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."