Society & Politics

Faith & Politics in the Life of Moses - Lesson 3: The Rule of Law

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Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

In the previous article of this “Faith and Politics” series, we explored how God invites his people to join with him in work by giving them a fresh revelation of his character. We saw this principle in operation as Moses’ life was impacted through four distinct revelations of the character and work of God. In this article we return to the third of these revelations he received: God as lawmaker and judge.

Throughout Moses’ life, it was this aspect of God that he most consistently represented to the people of Israel, so much so that in later years the Law of God came to be referred to as the Law of Moses (cf. Joshua 8:32, II Kings 23:25, John 7:23). What, then, were the implications for Moses and the children of Israel of seeing God as lawmaker and judge? And what might be the implications for us today? As we shall see, the lessons learned from this revelation and its aftermath are instructive for anyone involved in the formation or enforcement of rules.

The Rule of Law

The revelation of God as lawmaker and judge is most clearly seen in Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19–20). These commandments became part of a body of divinely inspired laws that Moses would communicate to the Israelites—laws intended to govern their relationship both with God and with each other. In its totality this body of law covered every aspect of the Israelites’ personal, family, and national life, and was accompanied by promises of great blessings for obedience and threats of dire consequences for disobedience (cf. Deuteronomy 27–30). The aftermath of this revelation is recorded in the Old Testament as a 400-year-long endeavour to establish right relationships through law.

In my opinion, this record constitutes one of the most thorough and original textbooks in all of sacred and secular literature on what can and cannot be achieved through the rule of law. As such, there are lessons that rule-makers and rule-enforcers of every kind can learn from studying this record, no matter where they find themselves in the community. These lessons are especially relevant to legislators, however, as the making of law is one of the chief tasks of those elected to our federal parliament, provincial and territorial legislatures, and municipal councils.

The Benefits of Law

One of the lessons to be gleaned from studying law in the biblical record is that whenever and wherever laws are just—and justly administered—the benefits to individuals and society are many and abundant. These benefits—seen throughout history—include the constraint of evil, the protection of human rights, order throughout civil society, and the direction of resources toward beneficial ends. In Canada, the Rule of Law is recognized in our constitution as one of the fundamental principles on which the country itself is founded, and is essential to the achievement of “peace, order, and good government”.

The benefits achievable through right law align with Scripture’s constant emphasis that adherence to the Law of God is both a means of doing God’s will and of receiving his blessing. I see this emphasized in Deuteronomy, as Moses commands the Israelites “to love the Lord your God ... and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws” because by doing so they “will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you...” (Deut. 30:16). The same emphasis can be seen in the Psalms as David declares blessed those “who walk according to the law of the Lord” and “who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.” (Psalm 119:1-2). And, of course, it is emphasized by Jesus himself in his preface to the Sermon on the Mount:

Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matt: 5:17-18)

Jesus, David, and Moses all understood the importance of law and the blessing that it can confer upon those who follow it. Jesus in particular also understood the limits to law and the manner in which it can be abused.

The Abuse of Law

Evil cannot abolish an instrumentality—such as the rule of law—which has been established by God and intended for good. Lacking the ability to do away with the rule of law, the age-old tactic of the evil one is to pervert it toward evil ends. This perversion can take a number of forms. For example, while one of the possible benefits of law is freedom, one of the most effective ways of suppressing a freedom is to smother it via excessive rule-making and regulation. Consider, as an illustration of this perversion, the comprehensive state regulation of religious freedom in the former Soviet Union and present day China.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he frequently addressed the abuse of law and the spirit-quenching effects of excessive legalism. For example, he vehemently denounced the practice of making law a burden rather than a blessing, rebuking the Pharisees—the custodians of Moses’ law—for laying “heavy burdens” on the people’s shoulders and not lifting a finger to relieve them (Matt: 23).

Jesus likewise condemned the abuse of law through inconsistent and hypocritical practice:

Woe unto you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin [i.e. you keep the law in small matters]. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matt 23:23)

The worst abuses of the rule of law, however, are those where laws are deliberately harnessed to the practice of evil. Jesus himself, for example, was the recipient of one of the most twisted abuses of law imaginable. In the lead up to his crucifixion, Jesus is brought by the chief priests and Pharisees to stand trial before the Roman governor, Pilate. But Pilate is unable to find Jesus guilty of violating any Roman law and is prepared to let him go. His legalistic accusers, however, declare that Jesus is a blasphemer and that, according to Moses’ law, “he has to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7) The Law of God is twisted to such a degree that it is used to kill the Son of God.

Thus the rule of law—even the rule of the Law of God—is a two-edged sword. It is capable of being harnessed to achieve enormous benefits, but is also capable of doing enormous harm when abused. To protect the rule of law from being discredited, those who value and practise it must scrupulously guard against its abuse.

The Limits to Law

While we see the benefits and abuses of law in Scripture, I think the greatest lesson we can learn from Israel’s experience with the rule of law concerns the limitations of law and lawmaking. This is another lesson relevant to all rule-makers and enforcers, whether they are parents in the home, leaders in the church, managers in the workplace, or law-makers in the political arena.

As discussed above, the Law of God was conceived and promulgated in order to establish and maintain right relationship between Israel and God, as well as among the Israelites themselves. The latter day prophets, however, came reluctantly to a sobering conclusion regarding the success of this attempt to achieve right relations by means of law alone. They concluded that laws—even those coming directly from the hand of God—are insufficient in themselves to achieve righteousness and justice. According to the prophets, unless law is accompanied by an internal transformation—inscribed on human hearts, not merely on tablets of stone—it is insufficient to achieve righteousness, justice, and good behaviour (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-33, Ezekiel 11:19-20, c.f. II Corinthians 3:3).

It was, in part, the prophets’ realization of the limitations of the rule of law that led them to long so fervently for the Messiah’s coming. They longed for the one whose coming Moses prophesied because he would fulfil the mission of the law by becoming the means for the inner transformation required to obey it (Deut. 18:15).

Implications for Us

What then can we learn from the experience of Moses and the Israelites with respect to the rule of law—its benefits, abuses, and limits—whether we are a rule maker in a home, church, or other organization; or in a legislature; or simply as a citizen and member of a community?

To enjoy the benefits of law, I think it is essential that Christians first recognize their responsibilities as citizens to work—whenever and wherever possible—within the strictures of the rule of law; we should be law-abiding citizens who follow the rule of law. That does not mean, however, that we should pay blind allegiance to those laws we consider unjust or ill-advised. But we should do our utmost to change rather than violate those laws—working with, rather than against, the rule of law.

There are also lessons we can learn from the outworking of the rule of law in Israel as we respond to it within our own Christian communities. Primarily, there is a need to acknowledge and deal with the ways in which we abuse the law and disrespect its limits. Rather than relying on grace and looking towards inner transformation, we far too often attempt to achieve right behaviour through rules often of our own making—multiplying and strictly enforcing them, despite our creedal acknowledgement of the all-sufficiency of the grace of God.

Rules, of course, have their necessary place in guiding us through the establishment of wise boundaries. But how many young people have been turned away from the faith of their parents by too much law and not enough grace? Rules of worship and conduct are necessary to shape, guide, and protect a spiritual community—hence the law given to Moses for the benefit of Israel, and rules of worship and conduct for Christians today. But many seekers and believers today refuse to darken a church door because all they have ever encountered there was a dry and pharisaical Christian legalism. Recognizing the limitations of the law is a step towards creating a grace-filled space in which people can return to God.

Outside of our own Christian community, what might be the implications of these “lessons from Moses” for society-at-large? In particular, to what extent have our parliaments, legislatures, and municipal councils—as lawmaking bodies—come to grips with the limitations of law?

As stated above, law may be beneficially used to accomplish many worthwhile objectives—including the constraint of evil, the protection of human rights, order throughout civil society, and the direction of resources toward beneficial ends. But when legislators seek to use law to reach far beyond such objectives—when we declare or imply that we can create a “just society,” a Canada “strong and free,” or a true north utopia simply by enacting legislation and implementing public policies, we deceive ourselves and our constituents by ignoring the limitations of law.

In theory, of course, our legislatures could pass laws requiring each of us to love our neighbour as ourselves and requiring public servants to love their clients as themselves. But the implication of the Israelite story is that such laws would be of little effect and insufficient in themselves to achieve such ends. As the Apostle Paul declares in his letter to the Galatians, if a law could have been framed which imparted “life” in all its abundance to Israel and mankind, then righteousness and justice would have come by the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:21). If the Law of God was so severely limited in its ability to produce such results, why should we believe that our own laws could do so? In fact, having seen the way law can be abused, we should be warned that it is precisely those laws which reach for utopia that can most easily be turned into instruments of oppression. Such is what comes from failing to recognize the limitations of law and seeking to achieve ends beyond those limits.

Should this frank and honest acknowledgement of the limits of law lead to disillusionment and the abandonment of hope for a better country? Or is there a source of hope that we can hold onto? As the Apostle Paul so clearly pointed out, the realization of the law’s limits shouldn’t lead us to despair, but instead to search for righteousness and justice in another source (Gal. 3:23-25). While Moses only dimly perceived that source, it is fully revealed to us in the New Testament as Jesus—the fulfiller of the law through the transformation of hearts. And it is in him that our hope lies.

“For the law came by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

Biography of Preston Manning

Preston Manning works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy, including new approaches to the intersection of faith with democratic governance, the market economy, pluralism and multiculturalism, science and technology, and environmental stewardship.

Preston served as a member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, part of which he served as his party’s critic for Science, Technology and Innovation. He founded two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance—and was the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000. Preston also has 20 years of experience as an owner and manager of a consulting firm specializing mainly in strategic planning and communications advice to the energy sector. In 2005, he founded the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, which supports research, educational, and communications initiatives designed to achieve a more democratic society in Canada guided by conservative principles.

Source: Marketplace Institute



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