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The Limits of the Law

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

– 1 Timothy 1:8-14

A friend of mine recently sent me a very thought-provoking article with the title, “Why Discipleship Is the Key to Ending Abortion.” Though we have only known each other a few months, I could tell you some stories about how awesome my friend is – about how she is a powerful minister of the Gospel, about how open-minded and open-hearted she is, about how our connecting was an obvious move of the Spirit. But instead I’ll just say that we share a deep concern for the casual way our society dismisses the lives of our most vulnerable children. That concern and sense of mission – the strong sense of being called to rehumanize the heart of our nation – is why I was so surprised by the fact that reading the article convinced me of what I had never before realized: that when the Church seeks political influence and sway, it cannot carry the Gospel of Love into the world.

The article says what many Christians believe, irrespective of their political orientation. Whether we are passionate about saving babies in the womb or protecting them at the border, we may realize that we need to change hearts, but we continue to believe that our focus on changing laws is the highest priority. This belief is not only false, but blasphemous.

Please don’t mistake me: laws matter.

As a Black woman who has been romantically involved with White men, it is painful to me to think that my foremothers were neither legally permitted to marry White men they may have loved, nor protected from sexual assault by White men they may have hated. The laws that kept my family enslaved and excluded aren’t just part of a history lesson: my own mother grew up with hand-me-down books from the White schools, unable to sit down in most restaurants to order a meal, knowing that if ever a band of White men came to the house looking for violence – as they sometimes did, up in the country – there would be no help beyond her father and his shotgun. Laws matter.

But hearts matter more. Jesus never told his followers to interpret or influence the law or its application. He told them to spread the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. That is a completely different task, which depends not on punctilious compliance with each detail of the law, but on the faith – freely chosen – that the transforming love and grace of God is present and available to all. If Christianity is known less for the open hand of fellowship than for the sword of state power, who will choose that faith? And can that choice be truly free?

People who accept the God-given reality that human dignity transcends skin color will not engage in racial violence or deliberate discrimination – no matter what the law says. People who don’t will find ways to skirt, manipulate or outright break the law to enact their racist agenda – no matter what the law says. The law can constrain and punish the most egregious wickedness, and I’m glad it does: I appreciate not having to worry about a lynch mob showing up at my door! But notwithstanding our legal advances, I have personal experience with teachers lowering the test scores of their Black students and guidance counselors tracking them away from college. And there is evidence that many prosecutors – whose sole job is to enforce the law – routinely break the law in their quest to punish Black defendants.

Similarly, despite the appealing rhetoric we used to hear about making abortion “safe, legal and rare,” we have seen the destruction of healthy, growing babies increasingly normalized, destigmatized and celebrated – sometimes with actual applause! In this context, the argument often made by pro-choice activists – that criminalizing abortion won’t stop abortion as much as cause women to seek it by riskier means – is probably true: a woman who is convinced of the rightness of ending her baby’s life will find a way to do so, no matter what the law says.

In our present era of mail-order abortion pills, thinking that legal prohibitions could put a stop to abortion is likely sheer fantasy. The only way to effectively restrict abortion to tough cases – child rape, incest, severe birth defects and truly dangerous pregnancies – is to make it unthinkable to destroy a beautiful, healthy, growing child. That requires a change of heart, a new perception of reality that cannot be achieved by legislation but only by transformation.

The truth is that heart change is a grace of God, which the Church can cooperate with by humble discipleship or impede by grasping after worldly influence. It is outside the power of any government to accomplish and, when we try to use government to transform, we often unleash far greater problems than we solve.


  1. So good Adria. We have to figure out how to get Friends to see this issue in all its complexity.


    • Thanks so much, Rene. Between your wisdom and legal background, your appreciation means a lot.

      I think the issue is we (throughout the church, not just Friends) don’t really talk enough about idolatry, which among us usually looks like taking a *very* important thing and making it the *most* important thing.

      Diversity and inclusion are so important- but not the most important.

      Acting for the planet and the poor and the downtrodden are so important – but not the most important.

      Engaging the culture is so important – but not the most important.

      And so on. Faith without works is dead, but to focus on external works without faith is to fall into pharisaism and futility and death.


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