When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice:
but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.
Given all that has happened over the past four months, there is much that could be written with regard to government lockdowns and a dozen issues intersecting with the church, government, society, health, medicine, economics, conspiracy, morality, judgment, statistical analysis, abuse, social unrest and more.
Believe it or not, in the wide swath of these issues, I believe there is much that many can agree on and I think it’s important to remind ourselves of that at the outset.
First and foremost, as Christians I think most of us can agree that in America and the west, we are a people fully deserving of God’s judgment and his covenantal sanctions for our collective disobedience. Regardless of its origins, the coronavirus and the ramifications we are facing are what we deserve as a nation – a nation full of people who are fully intent on doing what seems right in our own eyes.
Secondly, I think that regardless of where we stand on the question of how destructive the virus itself truly is, and how effective or ineffective the response has been, most of us can agree that the coronavirus is real and when it kills or contributes to the death of anyone it is a real human tragedy.
Thirdly, and adding to this tragedy, we can agree that the coronavirus issue will be used as a political football by all sides. People of good faith can probably agree that there are forces on either extremes of the debate that are either far too suspicious of conspiracy around every corner or far too naive about the propensity for evil from the state and other institutions.
Fourthly, in the category of “silver linings”, the prominence of the coronavirus issue is an opportunity for us to seek how we can pay more attention to our symptoms to avoid bringing sickness into other people’s homes, be sensitive to those with weak immune systems, improve personal hygiene, sanitation practices and redouble attention to maintaining healthy diets given that obesity is the number one risk factor.
All those areas of agreement being stated, in order for the church to have a consistent prophetic voice and in order for us to be the salt and light we need to be as we engage with the world, we must be able to call the nation to repentance according to the sins it is actually committing. We must not engage and promote what is sinful in the name of being a light to the world. We must be able to point to the actual points of departure from God’s law. We have to show a truly biblical vision of the future and what is possible should we follow God’s law, and what that looks like as a society.
To that end we must grapple with this topic of government lockdowns as we consider one of the most impactful events in our lifetimes. Though the lockdowns have come in different shapes and sizes within the United States and around the world, never before has an infectious disease been so comprehensively responded to with state enforced lockdowns on such a global scale.
But are the lockdowns biblical?
Sadly for many Christians the first problem we have is that this question, “is it biblical?” is not at the forefront and a dozen other factors take precedence. Before we assess the biblical law principles in play, we must address this tendency and what causes it.
The vain conceit of pragmatism
One of the main ways that the lockdowns are often justified is by side stepping questions of principled morality and ethics and skipping on to a sort of utilitarian moral framework where whatever course of action is determined to cause the least harm to the least amount of people is chosen. This sort of philosophy is not just in play with this issue, but is frequently the hallmark of our decision making process in secular society. This framework is rife with problems both conceptually and in terms of its historical track record.
Even if the world worked in such a way where it were ethically plausible to make decisions as a society on behalf of the masses as a collective as opposed to individuals and families making the best choices with the information they have, at the end of the day, we don’t have access to all the string of unintended consequences these centralized decisions entail nor the comprehensive data sets that would be required to make a “good” pragmatic decision on behalf of the collective.
This is one the follies of pragmatism in the first place – we are not God, we are fallible, and we are not omniscient. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We are susceptible to shocking levels of arrogance, confirmation bias, group-think, and self-deception, especially when central planners are involved and calling the shots.
One does not have to look far to find a multitude of historical evidences to this end. For a few examples, reference Mao’s great leap forward, wage and price controls in post war Germany, the Iraq war, China’s one child policies, prohibition, eugenics. dekulakization. Policies are enacted in response to some kind of crises with czar-like monomathic experts propped up by the state, government propaganda, and incomplete or unreliable data sets. Meanwhile God’s law is either totally ignored, butchered, or in the back seat.
Added to this, it doesn’t require paranoia to recognize that centralized government decision makers are uniquely vulnerable to potential influences other than what is best for those they represent. This is just the nature of politics. For example, should they “do nothing” in response to a problem it will appear that they are asleep on the job. On the other hand if they “do something” and it goes badly they can usually claim it would have been even worse if they did nothing. Generally speaking, it is politically profitable to “get things done” in Washington. This dynamic should not be overblown, but it should not be overlooked either.
