“The Rule of Law” must be based on laws and customs that are wise. Otherwise, we risk having people forget that no law or person is above God—and that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom. (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10).
We frequently hear calls to respect “the rule of law”. This is often tied to the statements that we are “a nation of laws and not of men.” And that “no man is above the law.”
Of course, nowadays we update these proverbs by using gender inclusive words: “we are a nation of laws and not of persons” and “no one is above the law.”
In addition, I want to insert the word “wise” into these proverbs : “the rule of wise laws”; “we are a nation of wise laws and not of persons”; and “no one is above wise laws”.
Otherwise, we risk having people forget that no law or person is above God—and that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom. (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10).
This means we do not—and should not—follow laws that promote evil.
We should disobey laws such as those before the Civil War that required people to return kidnapped slaves.
We should disobey laws that restrict freedom of speech, freedom of worship, or free elections.
For example, Moses defied Pharaoh. (Exodus 5:1-15:21).
Jesus defied those who wielded the Power of Money, the Power of Religion, and the Power of the Kingdoms of the World. (See my blogs “Jesus Climbs the Temple Mount” and “Keeping the Powers of Money, Religion and Kingdoms Separate”).
Peter and James defied religious and political authorities who “commanded them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 4:18).
Nevertheless, despite these examples taken from exceptional circumstances, the general rule is that, in most circumstances, it is wise to follow the laws and the governmental authorities.
Because, despite having personally defied religious and political authorities in exceptional circumstances, Peter wrote:
“Submit yourselves to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17).
No one defied the Powers of Money, Religion and Kingdoms more than Paul, as evidenced by the many times he was stoned, flogged, and imprisoned. (Acts 13:4-28:31; 2 Corinthians 11:16-33).
Nevertheless, Paul believed that, in most circumstances, it is wise to submit peacefully to the authorities.
For example, when Paul wrote to the churches in Rome—churches that existed under the gaze of the Emperor and in the capital of the mighty Roman Empire that executed Jesus and that, eventually, would execute Paul himself—he told them:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2).
I believe this is an example of Paul giving wise advice for the circumstances in which people found themselves, but assuming that people would be wise enough to discern the relevant principle, to apply that same principle wisely in different circumstances, and to give different advice that would be wise in those different circumstances.
One of my favorite examples of such a command is a mother saying to her 2-year old child: “Never, never cross the road unless you’re holding mommy’s hand!”
The mother wisely states her command emphatically and absolutely. She doesn’t mention any exceptions. Otherwise, she would weaken the impact of her wise command.
Nevertheless, she fully expects her child to cross the street when they’re holding their daddy’s hand. Or their grandparent’s hand.
And she certainly doesn’t mean that when her child is 30 years old, they still must not cross the street unless they’re holding her hand!
Paul’s commands about whether a believer should remain a slave are an example of this pattern where he states an emphatic, absolute rule, but also makes exceptions to that rule based on all the facts and circumstances so that curses end and people are blessed. (Romans 12:14).
As unbelievable as it seems to us in the 21st Century, Paul told believers that they should remain slaves. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10).
This was an application of the principle that followers of the Way of Jesus should remain content in whatever circumstances they find themselves in when they become believers. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Philippians 4:4-13).
Nevertheless, Paul favored slaves obtaining their freedom—if they could! (1 Corinthians 7:21; Philemon 1:8-16).
As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
“[E]ach person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.” (1 Corinthians 7:17).
“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
This is an example of a situation where we should always “bless, and curse not.” (Romans 12:14).
This is an example of a situation where we should always do our best (even within existing laws and customs) to end curses and bring blessings. (Philemon 1:8-16).
This is an example of a situation where we should always try to change evil laws and customs into wise laws and customs.
What makes a law or custom wise?
Wise laws and customs must fulfill the ideals of the Law of Moses and the Prophets. (Matthew 5:17).
Wise laws and customs must, in everything, do for others what we want them to do for us, for this sums up the ideals of the Law of Moses and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12).
Wise laws and customs must put into practice the words of Jesus. (Matthew 7:24-8:3).
Wise laws and customs must grow the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Because “[a]gainst such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:23).
Or, at least, against such things there is no wise law!
For additional thoughts about ending violence and curtailing the use of force, please read my blogs “Ending Violence: Putting Faces With Names”, “Ending Violence: Embracing the Spirit of Peace”, and “Curtailing Force: Replacing Nails With Glue”.
For my thoughts on doing for others what we want them to do for us, please read my blog “Doing For Others”.
For my thoughts on putting the Sermon on the Mount into practice, please read my blogs “Building Houses on Rock: Mission Impossible?”, “Building Houses on Rock: Mercy and Forgiveness”, “Building Houses on Rock: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, and “Building Houses on Sand: Specks and Planks”.