The Fork in the Road: Moral vs. Positive Law: Background

Guy wrote a comment asking why I take such a dim view of positive law (and I do). I knocked out a quick comment, but I think the topic bears a more thorough explanation. It’s going to take several posts that dig deeply into the mind of God.

After some background, the first few posts will delve into the scripture’s teachings on moral and positive law. We’ll then look at some supposed positive laws to see whether the Bible really teaches what we often teach to be laws.

A little background

For those not familiar with the term, “positive law” is a law that prohibits something not intrinsically wrong. A “moral law” is based on fundamental morality. In civil law — the law of governments — we would say that the prohibition of murder is a matter of moral law, because murder is wrong even if the government doesn’t choose to punish it. However, the law setting a minimum wage is positive law, because general principles of morality don’t declare wages below $7.25 an hour immoral — although there certainly is a point at which wages are immorally law — which may be higher or lower than the federal minimum wage.

In religious conversation, the distinction isn’t quite so clear, because presumably God makes both laws and God’s will is the very definition of morality. Nonetheless, the terms are useful. As a rule, in the Churches of Christ, we would refer to such teachings as the 5 acts of worship and the scriptural form of church organization to be positive laws, because there’d be nothing inherently immoral in, say, a cappella singing. After all, God commanded instrumental worship in the Old Testament. (This essay by John Mark Hicks also addresses positive law.)

Now, in the Churches of Christ, this distinction has an important history. After the time of Alexander Campbell, some ministers began to argue that God held his people to a higher standard of obedience to positive commands. Benjamin Franklin, for example, preached, in a sermon published in 1877,

But positive divine law is of a higher order than this. It has the force to make that right which is not right in itself, and is the highest test of respect for divine authority known to man. It is also the greatest trial of faith ever applied to man. It is intended to penetrate down into the heart, and try the heart, the piety, the devotion to God. The very acts that some men have irreverently styled, “mere outward acts,” “mere external performances,” are the Lord’s tests of the state of the heart, intended to penetrate deep down into the inmost depths of the soul, try the heart, the piety, the devotion to God. They try the faith. The man that will obey a commandment, when he can not see that the thing commanded can do any good, or, it may be, that he can see pretty clearly that it can not do any good in itself, does it solely through respect to divine authority; does it solely to please God; does it solely because God commands it. This has no reference to popularity, pleasing men, or to the will of man, but it is purely in reference to the will of God. This is of faith; it is piety, devotion to God. It rises above mere morality, philosophy, or the pleasure of man, into the pure region of faith, confidence in the wisdom of God, and in submission to the supreme authority–yields to it reverently when no other reason can be seen for it only that the divine will requires it. The man in his heart says, “It must be done, because the absolute authority requires it.”

There are three degrees in this before it can reach the highest test, the greatest trial of faith. 1. To obey when we can not see that the thing commanded can do any good in itself. 2. To obey when we can see pretty clearly that the thing commanded can not do any good in itself. 3. To obey when we can see that the thing commanded is clearly wrong in itself. It tries the state of heart, the faith, the devotion to Him who commanded, to obey a command when we can not see that the thing commanded can do any good in itself. The test is greater, and the trial more severe, when we can see clearly that the thing commanded can not do any good in itself. The test is greatest, and the trial of faith  most severe, when we can see that the thing commanded is clearly wrong in itself, but only made right by the arbitrary force of the absolute authority. This will all appear presently.

Notice he argues that we must obey God’s positive commands even when “the thing commanded is clearly wrong” — as though God could command such a thing!

Ultimately, he argues that positive laws are the “highest test for respect for divine authority known to man”! Therefore, obedience to positive commands was elevated above moral obedience.

It was only a few years later that the silences of the scriptures were tortured into a positive command, as though one could command by silence! Indeed, even today I read editor-bishops damning those who sing with an instrument for violating a “command” of God.

Of course, when silences become commands, well, there’s an awful lot of silence, and this has led to damnations and counter-damnations over who correctly reads the silences. You see, we’ve invented the perversity of “positive silences” and made silences that we infer more important and more binding that what God actually said. And, indeed, this has led to a notable lack of interest in reading what the text says for what it says.

