Should a Christian ever sue a fellow believer in a civil court or tribunal?

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 14 – How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it

As we saw earlier, apostle Paul made a powerful statement about this in his first letter to the Corinthians.  On the face of it, what he says seems quite clear and conclusive:

1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud–even your own brothers!

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 (ESV)

Paul is effectively saying that if two genuine Christians, both of whom are “brothers”, are in a genuine, biblical church, then they should not sue each other.  Instead, they should follow the Matthew Chapter 18 procedure which was laid down by Jesus, as set out above.  The point is that if a church is led in a biblical way, by proper elders, who take their responsibilities seriously, then this approach can succeed, because real and meaningful discipline will result for the wrongdoer.

Moreover, there will be scope for real vindication, and perhaps even genuine redress, for the wronged party.  The dispute will be tackled on an increasingly open basis, until eventually it is heard by the whole local church. Then, if the wrongdoer will not repent and put things right, he may be expelled from the church.  To a real believer, in a biblical church, that sanction would matter.  It would create a real and meaningful incentive to operate honestly and properly.

When Paul tells us not to sue fellow believers, I believe he means when both are real Christians and members of a biblical church, which is capable of resolving disputes.  The problem today is that virtually none of the conditions which apostle Paul assumed to exist are actually applicable in our churches.  Most or all of the necessary features are missing or inapplicable:

a) There are many non-Christians who are long standing members of churches, despite the fact that they are not genuinely ‘regenerate’.  They may not necessarily be repentant and may not even genuinely believe.  Many are just ‘churchgoers’, i.e ‘religious’ people.  They like the liturgy, tradition or culture of church, but they aren’t real Christians and they aren’t born again.

b) The churches as a whole are not biblical (see Book Eight).  Most are led by one man, who is paid, and views himself as belonging to a special class called ‘clergy’, rather than being led by a group of unpaid ‘elders’.

c) They are not small groups meeting in a house, barn or school, with 20-70 people, who know each other intimately.  Most churches meet in specially designed buildings with perhaps hundreds of people, who don’t know each other well, or even at all.  Many people who attend churches, even those who go regularly, do not even know the names of many of the others there, let alone know them intimately.  Therefore they cannot even hope to accurately assess the true nature of their characters. 

d) Instead of existing to preach the authentic Gospel and make genuine disciples, most churches today (in the West) exist for other purposes.  Church leadership is seen as a career by many leaders.  If so, their main aim is to keep the church going, remain firmly in control, avoid controversy, and preserve their own salary and pension.  That may sound cynical, but it is true far too much of the time, even for many of those men who began their ministries with high ideals.

The net effect of all this is that what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 and what Jesus said in Matthew 18: 15-17 cannot effectively operate in the churches that most of us attend today in the West. Can you imagine going to the leader of any church you know, whether he be a priest, vicar, or pastor, and telling him that one of the people in the church has wronged or defrauded you? 

He would be most unlikely to want to get involved.  But even if, somehow, he did, can you imagine him agreeing, if the dispute couldn’t be resolved, to take it in the end to the ‘whole church’?  When and how could that ever be done?  The members as a whole would not be willing or able to tackle it.

More importantly, the leader(s) would not be willing to let them try in any event. That said, you wouldn’t even want it yourself, because you know it would be a shambles and that nothing useful would be achieved by it.  What would actually happen, 99% of the time, is that issues would be dodged, fudged, or otherwise glossed over, so as to avoid confrontation or the need for any decision to be made. 

That has always been my experience when I have tried it, and I have heard the same from many others. Accordingly, the idea of not suing a fellow Christian, even if you can be sure he really is genuinely born again, is not realistic.   Paul was speaking of a context and setting which he knew, and regularly experienced, in all the churches he founded or taught at.  

However, that is something which we do not have in most churches today, at least in the West.  Therefore, we have to operate according to the facts as they really are and the context which we are actually in.  Much of the time, the person with whom we are in dispute may not be a genuine Christian.  Moreover, we are probably not in a genuine biblical church, which meets in homes, where everyone is known, and which is led by biblical elders. 

Therefore the prohibition Paul spoke of would not apply, at least not in my view.  That may be a revelation to some people.  It may even set some people free, who have been harmed by others  but wrongly believe they are forbidden by the Bible to do anything to seek redress. 

I remember a problem I dealt with some years ago where a man in the church, who was a school teacher and worship leader, had loaned money to a young Christian woman who was getting married.  It was to help her to cover the costs of her wedding and was a significant sum to this man.  Let’s call him ‘Samuel’ and the young woman ‘Sybil’.

Samuel came to me long after the wedding because Sybil and her new husband were doing nothing to repay him.  He felt frustrated and betrayed, but he also felt trapped by apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6.  He believed that that passage prevented him from doing anything to force Sybil, or her husband, to repay him.  He asked for my advice, as both a Solicitor and a Christian.  I advised him that we could, and should, take a firm line. 

Therefore I wrote a strong letter to Sybil and her husband and said that if they did not repay him then I would take on Samuel’s case and sue them myself, free of charge.  It worked!  They paid up immediately, which proved that their non-payment up to that point was not due to any inability to pay.  They just didn’t want to pay and they had actually relied on Samuel’s sincerity in taking 1 Corinthians so seriously, and therefore not being willing to force them to repay.

They knew what the Bible said on this point and were making capital from it for themselves.  They thought apostle Paul’s letter put them in the clear, such that they would never have to pay up.  I thought it was an absolutely appalling attitude, and a clear sign of apostasy.  However, they miscalculated on that particular occasion.

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