Jaywalkers in Heaven?

I want to raise a question that doesn’t get raised. In fact, most seem to prefer unfounded assumptions based on normalcy rather than grapple with it. Here’s the question: Are Christians accountable before God to obey the laws and rules placed upon them by people in places of authority over them? For the purposes of this paper I will not address the rare occurrences of such rulers demanding disobedience to God’s law (including laws that facilitate oppression of others), in which case clearly God is our higher authority. Instead, I will consider how Christians should think about rules that, in his/her judgment are “stupid”.

Earthly authorities include everything from Presidents, to police, to Legislators, to landlords, to Administrators and parents. Menial laws come in the form of jaywalking regulations, speed limits, piracy laws, candle-burning prohibitions and curfews. At this point you may be saying to yourself, “Oh brother, this guy is some inflated legalist!” I want to assure you that I myself am acutely aware of the dangers of legalism and am seeking not to slip into it as I address this issue. Truth be told, I don’t want to believe that we are accountable to God for such ridiculous rules as these, I’m only trying to take an honest look at a question that many neglect. What I am striving for here is what I believe to be integrity, that is allowing my convictions to play out fully in my life. This conviction which I have, and which I suspect most of my readers do also, is that we obey the Laws of man not because they are explicitly the laws of God but because they are Lawgivers endorsed by God.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, 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. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men…Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.

1 Peter 2:13-15, 17-19

This passage seems quite clear to me. We are to obey those who make the laws (king) and those who enforce them (governors), so that people who bad-talk Christians (and Christ) won’t have ground to. The same Greek word for “submit” is used throughout this passage, even in the context of a slave-master relationship. This demonstrates the scale of the submission what we are to have to those in authority. The clarifier that not only good masters but also inconsiderate ones are to be obeyed as well suggests to me that even “stupid” laws should be obeyed. Keep in mind that Peter is writing to Christians under Roman authority. As a rule Rome was not “considerate” when it came to dealing with Christians. All the same, submission is expected when doing so does not break God’s Law.

Jesus himself deals with laws that he considers, rightly so, to be inappropriate but decides to submit nevertheless:

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open it’s mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Matthew 17:25-27

Here Jesus is talking to Peter about the Temple Tax, a tax that Jews had paid to those in charge of the Temple, but had since been commandeered by the Romans. Jesus seems to imply that as sons of the King they are exempt from the taxes, but that in order not to offend them he concedes to pay the tax. It appears that Jesus has demonstrated that the tax was a “stupid” law but obeys it nonetheless.

How many times have you been told of some law to which you responded “that’s stupid” and proceeded to break it? Are you not in essence declaring yourself the authority over the authority placed by God over you? When you say “that’s stupid” are you not merely saying “I don’t like that so I’m not gonna submit to it?” It scares me to think what the result of such thinking could be. When we allow ourselves to be the judge of our authorities we have stripped those rulers of any true authority. This is a serious thing when you consider that authority is God-given (Rom. 13). The only things that we will obey will be those that we like. What if I don’t like property rights, or DUI laws or agree that murder should be illegal? The decision of whether or not to obey laws can not be one made on the basis preference. Submission is the prime relationship between a man and his authorities. Conflict comes only when two authorities clash (i.e. God’s law and man’s law) not when authority clashes with my opinion.

One of the first times I recall this question presenting itself to me was in the form of a ridiculous curfew expected by my parents on a weekend night. I honestly went through some turmoil trying to decide what was right. I approached my parents and argued my case; I told them they were unreasonable and tried to change their minds. The curfew was truly absurd: I think it was only 1 hr later than my sister who was 4 years younger was. In the end, with these verses in mind (especially the 1 Ptr. bit about inconsiderate masters) I could find no justification to disobey my parents and arrived home by curfew. Only recently has it even occurred to me that such principles apply to all authorities placed over me. I suggest that it is OK and even good to use forums to change “stupid” laws but ultimately, if they are not asking you to sin, I can see no justification for breaking such rules.

In the last few weeks that I’ve been wrestling this issue I brought my question to President Litfin by email and he responded “Are we accountable to human law before God? The Bible tells us rather clearly that we are (e.g., Rom. 13).” This passage is rather lengthy but I think it is also pertinent:

Everyone must submit himself 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, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on the themselves…Therefore, it is necessary to submit to authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience…Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect then respect; if honor, then honor.

Romans 13:1-2,5,7

Do we truly believe that authority is established by God? We must remember that this was not written about Church authorities, but about Roman governing authorities. How ridiculous it must have seemed to the Roman Christians that these horrible persecutors were authorities established by God. How absurd to think that rebellion against these persecutors was rebellion against God himself. Can we even compare our governing authorities to those the Church in Rome must have endured? I think not. How then can we permit ourselves to rebel against it? As I’ve suggested before, I don’t think we can do so in good conscience.

What about being free from the Law and living by Grace? This was my immediate question as I tried to back out of this uncomfortable obligation. Unfortunately I have concluded that this refers solely to ceremonial Law. Whenever this idea of freedom from the Law is raised it is always in the context of Jewish Laws such as circumcision and ceremonial cleanliness, which Paul considers himself free from (Rom. 3:19). This is also the context of all discussions of obeying merely the Spirit of the Law. Often Jesus is criticizing Pharisees for obey only the letter and not the Spirit. He instructs them “You should have practiced the [Law], without neglecting the [Spirit of the Law]” (Mt. 23:23).

Before I was willing to concede fully that full submission to “stupid laws” was necessary I formulated a schema for reassessing “stupid laws”. Most importantly I evaluated why it was that I most often wanted to break these laws. I reached another unfortunate conclusion: I am selfish. In every case I could recall, my motivation for violating such laws that I considered “stupid” was selfish, usually greed or laziness. Certainly this is not good motivation for any behavior, even if it is legal.

When considering this weighty duty it can be helpful to keep in mind what explanation Scripture gives for such a submission. We are submitting for Christ’s sake. We must remember that our actions are in large part how others will perceive Christ. My disbedience does not only reflect badly on myself, but on my Lord also, and this is unacceptable. Scripture seems to be in clear agreement on our duty to authority: recognize it is God-given, and obey it unless and until it violates our supreme authority, God’s own. It is not our place to judge our authorities; it is our place to obey them. Sadly many have made themselves judges, and consequently this superior attitude has bled over into their conception of spiritual authority. In such cases people allow them selves to declare some of God’s laws as unnecessary, stupid or overboard. This often happens with God’s calling for premarital abstinence.

In my honest evaluation of Scripture on this topic I can not help but conclude that I am called to submit the authority of government, even when I don’t agree with its rules. Unless violation of God’s law is necessary to comply with human law there is no justification for rebellion. A fair appraisal of my own motivations tells me that my own selfish motivations for such unjustified rebellion are contrary to God’s standards. I challenge you to consider the mandate of these Scriptures and not be afraid to accept their radical standard for the Christian life.



I wrote this in 1999 as an undergraduate student at Wheaton College. What do you think, is it legalism or integrity?
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One Comment on “Jaywalkers in Heaven?”

  1. Collin Says:

    Short version: it’s integrity.

    Because what is legalism? It’s the belief that following the rules is what makes me acceptable to God, right? The above is not about being accepted by God. In other words, it does not confuse the sequence — as legalism does.

    Legalism says: you must follow the rules in order to be accepted by God. But unless I misread it, your essay is addressed to those of us who are already accepted by God; the point is that *because* we’re accepted by God, we belong to him and hence integrity says we should follow the rules.

    As for people who use the word “legalism” to mean “you’re worried too much about rules that I think are silly” — well, I think your essay provides a trenchant reply.


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