Welcome to our Wednesday “Ask Beau” post. The purpose of this weekly feature is to provide you, our readers, with biblical responses to questions you have about practical issues that you face.
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(Note: This post was originally published on thefrontieratgrace.com on August 8, 2012.)
From time to time, the issue of obeying the speed limit comes up in Christian circles, often in discussions of integrity, true obedience, and so forth. Is driving over the speed limit a sin? Those who answer this question with a “no” of some kind are sometimes painted as licentious or not serious about holiness. Those who answer the question with an unqualified “yes” are sometimes seen as legalistic or unrealistic. I thought it might be helpful to take a brief look back at some biblical and ethical issues involved here in order to help us drive forward (pardon the pun), even as we acknowledge that this apparently simple question is not that simple at all.
Virtually no Bible expositor that I am aware of would deny the basic premise that Christians are to obey the government, based on direct teaching to this effect in Romans 13:1–6, as well as the overarching biblical instruction about submission to authority (see, for example, Ephesians 5:22–24; 6:1–3, 5–8; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:16–20). And while there is some disagreement about the extent to which the Bible limits obedience to government (consider Acts 5:28,29, for example), I doubt this disagreement is in play here since I have never heard someone challenge the government’s right to set traffic laws.
However, I’m quite uncomfortable saying that a sin-ometer necessarily blinks red in heaven when a motorist accelerates to 66 mph in a 65 zone. In a recent conversation with a police officer who has much biblical knowledge and ministry experience, he said that he sees this as a “letter of the law vs. spirit of the law” issue (see 2 Corinthians 3:6). I and many others agree with him. What we are suggesting is that the number posted on the speed limit sign is not the only factor one should weigh when considering if sin is involved.
If the primary biblical injunction here is to obey the governmental authorities, we might want to consider how the authorities look at this subject. Speed enforcement protocols typically dictate that law enforcement officers not enforce minor speed excesses, and that they more aggressively enforce speed laws as motorists exceed the speed limit by larger degrees. The point of traffic laws is to protect the public, and the flexibility of enforcement here should make us question whether we can legitimately speak of 66 in a 65 as disobedience per se.
Here is a helpful acid-test question that we can ask ourselves: “If a police officer were monitoring my speed right now, would he or she approve of the speed at which I am driving?” (Note that I did not say that this only applies when I am actually being monitored by a police officer.) This question allows for some flexibility for road conditions, accelerating to avoid dangerous situations, the speed of the flow of traffic, etc., while still upholding submission to authority. A friend and colleague of mine likes to illustrate Colossians 3:23 (which deals with slaves’ obedience to masters) by pointing out that people often abruptly slow down when a police officer comes into view. If we find that we “must” do this, it may well indicate that something’s not right.
As the police officer with whom I discussed this question pointed out, it is important for us not to ignore the role of the heart in all of this. Helpfully the officer noted that people may speed for a number of reasons, from ignorance to impatience and beyond. He counsels people to examine the attitudes of their heart that are driving them (another pun) to speed and to deal with these issues before God. This counsel is wise and completely consistent with the Bible’s statements about the root of behavior (Matthew 15:17–20; Luke 6:45).
What are your thoughts on this topic?