The Rule of Law

“Domitian’s claim to ultimate power and his rigid law enforcement produced the same unhappiness that plagued China when rewards were given for reporting on the misdeeds of others, and vexed Aparta when each man was the enforcer of his brother’s morals. The atmospere in Rome grew so oppressive that Tacitus expressed gratitude that his much-loved and missed father Agricola had died before Domitian’s reign: ‘Domitian no longer left interval or breathing space…. Under Domitian more than half our wretchedness consisted in watching and being watched, while our very sighs were scored against us.'” (Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Ancient World, page 739)

There are those in history who, in frustration at the disarray and messiness of human society, conclude that the solution to such disarray is law. Whether a family or an empire law is imposed as the holy grail of order. The more law, it is assumed, addressing more of life, the greater the happiness.

Some Christian thinkers latching onto this propose that the law which should receive such broad imposition is ‘Biblical Law’. Sophisticated proponents of this view nuance that this cannot work without a broad spread of spiritual renewal. These propose that a great spread of Christian faith will allow for a righteous imposition of biblical law, resulting in the greatest glory to God in a universally righteous earthly kingdom. They do not advocate, strictly speaking, the imposition of such law when Christians are the minority. But they do long for a time when a society predominantly converted, will structure itself best around God’s law.

This is sophisticated, careful, and frightening to the core. They do not question the premise that law is the solution to social disarray, nor do they properly estimate the remaining corruption of the redeemed heart left to wield that law.

The quote above speaks of an experience in the Roman empire when legal restrictions multiplied into moral application, where every sin became a crime. We ourselves have come to understand the resulting oppression of certain muslim regimes based upon religious law governing every sphere of behavior.

But these are examples of law in the hands of converted men. True. But I’ve been a Christian long enough, serving as a pastor nearly half my life, to know that redemption does not cure all the ills of the corrupt human heart. Christians are as capable of oppression and misapplication of law as the next guy. And we pastors are often the most culpable.

Law does not tame the human heart, Biblical or otherwise. We ought not dream of a society which is someday ruled by law. It should scare us when the enforcement of morals falls into the hands of powerful people. We should never fall into the illusion, no matter how skillfully presented, or how seemingly ‘rooted’ in ‘Biblical’ notions, that the solution to social disarray is the enforcement of law (which is normally law which we find pleasing enforced upon those who seem to so easily disregard it).

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even when it is in the hands of Christians. Especially when those Christians are drunk on the idea that the power they wield is the power of King Jesus.

3 thoughts on “The Rule of Law

  1. You are right that “Christian” application of the law is no more perfect than the Christian wielding it. But law is, itself, a gift of God to fallen man, isn’t it? I shudder to think of rule by something other than law: rule by whim of rulers or desire of the powerful or elite. May God save us from ourselves on both ends of the spectrum, and in the middle!

  2. Randy Greenwald

    Perhaps rule by wisdom, Chris? I’m sensitive to your love for the law ā€“ I am as well. But I’m also fearful of those whose exegesis leads them to two assumptions: 1) I can rightly interpret and thereby apply that law across broad spectrums of society, and any who differ with my application are thereby not being biblical, and 2) Applying law in this way will bring happiness to that society. I see little humility among those who argue for Biblical law, a humility willing to think that they might not be quite right. And in it all the attribute of wisdom seems to be overlooked.

    And Staci, thanks for volunteering to rework the code on this site to add a ‘like’ button. When would you like to start? šŸ™‚

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