The Relation of Church Courts to Civil Courts

The church, under Christ her King, is an independent domain, even as the state is.  The church is a separate institution with its own powers, functions and jurisdiction.  The state has its own domain.  Each institution may exercise authority only within the jurisdiction given it by Christ.  Ecclesiastical constitutions have no authority in civil government; and civil constitutions have no authority in ecclesiastical government. To reject this limitation is political, cultural and ecclesiastical suicide.

The courts of the church are not under the jurisdiction of the courts of the state and vice versa.  The church, therefore, is not a tax-exempt organization; it is, rather,  non-taxable by the state, because as an organization, the church is not under the state’s jurisdiction.  Its government is in the hands of the officers of the church and is distinct from the civil magistrate.

After having said this, it must be reiterated emphatically that this institutional separation of church and state does not imply any antithesis between God and state, Christianity and state, Biblical morality and state, or Bible and state.   Religious neutrality in politics is a myth the humanists try to impose on Christians, while they themselves are never neutral.  Christians may never even attempt to be religiously neutral, for Jesus said that we are either for Him or against Him. Between these two poles there is no neutral ground.

In Deuteronomy 16:18-17:20, God instituted civil courts.  The origin of their authority and jurisdiction is God Himself, v. 18.  The function of courts is defined by God alone:  to administer justice in terms of God’s revealed Law, v. 18-20.  The judge is not to be an impartial referee, but a champion of God’s Law, actively concerned with bringing God’s justice to bear on every situation, II Chronicles 6:23.  As Rushdoony wrote:  “If the judge does not represent God’s Law order, he is ultimately a political hack and hatchet man whose job it is to keep the people in line, protect the establishment, and, in the process, to feather his own nest.  Ungodly judges are to be feared and hated:  they represent a particularly fearful and ugly form of evil, and their abuse of office is a deadly cancer to any society.”- INSTITUTES OF BIBLICAL LAW, p. 613.

The standard of judgment in civil courts is to be the Lord’s revealed Law, Deuteronomy 16:21-17:1.  As Samuel Rutherford has taught us in his classic, LEX REX, as only God can define and distinguish good and evil, so only God can justly define criminal behavior and the nature of civil punishments for that behavior.  When man is the source of law, who determines what crimes are and how they are to be punished, good is called evil, evil is called good, justice is perverted and penalties become arbitrary and cruel.

“The more a power departs from God’s Law, the more impotent it becomes in coping with real offenses, and the more severe it becomes with trifling offenses or with meaningless infractions of empty statutes which seek to govern without moral authority and with reason.- Rushdoony, INSTITUTES, p. 620

In 17:2-7, we are taught that the procedure of the court must be just, orderly, solemn and public.  Cases can be appealed to higher courts, I Kings 3:5-15.  Trials should be swift and just, Ezra 7:26.  And corroboration among witnesses is absolutely essential, Deuteronomy 17:1-7; Exodus 22:10f.  This means that perjury is a heinous civil and criminal, as well as religious, offense.  Perjury is a destructive blow at the foundation of justice.  Therefore the penalty of perjury is in terms of lex talionis, i.e., “eye for eye, life for life” justice.  This means that the heinousness of the crime determines the severity of the civil punishment, or more simply, the punishment must fit the crime.

When a judge renders a righteous decision, according to the Bible, it is the judgment of God Himself, 17:10-12.  Although imprisonment is not a Biblical form of civil punishment, three kinds of civil sanctions are presented in the Bible, depending on the nature of the crime.  The first is restitution in matters concerning money, property and injury.  For instance, in cases of damages, the person who injures or wrongs another shall be liable to pay damages, Lev. 24:19, and medical expenses, Exod. 21:19, and for time lost from work.  In regard to stealing property, double restoration and more in some cases is required, Exod. 22:1-14; Lev. 6:1-7. Second, whipping is also required for some offenses, Deuteronomy 22:18.  Third, capital punishment is required without mercy for those convicted of capital crimes as defined by God, Exodus 21:12-14; 21:16; Deut. 22:23-27.  Romans 13 tells us that the civil government still bears the power of the sword to punish evil-doers.

