This document reflects commonly held beliefs based on scripture which have been endorsed by the church's Commission on Doctrinal Purity and the Executive Presbytery.
Should Christians be involved in lawsuits? Are there biblical principles that apply to Christians in these matters? Is it permissible for Christians to sue others who harm them?
Paul’s main concern in advising believers not to bring lawsuits against other believers (1 Cor. 6:1-8) is the discredit such action brings on the reputation of the church and the cause of Christ. With this understanding in mind, it is appropriate to ask when legal action is appropriate and when it is not. Since the Bible is our authoritative rule for conduct we must study Scripture to see if it permits or prohibits such action.
The Old Testament clearly indicates there should be compensation or satisfaction for injuries or losses. The Mosaic Law of retaliation (eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life—Ex. 21:23,24), while seeming cruel or barbaric by today’s western-world standards of justice, actually worked to limit vengeance and eliminate inter-family feuds. No one could exact as penalty more than one life for a life or more than one eye for an eye. In less serious cases, money could be paid by the guilty party to compensate the loss suffered by the injured party (cf. Ex. 22:12 to 23:9). Prior to the monarchy under Saul and his successors, judgment was often administered by the elders of a town (Ruth 4:1-12). Under the monarchy, punishment for civil and criminal wrongs was left to the king and his administration (1 Kings 3:16-28).
Jesus held His disciples to a higher standard of behavior than required under Old Testament law. Instead of retaliation toward a wronging party, He directed the injured or offended person to turn the other cheek, to give up one’s cloak, and to go the second mile. Enemies were to be loved, prayed for, and forgiven (Matt. 5:38-48, 6:14,15). Such behavior overcame evil with good and had the intended effect of shaming the wrongdoer into reforming his ways (Rom. 12:17-21). This "new righteousness" forced the injured party to be more concerned with his own inner attitude and the eternal destiny of his "enemy" than with a wrong to be corrected, an injury punished, or a loss compensated. This does not mean that an offended person was left without any practical recourse for righting a wrong, but the first act was to be an attempt to achieve personal reconciliation. If reconciliation was not successful, a third-party believer might be asked to arbitrate. If that failed, the matter was to be presented before the entire church. When an offender refused to obey the judgment of the church, he was to be treated as a pagan (Matt. 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 secular courts. