More on Christians Suing Christians

A few months back I wrote in my blog (and have since preached in a sermon and taught in a study on biblical peacemaking) that it is wrong for a Christian to sue another Christian, or to sue a group of Christians (as in the case of a ministry or a corporation).  Recently I was told by one person I respect, and had reported to me the opinion of another person I also respect, that I was mistaken. In some cases, they indicated, the Bible would allow such a lawsuit, and both men spoke to a current legal action in our community as a prime example. The thought expressed was that, in order to pursue his legal rights against a Christian institution that had defrauded him, the one bringing the suit had no choice.  One cited the fact that a committee of the person’s peers had found in his favor, and gave him the confirmation of fellow Christians that he was right.

What should we make of this? Are there ways around the text of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, which says,

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?  2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?  3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!  4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?  5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers,  6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?  7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?  8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud–even your own brothers!

Some commentators suggest the possibility of legal action at the end of a church disciplinary process. For example, if a believer, aligned with a local church, abandons his family, but continues to show up at the house and physically abuse his wife and children, the church may discipline him out of the fellowship. The wife is free to treat him as an unbeliever—including taking permanent legal steps to protect herself and her children (not to mention immediate emergency steps even as the church may be in process of acting). At such a point, the church rules that the person’s sin has forced the church and its members to treat him as an unbeliever, and Christians are not forbidden from using legal action against an unbeliever if necessary. I think that this may be a proper understanding of the relationship between discipline and possible legal consequences. [If, for example, there are biblical grounds for divorce, then it would be best for it to be pursued after the church first disciplined the sinning member so that he or she fell into the “to be treated as an unbeliever” category]

Now, in the case referenced to me, a group of “saints” was called together—by the institution and those with vested authority—as a panel to hear what happened and give a recommendation. They found in favor of the person aggrieved; however, their recommendation was just that—a recommendation. That recommendation was passed back to those with vested authority, including the institution’s board (another group of “saints”) which holds the final authority in the matter. They did not accept the recommendation of the panel, and ruled against the aggrieved party.  It may not be the best grievance procedure, but it is what it is.

The panel’s validation of the offense to the aggrieved party does not justify a lawsuit. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 does not tell us that circumstances trump principle, and, as far as I can read, does not say that if a believer or group of believers endorses one party as having been truly offended by another, that also trumps the clear meaning of the passage.

Some have tried to argue that the panel represents “the church” in a discipline scenario as found in Matthew 18. This is faulty on any number of fronts, not the least of which is that the panel had no real authority in the matter, where the church is the final authority in matters of discipline.

Frankly, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 is pretty “open and shut.” Believers should not take other believers to secular courts for justice. When they do, they harm the body of Christ, our testimony before the world, and stand in opposition to the expressed will of God. If another believer has sinned against or wronged us, and we cannot agree to reconciliation within Christian circles, we should choose to be wronged rather than go to court.

As far as disputes between an employer and employee, the places where Christians have always looked for guidance (aside from the prohibition on lawsuits) are the instructions to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 6, James 5, and 1 Peter 2. All of these passages teach the following:

·        Servants are to obey masters, even evil ones, and serve them as if they are serving Jesus Christ

·        Masters are to treat servants well, knowing they give account to God

·        God will judge both unfaithful servants and unscrupulous masters

Based on these passages and the 1 Corinthians 6 passage, a Christian employee may seek his Christian employer’s consideration or reconsideration of a situation, but the employer is the authority and his decision must either be graciously submitted to, or else the Christian may choose to depart from his place of employment. Attempts to “nuance” the issue by appealing to the existence of a contract, workplace rules, etc., does not negate the biblical prohibition of lawsuits. Even if a Christian employer acts wickedly, the options are the same, unless the church can render a disciplinary judgment. For that to happen, both would have to be under the jurisdiction of a church or a group of churches acting in concert.

Is there a better choice in this current circumstance? I would suggest a good option is still available. The aggrieved party and the institution could seek the services of a Christian mediating body such as Peacemaker Ministries and its Christian Conciliation Services. Both parties could seek to bring together mature Christian leaders from a number of churches and ministries whom each would consider impartial. Issues of legality and morality can be weighed by godly people in light of the Scriptures. They would agree to let this body hear the case and submit to their recommendation as binding. The aggrieved party would drop its lawsuit, and permit any previous decisions to be reviewed by the mediator/arbitrator. I would urge both sides of this legal dispute to seek such mediation or arbitration without delay, and to inform the larger body of Christ of their willingness to do so. This would bring positive pressure on those who endorse the lawsuit to consider higher biblical pursuits, and would give the rest of us some sort of hope that believers can take seriously the command to act biblically.

One final note: this should not be seen as taking a side on the merits of the claims made or defenses offered. My concern is the use of illegitimate means to achieve what may be believed to be moral ends.

Published in: on September 25, 2008 at 1:10 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is very practical wisdom. You make an excellent point that circumstances don’t trump principals! God’s Word is always, always true. Even when it’s hard. I pray the people involved in the dispute you mentioned will take this to heart.

  2. I think you are right on point regarding the role of the Church. The problem, more often than not (at least in my experience), is that the Church is very often not providing the disciplinary vehicle to address perceived wrongs. Sometimes this is further frustrated when believers are not members of the same local church. Now what? These are big problems that are leading (if not forcing) believers into the secular court system – and I say this to our (all of us) shame.
    — M. Glenn Curran, III, Esquire

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