Last week, Indonesia’s parliament approved a new penal code that received backlash from the United Nations and human rights groups inside and outside the Southeast Asian nation.

The new code, which replaces a colonial-era code enacted while the archipelago was under Dutch rule, includes the criminalization of cohabitation and sex outside marriage, bans insulting the president, and keeps in place blasphemy laws that have been used at times against religious minorities, including Christians. The law will go into effect after a transitional period of three years.

Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia places a high value on religious harmony—known officially as Pancasila—among its 277 million citizens, and its constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have mostly kept quiet on the new code.

CT asked five Indonesian Christians for their thoughts on the new criminal code’s article on cohabitation and extramarital sex, as well as other articles on blasphemy and criticizing the president. They explained how enforcement matters and why many Christians share the same stance on morality but disagree with the government’s attempts to legislate it.

Ihan Martoyo, director of the Center for Research and Community Development, Universitas Pelita Harapan (UPH) in Tangerang:

Many reports in Western media found the Indonesian new criminal law controversial, especially the point related to sex outside marriage. But only a few explained that the offense regarding extramarital sex is in fact a complaint offense (delik aduan), which does not apply unless a close family member—a spouse, a parent, or a child—reports the offense to the police. So the fear that it would apply to unmarried foreign tourists is unlikely to happen unless the tourist offends Indonesian family members by sleeping with an Indonesian.

I think the media controversy also highlights the undercurrent of cultural differences. In Western culture, which is typically more individualistic than in the East, sex is a matter of personal choice and freedom. However, Eastern culture is more communal and considers how sexual relations can cause repercussions to the community, especially to close family members. It seems there is a widely accepted consensus among Indonesian Muslims and Christians to view extramarital sex as compromising good moral values.

It is quite interesting to note that many biblical passages also articulate communal religious or virtuous values. Paul often admonishes the church to pay attention to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:27), perhaps something that modern Christians find difficult to comprehend.

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Should the government legislate morality? For some issues like marriage, the answer seems to be quite complicated. Reformer John Calvin faced issues sharing responsibilities between the Consistory (a church court) and the City Council regarding marital disputes in Geneva. In our modern time, debates on the “acceptable kind” of marriage touch on civil law and create some of the most difficult debates among churches. This dichotomy between civil criminal codes and morality seems to be an artifact of modernity that we are still struggling to navigate. For religious Indonesians, they do not believe that the public sphere must be kept sterile from religious values.

William Wijaya (name changed for security reasons), a seminary professor in Indonesia:

As someone who holds to a traditional view on sexual ethics, I agree that extramarital sex is prohibited by the Scriptures. Nevertheless, the issue here is whether or not the government should make laws regarding this. I don’t think that just because something is prohibited in Christian ethics, Christians should support its criminalization.

I accept my own bias: I’ve been educated in the West, where privacy is important. This law is an intrusion of privacy. It’s very hard—if not impossible—to enforce laws on private matters. The law stipulates that only a parent or a child could make an accusation against someone. How could the government prove that sexual activity has happened?

I’m very glad that the law in Indonesia is not the Islamic law. I’m glad to live in a country where the majority doesn’t impose their ethics on me, a Christian. I can do things that my Muslim neighbors are prohibited [by Islamic law] from doing.

I’d like to say to my Christian sisters and brothers, in the US especially, that in a pluralistic society I don’t think we should use our Christian ethics as the basis of our law. We should find a way to move forward together, to find a common ground, and even to allow some of the things that are prohibited by our faith.

Samuel Soegiarto, head of the Institute of Spiritual Development and Christian Leadership at Petra Christian University in Surabaya:

From a Christian perspective, God designs sex to be one of the most beautiful things that can happen between a man and a woman in a marriage. So yes, extramarital sex is against God’s design. Religious leaders—Christians and Muslims—should not stop encouraging their followers to live according to God’s design. But when this divine precept is legalized—when it becomes law—we need to be cautious. As a Christian, I want more and more people to live a holy life. But if what drives them is the fear of prison, [then] something is wrong.

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The blasphemy laws in the code are designed to protect the rights of religious followers. But some parts are ambiguous; for example, “expressing hatred and hostility toward other people’s religious beliefs” can be interpreted in many ways, including expressing disagreement with religious claims. In the end, the interpretation will be decided by the majority.

I think Christians should not insult the president. We have to be critical of government policies and, if necessary, protest. Regarding the law, the government should make clear the definition of insult. If not, this law has much potential to be abused to silence the opposition.

Martin Lukito Sinaga, pastor and chairperson of the Interreligious Relations Commission at the Communion of Churches in Indonesia:

Extramarital sex and cohabitation acts can be regarded as criminal only if family members report it. Some experts told me that this aligns with an existing domestic violence law in which an “act of negligence” from the parent due to his or her cohabitation can be regarded as criminal. In this case, religious morality is used to protect family members. The critical issue is its enforcement and whether it will be used to punish cohabitation or to protect the family from negligence by any members engaged in it.

The blasphemy laws are a long-standing issue. Some NGOs believe the articles on blasphemy should be replaced with a law that would combat intolerance, discrimination, and violence against a person based on religion or belief. This would require more public deliberation on the issue of defamation.

The law criminalizing insulting the president is also debated in the context of freedom of speech and freedom to criticize the government. Therefore, democracy is at stake here. This is also a complaint offense, and hopefully, the meaning of insult is clearly defined. Insult is understood as giving false information about the personal life of the president. Again, how complaints about the president are processed by the police is the key to whether this will harm democracy or not.

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Christine Elisia Widjaya, a civil law notary and private law lecturer at Universitas 45 in Surabaya:

Most people agree that what is legal is not necessarily what is moral. However, laws should be based on—and in harmony with—the moral principles of society. As the representative of the Indonesian people, the government has the responsibility to pass bills. By governing morality, the government plays an important role in protecting its citizens. That doesn’t only include extramarital sex but also drug abuse, alcohol, and pornography due to the physical and mental health risks associated with those acts. As a result, society faces consequences such as public health issues, the cost of the criminal justice system, and the decline of economic productivity.

However, not every immoral act should be necessarily made illegal. What is defined as “morality” is relative, depending on the environment, religion, and philosophy. In my opinion, the government may legislate morality, but not every immoral behavior should be punishable by law. Criminalization should be used as the last resort. I believe that placing limits on these behaviors is the best policy for protecting society from morally corrupt behavior.

The blasphemy laws will affect Christians in many ways, such as to silence political opposition and justify attacks on religious minorities. In short, it will promote intolerance and discrimination, violate the fundamental rights to freedom of religion and expression, as well as prevent harmony among religious society in the multicultural country of Indonesia.

As Christians, we must follow the teaching of Jesus and submit ourselves to the governing authority (Rom. 13:1–7). The government is established by God and serves the purpose of ruling and promoting general welfare, so it is our responsibility to be good citizens by submitting to and obeying the laws.

However, the only government that we must respect and honor is a good one. If the government does evil in the sight of God, fails to lead and provide abundance, or makes unfair policies, we have the right to question them. The article in the new Indonesian penal code on insults to the president makes it very hard to exercise this right to criticize the government and limits freedom of expression.

With reporting assistance by Ivan K. Santoso and Maria Fennita

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 Indonesian, and 繁體中文. ]