A Christian system of justice will be voluntary and not based on the use of force. The main problem with a system of voluntary justice is that an accused person might refuse to appear before a judge. Of if they are convicted, they might refuse to pay the restitution specified by the judges.
The system of justice established by God during the time of Moses was a voluntary system. The judges raised up to apply the law did not have a police force to enforce their decisions. All the judges could do was hear the cased brought before them. They could not force people to appear before the court. All they could do was hear the testimonies of the people who came before them and announce their verdict. They could specify the amount of restitution that should be made, if a crime had occurred, but they had no power to enforce their decisions.
The system of law and judges established by God functioned effectively in Moses time, because he was part of a tribal culture. Although, most people no longer live in a tribal culture, the experience is worth studying, because it shows how a voluntary system of local judges can work. We should also note that the modern drive to destroy tribal culture and replace it with nationalism and democracy has made it harder to operate a biblical system of justice. That is why God blessed a tribal culture (Deut 33) but never blessed democracy. Tribal cultures are conducive to a system of law and voluntary judges, whereas democracy establishes justice by force, which God hates.
Tribal societies can be quite fluid, but a persons place in society is established by submission to tribal leaders. They can change to a new tribe, if they submit to the leaders of that tribe, but they cannot have the benefits of belonging to a tribe, if they will not submit to the authority of their leaders. This free submission to tribal authorities makes the system of law and judges work.
Members of a tribe are expected to submit to the judgment of judges that their family or tribal leaders recognise as being wise. If the accuser was a member of the same tribe, the tribal leaders would demand that the two sides to the dispute get things sorted, so their tribe would not be divided. The accused person could not continue to enjoy the blessings of tribal membership and refuse to go to a judge recognised by their tribe.
If the victim of the crime belonged to another tribe, their tribal leaders would come to the tribal leaders of the accused person and ask for the issue to be sorted. They would agree on a judge respected by both tribes. If the accused person refused to submit to this judge, the elders would say,
This accusation could be true. We want to stay at peace with your neighbouring tribe, so we want you to submit to a judge, and get things sorted. If you do not trust the suggested judge, we will find one that we all recognise as being reliable and honest. If you refuse to the judge, you will lose our protection and oversight and become an outlaw from your family and tribe. We are not prepared to put our tribe at risk of attack, because you are willing to appear before a judge.
The accused person would have no choice but to submit to judgment. To ensure they continue to receive the benefits of being part of their family and tribe, they would freely submit to judgment.
The person found guilty by the judge might refuse to accept the penalty imposed by the court. If the guilty person refused to pay the specified restitution, their tribal elders would say,
We want to stay at peace with our neighbouring tribe. If you want to remain part of us, you had better make restitution specified by the judge.
The guilty person would come under immense moral pressure to pay the penalty.
You must act according to the decisions they give you Be careful to do everything they direct you to do. Act according to the law they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left (Deut 17:10-11).
A person who refuses to accept justice of the judges has placed themselves under a curse.
Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out (Deut 27:26).
The tribe will not want a person that is under a curse in their midst.
If a convicted person cannot afford to pay the specified restitution, family or tribal leaders might make the payment on their behalf and find a way for guilty person to work and repay what they owed. They would do this to maintain peace with their neighbours.
If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him..... If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you (Lev 25:35-36;39-40).
This is an additional benefit of belonging to a tribe. If the convicted person refused to repay their debt to those who had bailed them out, they would lose all the benefits of belonging to their tribe.
If the accused person is judged to be innocent, the tribal leaders will provide the innocent person with protection from any further harassment.
Freedom to Leave
Belonging to a tribe is voluntary, but the condition for belonging is submission to the authority of tribal leaders. Willingness to submit disputes to a judge and agreement to comply with the judge's verdict is also a condition for belonging. Freedom is not reduced, because the person is always free to leave their tribe and cease submission. They would lose the benefits of being part of their tribe, but they are always free to go.
Moses is an example of one who used his freedom to escape justice (Ex 11:11-21). The price he paid was forty years in the wildness tending sheep for a much poorer tribe (God used this for good). This is different from the modern nation-state, where submission to authority is enforced with force and people are usually not free to leave.
Tribal affiliations are fluid. If the leaders of a tribe started to impose bad justice, people would leave that tribe and join another related tribe with better standards of justice. The bad tribe would shrink away.
If a person convicted of a crime chose to avoid justice by leaving their tribe, they could seek to join another. The problem is that most tribes would not accept someone with outstanding justice issues. The tribe would not want to offend a neighbouring tribe by harbouring a person who has refused to submit to justice. The person avoiding justice might not be able to find a tribe to join, because they would be treated as an outlaw.
Groups of people avoiding justice might come together and form a community of outlaws. These outlaw communities would be a terrible place to live, as the leaders of the community would be those who have refused to accept justice. The strongest men would rise to the top, so the community would have only rough justice. Outlaw communities would be like self-run, self-funded prisons.
These outlaw communities would be like the Cities of Refuge established in Israel (Num 35:6-14). They were a place of escape for people with outstanding justice issues running away from their tribe.
