Legal representation in scripture

In "Federal headship," we saw that Adam was the legal “representative of the whole human family” (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets 48), and that his fall directly affected the nature of humanity. This point alone negates the egalitarian position of full equality in representation function. While there was ontological equality, Adam’s role as monarch or legal representative, shows that God intended him to fulfill a role different than Eve. Interestingly, the idea of a legal representation is not unique to Adam’s federal role. The concept can be found throughout Scripture.

Legal Representation in Scripture

Legal representation applies not only to Adam’s relation to humanity, but also to communities, corporate units, nations, governments and families. Biblical examples include Passover where fathers of Israel covered the doorposts with blood on the night of the Passover (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets 279). Abraham represented his great-grandson Levi while paying tithe (Heb. 7:8-10). Achan's sin cost not only his own life, but also “the life of his sons and daughters, livestock.” Dathan and Abiram's wives and children were swallowed alive into the pit because of their sin. Amaziah's sins were visited to his sons and daughters (Amos 7:10-17). The priests in Ephraim (Hos. 5:1-14) and Judah (Mal. 2:1-9) sinful ministry affected the nation. The religious leaders (priests) with the rejection of Christ (Ellen White, Christ’s Object Lessons 305). Positive examples of federal headship include Noah who “prepared an ark for the saving of his household” (Heb. 11:7). The Levitical Priesthood, who ministered throughout the year, was God’s legal means of acquitting them from sin. The atonement was based upon a broken law, and legal representation-substitution was the remedy (Num. 18:5,7; Lev. 5:16; Lev. 16:24; etc.). “When the priests ministered, they did so as the representatives of the people . . . as substitutes for the people they maintained the nation’s covenant relationship with God" ( Ellen White echoes this when she said, “The law . . . was their [priests] appointed work to minister" (Welfare Ministry 48). The office of elder (presbuteros) and bishop (episkopos) have internal lexical definitions of legal-legislative roles within the church (See Pastor = Bishop = Elder?). These and other examples show that federal representatives include humanity (Adam), religious communities (priests, elders, bishops),  and families (fathers/husbands).

These brief examples reveal some general phases which legal representatives transition through as they fulfill their roles: 1 ) information phase: there is a legal framework (a law) that is binding on the representative and those they represent. Information as a command, warning or prohibition is enjoined upon the representative by a judge or ruler. Their obedience or transgression of this information affects not only them, but also their constituents. 2 ) Awareness phase: a period of time when the representative becomes aware of the results of their decisions. At this point, they either confess (if guilty), resist or become aware of their obedience.  3 ) Investigation phase: the judge or ruler evaluates whether the representative has fulfilled their obligation (in the case of Noah, God did this by miraculously saving he and his family). In some cases the representative is given opportunity to defend or answer for their actions. 4 ) Penalty phase: the representative is informed of the consequences of their actions and judgments or rewards are rendered. These are not arbitrary periods of responsibility, but fairly uniform phases of time seen in most of the examples.

A Question of Fairness

Most of the issues regarding culpability and accountability are beyond the scope of this short essay. Briefly, the discussion of legal representation inevitably brings up the question of whether constituents (those with little or no knowledge of the issues: offspring, family, community) should receive the consequences of the representatives' decisions. It is true the civil statute says “the children shall not be put to death for their parents sins” (Deut. 24:16). This prohibition prevents inequitable judges, magistrates or angry relatives from avenging capitol punishment upon innocent people. However, this prohibition doesn’t restrict God (and His agencies) from executing judgment, according to His knowledge and will. It is also true that the “son shall not bear the iniquity of the father or the father bear the iniquity of the son” (Eze. 18:20). However, “bearing” iniquity and being punished “for” iniquity are not the same thing. Scripture affirms that God does “recompense the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children” (Jer. 32:18), and “visits the iniquity of the fathers to the children” (Num. 14:18). For example, the firstborn children and infants of the Egyptian households were “punished” for their parents' decision (or non-decision), but did they bear the iniquity of the fathers, or were they visited with the temporal results of it? Was their final destiny determined through the decisions of the parents? This is a question only God can judge fairly. Ellen White commented on this when she wrote: “[I]t is inevitable that children should suffer from the consequences of parental wrongdoing, but they are not punished for the parent’s guilt" (Patriarchs and Prophets 306). Receiving consequences (inherited traits, physical detriments, suffering the first death, etc.) and being punished for guilt (judgment and execution of second death) are two different things. God in His infinite wisdom and foresight can judge and reward legal representatives, nations and their constituents. He does this independently or through His appointed agencies in order to enact His will. God also provides ways in which the constituents can (if able) appeal, through faith in God’s grace, the representative's decision (i.e. through the cross, the mercy of God) and avoid the final executive penalty.


Adam’s legal headship applies not only to humanity, but also his immediate family. In my last article I will demonstrate that Adam was not only the legal representative of humanity, but also of his immediate family. Adam’s legal accountability and responsibility are seen in his relationship with Eve before, during and immediately after the fall and not as a result of it.

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