Should Christians Sue Christian Organizations?

Many of us were informed recently that a former professor at Cedarville is suing the University over his termination.  He has also named at least one individual in the lawsuit as well, a university employee.  The situation surrounding the termination has been one filled with controversy for over a year, and has been the subject of news reports, blogs, etc.

[This follows the actions of a Wheaton College tenured professor, who quit rather than share the reasons for his divorce from his wife with the school’s authorities, as their community standards covenant would require.  He has gone to the media to air his grievances and is questioning the ethics and legality of such inquiries, giving Wheaton a sharp public rebuke in the process.  People are wondering if legal action will follow.] 

I will not comment on the termination’s merits or procedure.  As a teaching moment, however, let me take this sad occasion to remind all of our flock here at Grace that it is never appropriate for Christians to sue fellow Christians.  Further, I believe it would be a “legal fiction” to try and say that suing a Christian-owned non-profit corporation is allowable because it is a corporation, not an individual.

The most pertinent scripture to guide us is found in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, where Paul rebukes believers for taking their grievances before “the unrighteous” rather than believers.  He says that this action brings shame on those who pursue it.  He says that Christians should be able to solve their disagreements within the Christian community–the church.  I know that this would be the local church initially, but what if the problem affects more than a local congregation?  The pattern of the council of Jerusalem might suggest that in such a dispute a number of affected and concerned churches or a group of neutral believers could be called together, to function in some ways as the council in Acts 15 did–weighing issues and offering a solution.  

To my knowledge, the Bible-believing churches or associations that have been directly or indirectly affected have not been asked to mediate in this situation, and I am unaware if any of the national Christian reconciliation ministries have been consulted either.  These would be means available to uphold the spirit and letter of our text in the present difficulty.

Further, Paul tells the Corinthians that it would be better to be wronged than to take brothers and sisters to court to get one’s rights.   Our belief that God is in control of all things, including evil done to us (see Genesis 50:20) allows us to suffer wrong as our Lord modeled while entrusting ourselves to the care of a loving and sovereign God.  While I recognize that when sued we may be required to defend ourselves, the Scriptures do not justify taking legal action against a brother.

What about the issue of suing Christian owned and operated corporations?  The text still applies, since the corporation is, in fact, a collection of Christians in its governors, its employees, and its constiuents–all of whom are negatively impacted by the action.  This really becomes a distinction without a difference.  If the courts render a punitive judgment against a Christian corporation, it is the Christians who own it, who work for it, and who make use of it that will suffer the consequences.  So the person suing winds up injuring lots of people, not just one or two. 

This is a sad case, and not one where, as I have said before, fault and wrong rests only on one side.  However, biblical principles must govern the actions of Christians, even when those principles mean that we will suffer a wrong done by another Christian that is unjust, unfair, and would certainly be overturned by a court if we sued.  We should seek reconciliation, mediation, and if agreeable, arbitration by believers.  We should submit ourselves, individually or corporately, to such avenues if we are wronged or someone believes we have wronged them.  If that is not available to us, however, we stand close to our Savior, who experienced far worse and sets the example for us.  We should never give those in the world the excuse that believers can’t really live out the call of the gospel as a reason to mock our Lord or His teaching. 

Let’s pray that this particular matter can be resolved biblically, outside of the legal system, to glory of the Savior who grieves over wrongs done to any of His children in any situation.

Published in: on July 7, 2008 at 3:29 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. Pastor, your post came up on one of my monitored blogfeeds and I just wanted to affirm your excellent teaching on litigation involving believers. It’s tough to go against the litigious tide of our secular culture, but I know God honors us when we honor him. The ideas you discuss are at the very core of my book, “The Believer’s Guide to Legal Issues”, and I am very encouraged by your teaching on this challenging subject.

