Spirit of the Law: A Critique of Dr. Joel McDurmon’s Cherem Principle as Put Forward in His Book, The Bounds of Love

Table of Contents


Part 1

Cherem and the Purpose of Law

Dr. McDurmon on CheremA Ministry of Death?


Part 2

Arguments from Silence: Dr. McDurmon’s Abridgment Theory

5th Commandment

7th Commandment


Part 3

God’s Judgment: McDurmon’s Paradox

None Dare Call it Treason


A Ministry of Death?


The discontinuity encountered in regards to the cherem principle is directly related to the difference in nature of the Old Covenant compared to the New.”

Dr. Joel McDurmon – Bounds of Love


In moving down the road toward his theory of why cherem laws no longer apply, Dr. McDurmon has sought to establish one connection for us to see: their supposed link to specifically Old Covenant conditions. The idea being that if these laws, (1st-5th & 7th commandments in his view) are firmly attached to the ceremonial types and shadows of the Older Covenant, they may be rightly assumed to have passed away with the coming of the New Covenant[1].

Before focusing directly upon this abrogation hermeneutic, we wish to point out two things concerning the three major factors which Dr. McDurmon seizes as the occasion for the temporary installment of the Cherem Principles. The first is that the Bible itself never explicitly connects the dispensation and jurisdiction of its own civil law-code to God’s presence in the temple, preservation of the seed, or physical inheritance of the land.

We read that God demands holiness of His people for His own holiness’ sake, but there is no mention of Dr. McDurmon’s three points. In order for one to “arrive” at the conclusion that these principles are what led to the temporary establishment of cherem law, there must be a great deal read back into the text. In other words, it is not a point at which one arrives, but rather where one begins and from there attempts to fit the rest of Scripture into that narrative.

Also, as pointed out already, Dr. McDurmon is operating with an alteration, or rather a redefinition, of what cherem law fundamentally is. Second, if God’s consuming presence in the Holy of Holies is what gave rise to the demand for such stringent standards, why aren’t the standards even higher today? We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that at Pentecost, “there came suddenly a rushing and mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they sat. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like fire, and it set upon each of them.”[2] 

Furthermore we know that our “body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, whom ye have of God.”[3] So while it is true that God’s direct presence is no longer upon the Ark within the inner sanctum of the physical temple, His presence is much more diffused throughout the world and in a much more direct way. As the new and greater temple, Christ’s Church carries God’s presence throughout the world and His consuming presence indwells them directly. It seems odd that God would institute a higher standard for society in a day when His Spirit remained within the center of the temple than in a day where He directly inhabits millions upon millions of people all over the earth. Certainly the consuming presence of the Lord is felt much more today than it ever was under the Older Covenant.

As an aside, flowing from the misunderstanding of a higher standard for societal righteousness, Dr. McDurmon continuously states that the Cherem laws demanded immediate destruction. This is a bit of a red herring on Dr. McDurmon’s part as no such claims are made by the Scriptures themselves. Putting aside any disagreements with Dr. McDurmon’s seemingly inconsistent allotment of just what is and isn’t cherem law, even the laws which he narrows down as cherem do not specify immediacy in any way. In fact one of the case laws which he cites as a Cherem Principle violation expressly says the following:

And if it be told unto thee, and thou has heard it, then thou shalt inquire diligently: and if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel, then shalt thou bring forth that man, or that woman (which hath committed that wicked thing) unto thy gates, whether it be man or woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die. At the mouth of two or three witnesses shall he that is worthy of death, die: but at the mouth of one witness, he shall not die. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him, to kill him: and afterward the hands of all the people.”[4]

Note here that before anyone is put to death witnesses must be summoned, a verdict handed out, and a sentence pronounced. The description given is that of a regular court hearing, and like all court trials, it would seem to be a lengthy and involved process. To further complicate matters, this passage says that in this affair the witnesses must be willing to cast the first stones. This would serve to eliminate false witnesses or even timid honest ones, as many men would shy away from engaging in the actual execution. For the judges in Israel to find multiple witnesses who would obey God by partaking in the actual act of removing the evil influence, not just giving a testimony could take a great deal of time. The connection of cherem to immediacy in verdict needs to be dropped.

A second exaggeration coming from Dr. McDurmon is his claim that the passage previously cited (Deut. 17), if applied today, “would seem to require the death penalty for merely leaving the Christian faith. A simple apostate would, under the strict application of this passage, be required to die at the hands of the State.”[5] In opposition to these assertions, the Bible never demands men be punished by the magistrate for their personal beliefs or in-home religious practices. The proscription is against proselytizing. Under Biblical law, men are free to believe whatever they wish, as God never allows the State to pass judgments based upon its evaluation of men’s hearts and minds. What the Bible does forbid is for apostates to publicly proselytize within the community.

Consider Deuteronomy 13:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thine own son, or thy daughter, or thy wife, that lieth in thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, (which thou has not known, thou I say, nor thy fathers) … Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hear him, neither shall thine eye pity him, nor show mercy, nor keep him secret: but thou shalt even kill him, thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and then the hands of the people … If thou shalt hear say (concerning any of thy cities, which the Lord thy God hath given thee to dwell in) Wicked men are gone out from among you, and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known, Then thou shalt seek, and make search and inquire diligently: and if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you, thou shalt even slay, the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword: destroy it utterly, and all that is therein…”[6]

This passage makes clear that although the wicked act was turning away from the Lord, the thing which must be punished by the magistrate was the missionizing, the attempts to lead others away from the Lord also. A nation ruled by God’s law is not a nation which engages in constant inquisition so as to “ensure” the citizenries’ spiritual estate. The Bible makes this very clear and Dr. McDurmon’s equivocations toward the contrary further reveal a presupposition which he seems to be bringing to the table in all of this discussion. This underlying attitude, prevalent throughout his book, comes to the forefront in the following statements:

The law continues, as we have noted already, but it is now written on the minds and hearts of God’s people, not merely on stones and books. It is that the New Covenant is administered by the Spirit, from heaven, not from the letter on earth. It is also marked by permanence: whereas the Israelites broke the Old Covenant and God cast them away for it, this New Covenant is wrought by God Himself in our hearts and cannot be broken. It is also marked by general forgiveness as opposed to the call for immediate cherem death.”

And after citing from 2 Corinthians 3 he concludes:

This is hardly to say that the law in its entirety is brought to an end, but to show the difference in the nature of the two covenants and their administrations. The first was a ministry of the letter and death, the latter a ministry of the Spirit and life.”[7]

We can all agree with Dr. McDurmon that the New Covenant has certain and definite advantages over the Old, yet in order for him to posit his abridgment theory, he must advance the idea that the removal of any civil enforcement of cherem law is one such advantage. It should be noted that the repetition of the objectionable claim that the Old Covenant called for “immediate cherem death” reappears in the quote above, but of more importance is the fact that here this statement seems to be fleshed out in terms of Dr. McDurmon’s more comprehensive view of the Old Covenant.

He specifically defines it as a ministration of death and says that it was administered by the letter on earth. This is a characterization of the Old Covenant which any good Covenantalist, especially one of a Theonomic Postmillennialist strand such as Dr. McDurmon, should be not quite pleased with. Whether properly understood today or not, the Old Testament era is still part of the greater Covenant of Grace. It is by no means a “ministry of death” and it cannot be so heavily separated from the New Covenant without doing damage to several rules of interpreting the Scriptures. The Westminster Confession of Faith warns against finding such radical discontinuity within the covenant structure, it reads:

There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”[8]

We may attempt to compare and contrast the different administrative eras of redemptive history in a variety of fashions, but they may not be set at odds with one another. Any and all of the eras of covenant history are a part of God’s greater Covenant of Grace which was set forth after the fall of man. Each differing era of covenant dispensation is a part or segment of the overall Covenant of Grace and to refer to any aspect of that life-promising, life-giving covenant as a “ministration of death” is inconsistent.

Furthermore, if we carefully examine the statements made by the Apostles in the New Testament which Dr. McDurmon draws from, we may come to see that they in no wise teach us to look at the Older Covenant eras as opposed but rather as progressing continuously towards the glorious unveiling of the New Covenant. Roderick Campbell gives us a useful rule of interpretation for evaluating such statements, he says:

Neither Jesus nor Paul intended to minimize the written or spoken word. No! it is not the word inscribed on stone or the spoken word shouted from the housetops that is the killing letter; but it is the word, whether Law or gospel, when not received in faith and love and when it does not produce the intended effects in heart and life. It is not the Law, whether of Moses or Christ, that kills; it is the neglect of the Law which is designed to lead men to Christ, and the neglect of the gospel which is the infallible remedy for the transgressor of the Law … When Paul is contrasting “the letter” with “the spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6), he has in view the preaching or the hearing of the word when it is not accompanied with the quickening and illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit, or when it does not produce the appropriate effects.”[9]

