Have you noticed how frequently ethical debates these days start—and end—with the question “Is it legal?”? Maybe I’m just hearing it more because I live in Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized for not only medicinal but also recreational use. Pot shops are everywhere in my town, signified by their big green cross logo (same shape as the Red Cross has used for 150 years, only green). Law enforcement is trying to come to terms with what our Amendment 64 actually did or did not authorize. (The edibles—pot-laced brownies, cookies, gummy bears et al—are now 45 percent of the state’s marijuana business.) The ski industry, so important to our economy, is wondering whether all this is going to help or hurt their business this winter. Will moms and dads opt to take their kids skiing next door in Utah instead?

But this is not a blog about marijuana per se. (Maybe some other time.) I actually got started thinking about this last month when the U.S. Senate committee released its report on the CIA’s torturing (or not) of captured terrorists. The whole public dialogue seemed to center on two pragmatic questions:

  1. Was it effective? In other words, did it “work”? Did we get valuable information out of those we waterboarded, confined to a small crate with insects, chained naked and standing to a wall for days on end, etc.? If so, many said that the end justified the means, and besides, these were really wicked people to begin with.
  2. Was it legal? Various lawyers weighed in to say that, in their reading of the law, the actions fell within statutory boundaries.

Once again, this is not a blog about the use of torture. (Definitely some other time!)

My larger point is that human laws are generally quite clumsy at controlling misconduct. Try as we might, we often can’t find the exact wording to stop bad stuff while allowing our legitimate freedoms to breathe. The most brilliant legislative minds simply cannot think up enough laws to make all 323 million of us behave ourselves all the time. Time and again we mutter the popular saying, “There oughta be a law!” (the name of an actual Sunday comic when I was a kid)—but there isn’t.

Some Christians champion the wisdom of the Ten Commandments, wanting to post them on every courthouse wall and schoolhouse corridor. Certainly in these statements God gave us a worthy guide to living. But think for a moment … how many of them are backed up by legal ordinances in America today? I can identify only three.

  • Thou shalt not murder.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not give false testimony [in court] against thy neighbor.

The other seven are apparently permissible. We used to have laws about honoring Sunday (Commandment #4), but those have pretty much faded away. Twenty-one states still have laws against adultery (#7), but they’re almost never enforced. The Puritans had laws against misusing God’s name (#3), but those are long gone.

And how would you even write a law against coveting (#10)? How would you forbid the dishonoring of father and mother (#5) in any enforceable way? As for worshiping other gods besides Yahweh (#1 and 2), we actually take pride in being a nation of “diversity” and “tolerance.”

Actually, if anyone should fully understand the clumsiness of laws, it should be those of us who claim to be New Testament Christians. We have a big Book that educates us in great detail, with multiple illustrations, about “what the law was powerless to do, in that it was weakened by the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). A major point of the epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, among others, is this: Writing down rules and regulations in the hope of containing human behavior is a wearisome and, in the end, futile exercise. Listen to Galatians 3:21-22: “If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.”

We “who believe” have to be realistic about human conduct, and we also need to rise to a higher personal standard: the plumbline of God’s Word. American law will never encompass all that—nor could it. It will never find a way to ban the following:

  • Greed
  • Rage
  • Ignoring the poor, the fatherless, the foreigner
  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Divorce
  • Racial prejudice
  • Premarital and extramarital sex (of whatever variety) between consenting adults
  • Witchcraft
  • Intoxication (there are laws against public drunkenness, but not for private situations)

And you could no doubt add to this, with solid biblical documentation.

Charles Colson, the one-time Washington lawyer who realigned his whole perspective once he was arrested for Watergate offenses and came to terms with Christ, warned us before he died, “That’s one of the weaknesses of the Evangelical movement today—that it is so obsessed with politics. It believes that there’s got to be a political solution to everything.”

The thoughtful Christian knows better. Our fuller attention belongs to the pursuit of what is right, whether the law agrees or not. Only then will we “become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Phil. 2:15-16). Popular or unpopular, this is our high calling.