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Something I really wish I could teach people is the difference between civil and criminal court. They are two completely different things and it really matters when it comes to our worldview and our faith. Criminal court determines someone’s guilt or innocence, “beyond a reasonable doubt”

Civil court is only about righting a wrong based on a, “preponderance of evidence.”

It’s also kind of critical to know this difference when attempting to understand the Bible. In ancient days there really was no “criminal court,” in the sense that we did not give criminals a fair trial, an opportunity to defend themselves, protect their rights, nor did we bother to focus on guilt or innocence. Such notions didn’t exist at all. There was no need to examine the evidence. You were simply guilty as charged.

Barrabas was not sitting in jail, awaiting trial when Jesus was arrested, he was sitting in jail awaiting execution. The thief on the cross did not first have a fair trial. None of that existed.

Going to court, receiving a “judgement,” in those days was far more about civil court. Civil court almost always deals with property rights. People are sometimes perceived as property belonging to the the tribe, the kingdom, or somebody else, but there is no actual “crime” being investigated. It is not about sending people to jail. It is not even really about determining guilt or innocence. Picture the persistent widow or the baby in King Solomon’s tale. The widow was trying to get her property back and the mother was trying to get her baby back. Civil court is about restoration, the righting of wrongs, not necessarily punishment and sending people to jail.

In the modern world, it is almost the complete opposite in our perception. A good chunk of us are not even aware of the existence of civil court at all! We think “court” is all about being a defendant in a criminal trial. We are all about the rights of the accused, almost as if we are potentially them. “Don’t judge me,” is a modern cultural statement, that stands in stark contrast to the persistent widow camping out at the courthouse and annoying everyone to the point of finally granting her a much desired “judgement.”

King David reflects this truth too, almost begging the Lord to judge him. “Search my heart, oh God…” He is actually praying for judgement, for restoration, for the righting of wrongs. He is not launching a criminal defense.

A judgement is a really good thing, it is restorative justice. You took my baby, my farm, enslaved my husband, whatever. I want my property restored to the rightful owner. I seek a judgement, a restoration, the righting of wrongs. I want a higher authority to step in and give me my stuff back. Whether or not the bad guy was ever punished was completely irrelevant. In fact, most likely he never was in days of old, beyond having to return your property, on account of the fact that he was likely well off and powerful enough to have taken it in the first place.

Petty thieves usually never made even made it to court, they were simply guilty as charged with no chance of redemption. A judgement was only for civil court, for the weak asking for protection from the powerful. This continues today to some extent, like when people petition the court against a multi national company that poisoned the water. They are seeking a judgment, justice, the restoration of what was stolen or taken from them, or compensation for the harm done.

The purpose is not retribution, vengeance, or persecution of the bad guy. That may well happen sometimes given the flaws of humanity, but the goal of civil court is completely different and really has nothing to do with punishing criminals at all.

In the Bible, the purpose of “judgement” was to set the captives free. Israel is freed from Pharoah due to the Lord’s judgement. A higher power (literally) stepped in to right a wrong against an enslaved people, to restore what had been taken, to reclaim His property. The primary goal of the Lord’s “judgement” was to set my people free, not to punish Pharoah.

Here’s another truth, a crime is never a crime against an individual, it is a crime against the state. Or a crime against the district or the commonwealth, depending on were you live. Individuals NEVER file charges in criminal court. You do not decide someone needs to be prosecuted and just go “file charges” against them. That is sloppy language we use, but charges must be filed by the state, by an officer of the court. You are at best, a victim, or a witness. If the state decides NOT to file charges against someone, too bad. You do not have the authority to do it yourself in criminal court, that is not how it works.

Given these truths, this reality of our modern justice system and our ancient one, no Christian should ever hold people in judgement in a bad way, as if you are the one in charge and tasked with determining guilt or innocence and punishing criminals. No Christian should hold their own selves in condemnation either, as if you are the defendant in a criminal trial trying to prove your guilt or innocence.

And absolutely, do NOT ever flit about the internet in a self righteous rage condemning people to hell and pretending you have the power to revoke their salvation. I call that a breach of authority as in, you ain’t God and you aren’t authorized to impersonate Him. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but let me tell you, the internet is a wild frontier and, “by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” I witness this behavior at least a half dozen times a day.

Besides just generally not displaying that you are a self righteous lunkhead with poor self control, it is also not a good idea because it demonstrates a really poor understanding of why Jesus Christ came and what “judgement” actually means. It does NOT mean being a hauled before a judge and sentenced for your crimes. God is not sitting up in the sky wearing judicial robes, scowling while He decides whether or not to condemn you for your great sins. God doesn’t have to zap us with a giant thunderbolt, consequences are built right in to the system. The consequence of acting like a self righteous lunkhead is that you are a miserable creature devoid of grace. Nobody is punishing you or condemning you, you just create that reality for yourself when you behave that way. Stop it.

We actually pray eagerly for judgement, meaning asking the Lord to be restored, delivered from our woes, healed and set free. It’s a good thing, not a punishment. We are requesting a favorable judgement like one might get in civil court. In the US Constitution we are actually granted the right to petition our government for, “a redress of grievances.” “Redress” means remedy or set right , compensation, we the people are not the criminals in the equation. We are seeking the righting of a wrongs, justice, a favorable judgement.

Sometimes people don’t understand me when I say this, but I’d much rather sin against a Holy God because His judgement is always honest, fair, full of mercy, and He knows my heart. He is good, not spiteful. People will condemn you to hell because their coffee is cold. They will damn you on the highway because you’re driving too slow in their lane. They will suffer a bout of indigestion and hold the entire room in condemnation. People are vile sometimes. The thing is, we aren’t supposed to be emulating other people, we’re supposed to be emulating Jesus. Jesus came to set the captives free. That would be us.

Does God have a criminal court? Perhaps, but none of us are an appointed officer of that court. We have not been granted that authority. I love the saying, “if God did not send His only Son to condemn the world, what makes you think He sent you? ” That truth is to be found in John 3:17.

I am an epic fail at managing to share this one tiny bit of legal advice, but I strongly encourage you to ponder the differences and to explore what it means to be in civil court winning a redress of grievances, rather than a defendant in a criminal trial, and how one can help others to discover this truth, too. It can be life changing.