A Christian system of justice will be voluntary and not based on the use
of force. The main problem with a system of voluntary justice is that an
accused person might refuse to appear before a judge. Of if they are
convicted, they might refuse to pay the restitution specified by the
The system of justice established by God during the time of Moses was a
voluntary system. The judges raised up to apply the law did not have a
police force to enforce their decisions. All the judges could do was
hear the cased brought before them. They could not force people to
appear before the court. All they could do was hear the testimonies of
the people who came before them and announce their verdict. They could
specify the amount of restitution that should be made, if a crime had
occurred, but they had no power to enforce their decisions.
The system of law and judges established by God functioned effectively
in Moses time, because he was part of a tribal culture. Although, most
people no longer live in a tribal culture, the experience is worth
studying, because it shows how a voluntary system of local judges can work. We
should also note that the modern drive to destroy tribal culture and
replace it with nationalism and democracy has made it harder to operate
a biblical system of justice. That is why God blessed a tribal culture
(Deut 33) but never blessed democracy. Tribal cultures are conducive to
a system of law and voluntary judges, whereas democracy establishes justice by
force, which God hates.
Tribal societies can be quite fluid, but a persons place in society is
established by submission to tribal leaders. They can change to a
new tribe, if they submit to the leaders of that tribe, but they cannot
have the benefits of belonging to a tribe, if they will not submit to
the authority of their leaders. This free submission to tribal
authorities makes the system of law and judges work.
Members of a tribe are expected to submit to the judgment of judges
that their family or tribal leaders recognise as being wise. If the
accuser was a member of the same tribe, the tribal leaders would demand
that the two sides to the dispute get things sorted, so their tribe
would not be divided. The accused person could not continue to enjoy the
blessings of tribal membership and refuse to go to a judge recognised by
If the victim of the crime belonged to another tribe, their tribal
leaders would come to the tribal leaders of the accused person and ask
for the issue to be sorted. They would agree on a judge respected by both tribes. If the accused person refused to submit to this judge, the
elders would say,
This accusation could be true. We want to stay at peace with your
neighbouring tribe, so we want you to submit to a judge, and get things
sorted. If you do not trust the suggested judge, we will find one that
we all recognise as being reliable and honest. If you refuse to the
judge, you will lose our protection and oversight and become an outlaw
from your family and tribe. We are not prepared to put our tribe at risk
of attack, because you are willing to appear before a judge.
The accused person would have no choice but to submit to judgment. To
ensure they continue to receive the benefits of being part of their
family and tribe, they would freely submit to judgment.
The person found guilty by the judge might refuse to accept the penalty
imposed by the court. If the guilty person refused to pay the specified
restitution, their tribal elders would say,
We want to stay at peace with our neighbouring tribe. If you want to
remain part of us, you had better make restitution specified by the
The guilty person would come under immense moral pressure to pay the
You must act according to the decisions they give you… Be careful to
do everything they direct you to do. Act according to the law they teach
you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they
tell you, to the right or to the left (Deut 17:10-11).
A person who refuses to accept justice of the judges has placed
themselves under a curse.
Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying
them out (Deut 27:26).
The tribe will not want a person that is under a curse in their midst.
If a convicted person cannot afford to pay the specified restitution,
family or tribal leaders might make the payment on their behalf and find
a way for guilty person to work and repay what they owed. They would do
this to maintain peace with their neighbours.
If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself
among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he
can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from
him..... If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells
himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as
a hired worker or a temporary resident among you (Lev 25:35-36;39-40).
This is an additional benefit of belonging to a tribe. If the convicted
person refused to repay their debt to those who had bailed them out,
they would lose all the benefits of belonging to their tribe.
If the accused person is judged to be innocent, the tribal leaders will
provide the innocent person with protection from any further harassment.
Freedom to Leave
Belonging to a tribe is voluntary, but the condition for belonging is
submission to the authority of tribal leaders. Willingness to submit
disputes to a judge and agreement to comply with the judge's verdict is
also a condition for belonging. Freedom is not reduced, because the
person is always free to leave their tribe and cease submission. They
would lose the benefits of being part of their tribe, but they are
always free to go.
Moses is an example of one who used his freedom to escape justice (Ex
11:11-21). The price he paid was forty years in the wildness tending
sheep for a much poorer tribe (God used this for good). This is
different from the modern nation-state, where submission to authority is
enforced with force and people are usually not free to leave.
Tribal affiliations are fluid. If the leaders of a tribe started to
impose bad justice, people would leave that tribe and join another
related tribe with better standards of justice. The bad tribe would
If a person convicted of a crime chose to avoid justice by leaving their
tribe, they could seek to join another. The problem is that most tribes
would not accept someone with outstanding justice issues. The tribe
would not want to offend a neighbouring tribe by harbouring a person who
has refused to submit to justice. The person avoiding justice might not
be able to find a tribe to join, because they would be treated as an
Groups of people avoiding justice might come together and form a
community of outlaws. These outlaw communities would be a terrible place
to live, as the leaders of the community would be those who have refused to
accept justice. The strongest men would rise to the top, so the
community would have only rough justice. Outlaw communities would be
like self-run, self-funded prisons.
These outlaw communities would be like the Cities of Refuge established
in Israel (Num 35:6-14). They were a place of escape for people with
outstanding justice issues running away from their tribe.
