In his review of R.J. Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law, John Frame states,
In discussing “The Negativism of the Law,” Rushdoony argues that since the decalogue is largely negative, our civil laws ought to be negative too, i.e., directed against specific evils rather than setting forth ideals for society to attain. However, on pages 110f, 220f, 241, and elsewhere, he follows the Westminster Catechisms in setting forth the “positive” implications of the commandments. So far as I can tell, he says nothing adequately to reconcile the two emphases.1
This is not a great inconsistency, but rather an area that could use clarification and further study. Simply put, what reconciles these two emphases is jurisdiction.
In a very illuminating passage, Rushdoony clarified the distinction between negative law and positive aspects of the law.
The proper meaning of the law involves both the negative precept and the positive affirmation. To limit obedience, and to test character, merely by the negative factor is dangerous. It leads too often to the belief that a good man is the one Calvin singled out for his ugly example: the coward who would not dare “assail even a child” but who is incapable of any discharge of his duties. Too often the church has equated these cowards with righteous men and advanced cowardly snivellers, whose weapons are those of backbiting and talebearing, to positions of authority.
But all men have, as Calvin noted, “the duties of humanity as regards the Sixth Commandment.” If they do not seek to prevent injury, assault, or murder, they are themselves in part guilty of the offense committed. The unwillingness in many instances of witnesses to act in cases of assault or murder may mean no entanglement on earth, but it incurs fearful entanglement and guilt before God.2
The last sentence is especially clarifying. Although God’s Law has both negative and positive implications, how the law is enforced is drastically different depending on whether or not it is a violation of the negative aspect of God’s Law or a violation of the positive aspect of God’s Law. It is a matter of jurisdiction.
Who has the authority to implement civil or ecclesiastical sanctions against infractions of the positive affirmations of God’s Law? According to Rushdoony, the civil realm should not be punishing infractions of the positive aspects of the law. Rushdoony stated, “Basic to every totalitarian regime is a positive concept of the function of law.” Sticking with the example Calvin gave, if a man fails to defend the life of his neighbor, is that man guilty of breaking the civil law? He is most certainly guilty of breaking the positive—moral—aspect of the Sixth Commandment, but this does not mean that justice would dictate a civil punishment. He has not shown love for his neighbor, but this does not mean that he is guilty of a crime. God will judge him. Is the fearful and loveless man guilty before God? Absolutely. Is his breaking of the positive side of the Sixth Commandment sin? Absolutely. But the jurisdiction to sanction this sin judicially remains with God, not the civil sphere. That is the crucial distinction. The state does not have the authority or jurisdiction to enforce the heart of man. The state can only restrict what God’s Law allows it to restrict.
The same principle applies to the Bride of Christ. Can a general lack of love for, let’s say, the preborn justify ecclesiological discipline or eventual excommunication? Can fellow Christians or elders within a community discipline or excommunicate another believer for not defending the life of his neighbor? When could any believer actively love the preborn enough to be protected from possible disciplinary charges?
Similar to how the positive aspect of God’s Law functions regarding the state, the governance of His Church is similarly by God’s Law. Christians fail every day regarding our positive duties before God. We fail to love one another rightly within our local fellowships. We fail to love our communities and cities adequately. We have failed to love others on social media rightly. We have failed to love the sojourners rightly. We have failed to love the orphans and widows rightly. These are easy examples.
Shall all Christians everywhere be brought up on charges of sin within ecclesiological courts because we have failed to rightly fulfill the positive aspects of God’s Law? I do not believe so. As the state does not have the authority to restrict or demand what has not been given to it, the Church and its local assemblies do not have unlimited jurisdiction to bind the consciences of men unless individuals or parties have been sinned against (Matt 18:15-20) or the negative aspect of the Law of God has been violated.
The application of this distinction has very practical implications. How Christians deal with sin within the context of a local fellowship cannot be arbitrary. It is not based on which sins we find more emotionally distressing or how embarrassed the fellowship may be because of public controversy. Too many fellowships have a supposedly high regard for “church discipline” yet fail to discipline many very disciplinable sins. Too often nothing is done until a public controversy breaks out, and then often it is only to cover up the embarrassments for select members. Sadly, I know of a case where there was addiction to pornography and fornication within the fellowship, and this was made known to the leadership, yet no discipline took place until child abuse was discovered and police got involved. Other fellowships discipline with a heavy hand, lording over the “laity” according to the whims of the elders. Many fellowships rule “by the book” with no longsuffering, no love, and no patience. Churches have sinned in how they have not fulfilled their duty to discipline sin and cut off known apostates, but they have also sinned in attempting to usurp more authority for themselves than what has been delegated to them.
An individual may be clearly failing, for example, to love their preborn neighbor, but that doesn’t warrant “church discipline” charges. The Church has the obligation to sharpen one another, build one another up, exhort one another, but the Church only becomes prosecutorial in a very regulated way. The Church can adjudicate between different parties when an individual or a group of individuals have been sinned against, and the Church can sanction and censure those who sin against the negative aspect of God’s Law. Just like with the state, the judicial function of the Church is limited to its own jurisdiction. This means it is limited to addressing only certain actions, and also limited in how it addresses those certain actions.
(To be continued. . . .)
- John Frame, “The Institutes of Biblical Law Review.”
- R.J. Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law Volume 1,” 220.
Originally published on Oct 10, 2017 at The American Vision.