Although the church should not prosecute based on violations of the positive aspect of God’s Law, other considerations, such as the qualifications for eldership, are very much positive law. This means that although an elder may not be disciplined as a member for failing to be hospitable or failing to have his house in order, he should certainly resign or be disqualified as an elder if he does not meet those basic requirements. Considering how rare and unlikely self-rule is in such situations, others in the same fellowship should make it clear that such an elder is not meeting the minimum qualifications for his office. In general, what is prosecutable within the sphere of the state or the local assembly is not exhaustive of what it means to be without blame and above reproach, and this has applications for members and officers alike.
Some commentators have listed the Fourth Commandment as primarily positive law. I disagree. Although the Fourth Commandment begins with a positive command (Remember the Sabbath Day), this positive command goes on to be defined negatively with “in it you shall do no work.” Much like all of God’s commands, the Fourth Commandment certainly has a positive function along with a negative, but it is primarily negative.
Further evidence for this is that the sanction for breaking the Fourth Commandment was tied to the offender working on the Sabbath, not to the offender failing to work the other six days or failing “truly” to keep the day holy. In the New Testament Church, the jurisdiction for judging Sabbath breakers lays with God. This is made abundantly clear by Romans 14:5-6. A deeper look at the shift in jurisdiction from civil to personal is beyond the scope of this article, but I will refer the reader to Dr. North.1
The one law within the decalogue that is primarily positive is the Fifth Commandment.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.
Although the Fifth Commandment does speak to honoring all Biblical authority, both familial, ecclesiological, and civil, that authority is most certainly regulated by the Law-Word of God. The authority of parents is bounded up in the Law of God and the purpose that Scripture gives to them—that is, raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord so that their days may be long upon the land which the Lord our God has given them. Therefore, the authority of parents over their children is regulated by purpose rather than regulated by specific prescriptions and proscriptions. This is unlike the negative authority of the officers of the state and of the Church, which is a regulated authority bound by specific prescriptions placed upon their authority, not a positive goal or loosely defined purpose (although they do have biblical purposes). The authority of the parents is much broader, and the duty of children to obey is much greater, precisely because their authority is the authority of parentage. This directly connects to our duty to obey God. To disobey your parents is to disobey God, precisely because the relationship between child and parent is much like the relationship between creature and creator. Even so, the authority of parents is regulated, like all authority under God, by the purpose and biblically prescribed function of the parent. The authority of parents, although broad, is limited.
The form of authority between parent and child does not extend to other spheres of governance. Although we should submit to all righteous authority within all spheres of life, the nature of that authority is ontologically distinct from parental authority. Much like how the nature of the parent’s authority shifts from “obey” to “honor” when the child becomes an adult, the nature of civil and ecclesiological authority is not one of relatively unlimited obedience. The relationship between the believer and the local church elder is not like the relationship between the adolescent child and parent. Likewise, the state is not the mommy of the citizen, and the husband is not the daddy of his bride. As Rushdoony points out,
The state then becomes a nursemaid to a citizenry whose basic character is childish and immature. The theory that law must have a positive function assumes thus that the people are essentially childish.2
We should not, therefore, confuse the roles of church or civil officers with the very different roles of the family and parents. Rushdoony elaborates on the point further by commenting on Romans 12:4–5:
Paul gives us God’s picture of the new humanity in Christ, not a division between the elite and the masses, but many diverse and complementary gifts in one body. Commentators often remark that the image of the social order as a body was common in Roman thinking; Paul, we are told, was thusly using a familiar concept. The important point, however, is how Paul uses it. Because man is family born, it is easy enough for him, in one society after another, to use the image of the family as well as of the body to describe a community or a social order. The fact, however, is clear that all such non-Biblical usage was elitist. It was used to justify slavery on the one hand and an elitist ruling group on the other.
Paul’s usage militates against elitism. The head of the body is Christ, not an elite group of rulers (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15; 5:23). The church is Christ’s body, and the body is ruled by the head (Col. 1:18); Christ the Head is also “the head of all principality and power” (Col. 2:10). On the human level, all of us are members of the one body. We may have differing offices and functions, but we are “every one members one of another” (Rom. 12:5; cf.1 Cor. 12:4,12,20,27; 10:17,27; Eph. 1:23; 4:25; 1 Peter 4:10f). The Head uses the body; although certain members of the body may be more prominent than others, all members are used by Christ and are His instruments. Elitists use people to accomplish their fallible and evil goals; the Lord uses us to accomplish His infallible purpose. All the members have a mutual dependence on one another. They are thus not only members of the one body, but members one of another. In brief, in Paul’s perspective, the Head and Messiah of the body is Jesus Christ. In the elitist faith, the philosopher-kings, the scientific planners, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and other like groups are the body’s head and messiah.
We can only be members one of another if we are first of all members of Christ. There is no life in the body apart from Him.
Elitism seeks to conform us to the state and its rulers. Paul tells us that we must be conformed to Christ. Again, Paul is undercutting the premises of this world and its doctrines. We are either one body in Christ, or else one body in some Caesar, philosopher-king, or some other elitist. Paul uses the concept of the body to establish the necessity of unity in Christ. This is more than a unity in a church, and it is the antithesis as well as death of the pagan concepts of organic society.
A civil or ecclesiastical policy based on the positive aspect of the law functionally and theologically views the Christian as eternally a child, and the leadership as eternally the guiding nourishing fathers. When the Christian is treated like a child, it should as a surprise to us when the Church is filled with immaturity. Although the Fifth Commandment is clearly positive, it does not justify this positivism for the civil sphere or the Bride of Christ.
- Although I do not agree with everything Gary North has to say on the Sabbath, his insight on jurisdictional shift is excellent. Gary North, “The Sinai Strategy,” 250–255.
- R.J. Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law Lectures”, Negativism and the Law.
Originally published on Oct 10, 2017 at The American Vision.
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