Last week I blogged on lawsuits. This week, I’d like to get right to the issue of how I and others have resolved financial issues outside of the courts, using the principles of Matthew 18:15-17, which reads:
“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.”
What follows is an actual letter I’ve sent to someone in my church who owed me money. Obviously, I’ve changed some details to protect the identity of this individual, but you’ll get the point.
My Letter to a Fellow Christian
I have made nearly a dozen phone calls leaving messages with your secretary on your voice mail and I’ve even emailed you. You promised to call me two weeks ago with an offer. This dispute has gone on for nearly one year without resolution.
I began trying to settle this matter with you in this way because you were a brother in Christ and a member of my church. I was confident that with those things in common we could come to an acceptable solution. Your failure to communicate with me in a constructive way is exasperating. I’ve offered to meet with you one-on-one or with (name) and myself. I’ve offered to meet with you and an elder to resolve this issue. Always you need more information, someone’s on vacation or you’ll get back to me and don’t.
Wanting to be faithful to the scriptural teaching for resolving a dispute with a brother in Christ according to Matthew 18:15-17, I'm asking for a meeting with you no later than May 14. I’ll be asking (I named a fellow Christian we both knew) to go with me to your office to meet with you. Failing to reach agreement by May 15, I’ll write the Board of (the name of our church) to ask them to appoint an elder to help us resolve this issue.
The new total is $_______. I’m no longer interested in a settlement. If you owe the money then let’s work out a reasonable repayment schedule. If you don’t owe it then I wouldn’t want any of it. It’s more of an integrity issue for me now than a financial one. According to the agreement you signed, you should be paying interest. If we get so far as going to the elders, then I will want them to consider this as well, which I had previously agreed to waive.
If you truly need time to pay this amount, I’d be happy to receive it over the next few months, or even much longer, if you really have no ability to pay me now. I’m even willing to totally or partially forgive the debt, if you can show me how the payment would harm your family’s welfare. If that’s the case, I’d like to meet with you and your wife. My interest is in simply getting this resolved fairly. My other motive is to show the other people involved, some of whom are not Christians, how Christians settle their disputes. What a testimony it would be if you and I, without a court, could resolve this issue.
I have not had any business dealings with you before and I’m sorry about this situation, but my conscience is clear that my claims are fair. If the elders feel differently, I’ll gladly accept whatever they determine is fair. In that sense, I’m willing to submit to binding arbitration by the church, if you will also.
I need either a date and time we can meet, or a specific written offer for repayment acceptable to me. If you call when I’m out please do not leave a message to call you, I'm done with telephone tag. Please speak with my administrative assistant, as to exactly what you are proposing to do or set a time with her for us to meet on either (date). If this letter and my proposal fails and we are unable to meet by May 14 then you leave me no choice but to write to our elders and ask them to intervene. I’ve not done so already because I have no interest in humiliating you before them. Thank you.
In His Service,
Some Practical Considerations and Advice
Yes, I got paid in full. Of the half a dozen others I’ve helped, who’ve used this process, five out of six have been paid.
Humanly speaking, I believe the reason this method often works is that most people do not want the leaders of their church to know how unethical they are. That’s one reason I recommend writing a letter before contacting the church and give them a specific window of opportunity to save themselves from this embarrassment. Once the leaders of the church know the situation, often a difficult person will simply go into a defense mode and will do whatever it takes to regain their dignity. Ironically, it’s also a check on me. I don’t want my elders to think I’m greedy or am hounding some poor person. That causes me to think and pray before I open that Pandora’s Box and even begin this process.
I’ve helped people write a variation of this letter even to Christians attending other churches. My church has a history of helping resolve these kinds of issues, but most churches do not. In fact, I’ve had several churches refuse to get involved. When that’s happened, the person I’m helping and I have called the pastor and asked to meet with them with the goal of helping that church better understand what I believe is their responsibility. The majority of the time I’ve done this, the church has chosen to get engaged at some level.
I also believe it’s important to discern whether or not a person can pay what’s owed. I believe it’s contrary to scriptural justice to demand payment from someone who can’t pay or for whom it would be a great hardship. However, I believe the burden of proof lies with that person to demonstrate their hardship.
It’s also critical that you or I not gossip about this issue to anyone who doesn’t need to know. Gossip isn’t a lie. It’s truth inappropriately told.
Once all is settled, then we’re required to do whatever we can to reconcile with a brother or sister in Christ. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24
Because of Paul’s teaching in I Cor., I have a policy that I will not sue Christians, ever. However, when dealing with unethical Christians, I find it helpful to not disclose my conviction. But, in the end, Paul’s command trumps everything. “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? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.” I Corinthians 6:1, 8
Question: Have you ever resolved these kinds of issues this way or other biblical ways?
Next Week: I’ll address the wisdom of using binding arbitration in partnerships, leases and other agreements to provide a mechanism for resolving future disputes, outside of the legal system.