Moses set aside three cities east of the Jordan, to which anyone who had killed a person could flee if he had unintentionally killed his neighbor without malice aforethought. He could flee into one of these cities and save his life (Deut 4:41-42).
Entry into an outlaw communities would be voluntary, because the only people entering would escaping justice or refusing to submit to the leadership of their tribe. Some Christians would enter temporarily to share the gospel and tough people might visit regularly to trade. Others might call to visit relatives.
No one would have to stay in an outlaw community, but they could only leave by going Back to their tribe and accepting the consequences of the justice that that they had been avoiding. To leave the outlaw community, they would have to submit to justice in the community they had escaped.
The outlaw community would not be a happy place, so the cost of avoiding justice would be quite high. Most people would prefer to pay the penalties imposed by their judge, so they could remain with their tribe. This would be a powerful incentive for the voluntary acceptance of justice.
The Modern World
Free submission to tribal leaders provides a foundation for voluntary justice. A tribal culture has three important characteristics.
Loyalty between members of the tribe.
Submission to the authority of tribal leaders.
Leaders responsible for well-being of tribal members.
The problem in the modern world is that tribal affiliations have been destroyed. People no long belong to a tribe, so individuals are isolated and society is disjointed. This creates problems for voluntary justice. Most people would not recognise anyone they will freely submit to (other than employers). There is no one with sufficient moral authority to persuade them to submit to justice, so justice must be imposed by force.
The good news is that the role of the tribe can be fulfilled by community-based churches that function as Real Communities (see Being Church Where We Live for more). A church has the following characteristics.
Church members committed to loving each other.
Submission to the authority of elders.
Elders responsible for caring for church members.
These three characteristics parallel the characteristics of tribes listed above. Community-based churches can become the new tribes.
We need a system of justice that does not depend on force or require coercion from above. God's way is voluntary justice. The key to voluntary justice is free submission to the leaders of a community, in Return to their promise of care. Thus, submission to church leaders can also provide a foundation for voluntary justice. This is why Paul described judges emerging out of churches (1 Cor 6:1-4).
If a Christian is accused of a crime, their elders should say something like this.
This accusation could be true. We want to stay at peace with the people of your accuser's community, so we want you to submit to a judge, and get things sorted. If you do not like the judge they suggested, we will find one we all recognise as being reliable and honest. If you refuse to submit to him, you will lose our spiritual protection and oversight and become an outlaw from your family and church.
The church leaders will urge the Christian to submit to a good and honest judge, so that the church can remain at peace with the rest of the society in which they live. If the judge declares the Christian is innocent, the church will provide them with protection from harassment.
If the judge convicts the accused and imposes a penalty, the leaders of the church will expect the Christian to pay the specified penalty. They may even loan the money and organise repayment over time. The price for this will be closer submission to the Christian(s) making the loan.
If a Christian experiences an injustice at the hands of someone from outside their community they would go to their elders. The elders will approach the community of the accused person and say,
We want to stay at peace with your community, so this dispute needs to be sorted. If you want to continue our relationship with you, we suggest that you encourage the accused person to go before a judge that we all respect. We need to get this issue sorted.
The other community would likely agree to this request, because they would not want to lose the benefits that come from the relationship. Even if this was not a Christian community, they would probably agree to ensure, in order to ensure that they would be able to obtain justice for their members in the future.
The members of any community that refused to support justice might find themselves isolated and unable to trade, because they would no longer to be trusted. When trust disappears, the cost of trade increases enormously, so wise leaders would ensure that justice is done, even when a member of their community is being accused.
If the accused person does not belong to a community, they might be able to evade justice for a while. However, they could eventually find themselves being excluded from normal society, so they might need to join an outlaw community to survive. This would be a terrible place to be. Most people will choose to submit to justice, so that they can remain in their community.
Earthly justice will never be perfect, but love triumphs over justice. If the person harmed is unsuccessful in getting restitution, the other members of the church might provide compensation to them as an expression of the love of Jesus. The victim would receive justice, even if the criminal escapes. Of course, their escape is temporary, because everyone will receive perfect justice when they stand before the throne of God.
The Price of Protection
The modern state allows people to live in isolation without any connection to a community that has moral authority over their lives. People can have physical protection and the support of the rest of society without needing to submit to the moral authority of their community. This means that justice has to be imposed by physical force.
In a tribal society or Christian community, members get protection from evil (physical and spiritual) by belonging to their community. The price of this protection is submission to the justice imposed by the community. People can avoid the consequences of justice, but the price they pay is the loss of the protection. Tribal members refusing the justice required by their tribal judges would become very vulnerable to physical attack. Christians who refuse to comply with the standard of justice imposed by their leaders will lose physical and spiritual protection. Losing spiritual protection might have more serious long term consequences than the penalty they are attempting to escape. Paul reminded the Corinthians of what happens when those who are unwilling to repent are cut off from the body of Christ.
Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you (1 Cor 5:5,13).
Churches will only be able to fulfil this role, if there is a church in every street. A church whose members to drive many miles to a mega meeting cannot be a tribe. Only community-based churches that function in a defined area can provide protection and justice.
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