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Going to Law with a Brother

We live in a highly litigious society.  Civil courts are flooded with lawsuits concerning everything from small claims up to multimillion dollar class actions.  Certainly, some litigation is necessary and justified, but many legal disputes could be settled out of court, and some lawsuits are based entirely on fabricated complaints.  There is a segment of the legal profession that exists seemingly to generate frivolous lawsuits solely for the purpose of making money for lawyers and their clients. This proliferation of litigation without the sincere interest of justice has caused a common disdain for lawyers and the law profession in general.

Such a climate of litigation, greed, and incivility is bad enough for the world, but how much worse is it when Christians are involved in lawsuits against one another?  This is the subject Paul addressed in 1Corinthians 6:1-8.  Notice that this short text contains nine questions. These questions indicate that Paul is appealing to our existing sense of right and wrong.  In other words, as Christians, we ought to know better than to sue one another in civil courts, and we shouldn't have to be told these things. Read the text here:

1Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?  2Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?  3Do you not know that we will judge angels?  How much more matters of this life?  4So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? 5I say this to your shame.  Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, 6but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?  7Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?  8On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren.

Paul acknowledges that disputes will arise among brethren, but he asserts that such disputes should not be taken before the courts of unbelievers for settlement.  Instead, they should be settled among the brethren with wise Christians presiding over the decisions.  When this process is followed, Christians should be willing to abide by the decisions made as if they were bound in courts of law.  If this process is not followed, then all parties involved will lose because of the shame of the situation concerning wrongdoing and fraud among brethren.

It is important to understand that these instructions pertain to civil litigation and not to criminal prosecution.  If a brother or sister commits a criminal act, then the civil authorities have jurisdiction by the will of God, and the church must respect their authority.  Concerning this, notice Romans 13:1-5:

1Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  3For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.  Do you want to have no fear of authority?  Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4for it is a minister of God to you for good.  But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake.

Peter is also very clear in 1Peter 4:15, where he writes, "Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler..."  Such offenders should suffer at the hand of the civil authorities, and Christians should have no qualms about referring criminal matters to criminal courts.

Sadly, some Christians have confused these instructions, using Romans 13 to justify suing one another and 1Corinthians 6 to excuse prosecution of criminal offenders in the church.  Ideally, none of these situations would exist, but because they sometimes do, Christians need to be prepared for how they should be handled.  The correct use of these passages gives us this preparation.

Therefore, let no brother sue another brother due to a civil matter through a court of law.  Instead, refer the matter to another wise Christian who can fairly moderate or arbitrate the situation.  Concerning criminal activity, such a matter should be prosecuted by the civil authorities as ordained by God.  All Christians are subject to the laws of the land, and any Christian who commits a crime should suffer the due punishment.  This is the just and right will of God.

Stacey E. Durham




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