Thursday, September 29, 2005

Judges and Crime (11)

The Bible makes an important distinction between a crime and a sin. This distinction is important in defining the role of judges, because a crime is a sin that can be punished by the civil authorities.

Only a few sins are also crimes. For example, coveting is listed as a sin in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:17), but there is no punishment specified for coveting. Although coveting is a sin, it is not a crime. The obvious reason for this is that it would be impossible for a judge to prove that a person is coveting. No one can testify that another person is coveting, because we cannot see into another person’s mind. This places a clear limit on the state. It can only punish actions. The civil authorities must not attempt to control our thoughts.

Theft is specified as a sin in the Ten Commandments, but in this case the bible also specifies a punishment. This means that theft is both a sin and a crime (Ex 22:1-4). Once a man acts on his coveting and steals from his neighbour, the state has authority to act against him. His actions are visible, so witnesses can observe and testify against him. This provides the judges with a basis for dealing with theft.

Crimes are a small subset of all of sins. We can identify crimes by determining whether biblical law specifies a punishment. If it a sanction is specified, the sin is the crime. If there is no sanction, the sin is not a crime.

Judges have no authority to deal with sins that are not specified to be a crime, because God has reserved them for himself. He can see into people’s hearts, so he is best placed to deal with them. The state is not required to eliminate all sin, as that would be impossible. It is limited to punishing the few sins that really disrupt the functioning of society. The surprising truth is that the biblical law specifies only a few sins to be a crime.

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