March 29, 1994
A few weeks ago, a senior federal judge in Texas ordered a woman and her four children to attend church each week for a year. The judge also advised the woman to not have any more children without a husband. He said, “I know there are all sorts of constitutional questions about this, but I just thought if I put her on probation... it would do a whole lot more good...”
“Constitutional questions” indeed. What about separation of church and state? Does it mean no one in the legal system can use “church” as probation for a crime? Can judicial action like this lead to disintegration of personal and civil rights?
Historically, political leaders first tolerated the church then persecuted its members but around A.D. 300, Roman emperor Constantine decided that it was to the advantage of the Empire to declare Christianity the state religion. Since he had the clout to enforce such a decree, most people made a profession of faith, whether or not they really believed. With that, the known world became “Christian.”
For several hundred years, politics and church were far from separate. If the head of the Roman Empire and the head of the Roman church did not agree, the stronger one ruled, both politically and in matters of religion.
During the Reformation, several Christian leaders decided that because of corruption, both politically and ecclesiastically, these two institutions should be separate. In other words, their faith would not be dictated by the king.
However, many thought political leaders were responsible to maintain the faith. That is, according to Scripture, the government was under God for the purpose of maintaining law and order and to make sure the church was protected. So, while many Christians refused government interference in doctrinal matters, they welcomed Christian leaders who would look after their best interests.
It has seldom worked. Perhaps power corrupts, but the fact of the matter is, true faith can neither be legislated or enforced using political means. The Gospel is a spiritual message requiring a personal decision. Neither Constantine or judges in Texas can make anyone become a lover of God against their will.
On the other hand, the Gospel is a power to be reckoned with. Through it, people have been fully convinced of their sin, fully made aware of their need for forgiveness, and fully released from the power of sin that controls them. Men and women who once hated Christians have been transformed into God-fearing Christians themselves.
The judge in Texas did have another option. According to the strict letter of the law, the woman’s crime called for a prison sentence, which would separate her from her children. They would be wards of the state and put into institutions or placed in foster care.
Since the judge had enough clout to go contrary to current thinking about church and state, he took a chance. Going to church would not automatically reform that mother’s ways yet there is a possibility that the power of the Gospel will set her free from her criminal habits. As Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
If being made to go to church sets her free from a life of crime, how can the constitution, or anyone else, fault that judge’s decision?