As a young attorney, David C. Gibbs Jr. could hardly believe his ears as the pastor relayed how his church was being sued by the state for operating its ministry. As he reviewed the legal documents, Dr. Gibbs was astonished that such a thing could happen in modern America. From that very first case through the present day, God has blessed Dr. Gibbs’ commitment to legally help churches, pastors, and Christians free of charge. The ministry has grown substantially through God’s blessing over the last 40 years as attorneys, legal assistants, and other ministry workers have joined the team of “legal missionaries.”
Shared here are excerpts from his book, Conviction vs. Preference, by Attorney David C. Gibbs Jr., Christian Law Association, Conneaut, Ohio 44030. These are actual incidents that have occurred during court proceedings.
When a Christian stands to defend his beliefs in a court room, his testimony becomes quite critical, for the court has said a man cannot hold his beliefs if he cannot describe them. A belief is not a hunch. It is not a feeling or an “it seems to me.”
There are people who have gone to the witness stand and after stating what they believe are asked, “Well, why do you believe that? Can you show me that in the word of God?” Some do not even know if what they believe is there, but reply with “it sort of seems to me.” The problem the court has with a “well, it seems to me,” is that feelings change rapidly and as a consequence, a hunch or a feeling, or an “it seems to me” will not be honored.
In a court of law, a defendant must be able to state his beliefs from the Bible orally. The court does not expect eloquence, but it does expect the defendant to be able to explain his or her beliefs in a simple and concise manner. It also requires knowledge of those beliefs. This becomes important because often we like to hide behind a title. We may claim to be a “separated fundamentalist” or “a Christian,” which are descriptive terms that may have to be described more fully. In the matter of beliefs and believers, the court realized there must be a test to determine which beliefs are upheld and which beliefs will not be honored and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1972, the court came down with such a test. Ironically, that test case involved Christian education. An Amish man who lived in the state of Wisconsin by the name of Jonas Yoder told the state that he would no longer send his children to the state school. The state of Wisconsin advised him that he must, to which he replied, “I don’t think you hear me. I am not going to send my children to your school.” Mr. Yoder was threatened with being sued if he refused to comply but still he refused. He was warned that if he was sued and if the state won the case, he could go to jail. His only response was that he would not send his children to the school. Even under the threat of losing his children, he refused to change his mind, explaining that his religious beliefs prohibited him from complying with the demand.
Mr. Yoder did not fare very well in court. He lost the case and was told that now that he had had his day in court, he must comply with the ruling. He still refused, never altering his position and he found out something very interesting. After losing his appeal, his case went to the U. S. Supreme Court, where Mr. Jonas Yoder was told that the First Amendment protected him and he was not required to send his children to the state school. This case laid down the test that was to be used for all subsequent cases to determine which beliefs are to be protected by the First Amendment and which are not.
The first definition the court made was, “Every religious belief is one of two types. It is either a conviction or a preference.”
Most Christians carelessly use the word conviction. In reality, the test of whether or not a matter is a conviction is a very severe one and not to be taken lightly. It will be seen here that most of us possess only preferences.
WHAT IS A PREFERENCE?
A preference is a belief that is held with such intensity that a person can go into full time service in the name of that belief. He can be a minister of the gospel, a Christian schoolteacher or a missionary. He might even give all of his wealth to it and the court decides he still has only a preference. His belief may energize him to stand on a street corner and witness and proselytize, but it would still only be a preference. If a belief can change under some circumstances, the court calls it a preference. True conviction cannot be changed!
The court has found that peer pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. A minister may study the word of God and believe that there is something he knows he must do. He resolves in his heart to make that change, but when he shares it with his friends or other ministers or his congregation, they convince him to tone it down a bit so others can cooperate with him. Little by little he bends, proving that what he first said was a preference. He preferred it, he wanted to do it and even resolved to do it, but he changed. The court says that if you can change the belief, it is a preference.
Bear in mind that if a person can ever show from the word of God where something they do is wrong then they must change it. In the context of this topic it refers to peer pressure causing good men to change. In that case the belief is a preference.
People pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. When a man knows what he believes is right and allows the pressure of others to cause him to bend, the court calls the belief a preference. The court is well aware that the family is probably the strongest influence of change in a person’s life. The court says if “family pressure” will cause you to change, your beliefs are preferences.
Lawsuit pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. There have been many men who say, “I am for this, but I am not going to get sued over it because the news media makes us into villains.” Defending a ministry against a lawsuit can be very expensive. There are some great victories that are publicized but not many are interested in those who have churches of about 100 that are reduced to 20, or a man with a church of 350 to 400 reduced to 60. If you avoid taking a stand that will cause you to get sued because you do not want to see your church membership drop and that causes you to change your beliefs, then your belief was a preference.
Jail pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. Jails today are thought by some to be like holiday inns but they are horrible places. The incarcerated are isolated from their Christian influence, friends and family. They are told when to go to bed, when to get up, when to eat, how to eat, when to stand, when to sit, when to go to the restroom. And they are thrown into the middle of often-brutal men who normally relish the thought of breaking a Bible-toter.
