The concept of a statute of limitations has roots in ancient legal systems and has evolved over time in various societies. Its origins can be traced back to Roman law. The Roman legal system had a similar idea known as “tempus regit actum,” which translates to “time rules the act.” This concept limited the time within which legal actions could be brought before a court. However, the specific concept of a statute of limitations, as it is understood today, took shape over the centuries and was shaped by different legal systems.
Many feminists in the church are arguing that statutes of limitations are fundamentally unjust claiming that they protect abusers from justice, and there are active movements in many states to remove statutes of limitations on sexual crimes. Bart Barber’s recent blog post reiterated the 2019 liberal sentiment of Southern Baptist messengers that statute of limitations are unjust stating:
RESOLVED, That we ask civil authorities, in the implementation of due process for the accused, to review laws, in consultation with social workers and trauma counselors, to ensure that privacy laws do not prevent the pursuit of justice on behalf of the abused, and that statutes of limitations (criminal and civil) do not unduly protect perpetrators of sexual abuse and individuals who enabled them;
The “trauma informed” resolution presupposes that statutes of limitations on sexual crimes currently or have unduly protected abusers. Moreover, this resolution invites liability on third party non-perpetrators with its mention of civil liability.
The undermining of statutes of limitations lessens the ability for crimes to be prosecuted due to the reliability of witness testimony growing weaker the more distant the events become. Witnesses could die, perpetrators could disappear, and evidence may not be preserved over long periods of time. Moreover, much of the argument for removing the statutes of limitations is predicated on the highly controversial and dubious repressed memory theory whereby revelations of past trauma come to light in therapy.
However, nothing protects abusers nearly as much as letting them continue to commit heinous acts for years unreported. The Bible does not explicitly state that there is a statute of limitations on bringing forth a charge because it is assumed that a person would seek immediate relief when a crime committed against them occurred or was found out. The idea of waiting years to bring forth a charge is completely alien to Scripture. Men in antiquity knew this as well, and thus the statute of limitations concept remained in Christendom, persisting to this day. To wait years to bring a charge against someone might biblically be comparable to extortion.
Instead, the Bible prescribes a positive duty to report crimes. Leviticus 5:1 states, “Now if a person sins after he hears a public adjuration to testify when he is a witness, whether he has seen or otherwise known if he does not tell it, then he will bear his guilt.” This law references a sworn witness omitting in their testimony sins committed, thus showcasing a positive duty to testify.
The Old Testament law is not exhaustive in explaining God’s standard, as Christ makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount. It was a system given to a particular nation, that as Scripture has profitability for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness to this day. An exhaustive survey of the criminal law in the Old Testament will demonstrate an immediate justice system, not a protracted justice system. Statutes of limitations, working to this end, create a more biblically based legal framework work a just working society.