  2. I´m indirectly involved in a legal issue on a foreign field of missionary service. In the country in question, as well as the surrounding countries, churches generally belong to fellowships (sop), which usually provide healthy accountability to missionaries and national pastors in areas of doctrine and practice. These fellowship also carry the titles to properties, since incorporation takes nearly a decade to acheive. I know some feel there will be an “autonomy” issue here, but I don´t want to go there. The fellowships are not a missionary imposed system, the´ve functioned here for decades. 17 years ago one of our fellowship churches, in conjunction with fellowship leadership (also sop) called a national pastor. This individual chose to distance himself from the fellowship and subsecuently changed the name of the church and effectively isolated the church family from the rest of the fellowship. Abusiveness toward church members began, and some left. Some may have been afraid to leave?? Money from the US was a goal to this individual and he was able to travel to the US and make contacts, but when asked to give an account of donations by individuals he became angry. Things came to a head several years ago when it was discovered that he had joined a U.S. based Mission that helps national pastors raise support. When approached, that Mission admitted they had no idea he was a member of a fellowship, had contact with missionaries or received donations from the U.S. through another Mission (without admin. fees). His application to the other Mission showed that he lied about these specific points. No fellowship is perfect, however, the fellowship leaders, both national and missionary genuinely sought to come along side this pastor – for numerous years prior to this discovery. When this deceit came to light he felt the fellowship had no right to inquire with the other organization, which dismissed him, and he demanded a meeting with National and Mission leadership, which was needed anyway. I was there. The pastor and his wife led a tirade of bitterness,anger and screaming that lasted three hours. Even if he were innocent, their conduct discualified him from the ministry in my estimation. The fellowship sought his repentance, but he explained away the lies on the application. The fellowship asked him to take a sabatical with the goal of working through all of this with him – the genuine desire was, and still is, his restoration. However, he refused. After a period of time the fellowship dismissed him, but having renamed and reorganized the church he refused to leave the premises. The fellowship has prayed for his restoration and for the restoration of the church to the fellowship for nearly four years. The only hatefullness involved here is from him toward the fellowship. Two years ago the fellowship asked a local court of law to rule on rightfull ownership of the property – the group of people or the fellowship. The court ruled in favor of the fellowship, then after an appeal a higher court ruled again in favor of the fellowship. I have been distrought over this legal action. I realize that no one is asking anyone in the congregation to leave the church (building), only the pastor. The fellowship feels they have a moral obligation to remove this person who not only does not fulfill the requirements of the pastorate, but is abbusive and deceitful (these accusation are very serious, but true). They feel the fellowship is a steward of the congregation and the property wich was indeed donated by people (now with the Lord) who were loyal to the fellowship and envisioned a work going on for the Lord there. I too believe the fellowship has a responsibility to a congregation being led astray. Unfortunately this pastor would never permit any contact with the members, but used the pulpit to villify the fellowship. I am told by a collegue that the action taken to determine ownership, which will end in subsecuent expulsion from the property, is no different than calling the police when someone is breaking and entering into my home. I am told that I Corinthians is speaking about individuals not fellowships????? Do you believe that there is any way possible to exegete I Cor 6 to permit this type of legal acción? Does stewardship of this nature take precedence over the clear teaching of I Cor. 6? Help!

  3. Tom,
    Wow. What a convoluted situation. While I am not certain that the initial going to law was the best solution, I would at this point agree with your friends who see steps to expel this man from the property as analogous to the police enforcing the law. In some sense, this man was not sued for any damages; rather, a court was asked to determine the ownership status of a disputed property that he was trying to take from its proper owners.

    As I indicated earlier, I would have been uncomfortable going to court, but I am not uncomfortable with someone defending their property from a thief.

    If the fellowship had taken him through discipline, dismissed him or done whatever else needs to be done to show him as being an unbeliever–or at least in the position of having to be treated as one, that might have freed the fellowship to move in with a new pastor, etc. I think that letting things drag on for years without resolution probably added to the difficulties.

    I wonder if the fellowship failed in its responsibility to keep this pastor and his flock in line when they first started to move away over a decade ago. I trust resolution is on the horizon. I pray so, and in the meantime think that use of the legal system for protection from a theft is different than a lawsuit over one’s rights in a disputed matter.

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