The Story: An Oklahoma District Court judge sentenced a teen convicted of manslaughter to attend church for ten years as part of his probation arrangement.
The Background: The seventeen-year-old plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter in August for killing his friend and passenger in a car crash. According to ABC News, the Oklahoma teen was 16 at the time of the crash and had been drinking prior to the accident.
The judge could have sent the teen to jail but, taking into account his clean criminal and school records, sentenced him to wear a drug and alcohol bracelet, participate in counseling groups, graduate from high school, and attend a weekly church service of his choosing. To avoid jail time, Judge Mike Norman gave the teen a maximum 10-year deferred sentence.
“The Lord works in many ways,” Judge Mike Norman, a member of First Baptist Church in Muskogee, Oklahoma, told ABC News. “I’ve done a little bit of this kind of thing before, but never on such a serious charge.”
Judge Norman added, “I told my preacher I thought I led more people to Jesus than he had but, then again, more of my people have amnesia. They soon forget once they get out of jail.”
Why It Matters: While Judge Norman’s method may be unorthodox, there are a number of studies that show a positive correlation between religion and reduced crime and recidivism. As Baylor professor Byron R. Johnson wrote in his book, More God, Less Crime, young men who go to church regularly are less likely to be involved with alcohol, drugs, and crime. Similarly, released convicts who are involved with a local congregation are less likely to commit further crimes or return to prison.
However, even if it’s an effective crime-reducing measure Christians should oppose such sentencing since it subverts the nature of the church. As Mark Dever writes, “The church is the body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify him together by serving him in his world.” One of the ways we glorify Christ is through genuine, voluntary fellowship. As Dever explains,
Ultimately, fellowship among Christians in the church is based on the Christian’s covenantal union with Christ. According to the New Testament, therefore, Christians live with Christ, suffer with Christ, are crucified with Christ, die with Christ, will be raised with Christ, and are glorified with Christ. Christ’s life, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory become theirs through their membership in his new covenant.
As Christians we should embrace the opportunity to serve everyone affected by the criminal justice system. We should also recognize that our churches serve an important role within society as values-forming mediating institutions. But we must also make it clear that sentencing convicts to sit in a pew violates the nature of the church. The church is where we spend time together serving Christ in his world, not where we come to avoid serving time in prison.