What the world gets wrong about biblical laws

Most of the time when you hear someone talk about "laws" they're talking about something you obey because of the threat of something bad happening to you.

If you kill someone, you'll get thrown in prison. If you don't pay your taxes, you'll get fined, and then eventually thrown in prison. In some countries, stealing might get you whipped. In some, you could be forced to pay something to the person you stole from.

This incentivizes you to obey the "law".

The Bible is clear that God is above all rulers and governments and expects them to obey him. "What are the limits of government power" and "what punishments does the Bible expect rulers to apply" are unavoidable topics for Christians, especially ones near any kind of democracy.

What are the biblical laws?

The first mistake people usually make when trying to apply the bible to government is confusing God's commands to us for a human governments commands to us, specifically in that they think that they are supposed to line up 1:1.

This is not so! God gives us many commandments that governments aren’t involved in at all.

God is very clear that we are supposed to obey his laws because we are afraid of his power, not because we are afraid of human governments.

Deuteronomy 28 describes the blessings that apply to nations who obey God, and punishments that apply to ones who disobey.

You shall be blessed when you come in, and you shall be blessed when you go out. Yahweh will cause your enemies who rise up against you to be struck before you.

You will be cursed when you come in, and you will be cursed when you go out. Yahweh will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you put your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the evil of your doings, by which you have forsaken me.

The fifth commandment says "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which Yahweh your God gives you." (Exodus 20:12)

There are other reasons to obey God's commands, but just by themselves, these are some pretty compelling incentives, and all dispensed directly by God!

So when in the next verse we read "You shall not murder" we shouldn't immediately assume "we shouldn't murder because some man would throw me in prison or put to death", we should be thinking "I shouldn't murder because God has commanded me not to, and he does assign consequences."

Even in the absence of coherent human government, we would still need to obey these commands because we fear God.

The Bible does command us to punish other people in some cases

Exodus 21:12:

One who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death,

but not if it is unintentional, but God allows it to happen; then I will appoint you a place where he shall flee.

Exodus 19:11-13:

But if any man hates his neighbor, lies in wait for him, rises up against him, strikes him mortally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities; then the elders of his city shall send and bring him there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the innocent blood from Israel that it may go well with you.

Here God gives commands to the government – that is to say, he commands men to exercise authority over other men.

This is a distinct law from the sixth commandment! God has given us two separate commands:

  1. Don't murder anyone
  2. If someone murders someone else, you need to put the murderer to death

It is very common nowadays for Christians involved in government to confuse these two commands.

What happens if you confuse those two commands?

The flawed logic goes something like this:

  1. God commanded everyone not to do a specific thing (murder)
  2. God commanded everyone to punish anyone who does that specific thing (in the case of murder, you have to put them to death)
  3. Therefore, for anything that God says not to do (e.g. coveting or drunkenness or usury), it is reasonable for a government to punish people for doing that thing

This is wrong! It violates other direct commandments from God! I'll get into those a few paragraphs down.

But there's another even slipperier way people will try to twist the Bible into justifying nearly anything they want. It goes something like this:

  1. God explicitly says that he expects at least some of his commanded punishments to be a deterrent of sin (Deuteronomy 13:11)
  2. Rulers are supposed to be a terror to evil (Romans 13:3)
  3. Therefore, for anything that God says not to do, rulers may try to deter people from committing those sins

Since this is how most governments act, most Christians I've talked to accept this as The Way Things Are and don't interrogate it very much, even though it gives anyone in authority free reign to punish anything they feel like (e.g. driving over 60mph might lead to violence caused by recklessness, or playing cards might lead to dancing).

Why can't governments try to stop people from sinning?

The easiest argument for me to understand is: for all practical purposes, the Bible prohibits punishing other people.

People in authority typically punish disobedient subjects with slavery (forced labor, prison), violence (whipping, cutting off hands, killing), or theft (fines, confiscation of property).

God has established general prohibitions on all of these.

Stuff governments can't do

God has set up a general prohibition on kidnapping for slavery: "Anyone who kidnaps someone and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 12:16)

This applies to civil authorities as much as everyone else – this means that governments may not cage people up in prison.

God also enforces a general prohibition on theft: "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15).

This means that governments may not fine people for violating legislation.

God also lays out general prohibitions on killing people, and speaks strongly against violence in general. The Bible speaks most clearly against murder or attempted murder, but violence is equated with ungodliness pretty often. Ezekiel 45:9:

For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Enough, you princes of Israel! Stop your violence and oppression and do what is just and right. Quit robbing and cheating my people out of their land. Stop expelling them from their homes, says the Sovereign LORD.

This means that governments may not put people to death or hurt them for disobeying arbitrary legislation.

So what laws should the government enforce?

If the Bible gives us a human-applied punishment and tells us when to apply it, that is a case where we are allowed to exercise government over others.

If the Bible does not prescribe a punishment for something, we may not make up our own.

