To what extent should government enforce the moral law of God? The example of divorce.

Christian conservatives often talk simplistically as if the government should enforce whatever moral teaching it finds in the Bible, and that if it would only do so, many of our problems would go away. When it comes to homosexuality, for instance, they say that since the Bible condemns it the government should punish it too. When it comes to divorce they say that government should simply enforce the teaching of Jesus that divorce is only legitimate in the case of adultery or sexual immorality.

The problem with this is not that conservatives are using the Bible to inform their politics. The Bible should inform our politics (see the first post in this series), and we should be free to take our religious convictions into the public square, as should Jews, Muslims, or the adherents of any other religion. The problem is that conservatives are ignoring the difference between the moral law of God and the way in which that law is to be enforced socially and politically. That is, they are ignoring the distinction that Scripture itself makes between what ought to be from a principle of strict morality and justice, and what is possible in any given community of human beings, even one that seeks to submit itself to God’s will.

Let me provide an important example to illustrate this point. In Matthew 19 we are told that the Pharisees asked Jesus whether or not it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any cause.” Jesus responds by appealing to the way in which God created human beings in the beginning, and to the commandment that God gave regarding marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh … What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” The Pharisees, of course realized that they now had Jesus trapped. They knew that the Torah permitted divorce. “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”

What we have here is a clash between the timeless moral law of God – consider it the natural law of creation – and the revealed law of God as delivered to the Jews by Moses. What is higher, natural law or the civil law of Israel? And what part of Scripture trumps the other, the story of creation, or the giving of the law at Sinai?

Yet Jesus answers in such a way as to demonstrate that he was never trapped at all. He indicates that he has no problem distinguishing between three types of law: 1) the moral law of creation; 2) the sorts of laws necessary to address situations caused by human sin; 3) the sorts of laws necessary because of the hardness of human hearts. He declares, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives (Type 3), but from the beginning it was not so (Type 1). And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery (Type 2).

As Calvin points out, it is quite clear that the law of divorce found in the Torah was part of Israel’s civil law, and that it tolerated a level of evil in Israelite society that would not have been tolerated in a perfect world. Indeed, it tolerated divorce in circumstances Jesus condemned as immoral even in a fallen world. And yet human beings will be judged by the moral law of God, no doubt in light of the exception granted here by Jesus, not by the civil law of Moses. The problem was, as Jesus recognized, civil government cannot possibly enforce such a standard in a society of sinful human beings. The civil law must be relaxed if human beings are to live together in a fallen world.

What is startling about this story from our modern American perspective is that the law in view here is not the law of a pagan nation, but the law of Israel as revealed by God himself on Sinai. If Israel’s civil law could permit certain forms of injustice because of the hardness of human hearts, what about the laws of other nations, such as the United States?

And the fact is, it is not just in the area of divorce that Scripture recognizes the necessity for a relaxed civil standard. It is well-known that in the time of the patriarchs and for much of Israel’s history polygamy was tolerated in practice or in civil law, regardless of the fact that it was incompatible with the natural law of God given at creation. Likewise, many of the church’s greatest theologians over the years have argued that both private property and slavery are human institutions tolerated because of the hardness of human hearts but that would never have existed had human beings not fallen into sin. As a result they taught that Christians must use their property and treat their slaves in such a manner as to conform to a much higher moral law – they hold all things in common, give freely to the poor, and treat their slaves as equals.

Indeed, at the root of all of this is the fact that the civil government’s very use of the sword is a result of sin, an institution of God due to the hardness of human hearts. The civil government cannot possibly enforce God’s moral law perfectly. It must legislate and enforce all sorts of rules and principles designed to maintain a basic level of justice and peace compatible with the necessities of human life. And in this task there is necessarily a degree of flexibility and discretion that varies in its application in each time and place. That’s why it’s not enough simply to quote Scripture at one another. The task of politics and legislation requires an awful lot of careful thinking, winsome persuasion, and good old fashioned hard work.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 10, 2012, in Law, Marriage, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on To what extent should government enforce the moral law of God? The example of divorce..

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