Questions From Readers
What should a Christian do when called for jury duty?
In some lands, the judicial system uses juries selected from the citizenry. Where this prevails, a Christian must decide how to respond when directed to report for jury duty. Many Christians have in good conscience concluded that Bible principles do not rule out appearing, even as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego complied with the directive of the Babylonian government to appear on the plain of Dura and as Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem at the direction of the Roman authorities. (Daniel 3:1-12; Luke 2:1-4) There are, though, factors that sincere Christians can consider.
The use of juries is not universal. In some lands, civil and criminal cases are decided by a professional judge or a panel of judges. Elsewhere, what is known as common law prevails, and juries are part of the judicial process. Still, most people have only a vague idea of how juries are selected and what they do. So getting an overview will be helpful whether you face jury duty or not.
God’s people recognize Jehovah as the Supreme Judge. (Isaiah 33:22) In ancient Israel, experienced men who were upright and impartial served as judges to resolve disputes and decide questions of law. (Exodus 18:13-22; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 21:18-21) By the time Jesus was on earth, the judicial function was handled by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. (Mark 15:1; Acts 5:27-34) There was no provision for the average Jew to be on a civil jury.
Other lands used juries made up of citizens. Socrates was tried by 501 jurors. Trial by jury existed also in the Roman Republic, though this was abolished under the emperors. Later, King Henry III of England provided for the accused to be judged by his neighbors. It was felt that since they knew the accused, their judgment would be fairer than procedures in which he tried to prove his innocence by combat or by surviving some ordeal. As time went by, the jury system changed into an arrangement whereby a group of citizens were to hear a case and reach a verdict based on evidence. A professional judge guided them on points of evidence.
There is variety in the types of juries, the number of jurors, and what is involved in reaching a verdict. For example, in the United States, a grand jury of from 12 to 23 members decides whether there is enough evidence for a person to be indicted for a criminal offense; it does not determine guilt or innocence. Similarly, in a coroner’s jury (jury of inquest), the jurors weigh evidence to decide whether a crime was committed.
When most people think of a jury, they have in mind a panel of 12 citizens at a trial—either a civil dispute or a criminal case—who hear testimony to decide guilt or innocence. This is a petit (small) jury, in contrast with a grand jury. Generally, the court sends notices to appear for jury duty to individuals selected from lists of voters, licensed drivers, or the like. Some may automatically be disqualified, such as convicted felons and the mentally incompetent. Depending on local law, others—such as doctors, clergymen, lawyers, or owners of small businesses—may claim exemption. (Some may be exempted because they have strong personal, conscientious objections to jury service.) Yet, authorities are increasingly eliminating exemptions so that all are obliged to report for jury duty, perhaps repeatedly over the years.
Not all reporting for jury duty necessarily sit as jurors in a trial. From a pool of persons called for jury duty, some are selected at random as potential jurors for a particular case. Then the judge identifies the parties and their attorneys and describes the nature of the case. He and the attorneys examine each potential juror. This is the time to speak up if one has a conscientious reason for not serving because of the nature of that case.
The group needs to be reduced to the number who will actually sit through the trial of that case. The judge will dismiss any whose impartiality may be questioned because of possible interest in the case. Also, the attorneys for each side have the prerogative to dismiss a few jurors. Any who are dismissed from that jury panel return to the jury pool to await random selection for other cases. Some Christians in this situation have used the time to do informal witnessing. After a number of days, a person’s jury duty is fulfilled, whether he has actually sat as a juror or not.
Christians strive ‘to mind their own business,’ not getting involved in “other people’s matters.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:15) When a Jew asked Jesus to judge a matter about inheritance, he responded: “Man, who appointed me judge or apportioner over you persons?” (Luke 12:13, 14) Jesus came to declare the Kingdom good news, not to arbitrate legal matters. (Luke 4:18, 43) Jesus’ response may have moved the man to use the method for settling disputes that was set out in God’s Law. (Deuteronomy 1:16, 17) Valid as such points are, responding to a direction to report for jury duty is different from involving oneself in the business of others. It is closer to the situation of Daniel’s three companions. The Babylonian government commanded them to report to the plain of Dura, and their doing so did not violate God’s Law. What they did thereafter was another matter, as the Bible shows.—Daniel 3:16-18.
