CONVICTION VS. PREFERENCE
By: David C. Gibbs, Jr.
American Christians are faced today with a very frightening situation. More and more of them are being taken to court over matters relating to their Biblical faith. No longer may it be said that America as a nation encourages religious liberty; the country now only reluctantly tolerates it. Faithful Christians might as well become accustomed to the courtroom, because they are going to spend increased amounts of time there defending things that they have always taken for granted. Though religious freedoms have not been totally eliminated, they have been drastically reduced.
The courts of America play by a unique set of rules that both satisfy and defy logic. These rules are set to ensure fairness to everyone; they demand honesty and consistency. They are meant to protect, but they also can be used to persecute. The problem Christians face today concerns the matter of their convictions. In a great sense, the Christian’s convictions are being “put on trial” in America. In many cases, the believer has not done so well.
For a long time the word conviction was a do-all, catch-all word, all too often used carelessly to justify actions and beliefs. Often Christians explain why they do what they do by simply claiming to be motivated by a conviction. For many, convictions have become a combination of Bible views with bits of personal interpretations and ideas added. That which we do not like we form a conviction against, and that which we like we form a conviction for. If we change our minds about a matter, we just change the conviction. There remains very little sacredness in most of the convictions held by the majority of Christians.
Suddenly, all of that has been forced to change as Christians are faced with appearing before a judge and jury to prove their convictions, not to their satisfaction, but to the satisfaction of unbelievers. In the courts today, Christians do not have to prove that they are right, but they must prove that what they claim to be convictions are, in truth, convictions, and not merely preferences. I have come to the conclusion that Christians today are saturated with opinions and preferences, but are virtually empty of real convictions.
My desire is to reveal the standard that has been set by the Supreme Court to determine what are convictions and what are preferences. These are the rules that we are seeing used in courts, and the ones which you may someday be forced to use in the defense of your religious faith and matters relating to your faith. My prayer is that God will use this pamphlet to instill a new seriousness in each of us as to the importance of holding true convictions in our lives.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in its opening section provides that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In layman’s language, America is a nation with religious freedom. There is no state church, nor does the government dictate any one given belief upon the citizens. Have you ever wondered just how far this religious protection goes? Can you do anything in the name of religion and get away with it? Can you murder your children in a religious ceremony and receive no punishment for your actions from the governmental authorities? Obviously not! But at what point does your religious freedom end?
This issue has been brought to state and federal courts many times. In the late 1800’s the Supreme Court would not permit the Mormons to live in polygamous family arrangements, even though to do so was a part of their faith. In the early 1900’s it was recognized by the courts that some situations could arise where an individual’s personal belief would endanger the population. The courts of the nation have chosen to protect the health of the masses by forcing smallpox vaccinations on an individual who had a religious objection to inserting any foreign object, such as a
needle, into the bloodstream. In 1990, the Supreme Court again refused to recognize a religious belief over the interests of the state. The Supreme Court ruled that an ancient Indian religious ritual could no longer be practiced because part of the ceremony involved the use of illegal substances.
As can be seen, you may not do whatever you want in the name of religion and get away with it. Issues are litigated every week which come even closer to what we hold to be true and dear. May you or may you not have an unlicensed Christian school? May you or may you not decide the standards for your children? May you or may you not Biblically discipline your children? May your preacher or may he not hire only Christians? May your preacher or may he not preach the whole Word of God? These and many other similar questions are brought before the courts with alarming regularity. Are our beliefs protected or are they not?
The courts have said that the church is not a church simply because of its title. They have said that the church is not a church because of its organization. They have also said that the church is not a church because of its building. A church, as viewed by the law and consistent with Scriptures, is a church because of its beliefs, and because of the believers who ascribe to those beliefs. Furthermore, the Supreme Court says, that there is to be a gulf between the church and the state. The First Amendment separates them. The First Amendment also forbids the state from bringing its control upon the church. The Constitution guarantees that the controls, the aims, and the matters that the state would force upon the church are absolutely forbidden and barred. However, bear in mind that this protection is only given to what the court defines as a church. Thus, it only shields matters of belief and matters affecting believers.
WHAT BELIEFS ARE PROTECTED?
