In April 1521 Martin Luther was summoned before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms to recant. It was there that he uttered his famous words:
I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
As the historian, Scott H. Hendrix, wrote:
This was not, however, a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or for religious freedom. Though already excommunicated by Rome, Luther saw himself as a sworn teacher of Scripture who must advocate the right of all Christians to hear and live by the gospel.
Luther’s point was that once a person becomes a Christian his or her conscience must at all times be governed by the scriptures and a quickened conscience will always reflect the Scriptures. Today we live in a world where it seems that almost every man does what is right in his own eyes, just as they did in Israel at the end of the book of Judges. It is easy in such circumstances to confuse what is a genuine matter of freedom of conscience between Christians and what is a fundamental of the faith over which the Bible must govern our conscience.
Primary and Secondary Issues
Paul teaches us to rightly divide the Word of Truth and I have no doubt that if we do so then we can find the truth out about every doctrine in the Bible. Notwithstanding, Christians have a different view on a whole range of issues from the existence of hell as a place of eternal torment to the age of the earth, whether the church has replaced Israel, whether Christians should experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit and whether evangelicals should unite with Roman Catholics for evangelism. To what extent is there freedom of conscience to individuals in regard to such issues?
Plainly we cannot preach the gospel with others where there is disagreement over a doctrine which is foundational to salvation. This prevents us joining with Roman Catholics who believe in salvation through the sacraments rather than salvation through faith alone, in Christ alone, although this would not prevent us acting as co-belligerents on certain pro-life issues which do not require us coming together as Christians. It will prevent some of us joining with those who preach annihilation because the fear of judgment is diluted if not removed altogether. This subject demands much fuller treatment but I touch on it in passing to establish the ground-rule of conscience. In short it is this: we must allow freedom of conscience to other Christians on any issue where the breach does not affect the eternal destiny of a soul or as the Puritans put it, freedom of conscience in things indifferent. Or again are these issues primary or secondary ones? If they are primary, then they cannot be issues of conscience over which Christians can disagree because the Bible is clear that the unrighteous shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven but will instead be consigned to the Lake of Fire.
Application to Contemporary Legal Issues
How do we apply these principles to the contemporary topics such as homosexual relationships, and/or marriage, abortion and euthanasia? Are these areas where evangelicals can agree to disagree and remain in fellowship?
Today we have a multitude of such laws that allow immoral practices. They range from abortion, to granting rights to unmarried heterosexual couples, to civil partnerships for homosexual couples (in which they are granted virtually all the same rights as heterosexual married couples) to adoption by homosexual couples and the use of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment which not only involves the destruction of human embryos but can also involve the mixing of anonymous persons’ gametes. The list is getting steadily longer.
It should not be necessary to explain to genuine Christians why each of these laws is contrary to the law of God except to those who have not looked into the issues. In relation to abortion and IVF the Bible is clear that life starts at conception8. Since both of these practices involve destroying human life they are forbidden by the 6th Commandment which says: “You shall not Murder” (Exodus 20:13 read with Matthew 5:19). Taking any human life, no matter how young or old is murder. In relation to giving rights to unmarried couples, whether homosexual or heterosexual, this is wrong because it involves the State rewarding immoral sexual conduct.
Support for Immoral Laws by the Church
Christians have been hesitant to criticise such laws and some have even welcomed them. Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, has made a number of valid points against homosexual marriage in an article called Real Marriage, which was posted on the Sydney Anglicans’ website in August 2011. However this is how he begins that article:
Over the years, I’ve said little about same-sex relationships. My opposition is known but I hope I put my views with respect. I have supported legislation to register relationships and to extend economic rights. I condemn violence against homosexual people. Like most Australians, I prefer to live and let live.
Peter Jensen’s attitude reflects that of Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby who has campaigned for several years for relationships registers for both heterosexual and homosexual couples as a way of preventing homosexual marriages. We only have to see the effect of civil partnerships as a stepping-stone to homosexual marriage in the UK to realise that this was always going to be a futile hope. In September I wrote to Peter Jensen expressing my dismay. His Executive Officer, Dr Philip Seldon, gave me a gracious response justifying the Archbishop’s position on the grounds that he could not “realistically oppose what was seen as a matter of justice”. This is deeply troubling when one considers the church’s duty to speak out on the Bible’s justice for those committing sexual immorality, which is eternal damnation just as it is for all who commit sin and do not repent. It is only from that stance we can proclaim the mercy available through Jesus Christ.