Even today, many schools of preaching continue to teach the superiority of positive commands to moral commands — and certainly Church of Christ theology shows this attitude. After all, it’s the positive commands that we believe serve as “marks of the church.”

Many of us have experienced the kind of Christianity this reasoning has produced — a Christianity that damns over every violation of positive “law” and grants grace for violations of moral law, a Christianity that defines its borders by adherence to every fashionable inference rather than faith and love and the Spirit, a Christianity that can make no sense of Romans and 1 John and Jesus but happily claims perfect knowledge of the two passages that mention singing.

Indeed, while many Christians caught up in this religion are good, loving people, they are part of churches so afraid of violating a law that they do next to nothing for God’s kingdom.

So this is the background against which I write. And so I contend that Benjamin Franklin has it exactly backwards: moral law is higher than positive law. Indeed, I question whether God even imposes positive law any more.

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28 Responses

  1. I have read BF’s thing twice and it is very confusing as well as ilogical. We used the same reasoning to ban located preachers and Sunday School many years ago.

    Moral law is supreme.

    Bob

  2. “No loitering.”

    Is that a positive law or a moral law? I would call it a positive law with moral implications. Because teenagers hanging out in front of a mini-market is not morally bad. But sometimes, the hanging out starts to BREED bad behavior.

    So is loitering really the issue? Indeed not. But the WISE prohibit loitering because of the BAD FRUIT it can PRODUCE.

    So in the New Covenant… Are there legal positive laws? No. But we still need God’s Wisdom for BUILDING our lives in a way that produces GOOD Fruit.

    The qualifications of Shepherds for example. Is that new law? It simply isn’t. But it is God’s WISDOM for how leadership should be BECAUSE it will produce GOOD FRUIT. It isn’t arbitrary. It has an END in mind that is for the GOOD of the BODY.

    I would argue that the hiring and firing of preachers is similar. Is it wrong? I don’t think the Holy Spirit would ever author it. But I don’t have a VERSE that says you shouldn’t and there isn’t a verse that says you SHOULD. But what does God’s WISDOM say? How did he rise up leaders in the Old Covenant? How do we see Him rise up leaders in the New Order, the New Covenant…? from RELATIONSHIP, NOT from Monster.com and classifieds in the Christian Chronicle.

    But the real question is: What kind of FRUIT has it produced? Who cares how long it has been done… What is the fruit? The fruit, from any HONEST observer is BAD BAD BAD. In THIS most glorious covenant, the Climax of the Creation of the earth and of time itself, and we have men come and “try out” and then we give them a salary and if they don’t get the attendance up, we fire them. These are problems that SHOULD NEVER HAVE COME UP if we simply Build with God’s Wisdom and NOT with the “Wisdom” of Wall Street and this fallen planet. God has WAYS of doing HIS WORK.

    Positive laws. NONE. God’s WISDOM through His Spirit and CONFIRMED by the FRUIT of the Spirit? Yes, a thousand times, YES.

    But even if you don’t “agree” or get my point about “hiring/firing”, at least consider the loitering analogy. Some “practices”, though NON-moral in nature, do have moral consequences.

  3. For the record, I’m agreeing with Jay on my comment above. I’m just adding back some room for positive-type commands. Not legalistic, but practical and functional. Some may not agree on all of those, but agreement isn’t the goal. Churches that ARE CHRIST ON EARTH is the goal, to the praise of His Glory. And if we don’t look like Christ, then maybe some of our METHODS are outside of God’s METHODS, even though methods may SEEM non-moral. This is where it is CRITICAL to stay soft and supple about our methods. We need to watch for the fruit and adjust if it isn’t bearing Jesus Fruit.

  4. Jay,

    You write, “Notice [Franklin] argues that we must obey God’s positive commands even when ‘the thing commanded is clearly wrong’ — as though God could command such a thing!”

    But God has done that at least once — when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. In fact, that command fits all three of the qualifications Franklin mentions. I understand Franklin to say that when God is explicitly clear about what he expects us to do (I’m not talking about arguments from silence), then we have an obligation to obey even if we don’t understand.

    If indeed “moral law is higher than positive law”, then shouldn’t Abraham have refused to sacrifice his son?

  5. Alan, that is AN AMAZING POINT. VERY PROFOUND.

    Please consider for a moment what the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents. I’ve never quite seen one of those trees, have you?

