Does a Christian need to follow the law literally?

How strictly must we obey laws that don't seem to make sense and impede the way we want to live our lives? Does a Christian need to follow the law literally, as an expression of God's will over temporal matters through human legislators?

Jesus and Paul provide some example here. Both seem to have been “law-abiding citizens” in most respects. Jesus made exceptions which involved common sense (the disciples picking and eating grain because they were hungry on the Sabbath) and human need (healing a disabled person on the Sabbath). Paul believed that Christians were now free from the laws of Moses involving diet, but urged Christians not to give scandal to stricter Jews by flaunting their new freedom to eat pork. In these instances the law of charity or consideration for the needs and sensitivities of others trumped the strict observance of the law.

The Christian understanding of civil obedience developed not only with in relation to Judaism but within the Roman Empire, which placed a high value on the rule of law. The basic principle which the early Christians developed in the face these two realities was that all authority originates in God but that God has entrusted authority over temporal matters to the State while entrusting spiritual authority to the Church.

Christians tried to be good citizens and obey the laws of their city and nation. Yet from its very beginnings Christianity also recognized the value of civil disobedience in those instances where civil law went against the higher laws of God. For example, when officials of the Roman Empire required everyone to worship pagan Gods, Christians accepted imprisonment or martyrdom rather than obey what they considered an unjust law. The refusal of a conscientious objector to serve in the army during a time of war is rooted in the same principle.

Common sense is certainly one helpful guide in determining whether or not a civil law needs to be strictly observed. For example, if I’m a pedestrian and come to a red traffic light where there are clearly no cars coming from either direction, common sense suggests that it’s reasonable to enter the crosswalk even though the light is indicating “no.”

However, the presumption of reasonableness rests always with the law. Laws are instituted for the good order of society. They represent the common wisdom not only of the present law-makers but of a collective past. Recognizing that my own biases and desires can skewer my perception and judgment should lead me to be cautious in circumventing the deeper “common sense” of the community. Driving 27 miles per hour in the 25 mph zone might seem perfectly reasonable but what about 28, or 29, or 40? Would the usual absence of traffic on the road near my house encourage an inattentiveness which could be potentially fatal when another car does appear? Since laws are generally enacted to provide good order, ignoring them leads eventually to chaos. For that reason it’s wise to engage in civil disobedience only in those rare instances where a direct moral principle is involved.

I hope these comments helpful as you continue your own reflections on this important question!