Relatively recently I was contacted by someone who is, I trust, a genuine Christian and a like-minded Baptist. He had been in a difficult situation where, from his account of the matter, the pastor who had been called had acted very improperly and had essentially taken over the church and forced out those that did not agree with him in a manner comparable to Diotrephes. As a result of this, the person who contacted me and those that sided with him in the church split had gone to court to sue the pastor to get the church property back. When I found out that he and his party had initiated a lawsuit against their former pastor, I wrote him the following:
I must confess that, while I am external to the situation, and if I have all the facts and everything you say is true, the pastor did things that were just terrible, I cannot see how the lawsuit against your pastor/former pastor can be justified. 1 Cor 6 plainly says that we are not to "dare" to do this, for the saints can judge all things of this life, it is to our "shame" if we take a believer to court, and having the most ignorant believer, the least esteemed and most backslidden one (v. 4), is better than going before unbelievers, it is "utterly a fault," and it is far better to take wrong and be defrauded (v. 7), and taking them to court is to "do wrong," v. 8, and is actually the type of thing one would expect from those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (v. 9-10).
1 Corinthians 6:1-11 states:
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? 2 Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? 4 If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. 5 I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. 7 Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? 8 Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. 9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
I must confess that I would be greatly afraid to take a Baptist pastor to court in light of this passage, even if I believed I had great reason to think he was a scoundrel. I would rather just be defrauded and trust God to vindicate the right. If you folks are really the church and you put him under church discipline, then he is delivered to Satan, and that is a frightful thing, and you can have God's blessing while getting defrauded of your goods. You stated it was not about the money anyway, so that isn't really the issue. Of course, as an external party, I hardly know everything that has gone on here.
In response, he made a case for the Scriptural lawfulness of Christians taking other Christians to court. He gave the verses such as the following to justify suing the improperly acting Baptist pastor: Genesis 9:6; Deuteronomy 17:8-13; the Book of Judges; Proverbs 26:26; Matthew 16:15-17; Galatians 6:1; Acts 25:11; Romans 13; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Timothy 5:17-20. He stated that Paul was arrested and tried before a worldly judge and the plaintiffs were the religious sect of the day, so lawsuits against believers were justifiable. Also, since Paul appealed unto Casear, the portion of the church that split with him could sue the Baptist pastor. He also affirmed that the context of 1 Corinthians 6 in 5:11-13 and chapter 7 show that 1 Corinthians 6 is not forbidding all lawsuits against believer, just lawsuits that are for trivial reasons.
My response to his argument included the following. Thanks for the reply. What you stated happened sounds just horrible, of course, and it sounds like a really terrible situation.
If you have the time, I would be interested in hearing your explanation for how the verses you cited justify suing pastors/former pastors of one's church before unbelievers. Of course, there is no question that it is right at times to seek judicial relief when one's car is stolen by a thief, an assault happens, etc. Also, of course in the Israelite nation there were courts. Also, as with Paul's appeal to Caesar, when enemies of the gospel are seeking one's execution it is right to appeal to Caesar to avoid getting executed by enemies of the gospel who are lying in wait on the road to Jerusalem. Perhaps if you have the time you could explain how any of these texts show that we are supposed to initiate lawsuits against Baptist church members or pastors, when that isn't happening in any of these passages. I trust that with your appeal here: "Paul was arrested and tried before a worldly judge and the plaintiffs were the religious sect of the day" you are not stating that you are like the religious enemies of God and Christ that were instituting the lawsuit. It is interesting that Paul never, ever tried to counter-sue them, even though they were unbelievers--indeed, he even said "not that I had ought to accuse my nation of" (Acts 28:19) when they had tried to kill him and use the law to have him executed. Without an identification of your action with that of the Pharisees and Sadducees, though, I don't see how Acts helps the Biblical case for suing church members or Christians. You referenced Mt 18:15-17 and Gal 6:1, but they seem to say exactly the opposite of that--you put the people under church discipline and that is the end of it, not if they don't listen to church discipline you sue them before the unbelievers. 1 Tim says to "rebuke," not "bring a civil lawsuit against" in a worldly court. I would be interested in seeing why these verses aren't special pleading but are actually teaching, through grammatical-historical interpretation, to sue pastors. I definitely don't want to do the wrong thing if the situation ever comes up in my life, as it has (tragically) in yours.
