Should Believers Take Part in Courts of Law?
By Bill Petri
Many times throughout the New Testament followers of Jesus are instructed to refrain from judging and condemning others. The following is one example of many:
“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:”
It should be apparent to all the teachings of Luke 6:37 are not practiced within courts of law. As the job title indicates, judges make it their profession to judge whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty, and then condemn those who are guilty by determining their punishment. Most modern Believers make peace with this issue by assuming that Jesus’ teachings on judgment apply only to private, not public relations. This is a dangerous and erroneous assumption. The New Testament does address the issue of courts of law on several occasions, and these passages must be addressed to determine how believers should view and interact with these courts.
Courts of Law and the Treatment of Enemies
In several passages within the Gospels, Jesus spoke concerning courts of law:
“And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.”
“Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right? When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison.”
If we were to put the preceding verses into modern language we would say: “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” No one needs a judge to determine what is right and wrong. Judge for yourself what is right, converse with your adversary to gain an understanding of what he feels is right, and then try to compromise, or as Jesus said, “try hard to be reconciled to him.” If this fails, and your adversary still wishes to sue you, well, as Jesus said above, “If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.” Paul further explained this sentiment:
“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?”
First, it must be noted that Paul referred to the judges and courts of law as “unjust.” Again, the court system is built on judgment and condemnation, which Jesus taught against. Paul asked, “Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” Jesus likewise stated: “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.” This, indeed, is preferable to the other option – using the “unrighteous” courts of law to defend ourselves and our possessions from our enemies. This issue, in many ways, is an extension of a larger issue: how Believers should treat their enemies.
The Authority of Courts of Law and Human Governments
The treatment of enemies aside, Paul, in a couple of passages from 1 Corinthians, completely disregarded the authority of courts of law.
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.”
“But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.”
Additionally, Acts 4-5 tells the story of how Peter and John were arrested, imprisoned, and brought before the court in Jerusalem. The court ordered the two Jewish apostles to stop spreading the teachings of Jesus. Peter and John answered in defiance:
“… Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.”
Once freed, they immediately proceeded to ignore the court’s orders, continuing to spread the teachings of Jesus. Once again they were arrested and imprisoned. This time, they escaped from the jail, and continued their teaching, despite the orders of the court. The apostles were once again brought before the court and asked:
“… Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.”
Peter and the other apostles answered:
“ … We ought to obey God rather than men.”
The abortion issue should show all believers how foolish judicial systems are. They often times serve as a system for the state to impose a predetermined course of action upon the believer. Will any believer think that the courts were wise and just in decision which allowed torture of its citizens, abortion, the elimination of prayer, the elimination of child discipline, and the right to infringe upon the way you worship God? Is a system which constantly erodes away a believer’s right to worship God really ordained of God? Again, this issue is an extension of a larger issue: how believers should regard and interact with human governments.