Natural Justice or Divine Law
It is interesting to see how the concept of "natural justice" is being used by some evangelicals to justify the failure to apply divine law, especially in the case of church discipline.
One would have imagined that evangelicals, especially those in the Reformed tradition, would have been committed to the principle of the authority and the sufficiency of Scripture, and the Law of God as revealed in Scripture as the supreme guide to our conduct.
Now, however, a new principle comes into play, that of “natural justice”. Just what is natural justice, and does it stand over divine law as the ultimate arbitrator of moral conduct in general, and discipline within the church in particular?
Certainly Reformed theology has a positive place for natural law. However, this law is not seen as independent of God, but rather as a manifestation of God’s law revealed in man’s moral consciousness. Both biblical revelation and natural law originate in God and can therefore not contradict each other.
There is a technical, legal sense in which the term “natural justice” is used. It embodies three principles: the no-one should be condemned without a fair hearing, that they should not be judged on the basis of personal bias, (their own or other’s), and that they should be judged on the basis of reasonable evidence. See, for example:
Now, when it is suggested at the recent Church of Scotland General Assembly that any office-bearers who have entered into a gay marriage should be exempt from all discipline because the church has not yet definitively expressed its mind on gay marriage, which of the three principles are being violated if discipline were taken against those in gay marriages? There is no suggestion that anyone be disciplined without a fair hearing, or that personal bias alone should be the basis of such discipline, or that reasonable evidence in terms of the teaching of Scripture and the actual facts of the case would not be the basis of any judgement.
Would we, for example, in a comparable case suggested that if the church were to set up a commission to consider the issue of zoophilia that office-bearers who had engaged or were engaging in bestiality before the delivery and acceptance of such a report be exempt from discipline on the basis of natural justice?
The concept of “natural justice” is a smokescreen. It is basically saying, “We don’t like what God’s word says and we do not think it just to apply its standards in the case of ecclesiastical discipline.” But sin is sin, and no matter whether the individual is or is not ordained before a certain date, discipline is required of the church to maintain its purity and its credibility.
If natural justice is seen to override Scripture, then the supreme standard is no longer the voice of God speaking by his Spirit through his word.
Confessionally, Reformed evangelicals are committed to the statement of the Westminster Confession, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (1:10)
Evangelicals have been hoodwinked or at best have been naive if they think that natural justice precludes ecclesiastical discipline. But, perhaps they are simply unwilling to admit that they belong to a denomination that can no longer exhibit one of Knox’s marks of a true church – biblical discipline. They cannot bring a discipline charge against those office-bearer’s who engage in sexual immorality, nor if truth be told against any of their own members who conduct themselves in such a manner. After all, a member could argue that if such conduct is acceptable in a minister, why not in a member. They could appeal to Presbytery or to the General Assembly against such narrow and bigoted discipline because, yes, “It is contrary to natural justice.”