Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is Legal Defense a Christian Practice?

Yesterday we received a letter from one of our supporter asking about our Legal Defense Fund. The Legal Defense Fund was especially set up to help provide resources for Christians who have been arrested because of their Christian witness. Christians are often denied or cannot afford adequate legal representation. Legal fees can bankrupt their families and churches. Their court cases can drag on in the courts for months and even years. The Legal Defense Fund helps insure that these courageous believers receive the best legal assistance possible under the circumstances.

We had mentioned this fund in one of our recent newsletters and so this supporter had some questions and concerns.

I read of your Legal Defense Fund. Is legal defense a Christian practice? Christ did not retaliate, though he was suffering innocently; "but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Peter 2:23). And since Christ suffered, we are to "follow His steps" (v. 21). Jesus made no reply when He was accused (Mark 15). He could have defended himself (Matt. 26:53), but He was willing to suffer.

John 18:36 (NAS) Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm."

Paul wanted to know "the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:10, 11).

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also" (Matt. 5:38-39).

I appreciate the concern that this individual is expressing. The conviction is that The Voice of the Martyrs should function biblically and this is a priority for us as well. Far too often, pragmatism tends to characterize organizations like ours. I firmly believe that biblical orthopraxy is just as important as biblical orthodoxy. And so I take this letter as well-intentioned and worthy of a thoughtful response.

As I have studied the Word of God on the subject of persecution over the past several years, there seem to be three basic biblical responses that God allows when His people are persecuted:

1. Flight
There is a biblical permission to flee from persecution (cf. Matthew 10:23; Acts 8:1; 9:25; 14:5-6; 2 Cor. 11:32-33). The motive behind the fleeing, however, is what is critical. If it were primarily to avoid suffering, then this would not be a sufficient reason. Throughout the New Testament, the priority is always on the mission of the kingdom of God above all else: family, possessions, personal safety, to name a few. If the mission were, however, threatened by persecution, withdrawal was permitted.

a) Matthew 10:23 - withdrawal to another city in order that the Gospel may continue to spread. (cf. Acts 8:1.)

b) Acts 9:25; 2 Cor. 11:23-24. In Corinthians, Paul refers to this fleeing as part of his catalog of suffering for Christ. The flight was not, therefore, a flight from suffering, but a flight in order to fulfill the mission of Christ. While God's word can go out forcefully through the testimony of martyrdom, it is sometimes better that people remain alive in order to proclaim it (cf. Acts 14:5,6).

c) The example of Jesus. While there were times that Jesus hid Himself (John 8:59; Matt.12:14,15) this hiding was because "his time had not yet come" (John 7:30; 8:20; 10:39). His escape from suffering and death was, however, only a postponement. His mission must be preserved (cf. Matt. 2:13ff), a mission that culminates in His suffering and death.

Nevertheless, Jesus did not pull away from confrontations from the religious leaders of his day. His ministry was not characterized by "tactical moves," compromise, a watering-down of his message, or avoidance of suffering. He was not a hireling (John 10:12) who flees in the time of peril, but a good shepherd whose main concern is not his own safety but the safety of others and who lies down his life for his flock. This is expected of his followers as well (John 15:13-14).

Flight is forbidden, however, where obedience to God's commandments and Christ's commission and love for others would be jeopardized. The avoidance of distress and pain is not the supreme good. As a persecuted Vietnamese pastor once said, "Suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to us, disobedience to God is."

So, careful consideration must be given when persecution arises whether or not suffering is necessary in order to accomplish the will of God.

2. Fortitude
Fortitude is, by far, the most common response to persecution given in scripture, but should not be seen in isolation from the others. Flight may, at times, be impossible, impractical, or inappropriate. In these cases, God's people are called to stand firm where they are and remain faithful, even unto death. For example, Jesus' instructions to "Stay in Jerusalem" in Acts 1:4 were not easy to follow; Jerusalem was the most dangerous place for them to be. The numerous passages that our supporter referred to would fit under this category.

3. Fight
There are also times, however, when it is appropriate to fight for one's legal rights. Paul did on several occasions (Acts 16:37; 22:24ff; 25:10-11). Like fleeing, fighting is permissible unless it hinders the furtherance of the kingdom of God (contra. Jesus who was silent at his trial). In Paul's case, it could be argued that he defended his legal rights in order to further the kingdom of God. It is worth noting that even Jesus defended Himself at one point during his trial (John 18:23), but not to protest his suffering but as a testimony of his innocence.

Our establishment of the Legal Defense Fund a number of years ago is based on this last principle. Of course, this is only one component of our ministry. But it is certainly not contrary to biblical teaching example to assist those in bonds in this way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very balanced and biblical. A persecuted saint who has a correct heart will surely be guided into the right action in a given situation. I'm also confident that you at VOMC, as stewards of His resources will receive wisdom in correctly allocating the funds. May we receive grace to pray along with you, and for you. Remi