What are the “Laws of God?”

point-counterpointIn reference to the Supreme Court decision to strike down part of DOMA, a Bishop in the United Methodist Church offered the following commentary:

They may adhere to the laws of the land, but I adhere to the laws of God.

Regardless of the intent and situation, the Bishop’s statement brought up a good question for me: What do United Methodists consider to be the “laws of God?” 

While it seems like a really simply question, I don’t think it has a simple answer.

Is it Scripture? While the obvious answer, I don’t believe it is the true one. We don’t follow Scripture like a lawbook. Regardless of Leviticus ridiculous laws on shellfish and polyester fashions, we outlaw slavery which the Bible is pretty supportive of (hello Onesimus in Paul’s letter to Philemon!). We support women in ordained ministry and not as second-class citizens, which the Bible rejects across the board. We allow divorce, which Jesus himself is prettttttttttty clearly against in Matthew 19. So, no, I don’t think Scripture is “the law of God” as we do not follow it literally.

Is it a particular Commandment–or Ten? Ah, so it would be particular segments of the Scripture? But which ones? Do we go with the Great Commandment and the Second Great Commandment? But if so, none of them outlaw marriage equality. None of them address the issue of abortion. While they address the basic needs for human society, I’m not sure they effectively rule like a “law of God” should rule for all situations.

Is it the laws of a particular denomination like the United Methodist Church? It could be, as that is the focus of the rest of the Bishop’s remark: “I took an oath and was consecrated that I would uphold the laws of the church.” But I don’t think the good Bishop or anyone would point to the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline and say it is the “Law of God.” Indeed, Bishop Pete Weaver’s introduction to the 2008 Book of Discipline should settle any thoughts that the Book of Discipline is “the Law of God.” 

The Discipline is not sacrosanct or infallible.  It is the product of research, prayer, conversation, and worship which provides the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.

So, we are in a dilemma. If it isn’t Scripture, if it isn’t segments of Scripture like the Ten Commandments or the Great Commandments, and if it isn’t the Church’s polity…then what are the Laws of God?

As a United Methodist, I occasionally (not often) find it helpful to go back to the beginning of the denomination and see what John Wesley has to say. Even though I usually disagree or can contextualize Wesley, on occasions we find ourselves in sync.

So, what did John Wesley consider to be “the Laws of God?” This gets tricky. One clergy friend on Facebook pointed to “A Catholic Spirit” sermon by Wesley and said that the law of God is simply to “love God” and “love one another.” Or said differently in “Justification of Faith“:

[The] unchangeable law of love, the holy love of God and of our neighbor.

I really like that definition. But I found another perspective on Wesley to be even more compelling: that the “Laws of God” is not simply a principle we follow, but needs to be alive and active in us through the indwelling of the Spirit, the best evidence of that type of life is found living and breathing in Jesus Christ. From Derek Flood’s treatment here, he shows that the law as a set of rules is out of sync with even what Scripture says itself:

Jesus for example (following in the tradition of Isaiah) sharply criticized the contemporary understanding of the law, and was himself regarded as a blasphemous lawbreaker by the religious authorities of his day. Paul speaks of how the law which was “good and holy” in fact “became death” to him because of his own sinfulness (likely the sin of legalism, Paul being a zealous Pharisee before his conversion). Even with the perfect law before us, we see it “through a dark glass”. Our understanding of this law – like us – is created good, can become fallen, and needs to be redeemed.

In John’s Gospel for example Jesus says “I am the truth” (not “I know the truth” but “I am the truth”) so that truth is a Person. Along these same lines, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth“. This is a fascinating idea because then truth or law is not based on static principles but on is creative, active, transforming, and alive. Truth is a Person (“I am the truth” Jesus says). So in Welsey’s view truth and law are alive – God’s living word.

May the United Methodist Church–and all churches that are not Sola Scriptura or Sola Traditiona–also pay attention to that living Law of God found regenerating in our hearts, and may it guide us continually to find out exactly what God wants from us in each moment. It may surprise us. It may push us to uncomfortable places. It may turn over the tables and cause us to feel in chaos. But eventually, through turning to God and turning to love our neighbor, we’ll eventually find that the dark glass has faded enough to allow the guidance to shine through clearly.

May we continue to love God and love our neighbor until that day.

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  1. Trey says

    Great article! I think the idea of a truly alive living word of God is really gaining momentum. Now it’s time for an Adam Hamilton book on it!

  2. says

    Since you trot out Wesley, here is a relevant piece of “The Character of a Methodist”:

    For as he loves God, so he keeps his commandments; not only some, or most of them, but all, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to “keep the whole law, and offend in one point;” but has, in all points, “a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man.” Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God hath enjoined, he doeth; and that whether it be little or great, hard or easy, joyous or grievous to the flesh. He “runs the way of God’s commandments,” now he hath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory so to do; it is his daily crown of rejoicing, “to do the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven;” knowing it is the highest privilege of “the angels of God, of those that excel in strength, to fulfil his commandments, and hearken to the voice of his word.”

    – See more at: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/The-Wesleys-and-Their-Times/The-Character-of-a-Methodist#sthash.vWCDLRhv.dpuf

    • Jon Bretz says

      Thanks John Meunier. I do get tired of reading articles by those who try to minimize God’s law and take Christian leader’s thoughts out of context. The Bible is clear for us to follow all of God’s Laws. Not the attitude of “oh, people break them all the time, so its ok to break this one too…” We are to love everyone, but that doesn’t mean to support their sins…that means to encourage them to stop!

  3. Creed Pogue says

    Too many times we try to substitute our “judgment” for God’s or we want to bargain with God. Virtually all of us as American Christians fall prey to that sin of arrogance.

    The United Methodist Church is unique among Christendom because it has a global democratic polity. The Roman Catholic Church is global but the Pope makes all the decisions. Anglicans do not make binding decisions on a global basis and are governed by their bishops. Through General Conference, representatives from every local church have the opportunity to select representatives to determine what rules we are willing to put in place to govern ourselves. Sometimes, we may disagree with those rules but we don’t have the option to pick and choose. Certain rules have been lifted up as chargeable offenses. Many may disagree about them, but they are the law of The UMC.

    Since we do not have a state religion in America, everyone has the option of “exit.” One has to question why some would continue despite being completely forbidden by the rules of the denomination. Even for the Central Jurisdiction, it wasn’t very long before local churches could move into the geographical jurisdictions and there were a number of African-American pastors who were members of the geographical jurisdictions before 1968. However, there are a number of gay clergy who lied during their ordination vows and violate the Discipline every day since who want to both serve openly and retain all the privileges of ordination. One is forced to come to the conclusion that the issues are more temporal because The UMC has better benefits than other denominations and many more pulpits. The UCC and the Episcopalians are melting away even faster than we are.


  1. […] even among conservative Christians, thinks like Pat Robertson. Take a look, for instance, at Jeremy Smith’s post on the “laws of God,” and Todd Mangum’s post-DOMA thoughts on the Biblical Seminary Faculty […]

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