This is Pastor Tim’s article which appeared in the Evening Leader on March 8, 2021
I was listening to a podcast the other day when someone asked a question that really caught my attention. Can something be wrong without be illegal? Conversely, can something be right yet not required by law? This question has stuck with me since I heard the discussion. It really got me thinking.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. I think it is wrong to drink to intoxication, but unless there are other circumstances, I don’t think that should be illegal. If you want to sit in your home and drink yourself into stupor, that is your right, and the legal system should have nothing to say about it no matter how bad and wrong it is.
A second example; I think all of us should do our part to take care of the environment by cleaning up after ourselves and making responsible use of our resources. However, I don’t believe the government can solve climate change no matter how many regulations they place on the private sector.
It is wrong to be intoxicated, and it is right to protect the environment, but neither of these should be legal issues. They are moral issues. The problem comes when we try to take these individual morality issues and make them legal issues. There are certain standards that society needs to require, but where do we draw the line? Yes, our society can restrict how fast we can drive. The maximum speed limit is going to be different on the interstate than in a school zone. That is because we all recognize and accept the conditions driving past a school in a residential area to be a very different experience than driving on interstate 75 with multiple lanes going in either direction. This is society establishing a standard. In order to live in community, we need standards. We may not like them all, but we need them for us to live together and prevent us from descending into chaos.
So how do we decide what morally right things become laws? In my United Methodist Tradition, we use four principles to make these kinds of decisions: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Everyone needs some kind of objective standard to base his or her decisions on. Being a follower of Jesus, I have chosen God’s word as the standard. Every person can make their own choice and the decision you make will go a long way to shaping and informing the values and principles you hold. This is where you get your morality. Even if there is no law against being rude to someone, what do your personal convictions have to say about it?
But the Bible doesn’t say anything about speed limits in school zones, so we need more than just a fundamental basis for what we believe to be moral. That is when we look at history to see what has been done traditionally. This is just a starting point because no matter how many good church folks have told me this, just because “we have always done it that way” is not a good enough reason to continue doing it that way. This is when we go to the next step, and see if it is reasonable. Is what was always done reasonable and fair? We have to take a hard look at the past because the past can teach us by being both good examples and bad examples. This is why we use reason to evaluate past decisions. Finally, we look at our own experience with it. I have driven both on I-75 and through school zones, and my experience of driving tells me that I can’t drive the same speed in both.
It is my firm belief that every person has been given the responsibility by God to make decisions about their own morality. Society has the obligation to make sure that we all treat each other reasonably well and that we are fair to one another. That obligation should never take the place of you making your own decisions on what you believe. Society has no right to dictate those choices to you. Society can use our legal system to set some boundaries and minimum standards but beyond that, it is up to each person to take personal responsibility for their own freedom and determine these choices for themselves.
Do not take this privilege lightly. It is a heavy responsibility.