Can Christians ever take one another to court?

Q. How literally should we take Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians that Christians should settle their disputes out of court? If Christians do have to go to court (say, in a situation in which someone else brings a case against them and they don’t have a choice), how literally should they take Paul’s instruction to “rather be wronged or cheated”? For example, should a Christian be willing to be “wronged or cheated,” rather than engage in speaking harshly about another Christian, even when the stakes are high (such as in a child custody battle)?

If we are really going to take Paul’s counsel about this “literally,” we should recognize that the people he was addressing were members of the same local congregation, or at least members of the community of Jesus’ followers in the same city, so that they were under the spiritual authority of the same leaders.  Paul is saying that these leaders should have the wisdom to settle the dispute and so the aggrieved parties should submit it to them.  His point is not that we should never dispute about important things, but that our disputes should be settled under the authority of the Christian community.

The situation is quite different when the two parties are not part of the same community.  If there is no spiritual authority whom both respect and who knows them and understands their situations, it’s hard to follow Paul’s counsel as he intended it.

We should also recognize that Paul’s main concern was not simply the avoidance of conflict. (Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians he wrote, “There must be divisions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”). Rather, his concern was for the reputation of the gospel. As I explain in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, he tells the Corinthians that it is “an embarrassment to their community and to Jesus’ reputation in the city” for them to be publicly bickering and appealing to “unbelievers” to settle their differences.

It was only in this context that Paul said it was better to allow yourself to be wronged or cheated—better this than to put any stumbling block in the way of people believing the good news about Jesus.  As he wrote a little later in 1 Corinthians, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”

So if the weak and defenseless would otherwise be oppressed, if a child’s welfare were clearly at stake, if the cause of the gospel would actually suffer more if an injustice went unopposed, in all such cases I would not see Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians as a blanket prohibition against appealing to the law to settle a dispute, even among self-proclaimed Christians.

However, I would also caution that the law is a blunt instrument.  It can only declare a winner and a loser in a court case.  And most situations that lead to these cases are much more complex than that; there’s right and wrong on both sides.  I imagine that a case that made even followers of Jesus consider litigation against one another would be very complex and nuanced, so that no one should be satisfied with a simple “judgment” in favor of one party or the other.

There are Christian mediation services (a simple Google search for that phrase turns up many) that can help resolve matters out of court, and I would strongly recommend going to them before considering litigation against another believer.  Turning to these professionals is not quite the same thing as submitting a dispute to someone who is in local spiritual authority over both parties (I hope today’s church pastors and elders are up for that challenge when it does arise), but I think it’s a wise and well-advised course.

In summary, as I say at the end of the discussion of this topic in my study guide, “Followers of Jesus might see this question in two different ways. Some would be concerned that the demands of justice be honored, so that someone who says they follow Jesus shouldn’t be allowed to defraud another person flagrantly. Others might say that modeling Christlike sacrifice and non-resistance could help another person realize that they need to change their ways.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Can Christians ever take one another to court?”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts. I think another aspect is that the 1st century Greco-Roman society was an honor/shame culture, one in which the winner of a court case was seen as receiving honor and the loser shame. Such things are not in alignment with the gospel, a believer should never do something for the main reason of shaming another, which was all too common in that culture. That is, an act might result in shaming, but that should never be the goal, rather our goal is redemption.

    1. I agree with you that Paul is addressing an honor-shame culture. In fact, when he asks the Corinthians, “Do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church?” he then adds, “I say this to shame you.” Later in the epistle Paul expresses concern that those who are eating sumptuous meals as their Lord’s Supper and leaving the poor hungry are “shaming” those who have nothing. So Paul was clearly concerned that one believer not shame another. He does not mention this specifically as a reason for not entering into lawsuits, but we can infer that it was likely an additional consideration based on what he says elsewhere in his letter.

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