Courts say a very particular thing about those beliefs, and at this point, testimony in the courtroom becomes quite critical. A man does not hold a belief the court says, if he cannot, somehow, describe that belief. They say that a belief is not a hunch, it is not a feeling, and it is not a “it seems to me.” In other words, it is not merely an opinion. We have many people go to the witness stand who are asked, “Why do you believe that particular idea? Can you show it to me in the Word of God?” They answer, “I do not know if that is in the Word of God, but ‘it seems to me’ that it is right.” The courts have said that the problem with the “it seems to me” is, “it seems to me” changes rapidly. As a consequence, courts concluded that they are not going to honor hunches, they are not going to honor feelings, and they are not going to honor “it seems to me,” as a basis of belief. The courts have pointed out two things about convictional beliefs.
1. The court has said that you must be able to verbalize these beliefs. You must be able to break them down. The courts have said that you do not need to be eloquent. You do not need to be able, with great systemization, to present your beliefs. For example, a teacher in your Bible department might easily be able to systematize his beliefs eloquently, whereas another equally sincere individual would be unable to do so. The courts do not require everyone to be as knowledgeable as that teacher. The courts do require that you be able to vocalize your beliefs. You must be able to say what you believe. They believe that a conviction requires at least the ability of a person to give a decent explanation of his beliefs.
2. The court has said that you must have a knowledge of your beliefs. You cannot just say what you believe. You must understand and comprehend your beliefs. Before you ask the court to protect your beliefs, you must somehow first know what your beliefs are. This is important because we often hide behind our titles. We say such things as, “I am a separated fundamentalist,” or, “I am a Christian.” The court will not accept descriptive terms. You must tell them exactly what those terms mean. It is not enough to give the court a general term. You must also be able to tell
the court specifically what that term means.
If an individual walks into court able to verbally formulate his beliefs, and if this same individual knows and understands his beliefs so that he is not just using religious labels to justify his activity, he still faces the Supreme Court’s religious freedom test. This test determines whether what you say you believe comes from your head or from your life.
THE TEST OF FAITH
Because the courts were faced with many cases involving beliefs and believers, the Supreme Court formulated a test to determine which beliefs would be upheld, and which beliefs would not be honored, or protected, by the First Amendment. Ironically, the Court established this test in 1972 in a case that involved education. An Amish man, by the name of Yoder, living in the state of Wisconsin, told the state of Wisconsin that he was no longer going to send his children to state schools beyond the eighth grade. He claimed that this decision was based on his convictions.
The state of Wisconsin informed him he could not do that, and that he would have to send his children to state schools. Mr. Yoder again refused to allow his children to attend state schools. The state of Wisconsin persisted with its demands, threatening to sue Mr. Yoder if he would not send his children to public schools. He stubbornly refused, contending that it would be against his convictions to do so.
Next, the state threatened to send Mr. Yoder to jail if he would not comply. He did not want to go to jail, but, realizing the potential consequences, he again refused to bend his beliefs. Finally, the state told him that, if it won the case, not only could he go to jail, but he could also lose his children. All he had to do was comply and put them in the state school. You can imagine the difficulty in being faced with such a possibility, but his beliefs still would not allow him to comply.
The state of Wisconsin took Mr. Yoder to court, and unfortunately, he lost. The state of Wisconsin came to him again, insisting that he put his kids in the public schools. Yet, even after losing the court case, Mr. Yoder could not obey, because it was a matter of conviction. It did not matter whether a court said he was right or wrong. His children were not going to go to the state schools. Mr. Yoder discovered a very interesting thing. The state did not give up. He appealed, but he lost his appeal. After losing the appeal, the state of Wisconsin again told him to comply. Mr. Yoder refused.
He took his case to the United States Supreme Court. There, the highest court in the land told Mr. Jonas Yoder, “You do not have to send your kids to the state school because the Constitution’s First Amendment protects you.” The Supreme Court laid down the test that was to be used in all subsequent cases to determine which beliefs are to be protected, and which beliefs are not to be protected. The Supreme Court’s test is an excellent standard by which our beliefs can be judged.
The first thing the Supreme Court determined in applying the test was that every single religious belief is one of two types. It does not matter what your belief structure is. It does not matter who you are. Every single religious belief is one of two types. It is either a conviction, or it is a preference. According to the Supreme Court, that is all there is. The justices did not find there to be any other type of belief. In order to avoid confusion, both a conviction and a preference would be defined. Bear in mind, that in the United States of America, only convictions are protected by the Constitution. Preferences are not. Let us specifically define the two terms as they are recognized and accepted by the courts.