    True Christianity restores what was lost in the garden. What we most desperately NEED is not our own independent knowledge of good and evil, even if that knowledge came from God (the perfect LAW).

    What we need is a moment by moment relationship WITH God, not laws and rules and interpretations separate FROM God.

    By ourselves, that sounds scary, but in the CONTEXT of HIS HOLY PEOPLE, His SPIRIT FILLED PEOPLE, it is the most peaceful, holy, loving, secure place to be in the Universe.

    If Abraham had been listening to his own mind and even his own understanding of God’s will, he would have been disobedient to the living and active word, the CURRENT word of God.

    The day you eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will die…

    God didn’t say, “I will kill you” or “I will punish you.” He said, “You will die.”

    John 1:4
    In HIM was LIFE, and the LIFE was the LIGHT of men.

    John 5:39,40
    You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to COME TO ME to have life. (Jesus is THE REAL TREE OF LIFE)

    2Corinthians 3:6
    He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

    It just doesn’t get any clearer than that. We must stay connected to the AUTHOR of Life, moment by moment. No matter what we know, no matter what we’ve been taught, our LIFE and our LEADING, comes from HIM.

    He is alive and can be followed… positive law, moral law… He is a living Lord that can be followed TODAY, this MINUTE.

    Galatians 5:18
    But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

    Romans 8:14
    Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

    Galatians 5:25
    Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

    Using our own knowledge, even of things we KNOW ARE RIGHT, can lead us down a path of DISOBEDIENCE, if we ignore HIS GOOD, PLEASING AND PERFECT WILL.

    When Peter was told on the rooftop that the formerly unclean animals were NOW CLEAN…

    Acts 10:14
    “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

    “Surely not, LORD!”

    If our brains, and not the INTERNAL Holy Spirit guides us, we too will say, “Surely not, LORD!”

    Is this a scary path? Not as scary as functioning independently from the living God? But He has given us EACH OTHER and a history of other New Covenant believers walking this out together. That is why it isn’t scary or heretical.

    Thanks for the post Alan. You really nailed the ESSENCE of Christianity. Connection to the Head–Christ, rather than connection to a book or our own ideas about the book.

    Here are some additional thoughts… please, seriously consider these crucial truths.
    http://books.jesuslifetogether.com/Foundations-Series/Anvil/How-to-Eat-From-the-Tree-of-Life

  6. Alan,

    You raise an interesting concern. Here’s the key distinction: God has told us in the New Testament that the entirety of his law is now summed up by “Love your neighbor.”

    That was clearly not the case prior to Jesus. I believe that it’s the case now.

  7. Jesus didn’t tell people that to love your neighbor is now the sum of law and the prophets, the people were reading the law and the prophets. Jesus said to the people reminding them, this is the law and the prophets. It has always been there and taught.

    Matthew 7:12 “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

    If you do a deep study of loving your neighbor in the Hebrew Scriptures you will see how very important this has always been.

  8. Hi Jay, you wrote:

    “You [Alan] raise an interesting concern. Here’s the key distinction: God has told us in the New Testament that the entirety of his law is now summed up by “Love your neighbor.”

    That was clearly not the case prior to Jesus. I believe that it’s the case now”

    But Jay, was it really not the case prior to Jesus? Remember that the Lord himself said that all of the Law and the Prophets were summed up in the very same way. (Assuming that we are still commanded to love God too).

    I think it an unwise decision to minimalize the importance of any of God’s commands. Especially when to do so would allow us to totally diregard them. I mean, what do you mean in writing:

    ” Indeed, I question whether God even imposes positive law any more.”?

    Seems rather presumptous to me.

  9. Hank and Jay and everyone, please note my post above…

    The positive law and moral law and any other Obedience that is part of the New Covenant is REAL TIME and in the PRESENT.

    When Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Go and sell EVERYTHING YOU OWN and give it to the poor,” THAT WAS THE WILL OF GOD for him at that moment. Today, there are entire sermons on whether WE have to sell everything. Some sold quite a bit in the early part of Acts.

    But here is the point. Jesus is STILL ALIVE and still speaks. He LEADS by His Spirit and we can follow Him. And to Hank’s questions about greed… God may ask you, yes YOU, to sell ALL that you have… and anything less WOULD BE GREED and IDOLATRY and DISOBEDIENCE on your part. OR He may say, “It is fine to get the 52″ flat screen, but the 7.1 surround sound system is a bit much.”

