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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Code complexities

Converting God’s law into civil rules and regulations is not so simple

Code complexities

A stack of tax codes and regulations at a House Ways and Means Committee meeting in the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP)

When I argue, as I have in this space for the last 25 years, that we evangelical Christians should seek to codify just as little of God’s law as possible, it’s easy to be misunderstood. So let me clarify.

I start with two main assumptions—one about God, and the other about human government.

Concerning God, we assume (because the Bible tells us so) that His main method of bringing human beings into compliance with His law is through the gracious work of His Spirit.

Concerning human government, I assume (both from the Bible and from our experience throughout history) that efforts to micromanage human behavior through public law tend to end up in messy disaster.

Even well-intended laws become mischief-makers.

Even when Israel was a literal theocracy and God was governing several million of His people directly as a nation and a civil entity, He had an impressively skinny book of laws. Put your fingers around the entirety of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and you’ll find a swatch of printing not a whole lot bigger than Medicare’s annual directory of updates. I’m not ignoring the possibility that Israel’s judges may have started to accumulate a few interpretive tablets on the side—but it’s noteworthy that a nation about the size and population of Pennsylvania seems to have run itself pretty well with this slender constitution. Wise judges could take the basics and make things work.

Indeed, this minimal code of civil legislation is clearly based on the much more concise statement of God’s laws in the Ten Commandments. And then Jesus stressed this point of simplicity by compressing those 10 rules down to just two!

But human beings have developed an ironic habit. As they discover that they can neither keep God’s laws and patterns for life nor even appreciate the beauty of them, they respond by multiplying and amending those laws ad infinitum. People mistakenly suppose that God’s law is too broad and too vague, so they refine and correct and footnote and clarify until what started as a fairly digestible code becomes so many roomfuls of heavy volumes—at which point no citizen, however dutiful, can any longer know for sure whether he or she is really law-abiding. Even well-intended laws become mischief-makers.

Laws governing so-called “hate crimes” have in recent years become a prime example. Even assuming the good intentions of their proponents, such laws have snarled our courts and launched us into orbits from which there seems to be no return.

Micromanagement of the tax code is another telling example. Efforts at fairness have produced a system so complex that it was all but impossible for you, two weeks ago, to submit an IRS return you were sure was accurate.

So, given our human record at trying to correct things by passing all the right laws, there’s little room for optimism. Every time we try it, we botch it instead. 

Some people say that’s only because we’ve passed so many bad laws. If we could only get to the place where wise legislators prevailed! So are you encouraged on that front? Have you looked up and down the lineup of candidates likely to offer their services in the big election 19 months from now—and then responded by saying that things will be different this time? If only!

If we were really good—in our own homes and churches and schools—at enacting and then administering the laws and Biblical standards we believe in, maybe we’d do better when we ask the rest of society to join us. But our very fallenness as human beings makes it an incredible challenge for us first to adopt and then to administer God’s good laws in our own lives. Indeed, if we were really good at that, or even potentially good at it, we wouldn’t need God’s grace. We wouldn’t need the gift and work of a Redeemer like Jesus.

But WORLD Magazine, WORLD Digital, WORLD Radio, our readers, our listeners, and all the broken culture around us desperately need that Redeemer. Even if we win a few strategic electoral races in the next few months, and even if we can point to a few dozen legislative victories in statehouses on key issues across the country, we’ll never lean on that political process. We’ll remember instead that it’s “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord.