Comparison with Christian teaching on revenge
When we compare the above face value interpretation, and its implications, with Christian teaching on revenge of wrongdoing, we can see some issues and apparent inconsistencies. There is only one place where Jesus positively provided a procedure for dealing with wrongdoing and seeking a remedy from the wrongdoer:
‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Mat 18:15-17)
Items to note from this passage:
1. There is no reason to believe that the term ‘brother or sister’ is being given in a narrow or literal sense. Rather, it is likely that the use of this term is to encourage us to treat anyone who sins against us as an object of brotherly love, in accordance with Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Mat 5:44). In the same way that Jesus commanded us to ‘forgive your brother or sister from your heart’ (18:35) and we understand it applies to all men who have wronged us, this teaching about procedures for responses to sins applies to all from whom we seek compensation or repentance. At the time it was given the concept of a ‘brother in Christ’ would not have been well understood, and it is more likely to have been understood as a reference to any fellow Israelite. On the other hand the ‘brother’ concept may instead be referring to someone who we recognise has some honour to appeal to, with the non-brother being beyond any hope of seeking a remedy from. In any case Jesus gives us no other permitted procedure for formally seeking earthly remedies.
2. The ‘church’ referred to simply means the assembly or court. At the time Jesus gave this law, there was no ‘church’ as the term was used later for the assembly of the followers of Jesus. The hearers would have understood this to be a general-purpose judicial body, i.e. the synagogue or local court.
3. This is given as a law and as a legal procedure. It is mandatory and sets out the procedure in steps and the consequences that can result from its use. It was a challenge to and replacement for the law of Moses for redressing wrongdoing, a new administration of the law.
4. The available remedies that the court can impose are both extremely limited and apparently fully enumerated. Any judgement the court makes appears to be of a declaratory nature only, with no judgement enforcement procedures available whatsoever. Fundamentally it is an appeal to honour and communion rather than force or coercion.
5. The two witnesses, unlike the law of Moses, were not witnesses of the sin that caused the dispute, rather that are brought along as part of the dispute resolution process. They are witnesses of the conduct of the parties in resolving the dispute rather than concerning its cause. Jesus says they are there to listen and to encourage the person to listen. The procedure is more consistent with a compositorial rather than an adversarial style of dispute resolution.
6. Although there is reference to witness testimony, there is no reference to giving testimony under oath to the court. Given the fact that the witnesses did not witness the sin being complained about, it would appear that the court would have difficulty finding a person liable for that sin in the conventional sense on the basis of their testimony. Even if it did find a person liable, the court is not given any powers to impose liability or to execute orders to enforce any form of liability.
7. The only remedy for the successful plaintiff is to shun or disassociate from the defendant, and only should he not provide the ordered satisfaction or repentance for his wrong.
8. Even though Jesus brought his love and acceptance to repentant tax collectors (Luke 18:9-14), there is no suggestion that he wished to redeem the institution of taxation or the profession of tax collector themselves from ill repute.
This teaching should not be considered a minor administrative matter for the future Christian church dealing with personality clashes and cases of hurt feelings: here is a brash challenge to the civil legal procedure of his day, and new legal concept of solely appealing to reconciliation, communion, conscience, honour and, as a final resort, a measure of social validation and support. This teaching should be understood as mandatory and its application universal, and a replacement for the litigious and coercive procedures used then and now.
However, in application, as the world does not accept the law of Christ and does not follow his procedures, it is the Christian church that is the proper judicial body to practice the ‘assembly’ part of this law. Accordingly, Christians are forbidden from filing suit in the worldly courts that do not follow the law of Christ and that issue orders inconsistent with those Christ provided for. This can be seen from the only other places in the New Testament this law is discussed:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: a man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. …I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.’If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court – and this in front of unbelievers!The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (1 Cor 5:1-5,5:9-6:7)
Firstly, like Jesus, Paul makes it clear that the sanctions available for Christians and the church as a judicial body are expulsion and disassociation, rather than compulsory subpoena, seizure of property, arrest, debtor’s prison, debt-slavery or capital punishment.
Secondly, Paul teaches that Christians have no business judging those outside the church. The word ‘judge’ also includes sue, and the context is both litigation and judgement, and the word is translated both meanings in this passage (the word is used 6 times in this passage). The inside/outside distinction can also imply that the proper forum is the Christian church as a judicial body, and that we may not use the alternative fora of the worldly courts. This applies to both filing suit and judicial-judging.
Thirdly, although Paul does refer to the case of a Christian taking another Christian to a worldly court as an incomprehensible embarrassment to the name of Christ, he does not thereby permit Christians to sue non-Christians, indeed he states it is better to be wronged and have no effective financial remedy than to sue in worldly courts. The source of the embarrassment is not the fact that Christians may have disputes to settle, but that Christians would engage in such unchristian conduct as worldly litigation on any grounds or circumstances whatsoever. Isn’t it obvious that Christian values and teaching entail a very different and competing set of laws and judicial procedure? How can a Christian not know that he is a citizen of a different kingdom?
Finally it is clear that God’s judgement referred to in 1 Cor 5:13 is not through the channel of the state courts – if it were then Christian litigation against non-Christians would be expected rather than proscribed.
Finally this from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. (1 Tim 5:19-20)
This passage confirms the procedure Jesus laid down concerning the two or three witnesses, and confirms the nature of the available remedy (censure), but does not elaborate on jurisdictional issues.
