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The Purpose of Law

The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel;

The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).

      You may take for granted the typesetting on the page you are reading, but in days past, it was a very long and tedious labor to set a book to type. Even after the invention of movable type it was still a hard process and prone to error. Each and every letter and space had to be set in place, batted firmly together and then locked to print pages from the set type. All that is gone now, as there is no longer a typesetting process in producing a book. With the onset of computers, the author’s own manuscript provides the basis for the final product.

      But imagine what a laborious job it would have been to set an entire Bible to type, and how hard it would be to get it right the first time. Naturally, those early typesetters didn't always get it right, and one example turned up in a 1631 edition of the Bible, ordered by King Charles. The Bible was pretty much correct except for the omission of one little three letter word: not. And that might not have been such a big deal if it hadn't been for where that word was supposed to be. It was in Exodus 20, in the seventh of the Ten Commandments which, in this particular edition, read: “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

      Some wag dubbed it “The Wicked Bible,” and King Charles ordered all 1000 of them recalled and destroyed. There are still 11 copies in existence, and the mind boggles to think what they might be worth at auction.

      It would be a Bible for our age, though—the age of recreational sex. And since we are talking about God and the law, it might be worth asking: Why did God outlaw recreational sex? Sex surely is fun and exciting, so why not do it? Was it, as teenagers are apt to ask their parents, because God doesn't want us to have any fun? Or are there consequences, for individuals and for society, if sex isn't kept within boundaries?

      One of my first clues to this came, of all places, in a Navy VD Footnote film. Watching the film, I learned that many babies went blind soon after birth because of the presence of the gonococcus bacteria in the birth canal. The mother may not have shown any symptoms, even though she had been infected. By the time I saw the film, they were putting silver nitrate on babies' eyes at birth to prevent blindness, but the film was warning about other problems.

      At the time I saw the film, there were maybe six or seven significant venereal diseases. Now there are more than 50, and they are much more dangerous than what sailors called, “a dose of the clap.” How dangerous? Well, you have surely heard of AIDS. Consider Africa. Over 13 million children have been orphaned in Africa from AIDS. Many of those kids now have AIDS themselves and will die of it. In Africa alone, 24.5 million have died of AIDS. Nearly 4 million of them were children under fifteen.

      You can't solve this problem with a little silver nitrate in the eyes or a shot of penicillin in the rump. They say that the spread of AIDS in Africa is primarily from heterosexual, promiscuous sex. The same thing is going on in your country; the only difference is in the numbers. We may begin to see why God would say, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

      But this raises a core question. Did God create sexually transmitted disease (STD) as a trap for man, as a punishment for having too much fun? Hardly. It is more likely that STDs are an example of what can happen when viral and bacteriological strains are given indefinite life to mutate and change. Your body is teeming with bacteria right now. (Try not to panic. Most of them are harmless and some are even good for you.) When we have sex with another person, we inevitably trade some bacteria with our partner. Bacteria and viruses mutate, and in the lifetimes of a man and a woman they may change a bit. However, the strains of germs we exchange between one man and one woman won't survive the lifetime of that couple. But if we add additional people to the mix and give those strains of bacteria indefinite life, all bets are off.

      I don’t know if that is how STDs originated, but just take it as an analogy to what might have happened. What I do know for certain is this: If we could manage complete monogamy for everyone for a generation or two, we could wipe out all STDs including AIDS. So why blame God for it? It is our problem. We created it. God told us how to avoid it.

      So, why did God say, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”? Perhaps, at the highest level, it's for the children. Society has a responsibility to protect children from the stupidity of adults. At another level, it's for our personal health. At still another level, it is for the health of society. No one knows yet what the final impact of AIDS will be on society on the African continent—only that it will be devastating.

      So, yes, society has an interest in putting a damper on extra- marital, “recreational” sex. But society has completely lost control. We have lost control because we have lost sight of God and the law.

      We begin to get the idea right from the start, when God created the basic unit of society: the family. Footnote From the beginning, provision was made for the spin-off of a new family from the old. Why a family? Well it's for the children, of course. And why should we care about the children? Because a society that doesn't care for children will not survive. Moslems living in Europe today are producing ten children for every one produced by Europeans. How long do you think European culture can survive that ratio?

      A culture that corrupts their children doesn't deserve to survive, and there are too many ways to corrupt children. They can be corrupted sexually. They can also be corrupted by hatred, as Palestinians are teaching their children to hate the Israelis more than they love life. Then there are the effects of divorce.

