I just had an article published in Christianity Today’s sister magazine, Leadership Journal. The title of the article is “Doing Community Behind Bars” and details my experience of teaching a doctrinal survey course to our newest cohort of 15 men. Here’s the cover of the recent print issue:
Apparently a fuller version of my article (originally entitled “A Theologian Goes to Prison”) will appear in next month’s online version of the journal.
Here’s my article in full if you wish to read it.
A Theologian Goes to Prison (Where Doctrine Really Gets Practical) Larry Dixon, Ph.D.
“Hey, Doc. You know, being in prison you are exposed to so much prejudice, hatred, selfishness, loneliness, etc., that you can forget the goodness of God.” William’s statement reminded me of why I was teaching this group of inmates in our Prison Initiative. They desperately need the truths of God’s Word to survive — and to help them learn to get along with others.
For the past three weeks I have been teaching this new cohort of fifteen inmates at the Kirkland Correctional Institution, men who are brothers in Christ but are serving from seven years to life for various crimes.
After parking in the staff parking lot, I would enter the security area, remove my shoes, belt, watch, and anything else in my pockets, then place my Bible, textbook, and folder in the plastic bin that would go through the X-ray machine. I would then walk through a metal detector and spread my arms out to the side and be patted down while being asked if I were bringing any contraband items into the prison (cell phones, more than $50, weapons, drugs, etc.). Then I would put my belt and shoes back on and wait to be buzzed into the hallway where I would have my prison ID scanned. Another metal door would be buzzed open so I could then walk two blocks in the damp underground tunnel to another security area. The officer behind the thick and barred glass would then press a button so that the large metal door would roll back allowing me to enter a short hallway. After that door slammed with finality behind me, another metal door would roll open and I would be standing in the prison’s open yard. Lines of inmates would watch me as I walked another block to the upstairs library and classroom to teach my class.
It takes time and effort to get into prison, but I was thankful that I could come as a free man to teach this group of brothers the fundamentals of the Christian faith. If anyone needs the doctrinal truths of God’s Word, it’s these men. They need to know that God’s Word does not return void to Him, that He’s into changing His people, no matter what they’ve done. I knew I would see some transformation during my three weeks with these men. I just didn’t know who would get transformed.
Columbia International University’s Prison Initiative began in 2007 and, by God’s grace, has produced 75 graduates who have completed the two-year study program (some serve as assistant prison chaplains). These men go through a rigorous interview process in which only fifteen (out of sixty) applicants are accepted into the newest cohort. Brothers in Christ, these students come from a wide range of backgrounds, represent various ethnic groups, and are incarcerated for a variety of offenses. CIU’s Prison Initiative began training women inmates in
2012 at Camille Griffin Graham Institution and will graduate its first women’s cohort of twelve this year.
For me one of the initial challenges to teaching at Kirkland was overcoming my curiosity about what these men did to get them locked up, some for the rest of their earthly days. But, by God’s grace, I realized that such information would serve no useful purpose.
I don’t probe to find out their crimes, although sometimes they will talk about how God got their attention when they killed someone, or held up a bank, or whatever. In teaching five or six cohorts (one per year), I’ve yet to meet a student in our program who claims he is in prison unjustly.
When I first volunteered to teach in our Prison Initiative, I had to sign a waiver that I would not sue the prison system if I were harmed or even taken hostage while in prison. It can sometimes be a bit disconcerting to be in a room with fifteen previously violent criminals. But these are serious followers of Jesus who want to make the rest of their lives count for Him. And I’m here to help them do just that. I’m here to teach them the practical nature of the doctrines of the Christian faith.
My, how we on the outside take our freedom for granted! Each of my students wear identical prison clothes (with “SC Department of Corrections” stenciled in large blue letters down their right pants leg), march to the mess hall for meals (with their left foot on the long, worn white line), and live in two-man cells with a sink and a toilet and zero privacy.
The first year I taught at Kirkland, I would finish my class, go through the grey security areas, walk to my car, and sit there thanking God that I could simply put my key in the ignition and drive away. I would then head straight for a Baskin- Robbins and consume a large vanilla milkshake. Because I could. (Don’t tell my wife about the milkshake).
We cover ten areas of systematic theology: the doctrines of introductory matters, God, Christ, the Bible, man, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the church, and final things. You know, the basics of our faith that all Christians have got nailed down. These are intense students who are “letting time serve them while they serve time.” Their questions often stump me, but they have reminded me of the so- what? imperative of the Christian faith. What difference does it make to affirm the hypostatic union of Christ (we work hard at defining terms and learning theological vocabulary), paedo versus credo baptism, or the differences between various millennial positions? One of my students said, “Theology is not as hard to
understand as it may seem.” (Although he made a C- on his final exam, I do appreciate his point). My students are teaching me to always ask, how do I apply this to where I live? right now?
