Biblical Justice

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 5 August 2005; Revised 1 April 2014

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The Pursuit of Justice

Many speak of justice, clamor for it and demand it. The courts of America are clogged with litigants seeking "justice" for their claims against their fellow citizens. Often these claims are against commercial corporations, the medical industry or insurance companies to whom the alleged negligence or wrong-doing of their subsidiaries, business partners, employees or clients is imputed and the greater "ability to pay" promises the potential of a large judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Indeed the press routinely reports million-dollar plus awards, making litigation a very profitable business and a better bet than the lottery. The punitive damage awards have become so large that politicians now argue over whether to limit the size of those awards. The reality is that the cost of litigation awards against commercial enterprises and the medical industry is passed on to all Americans in the form of higher prices for goods and services.

But what is justice, and what standards should be used to help one determine a just resolution or settlement of a dispute? The answers to these questions are summarized in Micah 6:8 Ė "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Justice, of course may mean something different for different people. The standard dictionary for attorneys, Black's Law Dictionary, defines justice as "the constant and perpetual disposition of legal matters or disputes to render every man his due." Besides hinting at a standard for deciding justice this definition points to a basic cry within every person, especially if one has been wronged in some manner. People are looking for their "due."

In defining their "due" many people use the term "fairness". However, when people use the term "fairness," they are generally not referring an absolute standard but to their personal goal. This common definition can be easily demonstrated. Most people in litigation would probably agree with these statements: "If I get what I want and my adversary gets what he wants, thatís fair; if I get what I want, but my adversary doesnít get what he wants, thatís fair; but, if my adversary gets what he wants and I donít get what I want, thatís not fair." Therefore, fairness is getting what I want.

In Scripture the concept of justice relies on a universal standard for determining a legal settlement. In other words, God has already decided what is "fair." The scope of justice in Scripture also shapes the meaning of what is due. In various biblical contexts justice relates to meeting basic human needs (Deut 10:18), fulfilling obligations of covenants and being accountable for damage or harm done to others. Justice has been defined as rendering to every person his due, although in practice the focus for many seems to be on getting one's due. However, in Scripture the focus is on giving or doing justice (Micah 6:8). From God's point of view doing justice is really part of loving one's neighbor (see Lev 19:9-18). Loving-justice is both passive, i.e., doing no harm to a neighbor, and active, i.e., seeking the good of the neighbor.

Key Biblical Values

Biblical justice is built on certain core values that provide the foundation for both the just process and the just outcome.

Godís Will. True justice can only come from God and is determined by God. Thus, the goal of any effort or formal procedure to achieve a resolution or settlement between two or more disputing parties should be one that is consistent with God's will (John 7:17; Col 1:9-10; Jas 4:15). Since Scripture is Godí Word and reveals His will, then it is the only infallible guide to determine justice. Any judgment or decision that is not in accordance with Scripture is not justice, no matter what the law of the land or legal precedents might allow or require.

Preeminence of Truth. God is the source of truth, and thus any proceeding that would honor God must be committed to determining the truth (Deut 32:4). Loving one's neighbor is a commitment to truth and honesty (Isa 59:4, 14-15; Eph 4:25). So often people try to hide important information from one another. Even when Yeshua (Jesus) was on trial He did not resort to deceit (1Pet 2:21-22). Doing justice requires vulnerability and openness. Issues cannot be adequately addressed without full disclosure of all relevant information (cf. Josh 7:19; Prov 12:17; Acts 5:8f).

Personal Responsibility. The end result of a just process is to determine responsibility and accountability for wrongful acts. Responsibility applies to both fulfilling voluntary obligations created by contract and being accountable for damage or harm done to another, known as a tort in civil law. The innocent should not pay for the guilty (Deut 24:16; Isa 1:17).

Equity. Equity gives due consideration of right, title or interest. The Apostle Paul echoed this sentiment in Romans 13:7, "Render to all what is due them." Yeshua illustrated equity in the parable of the vineyard in which only those who worked were paid, contract terms were held binding and the owner's property rights were given priority over workers' claims for equal pay (Matt 20:1-15). After all, God does what He wishes with His property. Thus, equity does not necessarily equal equality and "splitting the difference" does not always result in justice.

Due Process

How does one do justice? What process is required to ensure that justice is properly given? God's Word provides several principles that are meant to guide any judicial deliberation.

Impartiality. God does not show favoritism, and He expects people to do the same. Political, social or economic status should not be permitted to prejudice the doing of justice (Ex 23:3,6; Lev 19:15, 33-34, Deut 24:17). Everyone would certainly agree that each side in a dispute should be assured of the neutrality of the judge or arbitrator and have an equal opportunity to be heard and to be assured of equal legal protection, which in common parlance means that the rich should not received favored treatment. However, God also forbid showing favoritism to the poor. All disputes over what is owed should be judged on the merits of the complaint and not the background of the litigants (Deut 1:16-17). In Scripture, impartiality also applies to individuals doing justice for one another. Impartiality requires that the interests and needs of the other person be considered as important as my own (Php 2:4; cf. Jas 4:1-3). Impartiality is a willingness to submit to the same moral standards used to judge another and to confess one's own faults (Matt 7:1; Rom 2:17-23).

Orderliness. Only by following a peaceful path can one hope to reach a peaceful settlement (Isa 59:8; 1Cor 14:40). The peaceful or orderly path includes agreeing on the issues to be discussed and the sequence in which they will be handled. The parties must also avoid insulting and threatening communication (1Pet 2:21-24). Quarreling does not settle differences. Using constructive communication displays a concern to avoid increasing the hurt of another person (Isa 42:1-4; Eph 4:29; Php 2:14). Lastly, orderliness means following the basic steps Yeshua provided in Matthew 5:23-25 and 18:15-19, which requires dispute resolution to begin with direct efforts by the disputing parties and only involve others from the community of faith when direct efforts fail.

Evidence. God requires the testimony of at least two witnesses to convict someone of wrongdoing (Num 35:30; Matt 18:16). One's assumptions and feelings do not constitute evidence. Doing justice means giving a person the benefit of the doubt and believing the best of a person until there is real proof to the contrary (1Cor 2:11; 13:4-7).

Settlement of Breach of Contract

Liability. Breach of contract presumes there was a voluntary and legal agreement between two or more parties. An agreement is considered "legal" if the parties were allowed under the law to make the agreement and there was an absence of deception, fraud, coercion or undue influence. In Scripture all parties to a contract are responsible to fulfill their agreed promises and obligations. God commanded, "If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth" (Num 30:2).

The Scriptures also caution, "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ĎGo, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it, when you have it with youí" (Prov 3:27-28). God is not pleased with someone who breaks his word. Thus, justice requires that promises made are promises kept. Indeed, fulfilling oneís contractual duty is the Second Commandment in action, as the apostle Paul says, "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law" (Rom 13:8).

Release. The only exception to contractual liability is when the "creditor" is willing to release the debtor (Prov 6:1-3; cf. Deut 15:1-6). Yeshua emphasized the importance of the debtor taking immediate steps to communicate with the creditor about any inability to pay. Failure to do so may bring predictable legal action.

"Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent" (Matt 5:23-26 NASB).

Settlement of Tort Claims

A tort is any civil wrong that is not the result of a breach of contract. Scripture sets forth two principles to guide determining a just settlement for tort claims.

Accountability. A person who commits a wrong against another is required to take responsibility for the result of the harm. There are two basic types of accountability: restitution and satisfaction. These two means of accountability are sometimes confused. Restitution in Scripture is the obligation of an offender to restore property that was stolen or damaged, even if it means paying an equivalent value to the victim (Ex 22:1-14). In contrast to restitution for property, satisfaction is the obligation of an offender to pay costs (such as medical expenses or lost wages) for harm a person suffers as a result of negligence (Ex 21:19; Deut 21:18-19; 22:8). A disciple of Yeshua is his brother's keeper and justice requires that accountability be accepted for restoring the health and property of a person who has been hurt or wronged.

Proportionality. This important principle is summarized in the well-known verse, "Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Deut 19:21). Contrary to popular thinking, this rule was not given to authorize revenge, but to establish a limit on punishment or damages awarded in a court hearing. The offender is to be punished to the same degree, but not more, as he has inflicted on the victim.

In biblical case law proportionality was determined by considering three levels of causation: accidental, negligence and intentional.

Accident. For accidental damage to property the loss was to be divided equally by the parties (Ex 21:35), whereas accidental loss of life was not to be punished. It should be noted that God called for measures to protect the life of the offender in accidental homicide from revenge of the victim's family (Ex 21:13; Deut 19:4-6).

Simple Negligence. For ordinary negligence the offender was to bear the full loss of property by restitution or satisfaction (Ex 21:36; 22:6). Where negligence caused a death the offender deserved death, but the death penalty could be averted by means of a ransom (Ex 21:29-30).

Gross Negligence. For willful negligence or intentional conduct that results in harm to property the offender was to bear the full loss, plus incur punitive damages at least double the amount of the loss, but not more than five times the loss (Ex 22:1). Similarly, for intentional conduct that resulted in loss of life the offender was to be executed without pity (Ex 21:14, 29f; Lev 24:19; Deut 19:11-13).

Conclusion

The justice commandments and principles of Godís Word were not just intended to govern ancient people, but to guide community relationships for all time (Matt 5:17; 19:17; Rom 7:12, 14; 8:3-4; 1Cor 7:19; 1Jn 2:3f; 3:22ff; 4:21; 5:2f). In cases where direct efforts between disputing believers fail to resolve a controversy the community of faith has the authority and duty to assist in helping the parties reach a just settlement (Matt 18:16-19; 1Cor 6:1-5; Php 4:3). In the end disputing parties have to determine whether personal desires and expectations or Godís laws written in Scripture will prevail.

Copyright © 2005-2014 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.