How to Understand the Civil Laws of God

As is often the case, someone’s question caused me to articulate rather better than I would have otherwise. I think this explanation is worth everyone digesting…

Original Statement:

The Bible doesn’t specify lots about civil society. Don’t fall into the Islamic trap here.

Response:

The Bible specifies most all details of civil society as principle, with case law examples, which may be applied as appropriate based on time and location.

This is most eloquently expressed in The 39 Articles of Religion: 

VII. OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

THE Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

Note that it does not say they are not good for society, but that they need not be received in any commonwealth, “of necessity.”

Q: I’m not following this as a rebuttal of the previous comment.  It isn’t inspired scripture and it’s stating that we’re not bound by the ceremonies, rites, and civil laws but the moral commandments only.

A: Thank you for pointing out the need to clarify! I didn’t quote the 39 Articles as if they are inspired, but as if they explain well… which they do, if you are familiar with them and how they work. First, it should be noted that these were written in 1563, so the manner of expression is somewhat different from today. Secondly, they are a master of nuanced communication.

So, for example, note that they say, “nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.” This is to say, that while they might be beneficial (and, indeed, are) there is no mandate for contemporary commonwealths (as opposed to Bronze Age Israel) to adopt the precise expression of the civil precepts, as such. Rather, while the Moral laws are obligatory for every Christian, the civil precepts are to be considered prescriptive so far as they touch on moral law, but are not be considered obligatory en toto for contemporary commonwealths. See the difference? While the civil laws of Torah establish moral principles for civil government, they are not to be considered—in their specific application for Bronze Age Israel—as of mandatory necessity for adoption by Japan or the United States. But they do, nevertheless, describe and establish what is moral and immoral in terms of what civil government should look like.

To state the same yet another way: no one is to demand the wholesale and details-specific importation of civil case law from Torah to contemporary government as obligatory, but they should look to the civil laws of Torah as establishing and descriptive of what is right and what is wrong as it pertains to how civil government should function.

So, we don’t mandate that all new homes be built with parapets around their roof, as this is no longer specifically applicable, but we do fashion laws that take their example from this case law. Therefore, it is biblical to make a law saying all new backyard swimming pools should be built with a fence, unbiblical to fine a homeowner for not doing so, and biblical to punish that same negligent homeowner if someone from the neighborhood drowns in his pool, because he did not put up a fence.  Make sense?

One might easily surmise how this biblical principle would apply to the Philando Castile case.

Notice to a Community

If the inclusion of children within the covenant had represented a departure from Old Testament practice, then we might have expected some indication in the New Testament that this change was to be made. For example, when the dietary restrictions are lifted, this is noted (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9-16). Or, when circumcision and complete adherence to the Mosaic law are rejected, this is noted (Acts 15). Luke, it might be said, notes a departure from the Old Testament practice of only males receiving the covenant sign by pointing out that both men and women were being baptized (Acts 8:12).  – Mark E. Ross[1]

I find in this quote one of the weightiest arguments for covenantal infant baptism in the hearing of people with a Torah-positive persuasion.

Which is ironic, because we disagree with much of what is said above, but our disagreement is made upon the same logic with which we agree: if there is to be a departure from Old Testament practice, then we ought to expect a specific and convincing indication in the New Testament that this change is to be made.

Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:9-16 do not provide a specific and convincing case for change to the food laws, we correctly argue. Acts 15 does not argue for a rejection of Mosaic law (except when viewed as a means of justification), we accurately opine. Therefore, having accepted the validity of this argument, that a clear and convincing change for discontinuity between the expected orthopraxy of the testaments must be found in the New Testament for a change to be considered scripturally valid, how much more should we be the ones to argue that since no clear, convincing, specific change in relation to the inclusion of children in the covenant community is made in the New Testament, we must expect that God will continue to include the children of covenant participants in that covenant community!

Lest I be misunderstood, let me hasten to again quote approvingly from this same article:

“Baptism does not signify and seal that a given individual has certainly been forgiven of sins and accounted righteous in the eyes of God. It signifies and seals that those who believe will be washed from their sins and accounted righteous before God.” [2]

Torah-positive Community, you have been put on notice: it is time to get consistent in our beliefs. Let us abandon the remaining detritus of our former perspective of discontinuity, and embrace a fully coherent conviction of continuity in the progressive revelation of God’s covenantal economy of salvation.


[1] Mark E. Ross, “Baptism and Circumcision as Signs and Seals” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge. P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003.Kindle Locations 1221-1225.

[2] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 1042-1043).

In the King’s Army

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:18-20

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.  1 Corinthians 15:56-58

Imagine a lengthy campaign to displace enemy forces and occupy the Asian theatre. Imagine, if you will, the plans made by the Joint Chiefs. Now imagine a solitary lieutenant of a single platoon stranded on a specific island with dwindling supplies who somehow comes into possession of a page from the Joint Chiefs of Staff Operation Order. Imagine his disillusionment as he reads the assigned objective: invade and occupy the continent of Asia. He can’t even get off the beach and they are telling him to conquer an entire land mass of nations. The grand plan seems wholly unrealistic. Discouraged by his present situation, he may even lose the will to get to the top of the next sand dune.[1]

As servant-soldiers in our King’s army this may be the situation we often find ourselves in. Facing seemingly repeated and unending defeat in our personal lives, we quail at the thought of the grand mission assigned to us. This perspective, however, reveals the consequences of the individualistic focus bequeathed to us by the baptistic perspective which has come to dominate the conservative landscape of North American Christians.

Men who are at war with themselves, and resentful of life and its requirements, are not able to command the future: they cannot even command themselves. –R.J. Rushdoony

When entering the Armed Forces, individual recruits go through a process of being broken down and then rebuilt, no longer as a mass of individuals, but now as a cohesive unit with each person thinking of themselves as a cog in the wheel of their collective mission. Having focused in on individual responsibility to decide for themselves and be baptized as a sign of their decision, we have largely lost this concept of being part of the Body of Christ, who is our Commander-in-Chief. As a result, we are taking no territory for our King. Too rarely is even the land of our own lives fruitful for the Kingdom; almost never are we conquering Canaan.

Implicit problems, however, with the Anabaptist view of the covenant have consistently taken Baptistic thought into Pelagianism.  Anabaptist theology individualizes the covenant. Consequently the covenant becomes subject oriented. Once that happens, the problems involved with subjectivism, mentioned earlier, cannot be prevented.” (emphasis mine) [2]

And therein the problem! Believer’s Baptism emphasizes the decision of the individual to the detriment of a focus on the Covenant Body, while deprecating the sovereign, solely capable, saving action of God. This has inexorably led to the completely out-of-control individualism of contemporary American Christianity. Why could the early Separatists and the Puritans pull off what they did in the colonies? Because they practiced infant baptism, and even if they were Baptists, they still held the residual perspective of the whole, rather than the over-arching autonomy of the individual, which has now utterly undermined the stability of America.

Look at the total inability of the Messianic movement to interoperate, and it becomes quickly apparent that a rescue of the covenantal perspective of circumcision/infant baptism is a desperately needed antidote to the presuppositional baptistic perspective of the majority of North American Christians, and almost all people of a Messianic persuasion. Tie this to objective rather than subjective salvation (and sanctification) and I am growing in my suspicion that “Reformed Baptist” (or Believer’s Baptism Messianic) might be the greatest oxymoron of the American era.


[1] I’m indebted to Jim Wilson in Principles of War: A Handbook on Strategic Evangelism (p. 14) for this illustration.

[2] Ray R. Sutton, “The Baptist Failure” in James B. Jordan, ed. The Failure of American Baptist Culture: Christianity & Civilization, No. 1. Paducah, KY: Geneva Divinity School, 1982, p. 157.

Proverbs 31:10-31

I worked for a couple months at the beginning of this year to translate Proverbs 31:10-31, because I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any of the existing English translations. The following is the result.

Who can find a valorous wife?

  Her worth is far beyond jewels.

Her husband trusts her unreservedly,

  and lacks no good thing.

She brings him profit, not loss,

  all the days of her life.

She seeks out wool and flax,

  and delights in the work of her hands.

Like a merchant’s ship,

  she brings food from afar.

Rising while yet dark,

  she prepares food for her household,

  and portions for her maids.

She considers a field and buys it;

  from the fruit of her labors she plants a garden.

She wraps her waist with a will,

  and flexes her shoulders to the task.

She perceives that her business thrives;

  her lamp never flags at night.

She sets her hand to the loom,

  and her fingers ply the spindle.

She’s open-handed with the poor,

  and extends her arms to the needy.

She has no fear of snow for her household,

  for all her charges are doubly cloaked.

She fashions her coverings,

  her garments of linen and purple.

Her husband is known in the city gates,

  where he dwells among the elders of the land.

She makes clothing and sells it,

  and offers aprons to the merchant.

She is clothed with strength and dignity;

  she can laugh at the days to come.

She opens her mouth with wisdom,

  and the law of steadfast love is on her tongue.

She watches the ways of her household,

  and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children respect and bless her;

  her husband also, and he praises her:

“Many women have done well,

  but you shine amongst them!

Charm is misleading and beauty soon fades,

  but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.

Acclaim the fruit of her hands!

  May her works praise her in the gates!

On the Fatal Flaw of Christian Arguments for Non-violence

In his blog post on non-violence Preston Sprinkle ends with the following great statement. A statement which, while excellent, also reveals the fatal flaw of his argument for non-violence.

Faithfulness, folks. Jesus calls us to faithfulness, not perceived effectiveness. When I face my Savior, I want him to know that I tried my hardest to live a faithful life which sought to replicate his own life on earth.

I read that paragraph and wanted to cheer, because it confronts the pagan philosophy of pragmatism with a biblical call to the pursuit of principled action.

“A person who is a Christian is called of God to live by biblical principles.” – R.C. Sproul

The problem with Sprinkle’s quote is in the last phrase, “…which sought to replicate his own life on earth” (emphasis mine). You see, we need to imitate Christ, indeed we are commanded to do so in Ephesians 5:1, but we are not to imitate just his life on earth, which was an example of applying the character of God in a specific time, place and culture, but to imitate His character as understood by the demonstration of that character across the pages of Scripture: from Genesis to Revelation.

All Christian arguments for non-violence that I am familiar with rest upon seeing a dichotomy between the actions of God in the Old Testament and the words and actions of Jesus in the New Testament. The problem is that Jesus was God-incarnate, and there will be no disparity between His character as displayed in the Old Testament and His character as displayed in the New Testament. Any attempt to interpret Scripture in a manner that does not maintain the general continuity of the Old and New Testaments is fatally flawed because the character of God is immutable (as the entire Church throughout all of history has everywhere and always maintained).

This is another post, but I believe in the necessity of a general continuity with a specific discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, or between Judaism and Christianity. In other words, while proper interpretation requires a general continuity, there is a specific discontinuity which sent the 12 Apostles across the world and to their deaths in the grip of this newly revealed and life-altering truth of the Mystery of the Gospel and the Name of Messiah.