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Libertarianism vs Theonomism

There are two schools of thought which have influenced my political views and I have gone back and forth in my mind about whether one is the correct view or if some middle ground position is best.

It is obvious that not all forms of evil are to be judged by civil authorities. They are not in the proper position to judge merely sinful attitudes (the heart, 1 Samuel 16:7, Proverbs 25:2-3). (This is why I am against hate crimes legislation.) In the end God will punish all sins (Psalm 5:6, Proverbs 17:15, 18:5, 24:12, Ecclesiastes 12:14), but common sense says that government cannot punish someone every time they get “angry without cause” (Matthew 5:21-26).

When Romans 13:1-6 and 1 Peter 2:14 speak of governing authorities as being “agents of God’s wrath” who are “ordained of God” to “punish evildoers”, it is in our interest as Christian statesmen to study the Scriptures revealing which forms of evil the governing authorities are charged with the authority to judge.

The Libertarian View

The libertarian philosophy is that government should simply protect our rights and not interfere with anything “between consenting adults”. Under this philosophy, the government should enforce the terms of any contract between two parties as long as it doesn’t violate the rights of a third party. The rights we have are the right to life (to be protected against physical violence) and the right to property. Therefore, the only acts of evil which the civil authorities are charged with judging are acts of violence and theft (which would include violations of the terms of a contract between agreeing parties).

The biblical basis for such a philosophy is that the Old Testament laws have passed away (e.g. Colossians 2:14) and all authority now comes from Christ (Matthew 28:18). The conclusion drawn in this school of thought is that civil government does not have the authority to regulate other things since the New Testament does not specifically give it this authority.

The problem with strict libertarianism (from a biblical point of view) is that you can’t point to a place in Scripture where is specifically says that all but the authority to punish violence and theft has passed away. There could be other things like prostitution, illicit drugs, and pornography that should be prosecuted. The Christian libertarian does not advocate doing these things, but says government should not get involved. There is no regard (with respect to government) for the principle that one should go to extreme lengths to keep oneself from temptations (especially sexual, read Matthew 5:27-30). This is a view that is embraced by both Christians and secularists as well because it doesn’t advocate prohibition of various forms of immorality, but at the same time it advocates the protections and freedoms that most everyone agrees is necessary.

The Theonomist View

When many people say that they believe that the laws of our land should be based on the Law of Moses, they aren’t really thinking through what they are saying. But a theonomist really does believe it (or at least they try harder). According to the theonomistic view, the laws of the Old Testament can be classified as ceremonial, moral, and civil. The ceremonial laws have passed away, and the moral laws do not necessarily concern government, but civil laws should be enforced by government today the same way they were under the Old Covenant (see Matthew 5:18). Unlike the libertarian view, theonomism advocates stoning people to death for adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), witchcraft (Leviticus 20:27), and other sins which are “between consenting adults”.

The problem with strict theonomism is that even theonomists make exceptions to the rule. The Law says that death is a punishment even for doing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14) which even includes picking up sticks (Numbers 15:32). Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt and say that this was abolished in the New Testament (Colossians 2:16, which would seem to contract their interpretation of Matthew 5:18), there are other things they take out that are not explicitly rescinded in the NT such as the commandment to marry the widow of one’s brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).


So which, if either of these views is correct? As Christian statesmen, we need to develop a coherent apologetic so that we can uphold biblical principles of righteousness and justice as God would have us do, but in a way that no one can accuse us of picking and choosing what parts of the Bible we want to obey. This apologetic does not have to answer every question that one might pose. We need to start with an open-minded humbleness that allows us to be guided by God through both the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. We need to not allow one principle to guide all of our thinking if this principle isn’t contained in Scripture.

Both Christian libertarianism and theonomism assume that all of our laws should come from the Bible. The Bible does say that God establishes the rulers of the nations (Romans 13:1) and that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ (Matthew 28:18), but it doesn’t necessarily mean that this authority always comes through the Bible—and it certainly doesn’t mean that all civil authorities always make the decisions that God would have them make. I have come to the conclusion that there is no exact blueprint for government contained in the Scriptures, but that God rules, at least to some extent, through authorities extra-biblically. The author of Proverbs 21:1 said that God directs the rulers of the nations at a time when most rulers had never heard of the Bible.

I believe that our Constitution was given to us by God (even though I don’t agree with everything in it—we have corrupted it with the 16th and 17th amendments, for example), but yet the Bible says nothing about most of what is contained in either the Articles of Confederation or the misnamed Bill of Rights. For example, there is no place in the Bible where it says that nations should have a President, a House of Representatives, and a Senate, but yet I am strongly inclined believe that God had a hand in establishing these institutions for our benefit.

To illustrate this point further, I have used Matthew 28:18 to say that there shouldn’t be laws restricting the so-called “payday lenders”. Even though I think I would still vote no on Ohio issue 5, I realize now that this Scripture does not really prohibit such a law. I now think those who commented on my post gave more relevant points than the actual content of that article. Maybe God really did allow us to have this law (it did pass) so that poor people would be protected from unscrupulous lenders who would take advantage of them.

We need to be humble, know that we don’t always have all the answers, realize that God is wiser than we are, and that, while the Bible contains instructions that guide us in our choices concerning legislation, it doesn’t always tell us why God does the things that He does in realm of politics. Some laws will certainly have some good effects and some bad effects. We should thank God for the good effects.


