Human laws and our own humanness

Yesterday we talked about the danger of making laws where God hasn’t. I’m still not sure why we tend to take such things lightly. But Danny made an interesting observation: hardly anyone realizes that they are binding manmade laws on others. Rarely does anyone say, “I’m going to make a new law.”

Most of the time, we feel that we are merely applying the logical extension of another law. It’s like the Pharisees with their Sabbath traditions. They were trying to follow the commandment about keeping the Sabbath. They did so by creating a series of definitions of what was work and what wasn’t, what was allowed and what wasn’t. Then Jesus came and violated their manmade regulations… and they accused him of violating God’s law.

Our history is full of examples of laws laid down in the pursuit of holiness, some which seem quaint now. No movies. No “spot” cards (you could use Rook cards, but the other cards were for gambling). No “mixed bathing” (which I still oppose, though I have no problem with mixed swimming). No rock and roll. No smoking. No drinking. No dancing.

My great-grandfather allowed no dominoes on his property; they too could be used for gambling. He also forbade the reading of fiction, for fiction is a lie. When my mother was at ACU, women couldn’t wear polka dots; might draw the boys’ attention in a bad way.

As I said, these laws are an attempt to make it easier to fulfill God’s law. It’s easy for me to look at another man’s home-brewed laws and laugh; it’s harder for me to see them in myself. Here’s part of Danny’s comment from yesterday:

One hurdle, I think, is that hardly anyone (if anyone at all) sees himself as guilty of binding man-made commands. I suppose our core problem may be in recognizing them as merely that. It’s like we all have friends who need this post, but not us.

The yeast of the Pharisees is as bad as the yeast of the Saducees. I think we need to openly talk about the dangers of creating our own laws.

What attitudes can help us avoid the trap of creating new laws? What heart adjustments need to be made? How do we make them in ourselves, or what outlooks can we avoid personally? How do we walk the fine line between legalism and lawlessness?

13 thoughts on “Human laws and our own humanness

  1. Travis Flora

    I heard this described as using “plank logic” when I was a kid. You start with what is said, then when you add a logical extension, it’s like nailing a plank of wood on it. Then you take that, add another logical extension, nail another plank, etc. Pretty soon, the series of planks is sticking out pretty far from the original spot. I imagine a Wiley Coyote type cartoon, nailing one plank on another to make a bridge out over a canyon. Eventually, all those planks come crashing down. I’ve certainly seen my fair share of this in the church (haven’t we all?!!). Of course, the lessons I heard on this were aimed at the libruls and the logic used to support various unauthorized practices, so the argument works both ways (i.e. are we making new laws to ALLOW things, as well as CONDEMN things?). Best suggestion I have is to use the example of the noble Bereans: search the Scriptures to find out “is this what God REALLY said?”

  2. nick gill

    This is another place where the creep of “Restoring the Ancient Order of Things” from a minimalist worship model to a creed governing the whole of Christian life has created problems for us.

    If we believe that the methods we may select to do kingdom work are limited to the practices of the 1st century church, then we are much more likely to come up with plank logic and fence logic than if we believe that the early church was doing the kingdom in ways that engaged and critiqued 1st century culture.

    Plank logic and fence logic, though, are definitely two of our biggest problems, though. Danny’s quote about the illusion of safety is also relevant to this question – and the tendency to seek safety by building fences might point toward a diluted measure of grace that we’ve been drinking.

  3. guy


    Could we ever be thoroughly self-discerning about this unless we had a clear criteria to discern between God-given laws and man-made ones? Developing that discernment itself runs the risk of making up some laws, no? i ask in all seriousness because consider that Roman Catholics claim that natural laws discoverable by reason are ethically binding. Orthodoxy believes that the Ecumenical Councils (1st-7th anyway) produced dogma that any Orthodox Christian is obligated to believe. And there are laws in Scripture that really do come from God, but many in the CoC have for years taken for granted that they no longer are bound on anyone. Even a person with an admirably good heart is really in a mess on this matter, aren’t they?

    So what do you think about Acts 15? Didn’t the Council decide to bind some man-made laws on the Gentile recipients of the letter produced by the Council?


  4. Jerry


    The letter in Acts 15 includes, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements….” (v. 28).

    Evidently the people writing the letter thought that the Holy Spirit was involved as well.

  5. guy


    Granted, but i take it that the God-given nature of those laws didn’t quite arise in the way we might take as acceptable today. Another thing that came to mind was, for instance, the instruction in Scripture to obey elders and leaders. What if they give you instructions that did not come to them by direct revelation? What if your elders/leaders in Crete gave you rules that mine in Colossae didn’t? My only point was that it doesn’t seem to me that “God-given laws” and “man-made laws” are neat, tidy, and compartmentalizable categories.


  6. nick gill

    What if they give you instructions that did not come to them by direct revelation?

    Then you are to obey them, but insofar as those instructions go beyond what is written, they are not laws that can be bound for all time upon all believers. They are far more limited than that. Thus, even you called them “instructions” rather than laws because the difference is plainer than your last sentence suggests.

  7. guy


    i called them instructions because i didn’t want to take for granted that they are “laws,” but notice, for their recipients, they will have the force of law. i guess i’m saying that not all laws which are “God given” are necessarily universal in applicability. And not all rules that come from men are necessarily devoid of God given authority. Point being, these aren’t clear cut categories that will always be simple to sort out (provided we just all had good, non-Pharisaical hearts).


