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Christians and Prison Ministries

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

My mind has wandered onto the subject of prison ministry.  In my past, I have had a priest who was deeply involved with going to a state prison each month and tending to the ministerial needs of convicted felons, those who had committed serious crimes.  I never questioned that need, although I could see my priest under significant stress from all of the “charitable work” he volunteered himself to do.  He made it seem so hard being a true Christian, simply because his candle always seemed to be burning at more than the two ends.

Jesus, as far as the Gospels tell us, did no such charitable work.  Jesus’ ministry was at a time when history reports the Romans took delight in making sure the Jews (and all others in Judea) knew who held the ruling hand those days.  Surely, there were those in prisons unjustly two thousand years ago.  But, just recently (the third Sunday of Advent, in the Book of Matthew) we were reminded about John the Baptist being in prison and sending some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one.”

Jesus did not go to the prison to soothe John’s worries about being unjustly imprisoned.  Conversely, while Jesus was in prison, awaiting trial and being punished, none of his disciples came to offer their support.  Jesus, if could be assumed, never demonstrated to his disciples, “Remember, next Wednesday we will go preach to the felons in the prison.” Therefore, Jesus had a ministry that sought those who had not yet committed crimes, and there were plenty outside prisons to serve.

I believed the prison ministry was something expected of Christians.  I don’t know why, but it was probably rooted in having read in Paul’s letters, where he told those in various churches that he encouraged to care for the prisoners.

I now see this as Paul knowing, first-hand, the persecution that early Christians were facing from Roman overlords and their Jewish brethren (those seeing talk of a Messiah as heresy).  Paul himself was punished many times for his faith (beaten and stoned), and he was imprisoned several times.  He knew others who were likewise filled with the Holy Spirit would be so “in your face” about Jesus that they too would probably be put under lock and key at some point in their futures.  Thus, Paul’s intent was to minister to Christians unjustly in jail.  Paul was not saying, “Don’t forget to go sell religion to criminals as a way to get an early release.”

Criminals in prisons are the ones our judicial system has declared “sinners” against a society.  The society makes laws that are morally based, to some degree; and those laws are designed to scare people away from crime.  The police cannot and do not arrest a “would-be murderer.”  The law tells them to wait until the body is really dead.

Those who, for whatever reason act to break the law and get caught, are punished by the judicial system.  If convicted, they go to prison for a period of time determined by the society (somewhat) to be reasonable and just.

In that process, mistakes do happen, as we all know.  Some innocent people are convicted of crimes they did not commit.  However, to keep from living in a dangerously lawless state (anarchy), we all have to assume that mistakes happen, but we accept flaws of the legal system (wrongly convicting people).

We have to see those mistakes as being to such a small degree that we can live with a few innocent people in prison.  That is much easier than the alternative, where we live with a lot of hardened criminals still on the street breaking the laws, from fear of wrongly convicting them.  As Americans, we see our judicial system as fair, rather than like some other worldly systems, those which seek to wrongly convict people who are threats to the state.

What has my mind wandering now is how Christians have taken on such a high position in the world, one so high as to feel it is important to have prison ministries.  The purpose is not to seek out persecuted Christians and offer encouragement to maintain the Holy Spirit.  Instead, it is designed to welcome those in maximum security prisons, whose hearts were so blackened they committed heinous crimes.

We cannot have a prison ministry that only goes to minimum security prisons or seeks only to help white collar criminals ease back into society.  It has become a Christian responsibility to find the darkest places on earth and “go shine the light.”  To me, such a service is not a determining factor for a true Christian.  True Christians do not go out into the world looking for fights, as if, “Woe be it to you who challenges my godlike presence.”  The people came to Jesus, so the light attracts those who want to see; and that is the only way Christianity can happen.

My mind wanders because our society has become so putrid with its acceptance of sin that it has divided our nation into two factions: those who deny there is a God, but love to count on Christians to accept all sins as forgiven; and those who believe they are pure and godlike, because they are Christian, so can lay their hands on the sinful and save them (or cast down condemnation for not being saved). 

Stuck in the middle of these two major groups are the true Christians.  Those are human beings who just want to live a life in honor of Christ, letting God forgive who God wants to forgive, letting the wicked be punished, and accepting that if they break God’s Law and/or Christ’s example, then they will lose more than a few years of freedom on earth.  When it is said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” one Christian is that first step.

Jesus did not come to minister to the sinful.  He was sent by God to show us all how to live, if we truly want to get to Heaven.  All the Apostles demonstrated that living like Christ means living a life of hardship, brought on by living right.  For some reason, if you live right, then you are going to attract a lot of people who think you are trying to show them all up, for not living right.

True Christians (Apostles) help other true Christians (persecuted Apostles), because true Christians have been filled with the Holy Spirit.  Through that infusion, true Christians are quite aware what they (individually) must do with their lives (individually).  Christ did not come to overthrow the Roman Empire (although it was later overthrown).  Apostles did not take rise to eliminate crimes from society (although Apostles commit no crimes).

I believe if we stop trying to save the world for Jesus, the world will be a better place.  All each one of us should do, all that each one of us can ever do, is save ourselves.  In attempting self-salvation, we have no control over the outcome.  Only God grants salvation.  The mind of Christ leads us, individually, in that direction.  That means letting the Holy Spirit into your heart, so Christ can then rule your mind.

If that leads one to a prison, because a family member or friend is there, then that is God’s call for you.  Just don’t let your brain do the thinking, so you start believing you are smart enough to save anyone besides yourself.  Always keep in mind, however,  if you spread the Holy Spirit to a convicted criminal, he or she will suddenly realize they would be much better off cleaning the earthly sins off their bodies in an earthly prison, rather than getting out of prison without having truly paid for their crimes.

Just like Jesus told the messengers from John the Baptist, “Look at the deeds of my ministry, to know if I am the one.”  In the end, our Christianity is always relative to our deeds.  We can be “reborn in Christ,” but just like our first birth, we come out cold, wet, and crying.  We leave a warm and secure environment, all we have ever known, forced by our own mothers to leave and find some place else to live.  We change from breathing embryonic fluid to breathing God’s life breath.

Change is deeds.  One way or another, sacrifices must be made.  There is no easy way to heaven.  Earth is a prison to all of us, with Christ the minister who has come to show us the way to find the only true freedom – that of Heaven.

R. T. Tippett

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