What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that defines people’s rights and duties toward themselves, other persons and things that are tangible. The law also imposes duties on government to be transparent and accountable. It also demands that government respect the right to privacy and freedom of speech, to assemble freely, to form political parties, to collaborate with citizens, and to make laws based on sound evidence. The law is a source of scholarly inquiry in areas such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

The core subjects of law are criminal law and civil law, which deal with lawsuits between individuals or groups (such as a business or a government agency). The field of criminal law includes the study of crimes such as murder, robbery, burglary, sexual assault, and property theft. Civil law involves the resolution of disagreements, including divorce proceedings and disputes over inheritance.

Beyond these, there are numerous subfields of law. Labor law, for example, examines the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade union. Constitutional law studies the foundations of a state’s or nation’s legal system, such as the separation of powers and checks and balances. International law focuses on the rights of foreigners in the host nation-state, such as immigration and asylum law.

Law is unique from other fields of knowledge in several ways. In a normative sense, the law expresses what is good or bad, fair or unfair, and what is expected of people in society. This distinguishes it from empirical science (such as the law of gravity) and social science, which are descriptive.

Because of this, the law is difficult to study objectively. For example, it is impossible to predict with complete accuracy whether a homeless defendant and wealthy defendant will receive the same outcome in a case. In spite of this, a strong tradition of objectivity exists in the study of law, and judges and lawyers strive to be impartial and fair in their decisions.

Some nations’ legal systems serve the purposes of keeping peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting the rights of minorities against majorities, promoting social justice and providing for orderly social change. Other legal systems, such as those of authoritarian states, may be less effective in these functions and may oppress their own people, such as during the Cold War or under Saddam Hussein. The Bible is clear that Christ-followers are called to resist injustice and stand for the truth. In addition, the Law reveals sin and demonstrates our need for a Savior to redeem us from its condemnation. For more on this topic, see The Gospel and the Law.