In recounting the response of government and medical officials to the AIDS crises in 1986, David Chilton, in his work “Power in the Blood” related the behavior of the government response to Jotham’s parable of the bramble bush in Judges 9. He wrote:
“Is it any wonder that we have bramble laws and bramble social policies when our leaders are bramble men? How can we expect them to exercise courageous moral leadership when their primary motive for rule is power over others; when their major concern is not speaking and acting with righteousness and integrity but rather with how they will look on the evening news? The messianic State makes big promises, because the brambles in power desire worship; but it cannot save us from AIDS because it will not point us away from itself to the true Lord, the true Savior of mankind.”
What is absolutely clear from our centralized policy makers, whatever their list of motivations, is that consulting a set of principled ethics derived from God’s law doesn’t register. Herein lies the problem: Setting aside the word of God and seeking to autonomously determine how we should respond to the virus is the same rebellious approach Adam took when determining his choices in the garden of Eden. He set aside God’s word and did what seemed right in his own eyes. How can we expect the blessing of God in our response to coronavirus?
On a personal level, we can’t ignore that one of the greatest risk factors for coronavirus is obesity, and the number one risk factor for obesity are the sins of sloth, gluttony and lack of self-control. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we should draw a one-to-one relationship between the havoc any virus wreaks in an individual and that individual’s moral conduct. That doesn’t always correlate. But what Christians need to recognize is that from a creational perspective, our predicament is the result of a departure from the ethical requirements of God’s law. It is first and foremost an ethical failure.
Not only is the lawless response of government an ethical issue, the very existence of harmful viruses and infectious diseases in the first place is first an ethical issue. Disease was foisted upon creation as a curse. Whether it’s coronaviruses, HIV or other diseases, their existence has an ethical message. Like the rest of the curse, they were imposed on creation as a covenantal sanction because of the ethical rebellion committed by our federal representative Adam as recounted for us in Genesis 3.
Pragmatic responses will only nip around the edges of the problem. Pragmatism, as a guiding worldview, is only another failure of ethics always exacerbates the problem in the long run.
In Hebert Schlossberg’s definitive work “Idols for Destruction”, he identifies the engine of secular humanism correctly as pragmatism. Schlossberg writes:
“In practice, the hallmark of the humanist ethic is pragmatism. The fact that politicians describe themselves as a pragmatic in order to induce people to vote for them is a telling indication of the values of our society. The pragmatic politician portrays himself as a realist who looks at the facts to tell him what to do rather than seeking a wise course of action in theory, in principle or in ideology. All of that is illusory. Facts never told anyone what to do. Facts are always interpreted according to principles and values, and the pragmatist hides his, possibly even from himself. The ethical result of this is worse than the means being justified by the end, because the pragmatist explicitly elevates means over ends; the means justify themselves. And the values remain hidden because to speak of them, except in the most general and meaningless sense, is to lose one’s credentials as a pragmatist.”
Pragmatism smuggles in a fallacy that people might reject more readily should it be stated outwrite. That fallacy is the notion that consistent principles are not the primary thing, they should be invoked at times but never tightly gripped. What we are left with at the end of the day is the tyranny of subjectivism and sentiment. The whim of the mob, prone to fear and hysteria, which will stand on principle one minute, then throw it all in the trash heap the next as sentiment changes. Schlossberg continues:
“All forms of humanist sentimental ethics have one common characteristic: subjectivism. Humanists decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong without any external entity to instruct them. Sentiment judges each situation on its merits. It may decide in one case on a subsidy, in another case on a fatal injection, in another on incarceration, in another on a state of permanent dependence. It is answerable to no one and nothing. Sentiment rules. In all these cases, of course, sentiment will be serving the interests of state , class, agency, corporation, university, or individual, but that is seldom admitted. What rules is what Niebuhr called goodwill and Fletcher called love. Others will have different masks for it, but the reality will always be the same: Subjective emotional responses are the determinants of right and wrong.”
There’s nothing wrong with pragmatic or utilitarian arguments if what you mean by utilitarian is that we need to weigh and count the cost about what course will have the greatest amount of good in a given scenario. Counting the cost is good, necessary and biblical action. So when does a utilitarian argument cross over into utilitarianism? When does being pragmatic cross over into pragmatism? It’s when we are willing to violate God’s laws and protections in order to accomplish any end, no matter how much “greater good” we can project in our own human guesswork.
