Christians and Lawsuits
Q: A local Christian group to which I belong believes that it is unbiblical to take a Christian to court. I do not agree that it’s always wrong to do so. Christian avenues can be exhausted without a resolution and courts exist for a reason. Can you please give some clear guidelines with Scripture? They require my signature on a document and I’m not sure how to handle it.
Q: What steps should a Christian follow when taking another believer to court? What about when bringing someone from the world to judgment?
A: Please remember that I respond as a Christian pastor, not an attorney. Also, I am not appointed to judge between people (Christian or not). Rather, the Holy Spirit calls pastors to preach the Gospel, administer Christ’s sacraments, and to teach His Word in purity and truth.
Now regarding these questions, first of all, we hope that we never need to either sue or defend ourselves from civil suit. Not only does Scripture frown on such actions but we also know personally how legal action can often permanently divide people who were once friends. Saint Paul explicitly chastised the Corinthian Christians for their eagerness to drag brothers in the faith before civil magistrates — especially pagan judges such as Corinth had.
In 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, Paul reminds Christians that, beyond any current litigation, a Final Judgment awaits the world. Since, as he said, “the saints will judge the world, (v. 2)” why should we not also be able to judge among ourselves in “trivial cases”? In this passage the apostle leads believers to move away f rom actions against each other and into cooperation with each other.
When Christians act according to their faith in Jesus Christ, they will not break contracts, lie, cheat, withhold services, or do anything else that is civilly actionable. This applies equally in our dealings with other believers and with non-Christians. However, our sinful flesh still clings to us. As Paul wrote the Roman church: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (7:19)” We are no better than the apostle and we at times also commit such offenses.
The Lord desires reconciliation and restitution among the saints to take place within the Church, not out in the world where the Faith is held up to public ridicule. Christians seek and promote justice, remembering that divine justice is tempered with mercy and love. It may be legally just that you receive recompense from one who has wronged you. However, it may not be merciful that you press your case through another’s extenuating circumstances, such as poor health, poverty, or the like.
Pursuing a case in a mean spirit is just as much a sin as is the original problem being judged. Indeed, when we carefully read 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, we see that if at all possible we should not sue other believers — even if we aren’t treated fairly: “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? (v. 7)” Why not, indeed? Yet such surrender of self, this refusal to stand up for our own “rights” often galls the wronged party.
Unless defending family or checking gross evil, it’s hard to justify suing anyone, Christian or not. Christ says in Matthew 5:38-41, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil.’ But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
Tread lightly when considering legal action. Seek to do the right thing for the right reasons. We Christians often find that our “turn the other cheek” talk is cheap when our own cheek is being struck. The world’s bumper sticker reads, “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.” Meanwhile, Christians try to remember, “Don’t Get Mad or Even — Get Right with One Another.” This is sort of long to fit on a bumper sticker. It’s also quite cumbersome to fit into ourselves. Only Christ dwelling within us can enlarge and strengthen our hearts to where we can think and live in this manner.
Now so far, we’ve mainly concerned ourselves with our actions when someone has done wrong to us. We still need to deal with our attitudes and actions when we sin against others. A believer motivated by Christ’s love wants to do the right thing. If I violate my word, speak harshly or evilly, or otherwise harm you, my desire should be to come running to make things right. If I wrong you and don’t offer either apology or recompense, I am guilty of an unrepented sin against you, and should face the judgment of the Church.
The Church should bring this same judgment equally to bear upon all believers who sin against each other and show no repentance. How this happens comes in large part from Christ’s words in Matthew 18:15-17. Most Christian churches list this passage as the central theme of their disciplinary policies: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
In many churches, the pastor and the elders or deacons meet in turn with the two parties, hoping to bring their strained relationship to a satisfactory conclusion. Should their efforts fail, they may then bring the issue before the whole congregation. Depending upon one’s church affiliation, perhaps a council of ministers, a bishop, or others have the final say. Other churches place the final decision on a voters’ assembly or a board of deacons.
Remember that the Scriptures indicate that Christ established the pastoral ministry in order to forgive sins (John 20:21-23) and to bring reconciliation among people and between people and God (2 Corinthians 5:18). God’s Word also indicates that the pastors of congregations are the “overseers” (Acts 20:28) whom their flocks should “obey,” since “they are keeping watch over [the congregation’s] souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrews 13:17)”
In matters of church discipline and unrepented sin, “exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2) means that a pastor must decide whether or not to allow either or of the parties to the altar. If he is forced to excommunicate someone, he must “tell it to the church,” informing the flock of the actions he’s sadly had to take. For more on this, please see Confession and Forgiveness by God through Man.
Of course, final actions should not be arbitrary but should follow after carefully weighing the evidence. In this method of resolution, Jesus gives opportunity for reconciliation at each step of the way. Still, Christ’s Church is bound by fidelity to Him to “purge the wicked person from [its midst]” (1 Corinthians 5:13) so as to prevent sin from spreading or leaving the impression that evil is sanctioned.
The first questioner still probably wonders about that signature the group wants. I cannot tell you whether to pick up your pen or to head for the door. Search the Scriptures, consider your conscience, reexamine the group, and only then decide if and how you will bind yourself to this organization’s rules.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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