Anne Holsinger 0:01 

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Our guest today is Rich Nathan, founding pastor of Vineyard Columbus, an evangelical Christian church based in Ohio. He served as pastor there for 34 years before transitioning to a pastoral training role in 2021. Prior to becoming a pastor, Mr. Nathan taught business law at The Ohio State University for five years. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Nathan. 

Rich Nathan 0:28 

Well, thanks for having me. 

Anne Holsinger 0:31 

To start off with for listeners who are unfamiliar with your church, could you provide a brief overview of its core teachings and values? 

Rich Nathan 0:38 

Yeah. So Vineyard Columbus is located in Columbus, Ohio, which if folks are not familiar with the state of Ohio, Columbus is right in the center of the state. And the church is very large, very multi-ethnic community, we have people in the church from over 120 different countries. So on a Sunday morning, it feels like the United Nations, and about 50% of the church be people of color and 50% would be white non-Hispanics. I guess, you know, some of the words, Anne, that I would use to describe the church: it’s really holistic, it’s comprehensive, we’re people who believe that Jesus came to redeem all of creation, not just save our souls. So we’d say that the salvation of the individual is right at the center of Jesus’s message and ministry, but it’s not their circumference, and, and the circumference is the redemption of all of creation. So, so what does that mean for us? You know, we have a community center, a large community center attached to our church building, and that’s for, it was deliberately done that way. We wanted the church to influence our community center and the community center to influence the church. And so in our community center, or we have a five day a week, a medical clinic, you know, we do free medical, dental services, optometry, we have one of two nonprofit immigration law clinics in our city. So we do green cards and DACA claims, we occasionally represent people who are being deported. We have a free legal clinic, we have a huge ESL, English as a Second Language Program, we have one of the largest Value Life Ministries in the state of Ohio, we’ve come alongside of 5000 women in the last 12 or so years, who are facing unintended pregnancies. We do after school tutoring and low cost daycare center and citizenship classes and sports programs. The point is, the church is just believes Jesus, it wants to be at the center of all of life, not just a religious life and not just save our souls, but save all of creation. 

Anne Holsinger 3:26 

To move to your views on the death penalty or their personal or religious reasons, or maybe both that guide your opinion on that issue? 

Rich Nathan 3:34 

Yeah, you know, I mean, it’s hard for me to distinguish between the personal and the religious because, you know, my life, I mean, I’ve been a follower of Jesus for 50 years. So, you know, the way I feel about things are influenced by, you know, my attachment to, to Jesus and to scriptures. So, you know, I came to my position on capital punishment, really, as a result of Bible study and a deeper pro-life commitment. So this was just a natural extension of, of being pro-life for, gosh, almost the entirety of my Christian life. 

Anne Holsinger 4:23 

Could you explain in a little more detail how your views on the death penalty relate to the church’s broader pro-life position? 

Rich Nathan 4:30 

Yeah, Anne, as I said, you know, our church has been committed to a pro-life position for our entire history for the past, oh, 40 plus years and we’ve taken a perspective we call it Value Life, where we don’t think about setting moms against their unborn children, but as as you know, most society, of society we view it it as either you’re supportive of the unborn child or you’re supportive of women, and our approach has been why not both? You know, why can’t we encourage and support women who are facing unintended pregnancies and also support their unborn children? And the way we done that is to come alongside of 1000s of women, and offer them spiritual, emotional, but also very practical support, walking through the pregnancy alongside of women, but then committing to those women for at least two years following birth. Because lots of pro-life folk are really pro-birth people and I say that, you know, with, with a broken heart, but we don’t want to just be pro-birth, we want to be pro-life. And so we assist women to find jobs, to get to their doctor’s appointments, to have diapers, and pack and plays, or safe sleep, and we found women apartments, but in addition, we offer spiritual and emotional support. And our experience has been that women who have that kind of support, almost universally choose life, we’ve had very few women choose abortion, flowing out of that pro-life commitment has been our commitment then against the death penalty. I mean, pro-life is based on certain kinds of beliefs. So one of them is that a person’s right to life shouldn’t depend on someone else’s judgment. You know, whether it’s the mother or the doctor or society or dad, we have been unwilling to surrender the right to life to society’s valuation of a person’s wantonness, we said, it doesn’t matter whether you’re wanted or not, you have a right to life. It doesn’t matter what your potential capabilities are. We’ve argued in the past regarding abortion, that the right to life isn’t earned, so that it could be forfeited, but it’s a gift from God. And it’s founded on God’s image, and each of us from conception to natural death. So our pro-life position regarding the inherent worth of every human being from conception to natural death applies to everyone. And for us, that’s, you know, whether you’re in the womb or you’re already born, or you are severely disabled or institutionalized due to Alzheimer’s or you’re convicted of murder, the Bible invites us to imagine a world that is as inclusive as possible, as you know, we can possibly picture as inclusive as possible for the entire human family. And what we find in the Bible is that God is just inclined towards, he’s tilted toward the weak he’s tilted toward the marginalized, toward widows and orphans, and people in prison, and the Fourier, and those with disabilities, and the aging, and so caring about people who are in prison or caring about the folks who our society says these people ought to be just thrown away or, or, or, you know, dismissed. It’s inconsistent with our pro-life position. Well, let me let me state it in a, in a different way, you know, when you imagine a society as as inclusive as possible for our whole human family. One place that I always go regarding the pro life perspective is the parable of the Good Samaritan. I mean, the Christian ethic of pro life is based on Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan. And you know, your listeners may know the story, but it’s essentially that a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was attacked by robbers and you have some religious people who, who just make a wide berth around. But then there’s a Samaritan that cares for him, pays his bills and and assists him back to health. And the whole story sprang from a question that a lawyer asked Jesus and and it was, who is my neighbor,Jesus? What is your definition of neighbor, who is included in the human family? To whom do I owe any obligation of concern or care? And Jesus tells the story and then he responds to the lawyer’s question about who is my neighbor with a question of his own. And that is, to whom will you be a neighbor? I think what Jesus is doing is he’s saying all of these lines that we draw in the human community, well, this person is worthy of life, and this person isn’t, this person is too disabled, or, or too sick or, or too far gone, or has done too many bad things, or they’re in the womb, or they’re not able to contribute, or they don’t have any productivity left, or any intellectual ability, all of that stuff, all of your lines need to be swept away. And the question that everyone needs to ask themselves is, to whom will you be a neighbor? You know, how big is your heart? Who will you include? Will you include the immigrant? Will you include widows? Will you include people who have done terrible things? And so, for me, the opposition to capital punishment has just been a natural extension of our pro-life position of building an inclusive society, a society that welcomes everyone into the human family and says, listen, your worth is not dependent on whether somebody wants you or not. God’s given you human dignity, God’s giving you worth and, and so we just want to stand on the side of the Lord. 

Anne Holsinger 11:43

Have your views on the death penalty evolved over time? And if so, how, and why did they change? 

Rich Nathan 11:48 

Yeah, I think they have, you know, I would say that the death penalty really wasn’t on my radar screen until about a decade ago. I mean, I thought about it, but I didn’t think deeply. And I think like a lot of evangelicalis, the issue of capital punishment was just sort of in the, you know, the margins of my thoughts. I encountered some folks who were working against the death penalty, and they encouraged me to read a little more and to think more deeply. And it was just a really simple step from my commitment to support the unborn and our work in the community center with immigrants and with people on the margins to oh, yes, here’s another group, those condemned to die, you know, on our death rows around America. So my views have evolved. You know, I was, I just encountered some folks who, who push me to think and to just be consistent with what I’ve already said I believed, and what I do believe and, and it was a real short step from valuing life for the weak and the marginalized and the unborn and valuing the lifeof those on our nation’s death row. 

Anne Holsinger 13:17 

Is there a particular role that you see for evangelical Christians in the debate about the death penalty? 

