Liberals and Libertarians alike reject order as an ethical principle, while historically, conservative Christians have not. Since our God is not a God of chaos, but order, it only makes sense that order would exist as an ethical principle. Before looking at Scripture, however, some preliminary arguments for order.
First, order is the precondition necessary for justice. Take for example the well-known game, Halo. Many glitches have been taken advantage of, to the consternation of some, to the point of some people irately declaring it a matter of cheating. And cheating is a matter of injustice.
However, though the glitches were unintended, and though the glitches led to many advantages that some utilized and not others, it was resentment speaking, and not a sense of justice. For, in order to qualify as cheating, the glitches, and thus the advantages, must be limited to only some and not others. Only then can it be considered an unfair advantage. But so long as the glitch is open to exploitation by all participants, it can hardly be called unfair.
This is what is commonly called the rule of law whereby everyone is treated the same. Equality, Biblically speaking is equality before the law. But, if this is true, then it follows necessarily that the glitch must be available for the duration of the game. After all, if the glitch disappears after the first person is done taking advantage of it, no one else will get a shot at it. So, here we have continuity placing constraints on the rules of the game.
This all makes sense if we imagine society as a collection of games and rules. Imagine that as I teach you chess, every time you move the Bishop, I tell you that you did it wrong, and show you a new way of moving it. That is, I change the rules every time. Not only would no one wish to play such a game, but it is also fair to even ask if such a game is really a game at all!
These arguments help us to make sense of why the civil magistrate is to uphold both law and order. When I explained this all to a seminary student once, he immediately acknowledged its truth with a real-life example. He was attending a rock concert where drugs were openly being used. The police who were present watched on, permitting the law to be broken. When he asked why they allowed it, they explained that they did not have the requisite manpower to enforce the law, that if they tried, therefore, a stampede or riot may break out, and in so doing, there may be lives lost. In short, the law was allowed to be broke for the sake of order. This aspect of order, in turn, preserved justice of another kind.
The Liberal and the Libertarian alike are bickering twins from the secular Enlightenment.
Instead of sheer pragmatism, our moral instinct tells us that order is connected to justice, inseparably. But, since many are, due to the Enlightenment, denying order is an ethically laden concept that governs and guides us, what does Scripture teach?
Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Cor. 14:40). And knowing that this applies to the church, and those who govern the church, it is instructive to remember that Paul considered a man who is not able to manage his own home a man who is not fit to manage the church. Thus, we have a double connection with order in the home: “He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?),” (1 Tim. 3:4-6).
So then, Scripture sees both the home and the church must be governed by order, a fact I have heard a so-called Christian libertarian reject since he found the concept of order “undefinable.”
The Liberal and the Libertarian alike are bickering twins from the secular Enlightenment. They both hold the motto, “Fiat justus ruat mundus.” This can be roughly translated as “Let justice be done and the world destroyed if necessary!”
The Reformed Conservative, however, rejects this motto. It only makes sense why they, basing their political theology on this idea, shout slogans like “Justice delayed is justice denied!” and “Partial justice is no justice at all!” These mottos were popuar during the 1960s. If the first statements were true, than God would be the most unjust, for God has delayed the day of judgment out of His mercy, for He is not willing that any should perish. And partial justice? I know of no man, who, having $100 stolen, would treat the return of $99 as the same as none. Who would dare say that partial justice is as good as no justice? Would he not, himself, take what he can get?
So, how do justice and order relate? Let’s examine the interesting encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees. Matthew 19:7-8, which says:
Why then,” they asked, “did Moses order a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus answered, “It was because of your hardness of heart that Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but it was not this way from the beginning.”
Everywhere in Scripture, the term “hardness of heart” refers to sin. We know that Jesus did not overturn what Moses allowed. So then, how do we understand this? Was Jesus a savvy politician who cared about expediency more than sin and justice? Did Jesus, as the perfect representative of God, Himself God-in-the-flesh, just ‘wink at sin’ as it were? Moses allowed sin, and it was allowed because of sin?
We have Jesus upholding Moses allowance of sin. God hates divorce, hates sin, and hates adultery, yet, the God-man Jesus Christ is allowing it. Does this mean that the moral law changes?
The liberal position is that the moral law does, in fact, change. That is, that there is a ‘trajectory’ whereby the law blossoms into a more and more loving ethic. The libertarian position, also, holds that the civil laws of Israel did not really teach a true ideal of justice, but that such rules were special exemptions, dispensations, etc, not connected to justice, per se. That is, I may have a rule in my house that the children must do their chores before playing games. However, a special command, such as requiring Johnny to take the dog out (not a chore) does not illustrate a binding command beyond that single instance. Thus, the laws of Israel were simply special commands God gave to them, and no one else, no universal standard justice was connected in a way that applies today.
However, Christians have historically held, before the Enlightenment ideas of Liberalism and Libertarianism came on the scene, that the civil law of Israel was an expression of perfect justice. The change, however, was not a change in justice, but a balancing of the rightful claims of justice in tension with the rightful claims of order. That is, order in light of sin is the conservative Christian’s position. John Calvin explains:
They ask, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever? If Christ replies in the negative, they will exclaim that he wickedly abolishes the Law; and if in the affirmative, they will give out that he is not a prophet of God, but rather a pander, who lends such countenance to the lust of men. Such were the calculations which they had made in their own minds; but the Son of God, who knew how to take the wise in their own craftiness, (Job 5:13,) disappointed them, sternly opposing unlawful divorces, and at the same time showing that he brings forward nothing which is inconsistent with the Law. For he includes the whole question under two heads: that the order of creation ought to serve for a law, that the husband should maintain conjugal fidelity during the whole of life; and that divorces were permitted, not because they were lawful, but because Moses had to deal with a rebellious and intractable nation.
If Moses dealt with a “rebellious and intractable nation,” by means of strictly enforcing justice and law, what would happen is this: people would divorce anyway, and when authority and law is openly flaunted, then necessarily more laws will be violated and more injustice will be done. It is never good to have a law that cannot be enforced. To do so is to undermine the ones that can be. When a people become too wicked and stubborn and rebellious, some give is necessary in order to prevent further injustices and rebellions.
It is never good to have a law that cannot be enforced. To do so is to undermine the ones that can be.
What does this mean? It means that although the Israelite civil law is an excellent standard of justice that is in effect today (not as a law, but as a model of justice) to apply that model without an eye to order would be unjust. Imagine instituting a law that enforces capital punishment for those who practice sodomy? Such could create, in America at least, a civil war. It would not be the right answer. However, the Liberal would say this is because it is unjust. The Libertarian would, essentially, agree, saying that though it was just then, it was only a special command, and there is no standard of justice made exemplified in such a practice.
The Biblical Christian says, yes, that is a representation of perfect justice, however, like Moses, and Jesus who upheld what Moses did, there are times where justice must be set aside to uphold order, times when dealing with a “rebellious and intractable nation.”
Perhaps this is necessary to give us some clue as to the cryptic meaning of Ecclesiastes 7:16, which says, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” To be sure, Augustine held that that the purpose of government is not justice, first and foremost, but order. Even contending that injustice must be permitted for the sake of order. It is time that Christians considered order as of equal importance as justice, for justice and civilization are built upon it.
Robert J. McPherson IISee More Essays
Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.