Is it scriptural for a Christian to take another Christian to law?
Published 12:56 pm Thursday, March 16, 2023
Recently, I have been faced with the question as to whether Paul’s ban against taking a brother in Christ to law is a prohibition in every case. As we consider the words of Paul and related verses throughout the Bible it is evident that the severity of the offence must be taken into question. If brethren are having a simple legal disagreement, it is evident that they should not involve the courts, but rather they should go before the Elders of the congregation and come to an agreeable solution.
Throughout this letter, Paul deals with the Corinthians and their fighting, arguing, and dividing over all kinds of issues. The context of 1 Corinthians shows a congregation in trouble. In Chapter 1, we see immediately that there were divisions within the congregation. This divisiveness according to 1 Corinthians 1:10, was a huge problem. It was a problem that was magnified by brethren that were carnal in nature. In Chapter 5, we learn that they were glorying in the wrong things, including unrepentant sin. When we read Corinthians 6, we find another problem in the Corinthian Church. In their carnality, they aired out their problems in the public arena (court) giving the church a bad name. Therefore, Paul commanded the brethren to settle their disputes amongst themselves, rather than parading them before the world. In the text, Paul states that in this situation it is better to suffer loss than to harbor hard feelings towards others and cause the church’s influence to be damaged. But how much loss is a brother to suffer before he should take the matter to the civil authorities? I believe that it is a matter of personal judgment of a spiritual Child of God. If one chose to let the matter drop and suffer the loss (even though thousands of dollars might be involved), it would be his option to do so.
As I consider the whole of God’s Word, I believe that the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians is relative in nature. If it were absolute, then we would not be facing such a question. What if the situation involved tens of thousands of dollars or more? What if one’s survival is severely impacted or what if a Christian’s family, home, job, or reputation is at stake. The situation one is facing must be taken into consideration.
For example, in His teaching concerning marriage and divorce, Jesus authorized the granting of a divorce and the end of a marriage based upon the fornication of one of the spouses. In this situation a legal procedure takes place. I know of no one who denies the innocent party the right to file for a divorce through the courts of our land. In this case a Christian wife could take her adulterous, “Christian” spouse “to law” for the obtaining of a divorce if she met the requirements of Matthew 19:9. If a brother in Christ sold his home to another Christian and that Christian failed to make payments, would that brother be allowed to go to court to recoup his losses, or should he and his family suffer the loss? Were these and similar situations what Paul was discussing? I think not, for Paul himself taught in Romans 13, that civil authority was employed by God for society’s protection. If this is true, then it is proper to use the courts in some instances in the pursuit of justice.
To use Paul’s teaching in Corinthians to prevent all legal proceedings would open the floodgates to allow any Christian to harm another and then claim immunity based upon 1 Corinthians 6. This would not be in line with the totality of the Bible. Somewhere along the line the Christian must consider all the facts involved and ask: “Is the wrong I have suffered petty or is it one that is of such a nature that I or my family have been severely damaged.”
With the whole of God’s word in mind, I believe that it is a matter of personal judgement if I should take a brother in Christ to court. But as we consider taking another brother to law, we should be certain that we are acting as a Christian. We aid in that process by seeking first a way of settling issues without displaying discord in the church for the world to see. Then we must take into consideration, was the offence a violation of the law; if it was, then we are under an obligation to report such offences to the authorities. God never intended for His spiritual people to be mistreated without recourse. Throughout the Old Testament there are several cases where God’s people went to law and where God’s people judged others according to the law. We simply must learn to exercise a proper balance between petty and serious offenses.
In such situations, if there is any doubt in one’s mind, if taking the matter to court violates his conscience, he then should suffer the loss and allow God to execute justice in due time. In the end, we must seek out unity with our brethren, we must do so for their sake and ours; we must do so for God’s sake. In conclusion, Paul said, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10 KJV). Let us be ever vigilant to seek unity and peace among the brethren.
(Tony Hoss is minister of the Centerview Church of Christ, Elizabethton)