Moses set aside three cities east of the
Jordan, to which anyone who had killed a person could flee if he
had unintentionally killed his neighbor without malice aforethought. He
could flee into one of these cities and save his life (Deut 4:41-42).
Entry into an outlaw communities would be voluntary, because the only
people entering would escaping justice or refusing to submit to the
leadership of their tribe. Some Christians would enter temporarily to share
the gospel and tough people might visit regularly to trade. Others
might call to visit relatives.
No one would have to stay in an outlaw community, but they could only
leave by going back to their tribe and accepting the consequences of the
justice that that they had been avoiding. To leave the outlaw community,
they would have to submit to justice in the community they had escaped.
The outlaw community would not be a happy place, so the cost of avoiding
justice would be quite high. Most people would prefer to pay the
penalties imposed by their judge, so they could remain with
their tribe. This would be a powerful incentive for the voluntary
acceptance of justice.
The Modern World
Free submission to tribal leaders provides a foundation for voluntary
justice. A tribal culture has three important characteristics.
Loyalty between members of the tribe.
Submission to the authority of tribal leaders.
Leaders responsible for well-being of tribal members.
The problem in the modern world is that tribal affiliations have been
destroyed. People no long belong to a tribe, so individuals are isolated
and society is disjointed. This creates problems for voluntary justice.
Most people would not recognise anyone they will freely submit to (other
than employers). There is no one with sufficient moral authority to
persuade them to submit to justice, so justice must be imposed by force.
The good news is that the role of the tribe can be fulfilled by
community-based churches that function as Real
Communities (see Being Church Where We Live
for more). A church has the following
Church members committed to loving each other.
Submission to the authority of elders.
Elders responsible for caring for church members.
These three characteristics parallel the characteristics of tribes
listed above. Community-based churches can become the new tribes.
We need a system of justice that does not depend on force or require
coercion from above. God's way is voluntary justice. The key to
voluntary justice is free submission to the leaders of a community, in
return to their promise of care. Thus, submission to church leaders can
also provide a foundation for voluntary justice. This is why Paul
described judges emerging out of churches (1 Cor 6:1-4).
If a Christian is accused of a crime, their elders should say something
This accusation could be true. We want to stay at peace with the people
of your accuser's community, so we want you to submit to a judge, and
get things sorted. If you do not like the judge they suggested, we will
find one we all recognise as being reliable and honest. If you refuse to
submit to him, you will lose our spiritual protection and oversight and
become an outlaw from your family and church.
The church leaders will urge the Christian to submit to a good and
honest judge, so that the church can remain at peace with the rest of
the society in which they live. If the judge declares the Christian is
innocent, the church will provide them with protection from harassment.
If the judge convicts the accused and imposes a penalty, the leaders of
the church will expect the Christian to pay the specified penalty. They
may even loan the money and organise repayment over time. The price for
this will be closer submission to the Christian(s) making the loan.
If a Christian experiences an injustice at the hands of someone from
outside their community they would go to their elders. The elders will
approach the community of the accused person and say,
We want to stay at peace with your community, so this dispute needs to
be sorted. If you want to continue our relationship with you, we suggest
that you encourage the accused person to go before a judge that we all
respect. We need to get this issue sorted.
The other community would likely agree to this request, because they
would not want to lose the benefits that come from the relationship.
Even if this was not a Christian community, they would probably agree
to ensure, in order to ensure that they would be able to obtain justice for their members in
The members of any community that refused to support justice might find
themselves isolated and unable to trade, because they would no longer to
be trusted. When trust disappears, the cost of trade increases
enormously, so wise leaders would ensure that justice is done, even when
a member of their community is being accused.
If the accused person does not belong to a community, they might be able
to evade justice for a while. However, they could eventually find
themselves being excluded from normal society, so they might need to
join an outlaw community to survive. This would be a terrible place to
be. Most people will choose to submit to justice, so that they can
remain in their community.
Earthly justice will never be perfect, but love triumphs over justice.
If the person harmed is unsuccessful in getting restitution, the other
members of the church might provide compensation to them as an
expression of the love of Jesus. The victim would receive justice, even
if the criminal escapes. Of course, their escape is temporary, because
everyone will receive perfect justice when they stand before the throne
The Price of Protection
The modern state allows people to live in isolation without any
connection to a community that has moral authority over their lives.
People can have physical protection and the support of the rest of
society without needing to submit to the moral authority of their
community. This means that justice has to be imposed by physical force.
In a tribal society or Christian community, members get protection from
evil (physical and spiritual) by belonging to their community. The price
of this protection is submission to the justice imposed by the
community. People can avoid the consequences of justice, but the price
they pay is the loss of the protection. Tribal members refusing the
justice required by their tribal judges would become very vulnerable to
physical attack. Christians who refuse to comply with the standard of
justice imposed by their leaders will lose physical and spiritual
protection. Losing spiritual protection might have more serious long
term consequences than the penalty they are attempting to escape. Paul
reminded the Corinthians of what happens when those who are unwilling to
repent are cut off from the body of Christ.
Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed
and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord…. God will judge those
outside. Expel the wicked man from among you (1 Cor 5:5,13).
Churches will only be able to fulfil this role, if there is a church in
every street. A church whose members to drive many miles to a mega
meeting cannot be a tribe. Only community-based churches that function
in a defined area can provide protection and justice.