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Christians and Lawsuits
George O. Wood
What position does the Assemblies of God take in regard to Christians and lawsuits?
Since the Bible is our authoritative rule for conduct, the Assemblies of God person’s first obligation, when considering a lawsuit, is to ask, "Does the Scripture permit or prohibit such action?" (2 Timothy 3:15–17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:21).
Redress of injuries was clearly provided for in the law of Moses in the Old Testament (Exodus 18:17–26; 21:23,24; 22:12–23:13; Ruth 4:1–12; 1 Kings 3:16–28).
Jesus taught His disciples a standard of behavior higher than required under Old Testament law (Matthew 5:38–48; 6:14,15) as did the apostle Paul (Romans 12:17–21). When an offender refused to obey the judgment of the church, he was to be treated as a pagan (Matthew 18:15–20).
In 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 the apostle Paul addressed the problem of a believer who brought a lawsuit against another believer in the Corinthian courts. It appears the plaintiff had filed the suit rather than following the admonition of the Lord given in Matthew 5:38–48 or employing the process of involving the church according to Matthew 18:15–20.
To Paul’s horror, the Corinthian church had sat on the sidelines and done nothing while the Christian community was scandalized by the airing of dirty linen between believers before a pagan court. Here was a church which prided itself on its wisdom (2 Corinthians 11:19) but who had not had anyone wise enough to judge a dispute. Paul chastised the plaintiff by telling him he would have been better to have suffered wrong rather than disgrace the church (1 Corinthians 6:1–7), chastised the defendant for having cheated and done wrong (6:8), and chastised the church for not taking care of the matter (6:2–6).
Paul never addressed the theme of whether a lawsuit would be appropriate once the church had declared a party to be a "pagan and a tax collector." Perhaps such would be permitted under the teaching of Romans 13:1–5 that the secular government exists to uphold justice, prevent lawlessness, and punish the wrongdoer.
To summarize, when a believer is wronged by another believer the offended believer must seriously consider whether he or she should simply drop the matter by allowing the wrong to be committed, leaving the judgment to God alone. Following prayer and careful consideration, if the believer determines the matter should be pursued, then he or she should first seek a solution face-to-face with the offending party. Failing that, a third-party believer should be sought as a mediator. If a solution is still not present, the dispute should be brought to the church (i.e., the pastor, recognized board of elders or deacons, or perhaps the membership itself).
Sometimes the legal issue does not pit believer against believer but believer versus unbeliever.
What should the stance of the Christian be in such a case? Paul exercised the right of defending himself under Roman law (Acts 16:37–40; 18:12–17; 22:15–29; 25:10–22). Clearly, he did not interpret "turning the other cheek" to include forfeiture of all legal rights pertaining to his citizenship. No doubt he exercised those rights consistent with his Spirit-given Romans 13 understanding that the function of government is to uphold justice and punish wrongdoers (which conversely means the protection of the innocent).
Thus the question for the believer never is, "How do I get personal vengeance?" but, "Which action on my part (involvement or noninvolvement in a lawsuit) will best promote justice in society, punishment of the one who does wrong (either intentionally or through negligence), or protection for the innocent?"
In American society another matter needs to be considered: liability and other forms of insurance. Public policy has established insurance as a means of compensating an individual for a wide variety in types of injuries suffered. In many cases, while a litigant may be the legal defendant in a suit, the actual payer for the injuries may be an insurance company.
Suppose, for example, a Christian is severely injured by the bad driving of another believer. A suit between the two really does not stem from personal animus or malice, but it is an effort on the part of the injured person to reclaim financial losses stemming from the accident, which will be compensated by the insured’s automobile liability policy. In such a case the believers have not brought the church into censure before a worldly court (as was the situation in Corinth) but have simply availed themselves of a legal system which seeks, as a matter of public policy, to help victims be made whole from their injuries.
In many American communities, attorneys who are believers have formed Christian conciliation or mediation groups, which a wronged person may also seek out. The legal advantage to seeking mediation from such a group is that, upon proper stipulation by the parties, the judgment of the Christian conciliation group may be recognized by the secular courts as a substitute for their own involvement.
If all avenues of adjudicating a matter within the context of believers have been exhausted and the offending party refuses to correct the wrong, then the offended believer must balance Matthew 5:38–48 and 6:14,15 with Romans 13:1–5. The pivotal questions will be:
Is my desire for a redress of injury motivated simply by personal gain, or am I involving the secular power of the court to uphold justice and prevent lawlessness?
If I bring action before a secular court, will such, in the context of American (rather than Corinthian) society, bring the church and the cause of Christ harm?
Am I totally honest with my claim (or defense), or am I seeking through deception to obtain (or avoid) an unjust compensation which is more (or less) than the injury suffered?
Since the Holy Spirit will never counsel a believer contrary to the Word He has inspired, after a thorough season of prayer what course of action "seems good to the Holy Spirit?"
As an additional safeguard, what is the counsel of other believers who are in a position of leadership or eldership in the body of Christ of which I am a member?
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