Applying biblical laws would look something like bringing your case before a judge and saying "this man stole my car, and based on Exodus 22:1, I am seeking restitution of four times replacement cost."

How to speak about trans people

It is culturally popular nowadays to say that gender is a spectrum, and that women and men are not substantially different. I have seen people actually claim that biological sex differences don't exist.

It's easy and popular in some contrarian subcultures to make fun of those views, and point out how inconsistent they are with reality, or how those views conflict with other culturally-popular views about how "men" are aggressors and an unequivocal danger to "women".

Insulting the stupidity of these beliefs is not a biblical response. The biblical response is not to make fun of falsehood, but to state the truth.

In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Even if it doesn't seem obvious, humans come in two sexes. The Bible recognizes exactly two genders.

A woman shall not wear men’s clothing, neither shall a man put on women’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to Yahweh your God.

Deuteronomy 22:5

The Bible says that pretending to change your sex is an abominable sin.

People talking about trans rights are not suffering from a failure of intelligence, but the same sinful failure that is common to all of us without God's help.

Contradicting God's word on sex and gender is a sin.

If they confess their sin, Jesus is faithful and righteous to forgive their sins, same as he does for any of us.

Marriage marketing addendum: a father's involvement in the marriage of his daughter

With one exception, my post Marriage marketing for Christians was ungendered, because I think the principles there apply to both sexes.

This was the exceptional paragraph:

If you're a man looking for a woman to marry, you or your broker contacting her father is the most biblically correct first step, though depending on her family situation that may not be possible or appropriate.

This is based on my reading/remembering of two passages:

Exodus 22:16-17:

If a man entices a virgin who isn’t pledged to be married, and lies with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife.

If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.

i.e. if you get a girl to have sex with you and you're discovered, you have to marry her... except her father can still veto the marriage.

Numbers 30:3-5:

Also, when a woman vows a vow to Yahweh and binds herself by a pledge, being in her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears her vow and her pledge with which she has bound her soul, and her father says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge with which she has bound her soul shall stand.

But if her father forbids her in the day that he hears, none of her vows or of her pledges with which she has bound her soul, shall stand. Yahweh will forgive her, because her father has forbidden her.

i.e. in general, a father gets the opportunity to veto his daughter's vows when he hears about them.

This implies responsibility for/authority over a daughter becoming legally bound to a man in marriage.

But what if he's an idiot?

Famously, you don't have to prove competence to become a father. Not every man will be a good legal representative of his daughters, but it's still his role by default.

The father's default role notwithstanding, that Numbers passage has some qualifiers – this command is for a woman still in her father's household, specifically one who is young. I don't think you're required to go through the dad to marry a woman living on her own, though depending on her relationship with her father she might still appreciate having him in the loop or using him as a first-contact method.

Her dad may just not even be interested in getting involved. If he gives you a blank look and a shrug when you ask to talk to his daughter about exploring marriage, you probably don't need to make a big deal about asking his blessing him not to veto your marriage vows.

But if she's living in her father's household, you should probably be involving her father. At the very least, she probably appreciates the chance to let her dad deliver a "uh, no"/"eh, maybe" message instead of having to tell you directly.

Marriage marketing for Christians

One of my favorite posts about finding a mate is "People are worried about marriage market liquidity":

There are two ways you can go about it – either “over the counter” (finding a partner by yourself) or “exchange traded” (said exchange could be anything from newspaper classifieds to Tinder to Shaadi.com). Brokers are frequently used in the OTC market – either parents or friends (who set you up) or priests.

The general rule of markets is that the more bespoke (or “weird” or “unusual”) an instrument is, the better the likelihood of finding a match in the OTC markets than on exchanges. The reason is simple – for an exchange to exist, the commodity being traded needs to be a commodity.

I love this framing, it's such a useful starting point for Christians to talk about getting married.

As of this writing in the early 2020s, a Bible-believing Christian seems to be searching for a mate in a fairly illiquid market. You can't just go to the quarterly John Calvin Appreciation Conference and browse around for the hottest eligible attendees that you think you could woo. Serious Sola Scriptura subscribers are rare enough that just finding yourself in a room with a potential mate might happen less than once a year, depending on your community.

We are selling a bespoke product, and we need to alter our strategies appropriately.

Side bar: don't waste time finding buyers for your product

Or: "will the market clear before I'm 40?"

Your product is not fungible, a Christian who takes God's law seriously is an oddity in our marriage market.

The popular path-of-least-resistance dating is not a good strategy for you. You can't waste a year or two of hanging out, becoming friends, deciding you like each other, and then start up with the "so hey, uh, how do you feel about trying for 4+ kids and homeschooling them all the way?"

You have a bunch of things that make you a poor marriage prospect (and more importantly, downright inappropriate yoke partner) to most people in America. Ideally you need to get all those "no thanks" answers as quickly as possible so you don't e.g. start dating at 22 and then find yourself at 35 years old having only pursued relationships with 5 women at 3 years each.

You probably shouldn't be running up to people and saying "so-hey-are-you-postmillennial-or-open-to-the-idea?-no?-okay-thanks-bye" and then running off, but you should probably be closer to that end of the spectrum than the multi-year tentative relationship side.

Finding a broker

So, I'll be honest, this part of the story is a bit bleak.

I think American Christians have really dropped the ball on matchmaking over the years, so you'll probably have to do some legwork.

Depending on the strength of your presbytery or church network, you might be able to ask your elders if they know of any good prospects in other churches. You could ask if there are any elders in those churches who they think could act as reasonable brokers.

Unfortunately even among elders in the church there's a risk of someone who gets more excited about the emotional romance of matchmaking than high-quality spousal lead generation, so you might have to use your judgment to try to route around some of them.

Once you have someone willing to act as some sort of broker in another community, you can give them your pitch – what you are, your current mission, your non-negotiables, whatever makes you unsuitable for the broader marriage market and whatever distinctives you have that might be interesting to someone in your niche market.

If they have any good leads, you can move on to making contact.

Making first contact

There's a good chance that this hypothetical elder (or elder figure) giving you hot leads on eligible parishioners isn't actually working from a list of singles who told them "hey, I'm on the market, make sure you mention me to anyone who seems like a good match."

You're probably getting the names of people who they know are on the market to various degrees, but haven't thought too much about the possibility of getting cold-called by suitors.

If there's someone who sounds like they're worth talking to about whether or not you might be a good pair, you should seriously consider using a broker to make first contact. The matchmaker who referred you might be a good choice.

Depending on your relationship with your parents, you can even consider the classic "ask your parents to talk to their parents about whether or not they're interested in marriage now" tactic.

If you're a man looking for a woman to marry, you or your broker contacting her father is the most biblically correct first step, though depending on her family situation that may not be possible or appropriate.

Looking for potential spouses through intermediaries sounds pretty odd in a lot of American subcultures today, so you may worry about seeming weird, but you have the advantage that it also makes you a Person Who Is Serious About Finding A Spouse, which is a positive trait in our illiquid market.

The marriage marketing funnel

Don't waste time during this stage. You don't want to waste 6 months as conversation partners if you have completely incompatible plans for the rest of your life. Not only is it an awful marketing strategy, it's unfair to them and wastes their time.

Whatever pace you move at, I would recommend having a list of serious questions that need to be talked about, and be working through them regularly. Preparing for Marriage isn't super deep but is a fine place to get a few ideas.

One of your goals should be "before proposing, there shouldn't be any unpleasant or disruptive secrets about me left to discover."

I recommend marrying

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.

Seriously, it's great. Cuddling, talking, working, sex, it's good to have a partner. Marriage is hard and stuff, but in my experience it's preferable to being single by a significant margin.

Addendum: a few things that might make you illiquid

These could be framed as either "things that make you weird in broader culture" or "things that you're looking for that are hard to find."

  • Believes Bible is the word of God
  • Believes that God's laws apply today
  • Plans to go all-in on marriage, no option for divorce even if you hate your spouse some day
  • Wants to train children to worship God in such a way that they will train their own children to do the same
  • Close enough theologically that you can worship and study together
  • Willing to go along with you on your mission, maybe one of:
    • Raising descendants to pass on Christianity
    • Ministering to a nation or group of people
    • Serving some local church body or organization

Your list may vary, it might be worth writing down.

Confessing the sins of the land

Land acknowledgments have become a thing in recent years:

Speakers list the people who were harmed on the land in the distant past. The Native Governance Center recommends "don’t sugarcoat the past. Use terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing, stolen land, and forced removal to reflect actions taken by colonizers."

The implication is that the people on the land owe some kind of sin debt just by nature of being on the land in the future.

Which, when you say it like that, starts to sound pretty biblical.

The Confessional County

Ray Simmons argues for the existence of land curses in The Confessional County:

...we know land curses still apply today because Adam's curse is still here, because curses have always been levied on disobedient nations (not just Israel), because the Great Commission carries God's ethics to the world, and because Jesus specifically declared that houses and cities can be cursed in the new covenant.

- (page 23)

He argues that there are biblical land curses that apply to the United States:

  1. Land curses due to killing the innocent
  2. Land curses due to sexual immorality
  3. Land curses due to sabbath-breaking
  4. Land curses due to idolatry

He goes on to argue that the biblical solution is societal confession, where a county/city/nation comes together and collectively confesses the sins of the land and renews their covenant with God.

How are they different?

When a humanist confesses the sin of the land, there is no endgame. There is no forgiveness. There is only endless confessing to demonstrate your morality to the satisfaction of the audience.

When a society confesses sins to God, there can be forgiveness, the start of a better relationship.

If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, in their trespass which they trespassed against me; and also that because they walked contrary to me,

I also walked contrary to them, and brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled, and they then accept the punishment of their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.

- Leviticus 26:40-42

There is a God, he is concerned with the historic sins of nations, and we must direct our confessions to him.