The Church and the Texas Justice System

February 14, 2011

By Lance Johnson

Recently, two great social institutions have come under fire for having lost their integrity. Those institutions are the Church and our Texas judicial system. It seems there is something in the news at least once a month about a church leader who has been involved in some scandal, usually adultery or embezzlement, and our justice system has also been in the news more than it should have been.

In the past few years, more than thirty men who had been convicted of serious crimes in Texas have had their convictions overturned. Most of them had been in prison for many years and at least one of them had been executed. In the case of the church, the moral failure of its “leaders” is just a publically visible symptom of a much larger problem. It is easy for us to simply dismiss these failures with a sad shake of the head and a comment about imperfect men and an imperfect system, but the situation is serious and demands a serious examination of the problems which lead to these spiritual failures and false convictions. They also demand a serious attempt to correct the situation. When the church and the jury system have lost their ability to discern truth, their ability to accomplish their purposes is crippled. In a crippled penal system, justice is perverted rather than served. In a crippled church, souls are lost rather than saved.

The Texas judicial system and the modern church have the same basic problem. Neither can reliably separate truth from presentation. Just as juries are too often deceived by the skillful presentation of a weak case, the church is too often deceived by the skillful presentation of pragmatic humanism. Furthermore, just as the fears and presuppositions of the individual jury members contribute to their collective inability to arrive at a truthful verdict, the fears and fleshly presuppositions of the individual church members and their leaders make them more easily lead astray. What a tragedy that the two institutions in which the truth should be most eagerly pursued, the jury of our peers and the church, have allowed themselves to be content with superficial solutions to serious issues.

This problem is not new. History books are rife with similar situations, the Salem Witch Trials, for instance. One of the best illustrations of this problem is the Gibeonite deception of Joshua and the Israelite leaders. God had commanded the Israelites to destroy all the pagan peoples in the Promised Land. In an effort to save themselves, the Gibeonites devised a clever ruse. They dressed their emissaries in old clothes and outfitted them with old, worn out, and patched sacks, wineskins, clothes, and shoes. They then filled the sacks with old, dry, and crumbly provisions. They made it appear that they had been on a long journey, coming from a distant land outside the area God had commanded the Israelites to clear, even though they actually lived just a few miles away. Joshua and the other Israelite leaders were completely fooled and made a covenant with them. You can read the story for yourself in Joshua 9.

Why were the Israelites deceived? It is clear from the biblical record that Joshua was an intelligent and capable leader. As such he would not be easily fooled. Furthermore, he was a man lead by God, and God was certainly not fooled by theatrics and presentation. Well, the problem was that Joshua and the Israelite leaders ?took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the Lord. (Joshua 9:14)? Yes, they trusted their own eyes and ability to discern and accepted outward appearances. Their reward was some old, dry, and crumbly provisions, spiritual injustice to the people, and generations of idolatry. Those consequences sound serious, and they are. The congregation was not able to carry out God?s clear will and specific instruction because of the agreement the leaders made with the Gibeonites. They had to settle for a sad second best and oppress the Gibeonites rather than destroy them. Because of their pagan practices, the Gibeonite presence and influence plagued the Israelite congregation for countless generations. The leaders? failure to discern truth had consequences that were serious, deadly, widespread, and continued for hundreds of years until after the Exile. In other words, the failure of Joshua and the other Israelite leaders to discern truth directly contributed to the congregation?s struggle to live godly lives for generations to come.

Discernment of truth requires two commodities that are scarce in our society in general and in our churches?diligent seeking of truth and self-denial. Advancements in technology have certainly made daily life physically easier and quicker, but we have mistakenly come to expect that the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our lives should also be easier and quicker. Actually, in many ways, just the opposite is true. As technology increases the tools of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deception increase as well, which necessitates that we be even more diligent in our efforts to discern truth. It is much easier to focus on appearances or presentation than it is to seek all the facts, sift through them, and discern truth from the larger picture. Modern society is increasingly willing to accept as truth that which is skillfully presented whether it is true or not. Will Durant?s astute observation that eloquence is seldom accurate is more true today than ever.

Another reason the church and Texas juries miss the truth is because they do not, or cannot, put aside own their presuppositions and fears. In the case of juries, several things contribute to the problem. For most of us there is an underlying fear of the rise in crime and a desire to ?get the criminals off the street.? Those fears, combined with an ingrained trust in the competency of our law enforcement officers and the justice system in general, too often result in a jury’s willingness to do what is most expedient rather than what is most just. In other words, without even thinking about it, the jury members base their decisions at least partially on themselves rather than on the truth. The discernment is based to a degree on what they, the jury members, need rather than on the demands of the justice.

This is the problem in the church as well. The process of discerning profound truth is made difficult because of our human nature. We are sinners and we bring the weakness of the flesh into the process of determining what is truth. To a degree this in inevitable and unavoidable. We are not God, and as Isaiah reminds us, his thoughts are not our thoughts. We will always struggle to put aside ourselves and discern the thoughts of God. This is part of what is involved in Christ?s demand that we deny ourselves. Actively and deliberately putting aside our own fears, dreams, prejudices, social mores, and motives is required in order to determine truth. It is for this reason I cringe when I hear pastors speak of a congregation’s ?felt needs.? Truth is not about us and what we feel we need. It is about the absolute holiness of the Almighty God who sees the world very differently than we do, and following him requires that we deny ourselves and follow him in his truth and in his way. His truth and his ways are, of course, very different from ours.

As God’s people, our ability to correctly discern truth is crucial. At best failure to discern truth leads to a weak and insufficient faith. A. W. Tozer said in his book, The Pursuit of God:

To put it differently, we have accepted one another’s notions, copied on another’s lives and made one another’s experiences the model for our own. And for a generation the trend has been downward. Now we have reached a place of sand and burnt wire grass and, worst of all, we have made the Word of Truth conform to our experience and accepted this low plane as the very pasture of the blessed.

In other words, Satan has deceived us into accepting less than what God has provided for his people. Tozer goes on to say,

The tragic result of this spirit are all about us. Shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, the trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit: these and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul.

What do we do about this. We make it a point to deny ourselves and diligently seek the truth. That is certainly easier said than done, but not an impossible task.

Jesus said unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

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