A preference is an extremely strong belief. It is a belief you hold with great intensity and strength. The extent of that belief can be much greater than you would imagine, yet still only be considered a preference. Let us consider just how strong a belief can be, and still be considered just a preference.
1. A belief can be so strongly held by you, that you go into full-time service as a result of it. You can become a minister of the Gospel, you can become a Christian school teacher, you can become a missionary, or you can go into any endeavor of full-time Christian service in the name of a preference. That is a strong belief. Imagine that there are thousands of people today in full-time Christian service who are there as a result of their beliefs, yet who are merely there as a result of what the courts would consider to be a preference, not a conviction. We assume that,
because we believe in something enough to devote our lives to it, it would without question be a conviction. Yet there are many people in full-time service who eventually turn away from that calling and go against that which they once so assuredly believed. Obviously, being in full-time service does not prove that what you believe is a conviction.
2. It can be a belief you hold with such intensity that you give all of your wealth to it. I do not know very many people who have given everything they own in the name of their beliefs. It is possible for someone to give all he has because of selfish motivation, and not because of a true conviction. Many people give all they have to something at a time of great emotional stimulus, but that has absolutely nothing to do with what they believe. The court recognizes that you can do that much, and it still be only a preference.
3. It can be a belief with such strength and fiber that it causes you to be energetic in proselytizing other people. You can hand out tracts, go stand on the street corner and witness, and even be someone who regularly attends Thursday night visitation, yet still be only holding to a preference. You can have incredible amounts of zeal and energy in spreading the Gospel, and still not hold a true conviction. The court says that you can have all of that zeal, and still only have a preference.
Many Christians go soul-winning for a period of time but soon tire of it and cease to witness to the lost. They were on fire for God, yet that fire was put out by the cares of life. Being a soul-winner does not prove that your beliefs are anything more than just preferences.
4. You can be so convinced that this belief is good and right that you desire to teach it to your children. As every parent realizes, that is a very serious and important thing. Parents do not want to carelessly lead their children to believe in or devote their lives to something that is not sound and true. Yet we do it all of the time. Most of our lives are built on principles that constantly change or that we do not firmly believe. As important as our children are to us, most parents are careless about what they tell their children.
I sat next to a man on an airplane once who was telling me about all of his business troubles, and how as a result of them, his personal life had degenerated. We started talking about his son. He told me that the thing he really wanted his son to do was to go to the same school he had gone to, to undergo the same training that he had undergone, and to run the same business that he was running.
I asked him, “Did running that business, or going to that school bring you any happiness or satisfaction at all?”
He said, “None.”
I said, “Why would you want that for your child?”
He said, “I do not know. I just thought it would be a good idea. I thought that is what I would give to him.” I believe that man loved his son, yet he wished on that child the same thing that was wished on him.
We hold our faith to be very dear, so dear that we want our children to also have it. We know that our faith can lead them to a home in Heaven, and can provide them a life that is meaningful. The court says that you can believe all of that and still only have a preference.
As important as all these things are, they are still not proof enough that our beliefs are convictions. There is so much more that the court requires. 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. Most of us possess only preferences.
WHAT IS A PREFERENCE?
Although a preference is a very strong belief, it is a belief that you will change. You prefer it. That is why it is called a preference. But, you will change that belief under some circumstances. A preference can run into a wall of circumstance and change. The courts found several circumstances that would cause people to change their beliefs. This is the true test of whether your beliefs are convictions or preferences. Consider this very simple definition and you will understand exactly what constitutes a preference.
There are basically five pressures that the courts use as a test of whether or not a belief is a conviction or a preference. If any of these pressures causes you to change your belief, then all you have is a preference. If not, then you have to prove, to the court’s satisfaction, that what you believe is a conviction. Many Christians have totally changed their minds concerning what they once claimed to hold as convictions. You may have once believed that something was totally wrong, but now you allow it. If anything caused you to change that belief, it proved that it was not a conviction in the first place; it was only a preference. True conviction cannot be changed!