Who is Ken Matesz? said...


I just read your summary of Libertarianism and some of your comments about why you may not support completely the libertarian view. I would argue from your comments that there is no philosophical way for you to be a libertarian.

Although you never mention it, the true, distinguishing characteristic of a libertarian is that he or she believes there is never any justification for the initiation of force against others.

Thus, you ponder about if maybe "illicit drugs" (which you don't define), prostitution, and pornography "should be prosecuted.' In other words, it is your core belief that it is okay to initiate force against people who have chosen to view or participate in pornography, use or sell illicit drugs, or use or participate in prostitution.

You will have to come to terms with your religious views and how they make it okay to use force to control poeple who are otherwise minding their own business (assuming they are not invading the rights of others).

There is no gray area here. Either it's okay to prosecute people for their involvement with these subjects, even if they have done no harm to anyone and everyone acted voluntarily or, it is not okay to prosecute them.

The problem is that there is no end to where it heads once you decide arbitrarily to prosecute some human decisions but not others. Who's next? Who else gets "prosecuted" for the harmless choices he makes? Who really are you prepared to coerce? That is the core question.

Matt said...

Thank you for your comment. First of all, I never claimed to be a libertarian, but only a Christian statesman and a constitutionalist. Secondly, I am not saying that I would use force to prosecute such people, but I would be reluctant to put a stop to such laws which are already in place as they MAY be God's will. I believe that God is wiser than me, and he may have reasons for allowing these things to be. If I held a public office, and such issues came up for a vote, I might abstain from the voting depending on the situation.

I don't care if I'm not labeled "ideologically pure". I want to do what God says, not man.

You say "assuming they are not invading the rights of others". The question is, what is included in these rights? Does one have the right to live in a "clean" neighborhood? Does one have the right to walk down the street with your children and be confident that someone isn't going to expose themselves in front of them? Part of what it means to have true liberty is the right to live in the type of community that you want to live in (within certain limits, of course). I am not, of course, in favor of instituting these type of laws at the national level because that would be unconstitutional. But even most people who call themselves libertarian believe that children should be, to some extent, protected from these things. Where do you "draw the line" there? Is this a "gray area" for libertarians?

It would seem to me, based on John 8:1-11, and other passages, that at that time and place it was not appropriate to punish for adultery. The ability (and presumably the authority) of the Jews to put people to death was taken away from them, apparently because of their disobedience. For them to have stoned that woman to death would have been hypocrisy. So this is another factor to take into consideration, one which may change with time and place. Whether or not the authority to put people to death or otherwise punish according to such Mosaic laws has been restored is interesting question. I tend to think not, but I'm not sure. I believe that the commandment to put people to death for murder is for all times and all places because this commandment was given to Noah (and presumably all of his descendants) Genesis 9:5-6.

You said, "The problem is that there is no end to where it heads once you decide arbitrarily to prosecute some human decisions but not others. Who's next? Who else gets "prosecuted" for the harmless choices he makes? Who really are you prepared to coerce? That is the core question." The type of "choices" we are talking about aren't "harmless". The people who are engaged in these things are at least harming themselves and though they may not be violating anyone's rights per se (see above example), sin makes the world a less desirable place to live in.

If you can find more places in the Bible which more clearly articulate what laws are pleasing to God, then I would be anxious to learn more. As I said, I don't have all the answers.

Jesse Clark said...

I'm a little short on time, but I wanted to encourage you to keep blogging as from the little I've read it seems to be interesting.

If I were to comment on the current discussion, it might only be that as you would call yourself a Christian Statesman, I might call myself a Messianic one. In other words, I am a student of the hebraic roots of our common faith. So I might say that some of God's laws are not as they seem. For example, even crimes that resulted in death or injury under Mosaic law could be ransomed for they did not always require death. And those that did require death were not based on the action, but on the heart. For example as you mention the sabbath and picking up sticks as a violation, the context of that reference is that immediately prior God gives commands about ignorant sin and willful/presumptuos sin. I would suggest that the sin was not picking up sticks but the finger in God's face by picking up sticks.

David was forgiven for both murder and adultery "under the law" because he repented (he did not continue as a murderer and adulterer). Or to make another example, God spared Ninevah when judgment was at the door and even Ahab was shown mercy because he repented (if only for a moment).

So it seems the crime that needs punishing is not the action (how many kings did "right" in the sight of God without taking down the idols?) but the attitude about the crime.

From that I would say, to be unrepentant one has to know the crime and continue in it. Thusly, how can someone who does not know God and does not know his "moral" commands be guilty of breaking them?

Like you, I'm trying to figure out what laws should a righteous person persue in a secular government and people? I hope that helps as a piece of the puzzle.

Matt said...

Jesse, your points are well taken, but of course, man is not nearly as capable of determining who has really repented and who hasn't. In all the examples you cited, it was God himself who made the decision whether or not to forgive or punish the sin. God does give instructions for determining whether or the sin was intentional, but does not give many commands to people not to spare someone based on man's judgment of their repentance, and never is such a command given to civil government. And remember, the only basis for forgiving someone is the cross, without that, repentance would avail nothing.

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I am born again Christian with a strong interest in politics, doctrine, science, and how these relate to one another.