Scripture refers to that kind of ruler who frames “mischief with a law” (Ps. 94:20). Those who do this kind of thing are men who sit on thrones of iniquity, and God refuses His fellowship with any such thrones.
There are many ways to frame mischief with a law. Everyone grants that one example would be when a despot pillages all the poor peasants in order to fund his Belshazzarian kegger tomorrow night. That would be one example. That would be the big E on the eye chart.
But are there other examples of thieving mischief? While some established thieves are debauched, others are a bit more clever. If Suleiman the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to beef up the personnel department of his seraglio, then that is both tacky and theft. But if Obama the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to provide loan guarantees to Goldman Sachs, and they use it to provide a holiday bonus for a rising junior executive, who uses it on a weekend blowout in the Hamptons with a girl named Tiffany Sugartoes, then this is just as tacky, and just as much theft, but we can say that they cover their tracks better these days.
So let’s spend a bit of time distinguishing sins from crimes. When dealing with individuals, sins that ought not be crimes are either contained entirely within the person’s motives, or they are actual behaviors for which no scriptural case for attaching civil penalties can be made. An example of the former would be bitterness or lust. An example of the latter would be speaking rudely to someone in a crowded elevator.
A sin becomes a crime when we can make a scriptural case for attaching civil penalties to a particular behavior. Murder is a crime; hatred is a sin. Adultery is a crime; lust is a sin. With individuals, the distinction is relatively easy to make.
A ruler is not subject to the same applications of civil penalties, at least not in the same way. In a well-ordered biblical republic, it should be possible in principle to hold anyone accountable for their behavior, regardless of the office they hold. But even in a healthy society, bringing justice to bear in such cases is more challenging because rulers have supporters, and they often appoint their supporters to positions of influence over investigations of injustice. But enough about Eric Holder.
The “civil penalties” for rulers are not limited to the one process shared by all the citizens — indictment, trial, verdict, and so on. To whom much is given much is required. God holds rulers accountable by other means as well. He can do it by other means, such as natural disasters (1 Kings 18:17-19), military invasion (Dt. 28:48), a civil war (2 Sam. 15:10), or a coup (2 Kings 11:14). An average citizen can be punished for his crimes, and so can a ruler be. But when it happens to a ruler, there is a good deal more mayhem.
“Sara appropriated the blessing of the promise through faith. Her faith consisted precisely of this — “she judged him faithful who had promised.” So this then is faith; faith is the natural response to the perceived faithfulness of God. Faith is “judging Him faithful” . . . A man with wobbly faith can get on an airliner but his wobbly faith won’t make the plane crash. And a man with great faith can strap on a couple of wings and jump off the barn but his faith can’t make him fly. Sound faith is what places us in the care of a faithful object” (From To You and Your Children, p. 197).
“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)
The Basket Case Chronicles #166
“There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me” (1 Cor. 14:10–11).
The miracle at Pentecost was a reversal of Babel, which meant that it was a unifying miracle. When God confused the tongues at Babel, the result was that men scattered, divided by their different languages. When God gave different languages at Pentecost, the intent was to move men in the opposite direction, to gather them all to Christ. At Babel, the different languages scattered. At Pentecost, the different languages gathered. They all heard, in their own tongues, “the wonderful works of God” being declared (Acts 2:11).
God has set the direction, and so our worship services should continue to move in that same direction. There are many voices in the world and all of them, Paul says, have specific signification. There is a meaning there, but if I don’t know the meaning, what effect does that have? It has the effect of making the speaker a barbarian to the listener, and the listener a barbarian to the speaker. But God’s purpose in the church is to make us all members of the same household, the same holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). We are not supposed to be foreigners to one another.
The word barbarian came from this idea of what alien chatter sounds like. When someone is a foreigner talking away aimlessly in my presence, I am going to tag him with an onomatopoeic label – they sound like they are saying nothing other than bar bar bar bar. And so, Paul says, don’t do that to your brothers in church. And if you withhold from your brother the signification of what you have said, that is exactly what you are doing. You are exiling your brother, who ought to live right next door to your meaning, and you are exiling him to a distant and barbarous land.
When you do this in church, you are introducing the tongues of Babel, and not the tongues of Pentecost.
I have written a great deal on how the framework provided by biblical ethics honors and preserves the institution of private property. The argument is not complex. Just as “thou shalt not commit adultery” presupposes and honors the institution of marriage, so also “thou shalt not steal” presupposes and honors the institution of private property.
The private property that is honored is that which comes to a man through the ordinary processes. “Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (1 Cor. 9:10). God is the one who gives us the power to get wealth (Dt. 8:18), and it comes up to us from the ground. It does not float down upon us from the state.
We learn the principle when learning to love the haves — but it applies even more to the have nots. When a people are being liberated from covetousness, envy, and the larceny resident in every socialist scheme, they need to learn to mortify this sin in the presence of a neighbor who has manicured lawns, a red convertible, and a beautiful wife (Ex. 20:17). Learning what love means in this instance means learning how to hate the covetousness that arises so easily under every human sternum. Love that is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10) is a love that does no harm to its neighbor. Listed among the things that are harmful and destructive to our neighbor is covetousness (Rom. 13:9). This is why it is so necessary to elect men who fear God and hate covetousness (Ex. 18:21). And it should go without saying that you can’t hate covetousness if you don’t even know what it is.
But we must insist on something else. Mortifying covetousness is not just a blessing to the fat cats. In his magnificent book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto demonstrates how a societal refusal to recognize property rights by means of honoring and protecting clear title is one of the central reasons why poor people are locked in grinding poverty. Where property is not respected, property (whenever it is acquired) hides. And when property hides, it cannot come out into the daylight and do useful work. The useful work it could do is that of lifting the people involved out of poverty. But in order for property to be able to do this most beneficent thing, it has to be able to come out into public view and not be assaulted or confiscated. In short, property must be safe, and it cannot be safe whenever the people are envious and covetous.
This is why we must love liberty and hate every form of coercive theft. Making that coercive theft “legal” by sanctioning it society-wide only serves to make everything far worse. Legalizing activities prohibited by the Ten Commandments does not successfully whitewash the sin. If something is perfectly appalling, we do not fix it by nodding sagely and saying, “You know, the ways their laws are structured . . .”
“As soon as we begin to look at ourselves walking on water, we find that we are looking at ourselves not walking on water” (From To You and Your Children, p. 194).
“To do so is not natural, it is to be an actor; and acting, however skilful and however much admired, is in the pulpit a crime, — and, as the diplomatists say, not only a crime, but worse, a blunder” (Broadus, Preparation and Delivery, p. 418).