Obeying Decisions of Courts of Law (Deuteronomy 17:8-13)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Police 212521 620

Moses sets up a system of trial courts and courts of appeal that are surprisingly similar to the structure of modern courts of law. He commands the people to obey their decisions. “You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left" (Deut. 17:11).

Workplaces today are governed by laws, regulations, and customs with procedures, courts, and appeal processes to interpret and apply them appropriately. We are to obey these legal structures, as Paul also affirmed (Rom. 13:1). In some countries, laws and regulations are routinely ignored by those in power or circumvented by bribery, corruption, or violence. In other countries, businesses and other workplace institutions seldom intentionally break the law, but may try to contravene it through nuisance lawsuits, political favors, or lobbying that opposes the common good. But Christians are called to respect the rule of law, to obey it, uphold it, and seek to strengthen it. This is not to say that civil disobedience never has a place. Some laws are unjust and must be broken if change is not feasible. But these instances are rare and always involve personal sacrifice in pursuit of the common good. Subverting the law for self-interested purposes, by contrast, is not justifiable.

According to Deuteronomy 17:9 both priests and judges—or as we might say today, both the spirit and the letter—are essential to the Law. If we find ourselves tied up in knots, exploiting legal technicalities in order to justify questionable practices, perhaps we need a good theologian as much as a good lawyer. We need to recognize that the decisions people make in “secular” work are theological issues, not merely legal and technical ones. Imagine a modern-day Christian asking his or her pastor to help think through a major decision at work when the ethical or legal issues seem complicated. For this to be worthwhile, the pastor needs to understand that work is a deeply spiritual endeavor and they need to learn how to offer useful assistance to workers. Perhaps a first step would simply be to ask people about their work. “What actions and decisions do you make on a daily basis?” “What challenges do you face?” “What things do you wish you had someone to talk to about?” “How can I pray for you?”