The reason slave owners were wrong to hold on to their slaves, despite their claims that the slaves would be worse of if freed, was because they had no right to own slaves. They were acting like utilitarians. The reason why government is wrong to mass quarantine the asymptomatic is because, like US chattel slave owners, they don’t have the authority to remove rights despite what they project might happen if they don’t remove them. They are acting according to their operating philosophy, pragmatism.
This emphasis on the subjective and the pragmatic over the word of God plays in to the secular humanist paradigm. Christians can be easily carried away with it so as to be so preoccupied with what the latest sentiment of the mob might be to where they relegate God’s law to the dust bin of history.
Even the laws of our land which are supposed to be transcendent are eminently malleable depending on the driving sentiment of the mob given the current month, year or decade. For all its veneration, over and over again, the United States Constitution has been exposed as a flimsy facade of a check against these impulses. It can be disregarded and the rights enumerated ignored at the slightest hint of an emergency. Sentiment is our true Constitution and anyone who thinks differently hasn’t been paying attention.
This is nothing new and neither the right nor the left has the moral high ground in this regard. Bush and Cheney authorized the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Truman rounded up the Japanese into internment camps. Lincoln suspended habeus corpus. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.
All of these were justified with appeals to some version of “common sense” as to the greater good, or rather, common sentiment. Thomas Paine should have been appealing to the objective standards of God’s law and not “reason and common sense” which can turn on a dime. Suffice to say, we cannot base policies based on models and projections of lives potentially saved. We need to be a people of principle.
When an old testament civil magistrate declared a sentence for a crime based on the testimony of two or three witnesses he did not have blood on his hands when those witnesses turned out to be liars. The case could easily be made that false convictions could have been prevented had he called for a standard of five witnesses. Lives could have been saved. Yet the magistrate is not to do whatever is right in his own eyes. He is not to ascribe to himself power and authority based how many lives he or his advisors think could potentially be saved. In the same way, magistrates who refuse to put their own people in mass captivity do not have blood on their hands when people die, even if such a correlation could be proven with all other factors taken into account.
Scripture teaches us that we are very much in need of looking to revealed law because of our tendency to idolize sentiment. Schlossberg expounds:
“As Niebuhr recognized in other contexts, our capacity for self-deception and self-justification is almost infinite. That is the reason sentiment as an ethical principle must lead to disaster. The law of God is the only hedge against that. “Now if I do what I do not want,” wrote the apostle, “I agree that the law is good” (Rom. 7:16). That is, if he recognizes that he has no self-righteousness, that the humanist delusion is fraudulent, then he needs the law to identify and restrain the evil that he might do. But the law of God only serves such a purpose if statutory law and the citizens recognize it. If lawmaking, however, is considered an expression of human autonomy, it will be idolatrous and eventually tyrannous. Statutory law then will be used to justify anything.”
If we are to escape this labyrinth of pragmatism we must open up God’s word, dust off the sections on biblical law applied to civil government which are transcendent principles and obey them.
The enduring applicability of biblical case law
Before we get into the nitty gritty of biblical law principles applied to lockdown during a pandemic, let’s engage in a small refresher on biblical civil government. We’ll address two key issues: The continuing applicability of the case laws and the proper jurisdictional limits placed on civil governments.
As we determine which biblical standards apply for civil magistrates today, we fail if our starting point is to immediately throw out the biblical case law in the old testament. To be sure, there are many times in the old testament where God’s people are instructed in a certain way because of rules and regulations related to life in a pre-Messiah, pre-atonement context. The ceremonial observances were different, the rituals were different, the priesthood was different, but the underlying faith was the same.
“…all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
Again, though peripheral differences existed, the people of God in the new covenant share fundamental unity with the people of God under the old covenant, not fundamental disunity.
That being said, none of this does away with the fact that there were certain transcendent standards which were not only to be observed by Israel, but were also to be observed by all nations and could not have been merely ceremonial rituals limited to Israel, but were of a transcendent moral nature.
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
Nothing about Christ’s atoning work on the cross or the institution of the new covenant authorizes magistrates to stray from their God given responsibility to rule with impartiality, just scales, due process, equal protections, proportionate penalties and respect for the limits of the civil jurisdiction. These law principles (and others) were given to Israel in the old testament and as mentioned above, were not just for Israel but were also to be part of the reason why foreign nations wanted to stream to Israel and worship the God of Israel.
What about the jurisdictional limits of civil government?
Limits of civil authority
Biblically speaking, civil magistrates are servants of God who are put in place for the purposes of punishing evil doers for civil crimes according to the standards of God’s law. That is where their power and authority ends.
