When Human Laws Collide with Divine Laws

by Tim Haile

May 01, 2001

     I consider myself to be a "law and order" kind of person. I have several friends, and one brother in the flesh, who are in law enforcement. I appreciate the risks they take in protecting and preserving the rights of innocent, and often, defenseless people. I have always been quite comfortable around law enforcement officials, and I enjoy talking with them about their work.

     One does not have to be a Bible student to appreciate the need for civil authority. However, those who do know the Bible will certainly have a fuller appreciation of that authority. They understand that civil authority is a divine institution and is intended to serve a divine purpose. Well-ordered societies do not arise from chaos and anarchy. God tells us to pray for civil authorities that we may lead a "quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" (1 Tim. 2:2). The word translated "quiet" is a word that emphasizes tranquility arising from the absence of outward disturbance. The word translated "peaceable" emphasizes a tranquility arising from within (See W.E. Vine). It was a 10-year period of this kind of tranquility that allowed the churches of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria to be edified and to multiply (Acts 9:31).

What God "Ordained"

     Civil authority plays an important role in the establishment and maintenance of an ordered society. However, government only accomplishes this by complying with God's purpose. According to scripture, the government's purpose is to punish evildoers and reward those who do what is right (Rom. 13:1-4; 1 Pet. 2:14). Any government that fails or refuses to do this cannot be classified as a God ordained government. Generally speaking, when governments ignore God's purpose for their existence, and depart from their divinely specified role, they will soon begin to infringe upon citizen's rights, hindering their freedoms, crushing their spirits, and stifling their productivity.

     Many people have a misconception about what God actually appointed when He ordained the "higher powers." It is important to note that God did not ordain any particular government, nor did He ordain any specific form of government. God did not ordain a monarchy, as opposed to an aristocracy, or a timocracy, as opposed to a monarchy. He appointed the model or concept of civil government. This model was well described in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, when he spoke about "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Romans 13 describes a system of civil authority that is "not a terror to good works, but to evil." It "praises" those who do "that which is good" (Rom. 13:3). Such a government is "for" people. Peter wrote, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well" (1 Pet. 2:13-14). In "ordaining" the "higher powers" (governing authorities), God authorized the appointment and financial support (Rom. 13:7) of governing authorities for the purpose of punishing evildoers and upholding those who do what is right. He did not ordain tyranny. Thoreau said, "That government is best which governs least." I would modify this to say, "That government is best which fulfills its God-ordained role of punishing evildoers and praising well doers."

What God Did Not "Ordain"

     It should be noted that though God's word does specify the purpose of civil government, not all human governments conduct themselves according to this purpose.

     Informed people recognize that some governing authorities do not function within the range of God's revealed will. They do not respect His model. They do not carry out their role. God does not "ordain" state sponsored persecution of Christians. He does not "ordain" the indiscriminate slaughter of people based upon their ethnicity. He did not "ordain" the practices of Lenin, Stalin, Hussein, or Milosevic, nor does He ordain the current ethnic cleansing occurring in Mindanao, Philippines and in other places. God does not "ordain" the cruel and merciless slaughter of 1.5 million human babies every year in the US. He does not "ordain" the passage of a law that classifies deviant sexual behavior the same way it classifies race or color (cp. Rom. 1:26-27 with Gal. 3:28).

     It is important that people understand the limitations that God has placed upon governing authorities. Human lawmakers do have the right to pass "ordinances" that serve the purpose of maintaining order in society, but they do not have the right to pass ordinances that defy divine precepts or that deny divine permissions. When human lawmakers pass laws that contradict divine laws, they violate their God-ordained role. When it comes to the work of defining "good" and "evil" "there is one lawgiver, who is able to save and destroy: who art thou that judgest another?" (Jas. 4:12). This is God's work. It is not the work of the civil government.

What Do We Do When Man's Laws Collide With God's Laws?

     We are told exactly what to do in these areas of contradiction. Members of the early church were "straitly threatened" not to teach anymore in the name of Christ. Peter's response was clear. Regardless of who made the civil ordinance, and regardless of the consequences for refusing to comply with that ordinance, he and his companions could do nothing but "speak" what they had "seen and heard" (Acts 4:17-20). When the Jewish high priest later reminded Peter of the ordinance, he responded, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

     Paul's conduct in Acts 16 and 23 also demonstrates our God-given rights when dealing with unjust civil action or government abuse. Paul told the Thessalonians that he had been "shamefully entreated" at Philippi. According to Acts 16:37, while at Philippi, Paul and Silas had been unjustly beaten, both of them being, Roman citizens. Because of this, Paul refused to honor the magistrates' request to leave town quietly. Instead, he insisted that the officials come to the prison and escort them out of town. Furthermore, rather than leaving town immediately, as the magistrates "desired," Paul and Silas went to Lydia's house and spent enough time there to see the brethren and comfort them (Acts 16:40).