I. PEER PRESSURE
Peer pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. Often a preacher studies the Word of God and finds something he knows he must do. He resolves in his heart, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, exactly what he will do. He tells his friends and other preachers what he is going to do. The other preachers say, “Hold on just a minute. You are right. We are not against you, but could you tone it down just a little bit? Couldn’t you fix it so that we could cooperate with you? Couldn’t you come around a little bit, so that it is not quite as offensive to us?” The preacher says that this is what he believes, yet, little by little, he bends and proves that what he said he believed was really only a preference. He preferred it. He wanted to do it. He resolved to do it. But he changed because of peer pressure.
The court says that if you can change your belief because of peer pressure, it is only a preference. I am sure you have seen it many times. You resolve that you are going to do something. It convicts your heart. Your friends are telling you to tame it down just a little bit and be more realistic. You do not want to look like a fool. As a consequence, that which you think you are called to do, and what the Word of God spoke to your heart to do, you change. If a person can show you from the Word of God where you should change something, then you must change it. We are talking about when peer pressure alone causes good people to change. If that happens, the court rules that your belief is only a preference.
Almost everyone is affected by peer pressure to a certain degree. That is not always wrong. Sometimes it can be a good thing. When it comes to matters regarding our faith, however, changing a belief because of peer pressure ought not to happen. If it does happen, it proves that your belief was not a conviction.
II. PEOPLE PRESSURE
People pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. This is another reason why we see people change their beliefs. Preachers come to us and say, “I agree with everything that you are saying, but how am I going to go home and convince my people that it is right? They are not going to agree.” He knows what he believes is right, but the pressure of the people in his church causes him to bend and change. In order to make it palatable to his people, he changes his beliefs. If you can do that, the court says you have a preference. This is something I have seen happen many times.
The courts also know that the family is probably the strongest influence of change in a person’s life. No one can reach you like your husband or your wife. A man says that he is going to do something and he means it.” His wife says, “Please don’t. What you want to do is right, but I ask you not to do it. We have everything settled in our life. Let’s not blow it wide open.” As a consequence, that man changes his beliefs. He wants to do right, but he does not want to disrupt his family, so he makes convenient changes that verify his belief was only a preference.
The court says that if family pressure will cause you to change your beliefs, they are preferences. You see this especially to be true of the parents in a Christian school. Parents come around and say, “We are paying the tab for this school, and we are not too keen on this requirement or standard. We would like you to think about changing it.” If you bend it, you prove that the initial belief was only a preference. You preferred it. You wanted to do it. You were going to do it, but you changed it. If your belief is changeable, it is a preference.
A Board of Deacons or Trustees can sometimes cause a pastor to change his stand on a matter. Most churches or Christian schools have a board whose job it is to direct the business of that institution. That is important. Yet it is vital to realize that if a board can change the way you believe or the way you act in areas of your faith, then what you have is only a preference. These boards often consist of businessmen who have a tendency to make expedient decisions rather than convictional decisions. You must be willing to even go against your board in a matter to prove what you believe is a conviction.
III. LAWSUIT PRESSURE
Lawsuit pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. I know many men who say, “I am for this, but I am not willing to get sued over it. Do not expect me to get sued for this stuff. Can you imagine what they are going to do to us? They will make us to be villains in the news media.”
These men know they are going to be hung in the news media. It happens again and again. They know that most of the people in their church are not going to understand why the stand that caused them to be sued was taken. They know that families are going to leave the church. They realize that the price they pay in a lawsuit will be astronomical, so they change rather than take that risk.
Lawsuits are very expensive and difficult situations in which to find yourself. Very few events can place more pressure upon an individual or a ministry than being in the middle of a lawsuit. It is especially difficult if you are a smaller ministry, and do not have the support of other churches and Christians in the area. Unfortunately, most of the time, the opinions the local churches have of the situation have been slanted by the information given by the press. Misconceptions published by the media can cause a ministry to suffer immeasurably, and even sometimes threaten its
Defending a ministry against a lawsuit can be very expensive. These costs exert a great deal of pressure on the entire church family and make change seem much more appealing than continuing the fight. The expenses can continue to mount so rapidly that eventually change seems inevitable. Yet in spite of these difficulties, if you change your belief, you are merely admitting that your beliefs are not convictions.
