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).