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Added to this, civil governments are only one form of authority that God enacts. Their authority is not all-encompassing, it has limits. Civil government is a separate institution from other God ordained governments such as the family government, church government or individual self-government. For example, the civil government is not the instrument of parental discipline of children and they do not hold church government authority over excommunication.
Civil governments cannot do whatever seems right in their own eyes and they cannot wield the sword for purposes further than they are authorized. They are given no authorization to assume powers which are not delegated to them, even if other forms of government have abdicated their responsibility. For example, they cannot start excommunicating people from the church just because the church has abdicated its responsibilities in that area of ecclesiastical governance.
Given that every human authority and institution in scripture has limits to their authority, and given that no authority in scripture has a total mandate to wield their authority in an unlimited fashion, in order to establish that a civil magistrate has the God-given authority to force masses of people to stay in their homes for any length of time, one has to prove this authority from scripture. The burden is not on anyone to prove that the magistrate does not have such a power. We can’t just ask, “do authorities exist?”, we must also ask, “what are their duties?”, and “what are they authorized to do?”
What are their limits?
If we really are dealing with a legitimate, righteous, God-honoring authority as laid out in Romans 13, such an authority wouldn’t step beyond their lawful function to infringe on the spheres of other God ordained institutions of government. Romans 13 cannot be appealed to in order to prove the misguided notion that civil magistrates have unlimited authority over all of life as long as they don’t command someone to sin. There are also areas where they have no jurisdiction whatsoever.
Magistrates can’t look at the Bible and say to themselves, “Welp, doesn’t say *I can’t* make the citizens under my jurisdiction run to the town square and cover themselves in ketchup, I guess I’m authorized!” The same thing applies to officers in the church. The burden is on the one arguing for the authorization to exercise a power to prove that authorization exists. Such is the regulative principle of government of which an entire article (or book) could be written.
It is true that sometimes the jurisdiction of spheres of government overlap. A church may lay ecclesiastical sanctions of excommunication on an unrepentant thief as a civil magistrate may lay civil sanctions of restitution on the same person for the same offence. But the civil magistrate has no jurisdiction over certain inward sins like lust, covetousness, or whether to shop at Walmart or Target. It may not interfere in the voluntary, non-coercive actions of free people. Any efforts to do so are unlawful and without authority.
When you strip away the ceremonial, ritualistic elements of the biblical civil law system in the old testament, what you are left with is a very limited and decentralized civil government.
The righteous role of civil government is to punish theft, murder and assault, order for defense from foreign invading armies and to ensure justice according to due process, equal scales, uniformity under the law. Some theonomists would add adultery, sodomy, sabbath breaking and public idol worship to the list of proper civil government jurisdiction. Others would regard old testament civil penalties for these as part of the ceremonial system and no longer being a legitimate role of the civil magistrate’s jurisdiction (though ecclesiastical government would still have oversight). Let us lay that debate aside for a moment as they are not immediately related to the legitimacy of coronavirus lockdowns.
To be clear, the Bible need not explicitly authorize each and every possible scenario for which civil authority may be legitimate. For example, in biblical case law, God doesn’t enumerate every piece of property that can constitute theft for which magistrates can impose sanctions. Theft as a general category is prohibited and certain case law examples are given. Whether that be theft of bread, theft of oxen, or theft of jewels. These are general principles of governance which can be applied to our present context. We can’t say that sanctions against grand theft auto cannot be civilly imposed by magistrates today because cars weren’t invented yet.
It is here where again, we must be also careful. Though technology has advanced over the centuries and though our understanding of creation has expanded, we must be cautious not to allow our accommodations for these advances to create whole new categories of expansive, sweeping civil powers. We’ll explore this in greater detail below.
Analyzing the arguments for government shut downs
So what is the case for a civil or ecclesiastical authority expansive enough to include levying mass lockdowns on a people, forcing them to stay in their homes, prevent them from pursing their livelihoods and other pursuits and compelling total conformity with these mass lockdowns?
There are three main categories of biblical appeal I’ve seen which are alleged to authorize those in authority to impose sanctions to enforce mass lockdowns, and which compel compliance with such orders by the citizenry:
Civil laws regulating medical quarantine of the sick in the Old Testament.
Civil laws regulating reckless endangerment in the Old Testament.
