The couple sat in my office and poured their heart out. Their siblings were tearing the family business apart, sucking a great living out of it, but contributing very little to actually grow the business. (In their opinion.) “They’re parasites and we want them out. Do you know a good Christian lawyer?”
“Yes, I do. But first, I’d like to talk to you about what the Bible has to say regarding lawsuits and then let’s talk about some biblical alternatives to resolving disputes.”
We began by reading out loud together this passage from I Corinthians 6:1-8;
“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court – and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.”
They were quiet for a moment. Somehow reading scripture out loud adds weight to these words. The husband spoke first. “I know what the Bible says about Christians and lawsuits, but this has got to stop!” I reminded him that Christians should probably never use the phrase, “I know what the Bible says,” followed by the word “but”. The danger with using the word but is that it discounts what God says in favor of our own opinion on the matter. Subconsciously, we’d all like our own personal exceptions from some difficult teachings of scripture, but that’s a dangerous and sinful enterprise.
“So you don’t believe in any lawsuits at all?” asked the wife. “A better way to put it,” I said, “Would be to say that Christians have the personal freedom to take legal action against some people or corporations for the right reasons, but not against other Christians. There don’t appear to be any exceptions in the I Corinthians passage even if we’re being defrauded.” They just stared at me like I was incredibly naive!
So, before I talked to them about some biblical options for resolving disputes with their Christian siblings let’s discuss what I believe the Bible gives us freedom to do within certain boundaries:
Christian freedom and boundaries.
Most lawsuits are initiated because of some loss suffered due to some other person’s negligence or deceit. When the offender in a damage action is a corporation, such as an insurance company, there would seem to be no biblical restriction to pursuing that “entity” under secular law, provided the claim is legitimate and fair. One of the purposes for corporations is to shield individuals from liability. Regarding insurance companies, they are paid premiums by their clients, so that they can pay all just claims. That’s their only reason to exist.
However, Christians must always examine their motives for any legal action even against these entities. If the real reasons are greed or vengeance, then I believe even those lawsuits are sinful and therefore prohibited.
The fact that we have a legal right to do something, doesn’t give us freedom to do it. The law says what we may do, but for a Christian, justice raises the bar, telling us what we ought to do. And God may well convict someone to give up the right” to sue for spiritual reasons, not the least of which is to have a witness in the lives of the principals involved.
Since the direct implication of I Corinthians 6 passage deals only with believers suing one another, what about suing non-believers? There are no direct references to not suing a non-believer, but there are some indirect references to how Christians should act.
The Bible clearly teaches that to put others first, even when they are wrong, even non-believers. “Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:29-30)
Can I defend myself?
That's a reasonable question to ask. I believe the answer can be found in Paul’s defense against the unjust accusations made against him (Ref. Acts 16:37, 22:25, 25:11). Paul did not attack his accusers, nor did he attempt to extract any compensation from them. But he vigorously defends himself against their claims, several times even reciting Roman law applicable to his case. But even in defending oneself a Christian cannot withhold any information important to a just resolution, regardless of how damaging it is to his/her case.
Personal lawsuits against a fellow Christian
Getting back to the couples questions regarding the proposed suit against their siblings, the Bible couldn’t be clearer on this issue. In the I Corinthians 6 passage, Paul says it’s better that we be defrauded than ever go to a civil court against a fellow Christian. Paul considers it an embarrassment to God and a terrible witness to non-Christians. Not only that, but if you’ve ever been taken advantage of, you know the unkind, unchristian thoughts and emotions that injustice brings out in you. When we go to court, all those emotions are stirred up again, and can be a root of bitterness in us.
So then, what is a Christian option? Jesus offers this option, rarely used today, but one I and others have used to get justice or resolve issues between Christians;
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17
So, how does that work in real life?
For the next few weeks I’ll be blogging on various ways Christians can resolve disputes privately, or use the church, or even groups outside of the church, based on biblical principles. As Paul once said there is a more excellent way!
An acknowledgment: I’m thankful to Larry Burkett for his thoughtful writings on this subject which have shaped many of my thoughts.
Questions: What do you think? Agree or disagree? Are there any exceptions you can think of for Christians suing one another?