Christian Ethics and Legal Maneuvering

Wayne Jackson
Christians are not only responsible to the laws of God, they are accountable to the laws designed to protect society. A relationship with Christ does not exempt one from legal culpability.

When a Christian commits a crime, is he (or she) exempt from the societal consequences of the act, merely because of a relationship with Christ? Or is one obliged to face the legal responsibility for his deeds? May other Christians embolden law-breakers by supporting them or assisting them in escaping the duty they sustain to the law?

The Dahmer Case

Jeffrey Dahmer (1960-94) was one of the most notorious murderers in the recent history of American criminal brutality. His parents were Christian people, but something went awry early in the life of young Dahmer. When he was eight years old, a neighbor molested him sexually. Gradually thereafter, his life was characterized by incredibly bizarre behavior.

When Dahmer was eighteen, he committed his first murder (while his parents were involved in a bitter divorce conflict); that crime was to be followed by sixteen other murders that would be characterized by unspeakable horrors, e.g., necrophilia and cannibalism. Dahmer eventually was apprehended, tried, and imprisoned—where, ultimately, another inmate took his life.

Before his untimely death, Jeffrey Dahmer was taught the gospel and was baptized. A new book, Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith, by Ray Ratcliff with Lindy Adams, tells the story of how Ratcliff came in contact with Dahmer and taught him the message of Christ.

Anyone who respects the teaching of the New Testament happily concedes that the grace of God and salvation by means of that grace is available to any person, no matter how evil he has been—if the person commits to Christ as his Savior, and genuinely obeys the conditions of the plan of redemption (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38).

The world chokes on the idea that anyone as evil as Dahmer could enter heaven; but human evaluations, and those divine, are a universe apart.

Is it, though, a legitimate cause to argue that Dahmer, on the basis of his conversion, should have been released back into society? No, it is not. And why is that? Because the moral-legal consequences of his crime ought to have been satisfied. As a result of his offenses against humanity, Jeffrey Dahmer should have paid the full price for his crimes (Genesis 9:6; Acts 25:11; Romans 13:4), but a lax society refused to implement the divine ideal.

Unfortunately, it sometimes is the case that well-meaning (though misguided) Christians confuse forgiveness with responsibility. Children of God should (and must) extend a forgiving spirit to pardoned sinners, but that does not license them to work for the unwarranted release of those who have committed serious crimes that have taken or wrecked the lives of fellow citizens.

May a rational child of God who commits murder or rape plead not guilty? The law says he may. “Not guilty” in legal circles means: “Let the state prove its case; I’m not obligated to cooperate in my own prosecution.”

But Christians operate on a higher plane than does the state. The child of God is obliged to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And pleading not guilty, when one is guilty of a heinous crime, is not in harmony with Christian ethics—no matter what the state allows.

Christians are not thinking biblically when they rush to defend the murderer, rapist, or robber—attempting to assist with all sorts of legal maneuvering, e.g., raising bail, testifying as character witnesses, begging for clemency.

Such ones are not acting in the best interest of the victim’s family, they are not reflecting upon the debt owed society, and they are ignoring (in the case of a murder) the principle of the sacredness of human life and divine justice. Strange as it may sound to some, these sincere “friends” really are not even acting in the genuine interest of the criminal. The perpetrator of the crime must seek God’s pardon, be absolutely truthful, and take whatever punishment may follow—realizing that heaven still can be his home.

But what if the state neglects its responsibility, and as a result of flaws in the legal system, the criminal is set free? “So be it”—“Go and sin no more”—is about all that can be said. The law-breaker is not responsible for the loopholes in the system; he or she is responsible for his personal conduct. And the “high road” must be pursued conscientiously—always!

A Confessed Murderer

Some years ago, I received a letter from a prisoner in a major penal institution in the southeastern portion of our country. As I recall, he was incarcerated for a felony (burglary or armed robbery). This Christian informed me that he also had been arrested on suspicion of murder, but for lack of evidence the case was never brought to trial. He then confessed that, in fact, he had committed the murder. His conscience obviously was bothering him. What was he now to do? What spiritual responsibility did he have?

I informed him that if he wanted to do the right thing, he must approach the proper authorities, confess he had lied to them regarding the murder, and take whatever penalties might follow as a result of his crime. Significantly, I never heard from him again. I could only conclude that he wilted under the culpability.

A Sexual Predator

A few years back, a prominent Christian teacher was accused of sexually molesting a teenage boy. When questioned by authorities, he vehemently denied any involvement in the affair. He even prepared a detailed document that cast the young man into a sinister light. He destroyed the boy’s credibility (vilifying him as a drug-abusing, mental case), and disgraced him before his family, Christian friends, and the community.

Following a careful investigation, the truth came to light. He had sexually molested the youngster, and over a protracted period of time. He had supplied the lad with money for drugs and abused him on a sustained basis in the most abominable ways imaginable. He took a boy who trusted him and turned him into a sex slave!

Further investigation revealed that this influential man had an approximately thirty-year history of such base activity, making shipwreck of the faith of several boys in the process.

The case under review was never brought to trial, however, due to the fact that the youngster was sixteen years old, thus was of “consensual age” in that state. But what about the lies the adult abuser fed to the district attorney’s investigators? And what of the false witness borne against the lad? Are such of no consequence?

More recently, it was discovered that this man had sexually molested a youngster from a non-Christian family near his home, beginning when the boy was twelve. The abuse continued for several years, and the young man has suffered serious, enduring emotional problems as a result.

What is the duty of this offender—if he truly would be right with God? May he simply say to the Christian brotherhood, “I have repented,” and yet take no legal responsibility for his crime?

Doubtless this is what some would contend. Would the same conclusion be argued if he had raped a woman or committed murder? Are Christians who harbor (and even sustain) such a one immune from moral responsibility?

Incredibly, this man now has worked his way into another formal relationship in which he mentors young teen boys, emboldened by misguided friends. It hardly is prudent to utilize a wolf to “mentor” lambs!

There is something terribly wrong when compassion becomes complicity, manifested in the shielding of one who has committed criminal activity, as the offender seeks to avoid his societal responsibility. A ton of compassion can be terribly misguided when accompanied by only an ounce of factual information. It is very unfortunate that for some, “forgiveness” apparently covers a multitude of crimes.


In the commission of a crime, there is first a responsibility to God, which involves genuine repentance that embraces heartfelt sorrow, honest confession, and a reformation of conduct.

There is also a duty to victims, to society, and to the civil authorities that providentially are used by God for the maintenance of moral order (Romans 13:1ff). A truly penitent person will render an account for the crime he has committed in all venues applicable.

When the Roman authorities interrogated Paul regarding his activities pertaining to the Christian faith, the apostle declared: “If then I am a wrong-doer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11).

There is a principle here that demands attention: when one has committed a crime that is “worthy of” punishment, he cannot deny it, shift the blame to others, or go under cover, waiting for the statute of limitations to expire.

There is no such statute of limitations with God! And for some crimes, there is none under civil law.