The Church's Legal Challenges in the Twenty-First Century

THE MORAL CHALLENGES OF THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY, p. 107, W. L. Taitte, ed., University of Texas Press, 1996

Emory Legal Studies Research Paper

39 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2011

Date Written: 1996


Two legal challenges will face the Christian church in the twenty-first century. The law of the state will challenge the ministry of the church. The ministry of the church will challenge the law of the state. The first is easier to discern. If present restrictive patterns continue, First Amendment law will profoundly affect the church’s mission, ministry, and make up the next century. While the first challenge concerns what the law of the state will do to the church, the second challenge concerns what the ministry of the church will do for law. This second challenge concerns the church non as a legal subject but as a legal prophet.

The church’s voice will need to be heard on several volatile legal subjects in the next century – civil rights, religious rights, charity, education, and family life prominent among them. Church and state, religious and political officials must respond to these moral challenges in various – and mostly independent – ways. Where the respective callings of these two great institutions might profitably meet, however, is in the growing area of human rights law.

Modern human rights norms will provide no panacea to the world crisis in the next century, but they will be a critical part of any solution. Churches will not be easy allies to engage, but the struggle for human rights cannot be won by the state alone. The Christian Church might well be seen as a controversial candidate for a constructive role in the regime of human rights. The modern cultivation of human rights began in earnest fifty years ago when Christianity and the Enlightenment seemed incapable of delivering on their promises.

The modern human rights movement was thus born out of desperation in the aftermath of World War II. It was an attempt to find a world faith to fill a spiritual void. Christians participated actively as midwives in the birth of this modern rights revolution, and the special religious rights of Christianity and other faiths were at first actively pursued. After expressing some initial interest, however, leaders of the rights revolution consigned religious rights groups and their particular religious rights to a low priority. By deprecating religious rights, leaders of the rights revolution have also deprecated organic connections to rights to assemble, speak, worship, educate, etc. Second, the deprecation of Christianity and other religions in a human rights regime has exaggerated the role of the state as the guarantor of human rights.

The challenge of the next century, therefore, will be to transform the Church from a midwife to a “mother” of human rights – from an agent that assists in the birth of rights norms conceived elsewhere to an association that gives birth and nurture to its own unique rights norms and practices. First, given its checkered human rights record, the church must confess its past wrongs against rights. Second, given the new prominence and urgency of rights talk today, the church must be open to a new “human rights hermeneutic” – fresh methods of interpreting its sacred texts and traditions that will recover and transplant those religious teachings and activities that are conducive to human rights.

Keywords: Twenty-first century, Christian church, legal, challenge

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, The Church's Legal Challenges in the Twenty-First Century (1996). THE MORAL CHALLENGES OF THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY, p. 107, W. L. Taitte, ed., University of Texas Press, 1996, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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