Would you go to jail for a matter of your faith? Throughout history great men of faith have gone to jail and nobody understood why they went. The court says if you change your beliefs for fear of going to jail, then your beliefs are preferences.
You may believe you could go to jail but would you, as a man, watch your wife go to jail? Levi Whisner, in Ohio, faced that threat and made plans for who was going to take care of their children while he and his wife were incarcerated.
Death pressure causes most people to change their beliefs. The court will ask if you are prepared to die for your belief. The court says that for a belief to be a conviction it will not change, even in the face of death. Why? What creates a conviction? For a Christian it is only one thing. He believes that his God requires it of him.
Only a belief that is God-ordered is a conviction. Therefore the court must first decide if your belief is a conviction or a preference. Only a conviction is protected by the Constitution.
WHAT IS A CONVICTION?
- A conviction is something that you purpose in your heart, as a fabric of your belief system. It is one that you will not change due to any circumstance. It says, “When you believe that your God has required something of you, you will withstand all of the tests put to you.” It has been said that a man is never made by a crisis. The crisis exposes the man for what he already is.
There are parallels to this in the history of the three Hebrew children in the book of Daniel. When taken into captivity, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego purposed in their hearts not to defile themselves. It was something about which they determined with resolve.
- A conviction must be pre-determined. When Nebuchadnezzar erected his golden image and commanded that all the people bow when the instruments played, these three men stood erect. A question might be asked at this point, where were all the other Hebrews? There were more than three Hebrews in Babylon who must have been in compliance with the King’s orders, for only these three Hebrews, who had predetermined what they would do, remained standing.
- A conviction is a personal belief. The court says that if you require others to stand with you to maintain your beliefs, then your beliefs are preferences and not convictions. There have been preachers willing to stand on their belief only if they have the backing of a certain college or group to stand with them. That doesn’t go over in a court, for your belief must be a personal conviction regardless of what anyone else thinks or does. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did stand together, but in reality they stood alone. Their decision was made more difficult when going against other Hebrews who buckled under the pressure of impending death.
- A conviction is non-negotiable. When they were brought before the king, Nebuchadnezzar did a strange thing. He broke the law by giving them a second chance. They said to the king that they did not have to be careful how they answered him. They had resolved that they were not going to bow and that was not going to change. They told the king that this was a matter of faith and non-negotiable.
The court says if you can discuss the negotiation of your faith, it is a matter of preference. Why? How do you negotiate what is God ordered? Recall what the three Hebrews said because it illustrates the last point the court chose. “King, we believe that our God can deliver us, but even if you throw us into that furnace and God does not deliver us, we are not going to bow” (Daniel 3:16–18).
- A conviction is not contingent on victory. The court said if you must be assured of victory before you stand, your beliefs are preferences and not convictions. That is a test the court is beginning to follow because many are more concerned about winning than about standing. Bear this in mind. In the Christian faith we do not fight for victory; we fight in victory. The battle was won at the cross of Calvary and we stand in that victory.
When Levi Whisner went to trial and lost, he still won. When he appealed and lost, he won. When he went to the Supreme Court of the state of Ohio and the judges unanimously said he was right, he was right all along. A court does not tell us whether we are right or wrong. We are right as long as we honor the word of God. Levi recognized that. He stood in this country when no other man saw the issue. He stood for all of us. He stood with no one beside him. When all the tests of preference and conviction were applied, he passed.
THE ULTIMATE TEST OF CONVICTION
The court recognizes a problem because people sometimes do not tell the truth. In the courtroom I have seen some men who have been incredibly casual with the truth. The court decided there must be a way to know whether what is being claimed is the truth, if it is preference or conviction. Real convictions will have already passed the other preference tests: peer pressure, people pressure, lawsuit pressure, jail pressure and death pressure.
- A conviction will be demonstrated by a person’s lifestyle. The court said you do not have the right to say you have a conviction unless it can be seen that the conviction is lived with some degree of consistency. When the court begins to apply that test, good Christian people often become quite uncomfortable.
The word of God says in James that faith is dead without corresponding works. It is like a body with no spirit and is meaningless, because the thing that gives it vibrancy and life is absent. The court will examine the evidence of your faith in action in order to prove it is a conviction.
For example, it may be claimed that children ought to be sent to a Bible based Christian school, believing it to be the only desirable place for them to receive an education that will equip them for life. However, if you do not send your child to a Christian school, then have your child be the best witness he can be in the public school. The court said that is a classic example of a preference statement.
The court is looking for consistency
If we say that something is a matter of conviction, the source of those beliefs is the word of God. We teach a child that it is a sin to disobey the word of God. The court says the opposite of conviction must be a sin and you must act on that belief or else it is not a conviction.
We really cannot take exception to being required to be consistent because that is in line with our beliefs. If the Bible requires it, it is God ordered. If it is God ordered and we choose not to do it, it is a sin. A Christian believes that disobedience to what God has ordered is the classic definition of sin.
