The Positive Obligation of The Church
The Church has a great obligation.
All Image Bearers of God bear a responsibility to obey both the positive and negative aspects of God’s Law. The negative aspects of God’s Law are the prohibitions. The “shall nots.” The positive aspects of God’s Law are the commands from God explicitly and implicitly flowing from the negative Law of God. That is, the duties and obligations placed upon the Church that extend beyond actively and directly not violating a negative prohibition.
All men are duty bound to obey both aspects of God’s Law, but bearing the name of Christ places an even greater obligation upon the assembly of believers. I fully affirm that the Church, as in the Bride of Christ, bears a weighty obligation to establish justice and to be merciful to those in need. This is nothing but obeying and teaching all Christ has commanded.
The Law of God has two important aspects, however, it is primarily negative. On the Negativism of The Law, Rushdoony wrote,
a negative concept of law ensures liberty: except for the prohibited areas, all of man’s life is beyond the law, and the law is of necessity indifferent to it.1
In my recent article on the negative aspect of the law, I covered how positivism is a form of autonomy opposed to God’s Law. Note that in this case, the devil is in the “ism.” Yes, there are positive aspects, but positivism is something else. Positivism makes the Law of God primarily and fundamentally positive. This is not merely a matter of emphasis, but of nature. This is in regards to both the power of the civil magistrate and ecclesiological authority. The authority of officeholders is relegated to restricting what Scripture prohibits, not a vague and amorphous controlling of the “health” of the citizen or the “spiritual health” of the believer. Positivism leaves authority relatively unregulated and this view of the nature of authority directly leads to both civil tyranny and ecclesiological tyranny.
However, although the Law of God is primarily negative, it should be stressed that there are positive aspects of God’s Law. Though Rushdoony strongly taught against positivism, he readily admitted that the Fifth Commandment is positive in its form.2
Though the Law of God is primarily negative, the duty of all men before God is broader than merely watching out for themselves. In addition to the expected texts from the New Testament (Matt. 23:23; James 1:27; Matt. 25:40), our own traditions are a witness to the Bride of Christ’s obligations.
An excerpt from the Westminster Larger Catechism on bearing false witness shows that the positive duty of Christians extends beyond simply not telling lies. It includes “concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves or complaint to others.”3
The Westminster Divines saw “undue silence in a just cause” as sin. Not only caring about our own personal sins but also speaking and acting on behalf of righteous causes is a duty of the Christian. Christians do not merely have a negative command to not give false witness, but they also have a positive command to speak on behalf of a just cause.
Examining the positive aspect of the Sixth Commandment also sheds light on this topic. “Thou shalt not kill” is the summary and surface of the Sixth Commandment. As nearly every Reformer, notable theologian, and orthodox commentator has noted, the negative command “thou shalt not kill” is paired with a positive command to seek out justice for those oppressed. For example, do not think that the duty of the Christian consists of merely not getting an abortion. The root of the Sixth Commandment, as made clear by God’s Law and further clarified by our Lord (Matt. 5:21-22), is loving your brother in your heart. How are we to love our brother? Take care to understand the difference between breaking the negative law of God and breaking the positive law of God. One is not guilty of murder if he does not actively seek justice in the same way as a brigand who murders a man on a road is guilty. The just punishment for murder (death) does not apply to a man apathetic towards the plight of others or to one who hates his brother.
While writing on the Sixth Commandment in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin states,
To be clear of the crime of murder, it is not enough to refrain from shedding man’s blood. If in act you perpetrate, if in endeavour you plot, if in wish and design you conceive what is adverse to another’s safety, you have the guilt of murder. On the other hand, if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law. But if the safety of the body is so carefully provided for, we may hence infer how much care and exertion is due to the safety of the soul, which is of immeasurably higher value in the sight of God.4
Further, in his Commentaries, Calvin strongly states that,
Besides, another principle is also to be remembered, that in negative precepts, as they are called, the opposite affirmation is also to be understood; else it would not be by any means consistent, that a person would satisfy God’s Law by merely abstaining from doing injury to others. Suppose, for example, that one of a cowardly disposition, and not daring to assail even a child, should not move a finger to injure his neighbours, would he therefore have discharged the duties of humanity as regards the Sixth Commandment? Nay, natural common sense demands more than that we should abstain from wrong-doing. And, not to say more on this point, it will plainly appear from the summary of the Second Table, that God not only forbids us to be murderers, but also prescribes that every one should study faithfully to defend the life of his neighbour, and practically to declare that it is dear to him; for in that summary no mere negative phrase is used, but the words expressly set forth that our neighbours are to be loved. It is unquestionable, then, that of those whom God there commands to be loved, He here commends the lives to our care. There are, consequently, two parts in the Commandment,—first, that we should not vex, or oppress, or be at enmity with any; and, secondly, that we should not only live at peace with men, without exciting quarrels, but also should aid, as far as we can, the miserable who are unjustly oppressed, and should endeavour to resist the wicked, lest they should injure men as they list.5
Not only does John Calvin connect apathy of murder with the sin of murder, he then connects the lack of care for the physical body to a lack of care for the soul. Unlike many modern Reformed clergy and celebrities, Calvin does not pit the body against the soul. Of course, he rightly accounts the soul as having great value, but he connects care for body to how we care for the soul. In other words, if you don’t care for the body, how are we to care for the soul? Those who pit the body against the soul as opposed to seeing their natural union are thinking dualistically and irrationally. The missionary Amy Carmichael put it this way:
One can’t save and then pitchfork souls into heaven. . . . Souls are more or less securely fastened to bodies. . . . And as you can’t get the souls out and deal with them separately, you have to take them both together.
Calvin, like those who followed after him, saw a positive and negative aspect to the Law. We are not to transgress the plain Law, but we also have duties. To hate your brother is to murder him in your heart. Likewise, to know that your brother is being murdered and to do nothing is to murder your brother in your heart. To speak directly on Calvin’s qualifiers, are we to say that the vast majority of American Christians have no means and no opportunity to speak out against injustice? With our wealth of resources and disposable time I am confident that we, with the rare exception, have a great deal of opportunity and many different means to seek justice and expose evil. Simply by knowing and understanding the positive aspects of the Law of God, we can firmly establish a duty given to the Church of the Living God for the establishment of justice.
(To be continued. . . .)
- RJ Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume 1”, chapter 3, page 120.
- RJ Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law Lectures”, Negativism and the Law.
- The Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 145.
- John Calvin, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, book 2, chapter 8, page 471
- John Calvin, “Harmony of the Law,” volume 3.
Originally published on Sep 22, 2017 at The American Vision.