Having detailed the only passages positively providing for resolution procedures for wrongdoing, we now turn to the teachings restricting other fora and procedures.
Jesus taught that the existing civil litigation and debt enforcement procedures were signs of what was wrong with the administration of the law:
He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to be hot,” and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
‘Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.’ (Luke 12:54-59)
Why would Jesus list an unspecified civil litigation case and debt enforcement procedures as a sign of the times? Why does he appeal to his listeners to judge what is right about them – or wrong with them? Normally one would expect the sign of the times to be the type of case or judgement or judicial procedure rather than the fact of resort to court and enforcement of the judgement that would be of concern. Jesus is apparently concerned with the litigious society and its debt enforcement procedures. This concern is addressed at more length in the Sermon on the Mount:
‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.‘Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Mat 5:21-26)
Note that in this passage, unlike Luke 12:54-59, Jesus refers to and contrasts two types of cases: the capital case of murder and the civil (and politically dangerous) case of insult. Jesus is focused on the judgements that result from these two cases: ‘will be subject to judgement’ (twice), ‘will be answerable to the court’ (literally the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Israel), ‘will be in danger of the fire of hell,’ ‘taking you to court’ ‘your adversary may hand you over to the judge,’ ‘the judge may hand you over to the officer,’ ‘you may be thrown into prison,’ and ‘you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.’
The first judgement Jesus referred to was the judgement of the assembly permitting the avenger of blood to slay the murderer, provided for by Moses (Numb 35:16-34). Other than the ‘in danger of the fire of hell’ the rest of the judgement and enforcement procedures Jesus referred to relate to civil litigation for money damages and the consequent judgement debt enforcement procedures.
To understand the point being made and the rhetorical strategy of the passage it is necessary to be aware of the legal and political environment at the time Jesus spoke and how it operated in practice:
1. Jewish teachers of the law and judges had de facto abolished the death penalty by way of impossible burdens of evidence, thereby sparing the lives of murderers that Moses required executed. They were not particularly unhappy to lose the power to impose the death penalty to the Romans because they didn’t want to practice it themselves.
2. Nevertheless, they allowed money damages suits for insult that the law of Moses did not provide for, including the judgement and enforcement procedures listed by Jesus.
3. Insulting the teachers of the law and the priests and/or the Roman high officials could result in suffering the death penalty at the hands of the Romans. For subversive types this would be by way of crucifixion, with the body of the condemned person being in danger of dishonourable disposal in gehenna, the burning rubbish dump outside Jerusalem. This place is also used as the symbol of the place of final punishment of the wicked and is here translated ‘hell’.
With these points in mind, the rhetoric becomes clear: the judges of Israel would spare the lives of murderers, but insulters would face the full legal works of the civil courts and debt enforcement procedures, and potentially be handed over to the Romans who had no qualms about the applying death penalty to troublemakers. In fact the gospels tell us again and again that the teachers of the law wanted to kill Jesus for insulting them and undermining their status and perks, and ended up getting the Romans to fulfil their murderous demands, while at the same time pleading for the release of the murderer Barabbas (e.g. Acts 3:14). Is the dramatic irony not clear?
Jesus is not criticising them for having mercy on murderers, rather he is criticising them for not extending the same mercy to those who have done lesser wrongs.
Jesus directly addresses the legal principle and rule from the Law of Moses providing for the death penalty for murder and awards of money damages for other injuries/losses:
‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. (Mat 5:38)
This rule in the Law of Moses exclusively relates to legal procedures for responding to wrongdoing after proper trial procedures and evidence requirements, and the carrying out of the enforcement of the award or any other debt was regulated and limited by law. Jesus does not call for compliance with these forum, procedural and evidence requirements, as would apply if he were solely concerned about unregulated private revenge, instead he abolished this administration of the law entirely. In fact he goes on to use a lawsuit as an example of evil that must be responded to without litigation or violence (v 40).
Jesus prohibits oaths with these words:
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the oaths you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes,” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Mat 5:33-37)
It is apparent from the context that the reason oaths are prohibited is because they are advance appeals to the evil remedies of the court that Jesus abolished. Oaths are also sworn when giving evidence in court, so in prohibiting oaths Jesus is denying the court the admissible evidence it needs to judge and condemn. As James says, the reason oaths are prohibited is for the avoidance of what oaths invoke and procure from the court: condemnation (Jam 5:12).
Jesus summarises his teaching about responding to wrongs through legal action as follows:
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Mat 7:1-2)
Note that the word translated ‘judge’ also means ‘sue’ (e.g. Mat 5:40). The teaching is given as a rule with a reason. The rule is ‘do not sue, do not judge’ – an absolute command. Again this differs fundamentally from the Law of Moses: ‘judge your neighbour fairly.’ (Lev 19:15) The full context of Christian teaching shows that the litigation and judgement Jesus is prohibiting is the kind that is not within his law set out in Mat 18:15-17 which is, in a very real way, something less than suing and judging in the normal sense of those words. Whatever can be said about the legal procedure Jesus gave us to respond to wrongdoing, it can never be described as a sword-wielding agent of God’s wrath consistent with Romans 13:4.
Finally, the worldly courts are recognised in the New Testament as a source of oppression and persecution:
Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? (James 2:6)
At my first defence, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. (2 Tim 4:16-17)All these teachings are exactly the opposite of what we would expect from the face value interpretation of Romans 12:17-13:7.