I have seen ministries fighting lawsuits over the same issues for seven years or more. It seemed the battle would never end. They would win one battle and the state would come right back at them with another lawsuit from a slightly different angle. Not only was the expense of time and money great, but the disruption to their ministries was incredibly burdensome. There have been times that I even thought that maybe they should just make the changes and stop the harassment. But that which is a true conviction must persist through all of these trials.
Everyone likes to talk about Levi Whisner and his great victory in Ohio, or about Roy Forest and his great victory in Concord, New Hampshire. What no one likes to talk about are the men who had churches of a hundred who saw them reduced to twenty, or a church of three to four hundred reduced to sixty. Would you go through that? Would you avoid taking a stand that is going to cause you to get sued, because you do not want to see your church membership drop? If the threat of a lawsuit would cause you to change your belief, then it was a preference. You preferred it. You wanted to do it, but something came up that was important enough to cause you to change it.
IV. JAIL PRESSURE
Jail pressure causes many people to change their beliefs. In our circles today we tend to speak of jail very lightly. People say that the jails are not bad enough, or that they are like Holiday Inns. These people have not seen enough jails. Jails are horrible places, especially if you have to spend very much time there. One of the things we fail to consider is that, in jail, you are isolated from all Christian influences. You are separated from your friends and your family. Someone tells you when to go to bed, when to get up, when to eat, how to eat, when to stand, when to sit, and even when you can go to the restroom. You are thrown into the middle of that, often with brutal men who relish the thought of breaking a Bible-toter. You are offensive to them, and in jail they have you on their turf. They are going to try to break you.
Would you really go to jail for a matter of faith? No one is really going to fully understand. If you read the histories of the great men of the faith, you will find that many went to jail, and very few friends understood why, or gave them much support. Very few people are going to appreciate that you have gone to jail, either. Would the threat of going to jail cause you to change your beliefs? If it would, then your beliefs are preferences.
It is much easier to be a hero outside of jail than it is to remain one inside the confines of those bars. A lot of good men have been willing to talk about going to jail for what they believed, but when faced with reality of being torn away from family and ministry to be incarcerated in that horrible situation, they saw it as a totally different ball game. It is not an easy thing to be in jail, and it is not something that should be taken lightly. For you to go to jail for your beliefs, those beliefs must be so rock solid that, unless God Himself told you differently, you would not change them.
Consider another difficult question. Would you be willing to watch your wife go to jail? Levi Whisner faced that. He and his wife had to make plans as to who would take care of their children while they were incarcerated. Are your beliefs strong enough that you would risk not only going to jail yourself, but also risk seeing your wife in jail? Or would you say, “I am not going, and she is not going.” I am not wishing jail on anybody, but the court’s test is meaningful. The question is what does that belief mean to you. If it is a preference, it is not protected by the Constitution.
For one to be willing to go to jail for a belief requires one other important element. You must have a greater regard for what you believe than you have for yourself. The Apostle Paul spent a great amount of time alone in jail. The suffering that he must have endured to stand for what he believed to be right was more difficult than anyone could ever imagine. It is difficult for us to see how God could use incarceration to accomplish His purpose, when we are unable to do what we think we are called to do. We could not help but wonder what value there is in staying in jail. Paul
could not possibly have known what God was going to do through him while he was in jail. Yet, God’s eternal work through the Apostle Paul was accomplished because he believed strongly enough to pay this ultimate price. Paul was convinced that his beliefs were right, and was willing to spend the rest of his life in jail rather than change them.
V. DEATH PRESSURE
Death pressure causes most people to change their beliefs. The last theory the courts talk about is whether you are prepared to die for your beliefs. There are many things in life worse than dying. Denying your faith and having to live with that fact is one of them. The court asks if you would be willing to die for your beliefs. The court says that a conviction is a belief that you will not change even in the face of death. Why? What creates a conviction? In a Christian, only one thing should do so. A man believes that his God requires it of him.
A belief that is God-ordered is a conviction. It is not a matter of resolve or a matter of dedication. It is a matter of believing, with all of your heart, that God requires something of you. The courts say that if you believe that God requires something of you and that your belief is God-ordered, then you will withstand all of the tests about which they have spoken. First, it must be decided if your belief is a conviction or a preference. Preferences simply are not protected by the Constitution. Convictions are.
