“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” (Deuteronomy 16:18)
Good government isn’t a given. Not in the state. And not in the church. When God gave His Law to Israel, He included a program for governing the people that was designed to ensure they would gain maximum benefit from His rules, statutes, and precepts. The people of Israel had spent over 400 years in slavery, with someone telling them every day of their lives when to eat, how much work to do, where to live, and how to behave. They had no experience in self-government and would have been doomed to fail as a nation had not God graciously provided a framework of just and loving order for their cities and tribes.
God did not give the Law to Israel so that, keeping it, they might be saved. He had already delivered them out of Egypt as an outworking of His gracious promises and covenant (Exodus 2:23). Israel’s salvation was all of grace; her prosperity as a nation, however, was to be by the Law of God. Yet even this depended on the grace of God, who gave His Law and established the framework of governance within which the nation could realize the benefits of what God had commanded, and who ultimately would have to give His Spirit to make obedience possible (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).
Meeting in the Gates
Each town in Israel was to establish judges, and the judges were expected to “judge the people with righteous judgment.” Thus, they would have to be men experienced in the Law of God, well-versed in its contents, and skilled in applying its teaching to the lives of the people. Typically, the judges, or elders, met in the gates of the city. This served two purposes. First, conducting their business in the gates of the city had a practical benefit. The people could see that their judges were meeting, and they could listen in on the proceedings.
Thus citizens young and old would be instructed in the right use of the Law of God as the judges discussed and deliberated this or that matter and proclaimed their judgment. Everything was done in the open, and this undoubtedly had the very positive effect of making people think twice about what they might bring before the judges. Anything that was merely frivolous or self-serving, or even deceitful, ran the risk of being exposed before all one’s neighbors, and the shame which could ensue would most likely not have been worth trying to manipulate the courts to one’s advantage.
Second, the meeting of judges in the gates of the city had a symbolic effect. It signaled to residents and visitors alike that the well-being of this community was guarded by the Law of God and its faithful judges. When God instructed Israel to write His Law on the gates of their cities (Deuteronomy 6:9), He was surely referring to this practice of having the judges meet in the city gates to deliberate and teach the commandments, rules, precepts, and statutes of God.
Boaz v. Kinsman Redeemer
The clearest example we have of this practice at work is from the Ruth 1. In the case of Boaz v. Kinsman Redeemer, we see how the practice of judging righteous judgment allowed truth to surface and love to flourish according to the rules of life and government encoded in the Law of God.
Boaz was a wealthy and well-respected elder in the community of Bethlehem. Given his status, it is not unlikely that he was himself one of the judges of this little town. He sought to take an action which would certainly have benefited him, both personally and materially. He wanted to marry Ruth, a Moabite woman, and to lay claim to the portion of land that belonged to the family of her deceased husband, who had been a member of that community.
But there was a catch. Although Boaz was in the line, according to the Law, to take on this bride and her property, there was one who, as a kinsman redeemer, was in line before him. His claim on the woman and the property was prior to that of Boaz, and something would have to be done about this before Boaz could act on his desires.
All this was occurring during the period of the judges, when, as we know, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes. It’s not just that good government did not exist in Israel in those days. In most places, no government was to be found. Anarchy and violence lay just next to Boaz’s own property, as Ruth 2:8,9 indicate. Boaz probably could have thrown his weight around, greased a few palms, made some political promises, and simply done what he wanted. Some might have raised an eyebrow, but, hey, he was a respected member of the community, and rich. Who were they to tell him what he could or couldn’t do?
But Boaz wanted more than just a young wife and a new parcel of land. He wanted the blessing of God, for himself, his wife, and his community. And Boaz understood that the way to blessing is through the avenue of Law.
So, in chapter 4, Boaz gathered up the kinsman redeemer and 10 of Bethlehem’s judges at the gate of the city. In the presence of the judges he made his intentions known, being careful to advise the kinsman redeemer of his rights and obligations. Now the statutes on which Boaz was making his case did not fit the situation exactly. Compounding things was the fact that Ruth was a Moabitess, and Moabites had no favorable standing in Israel, due to treachery against the people in the past.
