Gold Coast Bereans

Out of Ghana, West Africa; Christian hearts and critical minds seeking, speaking and writing the truth with love. This is a conversation of a group of friends, now living in the USA and the UK, who have known each other for more than 20 years.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

God's law, man's law, the visitor in a foreign land, etc

An expatriate working in Ghana recently shared on a blog I read how he had to make a “required” entry back into Ghana from Togo after his passport was stolen and an intransigent Immigration Officer at the border refused to allow him in. He spoke of being thankful to God for a safe arrival back into Ghana. I posted a comment , partly tongue in cheek, that even though I understood why he had to get back in, I would not attribute the manner of re-entry to Divine intervention. He responded and asked me a question about thanksgiving in such circumstances.

This issue is closely related to the discussion we had a year ago about breaking man-made laws, obedience to God and the liberties we take and justify, so I will share it here. The way I see it, he had a valid visa to be in Ghana in his missing passport and the only way he could get a new passport and have things sorted out would be to get back to Accra. I perfectly understand his circumstances. You can read his account at

A year or so ago, I posed the following question to my brothers and we had the ensuing discussion.
Is it a sin for a Christian from Ghana to work while on a three-month visit to the UK or USA? Is presumption to pray to God for a "live-in" job in Maryland while on such a visit knowing that it is against the letter of the law? Can we argue that this is one end of the spectrum of corruption and personal benefit under false pretences? Can an undocumented or illegal worker claim to be obedient to God in his daily life when he is working illegally? - Robbo

I honestly do not have a clear-cut answer to that questions. All I can say is that if I were a medical student doing electives in the UK or at the Bronx Lebanon hospital in New York, I would not pass up an opportunity to make some extra cash washing and packing dishes in a minimum wage job. If you can prove to me that I am robbing some one of a decent livelihood, then I may rethink that. It is honest work which no one else wants to do at minimum wage. Otherwise we will all be sinning when we go more than one mile per hour above the speed limit. – Gaius Texas

What are we to do with human laws? To answer this question I think we need to differentiate between categories of human law, namely:

1. Human laws that are in keeping with God's law.
2. Human laws that violate the letter or spirit of Gods law (sub classified perhaps, into those that by being obeyed affect us negatively vs. those that by being obeyed affect others negatively
3. Human laws that neither keep nor violate God's law but have some rational basis e.g. maintaining order, providing tax-paying citizens with jobs etc.
4. Human laws that neither keep nor violate God's law but appear baseless or entirely arbitrary.

I believe the degree of our obligation to obey depends on the category into which a particular law falls. In other words, I believe it is not always a simple matter of obedience/ disobedience (e.g. category 1). Instead I believe that often, particularly when dealing with categories 2 through 4, discretion and proportionality play important roles. There are many scriptural examples to support this view.

Rahab and the spies, the Disciples plucking corn on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath, the Apostles decision to continue preaching the gospel despite clear warnings not to, etc. –
Gaius Columbus

I find the above analysis very helpful. I think that even among God's laws, there are levels, so to speak. Jesus did say there was a First and greatest commandment implying that there might be a second, third, and by implication a last and least commandment.
The Apostle Paul however cautions that because of the infiniteness of Him who made the laws, one must be careful about even the little ones. In many lists of sins in the New Testament, stuff like malice, envy and gossip is placed along with murder, idolatry and witchcraft without any categorization.

Another way of looking at it was taught me in a medical ethics lecture: There are LEGAL laws, ETHICAL laws, and MORAL (in our case, Christian) laws.

Legal laws are the ones made and enacted by government, including all civil laws, municipal codes, home-owner's association bye-laws, international law, common law, case law, traffic laws and codes, and the rest. (Including for Robbo’s benefit- copyright law ;-)

And then there are ethical laws, which are defined in this system as those codes of behavior which are held by people of a certain profession, group or association. For example, the practice among doctors not to abandon a patient who loses insurance, or not to date someone they have taken care of before. These are not illegal things to do.

Finally there are moral laws, which are the principles that individuals have on a more personal basis, based on their own internal conscience, religion or beliefs. In a perfect society, such as Thomas More’s Utopia or Marx's Socialist state (please don’t shoot me, I have said it) these three laws will coincide. But such a society does not now exist, and we Christians believe it will not exist until the Millennium or in heaven (or some other future dispensation).

Therefore we live in a time when the three laws can be different, or sometimes will even clash That is why God says in Deuteronomy (describing the current time) that He would implant His law upon the heart (thereby making it a moral code) so as to make the legal (it was a theocracy at that time) code and the ethical code (added by Scribes, Pharisees, and Moses, etc) irrelevant.

Divorce is an example, expounded by Jesus Himself: "because of the hardness of your hearts Moses gave you this law, but from the beginning it was not so." Other examples are in Matt. 5, the Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord Jesus lists a number of legal and/or ethical laws, like an eye for an eye, etc, and teaches that FOR CHRISTIANS and for HIS DISCIPLES, the moral code is SUPERIOR.

My own guide is a paraphrase of Achimota School rule number 1 which I will put as follows "Every breach of the Holy Spirit's prompting is a breach of God's law." - Calorius

So in what G Columbus Category (1,2,3 or 4) do you guys place my questions? specifically is it presumptuous to pray to God prior to one’s visa interview in Accra, that the Consular official will grant your application so that you can go on a visit to UK for three months during summer break from school during which time you might find yourself stocking the shelves at the Tesco in Tooting Broadway? – Robbo (former McDonald’s UK trainee)

In the absence of compelling reasons to do otherwise, I think it is unlawful/sinful to work while on a visitors' Visa. However, because this is not strictly a moral law as Calorius has explained I do believe that there will be situations, perhaps rare, in which this rule may be justly subordinated to others. The specific circumstances will determine when it is right to do so.

For example, it may be okay to work if survival literally depends on doing so (e.g. working 'illegally' to meet dire financial needs or to pay for costly medical care of a sick family member).
Alternatively, at least theoretically, it may be okay to work if obedience to immigration law means violating another law. The harder question is what to do when our reasons for breaking the rules are good but not compellingly moral.

I think we struggle because we know that this activity is essentially harmless (Americans are not clamoring at the gates for these menial jobs). Thus while a person's survival may not be the issue, these jobs offer the potential to make his (or her) life and the lives of his family back home in Ghana a little better.

I do not believe that there are simple answers to any of these questions. It may seem that I am promoting situational morality but there are situations for which actions are neither unquestionably right nor wrong but instead depend critically on the circumstances surrounding them. Is this a little like the disciples plucking corn during the Sabbath because they were hungry or is that the wrong analogy?

A person who works in this country to take care of his family and does not disadvantage Americans is probably not breaking the spirit of the law. Other difficult scenarios apply when human laws are applied unequally or are motivated not by justice but by economic advantage, not of the people, but of special interest groups.

An example is the severe restrictions placed on foreign physicians (J-1 visa holders) wishing to immigrate to the US, a policy guided more by politics (the AMA wishing to unfairly maintain a monopoly over the job market) than by principle (need). These are difficult issues and ones perhaps best addressed by weighing the unique circumstances surrounding particular problems. However I believe that as a general principle we--Christians--are to obey all laws unless there are compelling moral (I include survival) reasons not to do so. Incidentally there is an entire field of scholarship called casuistry (originated in several centuries ago in the church) that is devoted to tackling such thorny moral issues. – Gaius Columbus


Blogger Andrew said...

Robbo, it's good to work through these tough issues and in hindsight from my seat right now, having reconciled actions with Immigration and police to think through the process.

I can't add to your thorough dealing of the subject here, I will ask you this.. at the time of the theft I was advised by the authorities that this police report would get me back to Ghana, so I obeyed the did most of the way. Now having travelled to the border I am advised I have to return to Benin, but I don't have a Benin Visa and they had said goobbye. No there's no British Embassy in Togo or Benin, the nearest is Nigeria - no Visa and there's Ghana - VISA but no papers. Now Immigration Accra said let him in, Immigration at the border said no!

So whichever way I turn I would be at some point illegal! Question what is the right and moral course of action

I personally don't have a view on this dilema and I can't reason what would have been the right thing to do.

I still am grateful, even though I can't connect the dots, I give my thanks to a God, I know as sovereign, who has allowed us to live in this dispensation of Grace...He'll make it clear I am sure when in glory I arrive.....

August 10, 2006 at 10:37 AM  
Blogger Calorius said...

Andrew, I suspect that you did not realize the immigration official would be partial to a small "gift". That would have opened many doors to you.
Of course the real question is about whether giving such a gift amounts to a bribe, and whether that bribe is illegal, unethical, immoral or unChristian (all separate questions)


August 11, 2006 at 11:49 PM  
Blogger Calorius said...

By the way, Andrew, thank you for whatever good stuff you are doing in Ghana. I think of people like you when i try to do good things in the USA.


August 11, 2006 at 11:54 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Calorius, thanks, many colleagues said I forgot to include the "tip" when I walked into Immigration.. I understand that this happens, but have never done it, as much out of embarrassment because I have never done business that way.

It's not obvoiusly prevalent here in Ghana... which is also a relief

August 12, 2006 at 6:08 AM  
Blogger Gaius Columbus Dissentus said...

Hi Andrew,

good laws, like truth and in some ways like logic, should be internally consistent.

When laws are not consistent--i.e. when they lead to contradiction (in your case the quandary that no matter what you decided you were breaking some law)--they are bad laws.

Bad laws are to be exposed and rejected by law-abiding people--certainly, not agonized over or countenanced. Indeed, if there is to any hand-wringing it should be by the governing authorities not by an honest, law-abiding person like you.

My view is that such laws, laws that lead to moral inconsistency, that are not amenable to all reasonable attempts to be compliant, cannot properly be said to be laws at all and are binding on no one.

Indeed, many of Jesus' conversations and disagreements with the religious authorities of His time centered on this very thing. Often, He showed them the inconsistencies inherent in their views on many matters. This should have forced them, if they were willing, to re-evaluate their positions on these matters, hopefully driving them to the truth.

Instead what happened? Rather than reappraise their position on these matters and see the real problem to be their precious but erroneous traditions--handed down through the ages by their sages----they labelled Him to be the law breaker, preferring as is often still true today the traditions of men over right interpretation of scripture.

Similarly, there are some who may superficially call you a law breaker, when the problem is with the law itself. I view this differently. As a Christian you endeavored to obey the law until it became obvious that the problem was not you but the regulation itself.

At that point, I believe you had fulfilled your obligation as a Christian. You had attempted to the best of your ability to do the right thing and to seek redress through the correct channels. At this point, the letter of the law was to be set aside and the spirit of the law was to take over.

I would expend no more emotional energy on this matter.

G. Columbus.

August 12, 2006 at 9:35 AM  
Blogger Calorius said...

Good word on the subject, G. Columbus.

The temple tax Matthew 17:24 was one such example of an unjust law. But Jesus paid it. The reason He gave was "so that we may not offend them".

I think there are some times we might obey an unjust law just in order to avoid offending the guardians of the law.

One obvious exception is when God's law is at stake. Then we should obey Him.


August 12, 2006 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger Gaius Columbus Dissentus said...

I agree Calorius and share your view if one is dealing with an unfair but consistent law. However, I apply a different standard entirely if one is dealing not with an unjust law but with an illogical law. I define the latter to be a law the application of which leads to an inherent contradiction.

An example would be a speed limit sign that states "it is illegal to travel both at speeds faster AND slower than 65 miles per hour". If in trying to get home (particularly, if the need to do so is urgent) one was to encounter such a sign and a cop on the highway who would not budge when presented with evidence of the law's untenability, one would be faced with a number of choices: (1) You could stay put and argue with the cop while precious time passed, (2) You could seek the intervention of an authority who could break the impasse, or (3) you could find a detour that gets one back on the road at a point past the obstructing cop with the hope that one would not be caught (fully accepting the consequences if one gets caught).

I think Andrew did not have the luxury of the first option (he had to catch a plane), tried the second option but was rebuffed by this official, and was finally forced to take the third. For this reason I believe he fulfilled his obligation to the law.

I do agree, however, with the point you make about unjust laws. These we should obey, unless it is clear that obeying such a law breaks God's law.

God bless

G. Columbus

August 13, 2006 at 12:31 PM  

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