Ecclesiastical laws requiring Christians to love their neighbors.
Does biblical law really give to authorities the power to enforce mass lockdowns and compel compliance with it? We’ll address these one at a time.
The Levitical leprosy laws
Let me say very clearly at the outset that I believe the leprosy passages in scripture do nothing to help support the claim that civil magistrates today have the power of forcing mass lockdowns. Most obviously, though there are actions taken to prevent the public from bearing the brunt of the wrath of God for ceremonial uncleanness, there simply are no mass lockdowns in the book of Leviticus related to leprosy law – but that’s just the beginning. What do we actually find in these passages?
In the leprosy sections we find a surprisingly long passage on one particular law or set of laws with regard to leprosy amongst persons, belongings and buildings. We can’t think of the translated word “leprosy” in this context as having to do with infectious disease nor can we confuse it with the modern “Hansen’s disease”. When you think of “leprosy” in the Bible, think of the concept of the spreading of toxic physical corruption whether that manifests itself as sores on the body or destructive mold on belongings and buildings.
Leprosy was not an all-encompassing term for all kinds of sicknesses, maladies and illness. Coming down with a cold, fever etc. did not make one unclean in the same way that this specific leprous blight did, nor did it put one under the same obligations to the code related to leprosy. It was the visible existence of open sores, blemishes and spots that were the problem. Those with other kinds of sicknesses were not categorized as “unclean” nor was the Priest instructed to remove all contagiously sick persons from the camp (though that isn’t to say that individual quarantine wasn’t practiced). To the contrary, we will see, some with leprosy were not to be removed from the camp, even when the leprosy covered their entire body!
Recognizing the immediate context of the leprosy passages, the section on leprosy is sandwiched between a section on dietary laws and a section on nocturnal emissions and corpse handling. We can see the ceremonial character of such provisions. Many instructions are given related to what is permitted when a man who had a discharge. The man was declared unclean, and anyone who touched anything that that the man sat on was also unclean. For the man with the discharge, in order to return to a return to a state of “clean” the Priests needed to slaughter two turtledoves and offer them as a sacrifice in the tabernacle.
The leprosy passages encompass the role of the Priesthood in managing these cases (chapter 13) and the sacrificial requirements for reuse of clothing or buildings following a leprosy infestation or re-entry to society for the those afflicted (chapter 14). All of these sections (dietary law, leprosy, emissions, corpses) are replete with concern over the status of an individual as ceremonially “clean” or “unclean” and how to respond when unclean things touch clean things and how to sacrifice at the temple in order to return to a status of “clean”.
It’s important to note, that nowhere in the biblical case law passages is leprosy described as contagious in the medical sense. People were isolated and exiled, not to prevent the person to person spread of disease in the community, but to prevent the person to person spread of ceremonial uncleanliness that was possible if a person with such a disease was touched. This is an important difference.
The command to expel “unclean” persons from the camp was a ceremonial measure. So what was going on in those days was not even a “medical quarantine” of individuals, let alone society. This was a ceremonial “quarantine” or isolation of ceremonially unclean individuals, not society. As mentioned above, you were also “quarantined” in the same manner if you had a seminal discharge or came into contact with someone with a discharge, contacted someone who had touched a dead body etc (Numbers 5:1-4). The lepers were literally sent out of the camp together along with the people who accidentally touched something that was dead. So much for social distancing! This whole system was a matter of preventing the spread of ceremonial uncleanliness and the resulting wrath from God on all society, not preventing the human to human spread of biological disease.
If you are in any doubt about this, consider that Leviticus 13:12-13 makes it plain as day that this was not about keeping a medical condition from spreading. Those who were covered with leprosy over their entire body were to be pronounced completely clean! This guy, looking like the abominable snowman, completely covered from head to toe in leprosy could go to the temple and make his sacrifices just like anyone else. Meanwhile the guy with one crushed testicle, not being a medically contagious danger to anyone was out of luck.
We can only speculate as to why this is. What seems to be the case is that the person covered in “white as snow” leprosy had the appearance of cleanliness symbolizing sinless purity despite having contagion all over him. This seems to be why he was designated as ceremonially clean. (Follow this trail: Exodus 4:6, Numbers 12:10, 2nd Kings 5:27, Psalm 51:7, Isaiah 1:18, Daniel 7:9, Matthew 28:3). In any case, this system wasn’t designed to be a medical disease containment system.