The statutes did not fit exactly, but then, it was never expected that they would. The rules, statutes, and precepts of Israel were meant to be illustrations of the way the Ten Commandments might work out in real situations. They were case laws, and this is why Israel needed judges in each city. The judges had to evaluate each situation in the light of the teaching of the Law as a whole, in order to determine, according to the Law, which proposed course of action or which resolution to a situation would be most in line with the just and loving requirements of the Law. Boaz set his case before the judges. The kinsman redeemer relinquished his claim, for whatever reason, but the conclusion was by no means foregone. The judges had to determine whether Boaz could take this woman, who had come into the nation as the bride of a lawful son, and had demonstrated her desire to live under the protection of God, and whether he could lay claim in her name to the property of her deceased husband. After some deliberation, the judges ruled in Boaz’s favor, and the blessings that ensued led all the way down to David, and, as Matthew reminds us (1:5), even all the way to Jesus.
These judges clearly understood the Law and followed it carefully in ruling the people of Bethlehem. God blessed their judgment; prosperity, happiness, love, and shalom blossomed as a result.
Rulers in God's Communities Today
I find the wording of Acts 14:23 to be very deliberate on Luke’s part: “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church…” Luke was a careful researcher, and, as often as possible, he linked the story of Jesus, and of His growing Church, to Old Testament sources, images, and referents.
The language here is more than a little reminiscent of Deuteronomy 16:18, and suggests that Paul and the other apostles understood their task of establishing government for local churches to be derived from Israel’s practice in the communities of the land. The elders of the churches were to be like the judges of the communities of Israel. Their responsibility was to instruct the people and rule over them in such a way as that the blessings of God—His love and shalom—could flourish.
The elders were to rule for the good of the people, watching over their souls and delighting to see them growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13). They were to devote themselves to the service of the local congregation, carrying on the work the apostles had begun there (1 Corinthians 16:15, 16). The calling of elders thus to rule in the communities of the Lord was a noble calling, and was not to be lightly assigned (1 Timothy 3:1-7). The people of God were expected to support and submit to their rulers, as this was the divinely-appointed means of their knowing the blessings of God.
It is reasonable to suppose that those appointed to rule in the New Testament communities would also have possessed a commitment to God’s Law in order to do their jobs well. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear Paul appealing to the statutes of Old Testament case law in instructing the people how they are to govern themselves (1 Corinthians 5:12), or James scolding the wealthy of the scattered congregations of God’s people in accordance with that same legal corpus (James 5:1-4).
The apostles took it for granted that the churches they had founded and were continuing to serve were ruled by men who knew the Law, and were growing in their understanding of it, and who accepted the authority of the Law to guide them in the way of God’s shalom. They didn’t have to argue with the leaders of those churches concerning the validity of the Law. Granted, some clarifying of its use was necessary, but only in relation to the ceremonial and religious laws of ancient Israel, not with respect to the civil or case laws. Apostles and church leaders accepted the authority of God’s Law and looked to it for guidance in knowing the blessings of God. Competent church leaders were men of the Law of God, serving the communities of the faithful in the New Testament precisely as their Old Testament forebears had done.
And this raises the question of qualifications for church leadership today. Can we expect to know the blessings of God on His believing communities if we fail to require of our leaders a love for and skill in using the Law of God? How shall our pastors and elders be able to judge righteous judgment apart from a good working knowledge of the holy, righteous, and good Law of God (Romans 7:12)? The Law of God is as vital a source of good government today as it ever was; we neglect it at our peril. Let the elders and pastors who would rule wisely, who would prove themselves truly competent to rule, devote themselves to knowing and loving God’s Law. For therein lie the keys to loving both God and our neighbors according to the will of our Savior and King.
How do you try to encourage your church’s leaders to be diligent students of God’s Law? In what ways does the Law of God serve as a source of blessing for your church?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet), and Culture Matters (Brazos). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint. Used with permission.