A friend just sent me a link to a recent podcast from Brannon Howse on the subject, “Should Christians be for or against the criminalization of homosexuality?” Howse called the issue a “legitimate moral dilemma” for Christians. In doing so, he dismissed any validity of Mosaic Law—and that dismissal is where the real moral dilemmas begin to appear. Reject Mosaic Law in the civil realm and you are left with human autonomy. Howse’s episode, an interview with guest pastor Jesse Johnson, illustrates the problems perfectly.
One of the major problems is that some people immediately quit speaking specifically in terms of what Scripture teaches, and start adopting dialogue and terminology that reflects malinformed secularists. For example, nowhere does Scripture, Mosaic Law or not, advocated criminalizing “homosexuality”? It says no such thing. That is the scare tactic terminology used by leftists, not Scripture. Yet it is also the only terminology employed by Howse and Johnson throughout their discussion.
The Mosaic crime was not homosexuality per se, but the act of sodomy itself. That is a whole world of difference, just like the lust for another woman a man may have in his heart is completely different in the view of civil law than the physical act of adultery. These are all sins, to be sure, but not civil crimes. Scripturally speaking, crime is a subset of sin which carries the additional civil punishment which sin alone does not.1
And this is doubly confusing because Howse and Johnson frequently appeal to a distinction between sin as sin, and crime. But their distinction is only maintained institutionally: sin is what the church deals with, and crime is what the state deals with. The state should not be in the business of punishing sins in general.
Johnson argues that we should fear when governments make certain moral behaviors illegal. We should accept certain physical assaults like murder, rape, or robbery as properly illegal; but we should not do so with certain immoral behaviors. There is this distinction between sins and crimes.
This makes no sense of the fact that many of these crimes the state punishes are indeed sins: murder, rape, robbery, thefts of all kinds, fraud, battery, defamation, and much more.
And that is the central issue at the heart of this anti-Mosaic Law discussion: what is the source of civil Law and civil sanctions? Is it God? If not, then it can only be man’s imaginations, emotions, reasonings, revenge, etc. It is man’s law versus God’s law.
And in so many words, this is exactly where Howse and Johnson end up. Johnson says that criminal law and homosexuality is a “tricky question in a democracy.” See the humanistic element creeping in there? Later he says bluntly that criminal law arises “from society’s perspective” and later, based on “national consensus.” He ends up arguing explicitly, “We don’t want a government that advances a Christian agenda.”
Howse makes very similar caveats to whether or not biblical laws can be instituted as criminal laws: “It depends on: why are you doing it, for what purpose are you doing it, how are you doing it, where are you doing it? What nations are doing it? What other things are they allowing while they criminalize homosexuality? Should adultery be a criminal act?”
The installment of a biblical law must therefore rest on many non-biblical factors before it can be warranted as a legitimate law, in their view.
They properly argue that governments are ordained by God to check evil. But they have no biblical categorization of what is and what is not punishable as evil by that government. Evil and its punishments are left to be defined by man. In other words, God’s government, but not God’s Law.
This is how Howse and Johnson treat the homosexuality issue. Criminalizing homosexuality may be OK in some nations, for example in certain nations in Africa, because it is justified in stopping the spread of aids. In such cases, where man can explain some good social reason or purpose, then the government can step in. But not because any given Law is simply a biblical law.
Johnson argues that a pure biblical standard could lead to persecution of Christians: criminalizing something Scripture calls merely morally repugnant is a mindset often turned back and used against Christians. He says that usually it is “baptistic” Christians, those who “believe in separation of church and state,” and “that you’re not born into the church,” who are the first to be persecuted.
He appeals to an article by Russell Moore on the topic, with which he agrees in this part. Moore wrote,
As Baptist Christians, our own history has shown us what injustice can happen when a state applies the Old Testament Mosaic code—a code designed to mark out the nation of Israel in redemptive history until the coming of Israel’s Messiah—to the civil state. Our ancestors were whipped, beaten, and exiled from Old England and from New England for refusing to sprinkle infants or to pay taxes for Anglican preaching. We ought then to be, of all groups, in support of limiting the power of government to see itself as a theological broker.
There is much conflation of nonsense in this paragraph. Yes, “Baptist” Christians did suffer persecution (they inflicted a bit, too), but not at the hands of Mosaic code. Baptism laws, being a New Testament principle, were hardly the result of appeals to Old Testament texts. So the “sprinkling” reference does not seem right. And “Anglican” doctrine explicitly rejects the need for Mosaic civil laws. Article VII of the Articles of Religion rejects both ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law as binding:
the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.
So, technically, the Anglican Articles of Religion hold the exact same doctrine of civil law as Howse and Johnson. Certain Mosiac Laws could be useful here and there, but they are not necessary and not binding. Certainly, their utility must be justified by some standard other than the mere fact that they are God’s Laws.
So Moore is off base in regard to Mosaic Code, and Howse and Johnson are just as off base for agreeing with him.
And the truth is, this is exactly Luther’s “two kingdom” view of Mosaic Law as well. Melanchthon followed him: “It is in the power of the judge to use or not to use the Mosaic law.”2 Yet while this freedom existed for magistrates, the idea of Mosaic Law being imposed of necessity Melanchthon called “insane” (Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Article XVI).
