Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

Sparring Partners

As good citizens, churches are confined by the law; as a source of moral judgment, churches contribute to the law. Beyond these obvious points of contact, I see an uneasy tension between law and the church. It is urgent, especially as our nation's leaders rewrite policy about wealth and poverty, that church leaders sharpen this dichotomy.

In one sense churches experience the law the same way all other citizens and agencies do: as regulations to which we must conform. In one city I know of, a pastor who tried to help the community by housing a new day-care program had to obtain 11 licenses and satisfy 11 inspectors. When a suburban church discovers that its new parking lot does not conform to zoning rules, or a city church resists a pub that tries to move to its block, or a rural church finds out that it may lose its tax exemption if it leases part of its building for income the church finds that like all the others, it must play by the rules.

Unlike most other citizens and agencies, though, churches engage the law around issues of character and quality of life. Like many pastors, I have gone to court to stand with teenage defendants, or to serve as a character witness for a parishioner on trial or as an "expert witness" on community ethical and moral standards. In the parish I've struggled with doctors about law-related questions of life and death, with business leaders about legal issues of product safety and with parishioners about wills and property inheritance. In such cases religious leaders are asked to interpret and use the law to protect individuals and, they hope, to improve society.

This intimacy between church and law is not surprising, since law and religion both serve as social glue to bind the fabric of society. The boundary between the two will always be unclear. Leaders will disagree about where the line should be drawn. Each solution is negotiated for only a moment and unlikely to last. In the practical realities of parish life, church and state are never easily divided.

There are, of course, professional distinctions between lawyering and pastoring. Clients treat their lawyers differently than church members treat their pastors. Like clergy, judges may wear black robes, and courts have liturgy, ritual and oaths, but no one confuses judges with clergy, or court procedure with worship. And the great gap in financial compensation between most clergy and lawyers suggests a significant differential in power. Clergy may not so frequently be the butt of nasty jokes, but unfortunately, they can't take good will to the bank.

Institutional tensions between law and church are longstanding and apparently universal. From the state churches in Christian history to the role of clergy as state leaders in modern Muslim nations, from the influence of Mormons in Utah to the agenda of the Christian Coalition in American political decisions, religious and political organizations cooperate and contend with each other.  A balance is negotiated on one issue until a skirmish over another destabilizes the truce.

Local church leaders see, these issues play out in people s lives. When we stand in court with a troubled juvenile, we are trying to humanize the letter of the law to guide that young person. When we explore the boundaries of life and death with doctors and patients' families, we seek to make of law the ground rules for a more caring society.

The church is not above the law, but neither is it contained within it. Religious leaders who respect the law also expect to interpret and sometimes change it according to their vision of what God expects of us. When Martin Luther King Jr. was accused of disrespect for breaking the laws of a segregated society, he said it was his profound respect for the law that made him disobey it. From a jail cell King

wrote, "I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws .... Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws .... 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 degrades human personality is unjust" ("Letter from Birmingham Jail," 1963).

Church and law are partners, uneasily yoked for common cause. Law provides the framework for the social order, but religious faith provides the vision. Laws can, for example, make a day-care center safe, but only vision can say why we should support it. Laws can protect the purity of food, but only vision can create a soup kitchen, or imagine its alternative.

We are challenged to rewrite welfare legislation in America. Church leaders are again asked to compare the effects of new laws with an ancient biblical vision of affirming humanity. As we speak and live our conscience, we act at the juncture of church and law.

March-April 1996




Hartford Seminary
77 Sherman Street
Hartford, CT 06105
© 2000 - 2006 Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute for Religion Research