Brief consideration must now be given here to the relation of church and state as it bears upon the question of the magistrate’s responsibility in the current age to obey and enforce the law of God. This matter comes up in conjunction with two ways in which the magistrate’s moral obligation to God’s law is either questioned or denied. On the one hand, some will hold that the magistrate cannot be ethically bound to God’s law because that would break down the standing distinction between church and state; on the other hand, appeal to the alleged union of church and state in the Older Testament is often thought to be a factor sufficient to deny the magistrate’s current obligation to God’s law.
However, the Older Testament indicates a standing separation of church and state, and this fact should be recognized. There was a distinction between the work of Moses and that of Aaron (cf. Ex. 16:33-34; 29:1 ff.), for Aaron represented the people in distinctly cultic matters while Moses rendered general, civil leadership for them (functioning a king over the gathered heads of the tribes, Deut. 33:5). So also in restored Jerusalem there was clearly a distinction between Nehemiah the “governor” and Ezra the “scribe”; it is specifically because the civil governor could not regulate the religious life of the people that Nehemiah called for Ezra to return to Jerusalem.1 At the time of the Exodus the people were divided into tribes having one prince each and heads over the families (cf. Deut. 29:10);2 the princes were civil governors and military leaders (cf. Num. 1:1-16; 2:3-29; 7:2; 10:14-27; 13:3; 17:6; Josh. 9:15; 22:14; 23:2; 24:1), and the heads of the families under them were captains and then judges or officers (Num. 1).3 During the time of the Judges executive and judicial power stayed in the hands of the family and tribal heads (e.g., Judges 11:6 ff.; the elders’ transactions with Samuel);4 each city had a council of elders (Deut. 21:6; 25:8; Judges 8:6, 8, 14; Ezra 10:4) who worked separately but sometimes joined efforts (Judg. 1; 4:10; 6:35; 11).5 They were thus governed by the judges (1 Chron. 17:10; e.g., 1 Sam. 8:1) for 450 years until the last judge, Samuel (cf. Acts 13:20). Local affairs were in the hands of the elders who settled town disputes.6 With the institution of kingship the kings served as judges (1 Sam. 8:5; 1 Kings 3:16-28; 1 Chron. 18:14; cf. 2 Sam. 15:1-6) in addition to the other judges (Ex. 18:14-26; 2 Chron. 19:5, 8; Ezra 7:25). In fact, the kings do not seem to have had legislative power,7 but they were essentially judges or governors (the two being virtually synonymous: 2 Kings 15:15; 2 Sam. 15:41; 1 Kings 7:7; e.g., 2 Sam. 12:6; 14:4-11; 1 Kings 3:16-28; 2 Kings 8:3). Under Saul there was “no central government and the tribes, or rather the clans, retained their administrative autonomy.”8 Thus while cultic duties were assigned to the priests (Ex. 28-29), judicial-executive power resided in tribal heads (cf. 1 Sam. 8:4 ff.; 10:20 ff.; 2 Sam. 3:17 ff.; 5:1 ff.) who were later seriously consulted by kings (e.g., 1 Kings 8:1; 20:7; 2 Kings 23:1) and exercised influence over them (e.g., 1 Kings 12). Internal administration and guidance of the cities or tribes remained vested in the hands of the elders even after the exile (Jer. 20:1; Ezek. 14:1-5; 20:1). Now in these matters (i.e., pervasively the function of civil judgment) legislation originally came from Moses and not through priests; when it was adjudicated, the elders and judges are prominent. Therefore, the priests seem to be completely taken up with religious service and not leaders in the political order.
All footnotes to Greg Bahnsen’s work cited above are found on pp. 389-391 of Theonomy in Christian Ethics [Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002; first edition 1977]. The footnotes are cited below as found in his book.
1. F. F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations: From the Exodus to the Fall of the Second Temple (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), p. 107.
2. E. W. Hengstenberg, History of the Kingdom of God Under the Old Testament, Vol. I (Cherry Hill, NJ: Mack Publishing Co., 1871 [reprinted 1972]), p. 235.
3. J. B. Shearer, Hebrew Institutions, Social and Civil (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1910), p. 81.
4. Hengstenberg, Vol. II, op. cit., p. 67.
5. Shearer, loc. cit.
6. Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel, Vol. I (Social Institutions), tran. Darton, Longman, and Todd, Ltd. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1965), pp. 93, 138, 152-153.
7. Ibid., pp. 150-151.
8. Ibid., p. 95.