There is a passage that I would be interested in hearing your take on that actually refers to suing people at the law, and which assumes that others sue us, and when they do, we give generously to them, instead of the other way around, in the Sermon on the Mount:
It looks like the same thing as 1 Cor 6's saying that we should just let ourselves be defrauded, no?
A passage which seems to be very similar to what you are describing is 3 John with Diotrephes, who was casting out others from the church. Did the Apostle John say that those Diotrephes cast out should take him to the secular court to protect church property, funds, etc.? If he did, that would indeed help your case. I don't see where he tells them that, though.
I agree that it is very good to read the chapters before and after 1 Cor 6, even though the "precept upon precept, line upon line" text you employed was actually what the enemies of Isaiah that were mocking the prophet were saying in the context of Isaiah 28. 1 Cor 5:11-13 says that those in the church are judged when they are kicked out for their sin and are delivered to Satan. Where did Paul say there that you file a civil lawsuit against them? If 1 Cor 6 really only means "don't sue over trivial things," so that if something isn't that bad we aren't supposed to make the testimony of Christ look a bit bad over trivial things, but if there is something really bad, then we are supposed to show the horrible evil to the world and bring what utterly destroys Christ's testimony before unbelievers in a secular court, I am happy to believe that if it is really what 1 Cor 6 is teaching. I'm not sure I see it, though. Where is the word "trivial" in the passage? Where did Paul say "Sue over really bad things and then take believers to court, just don't do it for minor things?" I see Paul actually saying that it is better to allow oneself to be "defrauded," which is not a term for a little thing. It is used of illegally withholding wages in James 5:4, where the workers don't sue but cry to God and let Him bring the judgment. In the LXX, in Sirach 29:6-7 the word appears and is used of turning away people wickedly and defrauding people of their money; in Sir 34:25-26 it is used of withholding money with results so severe that by doing so one is "murdering his fellow" and becoming a "person of blood" through the other party starving to death through being defrauded. In Mal 3:1 in the LXX it appears for those who defraud hired workers of their wages and are damned eternally for their evil. So it sure looks like the sin in 1 Cor 6 is a very serious one, but we are to be "defrauded" instead of taking church members, pastors, etc. to court. We are to put them under church discipline (1 Cor 5:11-13) and let God judge them. If you have the time, I would be interested in seeing the serious exegesis of 1 Cor 6 that I trust you did before initiating this lawsuit that demonstrates that here "defrauding" excludes serious things, but really means only in trivial situations don't go to the unbelievers, but in fact we must for the glory of God expose the serious sins of believers to the ungodly and have them judge issues in the church as a court of higher appeal beyond church discipline. In the earliest post-Christian writings, that word “defraud” is used in the sentence here; "Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord, to see who can be the more defrauded, who the more cheated, who the more rejected . . . with complete purity and self control" (Eph 10:3). I didn't see anything where the earliest Christians thought 1 Cor 6 meant to take believers to secular courts and show the sins of the saints to the Christ-hating world in order to avoid being defrauded.
I trust you know that I took the time to write this out of Christian love, for the glory of God, and because I trust that you indeed to care very much about what the Bible says and so you want to follow it, no matter what the cost. It is unquestionably done because of respect, love, and care for you and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
That was my response—Don’t take Christians to court, because it is forbidden by 1 Corinthians 6. Do you agree or not? You had better be sure what the Bible teaches on this subject before it, God forbid, comes up in a tragic situation in your life, and convenience suggests disobedience to Scripture.