referring to these kinds of questions: To what extent are biblical morals supposed to influence broader society and how? Is it the job of the Christians to work in society toward this end? If we made more laws to influence people (even not-yet-Christian people) toward biblical morality, would our society in fact become more moral? Isn’t legislating morality exactly what the Pharisees in Jesus day had been doing for years as they produced hundreds of ‘laws’ and ‘decrees’ to control human behaviour? We know how Jesus responded to their attempts to create more rules to change human hearts. So what is Jesus’ response today when we try to do the same through our Parliaments?
A number of years ago I read a blog written by Jasmin Patterson from Kansas City USA who challenged my preconceptions about this issue and I found myself reflecting on all this again this week as our Federal Parliament wasted so much time achieving absolutely nothing. So here’s why ‘legislating morality’ isn’t effective and why the way of Jesus is better.
1. LEGISLATING MORALITY DOESN’T ACTUALLY CHANGE PEOPLE
It just makes them look like they are changed. As Christians we have to ask what we are really wanting to achieve. Do we want people to look like they are changed by Jesus or do we want people to actually be changed by Jesus? Do we want to encourage people – albeit unintentionally – to ‘have a form of godliness’ but reject the power of Christ that actually transforms their lives? (2 Timothy 3:5). The Bible teaches that faith in Jesus precedes following the commands of Jesus. The Bible teaches that holiness (morality) is something that Jesus works in our lives from the inside out, not the other way around (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:21-24).
God doesn’t look at the outward appearance but at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) If the outward appearance is going to be right, the heart has to be right first. God does care about the outward. He does care about our actions and the kind of lives we live, but a heart can’t become righteous through externally imposed regulations. A heart can only become righteous through the transforming work of Christ in a person’s life. Then, a righteous lifestyle will overflow out of a heart that is growing in righteousness as a person walks with Christ (Galatians 5:16-25, 2 Peter 1:3-11).
2. LEGISLATING MORALITY IS NOT HOW JESUS WORKS
Jesus rejected political influence when He was on this earth because that is not His chosen method to further His Kingdom in this world. He explicitly said that His Kingdom is not an earthly one (John 18:36). When people tried to make Him their king, He escaped the crowds (John 6:15). Jesus taught us to preach the gospel to every person by the power of the Holy Spirit and teach believers to obey the things He commanded. That’s how people come to faith in Christ and grow in faith in Christ, straight from the mouth of Jesus. Not through Christian morals having political influence. Not through Christianity being the dominant culture-shaping voice in society.
I’m not saying we should promote lawlessness and allow people to rob and murder as they wish with no repercussions. And yes, I recognize there is an inherent moral quality in declaring some things legal and illegal based on their impact on society, even if all people may not agree on where that moral standard comes from. But we need to evaluate whether laws are God’s primary method of producing morality and change in people. They are not. Rest assured, Jesus does have a Kingdom and it is not furthered through earthly political systems. Jesus’ Kingdom is formed in the hearts of people as they believe His gospel, repent of their sins and turn to Him with their lives (Mark 1:15). As Christ followers, we need to be less concerned with whether our faith has the most influence on legislation and more concerned about walking in our calling to be witnesses of Jesus in this world through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). Only then will we truly partner with Jesus to tell people about Him and see them brought into His family.
3. LEGISLATING MORALITY PUSHES PEOPLE AWAY FROM CHRIST
People can’t genuinely come to know Jesus when pressured. That’s the whole reason God created us with free will. When we use political policy and influence to try to get people to live out Christian morality, it only pushes people to resent and reject Christianity and ultimately, Jesus. Jesus’ intention is not that people be pressured to follow His commands regardless of whether they have surrendered their lives to Him or not. His commands are not meant to be followed apart from personal faith and relationship with Him. His commands can’t genuinely be followed apart from personal faith and relationship with Him. Obeying Jesus’ commands and being transformed by Him is preceded by faith in Him. If we push Christian morals on people before they’ve had a chance to hear and willingly respond to the message of Christ, we will misrepresent Jesus to people and hurt them in the process. We have a huge problem when our God-given assignment as Christians is to be messengers of reconciliation with God and our methods are pushing people away from Him (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
4. LEGISLATING MORALITY IS ABOUT PRESERVING OUR OWN COMFORT, NOT SEEING PEOPLE COME TO CHRIST
Christians don’t have the right to live completely separated from people who don’t share the beliefs and practices of their faith. Our Constitution affords rights to all citizens of our nation of free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to practice their respective faiths or not practice any faith at all. These rights don’t only apply to Christians. People have a right to live in ways you disagree with. That right, greater than being afforded by law even, is afforded by God because He gives all humans free will and calls them to follow Him by choice, not force. No, He doesn’t agree with sin or rebellion against Him. Yes, there are consequences for unrepentant sin against God. Yes, God wants every person to repent of their sin and be saved. Every person, however, has to respond to His call by their own choice (Acts 17:30-31).
Further, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians should hide in a bubble and avoid everyone who isn’t like them. It actually says the exact opposite (Matthew 5:14-16, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13). If Jesus interacted with people who didn’t yet believe in Him and follow His commands, then we as Christians should interact with people who don’t yet share the beliefs and practices our faith – and not just to convert them. Jesus preached the gospel to people who did not know Him. He called them to leave their sin and follow Him, but He also shared meals and conversation and genuine fellowship with them. This made the Pharisees really angry. They asked Jesus’ disciples why He ate with “such scum.” Jesus came to the defence of the “sinners” and rebuked the ones who thought their religion gave them the right to look down on “outsiders” (Matthew 9:9-13). They got so caught up with religion that they completely missed the heart of Jesus and the purpose of what He wants to do in the lives of people.
Jesus expects us to bring His healing into this world so He can restore people’s broken relationship with Him. We can’t do that if we’re busy hiding from or trying to sanitize everyone who is different from us solely for own comfort. When we do that, we are no better than the Pharisees Jesus called “white-washed tombs.” We are Christ’s representatives in this world and we can’t afford to make that mistake. He loves everyone, even while they are still in rebellion against Him (Romans 5:6-11). He is working to reconcile people to Himself, not condemn them and push them away (John 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
Everything about the way we treat people who don’t share our Christian faith should communicate that. Everything about the way we interact with people should communicate Jesus’ heart to love and reconcile people to Himself. That includes lovingly and graciously speaking the truth of His message and having meaningful relationships with people as we do it. Jesus has a better way than legislating morality. The Good News of Jesus is still the power of God for salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). It is still God’s kindness (not our condemnation) that leads people to repentance (Romans 2:4). Ultimately we are all saved by faith, through grace – our personal behaviour and morality is not a factor because, let’s be really honest, even on our best day, we don’t come close to measuring up to a holy God! Without God’s amazing grace and undeserved mercy, we are all lost in the darkness of fallen humanity.
5. AREN’T WE IN DANGER OF FACING DISCRIMINATION AND EVEN PERSECUTION WITHOUT THE PROTECTION OF THE LAW?
Yes. We probably are. But it would be naive to suggest that a law passed in our Federal Parliament will protect us from what’s in people’s hearts anyway. We speak, live and act in response to what’s in our heart – regardless of whether we should or not. Also, why would any student of the Bible think that we are supposed to be free from persecution as we live out our faith in a hostile world? Jesus warned us. The Apostles warned us. Church history shows us the inevitability of persecution for all those who follow Jesus. The One who said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you,” was murdered by those who opposed Him. So whilst none of us should welcome or deliberately trigger persecution, we should never fear it or try to legislate against it. There are spiritual forces at work which are not impacted in any way by the laws we may pass.
Having said all that, I feel the need to ‘balance’ my views with the words of Martin Luther King Jnr. when he said, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” So to say there is no place for regulation whatsoever, would be naive and reckless. However, as Martin Luther King affirmed many times in his preaching, no man-made law will ever change a human heart. It may just restrain us long enough for the Holy Spirit to do what only God can do.
So I think this recent game of political football we have witnessed in our Federal Parliament over the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is not to be ignored by those who follow Jesus. If anything it should motivate us to get the gospel out into our nation with a renewed urgency because of one thing we can be assured: without a mighty move of God’s Spirit across this nation, politicians will continue to push for more and more laws to do what only changed, renewed, regenerated human hearts can ultimately achieve.