What do you do when a professing Christian owes you money and won’t pay? Or when a professing Christian wants a divorce and isn’t being financially fair? Does scripture allow believers to sue believers? Is it better to be wronged or go to court?
This is often a debated topic among Christians today because of Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian church when he was addressing their worldly approach to settling disputes.
1 Corinthians 6:7 – To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?
Paul’s main reason for rebuking the Corinthian believers was to address how they were discrediting the church’s reputation and their witness for Christ by taking each other to court. The church leaders even made matters worse because they weren’t helping congregants settle these disputes and simply relied on a non-Christian legal system to sort it out.
1 Corinthians 6:4 – So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?
In other words, Christians should first be going to their church leadership to settle disagreements rather than running off to court where there is no spiritual guidance at all. Jesus also addressed this topic in Matthew 18:15-17, when he provided a 4-step process to resolve Christian disputes:
1) Have a face-to-face discussion between the two parties involved.
2) If the offending party will not correct the wrong, include another Christian (i.e. 3rd party witness) in the discussion.
3) If there is no resolve, include church leadership in the discussion.
4) If there is still no resolve, treat the offending party as a non-Christian.
Matthew 18:17 – And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
It is important to note that Paul’s direction to the Corinthians never addresses whether a lawsuit would be appropriate if the church had declared the offending party as behaving like a non-Christian. In fact, his instruction in Romans 13:1-5 seems to indicate quite the opposite when it talks about how God establishes today’s governing authorities and Christians are to operate within the legal system. We also know that Paul relied on the law to defend himself in court when he felt he was being unfairly treated (Acts 25:10-12).
Therefore, we must be careful not to use simply one scripture as a reference to relinquishing all legal rights, not protecting oneself, or for allowing sinful activity to go unchecked. Instead, Christians are called to walk through a spiritual process that double-checks motives, prevents greed, includes counsel, and considers the witness for Christ. If all of these criteria have been prayerfully met, then God’s word does not prohibit a Christian from using the court system to promote justice, punish a wrongdoer, or seek protection.
On the other hand, scripture does prohibit Christians from recklessly suing each other without any consideration for a spiritual process, Christian counsel, or their Christian witness.
In other words, God wants Christians to make every effort possible to pursue unity (Romans 12:18), and the last I checked a court of law isn’t the place where that is going to happen!