As Dr. Gary North writes in his commentary on Leviticus:
“What must be stressed here is that this law was not based on considerations of public biological health; it was based on public judicial health.”
This may be startling to some who have headed over to Leviticus with pre-conceived notions about what it is supposed to be about (handling biological contagion). Put those assumptions away and read through it again.
Remember that in those days, God’s people were to live in his presence within a land that was declared as distinctly holy, the land of Canaan. It meant that they had to act within the confines of God’s unique prescriptions for living in his presence, and that meant a temple sacrifice system which required Israelites to be ceremonially clean in order to present their offerings in the Levitical priestly system.
Separating the clean from the unclean was a means of devoting themselves for service to God and worship of God. In those days, God was in the process of ejecting other Canaanite nations for defiling the land and making it unclean with their evil practices, not because they were worse than other nations outside of Canaan but because God had declared that land to be holy and set apart.
Israel was to fill the land of Canaan and they were to live in the land in a manner that kept it undefiled in God’s presence. Typologically, the removal of the unclean points toward the removal of sin from our lives and separation from worldliness. These rituals and ceremonial observances were types and shadows pointing forward to the new covenant era of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the eternal Priesthood of our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Again, there is nowhere in the passage that instructs us how to stop an “outbreak”. So what was all this for?
The leprosy regulations were a temporary set of ritualistic provisions which applied to Israel and were enforced by the Levitical priests (not necessarily civil magistrates). Contrary to what Dr. North seems to say elsewhere, this was not as the establishment of a transcendent authorization for mass civil government interference in the daily lives of citizens today. Leprosy clean/unclean laws were specifically for life in the holy land of Canaan to facilitate the continuance of the temple worship system and to prevent God’s cherem judgment upon them.
Does this mean it’s unwise to keep separate from those who are biologically contagious? Of course not! This is simply not what the leprosy laws were about. Certainly no transcendent principle from this can be transported to today which licenses the civil magistrate to enforce massive, society-wide removals of freedoms based upon the magistrate’s perception of what might bring harm to a society. To make this leap is not to apply biblical categories for today’s world, but to create an entirely new category of civil government law.
I believe that it has been clearly shown that these laws cannot constitute a biological disease containment system. But even if the leprosy laws were a disease containment system, even in part, it still doesn’t justify mass lockdowns of those without a clinical manifestation of a disease (which is not the same thing as in infection). There still needed to be visible evidence of harm (sores etc) caused by the leprosy, but that is beside the point.
As a question of a secondary order, we also might ask, what other areas where a civil declaration of “the science is settled” may be cited by a magistrate who then presumes for himself God-given license to remove almost any right he can fathom, all with the approval of the church? This is not the primary argument but I imagine one could easily run a useful set of reductios along these lines to further expose the folly of such a premise.
Regardless of the concerning precedent that would be set, the leprosy laws in Leviticus provide no license for magistrates today to impose mass lockdowns.
Reckless endangerment case law
Another argument in support of the notion that coerced compliance with mass lockdowns are allegedly in compliance with Biblical law comes from an appeal to a very important case law located in Exodus which sets forth principles of liability and punishment related to deaths caused by accident and recklessness. There are other passages which deal with similar case laws such as the uncovered pit in Exodus 21, the parapet principle in Deuteronomy 22 or the accidental flying axe head death in Deuteronomy 19. But the goring ox passage is most commonly referred to. It is one of the oldest and most popular cited cases in the development of common law. It reads:
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.
This passage tells us first of all, that a reasonable expectation of risk should be expected as normal operating procedure in society without legal liability. Even domesticated animals such as oxen, in general, do gore from time to time, and yet the rancher cannot be held liable for murder if one of his oxen gores someone to death, despite possessing this general knowledge about the danger oxen can pose.
When an ox which has not been known to gore in the past kills someone, it’s considered accident and a tragedy, but not from any recklessness on the part of the rancher and so it is not a crime. He had general knowledge about the danger of goring oxen, but no specific knowledge regarding any of his oxen in particular. Nevertheless, allowing his oxen to roam was not considered a sinful violation of the bodily autonomy of anyone else, even after someone was killed by his roaming ox.