       Divorce is becoming so common in our country that some 50 percent of all kids are being raised in single parent homes. These children have more difficulty in school, more behavioral problems, more negative self-concepts, more problems with peers, and more trouble getting along with their parents.

      And there is no reason we should be surprised at this. Children are frightened and confused by the breakup of the family and by the separation and alienation of the two most important people in their world. They tell us that children commonly think they are the cause of the problem when a family breaks up. Sometimes, children even assume the responsibility for reconciling the problem and healing the breach, often sacrificing themselves in the process.

      What is it in children that will cause a normally selfish kid to turn around and sacrifice himself to keep his parents together? What does the child know that the parents don't? Divorce can affect the mental, emotional, and physical health of a child. We've come to a terrible pass in our society when those who were to be protected by marriage are the very ones who sacrifice themselves to save it.

      The examples I have cited so far speak strongly to the question of biblical law. They speak not only in terms of individual conduct, but to the concerns of society in at least minimal regulation of individual conduct—as in laws to discourage divorce, and promiscuous sex. Many states had laws against adultery that seem antiquated now, but they were rooted in sound morality and a willingness to take strong measures to protect children.

      What is important about this chapter is that we have shown the justification for society having a concern for private morality. The Supreme Court of the United States jumped the tracks when it found a “right to privacy” in the Constitution—a right not explicitly stated, and not found by any previous court. Some argue that you can’t legislate morality. But in society, sometimes you must, or your social order will unravel. There are limits to any perceived right to privacy.

       There are two issues here. One has to do solely with personal morals. The other has to do with the preservation of social order for the sake of maintaining the society and for the sake of the children. The state has an interest in protecting the social order. It was this that accounted for two very different aspects of biblical law. One is personal, the other is social. This is parallel to the classic distinction made between moral law and civil law.

      Thomas Aquinas distinguished three kinds of law in the Bible: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Jesus himself confirmed a twofold division:


The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And you shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, You shall love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).

      In Jesus’ construct, both moral and civil law Footnote fall under the heading of the love of neighbor. Ceremonial law would fall under the heading of the love of God. A temptation arises to use these distinctions to explain why some laws are abolished while others are kept, but who can argue for the abolition of the command to love one’s neighbor or to love God? Even the distinction between these commandments is blurred. As John put it: “If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”

(1 John 4:20).

      And all these laws are gathered together in the broader definition of “the written law,” as opposed to “the oral law.” It is the written law that Jesus specified when he said:


Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV).


      With this information in hand, we are prepared to address a singular issue in Old Testament legal studies: The civil law. It is not uncommon to encounter the argument that the civil law is not binding upon Christians, but that is not, strictly speaking, true. All the civil laws of the Old Testament are part and parcel with the written law, and Jesus said plainly he had not come to abolish them.

      What, then, are we to make of, say, the laws regulating slavery? Can a Christian own a slave? The very idea is repugnant, but upon closer examination the answer appears to be, that he can. The laws regulating slavery are part of the written law, and therefore would have to be included in Jesus’ affirmation of the law. Some light is shed on the subject by a short letter Paul wrote to a Christian who was in fact, a slave owner. His name was Philemon, and he had a runaway slave named Onesimus.

      Philemon was a close friend to Paul, having been converted by Paul on his stay in Ephesus. He was also a strong man of faith, and effective in ministering to the church. So imagine Paul’s surprise to find that one of the servants who ministered to him, and whom he had converted there in Rome, was a runaway slave belonging to his old friend Philemon.

      I would have thought that the Christian faith would have freed all slaves, but apparently not. Paul determined that he had to send Onesimus back to his master. When you think about it, that is a significant statement about the Christian and the law. Paul opened his letter with his usual salutation, and we learn that Philemon is a significant player in the Christian drama. He is leader of the church in his house and beyond. Thus, in his most diplomatic style, Paul writes to him:


I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will (Philemon 1:10-14 NASB).

      In that brief statement, “I am sending him back,” Paul acknowledges the rights of Philemon under the law to own a slave. Not only did Roman law allow it, so did biblical law. But the nature of the common Christianity of both men added a new element:


For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, {16} no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me (vv. 15-17).

      Reading between the lines, it is clear that Paul was forestalling any anger or retaliation for wrongs Onesimus might have done. Paul called in a debt:


But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (lest I should mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say (vv. 8-21).

      So Christians could own slaves in societies that permitted it. But they were bound by the written law of God to go beyond anything required by their society. But there is something interesting to consider here. The civic enforcement of law was not the function of any individual, nor of the church. That function had transferred to the state under which the Christian lived. We will discuss this again in the chapter on “The Social Contract.”

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