WHAT IS A CONVICTION?
1. A conviction is something that you purpose in your heart. The courts say that a conviction is not something you merely discover. It is not something at which you accidently arrive, but it is something that you purpose, in your heart, as a fabric of your belief system. Dr. Bob Jones, Sr., often said that he had never seen a man made by a crisis. A crisis exposes a man for what he already is. That is exactly what the courts are examining; they want to find out if your beliefs are accidental, or whether they are purposed in your heart. There are parallels in the story in Scripture of
the three Hebrew children, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The three Hebrew children did a strange thing when they were taken into captivity. They purposed in their hearts not to defile themselves with the king’s meat or wine.
To purpose in your heart to do, or not to do something requires a great determination that you are willing to pay whatever price is necessary to carry out that decision. This is not merely a matter of making a quick decision, or formulating an opinion. It is deciding with great determination that you are going to follow through, no matter what is necessary or required of you. A conviction is not something that is a mild decision. It is a decision that is made with every fiber of your being, and with a full resolve of your heart and mind.
2. A conviction must be pre-determined. The courts say that your convictions must be determined beforehand to be convictions. A golden image was erected and all the people were to bow when the instruments played. When musicians’ instruments played, the Scriptures tell us that these three Hebrew men stood erect, refusing to bow. Where were all the other Hebrews? There were more than three of them in that land. They were bowing down and king’s edict. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were the only ones who stood tall. They had predetermined what they were going to do.
There are many Christians who claim to have convictions, but who have never thought out those convictions to any degree. They are spur-of-the-moment Christians. Their convictions are based on reactions rather than on pre-determined, well-thought-out decisions. A conviction is not merely an idea. It is something that you have decided after much thought to do, no matter what the consequences.
3. A conviction is a personal belief. The court says that if it is required for other people to stand with you, your beliefs are preferences and not convictions. I have had preachers come to me and say, “I believe that I ought to take a stand on this issue, but I will only stand if you will get a certain college or group to say that I should stand and to stand with me.” As great as those other people may be, what do they have to do with what God has required of you? You must decide what you will stand for even if no one else is willing to stand with you. If other people have to stand with you before you will stand, then your beliefs are preferences and not convictions.
It is interesting how many Christians have convictions that change when they find themselves standing all by themselves. A conviction is something that you purpose in your heart that you will do regardless of what anyone else decides to do. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood together, but in reality they stood alone. Because of the multitude of other Hebrew children, they were in the minority of those who were willing to take a stand. The multitude of others decided to do exactly what they were told. It must have been a difficult decision for them knowing that they were going against their own people in what they had decided to do.
4. A conviction is non-negotiable. The three Hebrew children were taken before the king. The king was angry, and asked if they knew what they had done. Before they could even answer, he did a strange thing. He broke the law and said, “I am going to give you a second chance. The next time those instruments play, if you bow down, all will be well. If not, nobody is going to deliver you out of my hand. You are dead men.”
Do you know what most of us would have done? We would have praised the Lord because we were still alive and breathing, and used our second chance to change our minds. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not do that. They said to the king that they did not have to be careful how they answered him. They said to give them another chance or do not give them another chance. Do it now or do not do it now. Nothing is going to change. They had resolved that they were not going to bow, and that was not going to change. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego told the king that this matter of their faith was non-negotiable.
Courts say that if you can sit down and discuss the negotiation of your faith, then your faith is a matter of preference and not conviction because convictions are non-negotiable. Why does the court require this? How do you negotiate what is God-ordered? The court says that you cannot. If you begin a dialogue where you sit down with someone in authority to negotiate, that is fairly strong proof that your belief is a matter of preference and not conviction.
Recall what the three Hebrew children said, because it illustrates the last point the court chose. They said to the king that they believed that their God could deliver them. Even if the king threw them into that furnace and their God did not deliver them, they still were not going to bow. Whether or not they came out of that furnace alive did not change their beliefs. They stood firm.
5. A conviction is not contingent on victory. Courts have said that if you must be assured of victory before you will stand, then your beliefs are preferences and not convictions. That is the test that they are beginning to follow. Why? Because many of our men are more concerned about winning than they are about standing. In the Christian faith we do not fight for victory. We fight in victory. We have already won. The only thing we are doing now is standing in that victory.