We live in a world with certain dangers inherent to it. We know accidents happen, we know seasonal viruses exist carrying differing risks. We know that by pulling out of our driveway and going out in the world and conducting our daily affairs we are exposing ourselves to all kinds of dangers. As it relates to seasonal viruses which do differ in their potency, we can contract them or spread them ourselves unknowingly. They usually don’t kill but we know statistically they can. That is to be accepted in a world under the curse where the dominion mandate must march forward nonetheless for the broader purposes of the flourishing of mankind. We can’t ruminate on this fact and then accuse God of having an insufficient care over mankind, or conclude that he is valuing “stuff” over people.
However, if a rancher’s ox gores someone, it is also made clear that the owner must be responsible and ensure this particular animal which has already demonstrated a capacity for killing does not kill again. Should this particular ox kill again, the owner would be put to death as well, unless a ransom imposed by the victim’s family can be paid. If you are the owner of this oxen, the safest and most responsible thing you can do is put that animal to death, or at least impound it. This may be partly why our society has a long track record of putting down dogs which take human life. In any case, the principle against recklessness is clear but not overly broad.
The key factor is that while you are not liable for accidents that happen when conducting activity which is not inherently dangerous, you may be held liable if it happens again, but only given certain circumstances. If you know that you test positive for HIV, and you have unprotected sex without informing the participant, you have specific knowledge where you know you are endangering someone else. You are not “potentially” endangering them. There are a myriad of ways we might apply this law principle in today’s world, but we must be careful not to apply it too liberally otherwise we begin to treat behaviors that are not inherently dangerous which are intrinsic to the furtherance of the dominion mandate as behavior which is inherently dangerous.
In the same way you can be liable if you get loaded drunk and fly an airplane into a mountain yet somehow survive. You have knowingly introduced a specific variable (drunkenness) making an activity that is not inherently dangerous, dangerous. If you’re an airplane mechanic charged with making preflight safety checks and there is proof you attested that a plane as safe to fly without checking it you can be liable should it crash and be proven the crash was due to a needed fix you failed to check.
The goring ox case was never meant to categorically discourage people from engaging in behavior that carried risk to others, risks that are simply a normative part of living in this world. The rule wasn’t that all the oxen were to be caged or even fenced in. The case was meant to provide recourse for victims of reckless individuals who knowingly introduced them to danger with specific knowledge of how they had done so.
The argument which appeals to the goring ox principle to justify compliance with mass lockdown orders is that if you know that it is that possible you could have a contagious disease without being aware, and you know that it’s possible such a disease could kill someone in the future, you are potentially endangering your fellow man by going near them. And further, to not abide by the lockdown during a pandemic, even if you are asymptomatic, makes you retroactively liable for any lives that are lost as a result of you unknowingly infecting someone.
This example flagrantly fails the test of the key factors in the goring ox principle. For the asymptomatic and for the person who has not been tested that very day, there is no specific, direct knowledge of the existence of the virus in your body and there is no specific, direct knowledge of the circumstances in which you definitely spread the virus leading to someone’s death. The lockdown does not just apply to one person’s specific situation, but preemptively shuts down an entire category of human activity.
I’ve heard the argument made that because of the coronavirus, for even the asymptomatic to walk down the street in public is a violation of bodily autonomy as it is allegedly akin to having two cannisters attached to your chest, one spewing oxygen and one spewing poison and you aren’t sure if the poison cannister is turned off or not.
Except that is always the case and has always been the case every season as long as contagious viral illnesses have existed. You could inadvertently infect someone with a myriad of different viruses you will never know you had. You could open your door to receive an amazon package and cause a viral illness to float across to your neighbor. This doesn’t transform regular commerce and human activity into an inherently dangerous activity. That’s like saying the oxen rancher should be liable anytime any of his oxen gore someone because he had general knowledge that oxen in general sometimes kill people. This is assuredly not what the goring ox example teaches.
The insufficiency of this example is compounded when you consider that in the lockdowns, this would also apply to “essential workers” like grocery store employees who go to work without any symptoms and infect people. They would be guilty of the same bloodguilt as the “non-essential” workers if we are appealing to the goring ox principle.
There was a reason this law originally came about. Undoubtedly, some ranchers did knowingly leave known goring oxen unattended. If those oxen then gored again even with witnesses testifying that it was the same oxen in both cases, there was no recourse for the victim. But we cannot derive a license for magistrates to compel conformity with mass lockdowns from the goring ox principle.
Love your neighbor
In both the old testament and new we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. Some have applied this broad command today to bring binding moral obligations upon their Christian neighbor in terms of compelling their compliance to sheltering at home.
