So Augustine, Aquinas and King agree that we, as Christians and free people are not required to follow human laws that do not comply with the natural moral law

. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

That's well and good for the evil that men do, but what about the pointless things that men do. Both in terms of the laws of government like those dictating the use of butter substitutes in the dairy state and those edicts in our every day lives and offices such as, "all men on yhe second floor must poop in the basement even though there's a bathroom close by"?

Does the natural law, which has a lot to say about man's inherent dignity, override ones moral duties to follow laws and command which are, not wicked or unjust, but just either below ones dignity to follow, not a matter of gracious obedience or self-perfection, or just plain dumb?

  • 2
    There may (or may not) be reasons, current or historic, for rules that can be seen as "silly"; maybe, for building-specific logistics reasons, it really does make sense to use the basement toilets. Maybe the toilets are out on 3, 4 & 5, and "your" toilet is the closest to them. There's probably something about "beware pride" here, before you assume something is "beneath ones dignity".
    – Marc Gravell
    Oct 15 '12 at 11:48

I'm not sure about an answer that applies to all of Christianity. but as it happens, the subject of obeying rules we think are dumb came up in Sunday School this very morning. So, from a Baptist perspective:

Romans 13:1-2 (KJV) says

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves judgment.

There is no mention in Scripture of a principle by which we are allowed to ignore authority because we don't understand a rule/law, or because we think it's silly. The only exception is if the law goes directly against the Law of God. We would be allowed to disobey an authority that tried to force us to worship idols, for example, or commit adultery, murder, etc.

But we would be completely unjustified in disobeying a law that required us to wear a giant panda bear as a hat in honor of National Panda day, as wearing such a hat is not against the Law of God. It's silly, but not amoral.

Dignity, in one sense, is a matter of pride, and therefore selfishness, and is not a justifiable defense. There is no concept of personal dignity being equal to God's law.

The above statement does not include the basic dignity that all human beings are afforded as creations of a loving God. The dignity I'm referring to is the pride masquerading as dignity. As in "I'm too dignified for that", or "Such silliness is beneath me". That's completely different than dignity in the sense that we have intrinsic value as human beings - creations of a loving God. The dignity that we should not be discriminated against or denied entry because some bigot thinks we have less intrinsic value

As a matter of fact, the Bible gives a few very clear examples of where a person is told to do something that seems silly and undignified on God's command. One such example is in 2 Kings 5 where Naaman is told to go dip himself in the Jordan seven times to be healed of his leprosy. He's told to go wash in the stinky, dirty, smelly Jordan, and he balks at first because it seems silly, but when he obeys, he is healed.

So, no, there is no justification for disobeying silly rules that we don't understand and think are undignified.

End of official answer

The rest of this may go beyond a doctrinal answer and into "Pastoral Advice", but I think it bears on the original question and puts it in a different light.

There is an importance in following authority as Christians as well, even if we see it as silly. For the Christian, the foundation of all authority is the fact that all authority is ordained by God, whether we agree with it or not.

For those of us with children, one of our responsibilities as parents it to teach them to respect, and be subject to authority, whether they like it or not. If they see us disrespecting and disobeying authority, how are we going to teach them that they must respect and obey it.

If they see us refusing to obey our boss, for example, how are we supposed to teach them to respect their teachers and future employers? We'd be hypocrites, and our children see through that pretty quickly.

Likewise, our peers see though our hypocrisy as well, so from the perspective of letting Christ shine through us, we would be bound to honor silly laws in the name of not being a stubmling block for others.