After God’s servants ceased to be under the Mosaic Law, they had to deal with secular courts in various lands. The apostle Paul urged “holy ones” in Corinth to settle differences within the congregation. While referring to the judiciary of secular courts as “unrighteous men,” Paul did not deny that such had a place in handling secular affairs. (1 Corinthians 6:1) He defended himself in the Roman judicial setting, even appealing his case to Caesar. It is not as if secular courts are fundamentally wrong.—Acts 24:10; 25:10, 11.
Secular courts are a function of “the superior authorities.” Such “stand placed in their relative positions by God,” and they make and enforce laws. Paul wrote: “It is God’s minister to you for your good. But if you are doing what is bad, be in fear: for it is not without purpose that it bears the sword; for it is God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad.” Christians do not ‘oppose the authority’ as it carries out such legal functions, for they do not want to ‘take a stand against it’ and receive judgment.—Romans 13:1-4; Titus 3:1.
In balancing factors, Christians should consider whether they can submit to certain demands made by Caesar. Paul counseled: “Render to all [the superior authorities] their dues, to him who calls for the tax, the tax; to him who calls for the tribute, the tribute; to him who calls for fear, such fear.” (Romans 13:7) That is straightforward as to a monetary tax. (Matthew 22:17-21) If Caesar says that citizens must give of their time and efforts to clean roads or perform other work that is among Caesar’s functions, each Christian must decide whether to submit.—Matthew 5:41.
Some Christians have viewed jury service as rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. (Luke 20:25) In jury duty the task is to hear evidence and offer an honest opinion on points of fact or law. For example, on a grand jury, the jurors decide whether the evidence warrants someone’s being brought to trial; they do not determine guilt. What of a common trial? In a civil case, the jury might award damages or compensation. In a criminal case, they are to determine whether the evidence supports a guilty verdict. Sometimes they recommend which sentence stipulated by law should be applied. Then the government uses its authority “to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad,” or “to inflict punishment on evildoers.”—1 Peter 2:14.
What if a Christian does not feel that his conscience permits him to serve on a particular jury? The Bible does not mention jury duty, so he cannot say, ‘It is against my religion to serve on any jury.’ Depending on the case, he might state that serving on the jury for a particular case is against his personal conscience. That might be so if a case involves sexual immorality, abortion, manslaughter, or another issue on which his thinking is shaped by Bible knowledge, not by mere secular law. In reality, though, it is quite possible that the trial he is selected for does not involve such issues.
A mature Christian would also reflect on whether he would share any responsibility for the sentence rendered by judges. (Compare Genesis 39:17-20; 1 Timothy 5:22.) If a guilty verdict is in error and the death penalty is imposed, would a Christian on the jury share bloodguilt? (Exodus 22:2; Deuteronomy 21:8; 22:8; Jeremiah 2:34; Matthew 23:35; Acts 18:6) At Jesus’ trial Pilate wanted to be “innocent of the blood of this man.” The Jews readily said: “His blood come upon us and upon our children.”—Matthew 27:24, 25.
If a Christian reported for jury duty, as directed by the government, but because of his personal conscience declined to serve on a particular case despite the insistence of the judge, the Christian should be prepared to face the consequences—be that a fine or imprisonment.—1 Peter 2:19.
In the final analysis, each Christian faced with jury duty must determine what course to follow, based on his understanding of the Bible and his own conscience. Some Christians have reported for jury duty and have served on certain juries. Others have felt compelled to decline even in the face of punishment. Each Christian has to decide for himself what he will do, and others should not criticize his decision.—Galatians 6:5.