Rich Nathan 13:23 

I definitely do see a role. A significant part of America is evangelical, somewhere around a quarter, and so they’re voters. And for most evangelicals, we’ve not really heard a lot about capital punishment in our churches. I would venture to guess that very, very few evangelicalis have ever heard even one entire sermon on the death penalty. So we haven’t, you know, been a pastor for almost 40 years, we’ve just not done a very good job of what we call discipling our people in terms of biblical message on the death penalty or Jesus’ view how we can understand that today. Lots of our legislators are are serious churchgoers. A lot of legislators here in Ohio are evangelicalis, others are deeply committed Catholics. And of course the Roman Catholic Church has come out squarely against the death penalty, others are very committed churchgoers and mainline churches, almost all of which have come out against the death penalty. But I think evangelicals have a unique role on two counts: number one, we are the people who most strongly support the death penalty and so evangelical pastors like me myself, we have to enter the arena and say, hey, you know, I think there’s a different way to read the Bible than the one that you may have adopted in a kind of a superficial read of a few biblical passages, we have to think more deeply about the meaning of those passages and their application to us today. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, we are people of the Bible. And if there’s any mark of evangelicalism, it’s, it’s, we’re Bible people. We’re the people who actually read the Bible, in what we call devotions, or, or quiet times, in our own homes, many of us on a daily basis, we are committed to the Bible. We’re the people who go to small group Bible studies during the week, we’re the people who listen to 40 minutes sermons from the Bible every Sunday, we’re, we’re soaked in Bible and I think we have a role to play in helping people understand what does the Bible teach about the death penalty. And how do we understand some of the difficult death penalty passages, you know, from the Old Testament? So if we have omitted, Anne, I would just run through a few of them with our listeners and say, you know, how, what does this mean? And and what does it mean for us today? But I think evangelicals, have a unique role in communicating what the Bible teaches, for the general public, especially our evangelical audience, but also for evangelical legislators to rethink some of their own positions and, and to maybe revise their thoughts about capital punishment. 

Anne Holsinger 16:57 

Sure, yeah, I think it would be interesting to hear which passages do you think are important in shaping evangelical thinking on this issue. 

Rich Nathan 17:04 

Yeah. I mean, certainly in the Old Testament, we see some passages that absolutely seem to affirm capital punishment. But, you know, I would argue that, you know, much of what we read, in especially the Hebrew Bible is not God’s ideal for the kind of society that the Lord wants to build, but it’s a divine accommodation. Jesus said that, to us in Matthew 19. Regarding divorce, he said, from the beginning, it wasn’t so, this wasn’t God’s idea, that it was an accommodation to our hardness of heart. And so we see divine accommodations, like polygamy, or the practice of slavery to the, you know, the cultural conditions and the fallenness of the ancient Israelites. You know, it’s important to remind ourselves that in the Old Testament, capital punishment was exerted for a variety of crimes, including cursing a parent, and adultery and rape, and witchcraft and incorrigible delinquency. And I think there are very few people in our audience that would say, yeah, let’s bring that back. If you ever, you know, curse your parent or, or commit adultery, you ought to be executed. But we have to remember that in ancient Israel, there just simply was no other way for society to protect itself from criminals, that there was no prison system, there was no criminal justice system, this was a tribal society and, and we, this society was committed like we are to protect the weak, but today we can protect ourselves without ending a human life. And we can have prison without parole. And and so we pro-lifers, we’re we would press toward a non-lethal alternative. The other thing is that, in the Old Testaments, there was the idea that land was polluted by murder. Capital punishment, is said to cleanse the land, to purify the land, but for us as followers of Jesus, we believe that pollution is taken care of by the death of Christ, that no other death is necessary to cleanse the land from sin. We have the redemptive death that we need. It’s the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. So we can be purified apart from capital punishment. And the famous passage of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, I don’t care what scholar you read, what strike, whether liberal or conservative, virtually all scholars are agreed that this was never meant to be practice, literally it was, it was a limit on human vengeance, that if somebody knocks out your tooth, you don’t have a right to, you know, stab them in the heart. This was meant to be a limitation on vengeance, it wasn’t actually written to require the taking, the actual taking of an eye for an eye or a tooth for tooth. And interestingly, if you actually read the text in Exodus 21, it goes on, and applies this text of an eye for an eye in a very merciful way. It applies it to slaves, and right after the text, have an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the Bible goes on, and illustrates it and says, If you knock out the tooth of a slave, you need to set the slave free for the sake of their tooth. And if you injure a slave’s eye, you need to set the slave free. So very often people without a lot of deep connection with scripture will say, well, doesn’t this Bible teach an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and that’s why I support the death penalty. If somebody takes a live their lives should be taken. But when you read the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, in its actual context, it’s actually bent towards mercy, and towards the marginalized, which is my final comment, Anne, you know, regarding the Bible, I could go on, I’m a Bible teacher, but the Bible is, if, if it’s anything, it portrays a God who number one offers the hope of redemption to every human being. The Bible teaches that no matter what you’ve done, the grace of God can change you. That’s what Christians believe. We believe no matter how dark things have gotten in your life, that the light of Christ can break in and convert you and make you a new creation, we call that, in the evangelical world, being born again. And so we, by the practice of the death penalty cut off the opportunity for people to be redeemed, that’s just completely contrary to our evangelical message of redemption for all. And the Bible is inclined towards the weak, and I can’t think of any group of people that are more marginalized than folks on death row. So for lots and lots of reasons, I mean, I could, as I said, go on and on about the biblical teaching regarding life and capital punishment, but I think evangelicals have a real role and discipling our own people about this biblical message of light, but also helping legislators and those who are wrestling with the biblical message and offering a, you know, a real alternative. 