Then in 1530, when helping rewrite the civil code, Melanchthon moved to define Anabaptism as heresy and begin punishing re-baptizers as heretics with the civil sword. Where did he turn to find legal precedent? The Old Testament? Mosaic Law? Nope. He turned to “society”—the Code of Justinian, Roman civil law, which put to death anyone rebaptizing after the Donatist controversy. Melanchthon’s persecutions of “Baptists” had no element of Moses in it, but a lot to the contrary of it.
Had he stuck strictly to Mosaic Law, he would not have had such a tyrannical tool at his disposal. Baptists would have lived much more in peace.
Again, this is the heart of the problem. Accepting God’s ordination of civil government does little good if you leave the codification of law up to man. Human autonomy leads to tyranny: either mobocracy and chaos, or dictatorship and centralization.
Rejecting Mosaic Law, the best guys like this can do is appeal to vague notions of “peace” and “public good”—all of which are then left once again to be defined by man. Johnson appeals,
The Scriptural principle here is that government was designed by God after the flood to check evil and suppress evil; and, the government that allows the maximum of individual freedom and religious freedom for the spread of the gospel, while simultaneously keeping the peace and checking evil is the best form of government. You see that not just in Genesis 9, you see that in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 2, that we pray for kings and all that are in authority so that we can lead quiet and peaceful lives.
But it then becomes an argument what “peace” is and what “evil” is. The rejecters of Moses need some other standard to look objective and biblical to their listeners while at the same time not taking any firm stand in the civil arena in the name of God.
Johnson thinks “common grace” gives good foundations. Due to the foundational nature of marriage in being a “common grace” measure to protect the defenseless, the government has a strong and compelling interest in preserving traditional marriage. Thus, both adultery and homosexual marriage ought to be illegal. “But that’s a different question altogether from whether homosexuality ought to be illegal,” he says.
“I am not sure that in an American setting that homosexuality rises to the threshold where you would say the government has a strong interest to make it illegal, even though it’s immoral.”
House admits, “We’re jumping between the theological and the civil government arena, which is why this becomes a moral dilemma for Christians.”
Johnson follows the divide: “We don’t want a government that advances a Christian agenda. We want a government that advances a freedom agenda.”
So there is “freedom” outside of the Christian worldview? That’s what the liberals and atheists keep telling us, but should we expect to hear that out of the mouths of Christian leaders? Jesus didn’t think so (John 8:31–36). The moral dilemmas seem to be mounting.
The logic of the Howse-Johnson settlement is that we would be disallowed from implementing a biblical law as a criminal law if our only reason is that it is biblical. Yet we would perfectly free to implement such law as long as we can find some explicitly non-biblical reason in society to justify it as for “the common good,” or the interest of the government, etc. In the Howse-Johnson rule, the non-biblical ends up trumping the biblical. Just as I said: human autonomy reigns.
By the same token, however, that standard justifies the creation of countless non-biblical laws.
This becomes explicit when Howse begins to make up his own rules based on his own standards. He argues, “I lean toward the idea that someone that molests a child, a child pedophile, should certainly be incarcerated for life, but I lean toward the fact that there should be execution.”
He later returns to this even more explicitly: “I think that anyone caught in molesting a child, raping a child, should automatically receive the death penalty.”
Johnson agrees, “You could make the argument that that’s a crime that’s so extreme that that’s what it mandates. I would agree with that as well.”
Then Howse adds, “I would add rape to it—if somebody rapes a woman. I would put that in the same category as well.”
Now, there is some explaining that needs to be done in regard to the modern attitude towards some of those stipulations, agreed. But that in no way means that we should toss them aside and start executing whomever we desire, as our own cultural and emotional values drive us.
In fact, one of the great checks God puts on government is by prescribing penalties in such instances that our emotions would drive us to impose a penalty above and beyond the crime. In this way, God’s Law extends mercy to mankind.
But Howse has no such checks. He would execute people God would not, and not execute those whom God would. In the end, it’s Howse’s and Johnson’s standards, and not God’s. Where God’s Law stops, they march on ahead with the sword. Like all rebels against God in whatever area of life they are rebelling: they want to replace God. They are more just than God, when they think He is not just enough. They are more merciful than God when they think He is not merciful enough.
And thus, we are right back to human autonomy. Man has unseated God from His throne in the area of civil penal sanctions.
But just when they set this standard, they have to fall back and accept it when liberals and atheists hijack it, and turn society into a downhill slope to Gomorrah. So because abortion remains legal while petty crimes receive undue punishments, Howse argues that the entire legal system is “corrupt” and really “has no moral authority anymore.”
Johnson says, “Totally agree.”
But even if he has some lament in his tone as he admits laws like abortion were legalized by the Supreme Court because of the alleged absence of “national consensus,” he has no judicial answer against it. “We become de-evolutionists,” he says, in the civil realm, because as society declines, legal standards decline with it, and the Christian must accept that.
He says, “National consensus of course is going to grow, and grow, and grow, where things that once were illegal will become legal,” and likewise penalties for crimes like rape and murder are diminished over time.
