What is a Biblical law jurisdiction, and how is this concept derived from scripture?
A Biblical law jurisdiction is simply an agreement by a community about how God's law will be interpreted, with respect to its details and application.
Obviously, different people will reach different conclusions about how certain Biblical laws should be interpreted. These often involve issues that affect how civil government should treat (or not treat) certain crimes/sins. Some people, for instance, believe that the Sinai covenant feasts should continue to be observed in some way, and that civil government should somehow enforce observance. Others believe that this is an area of Christian liberty. Some people believe that the Sabbath should still be enforced in some way by civil government, and some (like myself) believe that such enforcement is no longer in the power of civil government (cf. Col. 2:16-17). Some people believe that witnessed acts of adultery should be punished by civil government, and some believe that they should not.
It is impossible for the people on either side of these (and other) issues to live under the same civil government jurisdiction, because their religious viewpoints are irreconcilable. It would also be wrong for anyone to claim that the people holding the majority view should rule over the people with the minority view.
Rather than fight with one another over whose interpretation is correct, we should simply agree to live at peace with one another in separate jurisdictions, each of which applies Biblical law in the way distinctive to our understanding. Perhaps one group will be more correct than another. God will make it clear who is accurately interpreting His word, because that community will thrive, and the others will not.
Paul's admonition to the Corinthians is important:
19 For there also must be factions among you, that those who are approved may be revealed among you. 1 Corinthians 11:19WEB
The explicit Biblical command which authorizes jurisdictions is Exod. 23:2:
2 “You shall not follow a crowd to do evil. You shall not testify in court to side with a multitude to pervert justice. Exodus 23:2WEB
Not following God's law with respect to just civil penalties is, by definition, evil. Instead of following the crowd who are doing evil, you should choose to live within a legal jurisdiction where people do follow Biblical law according to justice.
God himself will reveal whom he approves.
Historical Example: The "United Colonies of New England"
We see one historical example of Christian jurisdictions in a treaty document called "The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England," adopted in 1643 by the American Puritans:
3. It is further agreed that the Plantations which at present are or hereafter shall be settled within the limits of the Massachusetts shall be forever under the Massachusetts and shall have peculiar jurisdiction among themselves in all cases as an entire body, and that Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven shall each of them have like peculiar jurisdiction and government within their limits; and in reference to the Plantations which already are settled or shall hereafter be erected, or shall settle within their limits respectively;
The importance of legal specifications
When determining the "general equity" application of a Biblical law, there is always going to be a range of "strictness" in how we understand and apply a given principle. The general principles of Biblical law are complete (Psalm 19:7, 2 Tim. 3:15-17), but they must be applied within living contexts different from the time they were originally given. This often requires careful study and thought.
For example, does a requirement of a "roof railing" (found in Deuteronomy 22:8) apply to a modern ground level pool? How about a ground level (open-topped) well or a deep hole in the middle of a farmer's field? The "roof railing" case balances property-owner negligence against personal agency and freedom, with a property-owner's bloodguilt as a possible judicial outcome. Biblical interpreters must make decisions about how the general equity principles apply in a way that is most "just".
Well-intentioned Christians might decide differently on these important issues. It is not possible for every interpretation to be correct, particularly on issues which make the difference between requiring a death penalty, or not, for a particular crime. Only God's law gives civil government the authority to order someone's death. Man cannot alter God's law when it comes to crime and punishment: Deut. 4:2.
A particular civil government jurisdiction cannot simultaneously uphold two (or more) different standards on law. For this reason, those who choose to live in a particular jurisdiction (citizens) must decide which interpretations of Biblical law that they will uphold. These interpretations must be written and defined with care, published, taught regularly, and held up as the standard of justice for that community (within the bounds of that particular jurisdiction). Collectively, these specific interpretations can be called a "legal specification."
A "legal specification" is an agreement on a legal interpretation of details/meanings of Biblical law upon which people (and especially judges) could differ. The intent of the legal specification is:
- Ensuring that the law is interpreted consistently and thoroughly.
- Ensuring that the law is defined carefully and taught correctly.
- Ensuring that the law is enforced predictably, rather than arbitrarily.
- Ensuring that those who function as "judges" can be held accountable to a particular written standard, to which they are bound in their decision-making.
A legal specification is not:
- New law in violation of Deut. 4:2. There should be nothing in the legal specification which is not either directly traceable to a particular general equity principle, or a specific application of something implicit in Biblical law. In this way, it would function in a way similar to the historic confessions of faith, just within the civil realm (i.e. not applying to any matters of church assembly jurisdiction).
- Unalterable by the community, as if the legal specification must be considered the "last word" on interpreting Biblical law. The community can always come together and add or change something which makes the legal specification more just or allows it to accommodate unexpected circumstances. Anyone may propose a legal change as long as they back up this proposal with scripture and auxiliary reasoning. Changes to the specification cannot be applied ex post facto, but communities should be open to any scripturally-backed proposals of "reformation."
Anyone who lives, works, or travels through a given jurisdiction implicitly accepts the law as specified (Lev. 24:22). Anyone who volunteers to be a judge agrees to apply the law as specified, making legal outcomes predictable. If a judge, in a particular ruling, chooses to violate the legal specification, his judgement is null and void, and he (probably) loses his position as judge.
- Specifically, "a firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for offence and defence, mutual advice and succor upon all just occasions both for preserving and propagating the truth and liberties of the Gospel and for their own mutual safety and welfare."