Seven Theses on a Missional Approach to Law
In response to some of my “Law” posts here at Jesus Creed, a few commenters have expressed consternation over my criticism of some “conservative” Christian perspectives on the law. As I’ve tried to express in response to some of those comments, my primary concerns have to do with how “law” is understood in relation to the mission of God. As I’ve said before, in my very humble opinion, the North American Church’s participation in the “culture wars” over the past thirty years or so has been, by and large, missionally unproductive at best.
At times, I might agree with the “conservative” perspective on what the law ideally should say – as I do, for example, concerning the law of abortion. However, even in those cases I’m often troubled by the place legal advocacy seems to occupy in “conservative” political theology, by the methods and rhetoric used to advance that theological agenda, and by the effects these dynamics have on spiritual formation in the Church. And, it’s true that, in some cases, I think the “conservatives” are advancing political priorities that fail to reflect what I understand from scripture, tradition, reason and experience to represent a faithful reflection of God’s priorities.
In short, I think the political theology that prevails in the North American Church is insufficiently “missional.”
In this post, I’d like to advance some very preliminary theses about what a “missional theology of law” should look like. What do you think about these Seven Theses? How does “law” relate to the “mission of God?” What should a “missional theology of law” encompass?
The Seven Theses on a
Missional Approach to Law
“positive law” here means simply “law enacted by human beings pursuant
to human governmental authority”)
1. Positive law plays only a limited role in God’s
economy of salvation. Neither
individual human beings nor human culture can be redeemed through positive law
in itself. A missional theology of
law therefore can never mistake law for mission.
2. Positive law can, however, help check the spread
of evil, serve as a reminder of the good, and facilitate God’s mission of
liberating human beings from the powers of sin and oppression. A missional theology of law therefore will emphasize the
law’s liberating potential.
3. Positive law is provisional and temporary. In the eschaton, when God will be all
in all, the nature and function of positive law itself will be taken up by God
and transformed. A missional
theology of law therefore will not have law as its ultimate telos.
4. Positive law is contextual and incarnational. Although just laws always spring from
universal moral principles, positive law always represents the mediation of
moral principles into a particular historical and cultural moment. A missional theology of law therefore
will remain wary of absolutist claims about what the positive law should say in
any historical moment or context.
5. Positive law is bounded by human limitations and
by sin. The natural weaknesses of
human knowledge and perception limit the human ability to craft law that will
comprehensively address all wrongs.
Moreover, the pervasiveness of sin means that an ideal legal regime can
never be realized prior to the eschaton.
Legal policy decisions inevitably involve choices among competing ideals
and suboptimal alternatives. A
missional theology of law therefore will always be both ever reforming and
6. Positive law derives its legitimacy primarily
from its consistency with God’s character and secondarily from the consent of
the governed. A law that is
consistent with God’s character but that is not supported by a broad public
consensus ultimately will undermine the rule of law. A missional theology of law therefore will avoid the
extremes of theonomic /
reconstructionist and libertarian approaches to law.
7. Positive law does not derive its legitimacy or
authority from the Church or from any ecclesial body or structure. When the Church seeks the enactment of
laws that do not enjoy a broad consensus of public support, this compromises
both the rule of law and the missionary posture of the Church, even when such
laws are otherwise consistent with God’s character. A missional
theology of law therefore will insist that legal and political advocacy embody
the virtues of humility, patience, willingness to suffer, and regard for the