They do not recognize they are in a vicious cycle caused by their own doctrine of civil law unhinged from biblical law.
And thus when it comes to overt discussion of Mosaic Law, they follow Moore above and dismiss it almost flippantly.
Howse notes, “If some of these folks are not careful with their eschatology, their theology, some of them being that they believe in replacement theology—that the church has now replaced Israel—some of them want to go back to Mosaic Law.”
Why not? They are ready with a series of answers that would make one think theonomists have not spent the last forty years flooding the market with books explaining the nature of Mosaic Law for modern times. It truly is mind-boggling, and returns me to the same old critique: if these guys have not read us, why do they keep addressing our position without reading uso? If they have read us, why do they keep missing the point and misrepresenting us so badly?
Howse makes it clear that he is speaking of groups like “New Apostolic Reformation.” But his argument applies in general: “if they carry this all the way back, you go back to full Mosaic law, that’s not where we want to go as Christians.” And why not? Because, Mosaic Law calls for the death penalty for adulterers and acts of sodomy—a circular critique if ever one was.
(And didn’t he just argue in favor of the death penalty for child molesters and rapists?)
Johnson’s response digs deep in the bag of anti-Mosaic fallacies:
A return to Mosaic Law is just not compatible with the New Testament. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the church exists outside of Mosaic Law. You know, Peter is supposed to rise and kill whatever he wants. They argue through in Act 15 and land on the point that, you know, Moses is read in the synagogues on Saturdays, you know, you don’t need Christians underneath the Mosaic Law. The gospel is going to advance outside of Israel. Putting the church under Mosaic Law might work if the gospel stayed in Jerusalem in the upper room, but it didn’t. It went to Judea, Samaria, to the uttermost parts of the earth. The Mosaic Law doesn’t bind the people in those countries. Even if you get Mosaic Law to bind everybody in your church, you have kids, you have people that are growing up that don’t know the Lord and they need to taught the Lord and they need to be converted and the gospel has to take root in their hearts. The Mosaic Law does not help that.
Most of these arguments are in regard to ceremonial laws, which all theonomists agree have been fulfilled in Christ and apply no longer to society. But to think this applies in blanket fashion to all the Law, civil and moral alike (or however we desire to classify them) misses too much of Scripture.
The Law does not apply outside of Israel? I am sure Ninevah would disagree with that, as would all other nations that God judges for their immorality: Egypt, Edom, the Canaanites, and many more. There were obviously parts of the Law which crossed boundaries, even if the ceremonial, or priestly, aspects did not.
Mosaic Law does not apply in New Testament times? Then why did Paul appeal to Mosaic Case Law as authority that ministers should be paid (1 Cor. 9:8–9)? “Thus saith the law.”
Why is the New Covenant itself not described as the removal and inapplicability of the Law, but rather as, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10). What Laws? Obviously not priestly/ceremonial (Heb. 7:12), but it is nevertheless God’s Law.
Indeed, the Law abides as good in the New Testament if one uses it lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8-11). And note how Paul describes “the Law” in that passage: for example, “those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” These are all categories taken specifically from Mosaic Law, and primarily civil as opposed to priestly or merely moral aspects.
The gospel is going to advance outside of Israel. Sure. But what shall be the standard of all of life? Isaiah tells us: “For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3). Even if you’re a dispensationalist and believe this Isaiah 2 ideal will not be fulfilled until a future millennium or afterward, you at least have to admit that the “mountain of the house of the Lord” will be administering “the Law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” which shall “judge between the nations” (Isa. 2:1–4). That means the Law shall rule in New Testament times, or as the culmination of New Testament times. Thus, it should be the ideal we have in view already.
So much is made clearer when we simply accept the standards God gives in His Law, including the abiding, cross-boundary standards revealed in Mosaic Code.
Instead, modern Christians reject the Law, ridicule it, and make up their own laws. They think we are more just than God, and yet more merciful than God. They call Moses harsh and outdated when He prescribes death penalties they would not; and yet they puff chests in macho self-approval as they condemn certain criminals, even to death, in way God’s law did not.
They take away the moral authority of the only objective standard of criminal punishment God has ever revealed; and then they complain that our modern criminal justice system is corrupt and lacking in moral authority. Guys, you’ve sawn off the very limb on which you desire to sit, and then complained because somebody sawed it off. What gives?
In answer to Howse’s original question of whether we should support the criminalization of homosexuality, I say, “Of course not, because that’s not what Mosaic Law says to do.” My suggestion for Howse and Johnson would be actually to read some theonomic books and commentaries, and to sit down and write an outline of the Pentateuch with criminal sanctions highlighted. You might start to see exactly how our modern legal system is corrupt, and why it has no moral authority.
You might also start to understand the failures of the pulpits who have let it get that way.
- In our society in which criminal and civil law have grown far beyond biblical standards, there are many things which may be considered “crimes” which are also not necessarily sins.(↩)
- Loci Communes, in Pauck, Wilhelm (ed), Pauck, Wilhelm & Satre, Lowell J (trans) Melanchthon and Bucer, in The Library of Christian Classics 19 ( Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), p. 128.(↩)