  • Doesn't Martin Luthet King represent a Baptist perspective?
    – Peter Turner
    Oct 14 '12 at 22:16
  • 1
    Yes, Dr. King would represent a Baptist perspective. I think I see where you're going with that question, and I'd point out that there's a big difference between silly laws (like the ones posed in the question) and those that allow for the oppression of a group of people. The dignity that should be afforded to all people is a valid concept espoused in the U.S. declaration of independence. That is far different than laws that are simply silly, like the butter law. Two completely types of dignity. Oct 14 '12 at 23:25
  • I modified the answer a bit to make the distinction. Oct 15 '12 at 0:10

I agree that just versus unjust is an insufficient classification for this purpose. Let me suggest three categories:

Just laws: Those that reiterate God's laws, like laws against murder and theft. This is the easy case. Of course we should obey these. Even if the government didn't make such a law, we should be doing this anyway because we are obeying God's law.

Unjust laws: Laws that require us to do something God has forbidden or forbid us to do something that God has required. The Bible clearly says that we must, as a matter of principle, disobey these. From Daniel defying the law that forbid him to pray to God to the Hebrew mid-wives refusing to kill babies, "we must obey God rather than men".

Administrative laws: When many people live together, at some point you need regulations to keep society functioning smoothly. Like, "drive on the right side of the street". There is nothing fundamentally immoral or unethical about driving on the left side of the street. But for society to function smoothly, we all have to follow a convention, one side or the other. This implies that there must be some authority to establish the convention.

I think this is the type of law that Paul had in mind when he said to obey civil government. (Clearly Paul could not have meant that we should obey unjust laws, as he himself broke laws that the government considered serious enough that they called for capital punishment. Well, unless you suppose that Paul was a hypocrite, but it's not like he broke these laws for his own personal benefit, but rather as a matter of principle.)

At least in general, then, a Christian should obey administrative laws even if he thinks they are foolish. As others have noted, there is a certain arrogance in supposing that you know which laws are wise and which are foolish. Maybe the people who made the laws know more about the subject than you do. Of course, there is also an arrogance about government officials supposing that they know more about how people should run their lives than the people themselves do. I certainly would not say that all laws are good. Frankly I think most of the laws passed in the history of the world are bad.

But ... Sometimes people say, "We should obey the law as long as we believe that it is right." A moment's thought will show that this is no different from saying that we will ignore the law and do whatever we please. If I obey the law whenever the law tells me to do what I wanted to do anyway, and disobey the law when it tells me to do something that isn't what I wanted to do, how is this different from just doing whatever I want? The law is irrelevant. You're just saying that if the law happens to agree with what you wanted to do anyway, then you'll give lip service to the law.

I think the tough question is, At what point does a law cross the line from "foolish" to "unjust". That is, every foolish law, by definition, causes people some harm. The harm may be trivial. Like, perhaps you've seen the news stories lately about the police shutting down children's lemonade stands because the kids didn't have a food service permit. I think such laws are stupid. (If you disagree and think these are vital safeguards for public health, well, that's not the point here.) But the harm is minor. It interferes with kids ability to earn money and learn the value of work, but it doesn't cripple them for life. But many countries thoughout history have passed permit and licensing laws whose deliberate goal is to oppress some group of people. Like in the Middle Ages many countries in Europe prohibited Jews from owning land. The first minimum wage law in the United States was passed with the stated goal of preventing poor black people from taking jobs away from whites. Etc. At what point does a law cross the line from being a "stupid nuisance" to being "active oppression"? A law that requires someone to get a $10 permit to be allowed to start a business may or may not be rational and fair, but is surely not oppressive. Take that same law and change the fee to $10,000 and it quite arguably becomes a means to keep poor people from becoming independent. Change it to "$10 for white people and $100 for black people" and it clearly becomes racist. Etc.

  • An excellent answer IMO. A minor observation to one of the later paragraphs is that there's a subtlety between ignoring laws you disagree with, vs having an established process to re-evaluate the relevancy of laws. Also, I demand to see the tax returns of these lemonade sharks!
    – Marc Gravell
    Oct 16 '12 at 18:32
  • I had intended to answer this one, but you've beaten me to the intended meaning. New York state, by my understanding, actually makes a formal distinction between administrative laws (associated with fines) and penal laws (associated with prison) which matches your definitions fairly well. Oct 17 '12 at 15:28

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