It has been my experience that many men stand for a belief until there comes a time when they realize that they are not going to win. It is at that point that the true test of conviction begins. Often men will accept changing because they see no other choice. That proves that it was only a preference. A conviction says I will lose, and I will lose, and I will lose, and I will lose, and I will lose, and I will lose, but I will not change. That, in itself, makes it a victory. A preference will say I will lose, I will lose, I will lose, I will lose, I will change. That moment what was considered to be a conviction was shattered, and that person forfeited his right to victory. We must not limit God by limiting what He can do even in an apparent defeat.
When Levi Whisner went to trial he lost, yet he still won. When he appealed that decision and lost, he really won. When he went to the Supreme Court of the state of Ohio, they unanimously said that he was right. He had been 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 Whisner recognized that. He stood in this country when no other man saw this issue. He stood for all of us. Yet he stood alone with no other organization or support beside him. When all of the tests of preference and conviction were
applied, he passed convincingly.
THE ULTIMATE TEST OF CONVICTION
The court saw another problem. Sometimes people do not exactly tell the truth. I do not know if I have ever seen any of the people I have represented lie in the courtroom, but I have seen some who were incredibly casual with the truth. As a consequence, the court decided that there must be a way to know whether, in fact, what you are saying is the truth. How do we know if you have a preference or a conviction? There are going to be lawyers to tell you that when you testify to make “conviction” your middle name. Get it out as many times and in as many places as you can. It does not matter what the circumstances are. Keep using the word conviction.
To overcome the problem, the court goes even further when evaluating alleged convictions. If they are real convictions, they will have already passed the other preference tests.
1. Peer pressure
2. People pressure
3. Lawsuit pressure
4. Jail pressure
5. Death pressure
None of these have appeared to change this individual’s beliefs, but because lawyers exist to win lawsuits, the courts have rules that extend past the legal test to examine his beliefs even more deeply. A person can sit before the court, testify that he would die for his beliefs, knowing that no one will ask him to do so, and appear quite sincere. However, the court reserves for itself the right to examine the individual’s life. How have these beliefs molded and shaped this person’s life? The court will examine every area of an individual’s life from vocation to recreation, searching for consistency or inconsistency in light of the individual’s convictions.
6. A conviction will always show up in a person’s lifestyle. What is on the inside of a man will always show up on the outside. Since this is true, and we teach that it is, then what the court should easily be able to do is evaluate our convictions by examining our lives. The court says that you do not have a right to say you have a conviction, unless it can somehow be seen that you live that conviction with some degree of consistency. When it begins to apply that test, good Christian people often become quite uncomfortable.
The Word of God says in James that you should not tell about your faith, you should show your faith. Why? Because what we say is dead without works. It is like a body with no spirit in it. It is meaningless, because the thing that gives it vibrancy and life is absent. The court says, “We want to see your faith in action, and we want to examine it in order to prove that it is a conviction.”
For example, we say, “You ought to send your child to a Christian school. We believe that a Christian school is the only desirable place for your child to receive an education in truth, and an education that will equip him for life. We want you to send your child to a Christian school because we will help make the Bible the foundation for his life. However, if you are not going to send your child to a Christian school, then have your child be the best witness he can be in the public school.” That is an illustration of a preference. I said that you ought to send your child to a Christian school, but if you are going to do the other, do the best you can. The court considers that to be a classic example of a preference statement.
The court is looking for consistency. If we say that something is a matter of conviction, where do we get our convictions? Where do we get all our beliefs? We get them from the Word of God. We teach our children in Sunday school that it is a sin to disobey the Word of God. The court says that the opposite of a conviction must be a sin. You must stand for that, 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. That is what we believe. Disobedience to what God has ordered is the classic definition of sin.
Before you state that something is a conviction, you must be prepared to say that its opposite is a sin. If you say that 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 matter, then you must say the opposite is a sin, or it is not a conviction. Someone says, “I believe I ought to do some things, but I want to be more tolerant. I think we ought to be more open-minded about this.” That is a preference. You must make up your mind about
what you believe, or be willing to admit that you only have preferences.
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 you must be able to explain to the court that the opposite of these convictions is a sin. What happens if you do not tell them it is a sin? I have seen the following happen.