What is the relation of the Christian to civil courts of law today?  As we have just shown, civil courts were instituted by God to be used by God’s people for protection from criminals, for the maintenance of liberty and justice for all, and for the preservation of God’s moral and social order.  The apostle Paul used the established judicial system of his day in Acts 25.  The leaders of the Jewish church had brought unjust and untrue charges against Paul before the civil official, Festus.  In his court, Paul spoke in his own defense testifying that he had committed no crime.  Because Festus was prejudiced toward his Jewish accusers—wishing to do the Jews a favor, v. 9, Paul knew that he could not receive a fair hearing.  Therefore, in formal legal language, Paul appealed to a higher civil court—I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried.  I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know.  If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them.  I appeal to Caesar, v. 10-11.  In making this appeal, he was “taking to court” his fellow-members of the Jewish church.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:33-42, Jesus condemned the abuse and perversion of issues that pertained only to the court with its administration of justice.  He forbade his disciples to use vows and oaths in their everyday conversations with each other, because they were too solemn to be used casually in ordinary interpersonal relations.  Oaths and vows may be imposed by those with the authority to do so, i.e., heads of families, elders in churches and civil magistrates.  He is not outlawing oaths and vows absolutely, for to do so would require Him to contradict what God had revealed elsewhere in His Law.  In Matthew 5:38-42, he also made clear that the principle of lex talionis, so essential to the administration of justice in civil courts, is not to be used in ordinary, everyday interpersonal relationships.  Those relationships are to be governed by love, mercy and kindness.  Courts are to administer justice, not show mercy, Deuteronomy 13:8.  In this text, Jesus is not concerned with the relationship of the Christian to the state, but the response of the Christian to things done to him personally.  He is to be concerned for law and order, while not always pushing for his own rights, and being prepared to suffer insult for believing in law and order.

The apostle Paul dealt with the relation of the Christian to courts of law, both civil and ecclesiastical, in I Corinthians 6:1-8.

[1]Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?  [2]Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?  [3]Do you not know that we shall judge angels?  How much more, matters of this life?  [4]If then you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church?  [5]I say this to your shame.  Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, [6]but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?  [7]Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?  [8]On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that your brethren.

The point of this important text has been narrowed by some today to say merely that members of the church of Christ should never sue their fellow-members in a civil court of law.  Such a narrow view fails to understand our text in the light of its Biblical and historical context.  First, such a view disregards the fact that God Himself instituted civil courts for the benefit of all citizens, including those who are members of churches, Deuteronomy 16:18-17:1.  And, it should not be forgotten, that, since these courts were instituted in ancient Israel, all of those participating in lawsuits would be members of the covenant community, i.e., they would be fellow members of the Old Testament church.  Second, Paul, who is issuing these apostolic injunctions to the Corinthian church, initiated a lawsuit-appeal, not only against fellow church members, but also against the leaders in the Jewish church of his day in his appeal to Caesar recorded in Acts 25.  As Charles Hodge has written:  “…under the circumstances in which the Corinthians were placed, it was wrong to go to law, even to protect themselves from injury.  That this is not to be regarded as a general rule of Christian conduct is plain, because…God appointed judges for the administration of justice; and because Paul himself did not hesitate to appeal to Caesar to protect himself from the injustice of his countrymen.”- I CORINTHIANS, p. 97.

Furthermore, what Paul is condemning in I Corinthians 6:1-7 is, to quote John Calvin, “an excessive fondness for litigation, which took its rise from avarice.”  Calvin, then, clarifies the point of the text:  “Paul does not here condemn those who from necessity have a cause before unbelieving judges, as when a person is summoned to a court; but those who of their own accord, bring their brethren into this situation, and harass them, as it were, through means of unbelievers, while it is in their power to employ another method.  --  Let us therefore bear in mind, that Paul does not condemn lawsuits on the ground of its being a wrong thing in itself to maintain a good cause by having recourse to a magistrate, but because it is almost invariably accompanied with corrupt dispositions, as, for example, violence, desire of revenge, enmities, obstinacy, and the like.”- COMMENTARIES, Vol. XX, pp. 198-199, 205.

The points Paul is making in our text are practical ones:  (1). Christians dare not do anything that tends to bring reproach on the name of Christ, the church of Christ, or their Christian profession of faith, James 2:7.  (2). Christians should never engage in lawsuits until all other remedies have been tried and have failed.  (3). Christians must put aside completely a spirit of revenge and retaliation.  We may go to court to maintain law, order and justice, but never to get even.  (4). Christians must learn to suffer injuries quietly.  (5). In Corinth, an improper lust for possessions had them in such a grip that they could not refrain from hurting one another.  (6). The Christian, and especially the elder, has the responsibility to know Biblical law to the point that he can apply it correctly to situations as they arise without being too loose or too strict.