The Christian and the Law
By William P. Welty, Ph.D.
EDITOR: THIS ISSUE HAS BEEN HOTLY CONTESTED WITHIN THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY. DR. WELTY, BIBLE SCHOLAR AND ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF THE ISV BIBLE, HAS LENT A CONCISE EXPLANATION TO THE DISCUSSION.
A concern has been expressed of late that the Christian community has been ignoring the requirements of the Law. The overall subject is a complicated one, and it appeared to me that at least some confusion about this topic continues to affect some Christians. So I thought I’d take a moment to suggest a few clarifications with respect to this issue.
I have found it helpful to make three distinguishing divisions of God’s Law as set forth in the Torah. The divisions rather conveniently can be listed as an acrostic that spells out the word “LAW.” The three divisions of the law distinguish between:
L = Life in God’s Society
A = Atonement Requirements
W = Witness of God’s Eternal Character
The overwhelming stress on keeping the Law of God as expressed in the New Testament has nothing to do with the Law as an expression of the first two distinguishing characteristics.
Life in God’s Society
Life in God’s Society is that portion of the Law of God that pertained to the theocratic structure of Israel. This part of the law mandated that a railing be constructed around roofs so nobody would fall off of them. It also mandated that housetops be flat so people could live on the roofs! It was not possible to enforce this aspect of the Law outside of national Israel and it is not binding to the Christian today. If it were, I’d be asking my fellow Christians why, for example, 1) you don’t have a flat roof on your home that people can use to visit together, and 2) why you don’t have a parapet constructed around that flat roof! Put in that light, I think the silliness of practicing this part of the Law today is obvious.
Atonement Requirements is that portion of the Law of God that pertained to maintaining both national and personal relationship and fellowship with God through the sacrificial systems of the Old Testament. These were fulfilled in the death and atonement of Jesus. They are not so much as abrogated by his death as they are fulfilled by them. Animal sacrifices are not man-dated today, but will be instituted in the Millennial Temple described by Ezekiel’s depiction of that building set forth in the last 10 chapters or so of the book of Ezekiel.
Witness of God’s Eternal Character
Overwhelmingly, however, the Witness of God’s Eternal Character is binding on the Christian to-day. All aspects of the Ten Commandments except those that pertain to Life in God’s Society (keeping the Sabbath as the 4th commandment is one of these) or the Atonement Requirements are included as part of this aspect of God’s Law. The Apostle Paul points out that it was the Tenth Commandment that particularly grieved him, since it prohibits coveting.
It is debatable whether execution for adultery falls under the Witness of God’s Eternal Character (enduring for all times and cultures) or Life in God’s Society (abrogated by the destruction of Israel’s national sovereignty under Rome). The first century Jewish community had seen the death penalty abrogated, since the Romans had taken that right away from them. Instead, the offenders would be excommunicated from the community of the faithful. This is the penalty that the Apostle Paul mandated for the Corinthian fornicator.
Some Christians see the same thing happening with respect to the death penalty for crime. I hold to the view that the death penalty applies to willful murder, rape, and kidnapping but not to involuntary manslaughter, since the Law did make a distinction between these crimes. But the death penalty also applied to juvenile delinquency, and I confess that I haven’t studied that through to its logical conclusion, yet.
Then again, the penalties of the law were maximum penalties enscripturated to guide the judges of Israel, who were tasked with administering the laws.
For example, “Eye for an eye,” etc. denoted the maximum penalty, not the minimum, that the judge could order. It could not be extracted by the victims of crimes, or even by the witnesses, absent an order from a judge. And prosecution of such offenses was the responsibility and at the will of the witnesses, not a separate prosecutor. Absent the witnesses pursuing a case, there would never be any prosecution for crime. Testimony in court was considered a civic duty (Leviticus 5:1).
With respect to the death penalty for adultery, I’m inclined to suggest that Christian people reread the story of the woman caught in adultery that is set forth in John’s Gospel. Jesus is never portrayed anywhere in Scripture as the kind of person known to bluff or exaggerate. He always spoke as if he understood that some-body would be writing down and transmitting what he had to say to succeeding generations.
So when he called for the execution of the woman caught in adultery, I’m inclined to hold the view that he meant what he said. But then he dismissed the case because the witnesses wouldn’t testify. In the Jewish courts of his day, only the witnesses could bring a case to prosecution, and they were charged with casting the first stones in a case that called for execution of the guilty.
The person who judged the case alone had the authority to enforce the death penalty, but since the penalty for lying to the judge in a capital case was that the witness was himself or herself executed instead of the accused, Jesus was reminding the witnesses that if they were determined to play “court” that day, he would ensure that if he could poke holes in their testimony, it would be the witnesses, not the accused who died that day.
And that’s why the witnesses left the scene of the trial—they declined to prosecute the case. Absent any witnesses, Judge Jesus dismissed the accused. In our present day legal system, it’s unlikely that such a scene could occur. At any rate, by not making distinctions between these parts of God’s Law described above, it is possible to create confusion in the minds of Christians who don’t know any better, and this can lead to a charge of making Christians fulfill the Law in order to be acceptable to God.
An early church council, described rather thoroughly in the book of Acts, addresses this concern, and concludes that certain aspects of the Law are binding on Christians, including ab-staining from eating blood and from fornication, but that other aspects (such as circumcision requirements) have been abrogated, even though at the time of the council the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, where sacrifices were still being offered even though Christ had already risen from the dead.