     In Acts 23:3, Paul criticized the high priest for pretending to judge him "according to the law," yet having him smitten "contrary to the law." Christians should oppose civil injustice. Neither should they comply with civil ordinances that trample over divine laws and liberties.

     Of course, Christians should comply with human ordinances in areas where divine laws are not compromised or contradicted (Titus 3:1). Order is maintained in a society when civil government attaches physical punishments to those crimes that infringe upon the rights of others. God has "ordained" that civil authorities "bear not the sword in vain." He authorizes governments to "execute wrath upon those who do evil" (Rom. 13:4). Problems only result when legislators and judges ignore their God-ordained purpose and proceed with their own agendas. Being "ordained of God" does not grant governing authorities the right to define morality or spirituality.

What About Overlapping Areas?

     There are some areas where human ordinances overlap divine ordinances. Practices like murder, theft and extortion, are condemned by God (Gal. 5:21; 1 Cor. 6:10), and they are also punishable crimes under many human legal systems. There are no problems in these areas of overlap as long as civil laws harmonize with divine laws and liberties.

Modern Divorce Laws: Inconsistent Overlap

     There is some overlap between God's law, and the laws of many human governments, on the subjects of marriage and divorce. However, mistakes are made when people attempt to apply civil law definitions to divine concepts, or when they attempt to interpret scripture from a civil law prejudice. These attempts at comparison are doomed to fail for a number of reasons, but for now, I wish to emphasize the fixedness of God's law in contrast with the fluidity of man's laws.

     In the US there are almost as many different divorce laws as there are states. Furthermore, because of reciprocity laws that exist between the states, if you don't like the divorce laws of your state, all you have to do is go somewhere else! Reciprocity laws mean there is no uniform procedure for obtaining a divorce. This is exactly why so many divorces are obtained in Las Vegas. Their liberal divorce laws, coupled with state reciprocity laws, have traditionally led many people to the state of Nevada when they want a quick and easy divorce. These divorces are granted by the state of Nevada to people who reside in other states. These divorces will be granted regardless of the reason, regardless of whether or not the divorced party has any knowledge of the divorce, and regardless of whether or not the divorced person consents to the divorce. This fact demonstrates to what extent human laws contradict divine laws on the subject of marriage and divorce.

     Regardless of where they live, all accountable people are "under the law to Christ" (1 Cor. 9:21). Consequently, these same humans are all answerable to Christ's laws governing marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Additionally, due to the directive of Romans 13:1-4, these people are also answerable to whatever civil codes that may apply in their particular jurisdiction. This would include marriage and divorce codes. As we said before, we have very little difficulty applying these two sets of laws where there are no contradictions. However, in our country there are several discrepancies between God's law and man's law on the subject of marriage and divorce. Those who are unfamiliar with the Bible may go through life oblivious to these contradictions, but conscientious Christians often struggle with them. Let us consider some of the differences.

Marriage and Divorce:
Differences Between Divine Law and Human Law

1. God's law says a marriage bond involves mutual agreement on the part of an eligible man and woman to "leave father and mother and be joined to one another" (Matt. 19:4-6). Man's law recognizes marriage as nothing more than a legal contract. In the eyes of the state, two people are considered married when they, before witnesses, agree to the legal contract, and properly fill out and file the appropriate court documents. As for eligibility requirements, civil courts are completely unconcerned with one's marital status. Anyone who is "legally" divorced has a legal right to marry.

2. God's law says marriage is for life (Rom. 7:2-3). Man's law says marriage is until one of the partners gets tired of it and wishes for any reason to dissolve it.

3. God's law says no divorce unless it is "for fornication" (Matt. 19:9). Man's law says one may divorce his mate for any cause. "No-cause, no-fault" divorce laws exist in almost every state in America.

4. God's law says the right of remarriage is reserved for the innocent person who put away their unfaithful mate "for fornication." Man's law says every legally divorced person is free to remarry.

5. God's law says the putting away must be for the cause of fornication. Man's courts will rarely permit this cause to be stated on the legal divorce document.

      Incidentally, some people argue that biblical "putting away" is the legal document. If they are correct, and given that some courts will not allow the cause of fornication to be stated on the legal document, then these people are forced to conclude that human judges have the power to strike down a divine liberty.

6. God's law says that the act of fornication by one's spouse, grants the innocent party the right to either "put" the unfaithful mate "away," and marry another, or to reconcile with the unfaithful mate. Man's law totally ignores these divinely given privileges, granting the divorce to the one who initiates the civil proceedings. There is an utter contradiction. The two laws are not compatible on this point.


     Regardless of the number or size of disparities that may exist between human and divine laws, one thing remains constant - God's word. Human laws and court procedures may change with the seasons, but God's law is forever established and unchangeable (Ps. 119:89; 1 Pet. 1:25; Matt. 24:35). Let us follow and obey man's rules insofar as they permit us to follow and obey God's laws. In areas of contradiction we must resolve to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matt. 6:33). We must "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

Tim Haile
7693 Russellville Rd.
Bowling Green, KY 42101

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