Christianity began as an outlaw. We needn't go much into the book of Acts to see the outlaw nature of the church. Acts 4 contains the trial of Peter and John before the Jewish authorities. The apostles are arrested, imprisoned, and tried in the very next chapter. There, Peter make his famous statement, "We must obey God rather than man." (5:29) In chapters 6-7, Stephen is arrested, tried, and executed. Chapter 8 begins with the persecution of Saul that continues until his conversion in the next chapter. James is executed and Peter arrested in chapter 12. Saul becomes Paul and faces legal persecution in such towns as Damascus, Lystra, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Ephesus. In Jerusalem, he is arrested and sent to Caesarea and then Rome.
During the apostolic period and the following generation, Christianity became a true outlaw religion. To the Roman authorities, Christianity originated as a jewish sect. Because Judaism was an accepted religion, Christian enjoyed its protected status. As Rome recognized Christianity's distinct status, many officials saw it as an outlaw religion, not an illegal religion as such, but one that did not enjoy protected status. The early apologists wrote to the civil magistrates to convince them to permit Christianity based on its own merits. This condition continued until the Edict of Milan (AD 313).
Christianity did not lose its outlaw footing being accepted by Rome. That character stayed even into the medieval age, as demonstrated by the character of the reformers. Famously, Martin Luther was declared an outlaw by the emperor at the Diet of Worms. He was not to be protected by the law.
The church has always had a tenuous connection to the civil law. After the exile and fall of the theocratic monarchy of David's dynasty, the people of God have lived as those whose civil obedience exists under a law that is largely disconnected from Scripture. Even in the Confession, we are reminded that the civil law of Moses only applies in areas of general equity (whatever that is). (WCF 19.4)
As we think about the Christian's relationship to the civil law, it is important to understand what law we mean. We do not mean the civil law of Moses described in WCF 19.4. We do not mean the civil use of the law described by Calvin. We mean the Christian's relationship to the law as laid down by the civil magistrate. For this, we begin by reiterating the obedience we described in the last lesson. We are to obey the law of the civil magistrate as far as our duty to Christ will allow. He has ordered us to obey, yet He remains the ultimate authority.
Here, we touch on two topics that arise especially in democratic societies, but also exist in other types of government as well. The first we find in I Corinthians 6. Paul begins this chapter with a warning to the church about what we may presume was a common occurrence, a habit into which the church had fallen in their use of the civil law.
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. (I Corinthians 6:1-8)Paul exhibits some raw emotion in this passage. We read him that this entire sequence of events bothers him excessively. He begins at the end, with the taking of the matter to a judge outside the church. The members of the church were using the civil law to deal with their problems. In one sense, Paul would agree that this is part of the duty of the civil magistrate. (Ro. 13:3-4) The problem is that it is the people of God who go to the world to find justice and not within the church. If the people of God will judge angels, is there no one in the church who can settle these matters? Paul goes back to the original problem. Why can't the people of God resolve their problems among themselves without involving others. If you are wronged, accept it. (6:7) If you are wronging others, stop. (6:8)
Paul continues with a description of the world, the judges to whom these Christians go to resolve their problems. Paul paints this unflattering picture to remind the church of the character of the people upon whom they rely for the solutions to their disputes.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (I Corinthians 6:9-11)This reminds the church of their different morality and spirituality that comes from God. Why would they, knowing who they were, rely upon these people. Have they no respect for the work of Jesus upon them?
The next verse reminds the church that they operate by a different law. "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (I Cor. 6:12) In the following verses, Paul will flesh out this reality. The civil law, the morality of the world, does not define the morality of the Christian. You can do something legal that is not moral. For the Christian, the only illegal morality is that which is clearly required of God in His word. However, we cannot accept that our general duty to the civil magistrate fulfills all our duty to God. We follow a morality that the world does not. Even if the world legalizes fornication (6:18), it does not make it moral for a Christian to practice.
The relationship Paul describes has a number of applications. The first few are the most obvious. Christians ought not use the civil magistrate to resolve disputes between themselves. We are different with a different morality from the world. We must obey Christ and the law of God written and revealed in Scripture.
This does not mean that the civil law and the courts are closed to Christians. Nothing prevents the Christian from using the courts to obtain justice from those outside the jurisdiction of the church. (While not on point, something of the parable of the unjust judge seems appropriate here. Luke 18:1-5) The law exists for our good. God gave the civil magistrate to protect us and administer justice. It is not wrong for the Christian to use the court. It is wrong for the Christian to worship the court, to rely upon it rather than God to bring about justice. Human judges get things wrong; they make poor and unjust judgments. Ultimate justice awaits in heaven.
In democratic societies, the citizens participate in the operation of the civil magistrate. This gives us the ability to consider the nature of the civil law as what it should be. Christians who God calls to serve as civil magistrates ought to consider this in their deliberations. What should the civil law be as a Christian? For this question, two competing theories have emerged: two kingdoms and theonomy. For the purpose of this discussion, we cannot indulge in an in-depth examination of these theories. In practical terms, one argues that the civil law ought to arise out of natural law, the law that appears in nature. The other argues that the civil law ought to arise out of Scripture. I have no real desire to delve into the niceties of obscure biblical speculation. I will confess that I have no good experience with two kingdoms exegesis of particular portions of Scripture. I also confess that extreme theonomy also exhibits poor exegesis. In the end, one must confess that the content of the natural law must be seen as identical to the moral law. Christian natural law theory argues that the law of God is written in creation as part of general revelation. Since general revelation and special revelation (Scripture) cannot differ, originating from the same source (God), the difference between two kingdoms and theonomy ought not seem that pronounced. I suggest theonomy may have the upper hand for one reason I find profoundly pointed. Paul reminds us in Romans 1 of the habit of humanity. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness." Paul tells us that sinful humanity surpasses the truth in unrighteousness. To expect that sinful humanity, surpassing the truth of general revelation, will be able to identify accurately the natural law, seems to me to be an exercise in absurdity.
Christianity remains an outlaw. We follow a law that arises from Scripture. As outlaws, we live in obedience to the law. Our ultimate authority commands us to do so. Even so, we must also live above the law, above the morality of a sinful world. This is the way we live Christian in an unchristian world.