Our Criminal Past
We Christians actually have a extensive history of consorting with the criminal element of our society. We are followers of a convicted criminal who underwent capital punishment for us. We come from a long line of outlaws, atheists (in the eyes of the Romans), rebels, and outcasts. The Scriptures detail our criminal past, from the detention of God’s people in Egypt (forced slavery assumes imprisonment), to Israel’s judges and kings (Samson, Jehoiachin and Manasseh) being taken captive by foreign nations (Judges 16; 2 Ki. 24:12; 2 Chron. 33:11). A well-known prisoner by the name of Barabbas was the beneficiary of the Roman governor Pilate’s largess. Matthew 27 tells us that “Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.” An innocent Jesus took the place of a guilty Jesus.
Our spiritual forebearer Joseph spent time in prison (Gen. 39), but was elevated to become Pharaoh’s right hand man. We learn of the prophets who were thrown in prison because their message from God outraged human leaders (2 Chron. 16:10). Jeremiah, that weeping prophet, was beaten and imprisoned (Jer. 37:15).
The Psalmist sees the Lord’s sovereignty behind His own people’s incarceration: “You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs” (Ps. 66:11). He also prays for himself, “Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.” (Ps. 142:7).
We read that the Messiah Himself will have a prison ministry. He will come “to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:7).
John the Baptist was thrown into prison (Mt. 4:12) where he later asked questions about Jesus’ Messiahship (Mt. 11:2). He was subsequently beheaded at the request of Herodias (Mt. 14).
Jesus uses the idea of being thrown into prison in His parable about forgiveness (Mt. 18:30). In Matthew 25 the action of visiting prisoners, according to Jesus, shows whether one will go to heaven or hell! Rather than prisoners being the great forgotten, they become the focus of expressing one’s love for God!
Jesus warns His disciples that they will be persecuted and thrown into prison “on account of my name” (Lk. 21:12). Peter declares to Jesus: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (Lk. 22:33).
Saul (before he got saved and renamed Paul) was an equal opportunity persecutor, for we read that he “began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3). Peter was imprisoned for his witness but was miraculously freed by an angel (Acts 12). Paul and Silas were severely flogged and thrown into prison, only later to be broken out of jail by a God-caused earthquake (Acts 16). Paul knew by the Holy Spirit that in every city “prison and hardships are facing me” (Acts 20:23).
Christian co-workers served time in prison. We read that Paul sends greetings to Andronicus and Junia, “my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me.” (Rom. 16:7).
Rather than a matter of shame, Paul boasts of his incarceration in 2 Corinthians 11:23: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.”
In Hebrews 10 those believers are challenged by the writer: 32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” Believers are challenged to “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison” (Heb. 13:3). We are warned by John that “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you” (Rev. 2:10).
But wait!, someone might say. There is quite a difference between being imprisoned for one’s crimes and being incarcerated for one’s Christian witness. True, but if it is true that there are no small sins before a great God, then don’t all of us deserve eternal imprisonment?
The So-What Issue
“Doc, are you going to make us cry again?”, one of my students asked me as I was preparing to play the music video “Though He Slay Me” by Shane and Shane (the one with the mini-Piper sermon in the middle). The previous week during our discussion of the doctrine of man I had shown them the short film “Butterfly Circus” and several had shed tears as they realized that if a limbless man like Nick Vujicic could have value and worth to God, they could as well. I thanked the Lord that this truth became very real to them.
TJ said, “The one important truth is this: We can unlearn false doctrine and we can overcome the wiles of sin and even get rid of the prison culture, and build our own character into something great through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That statement made me feel I was making progress in challenging these men with God’s Word. But some changes were happening to me as well.
In one class we were discussing the concept of the “image of God.” You’ve not really had a serious conversation on capital punishment until you’ve examined Genesis 9:6 with a group of lifers, some of whom have spent time on death row. I was surprised how many supported capital punishment, as they said, “because it’s there in the Word.” As John R.W. Stott put it, “Freedom to disagree with the Bible is an illusory freedom; in reality it is bondage to falsehood.” It was so good to see such submission to God’s Word.
One of my emphases in teaching theology is that of helping my students discern between the essentials of the faith (those beliefs that all Christians everywhere must hold) and the distinctives of the faith (those areas where Christians can charitably differ from one another). One day we discussed the hatred of God and noticed that God absolutely despises those who cause unnecessary division among God’s people (Proverbs 6). Cliques and factions pop up quickly in prison, and pet opinions become essential doctrines for some (in prison and outside of prison). Contrary views are tolerated. but just barely. In prison, theological disagreement might be met by acts of violence. Outside prison we who are free erect our own prison walls, shutting out anyone who has offended us in the least.
These brothers in prison need discernment as they watch TV preachers, are yelled at by some visiting church groups, and seek to share the gospel with cultists and members of other world religions who are behind bars with them. One student said, “You must be very sensitive when dealing with prisoners; many are mentally unstable and are in dire need of a Savior but do not know it.” Another student reminded me, “The majority in prison have never finished high school. Most prisoners want to turn to the Lord but they have been beat in the head with the Bible so many times that they rebel against anyone who wants to talk about God. Theology makes me think deeper than I’ve ever thought before about God and what’s in His Word.” These men will not let each other spiritually coast in their Christian lives.