Anne Holsinger 23:16 

Thank you for that. I’d also like to hear what you think about the place of the voices of religious leaders like yourself, and whether and how the death penalty is used. 

Rich Nathan 23:26 

Yeah, you know, I think that religious leaders can continue to be the moral conscience, so we hope, of our society and so we need to disciple our congregations. In our congregations, there are people who are called to the legislative process. Like I said, there’s lots of legislators that attend church, they need to hear this message from the pulpits, it matters, what, if you’re going to be a faithful follower of Jesus, where you stand regarding all of life, not just life in the womb, but life until natural death, where you’re at with that. What is God’s view of that? How does God give inherent worth? So I think we have a role in discipling people, I think we have a role in advocacy. Christian pastors need to be sensitive to God’s individual call on there lies where we can’t be all whole to everything. But some of us are called to raise our voices in this arena regarding the issue of capital punishment, just like some of us are called to be advocates for immigrants and some of us are called to be advocates for those who are being trafficked. And, and so I think we can be advocates, but we certainly can form the conscience of our society and remind people, that life is not something that we give to each other as a product of society or government. Life is a gift from God. And we human beings didn’t give one another life, we have no right to take it. 

Anne Holsinger 25:13 

As we said at the beginning, your church is based in Ohio, and Ohio seems to be at an inflection point regarding the death penalty. There have been no executions in five years and currently there’s bipartisan support for an abolition bill in the Ohio legislature. In fact, one of the sponsors of that bill, Representative Jeanne Schmidt, specifically cited her pro-life views as a reason for her support of that bill. Has Vineyard Church been involved in those efforts to repeal the death penalty? And where do you expect those efforts to go in the future? 

Rich Nathan 25:45 

We’ve been somewhat involved. I was told that, you know, when the bill came up, that I would be invited to testify before the legislature. I’ve written on this and done an editorial in the newspaper about capital punishment, so we’ve been somewhat involved. We’ve also held some evening seminars on capital punishment. I did a message in the church a couple of years ago, we invited a speaker to come in whose grandmother was murdered and he testified against the murder being during the penalty phase of the convicted murderers case. He testified in favor of the murderer not being put to death, but which was quite courageous in the face of lots of family opposition. So we’ve done some things. This is, like I said, a part of our ministry, it’s not, we’re not an advocacy organization, we’re a church. But this is part of what we do to disciple. And I wanted to come back to something that just occurred to me that I forgot to mention it before, there were a couple of things when when you talked about my own evolution in thinking, there were a couple of things that just really stood out to me and about that I didn’t know. And one of the things I didn’t know was how many people in America have been completely exonerated, who were scheduled to be put to death, and then were completely exonerated. Not that they got out on some technicality or, they were in fact innocent. Despite going through trial, and the appeals process and the length and just how labyrinthian this whole thing can get, since what, in the last 30 or 40 years, you would know this better than me? There’s something like 195 people who have been completely exonerated. Is that, is that right? 