The argument here goes that since we should care about the vulnerable the most, and the elderly and those in potentially overcrowded hospitals are most vulnerable, loving our neighbor means staying at home. They say further, that to depart from this means valuing money, convenience and property over people. The idea is, even if technically, governments don’t have the authority to force Christians to do “the right thing” (which is allegedly, sheltering at home) if Christians abdicate their “responsibility” to stay home they have no right to “complain” about government overreach. In fact, we are told, to do so is “hypocrisy”.
Some people even boldly assert that should we have not locked down the country, so many working people would have died of coronavirus that our economy would not have had enough healthy people to function properly anyways. The guestimates and projections are all over the map from conservative, to sober, to off the wall. This is compounded when you factor in the people who decry the lockdown protesters and call them “grandma-killers” but simultaneously applaud the George Floyd protesters and call them freedom fighters – but that’s for another article.
If we are engaging in the exercise of laying out the pragmatic calculus regarding the connection between staying at home and how some elderly and hospitals could possibly be effected, we can also think about other effects of staying at home if one’s behavior is replicated.
It seems we have barely scratched the surface in terms of the local, national and global ramifications of the civil government shutdowns, and millions of people staying home. What we’ve seen so far has been monumental – from unpaid rents and mortgages to historic job losses, to empty pantries, global supply chain and logistical disasters, currency devaluation, soaring debt, destroyed livelihoods, increased government dependency, delayed medical procedures, psychological turmoil, domestic abuse, increased drug and alcohol addiction, the prospect of global famine, increased social unrest etc.
Much of the fallout cannot be measured and will never be measured. How do you measure the toll that elevated stress levels contribute to hypertension related deaths for example? The rise in later stage cancers because of the lack of availability of earlier screening? How do you measure the intergenerational effect of the extra beating a spouse or child takes in a domestic abuse situation during a mandatory stay at home order? How do you measure the impact of not getting that procedure that was supposed to prevent a cascade of worsening health outcomes because your knee replacement surgery was designated as “elective”? The business that was never started or the job that was never created? What about interrupting supply chain logistics which help maintain the tenuous access many 3rd world countries have to food supplies? The effect of rising food prices? These questions are merely the tip of the iceberg.
By the same logic the mandatory “shelter at homers” are using, an argument could be made that “staying at home” is in fact selfish and callous towards the plight of those effected by the societal behavior you advocate. Either way, it is by no means a given that society wide lockdown is the right thing, or the safest thing, and there are expert epidemiologists, virologists and economists on both sides who disagree. Now again, this country does deserve everything it gets for the evil we have engaged in as a nation, but failing to engage in a self-imposed lockdown would not have been one such example.
The more pressing issue is, what does God’s law require of us? Many Christians would say that even if there is no law basis for a lockdown on the basis of the leprosy laws or the goring ox principle, the love your neighbor command has to compel us to go along with the lockdown.
The first problem with this is something we so often forget, that love is the fulfillment of the law. We are told over and over again in scripture that love means keeping God’s commandments (1st John 5:1-2). The law tells us how we should act in order to show love to our neighbor.
How many hateful things have been done to people in the name of loving them, or even worse, in the interests of making people love other people through coercive force? We think that throwing humans in cages for decades for non-violent, victimless crimes related to marijuana use is loving to society and a more humane way of dealing with “criminals”. We think that giving women the “right to choose” is the most loving thing we can do for them. We think that confiscating property to build an education system for children and a military to spread democracy around the world is loving. What we have actually done is exhibited hatred to our neighbor because our actions were not lawful.
Transcendent biblical law is instruction on how to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not loving to your neighbor as a civil magistrate to go beyond the limits of the authority that God has given you. It’s not loving to your neighbor to forcibly remove their freedoms to pursue their livelihood because of a virus. It’s not loving to place a moral burden of lockdown on your symptomless neighbor who is trying to provide for himself and his family. Do not violate your own conscience, but no such power is given to the government either civil or ecclesiastical. It is not lawful and thus it is not loving.
Where we go from here
We as God’s people have an incredible opening to teach the nations about the beauty of Christ and the soundness of his law through this coronavirus ordeal. The more this heavy-handed statism manifests itself through the coronavirus lockdowns, the more this false kingdom is being exposed as being devoid of all moral substance. People will be looking for answers, consistent answers. So stand ready with the word of God to apply these truths in the particulars of life. What an opportunity!
God forbid we should squander it.
O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!
O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?