The Duty of Government under Romans 13
For Christians to encourage the Government to pass laws that encourage immorality is to deny our calling to be salt and light and instead we become salt that has lost its saltiness. It also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of the State which is so clearly set out in Romans 13. The Government is appointed by God to punish evil and reward good behaviour. The New Testament is silent about the precise nature of the laws that should be passed and the penalties that should be attached when they are broken. There is good reason for this since the penalties in the Old Testament were designed to keep Israel as a Holy Nation and this could only be done by despatching evildoers or otherwise punishing them. However Christ has now fulfilled the law and borne the penalty of our sins. Whereas Old Testament Israel was a theocracy the Church and State are now separate (although constitutionally Britain is a kind of theocracy with the Queen as both head of state and head of the established church). The only penalty for sinful or heretical conduct within the church in the New Testament is excommunication although the ultimate penalty for the impenitent is eternal hell.
For a state to pass laws that promote or encourage evil behaviour (as defined by the Bible) is for the state to deny its God given mandate to punish evil and reward good behaviour. Isaiah summed it up perfectly when he condemned such ungodly law making in the Old Testament:
Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil; that substitute darkness for light, and light for darkness; that substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter - Isaiah 5:20.
Woe to them that enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unrighteous decisions - Isaiah 10:1.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Sodom and Gomorrah were both located in Canaan and we know that widespread immorality was practised there including homosexual sin of a grievous kind15. We do not know precisely the nature of their laws except that they did not have the effect of curbing this behaviour at all. In Leviticus 18:3 the Lord warned Moses:
... after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, you shall not do: neither walk in their statutes.
It is significant that the rest of the chapter included laws against the same sexual immorality that was rife in Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Tyranny of Godless Laws
There can be no mandate for any ruler to govern outside the authority of God’s Word. When it does then the result is tyranny as it became in Sodom and Gomorrah. Great constitutional crises came to England when that was attempted by James I and then by his son Charles I in the 17th Century. Under James II it eventually led to the Glorious Revolution in 1689 and the crowning of William of Orange as King of England. In The True Law of Free Monarchies written in 1598 James I wrote that the monarch is “the absolute master of the lives and possessions of his subjects; his acts are not open to inquiry or dispute and no misdeeds can ever justify resistance” .
This theory was to be put to the test in 1608 when the common law courts issued prohibitions to curb the power of the Ecclesiastical Court. This led James I, as head of the Church of England and therefore head of the Ecclesiastical Court, to call together judges and bishops to a meeting of the Privy Council for him to decide the issue. James I told Sir Edward Coke, then Chief Justice, that judges were “but delegates of the King, and that the King may take what causes he shall please from the determination of the judges and may determine them himself” .
Coke asserted –
... the King in his own person cannot adjudge any cases... (cases) ought to be determined and adjudged in some court of justice according to the law and custom of England.
After being accused of treason by James I, Coke responded with a quotation of Henry de Bracton, a mediaeval legal philosopher that the King should not be under any man, but “sed sub Deo et Lege”. In other words a King could not rule as he liked; being under God also meant being under the Laws of the land.
This, of course, would not make sense unless those laws also reflected the Laws of God because otherwise the King would not be the ruler of his people under God, in accordance with Romans 13, but instead ruled over by his subjects who dictate the law. However imperfect the laws of the land were in those days Christianity was considered to be an integral part of them.
This principle that a Monarch was subject to the laws of God was reflected in the trial of Charles I in 1649 while he was still King of England. Despite losing two Civil Wars against Parliament his sole purpose was to abrogate powers residing with Parliament to himself. Charles’ only real argument against being tried for treason, murder and tyranny in 1649 was that the court had no jurisdiction to try him because he was the only lawful authority encapsulated in “Rex est Lex” (the King is Law).
When it came to passing sentence against Charles I following his conviction, the judge, Chief Justice Bradshaw, explained to him that “for the crime of murder the common law of England and the law of God laid down the sentence of death and it laid down for everyone, kings not excepted”. Genesis 9:6 demonstrates that no man is above the law of God and answers a tyrant who believes that by virtue of being the head of a nation he is above any other law and can take life with impunity. The Bible makes it clear that no man is above the Law of murder and that the blood of the murderer is required at the hand of the lawfully established authority (Romans 13).
Mike Ovey, Principal of Oak Hill Theological College, related the breaking of God’s law to the imposition of tyranny in this way when speaking at the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship Annual Dinner in 2006:
... the ‘tyrant’ is one who repudiates law in the way he or she exercises authority. Tyranny in that sense can arise in any arena where God has called humans to exercise authority, in family, state or church. The point is if I am a tyrant I throw off the law by which God regulates those areas. I may do that by claiming an authority God has delegated to another. I may do it by exercising an authority God has given me in a way He has forbidden. At that point I have become arbitrary, out with the law, a tyrant, a defier, not an observer of law.
English Common Law
Sir William Blackstone was the great compiler of the English common law. He was Chief Justice of England from 1770 to 1780 and made the same point in a different way in his Commentaries on the Laws of England:
... if any human law should allow or enjoin us to transgress the natural or divine law then we are bound to transgress the human law, or else we must offend both the natural and divine.
When Government ceases to rule consistently with God’s law then we must have nothing to do with those laws. Returning to Mike Ovey’s speech to the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship:
I wonder whether we are so astute in asking whether we have been complicit with tyranny in this strict sense, a lawless exercise of lawfully delegated power. That would be a tragedy, would it not—for lawyers to be complicit in lawlessness?
Application to Today’s Laws
Let us try and apply this principle of tyranny to abortion. What justification can a judge have for authorising an abortion or a doctor for performing it? The taking of life is murder24. Furthermore Genesis 9:6 requires that a lawful authority must punish those who perform the act. The Government’s failure to do so is ultimately no protection for that judge or doctor before God, just as Pilate washing his hands of Christ’s death did not absolve him from his personal responsibility.
Several Christians have been forced out of their jobs recently because they have refused to implement national laws that break God’s moral law. Lilian Ladele was sacked because she refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies between homosexuals; Gary McFarlane was sacked for refusing to provide sexual therapy counsel to same sex partners. Their cases are shortly to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights where the issue to be decided is whether the UK has breached their rights to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention. Yet the real issue in these cases is that the law should not be protecting sinful behaviour in the first place. While these cases will be pleaded as cases where the Government should respect the consciences of these Christians, there is in truth no freedom of conscience for Christians to do other than refuse to follow laws that break the Law of God as Martin Luther made plain at the Diet of Worms.
In Acts 4 Peter and John were forbidden by the High Priest’s Council to preach the Gospel. Peter refused to obey in these words (v19):
Whether it be right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.
The reality is that we are living under a similar tyranny to that which the Stuart kings tried to impose where the king became law irrespective of God’s law. The difference is that the Stuarts believed that they had a divine mandate to make the law whereas today’s government derives its authority from secular humanism. The justifications may be different but the results are the same: a tyranny resulting from the government abrogating to itself the power to make laws independent of God’s laws. The Psalmist makes it clear that God will not be mocked:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sits in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision - Psalm 2 vv. 1-4.
Jesus prayed in John 17 that His people would not be taken out of the world but instead kept from evil. This is the challenge for us in a world, which is in rebellion against God where part of that rebellion involves enacting laws in defiance of the Royal Law of God.
If we implement laws that reward evil then we become agents of tyranny and of a system that is opposed to God and which will, in the final analysis, be judged by Him. If we are to keep clear consciences then we can have no part in implementing laws that directly reward sin (by granting benefits to people based on their sinful conduct alone such as same-sex marriage or same sex adoption) or directly lead to sin being committed (such as laws to end life through either abortion, IVF, or euthanasia).
As Paul wrote in Romans 2:13:
For not the hearers of the law are just before God but the doers of the law shall be justified.
It is therefore not enough merely to disapprove of the ungodly laws we may be called upon to implement but we must demonstrate our disapproval in our conduct by refusing to implement them.
Support for any form of legal recognition of homosexual or (unmarried) heterosexual relationships is against God's law, and is therefore a non negotiable position for Christians who take God's word seriously. Therefore one must conclude that they should not be countenanced by any Christian, let alone an evangelical archbishop of the Anglican church or the leader of an organisation which calls itself 'The Australian Christian Lobby'.
That will leave many laws that are themselves neutral but may lead in individual cases to sinful results, such as for instance, renting a room to a homosexual couple or selling them a house where the thing transacted is morally neutral but which nevertheless facilitates their sin. There will be cases where it is not clear-cut whether a Christian is facilitating sin and we should, in my view, always err on the side of generosity in allowing Christians the maximum freedom to decide themselves how to respond to these issues of conscience. However there is a line to be drawn which no Christian should cross as the previous paragraph demonstrates.
Paul was able to say in Acts 24:16:
And herein I do my best to always have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.
Let us all, as Christians, pray for each other that our consciences will be captive to the Word of God and that we will not unwittingly become agents of tyranny.
About The Author
Mark Mullins is a practising barrister at the Bar of England and Wales, who is frequently called upon by the BBC and others to represent the Christian position in debate and discussion in the media. He is also an elder at Stroud Green Christian Assembly (a traditional Pentecostal church started out of a Smith Wigglesworth crusade in the 1920s). The Assembly has had links with CWM since CWM was formed (www.sgca-online.org).
Thank you! You are now Subscribed.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.