    I am being TOTALLY serious. I see no other definition of Christianity and being led by the Spirit in this glorious New Covenant. God has interacted with His people throughout His History with His people. Do we think NOW, when HE ACTUALLY LIVES INSIDE US, that He is suddenly silent?????

    Most feel comfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit as POWER to DO what WE KNOW we need to do. Few feel comfortable with the idea that the HOLY SPIRIT is Jesus INSIDE…. thinking, feeling, knowing, acting…. Jesus being HIMSELF inside us.

    HOW should we hear God? Generally, not audible voices. We have to learn to listen to the grieving and gladdening of the Spirit. We can get input from other spiritual saints who are bearing the FRUIT of Jesus in their lives and have proven they “hear” pretty well. We consider the written principles that we have in the Scriptures. We honor the spiritual authority of truly Spirit-filled and gifted leaders around us and those in the past. Listening is ALL those things and more.

    I don’t know if you guys realize this or not, but the dialog here IS THE PLACE that the restoration movement went BAD. I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out. Judge and weigh for yourselves and watch the fruit. But this truth remains: Jesus is ALIVE and wants to be our REAL TIME Lord. To even settle on a new single principle of LOVE as the guiding LAW, but then disconnecting from the REALTIME application that Jesus can communicate is just as much deism as, “The Holy Spirit works only through the written word.”

    Please everyone… this is a CRITICAL LIFE AND DEATH Crossroads. Don’t just bat it around in your minds as some sort of philosophical dilemma. This is the meat of what it means to follow Jesus. As always, I need to work and could say much much more. But pray and consider and ask Father for wisdom.

  10. Pilgrim

    You said EVERYONE so I now feel free comment.

    I enjoy your posts but I am only a country person and can’t read, think about, and comprehend so much in one post.

    I don’t mean that to be hurtful, but to simply help me could you give me smaller bites to chew?

  11. I’m sorry for being so verbose. I write so much because my heart just pounds away through my fingers because I want so much for my brothers and sisters in the C of C to know the full inheritance that is available to them. I also try to anticipate the questions of, “But what about???”

    Most of the time, on this blog, I feel pretty much ignored as if I’m just this lunatic with an ax to grind. I have no ax. My life is full and I’m simply trying to help. I’d rather someone say to me, “That’s not right.” Or, “Yes, I agree completely.” But in general, I sense a mild apathy. Oh well. I’ll stop typing now before I put you to sleep… 😉 Thanks for the tip.

  12. Anon,

    Why is it that we no longer circumcise, honor the Sabbath, or wear tassels?

  13. Hank,

    It’s not presumptuous to take God at his word. Paul wrote,

    (Rom 13:9) The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

    I believe he spoke the truth. And I find the same principle suggested throughout the NT expressed in many ways.

  14. There is no reason people can’t be circumcised, honor the Sabbath, or wear tassels.

  15. Anon,

    But must we honor the positive commands in the Old Testament to do so?

  16. People have the choice to be circumcised, honor the Sabbath, or wear tassels, if that is what you are getting at. There are Jewish Christians who attend the church I go to who sometimes wear Yarmulkas. Some people who attend there own and sometimes wear prayer shawls, some people like to have a Mezuzot on their their door frame.

  17. But Jay, was it really not the case prior to Jesus?

    Remember that the Lord himself said that all of the Law and the Prophets were summed up in the very same way. (Assuming that we are still commanded to love God too).

    Are you really arguing that while the NT is summed up in “loving your neighbor as yourself”….that under the OT, it was different? Even though Jesus said that all of the Law and Prophets were summed up in the same?

    In other words, don’t you believe that Jesus said the same thing regarding the OT as Paul said regarding the New? Namely, that they were/are both summed up in the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself? (assuming we are still commanded to love God?)

    That was my point/question…

  18. Anonymous,

    I didn’t ask whether people are free to wear tassels. You’re avoiding my question.

    Are we or are we not subject to the positive laws of the Old Testament to be circumcised, honor the Sabbath, and wear tassels?

    Answer: No. Of course, not.

    Rejoinder: Why not?

    Answer: Because the Law is no longer in force.