The contrast between a ministration of letter and of death and the ministration of the spirit and of life is not a contrast between the Old and New Covenants but between the proper and improper uses of the law (1 Tim. 1:8). If the law is viewed soteriologically then it is always a ministration of death, Old Testament or New. But when given its proper pedagogical place and accompanied by the Spirit of the Lord, it is always “holy, just, and good.”[10] In commenting on 2 Cor. 3, Dr. Bahnsen agrees with us when he says: “Paul does not despise the law, but exposes the error of exalting the law at the expense of the more glorious gospel … The fault lies with law breaking, not the law itself.”[11]


Arguments from Silence: Dr. McDurmon’s Abridgment Theory


Be all these things as they may, Dr. McDurmon’s thesis centrally hinges upon the fact that what he is defining as cherem law is specifically abrogated in its civil enforcement by the coming of the New Covenant. The reader familiar with Dr. McDurmon’s work will note that he himself told us, when speaking of the hermeneutics of continuity, that we must be careful in our exegetical method. Merely the fact that the New Testament does not repeat a specific law (or even mention it in one way or the other) may not be taken to assume that laws’ abrogation. The Christian’s rule of interpretation must be Christ’s own words from Matthew 5:18: “Not one jot or tittle shall pass away.”

The passage of Scripture which gives us the clearest picture of exactly which laws belonged unto the abrogated aspects of the Older Covenant is Hebrews 8-10. In particular Hebrews 9, in dealing with the provisional and thus temporary aspects of the Older Testament, tells us plainly that through these very things,

“the holy Ghost this signified, that the way into the Holiest of all was not yet opened, while as yet the first tabernacle was standing, which was a figure for the present time, wherein were offered gifts and sacrifices that could not make holy, concerning the conscience, him that did the service, which only stood in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal rites, which were enjoined, until the time of reformation.”[12]

The message here is a clear one: ordinances of meat and drink, divers washings, and carnal rites served a pedagogical purpose unto the incarnation of our Lord. Now that the fullness of glory has been revealed, these shadows need not remain. Christ, the long awaited King, Servant, Messiah and Savior has come and now the Holy Spirit indwells the Chosen People even as it once resided only within the inner sanctum of the temple.

These are the ways in which the New Covenant is “not like unto the Old.” To push the meaning of this passage from Hebrews further than this is to open the door to a dangerously wide variety of potential meanings. Yet, despite the inherent dangers, this is precisely what Dr. McDurmon does. When defining his central thesis as to the difference between the Old Covenant and the New, he cites Hebrews 8:8-12.

Now, Dr. McDurmon appeals to this passage as the clear and present reason for why the civil enforcement of cherem law is abrogated in the New Covenant. There is one rather large problem with this use of Hebrews to support his claims: the text in Hebrews interprets itself as to what laws the author has in mind and Dr. McDurmon’s Cherem Principles are nowhere to be seen. When writing to his Jewish audience, the author of the book of Hebrews was more than careful to spell out the points of discontinuity between the Older and New Covenants and their administrations.

As a rule of interpretation, it should be noted that when the Apostolic epistles address primarily Gentile audiences (such as Romans and 1 Timothy, and especially such passages as Romans 3:30-31, Romans 7:7,12-14, and 1 Timothy 1:8-11) the authors are careful to stress the holy and persisting natures of Old Testament law and when addressing a primarily Jewish audience to focus upon the points of abrogation and differences between the Older and New Covenants.

The reason for this is the background and understanding of the various recipients of the epistles. Different people were at different levels of maturity and struggled with different things. Both groups struggled with the law in different ways. For the Jews, they struggled to understand the ways in which Christ superseded the temporary administrative elements of the Older Covenant; laws which we Protestants have generally classified as ceremonial. Their problem was not antinomianism (against the law) but rather legalism.

The Jewish members of the First Century Church generally assumed total legal continuity between the two covenant administrations. In fact, and one of the primary reasons for the book of Hebrews being penned was to correct them in this belief. But for our present purposes what we must bear in mind is that every point of Older Testament law which is not specifically repealed here by this letter the recipients would have assumed to be still binding.

