Written by Sam Logan
Wednesday, 26 September 2012 00:00
What is – and what should be – the relationship between civil law and Biblical precept?
That’s far too broad a question for a blog, so let’s narrow it a bit.
What is – and what should be - the relationship between civil law and Biblical precept with respect to marriage?
Many evangelical Christians, among whom I am one, believe that the civil law, at least in the arena of marriage, should be consistent with Biblical teaching. This does not necessarily mean that everything that Scripture requires in a Christian marriage must be mandated by the civil law. But it does mean that, in my judgment, basic structures of civil matrimonial statute should not violate the principles regarding those basic structures as they are taught in Scripture.
In some ways, this is, of course, a subjective perspective. Most people in the United States and in similar Western democracies do not profess and do not desire to live by Biblical precept. The most we evangelical Christians can expect of them is that they understand and seek to act consistently according to SOME set of moral standards and that they be able and willing to describe those standards to those who ask for such explanations.
The requirements for Christians are at least as stringent as those for non-Christians – that we understand and seek to act consistently with the principles we profess. And it is to explore a few possible aspects of those principles that I am writing this blog.
I would suggest that the following are among the most important of those principles:
1) Biblical precepts are often stated in terms of prohibitions but that does not mean that the truths being communicated are necessarily negative, as some would claim. “You shall not murder” is a negative statement, but its essential rationale and force is positive – the preservation and protection of life. The same with “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” and “You shall not commit adultery;” all of these prohibitions really affirm the positive values which the actions being prohibited would deny.
2) As evangelical Christians, therefore, we must never be satisfied with merely avoiding what is prohibited. For example, consistent obedience to the Seventh Commandment means much more than simply refraining from adultery (though it surely does mean that). Consistent obedience also requires, in the language of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “Chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel , . . . “ We must be as diligent in insisting that we ourselves embody the positive virtues as we are that others refrain from violating the actions prohibited.
3) In the arena of civil legislation, it seems to be easier for us to enact biblical prohibitions directly into law and that is, therefore, what we do. What would happen if we sought to be as consistent in legislating the positive requirements of those same laws? I gave one interpretation above of the positive requirements of the Seventh Commandment (as summarized by the Westminster Shorter Catechism). Let’s try another example. Here are just some of the positive actions which the Westminster Larger Catechism says are required by the Fifth Commandment:
All careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others: 1) by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; 2) by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.
What would laws look like which sought to require the above positive actions? What would they say about such presently debated issues as health care, poverty, and immigration policy?
But I said above that my real topic in these particular series of blogs is civil legislation with specific respect to marriage. My point today is simply that, when we consider that narrower topic, we need to keep our eyes clearly fixed on the total teaching of any of the relevant biblical passages. We evangelical Christians need to be thoughtful and consistent with regard to the “what” and the “why” of the civil legislation which we support.
I will suggest some possible practical implications of this approach with respect to the issue of marriage legislation in my next blog (which will appear on Friday, September 28).
Sam Logan is Special Counsel to the President and Professor of Church History at Biblical. He is an ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and he is President Emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. In addition to his work at Biblical, he serves as International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship ( http://www.wrfnet.org ). He is married to Susan and they have two sons and two grandsons. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/samuel-logan