Naegeli’s Law: Legality Does Not Equal Morality

September 5, 2013

Naegeli’s Law: Making something legal does not necessarily make it moral.

I am energized by the latest “The Edwards Epistle”—sent out to friends of Dr. Jim Edwards of Whitworth University—which focuses on the topic “The Difference between Legal and Moral.” Every quarter or so, Jim (with the help of Rev. Phil Olson and team) sends out a two- to four-page essay on a particular topic. This missive is always worth reading, pondering, appreciating, and passing along. Yes, it is the snail-mail equivalent of a blog; I have a big fat file folder collected, treasured, and consulted over the years. So Jim, if you are reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks for your effort, intellectual gifts, spiritual passion, and good biblical and historical sense. The church should be very grateful for your clear reasoning and insight.

Jim has provided me with a great launch pad for blog discussion in preparation for the 221st General Assembly.  Yes, it is that time of year. Vacations are over, presbyteries are meeting again, and organizations are making their plans for PCUSA’s next biennial decision-making meeting scheduled for next June 14-21 in Detroit. After summarizing his essay, I would like to address the questions the essay raises for us Presbyterians relating to our identity as a church body, our mission in the world, and our moral authority.

Jim Edwards reflects on his summer tour of Reformation and German Church Struggle sites in Germany. In particular, he describes the villa in Wannsee, where on January 20, 1942, fifteen German leaders determined “a total solution to the Jewish question.” Some of the most notorious figures in Nazi Germany (like Adolf Eichmann) were present at this meeting, but noteworthy was the inclusion of the unassuming Dr. Gerhard Klopfer, “Permanent Secretary, Department III, State Affairs.” He was a lawyer who drafted the legislation that made the Holocaust legal, opening the door to a transformation of German infrastructure to facilitate the extermination of millions of people. Jim observes:

The presence of a man like Klopfer at the Wannsee Conference makes it much more terrifying than it would be if only Eichmanns were present. Not many of us are like Eichmann, but it is easy to be like Klopfer. Indeed, it is hard not to be like him. We do not know to what degree he was aware—or whether aware at all—of the gap between legality and morality. From our perspective, the gap was catastrophic. In this respect . . . he is a graphic reminder that the question of legality cannot be properly answered apart from the larger and ultimate question of morality.

The PCUSA is under terrific pressure, now that marriage laws have changed in thirteen states, to declare same-sex marriage morally acceptable, even something to be celebrated by the church. [A reminder is in order here: gay marriage is explicitly banned in thirty-five states.] Overtures to change our Directory for Worship to refer to marriage “between two persons” are expected in June’s debates. But I am hoping that a sufficient number of commissioners will be equipped to argue that “making something legal does not necessarily make it moral,” and in the case of same-sex marriage, its legality in some states simple calls the church to rise to its prophetic calling and declare gay marriage inconsistent with God’s intention for humankind.

As a Theology Matters email points out this week, history has demonstrated that even those social movements that seem inevitably successful have been turned back by the moral resistance of people who believe God’s Word has more authority than permissive laws. Take the abortion issue as an example. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, many states have availed themselves of the opening SCOTUS gave them to regulate the practice after the point of viability and certainly after 28 weeks gestation.  The still-staggering abortion rate nevertheless has decreased to its lowest rate ever (through 2009, as far as CDC data go), and Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project continues to show that approximately half the U.S. population views abortion as morally wrong (and only 15% consider it morally acceptable). Support for the legality of abortion before the 28th week remains strong, but its practice evokes a moral dilemma. Even the Democratic Party platform has reflected this dilemma by promoting the legality of abortion but also reducing the need for it: “Safe, legal, and rare.”

While the trends nationally seem to be shifting slowly, what has been the responsibility of the church in this debate and other social issues all along? It is the church’s calling—whether or not we have actually done it— to believe and proclaim what is right in the eyes of God, instructed by the Scriptures. Our job is not to be relevant or to tickle people’s ears with messages they want to hear. Our mission is to demonstrate and proclaim the grace and truth of the gospel to this generation (F-1.0304). The only way the PCUSA can minister with moral authority is by acting in obedience to Scripture, our only rule of faith and practice, regardless of the prevailing winds of the world (F-3.0107). Doing so puts the PCUSA in a counter-cultural position, but isn’t that where we are supposed to be? We must let God define for us what love is, what marriage is, what is expected of human beings, what is important in life, and what is moral. We’re the church and God is God. We’re about furthering his agenda, not our own. The world has legalized all sorts of activities that are not morally clean, ostensibly under the protections of the U.S. Constitution.

