Man-made laws are a mixed bag. Motivations range from desire to build a better society to desire to pander to a constituency, increase personal power, settle a score, or cover up wrongdoing. Even when well meant, laws often bring unintended consequences.
Rule of law, though, is better. As an alternative to the rule of mere men, it’s a rare and precious blessing. A portion of the Oxford English Dictionary definition captures what I mean by the term.
… the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.
Events of the past four years, especially the last four weeks, have exposed the fact that many who ought to be the most devoted and disciplined in support of the rule of law have lost sight of its value and importance.
Rule of law is God’s invention.
When God organized ancient Israel into a nation, He chose to do more than put Moses in charge and rule through him. He provided words etched in stone (Exodus 32:16). Eventually He provided the entire Torah (Pentateuch), and Moses and later rulers were expected to apply it to the needs of the nation—and also obey it themselves.
We might argue that Hammurabi introduced the rule of law first. Regardless, its invention was an act of God’s gracious providence in the world (James 1:17). By providing a written law to Israel, God made that clear.
Rule of law points to greater realities.
Rule of law separates authority from personality, basing it outside the people in charge. But it does even more: it appeals to moral principles that are bigger than us—even all of us collectively.
In Israel’s case, those principles included “you shall be holy” (Exod. 22:32; Lev. 11:44, 19:2, 20:26) as well as principles such as the rightness of being kind to foreigners (Lev. 19:34, Deut. 10:19), respecting other people’s property (Exod. 20:15), and taking responsibility for unintended harm (Exod. 21:33, Deut. 22:4).
From a natural law perspective, the rule of law points to a transcendent order built into creation itself. From a biblical perspective, it points to the Transcendent Orderer who created. Either way, though secularists may try to deny it, law points beyond the merely human.
Of all people, Christians should treasure and zealously uphold the rule of law!
Rule of law seeks wisdom.
Legal proceedings privilege facts and reasoning over the passions of the moment, and it’s a blessing to all of us that they do. Scripture reveals that this elevation of careful though over emotion is characteristic of wisdom.
- Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. (Prov. 14:29)
- Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered. (Prov. 28:26)
- An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. (Prov. 18:15)
- If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Prov. 18:13)
- The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Prov. 18:17)
- The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. (Prov. 15:28)
- But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)
- By me [wisdom] kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; (Prov. 8:15)
The conflict over the 2020 presidential election result boils down to one question: Will the political right honor the rule of law—in most cases, long-standing state laws—or will we be ruled by our passions? The latter is the path of folly but also the path of instability and oppression. The fact that the left demonstrated the same tendencies (though on a far smaller scale) in 2016 only underscores the point. If the right doesn’t champion the rule of law, who do we think we should leave that job to?
Many conservatives believe claims of large scale election fraud and efforts to keep Donald Trump in power are honoring the rule of law. But there’s a fundamental problem with that view: the rule of law includes due process and the burden of proof placed on accusers. Accusers are required to prove that their accusations are true using credible evidence (which is not the same as “someone saying what we want to hear;” see Prov. 19:28).
Any attempt to shift the burden of proof from “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven innocent” is a direct assault on the rule of law. It’s not how we do law in America—and that reality is a blessing to all of us every day we live here.
Rule of law resists idolatry.
It’s easy to idolize a Queen Elizabeth or a Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, or a President Donald… or Ronald, or Barack or Joe. We’re constantly tempted to “put our trust in princes” (Psalm 146:3, 118:8-9).
It’s harder to idolize laws. It can be done (Rom. 10:2-4), but we’re much more prone to idolize people.
Where law is king (see Rutherford and Paine), power is distributed in written codes across regimes and generations. In the U.S., the law embodied in the Constitution spreads power across the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, and also spreads it across states. Though candidates and voters often act as though the President gets all the credit for national accomplishments, that’s not really how it works. U.S. presidents have substantial policy power, strong influence over what happens in Congress, and enormous cultural influence. But the rule of law ensures that achievements are the result of many individuals and groups working together.
It also has a way of throwing a wet blanket on our hero worship. We need that. We should thank God for it.
Rule of law is defining.
Given our national cultural decay, I think this is not overstatement: If we don’t have the rule of law, we don’t—as a nation, have anything. It’s ultimately all that keeps us from becoming Venezuela, Somalia, Russia, or China.
It’s also what makes all our other policy pursuits worthwhile. There’s no point in electing officials who are against murder if those officials are against the rule of law. This remains true if the murder we’re talking about is the killing of human children still in the womb.
This is a major shift in where we are as a nation, and one that many conservatives don’t yet seem to recognize. The rule of law used to be assumed on both the left and the right, but we can no longer take that commitment for granted—on the left or the right. Our first question about any potential president or legislator or judge can no longer be “are they pro-life”? Our first question must now be, are they pro-rule-of-law? Do they contribute to the strength of our national commitment to the rule of law or do they—directly or indirectly, through policy or rhetoric—weaken it?
Other things might be equally important to our national life. Nothing is more important.
Photo: Bill Oxford.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.