f a matter is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment (Dt. 17:8-9).
In the creation order, God established different governments over men and gave each government a unique sphere of authority. Over families He placed fathers and mothers (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1-3). Parents are charged with the duty of discipline, and are assigned the responsibility of raising godly offspring by communicating to their children the Word of God (Deut. 6:6,7; Prov. 22:13; Mal. 2:15; Eph. 6:4). Elders and teachers are set over the church for the edification and exhortation of the saints, also through the teaching of God's Word (Heb. 13:17; 1 Tim. 3:1-5). Responsibility for the civil order is placed in the hands of magistrates, who act as God's ministers of wrath against those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-7).
Examination of the mandates imparted to the various governments discloses that no government is granted totalitarian control. Each is limited to a particular area of authority. For example, a father may (and must) discipline his son, but he may not exercise capital punishment against him on his own authority. Instead, he must bring a son worthy of death to the elders of the city, who are charged with applying the civil penalty (Prov. 13:24; Deut. 21:18-21). Thus, while no one government may exert universal jurisdiction, each authority is available to assist the others. When all the established authorities are functioning in harmonious submission to the Lord, His justice is perfectly established.
This principle can be observed in the civil realm in the advisory role which belongs to the church. God has established the magistrate for the purpose of executing His wrath, but He has not made the civil ruler the exclusive authority on the question of when wrath is appropriate. If a matter is too hard for the judges to determine with the knowledge at hand, then they are commanded to take the question to the church for clarification. The church decides, based on God's Word, what judgment should be carried out, and the judges are obliged to pronounce sentence accordingly.
The hairs are now rising on the backs of twentieth-century American necks. "What about the First Amendment?" It should be noted that the faithful application of biblical law will prevent the church/state problems the founding fathers sought to restrain, as it will avoid both of the extremes the church and state have struggled with for centuries. On one side of the road lies the ditch of Erastianism. This doctrine holds that the state is head over the church, such as in the Church of England. This is what the First Amendment was intended (biblically) to prohibit. The ditch on the other side holds the doctrine of papism, which teaches that the church is the head of the state. Both of these positions place two distinct governments under a single authority, thus doing away with the biblical distinction between the church and the state.
The commandment in Deuteronomy 17 is consistent with the biblical doctrine that the church and the state are separate entities with distinct roles. The state wields the sword, and must wield it in submission to God's law. But if the law is not clear on a particular point, and the state has a question about what God's law requires, it is powerless to interpret Scripture on its own authority. Instead, the state must take the question to the church, which has been charged with protecting, interpreting, and teaching the law of God. The leaders of the church are instructed to make a judgment as to what the law requires, but the church does not thereby take up the sword. Rather, the judgment is passed back to the state, and the magistrates then wield the sword in a manner consistent with the judgment of the church.
The effect is two-fold. First, both the church and the state are protected from the encroachment of one against the other. The sovereignty of each is protected. Second, by requiring cooperation between the two realms, justice is upheld.
Because of the apostasy of both the church and the state, we are a long way from obediently implementing such a system of cooperation. American courts for the last few decades have consistently held that God is unconstitutional, even though the country's founders never intended that the Bible be ignored by the civil government and would be appalled that it is doing so. As Patrick Henry stated it, "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!" But the civil authority today acts as an absolute despot and treats the church like it were simply another community service organization. The Christian church is tolerated, but it is not heeded.
The church, on the other hand, is in no position to be dispensing
advice. We are so doctrinally factionalized that hearing a
consistent interpretation of Scripture from the church is impossible. Much bad doctrine exists
within the church. Many Christians have no idea
how to apply the Scriptures to matters of state, and see no need to do so except on narrowly
defined "moral issues" such as abortion
and homosexuality. We need to repent of doctrinal error and pray for a reformation in the
church, one result of which will be the doctrinal
unity necessary to provide sound judgment.