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