LCN Article


Jury Duty: The Church’s Perspective

July / August 2019

John H. Ogwyn (1949-2005)

Editor’s Note: Here at Headquarters, we have recently received word from a number of members in the United States concerning jury duty service requests, and we thought it would be a wonderful time to reprint this helpful article written by the late John Ogwyn. Even apart from jury duty, Mr. Ogwyn’s article covers material that is of spiritual benefit to anyone seeking to live God’s way of life, and we hope you find it helpful! This article is included in the Living Church of God’s information packet concerning jury duty—a collection of articles, legal cases, and instructions designed to help members navigate the challenges that come with handling a U.S. jury summons. The packet is available upon request, both from your pastor and from Headquarters.

 

My wife and I pulled into our driveway late one Sunday afternoon, coming home from a Church trip. I took our mail from the mailbox, and as I quickly sorted through it, a large yellow notice leaped out at me. With dismay, I realized that I had been summoned for jury duty. To make matters even worse, the summons date was Monday, June 3—the opening day of the Living Youth Preteen Camp in Texas, which I was directing.

Carefully, I scrutinized the notice to see if I could check some box that would give me an excuse or an exemption. No, I would not be able to get out of it that easily. “Why couldn’t it have been my wife?” I thought. My wife is a Canadian citizen, and therefore ineligible to sit on a jury in the United States. If she had received the notice, she could have simply checked the box indicating that she was a non-citizen and mailed it back for an automatic exemption.

Traditionally in the United States, each county’s roster of those called for jury duty was selected from its rolls of registered voters. Because of lawsuits during the last couple of decades, this roster is now made up from those with driver’s licenses. Even so, most jurisdictions maintain a wide variety of categories of people who hold a valid driver’s license but are exempt from jury duty. In the county where I live, for example, those over 70 years old, those with young children at home, and those who are full-time students may claim exemption. Non-citizens and convicted felons, too, are ineligible for jury duty. Everyone who does not fit into one of the court-approved exemptions is required to appear in court at the appointed time. The jury duty notice is a legal summons, and failure to appear could potentially result in arrest.

At this point, I had two concerns. One was my general objection to jury service based on religious convictions. The other was that I was required to appear in court at the same time I needed to be at a Church camp, about 200 miles south of the court where I was to appear. After praying about the matter and thinking it over for a couple of days, I decided to call the District Clerk’s office at the phone number listed on the summons and request a later date for jury duty. I talked to a secretary, and after explaining that we had a Church youth camp going on that week, I asked if it would be possible to change the date of my jury summons. She was quick to accommodate, and offered me a choice of several alternative dates, one of which I selected. I would need to appear in about six weeks.

This brings to mind the first important lesson I have learned in dealing with a jury summons: Talking to the secretary was not the time to discuss my religious objections to jury duty. She could do nothing about that, but she could handle routine excuses or time changes. If you have a routine excuse for an exemption, you may find it best simply to use it, even though you also have a religious objection. In Texas, only the judge can grant an excuse for religious reasons, so I concluded that there was no point in confusing the secretary in the Clerk’s office and perhaps risking having my routine request for a later date sidelined.

Of course, the later date only postponed the inevitable. I was still required to appear in court and explain why I could not sit on a jury. During the ensuing month, I gave a lot of thought to the reasons why I should not sit on a jury and pass judgment. I did not know how much explanation I would be asked to give, or what kind of attitude to expect from the judge. Church members over the years have sought exemption from jury service based upon their religious beliefs, even though most states’ statutes do not recognize religious belief as a valid cause for exemption. Federal courts, however, have upheld religious exemptions as valid, and the Church Legal Affairs Office can provide you with its “Jury Duty Exemption Request” form, including details of how to substantiate your claim of religious exemption and the steps to follow. Area Pastors also have access to these forms from the “Church Administration” area of the Member Resources website.

While many have been excused from jury service for religious reasons over the years, I wonder how many members have really understood what the “big deal” is regarding jury duty. Is it wrong to serve on a jury? If so, why? Can you prove your reasons from the Bible? Scripture enjoins us to be ready to give an answer to those who ask concerning the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15).

We Are Ambassadors for Christ

Members of the Church of God have traditionally avoided participation in the military and political affairs of society. This has not only been an issue in our day, but has also been the historic position of the Church, traced back to the first century. What are some of the reasons for this?

When Jesus Christ was on trial for His life before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, He told Pilate that His Kingdom was not “of this world.” Christ went on to add that if it were, His servants would fight to deliver Him from the Jews (John 18:36). Jesus came as the advance emissary of a coming world-ruling government. Because of that, neither He nor His disciples took part in the political and military affairs of this world’s governments. Jesus would not stir His followers to form an army to fight for His Kingdom, as did so-called “messiahs” that arose among the Jews from time to time. Those false messiahs represented political factions among the Jewish community, though factions with very strong religious overtones. The coming government that Jesus proclaimed is far different. It will not depend on the success of human efforts, but rather it will be established by the supreme power of the God of Heaven, and it will sweep away all puny human governments when the time comes (cf. Daniel 7:14).

The Apostle Paul explained in Philippians 3:20 that a Christian’s citizenship is in Heaven. Our primary allegiance and devotion must be to the Kingdom of God, not to the earthly government under whose rule we temporarily reside. We are, in fact, ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador is an official emissary of one government to another. We are, in that sense, to represent God’s coming Kingdom properly in the midst of whatever human society we live in. It is proper that we should love our native land, and if we are living a Christian life, we will be productive, law-abiding inhabitants of the land in which we reside. In addition, we should show respect and honor to our government and pray for its officials. We must obey the laws of society—unless, of course, they directly contradict God’s law—and pay our taxes (Romans 13:1–7). However, all of this being said, we cannot be part of this world and its ways. This includes not being a part of its political and judicial systems. Jesus Christ refused to judge a secular matter, and He is our example (Luke 12:13–14).

Notice the record preserved by the noted historian Edward Gibbon. Writing of the early Christians, he observed that “Christians felt and confessed that such institutions [worldly governments] might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But, while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defense of the empire” (The Triumph of Christendom in the Roman Empire, p. 41).

Judging with Righteous Judgment

While Christians are not to take part in the military and political affairs of this world’s governments, the question of jury duty raises other issues as well. Some have pointed to the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 6:2: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” Does this verse prove that Christians should sit on juries and render judgment in certain secular disputes here and now? No. Notice the context of this verse. Paul is addressing the issue of Christians taking other Christians to worldly courts in order to resolve disputes. He points out the utter absurdity of those who are preparing to judge the world under Christ not being able to resolve disputes with one another within the Church. It holds Christianity up to ridicule from the outside when fellow believers are “slugging it out” in worldly courts. In context, this has nothing to do with believers sitting in judgment of unbelievers.

There is another very important but often overlooked aspect of this issue. After the first resurrection, when true Christians sit on thrones exercising judgment as part of God’s government, what criteria for judgment will they use? The Bible is very clear that our judgment in those days will be based upon the same standard that should guide Christians’ hearts and minds right now—God’s laws as revealed in the Bible (Isaiah 2:3–4).

Isaiah 11 gives further information about judgment in God’s Kingdom, telling us that the Messiah will not make His decisions based only upon what things look like or what He has heard. Rather, Isaiah tells us that He will judge the whole world with righteousness (v. 4). What is righteousness? Psalm 119:172 thunders that all of God’s commandments are righteousness. Righteous judgment must be based upon the revealed word of God. When we judge the world under Jesus Christ, we will judge the world in righteousness! When we make judgments in our personal lives, or are involved in seeking to settle disputes between brethren, we are to use exactly the same criteria. God’s word defines right and wrong, and tells us how to draw proper distinctions.

Righteousness and faithfulness will be hallmarks of the way that God will administer His government. Decisions will be made with equity—utter fairness (Isaiah 11:4). As Christians, we need to be developing this understanding and approach as part of our character. Serving on a jury in a worldly court will bring us into conflict with these principles.

“How can that possibly be?” you may wonder. “Don’t mankind’s courts seek jurors who strive to be fair and just?” Certainly, most judges would say that they want jurors who can be fair and impartial and can render a just verdict. That sounds good, but we need to realize that there is more involved than what might appear at first glance. For instance, when I found myself sitting in a courtroom as part of the jury pool and receiving instructions from the judge about what was required of us, most of it sounded good on the surface. As court officials explained the procedures, we were told that our decision was to be made based on what we heard in court. The court expected us to render our decision based upon the instructions the judge would give us regarding the law. We were admonished that we must only consider as facts those matters admitted into evidence in court.

There are problems with this procedure, however. To begin with, a juror will not be privy to all of the facts of a case. In many instances, the opposing lawyers will have already made efforts to have the judge disallow some information the other side seeks to present. Both sides are seeking to win the case for their clients, so each will only emphasize those points that support their side’s case. If, using some legal technicality, they are able to prevent the other side from revealing to the jury certain facts that would damage their case, “so much the better”! In most cases, jurors will never even be aware of this backstage maneuvering. Even after truthful information is presented to jurors in court, the judge will sometimes instruct jurors to disregard that information when rendering their verdict.

The Texas Uniform Jury Handbook, which we were given at the start of the jury selection process, instructs, “The verdict must be based solely on the evidence presented by the parties, the Charge of the Court, and rules of law provided by the Judge” (emphasis mine). Notice the contrast with the instructions of Scripture, inspired by God, regarding circumstances requiring decisions of guilt or innocence. Those involved in determining guilt or innocence were required not to rely only on what they had heard, but also to make diligent inquiry into the facts (Deuteronomy 13:14). Those judging were only to proceed after they were sure that the facts of the matter had been fully established.

Deuteronomy 19:15 provides important instruction regarding decisions made in judicial matters. “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” In the particular case that I would have heard as a juror, the guilt or innocence of the accused turned on the testimony of only one witness. Under the laws of the State of Texas, this is permissible, and jurors are to make their decision based upon how they weigh the credibility of the witness. However, if I were to judge according to God’s instructions, I would be forbidden by Deuteronomy 19:15 to render a verdict of guilty upon the testimony of one alone—no matter how credible he or she seemed.

To serve as a juror, I would need to agree to use only the rules of evidence acknowledged by the court. I would need to agree to be guided by the laws of Texas as explained by the presiding judge, whether or not they conformed to biblical injunctions. I could not make such an agreement as a Christian—one who is obligated to follow Christ’s example and make all decisions based upon the word of God.

Mercy and Judgment

We have not yet examined another very important issue. Scripture continually joins mercy with judgment. Jesus Christ instructed His followers in Luke 6:36–37 to “be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Righteous judgment includes not only the standard of God’s law, but also justice mixed with mercy. You cannot follow Jesus Christ and disregard the importance of mercy.

In John 8, we read of a woman caught committing adultery and brought before Jesus Christ by religious leaders in Jerusalem. They asked Jesus to render a verdict and assess punishment. The facts of the case were not in dispute, nor was the penalty that the law required. How did Jesus respond? He considered an additional aspect of the case: the motives of the woman’s accusers. He stooped down and wrote in the dust for a while, seemingly ignoring the clamor of the crowd. Finally, He stood up—at this point, what He had written must have become visible—and acknowledged both the woman’s guilt and the prescribed penalty of stoning, adding the caveat that the one among the group who was without sin should throw the first stone. Christ knew that the woman’s accusers were hypocrites, and He would neither play their game nor fall into their trap. When her accusers melted away, He offered the woman a fresh chance, coupled with the admonition to “go and sin no more” (v. 11). God allows for repentance and forgiveness.

As Christians, our decisions are to be guided by God’s word. To agree to be guided solely by man’s law would be to do something that Jesus Christ would never do! Now is not the time for us to be engaged in judging the world. That time will come, however, after Jesus Christ returns to this earth as King of kings and Lord of lords. As Christians, we prepare for that future by learning to make all of our choices upon the basis of God’s revealed will.

While we may need to make judgments in settling disputes among ourselves, and Church discipline may sometimes be imposed upon brethren who persist in sin (1 Corinthians 5), we cannot impose God’s way on the world around us. That will not be accomplished until God sends Jesus Christ back to Earth. Ultimately, the governments of this world will have to answer to the Creator regarding the extent to which they applied—or failed to apply—His standards of right judgment. As Christians, our responsibility is to love the people of the world (Matthew 22:39), to set an example for the world, to take God’s message of good news and of warning to the world, and to pray for the world—but not to become part of this world (l John 2:15).

As I sat with other potential jurors in that Texas courtroom, I knew that I could not in good conscience agree to make the kind of judgment they wanted me to make. While the judge and the attorneys examined the potential jurors, asking us various questions, I kept waiting for a question that would apply to me. None of their questions dealt with religious objection, though I had explained my religious objection in writing on the questionnaire we had each submitted to the court. Finally, we were instructed to go wait in the hallway while a jury was picked. As we rose to file out of the room, I asked the judge if I could approach the bench. She invited me to do so. I then told her that I needed to bring something to her attention, and to the attention of the attorneys involved in selecting the jury. I then simply explained that, based upon my religious convictions, I would not be able to render a verdict in the case. In less time than it takes me to write about it, the judge excused me and turned her attention to other matters.

As I walked away from the courtroom to my car, I reflected on the three hours spent at the courthouse. I had watched man’s flawed legal system in action and had realized afresh the truth of Jeremiah 10:23: “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” The time is coming in the years immediately ahead when we will be able to assist Jesus Christ in implementing God’s government on this earth. Then, we will truly have a part in judging the world in righteousness!