    Rejoinder: All the Law?

    Answer: No, the moral law remains binding.

    Rejoinder: So the postive laws have been set aside and only the moral laws — the laws based on love — survive?

    Answer: Yes

    Rejoinder: Why were the positive laws set aside?

    Answer: Because they were insufficient to save. Only a relationship with Jesus can save.

    Rejoinder: Then what makes us imagine that God wants to continue the same system replacing one set of laws with another? It doesn’t really fit, does it?

  19. Hank,

    No, see my comment to Anonymous. Paul wasn’t saying that the entire OT is summed up in “love your neighbor.” That would obviously be untrue. He was saying those commands that survive the death of Jesus are. Otherwise, as we must still love our neighbors, we’d still have to honor the Sabbath, be circumcised, and wear tassels.

  20. Baptism, anyone? I can’t see the purpose of a symbolic burial, but it is commanded. This is why I agree with Ben Franklin’s sermon.

    However, when positive interpretations of scriptural silence and approved apostolic example became tests of fellowship, the movement became the worst kind of bad.

  21. Jody: Is the marriage ceremony a rule on HOW to live in a marriage? No, it is the way we enter covenant, but not a term of the agreement or covenant itself. I am not justified by that act, but born again IN that act. Not of works but necessary obedience nonetheless.

    Is physical intimacy a rule in marriage? No, it is an expression of love between those who are married? Is the Lord’s supper a rule in the New Covenant? No, it is an expression of love and devotion and remembrance to Him and with each other.

  22. Pilgrim and Jody,

    I think Pilgrim is spot on.

    Baptism comes closest to being positive, but it’s not a command to Christians — only non-Christians get baptized (except in Churches of Christ, of course, where we re-baptize the saved with regularity).

    And I’m not sure it’s properly characterized as a command in the sense that a failure to be baptized would be a sin. After all, those who are lost are lost because of their other sins, not because of their failure to be baptized.

  23. Alan, You said “But God has done that at least once — when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. In fact, that command fits all three of the qualifications Franklin mentions. I understand Franklin to say that when God is explicitly clear about what he expects us to do (I’m not talking about arguments from silence), then we have an obligation to obey even if we don’t understand”

    God never intended that Abraham would kill his son and Abraham never expected he would have to kill him. He said of himself and his son after saying they were going to the mountain to worship “we will return”. He also said “God will provide…” Abraham believed God who had promised to bless the nations through the same son.

  24. Royce, will all due respect, you are completely undercutting the most beautiful obedience ever offered by a human. Abraham had EVERY INTENTION of plunging his knife through the throat of his own son. God told him to do it and he was obeying God. Despite whatever moral ideas Abraham had about God, he knew God’s voice and obeyed. In the same way, we can hear and obey.

    Hebrew writer confirms:
    Hebrews 11:17-19
    By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises WAS ABOUT TO SACRIFICE HIS ONE AND ONLY SON, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the DEAD, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

  25. Royce, your comment is what has been revealed to you and there is nothing wrong with wanting others to see it too. I want people to see it also, but sometimes they simply just don’t want to. Abraham did say of himself and his son “we will return” and Abraham did tell Isaac, “God will provide”, Abraham believed God who had promised to bless the nations through that son. You are right and the Scripture provide the proof.

  26. Abraham believed that God would provide a sacrifice in place of his son, he also knew if it did come to that he had to kill him God could raise him from the dead.

  27. Royce,

    If what you believe is true…

    Then Abraham doesn’t deserve the credit that the Bible gives him. Because, if he knew that God did not actually want him to kill his son (if he knew God was not going to allow it), then what was so special abot his faith? The fact of the matter is that even though God said to kill him… Abraham was willing to obey. While he may have believed that God would raise him again, he still was prepared to kill him.

    You say:

    “God never intended that Abraham would kill his son and Abraham never expected he would have to kill him. ”

    If so, what was so faithfull about him? The truth is that he DID intend to kill is son (as God had commanded), even thogh he believed that God would make it all right in the end. If he (as you suggest) believed that God was merely kidding…what would have made him so faithful?

    Again, it seems as though you are guilty of reading into the text.

  28. If someone is facing a difficult situation and they have faith that God is going to provide help for them, I think that shows great faith.

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