Friday, February 12, 2016

Christians Suing Christians: Is it Biblical?

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:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. (Matthew 5:39-41)

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.


d4v34x said...

I agree Thomas. Well stated.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ross,
I am very glad you wrote this article. This issue is showing up everywhere, and I have personally seen it happening for years.
I have at least three distinct questions for you, and all three have been presented to me as reasons why it is Ok to take other believers to court.
The first is this: is 1 Cor. 6 talking to people inside a local church, or to the greater family of God? Since 1 Cor. was written to a local church, it should be understood in a local context. I have Believers cannot sue other believers in the same church, but it may be possible to sue outside your own church. Since there is no universal church, conflicts between believers from different churches may need outside expertise (most believers are not law experts) and are allowed to have outside help for a resolution. Part of the reasoning is that there is no way for a church to appoint a believer as an authoritative "judge" to which both parties must submit if they are from different churches.
The second question is this: if the parties refuse to submit to the church, or if at least one of the churches involved refuses to make the parties stop court action, is it better to allow the court to decide the issue so that there will be a resolution? Should a church remove a member that is refusing to stop a court action?
The third question is this: are you allowed to pursue someone civilly if you are trying to help a third party, like an abused person? For example, if you hear that someone calling themselves a brother is taking advantage of a widow, and you want to protect the widow, can you initiate a court action against them to protect the widow? The reasons to keep the court action civil and not criminal are mercy and restraint; that is, not wanting the abuser to get in real trouble, but just make them stop the abuse. Doesn't Isaiah 1:17 say "plead for the widow" and "plead" is a legal term?
I do not believe any of these reasons, but the people presenting them to me did.
Vic Crowne

Farmer Brown said...

This is interesting. What do you think of the argument from Matthew 18, that after they are removed you can then sue them, as you would be able to sue a heathen?

Farmer Brown said...

Also, what of the argument from the text (1 Corinthians 6) that is only applies to brethren within a church suing other believers? The theory is this is written to the church in Corinth and is written because members of that assembly were suing each other. Therefore the prohibition was against members of the same assembly suing each other.

According to this theory, Paul rebuked them for the internal lawsuits, but if a member of Corinth wanted to sue a member of Antioch or Damascus or Jerusalem, Paul would have been fin with that.

Thomas Ross said...

Dear Vic,

Thanks for the question. 1 Corinthians 6 forbids a brother taking a brother to court, not just a brother in one's own church to court. Therefore, the passage is not limited only to a prohibition on lawsuits with members of one's own church.

While it may not be as easy to get a moderator if the dispute is between two churches, since Paul said it would be better to get the least esteemed in the church rather than an unbeliever, it should be possible to find a way to resolve the situation without exposing the sins of the brethren to the scorn of the ungodly.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Vic (comment continued),

If a court issues an order, and the order is not explicitly contrary to Scripture (e. g., deny John 14:6; say sodomy is OK, etc.), we ought to comply with the court order, Romans 13.

I would say that we ought to help the widow ourselves if she is being taken advantage of financially but not initiate court action. Paul in 1 Cor 6 states that it is better to be defrauded, and being defrauded, as the examples I gave in the post demonstrate, can mean very serious loss.

If, on the other hand, her life is at stake and someone is trying to break into the house with an axe and a revolver, then the Biblical principle of defending life means that we can use the sword in self defense (although if we can flee we probably ought to flee), as can the police who we ought to call, etc. We are to allow ourselves to be defrauded, but Paul did not say we are to just get murdered without trying to stop it from happening.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Farmer Brown,

I think that such a view of Matthew 18 is a "convenient" way of getting out of the command of 1 Corinthians 6. Paul didn't say, "just put the person under church discipline, and then take him to court, get his house and even the cloak off his back." Indeed, in light of the serious character of the warnings of 1 Corinthians 6, Paul would have considered failure to cease from lawsuits when warned in 1 Cor 6 a matter for church discipline. However, he never said, implied, or in any other way whatsoever said "if the person doesn't listen and we kick him out, then go ahead and sue away." This is following the between-the-lines Bible, not the real Bible.

I believe my response above to Vic dealt with the different church question you asked.

Anonymous said...

"Therefore, the passage is not limited only to a prohibition on lawsuits with members of one's own church."

There is not one independent Baptist who ever practices this truth.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Anonymous,

You stated:

"There is not one independent Baptist who ever practices this truth."

So every single independent Baptist in the world has engaged in lawsuits with people outside of his church?

Could you please tell me the name of the believer who I sued outside of my church, and the one who Pastor Brandenburg sued, Farmer Brown sued, etc.?

Why did I write a post against suing believers if I, and every single IFB in the world, has done it?

It is pretty clear why you did not put your name on your comment.

Farmer Brown said...

Thomas or Kent (or whomever), what about complex situations? For example, a man in your church is involved in investment banking and has another brother as a client. Something in the transaction goes wrong. Now both feel as though they have been wronged.

This would not be a criminal matter, but civil. It would also be very complex. You could have a patent or trademark dispute. Again, this would be very complex. The laws on these issues are convoluted and difficult even for a skilled attorney to comprehend.

How would you handle something like that? In these cases, it is likely no one in either body would have the expertise to understand the matters of law. I hesitate to say the body of Christ is insufficient, in fact, that is not what I am saying. I think it is sufficient. How would you handle complex issues that require a certain expertise?