That they stopped far short of finding the abridgment of any “Cherem Principles” in this passage is evidenced by the fact that Dr. McDurmon is the first scholar in Christian history to advance this Cherem Principle abridgment thesis. The danger in grounding an argument in favor of “differences” in the covenant eras which is not directly contained in the text itself, an argument from silence in reality, is that the argument can be made to go anywhere.

Dr. McDurmon seeks to posit that one of the differences between the Old and New Covenants is the civil enforcement of his Cherem Principles, but the door which he here opens by not positively appealing to any direct passage from the surrounding context in Hebrews is that any scholar may now freely walk in, employ Dr. McDurmon’s hermeneutic, and declare that the difference between the Old and New Covenants is actually a total nullification of Old Testament law, or really anything which we should like them to be. If we do not limit our own definitions of covenantal discontinuity to that which the text expressly lays out, then we open it up to an incredibly wide spectrum of potential meaning.

Furthermore, that the author of the epistle to the Hebrews expected the people to assume continuity in matters upon which he does not touch cannot be denied as he twice appeals directly to the Old Covenant law in order to establish the severity of ignoring this word from God:

Wherefore we ought diligently to give heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we run out. For if the word spoken by Angels was steadfast, and every transgression, and disobedience received a just recompense of reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation, which at the first began to be preached by the Lord, and afterward was confirmed unto us by them that heard him.”[13]

And a little later he adds,

For if we sin willingly after that we have received and acknowledged that truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a fearful looking for judgment, and violent fire, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despiseth Moses’ Law, dieth without mercy under two, or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment suppose ye shall he be worthy, which treadeth under foot the Son of God…[14]

The Apostle is here asking a rhetorical question. This is the use of a popular logical argument on the part of the author: if p, then q. If you would receive this (p) for breaking the covenant in the Old Testament era, then expect this (q) in the New Testament era. If we remove the first part of the equation in the Apostle’s logical progression the entire line of reasoning collapses. But this is exactly what Dr. McDurmon does when he appeals to Hebrews 10:26-29 as support for his abridgment theory. He writes:

Keep in mind, the author was writing to Hebrews about the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant under Christ. The issue here would have been mass apostasy. The Hebrews who remained in unbelief after Christ would have been committing idolatry (false temple worship) and apostasy (denial that Christ has come in the flesh). Under the Mosaic administration, they would have been devoted to destruction (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13; 17:2-5) by the civil government. The author of Hebrews acknowledges this. Yet he does not prescribe a cherem death penalty administered by the civil government. He prescribes an even worse judgment that will come from the throne of grace.”[15]

Dr. McDurmon here takes the argument made by the author of Hebrews and turns it on its head. Dr. McDurmon makes the severity of the threat to rest upon the nullification of the laws cited by the Apostle. Over against this interpretation of the passage at hand we may consider the words of Dr. Greg Bahnsen:

The punishment of the apostate under the new order is much sorer than under the old, and the equity of this terrifying judgment under the New Covenant is established by appeal to the Older Covenant law (read Heb. 10:26-29) – thereby assuming its foundational validity. Since the New Covenant brings with it further and worse punishment, we certainly should not see a turning back from the judicial tone, the law and penal sanction, of the Older Covenant. To the contrary, there is an intensification of it![16]

“To the contrary,” Dr. Bahnsen tells Dr. McDurmon, the Apostle’s appeal to Old Covenant law underscores its abiding validity both morally and in the penal sense. If the foundation for the proscription of punishment be here removed, what promise have we of judgment? Clearly, the context to which Dr. McDurmon attempts to fit these passages from Hebrews is not their natural or Biblical setting.


 5th Commandment


In order to hold his thesis together concerning which laws he has placed under the label of cherem, Dr. McDurmon must maintain some rather unusual and tenuous positions regarding the Fifth Commandment. Although placed within the First Table by Dr. McDurmon, the Fifth Commandment has traditionally been viewed as a bridge between the two broader sections of the Decalogue.

When we read the commandment to honor father and mother, the broader implication is to give due homage to all those in positions over us. Of all the various authorities under which a man in this life must live (family, church, state, and ultimately God Himself) the family is the lowest on the chain of command. Thus when we find the death penalty invoked by the law for disobedience to parents, the implication is how much less insubordination to the higher authorities will be tolerated. One of the case laws attached to the commandment makes this clear.

Deuteronomy 17:12 says,

And the man that will do presumptuously, not hearkening unto the Priest (that standeth before the Lord thy God to minister there) or unto the Judge, that man shall die, and thou shalt take away evil from Israel.”

Aside from the obvious fact that a man who must of needs come before the priest or magistrate for judgment has already broken the law, the greater sin here is in refusing to hearken unto the sentence handed down in punishment. Not only is the man in view now a criminal, he is doubly dangerous because of his blatant disregard for the way in which God has ordered human society be structured. That this commandment contains its own explanation or reason for this death sentence is telling. It simply demands that the evil be put away from amongst the covenant people. Rebellion against rightful authority will not be tolerated. God will not have any blatant rebels before Him.

It is of note that when commenting on this passage Calvin speaks of honoring parents only after giving space to proper submissiveness before God, the civil magistrate, and the ecclesiastical authorities. Viewed in this light, it becomes clear why this command is placed where it is; it has a bearing toward our service to God (First Table) and our service to man (Second Table). The most clear case law application of the Fifth Commandment is Deuteronomy 21:18-21 and it upholds the idea that honor and respect is the central focus:

If any man have a son that is stubborn and disobedient, which will not hearken unto the voice of his father, nor the voice of his mother, and they have chastened him, and he would not obey them, then shall his father and his mother take him, and bring him out unto the Elders of his city, and unto the gate of the place where he dwelleth, and shall say unto the Elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and disobedient, and he will not obey our admonition: he is a rioter, and a drunkard. Then all the men of his city shall stone him with stones unto death: so thou shalt take away the evil from among you, that all Israel may hear it, and fear.”

As an aside, it bears noting for clarity’s sake that the children which Deuteronomy 21 commands to be put to death are not five years old. In fact, it is not talking about minors at all. The passage is dealing with adult sons who are polluting the land with their wickedness and have continually refused to hearken unto the rebukes and chastisements of their parents. Notice the mentioned crimes are drunkenness and public disorderly conduct, not the actions of a fifteen year old. Parents are commanded to be the first to lay a hand in judgment upon their children for being rebellious parasites on society.

How much easier it is to apply the rod at a young age than to have to give public witness to one’s bad parenting by testifying that their own adult and criminal son deserves death at the hand of the civil magistrate? It should also be pointed out that this passage gives its own reason for its inclusion in the law. It has attached at the end, “That all Israel may hear and fear.” The law is again self-interpreting.

Notice there is no mention of the Lord’s alter fire presence or land inheritance laws contained in either of these case laws. Instead, there is just a Biblical injunction to remove the evil from society. Any connection to a heightened sense of judgment owed to the Lord’s tabernacle presence must be read into the text via the readers prior assumptions because we are given no hint that this law is anything more than what it plainly claims to be. Nevertheless, Dr. McDurmon advances his thesis and says this:

“…the Fifth Commandment is part of the First Table. It is a general principle but was also directly tied to inheritance in the land. Under Old Testament law, a son would inherit the land by mandate, not by choice of the parents. A rebellious, incorrigible son was therefore a threat. His wicked influence was to be permanently purged “from your midst” (21:21). (Note that this law is not said to apply to daughters, who could be just as wicked and rebellious, and just as incorrigible, yet could inherit the land only in rare circumstances)”.[17]

Not only is Dr. McDurmon here reading a great deal into the text which is nowhere plainly stated, but in attempting to interpret this commandment as having to do primarily with inheritance, he violates a fundamental rule of interpreting Biblical law. Biblical case law always works from lesser to greater in application. When a Biblical case law says that a man is responsible for another’s injuries in the event of an accident, the inference is how much more is the man responsible if the act which caused harm was intentional. Rushdoony speaks on the 5th commandment saying:

Biblical law is case law, and this law does not deal simply with sons. It means that if a son, who is beloved of the parents and an heir, must be denounced in his crime, how much more so other relatives? A family turning over its son to the law will turn over anyone. Thus, daughters were clearly included. The law said, “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel” (Deut. 23:17). “Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore” (Lev 19:29). The evidence would indicate that no Hebrew girl could become and incorrigible delinquent, and, in periods of law and order, remain alive.”[18]

This comment makes it clear that the Fifth Commandment absolutely does apply to daughters just as much as sons. If a family will turn its eldest son, its most prized heir, over to the civil authorities, how much more willing will they be to bring other relatives (such as daughters) to judgment? The principle of moving from the least application of the law upwards toward weightier matters is one of the basic rules of interpreting Biblical case law. If a theory necessitates the removal or ignoring of hard and fast hermeneutical guidelines, serious work to the theory is required.

As opposed to Dr. McDurmon’s assertions, the law applies to all incorrigible rebels who refuse to hearken unto the God ordained authorities. This is its clear intention and it has always been interpreted as such. Furthermore, Rushdoony gives no indication that this law is today abrogated, in fact he declares that “The law is clear enough; if only the interpreters were as clear![19] He then condemns the rabbinic exegetes for attempting to find loopholes in the plain import of this law and likens them unto the Supreme Court of our own land who would attempt to void the obvious implications of every standing law. For the serious student of Biblical law and its application to society, exegetical gymnastics such as this simply won’t be satisfactory.


7th Commandment


Having presented our arguments against Dr. McDurmon’s handling of the Fifth commandment, let us now advance to the Seventh. Dr. McDurmon begins talking about what he labels the “Seed Laws” (which fall under his greater Cherem Principle) in the same fashion he has broached his other thesis. He says that,

It is easy to conclude that all such sexual sins resulted in the confusion or defilement of the seed, or the defilement of inheritances, and were thus assigned the death penalty on such grounds – not merely on the grounds of their nature as sexual sins. We can tell in each of these cases that the death penalty was invoked not because of the nature of the sin or crime itself, but because it occurred in overlap with these particular sacred boundaries in the Old Covenant administration.”[20]

Again, it must be insisted that it would only be “easy” to make certain conclusions regarding the intent of these laws if that intent was plainly stated in the text. And in the case of the supposed “Cherem Principles”, no such statements are to be found. Only if we accept the hypothesis that the alter fire, the land as a covenant agent, and the immutability of fleshly inheritance conferred a heightened sense of judgment, can we find any evidence that breaking sexual laws is not simply an affront to God’s law-order in and of itself but a violation of cherem and thus of temporary import. Dr. McDurmon exegetes Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10 next to support his claims. These passages read thus:

If a man be found lying with a woman married to a man, then they shall die even both twain: to wit, the man that lay with the wife, and the wife: so thou shalt put away evil from Israel.” (Deut. 22:20)

“And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, because he hath committed adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall die the death.” (Lev. 20:10)

The demands of this law are clear: the death penalty is applicable to all who commit adultery. However, in order for it to fit into Dr. McDurmon’s system adultery must be seen as a confusion of the seed and not necessarily a civil crime in and of itself. Dr. McDurmon bids us “Consider, for example, the references to adultery just mentioned. One case involves a married man sleeping with a married woman (Lev. 20:10). The other involves any man sleeping with a married woman (Deut 22:22). Each could receive the death penalty. But what of a case between a married man and an unmarried woman? There is no mention of it, although the law regularly specifies when any particular law applies to man, a woman, or both. The silence here is therefore evidence of a non-law.”[21]

In reading this last quotation, one must pause for a moment at the sheer chutzpah with which this statement is put forward. Dr. McDurmon here attempts to convince us that a married man may lawfully have an extramarital affair, as long as his partner is unmarried!

Assuredly Dr. McDurmon would grant that the adulterous act does give the offended spouse the right of divorce, but nevertheless this entire assertion is preposterous. Adultery of any variety falls under the Biblical stipulation that an adulterer be put to death. Biblical law is clear: if an unmarried man has intercourse with an unmarried woman the offending man must pay the girl’s father her bride price and marry her unless the father absolutely refuses the man as a husband for his daughter. If the man is married, he is an adulterer and deserves death.

The simple wording of the general commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” covers this. To attempt to justify his “exegesis” here, Dr. McDurmon appeals to the Levirate marriage laws and the allowance for polygamy. Neither of these laws, however, have a bearing on the command to abstain from sexual relationships outside of the marriage bond. The polygamist, even as socially unacceptable as his behavior may be, is technically legally married to each of his wives. The Levirate laws were for preserving the priesthood and were thus ceremonial, but even here the man was required to enter into legal marriage with his sister-in-law before cohabitation was legal.

Interestingly, Jesus Himself, when responding to the Pharisees in Mark 10, condemns Dr. McDurmon’s understanding of the laws governing adultery:

Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her.”[22]

If a man is committing adultery by divorcing his current wife for the express purpose of marrying another woman, how much more does he stand condemned if he engages in an adulterous affair while still married? Assuredly there can’t be too much question as to the meaning of this passage.

It is ironic that Dr. McDurmon actually brings this passage from Mark into focus while positing a different interpretation. Citing the entire passage, he finds Christ’s words to be a revocation of the Old Covenant’s laws concerning divorce and adultery. He tells us:

Altogether this means that Jesus reinstated the original power of marriage … The ramifications of this are profound. It is clear now that marriage is no longer tied to the seed laws and inheritance laws – those being abolished.”[23]

Dr. McDurmon here attempts to do what no exegete should ever do – pit Jesus against Moses. He attempts to say that Moses allowed a temporary allotment for divorce because of the supposed seed and inheritance laws under the Old Covenant administration; an allotment for divorce which is now rescinded by Jesus’ further word in Mark. But this will not do.

Jesus does not rebuke Moses or even cast aspersion upon Christ’s own laws of marriage and divorce given at Sinai. Rather, He challenges the prevailing definitions of divorce which were everywhere wreaking havoc in His own day. Concerning arguments akin to Dr. McDurmon’s, Greg Bahnsen warns us saying:

When we turn to the antithesis on divorce we again find no grounds for asserting that Christ breaks with the outlooks of God’s inspired word. While some have alleged to find a repudiation of Older Testament morality here, in actuality it was the hard-hearted and distorted interpretation put forward by the Pharisees that Christ reproved, not the law itself.”[24]

Dr. Bahnsen then informs us that this prevailing understanding of marriage and divorce seems to have originated with a particular sect of rabbinic scholarship, that of Rabbi Hillel. He says that “its teaching seemed to prevail in Christ’s day, permitting a man to divorce his wife for talking to loud, for poor preparation of his meal, or even for not being as beautiful as another woman.”[25] That it is this view of divorce which Christ repudiates, not the Mosaic law, cannot be denied.

Rather than attempt to see the Mosaic commandments on divorce as temporary, we should understand that the hardness of heart for which God’s law makes accommodation is the hardness which was introduced at the fall, in the garden. When Christ tells His audience that from the beginning it was not so that divorce would be granted, He is not speaking of human history up until the onset of the Mosaic law but rather of the nature of man before the fall into sin.

The only reason here it becomes necessary for Dr. McDurmon to attempt to pit Jesus’ teaching on divorce against Biblical law is to uphold his own tenuous arguments. Again Jesus is not concerned about a confusion of seed or the Cherem Principles. Any such meaning must be artificially read into the text.

[1] When I say that Dr. McDurmon speaks of these laws having passed away, I must remind the reader that he speaks of only the earthly enforcement of these laws at the hand of the civil magistrate. Dr. McDurmon still holds that these actions are violating God’s commands and warrant His judgment, but that the judgment will be handed down directly from heaven instead of the indirect use of the civil magistrate as the agent of God’s wrath. As we shall see later on, this presents major problems for Dr. McDurmon’s thesis.

[2] Acts 2:3-4

[3] 1 Cor. 6:19

[4] Deut. 17:4-7

[5] Dr. McDurmon, Bounds of Love: ch. 3

[6] Deut. 13:6-9,12-15

[7] Dr. McDurmon, Bounds of Love: ch.3

[8] 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 7, S. 6

[9] Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, copyright 1954) p. 47

[10] Romans 7:12 — Romans 7 speaks directly to this issue and Paul argues that the law is spiritual (v. 14) but because of our sinful carnality it kills us. The defect here does not belong unto the Law of God, but our fallen nature.

[11]Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy: p. 221 (emphasis in original)

[12] Hebrews 9:8-10

[13] Hebrews 2:2-3

[14] Hebrews 10:26-29

[15] Dr. McDurmon, Bounds of Love: ch. 3

[16]Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, copyright 1977) p. 195 (emphasis from original)


[17] Dr. McDurmon, Bounds of Love: ch. 3

[18] R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Copyright 1973) p. 187

[19] Ibid. p.185

[20] Dr. McDurmon Bounds of Love: ch. 3

[21] ibid

[22] Mark 10:11

[23] Dr. McDurmon, Bounds of Love: Ch. 3

[24]Dr. Greg L Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, copyright 1977) pp. 97-98

[25] Ibid. pp.98-99


One thought on “Spirit of the Law: A Critique of Dr. Joel McDurmon’s Cherem Principle as Put Forward in His Book, The Bounds of Love

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