As always, the readers are invited to discuss, and maybe even provide a final, definitive answer.
Here’s the problem: government and the church are two different things, given to us by God to accomplish different purposes. What is true for one might or might not be true of the other.
For example, there are plenty of things that are plainly sins that few of us would want the government to criminalize. For example —
* Failure to attend church
* Sex outside of marriage by heterosexual consenting adults
Now, as a Christian and an observer of humanity, I am adamantly opposed to sex outside of marriage by heterosexual consenting adults. And did you notice that there’s not a good word for that anymore? I mean, I once would have said “premarital sex,” but rarely is sex outside of marriage premarital — that is, in most cases, no one has the least intention of being married in the future just because they’re having sex now.
And I once would have said “fornication,” but the scriptural meaning of the word is much broader, and it sounds so King James Version. Even modern Bible translations no longer say “fornication.” They say “sexual immorality,” which is more accurate and is much broader than what we used to call premarital sex.
I can’t say “extramarital sex” because that really means adultery, as in “extramarital affair.”
And our language reveals our culture. But I digress.
So if it’s wrong, why not make it illegal? In fact, few people realize that states criminalized sex outside of marriage by heterosexual couples until just recently. I think Alabama repealed its statute about 1977 or 78, when it recodified the Code of Alabama and “forgot” to include the old criminal statute in the new Code.
Why not openly repeal the statute? Because the conservative Christians would have been upset. Why not leave it on the books? Because it was 1977 and a huge percentage of the children of the Alabama legislature were engaged in sex outside of marriage — making the statute excellent for blackmail but useless for enforcing. There’d not been a prosecution under that law in human memory.
So why did the prosecutors refuse to prosecute such cases? Why did the police refuse to make arrests under the statute? Because they had children, too.
Now, most of the legislators, prosecutors, and police probably considered sex outside of marriage by heterosexual couples wrong, but none saw any benefit at all to making it criminal. Rather, they considered this a part of our lives where the government had no business.
God has plenty of business in being involved with our sexuality. Make no mistake. But the Alabama legislature is not God. Not even close. Who really wants their sex lives governed by the criminal justice system?
Around the time of the American Revolution, there were some cities and states that made it illegal to skip church on Sunday morning. There were police hired to go from house to house to make sure people attended church. After all, if God wants us in church, shouldn’t the government help God out?
Ah … but there’s the problem. It in fact does not help God even a little bit to make people attend church under penalty of jail. God wants our love. He wants our hearts. And if we attend out of fear of jail, God is no more pleased than if we slept in. It just doesn’t work and cannot work.
So we see that there are some sins where God would not be helped if the government criminalized the sin. In such a case, clearly the church should not be asking the legislature to pass laws to enforce church attendance. Or daily Bible reading. Or even banning lust or envy. Again, if we don’t refrain from lust and envy out of love for God, then we are still sinners. Indeed, if our motivation is jail (or hell), then we are acting out of self-interest, not love, and so we’re no better as Christians.
But, obviously enough, there are some sins that the government quite properly criminalizes — such as murder and theft. And like envy, these are found in the Ten Commandments, too.
So there’s a line. That is, there are some sins that are properly criminalized by the government. Indeed, these sins really should be criminalized for government to be good government. And there are sins that only God can deal with — that are outside of the legitimate purposes of government.
So how is the line drawn?