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The Church is not the Civil Magistrate

And it doesn't have the magistrate's powers.

The Law of God and the Church (3)

I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! 1 Corinthians 6.5, 6

Justice in the civil arena
We’re examining some of the criteria which must guide believers and their churches in teaching and keeping the Law of God today. If our consciences are going to be properly furnished, we’ll need to be well-versed in the Law of God, which is holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7.12). And the Law being what it is, a community is essential for its fullest and most fruitful implementation. The church is that community; and when local churches follow the Law of God, love for God and neighbors abounds.

We have said that the church is not ancient Israel. Rather, as the new Israel, living in the age of grace and the Spirit, church leaders must reflect carefully on how the statutes and precepts of ancient Israel are to be obeyed in our own day. We do not keep the Law to earn our salvation, but to realize our salvation, prove our discipleship, and thus make progress in spreading the love of Jesus Christ to all people.

And we keep the Law so that our community will shine as a beacon of wisdom, holiness, and love in the dark night of our surrounding sinful world (Deut. 4.6-9).

In our day, local churches are the primary locus for teaching and obeying the Law of God, but not for enforcing its civilobligations. Just as the church is not ancient Israel, it is not the civil magistrate, either. The statutes and precepts of the civil law of Israel are still binding today – as Paul, James, and Jesus indicate, and as the founders of this nation certainly believed. But they must be interpreted into the life of the new Israel, which, while it is built on the foundation of ancient Israel, faces altogether different historical and cultural contingencies.

The Law of God includes many penal guidelines for achieving justice and restoring order to a community. But in our day, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring justice in the civil arena lies with civil governments – local, state, and federal (Rom. 13.1-4). The church must concentrate on spiritual and moral enforcement of the Law, using the means of discipline assigned to it; it must not presume on the prerogatives of civil government in seeking justice for its members.

The church and the civil magistrate
Thus, where an infraction has been committed against the Law of God by a member of the local church, believers will apply the principles of church discipline in seeking to restore justice.

However, in matters of civil infraction, members should expect that the civil government has options for achieving justice which are not available to the church, including fines and imprisonment. The courts should be the final bar of appeal for believers in civil matters involving other believers, not the first. Neighbor-love requires that, in the body of Christ, we settle our differences and restore justice by coming together before the Law of God to seek redress or satisfy grievances. It is the duty of church elders, like the elders of old, to help church members abide by the Law of God, by teaching, example, and interpreting the Law in specific situations. Where redress is required, church leaders will call for repentance and help offenders find a way to restoration.

However, those avenues of redress being exhausted, or in cases where a believer has transgressed the civil law against the larger community, whether or not another believer was offended, the civil magistrate is authorized by God to act on behalf of His good purposes to restore justice.

The state, as Paul and Peter remind us, has been established by God to accomplish His good purposes in civil society (Rom. 13.1-4; 1 Pet. 2.13, 14). Believers have a role to play in helping to ensure this. They must work within the civil structures of society to ensure that governments act in accord with the teaching of God’s Law. This is part of the local church’s witness to its community, that it pursues justice, wisdom, and neighbor-love through the institutions of government, and that it equips its members for faithful citizenship.

But the church may not enact civil judgments against its members or others. Rather, because the state also is subject to the righteousness and justice of God’s Law (Ps. 9.7, 8: Dan. 4.27; Matt. 14.1-4), believers must work to persuade civil magistrates of the essential wisdom, goodness, and justice of the Law of God, both by their arguments in the public square, and their lives together as law-keeping communities. And this will find them involved in the political process, electing leaders who fear the Lord, and working for laws that reflect the character and purposes of the Law of God.

And even in this arena, believers must remember that, in the age of grace, not even the vilest offender is completely cut off from the reach of God’s Spirit and truth. Penalties for violating civil laws must, therefore, leave room for grace to work; they must not be so harsh as to harden hearts, but they must be sufficiently harsh as to encourage repentance, behavioral change, and restoration. And believers and their churches must be involved with the workings of justice, especially in recovering and restoring those who have come under the just punishment of the State.

How should churches pursue this calling?
Civil government plays an important role in overseeing a just society, where neighbor-love obtains through submission – albeit merely grudging submission (Ps. 81.15; Ps. 66.3) – to the standards and sanctions of the Law of God.

But in the church, no actions may be taken by church leaders against offenders of God’s Law, except those disciplinary protocols to which they have willingly and knowingly submitted as members of the local body. This includes the church’s authority to admonish or excommunicate unrepentant offenders, leaving them to the wiles of the devil and (perhaps) the civil justice of the State, until they repent of their wickedness, make restoration, and return to their proper place in the Body of Christ.

Local churches need the Law to promote wisdom and love between members and in the surrounding community. While their power to enact sanctions for disobedience to God’s Law is not inconsiderable, it is restricted to those spiritual and moral sanctions which purify the conscience, restore the soul, and maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4.3).

For reflection
1.  What do we mean by saying the local church is not the civil magistrate? What may churches not do with respect to applying the Law of God?

2.  What is church discipline? What is the role of the Law of God in the exercise of church discipline?

3.  Do you agree that Christians should work to bring the laws of civil government into line with the Law of God? Why or why not?

For reflection – Preparation: How many civil laws can you think of that reflect the influence of the Law of God? In our secular age, why are these laws still on the books?

T. M. Moore

All the installments in this “Strong Souls” series are available in PDF by clicking here. Check out our newest feature, Readings from the Celtic Revival (click here).

Why does the Law of God still matter? How can we make best use of it? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, addresses those questions in a winsome and conversational manner. Order your free copy by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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