My students seemed to genuinely appreciate our discussions on issues such as masturbation, loneliness, anger, and respect. These men remind me of our fundamental need for God’s Word. Bart wrote, “The truth of God is the ultimate authority. His grace is limitless; His love endures forever. His mercy reigns. For those who refuse Him, let it be known that His wrath is swift and severe. . . . We are nothing without the work of the cross. It was Jesus’ blood that sets us free.” I find such theological bottom-lining refreshing.
For our class devotions each morning, we examined John 9 and the story of the man born blind. My brothers-behind-bars reaffirmed their belief with me that we were all “steeped in sin at birth” (verse 34). That truth includes this seminary professor.
In my three weeks with this group, no one sought sympathy from me about their incarceration, but freely confessed that beliefs lead to behaviors and behaviors have consequences. Their desire is to honor God where they now are. Freedom to them is living for Him, even if it must be behind bars. Those outside prison who are not living for Him are the real prisoners. One wrote, “Prison is far from hell. There are inmates who know Christ and are freer than many people in the free world.”
Teaching has its highs and lows. Students in this environment, behind locked doors, are so appreciative and are not afraid to express their gratitude. For example, one of my students wrote the following note to me: “Dr. Dixon, I feel your heart in this class. You not only teach us; you inspire us. This is not just a normal college class. You deeply display and illustrate what you teach. You go beneath the surface of what you teach in this theology. I see your heart for the Lord in your teaching in this class. I thank God for you.” Another student said, “It is never too late and does not matter where we are in this life, prison or outside of it, we are still called by God to study and learn His Word.” Yawns were rare in our class; these men gave me the greatest gift any teacher could ask for — eagerness to learn.
I actually asked these students on their final exam (for extra credit) a question. I told them I was writing this article, and I asked them what they would want said in an article entitled “A Theologian Goes to Prison.” Here are some of their comments:
“In prison there are many cultural differences . . . it is okay to . . . agree to disagree.”
“Please add in your article that many run from theology . . . but it is not as boring as some may think.”
“I would want you to say that being in prison you are exposed to so much prejudice, hatred, selfishness, loneliness, etc., that you can forget the goodness of God. It is not your surroundings, circumstances, or emotions that dictate who God is. He is the same through all storms.”
“Keep essentials and stand firm on them. Avoid discussing distinctives unless you are willing to bend to keep relationships.”
God’s Word did not return void to Him during my three-week course with these men. It changed me. These men are a kind of insider movement for God. We “outsiders” are quite capable of forgetting God’s goodness and our need of His truth to survive. We who are “free,” are we free to live for ourselves? The Bible defines that kind of freedom as slavery (Jn. 8:34; Gal. 4:9; Titus 3:3). Not being behind bars does not give us the right to live life as we please.
We outsiders seem never to question if we have value and worth to God (an issue these men struggle with). Our issue is our pride — and our ignoring God’s mercy in using us at all.
In our comfortable, safe, outside world, have we lost our sense of our dire need of discernment, of the lost needing a Savior? Francis Schaeffer said, “We have in a real sense lost sense of the lostness of the lost.” Faced with danger each day, these men want to make each day count for God. We outsiders allow our safety to lull us to sleep.
Have we forgotten that we were “steeped in sin at birth”? (Jn. 9:34). Has the spirit of this age silenced our theological bottom-lining? Are we blind to the reality that all people divide into those who have the Lord and those who don’t?
I’ve learned a lot from this group of behind-bars-brothers. My resolve to serve Jesus has been strengthened by these who have so little. My definition of freedom has been revised. Freedom is living for God; imprisonment is living for self. And bars don’t determine the limits of a man’s heart. I’ve been reminded that we can so focus on doing ministry for God that we forget His mission to do ministry inside us.
I’ve been reminded that there are no small sins before a great God. Big sins are seen, are prosecuted, and are punished. Small sins can be kept secret and can imprison us in the terrible squirrel cage of self, oblivious to God’s great call to deny self and serve others.
I’ve been reminded that God’s truths are meant to be lived, not covered up by religious ceremonies and lip service. In the close quarters of prison, the fruit of the Spirit either shows up or it doesn’t, forgiveness is either given or repressed, the reality of God’s omnipresence is either believed or not.
And while I and certainly my cohort members would never minimize the severity of their offenses, I deserve eternal incarceration, unending separation from God and His love.
The living conditions are not so grim, the bars are not so confining, the circumstances of life are not so opposing that God’s truths can’t be learned and lived out. And I pray my brothers in prison learn the same lesson as I’m learning. I’ve especially been reminded that God’s truth doesn’t just sit there. It changes us and makes us more like Jesus. Hmmm. I guess it’s not too late for this theologian to get educated.
• Names are fictitious.
Why does man create? Could it be that because we are made in the image and likeness of God, we have a desire to produce things, make art, craft objects that express that truth? We are not meaningless accidents formed in the primordial belch of the universe, but individuals who express our creatureliness, even when we are bored!
How do you express your creativity?
“Therefore, the task of all Christian scholarship- not just biblical studies- is to study reality as a manifestation of God’s glory, to speak and write about it with accuracy, and to savor the beauty of God in it, and to make it serve the good of man. It is an abdication of scholarship when Christians do academic work with little reference to God. If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is not scholarship but insurrection.”-John Piper (from God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards, p. 43).