Right or Legal?*
How often have we heard or given the counsel, "Just do the right thing." So many of life's problems could be avoided if we and others would only do what we know is right. The problem is as old as Adam and Eve. Had they just done the right thing, there is no telling what blessings would have come to them and their posterity. But, we know their story, and their story affects our stories.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they were acting as the divinely appointed representatives of all humanity. (In the same way, Jesus lived, died, rose, and ascended as the Representative of all elect-redeemed humanity.) Since they were our representatives, their guilt is our guilt, their condemnation is our condemnation. That's obvious because the whole human race immediately and from then on came under the power of death.
But there's more. I suppose, though it would not do any good, that we could argue with God about the arrangement he set up so that the first human beings would represent all human beings to come and that we all have to suffer the consequences of their sin. But there is more to the story than that. The fact of the matter is that we are Adam and Eve as they became as soon as they fell into sin. Their natures became sinful, so that they no longer had the power to know and to do the will of God. Their discernment of God's will became unreliable. Even worse, when they knew God's will because he revealed it to them through natural or supernatural revelation, their "want to" and "can do" faculties had become corrupt. Now their inclination was not to do what was right, but to do what was wrong. That is the nature we have inherited from them. We don’t know God's will, don’t want to do God's will, and do not do God's will. Even when we are believers, united to Christ, and the old nature has died, and we have new life, the "remains" of the old nature are so entrenched and so powerful that we always experience intense conflict between doing what is right and doing what is wrong (Romans 7:12-25; Galatians 5:16,17). Sometimes catastrophic consequences follow the triumph of the flesh.
There’s still more. The story of Adam and Eve is our story, for just as they, we all have actually sinned and continue to do so. That is, take away our guilt in Adam and Eve, and we are still sinners, because of what each and every one of us has done. It's a pretty sorry story - we are guilty in Adam, we are sinful from Adam, and we sin like Adam.
The good news for Christians is two-fold: First, we can be accepted as righteous because our sin was counted to Christ and because his righteousness is counted to us. That's the Gospel – our only hope of salvation. The other part of the good news is that God had begun a work of renovation in us that he will bring to completion. Now, by the faith that unites us to Christ, he has made it at least possible not to sin, though we so often do.
This work, that has begun and goes on in fits and starts through this life, will be completed. At death our souls will be made perfect in righteousness. In the resurrection, in the wholeness of our beings, we will become humans who can no longer sin, but do only righteousness. We will fully know, fully love, and fully do the will of God. That's good news for a believer, because that is what he wants in his heart of hearts no matter how often he acts to the contrary. It's bad news for a non-believer for he cannot imagine being happy and not being able to do things that God says are sinful.
But now I want to move on to another question about knowing and doing right. In this world, when we are sure we know the right thing, and we have the power to uphold and enforce the right thing, should we do it? Think about this in legal terms. If a case makes its way to the Supreme Court, do you want the Court to do what the majority believe is right? You might say, "It all depends on whether they are doing the right thing or not, because I think they often do the wrong thing." When you say that, whether you are a conservative, liberal, moderate, or whatever, you are taking the position that, if a majority has the power to compel what it believes is right, it may do so.
But there's the danger. The end can justify the means. That is, it does not matter how you get to it, the bottom line is doing the right thing. It seems to me it is far safer in a fallen world, where there is no perfect justice, to ask the Justices to do the constitutional and legal thing, not the right thing. What does the Constitution allow and require? Of course, there's still plenty of room for debate, but at least we would all be playing the same game by the same rules. We are going to try to determine what the Constitutional position is and what the law requires no matter how that cuts in terms of what we think right things to do.
But we have to wrestle with this at the church level, too. For instance, our denomination has an institution called the Standing Judicial Commission. It is the court of final appeal. It decides on complaints about actions and appeals of discipline cases. Now what should the men on that Commission do? We are all tempted to say, "They should do the right thing." Well, of course, they should. But, we as a church also have a Constitution – the Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and Book of Church Order. What if the judges of the Standing Judicial Commission get a case where the majority says, "That Session or Presbytery should not have done that. We need to reverse it"? Should they do that no matter what the reasoning may be?
I believe that our Constitution is the bond of our unity. That is, all officers agreed by their ordination vows to accept and live by this Constitution. When we accept the authority of the Constitution, then we are all playing the same game by the same rules. When we don't do that it becomes a matter of who has the power to do what they believe is right. Again there is plenty of room for good and honest people to disagree about various points of doctrine, practice, or procedure in the Constitution. But, there is all the difference in the world between the majority saying, "We are sure we are doing the right thing," and the majority saying, "We are doing this because we believe this is what a dispassionate and honest reading of the Constitution requires."
Churches at the local level can face similar situations. In a past day, many churches came to believe that such things as card playing, dancing, drinking alcoholic beverages, using tobacco, and going to movies were dangerous activities for Christian young people and adults. So with the best of intentions they made rules – sometimes formal rules that were conditions of church membership, other times something like common law understood by the community and enforced by the approval or disapproval of the majority. Now, if we can show from the Bible or from the interpretation of the moral teaching of the Bible and in our Catechisms that such activities are in and of themselves wrong, then by all means the church through its governing body should outlaw them. But what if we sense "they're just not right," or "I don't think Jesus would go there or do that," or "I just think that while they may not be sinful these things can lead to sin," what are we to do? Shall we make a rule because the majority thinks it is a good rule? Not if we believe that God alone can make the rules of right and wrong to bind us. If we believe that God alone has such authority, then we must legislate and enforce all that he commands and all that he forbids. But it also means this: We cannot require more than God requires or forbid more than God forbids.
God has given us the Bible as our sufficient rule of faith and practice. Let us have that confidence. Let us not fall into the mistake of requiring or forbidding things because we think we know what is right, and have the power to enforce it. This is the way to respect God's authority.
We, as citizens are bound to live under a Constitution and laws, not by what can be imposed by mustering a majority. We as churchman and members live under a Constitution that includes doctrine and order and under rules that have a lesser but legal standing. Perhaps especially in the church, just because we can by mislead by zeal to do right, we are safest when we all live by the rule of law not the rule of men, however righteous they believe themselves to be.
It is Uptopianism of a post-millennial sort that makes us think we can and must do what is right and that we can't settle for what is legal. It is realism of the a-millennial sort that allows us to live with the world and the church as they are, confident that Christ's coming, but only his coming, can make a world wherein reigns righteousness.
*The material above is revised and extended from a column that originally appeared on the Aquila Report, published by the Rt. Rev. Don Clements and His Eminence Dominic Aquila. BTW, I have repeatedly suggested that TAR should be renamed the Aquila and Priscilla Report to acknowledge that women may take us aside a straighten us out from time to time.