The job of the church is to hold out to folks—otherwise confused, conflicted, addicted, or enslaved—an alternative, biblical worldview. In Christ we possess true freedom and the power to live rightly, but believing this and acting on its truth is where we get stuck. Why this is so is tomorrow’s subject.


11 Responses to “Naegeli’s Law: Legality Does Not Equal Morality”

  1. Patty June MD Says:

    A good article except for factual error on Roe vs Wade which legalized abortion throughout the entire pregnancy though it allowed states to put some restrictions on the third trimester (I think they were using 28 weeks as the cutoff after which restrictions were allowed.)

  2. Steve N. Says:

    When I read that GA was in Detroit the sarcastic side of me could not help but see the irony of Detroit, the city that is bankrupt hosting GA.

  3. Jodie Says:

    Humm… This is pretty old and tired territory, but the question on the table is not whether same should be legalized because it is moral.

    As a Nation, we no longer ascribe to the assumption that same sex marriage is immoral. The claim that it is not moral because of some biblical interpretation, or assumption regarding the divine authorship of the Bible, is no longer sufficient. Certainly not sufficient to the secular world. There needs to be a more universal standard for morality that people can identify with before making such a claim. Otherwise, who is to say if perhaps the Koran should be the standard.

    You have given an almost universally accepted standard for an immorality in the legalization of the Holocaust. (Even Holocaust deniers accept the assumption that the Holocaust was immoral – why else do they deny it?)

    But to quote the internal politics of the PCUSA in the same breath as the internal politics of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, as if one reminds us of the other, is itself immoral. It demonizes deeply devout disciples of Jesus, and it trivializes the singular horrors of WW2 in such a way as to somehow suggest they were comprehensible and even banal – Is trying to decide whether same sex marriage is moral somehow like trying to decide if the genocide of all the Jews moral? May it never be! How can you even think the two thoughts at the same time in the same brain?!?!

    I am not nearly as offended at the immorality of demonizing the Church (it’s just hyperbolic rhetoric) as I am at the immorality of trivializing the Holocaust.

    That can never be allowed. Not now, not ever.

    The Holocaust is the extreme consequence of unbridled xenophobia, scape goat thinking, and class hatred. It is, and should forever remain, in a category of its own. Mentioned only in comparison to other instances of genocide, or as a cautionary tale against what can happen when human beings really reject Grace and let Hatred poison their hearts.

    • Fred17 Says:

      Since you obviously have little respect for the Bible you fit right in the PCUSA. A real description of what two men do is never made in this argument. What God thinks doesn’t seem to count either. And since Christ is only one way to get there his opinion wouldn’t count either

      • Jodie Says:

        Fred, I don’t follow your train of thought. You are quite wrong about my respect for the Bible. And I am all for bringing the word of God to life, which is why I follow this blog. However, trivializing the holocaust does nothing to bring the word of God to life, nor does it put a light unto the feet of the PCUSA.

  4. Jodie Says:

    Missing phrase: ” the question on the table is not whether same sex marriage should be considered moral because it is legal, but whether it should be legalized because it is moral”

  5. Appalling to compare in any way shape or form either Roe v.Wade or same sex marriage with the Holocaust. What could you possibly be thinking? And before someone trots out the number of aborted children in some comparison with the millions who were gassed please pause to ask if that kind of calculus can have a shred of the Gospel to it.

    Regarding same sex marriage I understand it to be a faithful fulfillment to the Genesis blessing of humanity as made in God’s image followed by the conversation in the second creation narrative which summons forth a partner because ‘it is not good that you should be alone.’

    I don’t know Joei but appreciated her comments. As to the sarcasm regarding Detroit it might provide pause in this column to ponder the way in which the city is not so much a caution to the PCUSA but another example of the difference between the legal and the moral. Except in the case of Detroit both immoral policy and illegal corruption were twinned.

  6. Bob McAnally Says:

    A link to the text of James Edwards artical on-line:

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