KJB1611 said...

Dear Farmer Brown,

Thanks for the questions. I see no exception for complex questions in 1 Corinthians 6. If some very complex law is involved, there is nothing wrong with getting someone who knows the law well to help out, preferably also someone who is a Christian. Applying the charity of 1 Corinthians 13 should make things work.

Jon Gleason said...

Brother Ross, I've been meaning to get to this, sorry for the delay in responding.

Does not the immediate context of I Corinthians 5 give pause here? They were told to put the guilty party out of the church, no longer to grant him the fellowship of a brother. And immediately afterwards they are told to treat brothers a certain way, with no parallel instruction not to treat non-brothers the same way.

To me, in light of Matthew 18, another church discipline case (though for a different offense, that of wronging a brother), this can indeed permit legal action. Certainly not against one who is accepted as a brother (the passage is clear on that and thus goes beyond the local church, as you've noted).

But if one is engaged in behaviour that forces us to place him outside the accepted brotherhood, then the protection against legal action enjoined in I Corinthians 6 is also taken from him.

There are still the principles of I Corinthians 6. To go to court against a professing believer, even if his profession is belied by his behaviour to the extent that he has been excommunicated, is going to give blasphemers opportunity. It may not be best, for that and other reasons. It will often, at least, be unwise.

But I do not believe I Corinthians 6 gives a clear prohibition of legal action against someone who has been excommunicated (and is to be to us as a heathen and a publican, outside the church). And it some cases, it may even be the best way to silence blasphemers.

I would appreciate your thoughts.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Bro Gleason,

As in my response to Farmer Brown, this seems like practicing the between-the-lines Bible--kick him out and then sue him. If the person no longer professed to be a Christian, that might, perhaps, be different--but if he is claiming to be a brother, I don't think we get to sue him, period.

Thanks for the question.

Jon Gleason said...

Thank you, Brother Ross. A further followup.

There are many people who claim to be "Christians" but they never attended a church and live completely ungodly lives. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway, claimed to be a "Christian." There is no evidence that he ever adopted anything of Christianity but the name. I presume it would be acceptable to sue someone like him.

Then there are the cultists, who claim to be brothers. Many Mormons now say they are Christians. Then there are the Roman Catholics, who claim to be Christian brothers, or the "feel-good gospel" people like Robert Schuller, etc., or the health-wealth "gospel" people. If people like this claim to be Christian brothers but do things that would justify taking legal action against them, does their Christian claim render them immune?

How does the person differ who made the same claim but actually came into one of our churches and disrupted it? That gives him more right to legal immunity than outsiders who never came in, but make the same claim? In light of Matthew 18, how do you justify treating such a person differently from the lost? If we are told that he is to be us as a heathen and a publican, that is to remove from him all fellowship, and all the spiritual protection of the church.

I suggest it also removes from him all the legal protection of the church commanded in I Corinthians 6. To do otherwise, it seems to me, is to fail to obey Matthew 18, which says to treat those who have to be removed as lost people. The decision whether or not to sue such an one is the same as the decision whether or not to sue an unbeliever. Will it bring glory to God, or will it cause the name of God to be blasphemed? It becomes a matter of wisdom, but not a matter of obedience to I Corinthians 6 -- that person has removed himself from that protection.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Bro Gleason,

Certainly someone who is a Mormon, etc. is no more a Christian than a member of ISIS, so the prohibition of 1 Corinthians 5 does not apply.

Withdrawal of fellowship/church discipline happens to those who are brothers in Christ, 2 Thess 3:6, as well as to those who are unregenerate, 2 Cor 6:14-18. Someone who one hopes is saved but falls under church discipline is very different than a person who openly professes and defends a false gospel, such as a Mormon. I do not believe Matt 18:15ff. is denying that there are some from whom we withdraw but we count not as enemies, but admonish as a brother.

Since Paul is so severe against suing brethren in 1 Cor 6, I do not believe that we do well to go in between the lines and try to find a conclusion different from the one that Paul draws, and Paul never says something like "put him under church discpline, then sue him blind."


Jon Gleason said...

Well, Brother Ross, I fear we'll see this one differently. As to your last paragraph, the purpose of church discipline is obviously not to open the way to legal action.

But if our church has to discipline someone, and that person in bitterness and rebellion phones me three times a night in the middle of the night, and threatens my family, I'll not hesitate to go to law with him, and that before unbelievers, and get a restraining order. And if he then comes and smashes up my car and puts stones through every window in the house, I'll not hesitate to seek both criminal and civil redress, rather than expect my family or my insurance company to absorb the cost. That person's claim to be a Christian does not buy him legal immunity.

When someone puts himself outside the church, he puts himself outside the protection of I Corinthians 6. It is not a question of "going in between the lines and try to find a conclusion different from the one Paul draws." It is a question of being sure we are drawing the same conclusion that Paul was drawing.

He was talking about differences between two believers who are within the church and should be expected to submit to the judgment of other believers. I Cor. 6:4-5 makes that clear. He was not talking about differences between a believer and someone whose behaviour is so far from that of a believer that they've had to be put outside the church, and whose claim to be a believer is thus necessarily very doubtful.