Christian Litigation: Should Christians Sue One Another?

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The Apostle Paul admonishes the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 6) condemning the practice of believers suing other believers in court, and providing 2 alternatives; bring the dispute to the church, or permit yourself to be wronged.

In the previous chapter, Paul explained what to do with open immorality in the congregation. Now in chapter 6, he is teaching how the congregation should handle smaller problems between believers. Just because the civilization had set up a legal system in which disagreements could be resolved in courts, Paul asserts that Christians should not have to go to a secular court to resolve differences between followers of Christ. He explains, as Christians, we have the Holy Spirit and the mind of Christ, and he questions why then should we turn to those who lack God’s wisdom?[1]  Gordon Fee further demonstrates how, “Everything in this church is in reverse order. If the church does not ‘judge’ those outside, neither should it go outside with inside affairs… [Because this makes] the event a defeat for the church in every way, for the community as a whole, as well as for the two believers.”[2]

Picturing Jews or early Christians going to a Gentile court to handle disputes seems contradictory to their most fundamental belief. The Gentile courts were pagan in nature and acted as unrighteous-infidels. This practice makes one wonder if the Jews/early Christians Paul is speaking to would have taken their disputes to a Samaritan court. Another question this writer pondered would be what to do if there was a grievance between a Christian and a non-believer, as this example is what to do between two followers of Christ. In this instance, this writer believes the follower of Christ will have an even greater opportunity to represent Christ in their actions.

Why is it better for Christians to lay down their rights and suffer injury than to litigate? In short, why shouldn’t Christians sue one another, and what’s wrong with litigation?

Litigation did two things Paul could not stand: it divided the church, but it also it hindered the work of God among the non-Christians in Corinth.[3]  Paul clearly understood what a terrible witness it was to Christianity when followers of Christ had to take their grievances before a civil court to be settled. This is why Paul calls the believer to exhaust all options within the church, like going to the individual with a fellow believer, or going before the board of elders/deacons, as a last resort, before taking the matter to civil court for litigation.

In humanity’s sinful and fallen nature, even followers of Christ lose sight of the big picture and how damaging their actions can be to the spread of the gospel, causing disunity within the church. Fee points out two reasons why it is better for Christians to lay down their rights and suffer injury than to litigate. First, “Whether you win or lose, the action itself is already a loss. For even if you win, you lose by not being able to endure injury, and the church loses by your action before the public tribunal.”[4]

Paul is using Jesus’ message of not repaying evil with evil, even if you are wronged and Fee further demonstrates, “By your wrongdoing which precipitated the lawsuit, you, too, have suffered defeat; for even if you have gained some temporal advantage, you stand in greater danger of losing your eternal inheritance. Thus, even before a verdict is reached in the court, the action itself is an utter defeat for all parties.”[5]

Many collateral issues are the direct result of churches failing to teach this principle, or the possible lack of receptivity in western-minded believers.

Today’s world knows more what the church is against than what it is for. In recent years there have been scandals, disgraceful acts, and other atrocities that would make any unbeliever even less sure about following Christ if the church is any representation of Christianity. While everyone is made in the image of Christ, they also bear the sinful nature that came as a result of the Fall. Today’s church either does not teach the principle of what to do when a brother or sister wrongs you,[6] or they error on the side of fire, brimstone, or shunning. Both extremes are damaging and have lasting impacts, as a result of the ripple effect.

Ten to twenty years ago, there were still a high percentage of individuals who had not had a previous experience with a church – good or bad. However, today most people have had at least a bad experience, which makes spreading the gospel even harder. This is the fundamental problem facing Christianity today, as George Barna illuminates, “The gap between the churched and the churchless is growing, and it appears that Christian communities of faith will struggle more than ever to engage church outsiders…”[7] If the individuals in Corinth had settled their dispute within the church, Fee illustrates how, “By overcoming evil with good, even if it meant personal loss, this brother not only could have staved off real defeat, but could have experienced the greater gain of Christian ethics: by enduring undeserved injury he enters into the real meaning of the cross.”[8]

I Peter 2:19-21 (ESV) is a beautiful representation of this:

For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

Peter Davids illustrates what Peter means, “Is that God is pleased with Christians who bear up under unjust suffering, not because there is no other option or because of their optimistic character, but because they know this pleases God and conforms to the teaching of Jesus.”[9]

As image bearers of God and as Christians, we must reflect those qualities and attributes in our thoughts and actions. Until we do, the lost and hurting world we have an immediate opportunity to reach will want nothing to do with Christianity. Jesus came to seek and save that which is lost and when He ascended into heaven, He passed that mission onto His followers. How can we accomplish that if we cannot even settle disputes among believers? Until we stop viewing ourselves as victims and instead start living our lives as victors, we are a hindrance to spreading the gospel.

We must embody Paul’s words to those in Philippi:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.[10]

Here Paul is reversing gain and loss in light of his own experience with Christ. For Paul, gaining Christ meant being found in Him. Paul sought to embody Christ in his actions and he sought to know Him relationally. Fee demonstrates, “Paul is now found in Christ… knowing [just] as Christ’s humiliation was followed by God’s glorious vindication of him, so present suffering for Christ’s sake will be followed by glory in the form of resurrection.”[11]

Bibliography

Barna Group Website, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/685-five-trends-among-the-unchurched#.Vxad5j-J-gQ  (accessed April 29, 2016).

Davids, Peter H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Walvoord, John and Roy Zuck, Editors. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty. Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications, 1985. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.


[1] Life Application Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 1935.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 228.

[3] John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications, 1985), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 515.

[4] Fee, The NICNT – The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 240.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 18:15

[8] Fee, The NICNT – The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 240.

[9] Peter H. Davids, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle of Peter, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 107.

[10] Philippians 3:7-11 (NIV)

[11] Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 314.

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