Law at the Jesus Creed: David Opderbeck


Seven Theses on a Missional Approach to Law

In response to some of my “Law” posts here at Jesus Creed, a few commenters have expressed consternation over my criticism of some “conservative” Christian perspectives on the law.  As I’ve tried to express in response to some of those comments, my primary concerns have to do with how “law” is understood in relation to the mission of God.  As I’ve said before, in my very humble opinion, the North American Church’s participation in the “culture wars” over the past thirty years or so has been, by and large, missionally unproductive at best.

At times, I might agree with the “conservative” perspective on what the law ideally should say – as I do, for example, concerning the law of abortion.  However, even in those cases I’m often troubled by the place legal advocacy seems to occupy in “conservative” political theology, by the methods and rhetoric used to advance that theological agenda, and by the effects these dynamics have on spiritual formation in the Church.  And, it’s true that, in some cases, I think the “conservatives” are advancing political priorities that fail to reflect what I understand from scripture, tradition, reason and experience to represent a faithful reflection of God’s priorities. 

In short, I think the political theology that prevails in the North American Church is insufficiently “missional.”

In this post, I’d like to advance some very preliminary theses about what a “missional theology of law” should look like.  What do you think about these Seven Theses?  How does “law” relate to the “mission of God?”  What should a “missional theology of law” encompass? 

The Seven Theses on a
Missional Approach to Law

“positive law” here means simply “law enacted by human beings pursuant
to human governmental authority”)

1.    Positive law plays only a limited role in God’s
economy of salvation.  Neither

individual human beings nor human culture can be redeemed through positive law
in itself.  A missional theology of
law therefore can never mistake law for mission. 


2.   Positive law can, however, help check the spread
of evil, serve as a reminder of the good, and facilitate God’s mission of
liberating human beings from the powers of sin and oppression.   A missional theology of law therefore will emphasize the
law’s liberating potential.

3.    Positive law is provisional and temporary.  In the eschaton, when God will be all
in all, the nature and function of positive law itself will be taken up by God
and transformed.  A missional
theology of law therefore will not have law as its ultimate telos.


4.    Positive law is contextual and incarnational.  Although just laws always spring from
universal moral principles, positive law always represents the mediation of
moral principles into a particular historical and cultural moment.  A missional theology of law therefore
will remain wary of absolutist claims about what the positive law should say in
any historical moment or context.


5.    Positive law is bounded by human limitations and
by sin.  The natural weaknesses of
human knowledge and perception limit the human ability to craft law that will
comprehensively address all wrongs. 
Moreover, the pervasiveness of sin means that an ideal legal regime can
never be realized prior to the eschaton. 
Legal policy decisions inevitably involve choices among competing ideals
and suboptimal alternatives.  A
missional theology of law therefore will always be both ever reforming and

6.    Positive law derives its legitimacy primarily
from its consistency with God’s character and secondarily from the consent of
the governed.  A law that is
consistent with God’s character but that is not supported by a broad public
consensus ultimately will undermine the rule of law.  A missional theology of law therefore will avoid the
extremes of theonomic  /
reconstructionist and libertarian approaches to law.

7.    Positive law does not derive its legitimacy or

authority from the Church or from any ecclesial body or structure.  When the Church seeks the enactment of
laws that do not enjoy a broad consensus of public support, this compromises
both the rule of law and the missionary posture of the Church, even when such
laws are otherwise consistent with God’s character.   A missional
theology of law therefore will insist that legal and political advocacy embody
the virtues of humility, patience, willingness to suffer, and regard for the


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  • I love that you are tackling these issues! I hope that we have missional politicians, who at the very least show grace and mercy towards people of other political parties as a way of embodying God’s love. But I am very wary, as apparently many others are, of trying to make moral codes legal and forcing people to live by “our” standards. It’s a very top-down coercive approach rather than helping change who people are from the ground level approach that Jesus seemed to have. I want the government to provide a minimum level of justice for individuals, regardless of who they are, and let religion helped them attain their maximum potential.

  • RJS

    This is excellent – much to think about. I look forward to conversation on these issues. I expect some disagreement on #7 …

  • Check out my blog, the “Political Theology Agenda”:

  • Diane

    I like the 7 points. The move us past partisanship and reflect the bottom-up component of the KOG.

  • Tim Seiger

    Number 7 is needed reminder and well said. Thanks.

  • garver

    I’m a Thomist of sorts about these things, and think this is a very helpful enumeration of a perspective that fits well with my own. “Prudence” (or “practical wisdom”) is a concept I would keep central.

  • Great points! I’ll add this bit of perspective.
    Trying to transform society through legislation is not only a conservative Christian issue. I’m at work in the Presbyterian Church USA. We have a Washington Office and UN Office to lobby legislative bodies toward enacting “just” laws and policies. Every two years the General Assembly meets and passes overtures directing denominational entities to take political possessions on a host of issues. There is a standing committee of the General Assembly called the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy that oversees the development of social witness policy and monitors compliance with policy by denominational entities.
    As we work to become a more missional denomination with our national ministries, one of biggest obstacles is this legislative transformationalist mindset. Evangelism is “the good news.” The good news is the coming of God’s just Kingdom. Therefore, evangelism is the creation of just society accomplished primary by ordering society through just legislation and practices. Thus, any attempt to suggest that we should back away from this strategy of legislative transformation for other strategies of being missional agents of transformation in the culture are met with howls of denunciation and charges that we have abandoned social justice and God’s mission.
    The PCUSA is a member of the National Council of Churches, which is permeated by this mentality. Conservative legislative transformationalism tends to be more grassroots and populist.
    I just want to make it crystal clear that when you talk about Christians using legislation as ends for victory in the culture wars we are not just talking about conservative Christianity.

  • dopderbeck

    Good points Michael (#7).
    Let me throw in here one good example of what a missional theology of law might look like on the ground. A friend of mine who teaches at Pepperdine Law School mentioned to me a project Pepperdine has taken on in Uganda and other distressed parts of the world. Another example is the Haiti Rule of Law Project at my law school (which sadly is obviously going to become an even more significant concern in Haiti now). And then there is the excellent work of the International Justice Mission.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    I’ll bite on #7. 🙂
    “When the Church seeks the enactment of laws that do not enjoy a broad consensus of public support, this compromises both the rule of law and the missionary posture of the Church, even when such laws are otherwise consistent with God’s character.”
    In general, I agree. But let’s take Germany in the 1930s. Was the Confessing Church wrong to be promoting certain legislative positions that were unpopular with the masses? Was it wrong for Dr. King to press for desegregation in interstate travel? If not, why then would it be wrong for conservative Christians today to propose legislation that they believe will be advantageous to human freedom and well-being but may not be popular with the public?

  • Your Name

    Great post.
    I’ll bite on 7, too. I think the Church can advocate for laws that do not currently enjoy a broad consensus of public support, but the advocacy will surely fail unless the Church also works in genuine and humble good faith to change the consensus. So no, it was not wrong for Dr. King to press for desegregation in interstate travel. The success was achieved only after he and other Civil Rights activists demonstrated how shockingly onerous the interstate travel restrictions were. The consensus shifted enough so that the laws could be successful.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Sorry, I was captached. That #10 was me.

  • U C #10
    I agree with your assessment but here is the problem. We only know it was just cause once we can look back on it. What if the public had not come around to seeing it as unjust? Wouldn’t we be saying that King was someone who tried to force his morality on others through his civil disobedience? How do I know today if the issue I’m fighting for is a fight for justice or just me trying to impose my views? And what does it mean to dismiss another activist who differs from my views as just trying to impose her views?
    I think we can have moral convictions, based in our theological understanding, that motivate us to legislative actions. If we want to be legislative successful we will almost certainly need to demonstrate that there is societal good from our proposed legislation that is about more than our religious convictions.
    Anytime we enter the public square and justify legislation with, “The Church says …” “The Bible says …” “God says …” then I think we have crossed the line into trying to legislate religious positions. However, something more subtle and profoundly different is frequently being said. It is said that because I am promoting a piece of legislation that comports with a moral value in my religious community I am therefore trying to impose my religious values. That is false reasoning. By this reasoning, Christians could not stand against murder, rape, or theft, because they would be imposing religious values. When they oppose abortion, no matter what their public rationale, that is exactly what is charged.

  • Travis Greene

    Great thoughts. I think I would want to emphasize something about #7, “A missional theology of law therefore will insist that legal and political advocacy embody the virtues of humility, patience, willingness to suffer, and regard for the other.”
    It isn’t explicit, but for me this seems to require a commitment to not just non-coerciveness, but non-violence. To continue the comparison with Dr. King, he & his cohort were certainly interested in changing unjust laws to just laws. But in the meantime they were committed to non-violent non-compliance with the unjust laws, and accepting the suffering that goes along with that.

  • Good post, David, and good comments here.
    Our lives must speak. Words matter little or actually not at all, unless our lives speak. Then they might matter, as was the case with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And with Quakers in the past, etc. People need to see us living out our love for God and for humanity within the framework of the vision of the kingdom of God in Jesus. But not mistaking where our allegiance lies.
    Jesus would make everyone in Washington uncomfortable and unhappy, though wisdom would benefit from it. We in Jesus are called into his work in this world no less.

  • Barb

    this discussion brings to mind a podcast i heard of a speech by Peter Storey on South Africa and the churches large role in ending apartied. You can find this on the website.

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