The difference between a legal and a moral issue in Christianity

Canada has just adopted a new law[1] that says they will prosecute parents for up to five years in jail if they don’t follow this new law criminalizing parents who may want to obtain body-affirming counseling for their gender-confused children. (They make no mention of what will happen to the children while their parents are in jail.) This new law is a good example of a legal versus a moral issue.

Christians use the Bible as the primary source for determining moral issues. From the starting point of the Ten Commandments, Christianity has developed a series of rules for behavior listing what it cannot do in certain circumstances. The rules can be rigid and inflexible or relaxed. Each group defines what it means by sin, and each group creates laws to restrict sinful behavior. The laws created by religious groups are designed to protect the individual from committing sin.

A moral issue is one that distinguishes right from wrong, good from evil.

One commandment (Exodus 20, Deut 5) states “Thou shall keep holy the Sabbath Day.”  This is a moral statement. It says that it is good to set aside one day a week as a holy day and a day of rest. Most religions say that as a holy day, it is a day set aside to think about and/or worship God. From this basic principle, different religious groups have made laws about how one keeps a day “holy” and what is meant by “Sabbath.”

The commandment states that everyone is entitled to one day off a week for rest, animals included. Nevertheless, farmers must feed their stock and parents must feed their children. This is necessary work.  For some denominations, to keep the day “holy” means not playing games or going to dances. The moral issue is keeping one day a week as a day dedicated to God. The legal issue is just exactly what that means and how it is to be followed.

The second legal issue in this commandment is the definition of what constitutes the Sabbath. For some groups, Sabbath begins Friday evening at sundown and ends Saturday evening at sundown. For most Christians, Sabbath means Sunday.

For some religious denominations, “keeping the Sabbath holy,” means attending worship service on that day. Non-attendance is considered a sin. Although giving praise and thanksgiving to God is a moral mandate, requiring attendance at a worship service on a certain day of the week, is a legal mandate.

Over time, the rules applied to the observance of moral codes can become quite rigid. Sometimes believers slavishly follow the rules without understanding why the rule was created. Since Friday is generally accepted, in Christian circles, as the day Jesus died, it was a practice in Roman Catholicism to fast and abstain from meat on Fridays to commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice. Not eating meat on Friday distinguished Catholics from other Christian groups. Other Christian groups abstain from meat completely, distinguishing them from most Christian groups. These are man-made laws, not moral laws.

Jesus frequently seems to break the rules about keeping the Sabbath holy.  He heals on the Sabbath as an act of kindness. (Mark 3:1-5) When confronted by the Scribes and Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath rules against doing work, Jesus pointed out that kindness, generosity and saving lives were a greater good than strictly adhering to man-made rules. (Luke 14:1-6) He pointed out, with great common sense, that if a donkey fell in a well on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5-6),  no man could calmly walk by without trying to extricate the donkey from the well. He could not leave the donkey to drown because it was the Sabbath. He could not wait till Monday to rescue the donkey. There are always exceptions to every man-made law. (Man-made laws should be viewed considering the moral issue behind it. It is good to keep the Sabbath holy, but it is also good to prevent death and suffering, if one can do so.)

When Jesus and his disciples were seen snapping off the heads of grain and eating them—on a Sabbath—the Scribes and Pharisees challenged him about it. Jesus chastised the Scribes and Pharisees for demanding rigid adherence to rules while missing the point of the moral issue for which the rule was created. (Luke 6:1-5) In this case, the disciples were hungry, so they ate what was available. To increase an understanding of the issue, Jesus pointed out that David and his army ate the consecrated bread (Mark 2:26)) in the temple when they were hungry.  To help the Scribes and Pharisees understand the difference between the moral issue and the legal issue, Jesus would give an example. He makes the interesting statement that “the law was created for man, not man for the law.” (Mark 2:27)

Jesus may have violated man-made rules while upholding the basic moral principles that over-rode or took precedence over the legal issues.

The story of Rosa Parks, in the United States, clearly showed that disobeying a man-made law was justified by an over-riding moral principle. As a black woman in the American south, the law stated that all blacks were to ride at the back of the bus. Rosa parks sat at the front of the bus. They arrested her for breaking the law. According to the American constitution, “all men are created equal.” (We won’t argue the meaning of the word “men” here.) According to the moral codes of Christianity, all humans are equal in the sight of God. (Galatians 3:28) Rosa Parks had a moral right to sit at the front of the bus, but they punished her for breaking a law.

Every day Christians must decide whether to obey the legal or the moral rule. Most people will never have the courage of a Rosa Parks when faced with this decision. The sad fact is that most Christians won’t either. Most Christians prefer to be politically correct rather than confront injustice. So, people like Gandhi are revered. Their courage in the face of injustice is heroic. They upset the powers that be, just as Jesus did, and just as Rosa Parks did.

Apparently, the Christian members of the Canadian parliament chose to be “politically correct” rather than voting for the moral issue.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Christians had the courage of their convictions?