Thursday, February 28

Is breaking the law necessarily a sin?

We live in a complicated world. The world is more often gray, rather than a simple choice of either black or white. To eat an Oreo cookie or spreading Kraft mayonnaise on my sandwich is supporting the tobacco industry (both Oreos and Kraft are owned by the tobacco industry.) Is eating an Oreo a sin? That's what I mean by we live in a gray world.

Certainly some things are black or white, such as anything which clearly go against the teachings of Scripture. To kill someone is not only breaking the law, it is sin. But what about when I drive 40 mph in a 20 mph posted zone? I am clearly breaking the law, but is it a sin?

Years ago, as a music student, I was at a banquet of our school. I happened to sit at a table with several professors from the music department. In the course of the meal, I casually asked if anyone knew where I might be able to BORROW a copy of a popular cantata soundtrack to use as accompaniment with our small Hispanic church choir. You would have thought I had committed the unpardonable sin by even considering such an illegal thing!  Everyone at the table became silent. Then one of my profs explained to me that doing so would be illegal and anybody doing so would be "breaking copyright laws" and could be held liable. End of the discussion. I continued to eat my apple pie but wondered to myself what harm there would be in our tiny Hispanic Church borrowing for a few weeks an expensive and unafordable soundtrack from one of the larger more wealthier churches in town who would have it gathering dust on some shelf? But since I didn't want to "sin" by "breaking the law" I did nothing more to pursue the matter. We ended up finding someone who could play the piano and used them instead.

May I ask you, the reader, a personal question? Have you ever made a song sheet for church, or made a copy of a song or CD and shared it with family or a friend? Have you ever reproduced copyrighted material in any form without the permission or license to do so? Have you ever projected on a wall a video, or printed out the words to a song and used them in a service without having written authorization to do so? Yes, I know what the laws say--to do so is a NO-NO, it is illegal--but is it a sin? And yes, I recognize that to do so subjects me to getting into trouble with the laws of the land. But again, am I sinning against God?

Maybe I have lived overseas for too many years, but the host culture where we live and serve does not regard copying and reproducing copyrighted materials as sinful. Everyone--and I mean everyone--does it all the time. There is little, to no regard, for all the strict laws that are so much a part of life in more developed parts of the world. Now I am NOT saying it is OK to do so. What I am asking is this a sin against God that needs to be repented of and confessed? Before you say yes, read on...

A wild guestimate would be that for every legitimate copy of Christian music (in all its forms) there are literally thousands of so called "illegitimate" copies floating around. Few of us even give it a second thought. There are no associated guilty feelings. Are all these tens of thousands of Christians guilty of sin? One could argue ignorance of sin is no excuse. Yet, if those participating in it are totally unaware of any wrong-doing, are they sinning? My American brothers for the most part would say, yes. They are stealing that which does not belong to them.  But is using something the same thing as stealing it? If my car is "stolen" yet it is still sitting in my driveway, was it really stolen?

I am fully aware that a post like this sounds very odd to most of us coming from a Western mindset. We have been told that these kinds of things are wrong. To do them is to sin. But who is it telling us these things are sin? Isn't it our money-making, consumerism culture? If things aren't sold then the "sin" is that money isn't made. If money isn't made, we can't make more stuff! It is our society that has declared these things to be so.

Isn't everything that God gives to his Body freely given? Matthew 10 quotes Jesus as saying, "Freely you have received, freely give..." If it is meant to bless and edify the Body of Christ, should one "own" and charge money to others so that another can be "blessed?" Do we actually think we own what God has freely given to us for the benefit of his Body? Where did the commercialization of Christianity come from anyway? I truly wonder if Jesus were walking the earth today, would He not be spending a lot of time cleaning out today's temples who have made an industry out of his Word.

Now, I know that to take the above argument to its extreme would mean any of us could simply walk into another's house and "freely take" whatever we like. But what I am talking about are matters that are directly related to the building up of the Body of Christ; things like teaching materials, music, messages, songs, books, articles, media presentations, etc. As things stand, there are laws protecting these things, but I continue to wonder if this is what God intended from the beginning when He freely gave us all the gifts he has given.

If I write a song, is it my song or God's gift to his Body through me? Is it really mine to do with what I like: make money, sell, distribute, etc. Granted there is nothing inherently wrong with earning money, but to think it is MINE and not God's gift is what I am trying to correct. So what if everyone likes my song and uses it! It was a gift from God, I want it to be a blessing to all.

In Acts 8 Peter severely rebukes Simon the Magician because he wanted to "buy" the blessing Peter had. He rebukes Simon, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!" What God gives is done so freely. To charge, or think money is involved in any way, seems to go against the original plan of blessing God has for His Church. I don't believe we are to make money out of the Gospel that has been freely purchased for us by the blood of Christ.

So to conclude: the law says these things are wrong. Fine. One who breaks the law must be ready to answer for his/her actions and pay accordingly. But, we are not always sinning when we break the law. Just my 2-cents on what is still to me a highly questionable matter.


Tim A said...

For all things, whatever is not done in faith is sin. If you can do it in faith, it is not sin.

For centuries the church has incorporated principles and rules for living from world systems and called them godly, when in reality the nullify the commands of God. Christians have an addiction to making money or making a living from their ministry. They claim they would not have the time to do ministry if they had to work in the market place. I know that is a crock. Nothing is too hard for God when we work in the market place. Paul's example is proof of this. It is time for believers to like Paul "rather die than give up the boast of ministering free of charge." Who is paying Fredrick Handel or his relatives when they perform the Messiah? We have exceptions for that.

I have a stack of hymnals I use given to me by a fellowship that was not going to use them anymore. Most likely there is some provision of copyright law that disallows this, but I don't care.

The institutionalized teachers who turned on the silent treatment are trapped in a system. When the system nullifies the commands of God, they will excuse it and justify it as holy. Just like every hired preacher does with so much of scripture that he ignores or spins to perpetuate traditions that give him a paycheck, title and domination of every "worship service."

J. Guy Muse said...


I agree with you. The worldly system has so crept into the life of believers that most of the time we don't even realize it and think it the "Christian" way of doing things.

D. J. Rambo said...

Thank you for your posts Guy! I am encouraged everytime I read one of them. God bless you and please keep it up! Greetings from Texas!

J. Guy Muse said...

D.J. Rambo,

Thanks for the kind words. Wish we were there in Texas ourselves these days. It is so hot and humid this time of year here on the coast of Ecuador.

Marshall said...

US Title 17 allows for copying of otherwise "copyright" materials when the sole purpose in doing so will be educational and/or religious. It's known as "fair use", and has been US law for a good long time!

How did people's perceptions change?

Well, not too long ago there began to be a few churches that were charging fees for performances and/or copied materials (tapes, CDs, songbooks). This eventually caught some attention because sales truly is not an "educational or religious" use.

Catching the sent of money, some lawyers soon got together and formed Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), and that corporation sent out scary-intimidating letters to American churches everywhere about how their religious practices might actually be commercial in nature. (sadly, for many organized churches today, more than a thread of truth!) However, CCLI itself operates illegally by assuming agency of materials for which they have no claim. They've been threatened with legal action, but have managed to slither out from under it.

Once the institutional churches bought into the fear, church people also assumed with the bow of their leaders that fair use would not apply, and so began guilting one another as religious people can be inclined to do over moral questions. How did money join the morality club? When American Christians (like American pagans) assumed that humans can't live without it.

Jayden Gough said...

It doesn't follow that breaking the law means that you are already a sinner. Thanks for pointing out the difference.