Anne Holsinger 28:02 

That’s right. Yeah, as we’re recording this on September 20th, there was an exoneration in Oklahoma yesterday, and that was the 195th person exonerated from death row. 

Rich Nathan 28:11 

So that just ought to be so awakening for anyone with a pro-life view. The thought that we might put an innocent person to death in America should just give us tremendous pause, just that, that you know, that one innocent person, I mean, it’s, we might throw murderers into a, a separate category, they’re not really human. But the notion that those that are convicted of murder, that among those that are convicted, there are actually innocent people who have been exonerated with use of DNA evidence and all the rest. And that 195 folks been exonerated in the last few decades. That just gives pro-life people, should give pro life people real pause to say like, this cannot be we, we are for life, we can never vote for an innocent person being put to death or potentially being put to death. That just is unacceptable. And then when I start thinking as a pastor, Anne, about what the whole process, I think of like the death industry, but what it takes to, to actually put a person to death and what that does to the souls of the individuals involved in the process. As a pastor, I’m concerned about everyone in the criminal justice system, not just the person on death row, but the guards and the doctors who would have to go into the death chamber and the actual executioner and the people watching and, and the prosecutors and the judges that that have to affirm this conviction and the jurors, it is so destructive to the human soul to carry this out. If you’re a follower of Jesus, and you’re sensitive to the just what happens to other people’s hearts, what happens to their souls by putting another human being to death? That’s something we want to protect people from. And so, again, it’s not only a concern for those convicted, it is that, but it’s also concerned for everyone who has to operate in a system like that we want to save people from all. 

Anne Holsinger 30:54 

And do you have any thoughts on what you expect to come of these efforts to repeal the death penalty in Ohio? 

Rich Nathan 30:59 

Well, I don’t know. You know, I’m, look, I’m a person of prayer and so I always have hope. You know, we, we have come to a place in, in America where, where being tough on crime is a political winner and so it takes courage to vote against the death penalty. But, you know, my hope is that with efforts like yours, and lots of other voices peeking into this, and particularly, more evangelical, and religious voices, you know, make themselves heard that, that legislators might, might listen and say, you know, we don’t need to do this. And it’s wildly expensive. I mean, just as, you know, on an economic basis, you know, the, the, the appeals and legal process that is constitutionally required, it’s just extraordinarily expensive to, to engage in this process. So for, even for conservatives, who might be on the fence, perhaps they might be moved by economic arguments. For me, I’m moved by the moral arguments, because I’m a pro-life person, but others might be persuaded by other arguments. 

Anne Holsinger 32:29 

Is there anything you’d like to add for our listeners? 

Rich Nathan 32:32 

Well, you know, I would encourage listeners to hopefully, reconsider their you know, I would imagine that lots of listeners are might be apathetic, about the cap-, about capital punishment, hey, this doesn’t really affect our lives. It’s not something that I really need to think that much about. I don’t know anyone on death row, to move from that position to a position of this matters. It matters how we treat every human being, perhaps to write a letter to a legislator that that really does matter, for pastors to perhaps some courage and, and to begin to disciple their congregations in a thoroughly pro-life direction. I love when my fellow pastors speak courageously that encourages me, and I want to encourage them. And for pro-life legislators, I’d love to share a word to say be consistently pro-life. You’ve taken a courageous stand to stand for the unborn, when there’s lots of societal pressure to do otherwise. I just want to encourage you to take, have the same courage regarding people at the other end of life. Let’s build a society. Let’s build a culture of life in America. 

Anne Holsinger 33:59 

Thank you very much for joining us today and for sharing your views and your expertise. 

Rich Nathan 34:04 

You’re very welcome. It’s great to be with you. 

Anne Holsinger 34:07 

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