Discussing the proper relationship between law and Christian faith

Robert F. Cochran

Robert F. Cochran

Religious freedom is enshrined in both American and Canadian constitutions, and the separation of church and state is highly valued (see related article, Canadian society needs to find ways to respect religious diversity – and rights). This often makes for fascinating conversation around litigation and religious freedom, as in the much-contested proposal for a law school at Trinity Western University

Abigail Harmon asked Robert F. Cochran – director of the Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics, and the Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Pepperdine University – some questions related to these issues. This interview first appeared on Regent College’s website.

Abigail Harmon: A lot of the questions in these debates seem to centre around how lawyers with religious conviction might be able to maintain their convictions while also defending the common humanity of their clients. How might Christian lawyers navigate this question?

Robert Cochran: Christian lawyers and lawmakers have taken many approaches to questions of the relationship between law and Christian faith. Some conclude that law and law practice are incompatible with Christian faith and withdraw from the public sphere.

Others draw a distinction between the laws of their country and their Christian moral views. Martin Luther may have suggested such an approach when he said that if Christians want to know what they should do in their capacity as lawyers, judges, lords and ladies, they should not “ask Christ about your duty. Ask the imperial or territorial law.” With such a view, one’s religious views might not have much of an effect on one’s law practice; a Christian lawmaker might merely count noses in his district and advocate the popular position.

Those, however, who believe that they should bring the teachings of the faith to bear on every aspect of their lives must first try to determine what the Christian faith says about law. Then they must determine how they might be salt and light within the legal profession.

Their influence might involve political advocacy, counselling clients and, in some countries, choice of clients. Some countries, including England and Canada, have what is called the cab rank rule. Barristers are required, like a cab driver, to take the next person in line. Lawyers in such countries must accept clients (at least those who can pay and who create no conflicts of interest) whether the lawyer believes in the client’s case or not. Lawyers in other countries, including the United States, can refuse cases, only taking cases in which they can advocate positions they support.

In my view, Christian lawyers should mirror Jesus; they should be quick to care for the outcasts of a society. Legal representation – advising someone as to his or her legal rights or speaking for someone – can be a means of loving one’s neighbour.

As to the matter of competence, if lawyers are called on to argue a position with which they disagree, most lawyers can do so effectively. This is part of the training in advocacy that lawyers receive in law school.

AH: Lawyers can tend to have a bad reputation. What is the key to maintaining integrity within the legal system?

RC: The bad reputation of lawyers is a function of a couple of things. One is that lawyers are properly called upon to do things that the public either does not understand, or just does not like. Lawyers speak for people who are unable to speak for themselves. At times, those people have done bad things, but that does not change the fact that they were created in the image of God and deserve to have someone speak for them. Within most legal systems, having lawyers speak for people – arguing the facts and the law in best light for their clients – is essential if judges and juries are to make wise decisions.

A second reason that lawyers have a bad reputation is that there are some lawyers who abuse the great power that they have. An understanding of the law and the ability to use it give lawyers great power, and power is always subject to abuse.

AH: Why should Christians become lawyers?

RC: Christians should become lawyers because law practice provides much opportunity for good. Lawyers can care for clients who need care. They can help clients understand the law. They can speak for clients who are unable to speak for themselves. They can guide clients to just decisions, even when the law might give clients the ability to act unjustly. They can be peacemakers in situations where conflict is likely. They can sow love where there is hatred. They can pursue justice where there is injustice.

This interview was originally published by Regent College on its website. Robert Cochran will teach a course on The Place of Law in God’s World at Regent College July 28 – August 1.


On a related topic, tireless local book reviewer (and pastor) Conrade Yap has just written about Gospel Justice by Bruce D. Strom.

“The author is a practicing lawyer with a transformed heart. Instead of working for profits, he is putting all his learning to helping bring about greater justice. Indeed, there is a difference between law and justice. Just because there is a law does not necessarily mean justice will be fully meted out. In fact, under the hands of the rich and powerful, the legal systems generally favour them over the poor and the underprivileged.”

According to Conrad, the book has three main lessons:

“First, recognize the problem otherwise we will be ignorant and unable to begin doing anything about it. Just because we do not see, hear, or smell evil and injustice does not mean evil and injustice do not exist. This requires us to be actively informed and educated about the world at large, starting from the neighbourhoods we are in.

“Second, resolve to be equipped and educated about the resources available out there. Know the law as much as possible. Understand the ethical implications of the law as much as possible. If not, make friends with lawyers who share the same gospel and faith. They can give us some tips and guidance.

“Third, remember to pray for lawyers, for workers in the ministering of fairness and justice. If we cannot do anything tangible due to lack of training or knowledge, we can still lift the people in the system to God.”

I recommend following Conrade’s Panorama of a Book Saint blog; how he has time to read and review so many books I don’t know – you can let him do all the hard work for you!

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