They asked, “Pastor, do you believe that every child must receive a Christian education?”
He said, “Yes I do.”
They said, “Well, Pastor, do you hold that as a conviction of your faith?”
He said, “Yes I do.”
They asked, “Pastor, have you ever told your people that not giving your child a Christian education is a sin?”
The Pastor said, “No, I have not done that.”
They asked, “Why have you not done that, Pastor?”
He said, “I just have not gotten around to it.”
They asked, “How long have you been getting around to it?”
He said, “A couple of years.”
Then they asked, “Pastor, is it not true 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?”
Bear in mind, the man 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. He must now answer that question truthfully. If you say that you have a conviction, make certain 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.
7. 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 1) Life and 2) Lip.” A good part of every court case is about whether what you say with your mouth is consistently being practiced with your life.
Are the reasons for giving a child a Christian education a conviction with you? Why? Let us examine how easily we form convictions that can be challenged in court.
It is a conviction of ours that pornography should not be viewed. It is a conviction of ours that obscenity should not be spoken. It is a conviction of ours that nudity should not be viewed. It is a conviction of ours that unrighteous themes should not be exalted. It is a conviction of ours that righteous themes should not be abased. You have seen this happen. Godly characters are made to look foolish and stupid. Most of us would agree that these are convictions to us. Why? 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 they have asked, “Do you own a television?”
He said, “Yes I do.”
They asked, “How much did that television cost?”
He said, “Two to three hundred dollars.”
They asked, “Where do you keep that television?”
He said, “In the living room or family room.”
They asked, “Why do you keep it there?”
He said, “We keep it there so people can see it.”
They asked, “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?”
He said, “Yes, this is true.”
They asked, “On this television do you ever see or hear obscenity, or do you ever hear someone curse or swear ”
He said, “Yes!” (There is not an evening you will watch it that it will not use obscenity in your presence.)
They asked, “Is there any nudity?”
He said, “Yes!”
(If someone came to your house and brought a woman dressed the way the women on that television set are dressed, you would not let them into your house. You would say, “You offend me by coming to my house dressed like that. What is the matter with you?” But we let them in on the electronic media and even pay extra money to get it in color.)
The court asked, “Do you ever see unrighteous themes exalted on television?”
He said, “All the time.”
They asked, “Do you ever see righteous themes debased?”
He said, “Yes.”
They asked, “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 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 our inconsistency? We have just showed the court through our lifestyles that the convictions we mouth are not consistently practiced. In the courtroom the examination of the pastor and the Christian school teachers is predominantly centered on whether or not they consistently live their beliefs, Bear in mind, you do not 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. The courts say that it must be at such a level that when they look at your life, they can see it.
If I said, “I do not believe in drinking alcohol,” and then you watched me drink a glass of whiskey, you would say, “The man is crazy. He says one thing but he does the opposite.” That is exactly what is happening in courtrooms today. The court says that we say one thing, but we do something entirely different. They 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 in each of these areas with visible consistency.
Your life is the truest test of your convictions. The courts can test you in every way as to whether or not what you say you believe is truly your conviction, but the ultimate test is an examination of your life. You cannot run from that, nor can you hide from it. Your life, and the way you live it, is the truest test of all for your beliefs.
Many Christians in our country are living lives that defy their stated beliefs. They are against things in some forms that they are willing to accept in others. They denounce the actions of some that they allow to be acceptable in themselves. Nothing will separate the truth from the rhetoric quicker than serious examination of the way we live our lives. In such an examination most of us will find that our beliefs are founded on preferences far more regularly than they are upon deep-seated convictions.
You can lie on the witness stand if you wish, but if that judge could come into your home and rummage through your magazine rack, look through your book shelves, check out your tape library, examine your record albums, conduct a daily log on your television viewing, and, in general, inspect every aspect of your life, would he be able to determine that what you say you believe is what you truly do believe?
Do you not see the problem we are facing? Our convictions are being tested in this country, 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. It goes to prove that most of our beliefs are only preferences that we personally find comfortable and convenient. We are self-serving in many of the things we believe.
The greatest tragedy is not the inconsistency before the court, but the insult before Christ. Far too often we bow before the alter 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.
(The above material was published by Christian Law Association, Conneaut, OH).
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