According to the court, stating that something is a conviction, you must be prepared to say that its opposite is a sin. If you say you have a conviction about Christian education, then you must be prepared to say that to not give a child a Christian education is a sin. If you say that you have a conviction about a certain lifestyle, then you must say the opposite is a sin, or it is not a conviction. When a person says he ought to do some things, but wants to be more tolerant and a little more open minded, the court determines it a preference.
In the courtroom you must be able to define what you believe. You must tell the court whether you hold your beliefs as preferences or convictions and be able to explain to the court that the opposite of these convictions is a sin. What happens if you don’t tell them it is a sin? The following is dialogue that I have personally witnessed:
“Pastor, do you believe that every child must receive a Christian education?”
“Yes I do.”
“Well, Pastor, do you hold that as a conviction of your faith?”
“Yes I do.”
“Pastor, have you ever told your people that not giving your child a Christian education is a sin?”
“No I have not done that.”
“Why have you not done that Pastor?”
“I just have not gotten around to it.”
“How long have you been getting around to it?”
“Oh, a couple of years.”
Then the pastor was asked: “Pastor, is it not that the reason you have not said that is because you were afraid of the effects? You were afraid that the public school teachers in your congregation would leave? You were afraid that the people who do not agree with Christian education in your church, and are good givers might be offended. You were afraid of what the repercussions would be. Is that not the truth as to why you did not say that?”
One must bear in mind the pastor has taken an oath of affirmation to tell the truth in front of the whole world. Half of his congregation is sitting in that courtroom and he must now answer that question truthfully. If you say that you have a conviction make sure that you do.
Otherwise the court becomes a very painful place in which to be trapped. Unfortunately, I have seen it happen to many Christians.
- A conviction is consistent to itself. In this matter of lifestyle consistency, the court says that consistent practice means reasonably consistent, not perfect. One judge said to me, “Your people do not have to be perfect, but they are becoming very perfect at being imperfect. I would like you to see if we could match up the two L’s—Life and Lip.” A good part of every court case is about whether what you say with your mouth is consistently being practiced with your life. Let us examine how easily we form convictions that can be challenged in court.
It is a conviction of Christians that pornography should not be viewed, that obscenity should not be spoken, that nudity should not be viewed. It is a conviction that unrighteous themes should not be exalted. Most would agree that these are the convictions of a Christian because the Bible requires it. Is it a sin to do otherwise? Yes. These are things that most of us believe, yet I have seen the following happen:
In a courtroom people have been asked,
“Do you own a television?”
“Yes I do.”
“How much did that television cost?”
“Two to three hundred dollars.”
“Where do you keep that television?”
“In the living room or family room.”
“Why do you keep it there?”
“We keep it there so people can see it.”
“Is it not true that if you do not plug in that television and turn it on, it does not work? That television cannot do anything until you turn it on, and it is your choice whether or not you watch it?”
“Yes, this is true.”
“On this television do you ever see or hear obscenity, or do you ever hear someone curse or swear?”
“Is there any nudity?”
“Do you ever see unrighteous themes exalted on television?”
“All the time.”
“Do you ever see righteous themes debased?”
“Yet you have no problem watching those? Do you have no problem paying hundreds of dollars to have an instrument that allows all of those things that you say you are against in the most traveled portion of your house, and you say you even have to turn it on before it can do anything to you?”
Do you see the inconsistency? That person just showed the court through his lifestyle that the convictions he mouthed were not consistently practiced. Bear in mind that you don’t have to believe anything, but if you are going to say that you believe something, and that it is a conviction, then you must live it and at such a level that when the court looks at your life, they can see consistency.
If a man stood with an alcoholic drink and told you he did not believe in drinking alcohol and then guzzled it down he would appear to be a hypocrite. But that is exactly what happens in the courtroom when people say one thing, but they do another. The court will go into all of the areas of life, including the use of your finances, and the use of your time, to see if you are living your beliefs with visible consistency.
Your life is the truest test of your convictions. Many Christians live lives that defy their stated beliefs, being against sin in some forms that they readily accept in another form. They denounce the actions of some that they allow to be acceptable in themselves.
The problem we face here is that convictions are being tested and for most of us that scrutiny will verify that many of our so-called convictions are merely preferences. Most of us claim that we would die for beliefs that we are not even consistently living for in other areas of our lives. We have convictions for morality in the school that we do not enforce in our own living rooms. This proves that most of our beliefs are only preferences that we personally find comfortable and convenient.
The greatest tragedy is not the inconsistency before the court, but the insult before Christ. Far too often we bow before the altar of self-serving living and bring a reproach upon the Saviour who bought us with the price of His own blood. It is a sad commentary on our love and commitment to Him that we have very few beliefs that could stand up to the serious examination of this world. The greatness of the New Testament church was that the believers were not only willing to die for their beliefs, but their accusers could find no fault or inconsistency in them. Oh, that the world could say the same about us. Someone has said, “Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.”
Perhaps it is time to place ourselves on trial to see if we really believe what we say we believe. Are we really living consistently by the things that we say are convictions? Whether or not you are ever brought to a courtroom and put on trial by men, you are on trial every day before your God. He demands holy living and consistency of life, not just in simplicity of word. Anyone can say he believes in certain things, but as a child of God we ought to live like it. God help us to make it so.