  8. nick gill

    I don’t believe that, for their recipients, they *will* have the force of law.

    Bodyguards don’t lay down laws for those they guard – they give instructions for their protection. Shepherds don’t lay down laws for the sheep – they instruct them where to go if they want food – where not to go if they don’t want to get stuck in a mudpit, etc.

    That’s the difference between instructing and lawgiving. Plus, where law is concerned, you have far less options for appeal if you feel like the law is wrong. The Scriptural law to obey your elders in no way suggests that you’re not supposed to talk to them about disagreements that you might have with their instructions. Laws are carved in stone and immutable – instructions are not.

  9. nick gill

    Law also establishes arbitrary punishments for particular undesirable behaviors.

    Instruction points out the consequences of unhealthy behavior.

    Shepherds are supposed to work to keep the sheep healthy, not to set up punishments for things they don’t like.

  10. Travis Flora

    Nick, I love your sentiments but I’m having a flashback in which the elders at a former congregation trotted out that “you’re supposed to obey us and whatever we say” verse and proceeded to dress me down about how my daughter’s attire (which was modest by just about anyone’s standards except that congregation). I asked for directions on finding the specific dress code B-C-V. They said “we have decided that this is what that means” and proceeded to lay out the punishments for not conforming — both to the attire issue and also in not “obeying” the elders. I think we met you the next Sunday…. Anyway, going back on another of Tim’s recent posts (public Bible reading and discussion vs individual reading), I think this is one reason why I lean pretty heavy on the individual reading/study side. I’m not about to get into a situation again where I let someone else tell me what a verse means; I’ll study it for myself. Hopefully we’ll agree.

  11. guy


    i see your point about law, but i definitely don’t find your notion of instructions intuitive. Seems to me instructions can come in the form of imperatives and have consequences.

    You definitely have made me realize that this discussion is being had with a vague notion of “law” though. i take it you think procedure for punishment is a necessary feature of “law”? Is that right? i’m not sure about that–i think for a “Do x or else” there can be ways of understanding “or else” that aren’t penal in nature. But i admit, i haven’t read much in this area (law or philosophy of law).

    My concerns really had to do with trying to sort out and keep distinct authority/sources of authority and a person’s epistemic justification for accepting the legitimacy of that authority/source. i’m really lost in the sort of latent individualism here. i find it really, really hard to sort that out clearly.


  12. nick gill

    i think for a “Do x or else” there can be ways of understanding “or else” that aren’t penal in nature.

    Agreed – but I think that it is the penal aspect that makes law Law. And yeah, I’m trying to limit this to a legal sort of framework rather than the idea of law as a descriptive axiom concerning some aspect of the cosmos (the Law of Gravity, for example). I mean law pretty specifically as a dictate from an authority figure that carries a punishment for disobedience.

    My concerns really had to do with trying to sort out and keep distinct authority/sources of authority and a person’s epistemic justification for accepting the legitimacy of that authority/source. i’m really lost in the sort of latent individualism here. i find it really, really hard to sort that out clearly.

    Maybe there is some latent individualism, but there’s also a deep desire not to fall into the condemnation that the Pharisees received.

    I’m not trying to avoid obeying others, so much as I’m trying to discern how Christian authority works so that I can more effectively fill my role as teacher, and so I can help my elders more effectively fill their role.

  13. guy


    Hmmm, then what are you thinking of when you say “penal”? For instance, in the case of the Pharisees–is it because perhaps they could get you stoned or crucified that gave their instructions the force of “law”? Or do ‘lesser’ penalties count? For instance, that they can get you kicked out of a synagogue maybe, or that they can give you a bad reputation or never invite you to their banquets? i mean, i guess i would call those penalties in that the stereotypical Pharisee means to ‘get you back’ or give you your ‘just due’ on account of not keeping his traditions.

    But i’d say that i could also stop handing out invitations to someone or avoid them or whatever, but not do so out of any penal intent or design. Perhaps my intent is self-preservation (guarding my character from a bad influence or something) or because continued contact is only harming both of us, or perhaps preservation/protection of a larger group (perhaps continued contact will only break up cohesion among group members). i wouldn’t say such withdrawal is penal in nature. But couldn’t it fit into this discussion about binding man-made laws on others?

    Oh, i agree–i don’t want to be a Pharisee either; i certainly don’t mean to sound like i’m sticking up for them. And i really hope i didn’t sound as though i was suggesting that *you* were attempting to justify disobedience to authority–i definitely don’t think any such thing. It’s a couple things. First, hyper-reaction. In trying to obey Christ’s proscription against “vain repetition” in prayer, we can with all good intentions start to condemn or look suspiciously upon even mere repetitious prayer. But that can’t be right. In the same way, trying to avoid this man-made law mistake of the Pharisees could lead to closing oneself off from good sources of authority/instruction and recognition that some of them may have some binding force over me. Second, individualism. It’s hard for me to really understand what binding laws on others might legitimately mean when and if all individuals are equally entitled to their own interpretation of the text from which laws are derived (i should probably word that a lot more carefully, but that’s my very quick stab at it).

    Okay, i lied, there’s a “Third”–Third, “flat” laws. Perhaps binding and so forth shouldn’t be understood flatly. Traditionally the CoC has spoken as if any mess-up means hell or teetering over it’s edge at the very least. Or put another way, virtually every belief is dogma non-assent to which constitutes heresy. i think that this obsession with hell and its avoidance is a bigger part of the problem than mere concern for details.


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