Know Where to Draw the Line

Greg Dickison


hristian activism in politics is a good thing. Last month we examined the necessary standard for a Christian to uphold with regard to public policy. We also need to note that there are also limits to the extent to which biblical law is applied in the civil realm. We have the right tool now we need to know how to use it.

Let's pretend, just for a moment, that we could have it our way. The great revival we have been praying for has occurred, and every executive, legislator, and bureaucrat in the capital has just been saved. Knowing they ought to begin applying Scripture in their jobs, but not knowing how to go about it, they come to you and your church for advice. What will you tell them? How should they apply God's law?

This points out the scriptural difference between calling something a sin and calling something a crime.

Looking at the Bible with an eye toward applying it in the civil realm, several things become apparent. First, it is pretty small. State laws are currently codified in multi-volume sets numbered well into the double digits. The annotated Idaho Code, for example, is twenty-three volumes, excluding indexes, and it is on the low end of the scale. Then each state has another multi-volume set containing the regulations promulgated by the various bureaucracies. The Bible, on the other hand, is a much more concise and relatively slim volume containing, on the average, a little over 1,000 pages. Think of the money governments will save on printing and shelf space!

Further examination reveals that not all of the Bible is positive law (i.e. commandments and rules for behavior). Much of it is prophecy, poetry, doctrine, explanation, and historical narrative. If you narrowed the examination to those passages which were strictly commandments, you would be left with, say, 200 pages of text.

Wait we are not there yet. Not all of the commandments in the Bible are still applicable as commandments. For example, the worship in the temple and the sacrifice of animals were types and shadows of the crucifixion of Christ. We are forbidden to go back to those forms of worship (Heb. 10:1-4). Likewise, the dietary laws are not to be enforced, as the Lord has declared all foods clean (Acts 10:9-16). Our statute book is getting thinner and thinner.

There is one more step to take before we are ready to begin. In order to enforce laws, there must be a punishment for violation. If biblical law is to be biblically applied, then the biblical punishment must be used. At this point a curious thing happens: we find that not all the commandments have assigned punishments. Not so surprisingly, this causes some problems of application. Several commandments have punishments with which we are familiar, and for which we can readily see the sense. You shall not murder is a good example (Ex. 20:13). We can cite chapter and verse to show that a man shall be put to death if he kills another with premeditation, and we accept this as valid (Ex. 21:12-14). However, what about coveting your neighbor's possessions (Ex. 20:17)? Try as you might, you cannot find anything for the magistrate to do when one charged with covetousness is brought before him. Part of the problem lies in proving the guilt of someone accused of a purely subjective violation, as it is impossible for one man to judge the heart of another. So what about something more objective, like drunkenness? If someone is drunk, he has clearly broken the law of God (Eph. 5:18). Again, however, there is no assigned biblical penalty.

This points out the difference between calling something a sin and calling something a crime. A sin is any violation of God's law (1 Jn. 3:4). A crime is a violation of God's law which carries a temporal punishment to be meted out by the civil authority. Crime is a subset of sin. Thus, while all biblical crimes are sins, not all sins are crimes.

Many Christians will have a problem with this when they realize that many of the things which they rightly consider morally abhorrent were perfectly legal in ancient Israel, and would again be legal in a biblical society. We must keep in mind, however, the sovereignty of God and the various jurisdictions He has assigned to different governments He ordained. The lack of a civil penalty for a sin does not mean that the sinner gets away with it. Punishment can also come through the conscience, the family, the church, the nature of things, and in the last judgment. No sin will ever go unpunished. The only question is: which government was assigned to the task? When punishment comes from a government which has no proper authority to administer the penalty, the results are usurpation of the proper authority, ineffective discipline, contempt for law, and, in the temporal realm, abdication of responsibility by the authority which was supposed to administer the penalty.

So it is important to realize that a civil government based on biblical law would not be the oppressive system feared by non-Christians. Of course, there would be laws enforced against certain crimes which are currently ignored, such as homosexuality. However, there would be much more freedom than exists at present. A man could work at whatever job he pleased, he could do whatever he wanted with his property, and he would be assured of protection against the assaults of others. There would be no bureaucracies trying to build a perfect society by regulating all of creation. In fact, it is this very freedom that non-Christians fear, for it replaces the messianic State, which they trust, with the sovereign God, whom they hate.

The law of the Lord is perfect, and is something in which Christians should find great delight (Ps. 19:7; 119). A government based on that law would result in great freedom, and would be a witness to all nations of the sovereignty and goodness of God.

Credenda/Agenda Vol. 3, No. 11