Whether or not a Christian should ever sue another Christian can be a subject of passionate debate. The root cause of the dilemma is scandalous. The Church of God is called upon to rightly judge matters between Christians. But, often, the church is either unable or unwilling to get involved. Other times, because of our hardness of heart, we are not willing to count the church worthy “to judge the smallest matters (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).” Rather, we go hastily to court (Proverbs 25:8), ignoring Paul’s instruction:
“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6:1-2, NKJV)
First, we see in the Word of God that sin is at the root of all conflicts, inside and outside the church. We are born sinners; and the godliest of men will die sinners. It is only by God’s Grace that we are saved from our own wickedness. All of us are prone to sin; therefore, we are also likely to hurt one another.
The Bible tells us that our hearts are desperately wicked, that we are easily blinded by our own sin, and that “out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and blasphemies” (Jeremiah 17:9, Matthew 15:19). Often, the consequence of this sinful condition is that we hurt and offend others; and likewise, that we are easily offended ourselves. Some offenses are petty; while others are seriously damaging and incessantly destructive.
Since the early days of the nation of Israel, God established systematic jurisprudence to help deal with the issues of sin and offenses. Exilic Israel had Moses as the final arbitrator of offenses. And, as we may remember, the needs of the people were too great for one man. Thus, Moses, at the counsel of his father-in-law, chose rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens to judge the people of Israel.
There seemed to even be an appellate system, where Moses could be called upon to judge the hard cases (Exodus 18). Furthermore, we see that the Judges were a legal voice in Israel. In fact, Samuel rode around as a circuit judge (1 Samuel 7:15-17).
In the New Testament, we find the theocracy of Israel slowly replaced with a secular government and court system. The Jews were allowed to maintain a Jewish court to handle many local matters; but, they were still under Roman authority. Jesus may have been referring to the civil court in Matthew 5, when He said:
“Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26, NKJV)
Paul appealed to Roman justice in the Book of Acts. Jewish courts were abolished with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
A Desire for Restoration
However, the secular courts should not be the first vehicle of resolution for an offended Christian. Again, Jesus gave us directives for handling offenses in the church. In Matthew 18 we read:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
There are a number of important points here. First we see an attempt to handle the matter privately. Love isn’t eager to publicly flaunt the sins of others. “A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter.” (Proverbs 11:13, NKJV) This is why Jesus instructs an offended Christian to first go to his brother alone and plead with him to repent.
This shows that the goal of any type of action like this is not revenge, but reconciliation—to win one’s brother. In our call to love God and to love our neighbor, we are to be grieved over a brother who is offending God and bringing destruction upon his own head; therefore our efforts should reflect a desire to see him restored to a right relationship with God and with us. Not to see him destroyed. “He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20, NKJV)
As Christ loved and sacrificed for us, we also should love our brother, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16, NKJV)
We are to forebear with one another and be longsuffering, so that repentance is encouraged (Romans 2:4); we are not to allow petty differences to separate a friendship or slander the name of Christ. Whenever possible, we should prefer to be cheated or suffer a wrong. We are to seek peace in Christ’s church. “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18, NKJV) We are to live at peace with all men so far as we are able.
Peace, Peace! When there is No Peace
Yet, it is clear that there are times when “peace” between brothers is out of our hands—when peace is impossible because one party continues a pursuit to grievously harm the other. Is the offended party in bondage to the offender? What if the offender is not under any spiritual authority, or is not accountable to any church because he/she does not attend church or has been excommunicated? Is the offended party not able to seek relief from harm for himself or for his family? Matthew Henry had this to say about 1 Corinthians 6:
Brother went to law with brother, one member of the church with another. Here is at least an intimation that they went to law for trivial matters, things of little value; for the apostle blames them that they did not suffer wrong rather than go to law (v. 7), which must be understood of matters not very important.
In matters of great damage to ourselves or our families, we may use lawful means to right ourselves. We are not bound to sit down and suffer the injury tamely, without stirring for our own relief; but, in matters of small consequence, it is better to put up with the wrong. Christians should be of a forgiving temper. And it is more for their ease and honour to suffer small injuries and inconveniences than seem to be contentious.
Some take 1 Corinthians 6 to be a prohibition against any and all lawsuits between Christians. But we must note a few things from the text. First, as Matthew Henry pointed out, this epistle was written to a local congregation, addressing local issues. In a church body, members are bound together in a community, typically through a series of vows. These are people who know one another and are accountable to one another under some sort of church government.
There are elders who have been given to the church, gifted to the church, and charged to maintain peace. Consider Paul’s words to Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2. He came to them as a judge, yet appealed to the local elder to work with them to bring unity and peace to their situation.
But in our day, when so many people are not accountable to a local church, or when offenses take place between professing Christians who attend different churches, perhaps who even live in different States, what is an offended Christian to do? In the age of the Internet, when individuals can claim to be anyone at all, and can do great damage to Christians and to the Church as a whole, where is accountability to be found? If all efforts to reconcile within the church fail, the civil magistrate is assuredly a biblical option.
Ruth A.M. Ross, in her article, When Can Christians Sue?, writes:
Before proceeding to discuss other pre-conditions to litigation, it should be emphasized that some may call themselves Christians but may not qualify as a “believer” or “one among you” in accordance with 1 Corinthians 6. This may be because they have been removed from fellowship through internal church discipline, or because they refuse to come under church or appropriate spiritual authority. Such an offender may not qualify as a “believer” within the context of this passage which warns against going to court against such a person.
We must remember that the civil magistrate is given to the church by God Himself. Consider Romans 13:1-4, where the Apostle Paul says,
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
If a professing Christian practices evil, and is not under local church accountability, the civil magistrate can certainly be called in to help bring peace. This magistrate is God’s minister and is to render just judgment.
From the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1:
“God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.” (Rom. 13:1–4, 1 Pet. 2:13–14).
And finally, the last portion of Paragraph 3:
“It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretence of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.” (Rom. 13:4, 1 Tim. 2:2) [emphasis mine]
Note, the magistrate serves all the people; those inside the church, as well as those outside the church; and there are times when it is difficult to know the difference. It seems clear that when someone who claims Christ continues to sin against another believer, and is either under church discipline or unwilling to submit to the authority or judgment of a local church, he/she must be viewed as “outside the church,” even if he is in fact a believer.
In addition, when the church, to her shame, is unwilling to judge such matters (1 Corinthians 6), significant conflict may be rightly judged by the civil magistrate acting as God’s minister (Romans 13:4).
This is a prime example of why we should all strive to live in peace with one another and for churches to honor and support the good judgments of sister churches. Appealing to the civil magistrate for relief from unwarranted attack or sinful treatment should be a last resort; but, it is a lawful, and at times godly, resort.
It is, of course, a matter of great prayer and heartache when a Christian must take a professing Christian to court. But, if all other means of redress are exhausted and the issue is of a significant nature, the civil magistrate is the means God has given to bring peace.
“Let such persons then understand that judicial proceedings are lawful to him who makes a right use of them; and the right use, both for the pursuer and for the defender, is for the latter to sist himself on the day appointed, and, without bitterness, urge what he can in his defense, but only with the desire of justly maintaining his right; and for the pursuer, when undeservedly attacked in his life or fortunes, to throw himself upon the protection of the magistrate, state his complaint, and demand what is just and good; while, far from any wish to hurt or take vengeance—far from bitterness or hatred —far from the Armour of strife, he is rather disposed to yield and suffer somewhat than to cherish hostile feelings towards his opponent.
On the contrary, when minds are filled with malevolence, corrupted by envy, burning with anger, breathing revenge, or, in fine, so inflamed by the heat of the contest, that they, in some measure, lay aside charity, the whole pleading, even of the justest cause, cannot but be impious. For it ought to be an axiom among all Christians, that no plea, however equitable, can be rightly conducted by any one who does not feel as kindly towards his opponent as if the matter in dispute were amicably transacted and arranged.
Some one, perhaps, may here break in and say, that such moderation in judicial proceedings is so far from being seen, that an instance of it would be a kind of prodigy. I confess that in these times it is rare to meet with an example of an honest litigant; but the thing itself, untainted by the accession of evil, ceases not to be good and pure. When we hear that the assistance of the magistrate is a sacred gift from God, we ought the more carefully to beware of polluting it by our fault.” – John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.
“Paul does not here condemn those who from necessity have a cause before unbelieving judges, as when a person is summoned to a court; but those who, of their own accord, bring their brethren into this situation, and harass them, as it were, through means of unbelievers, while it is in their power to employ another remedy.” – John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians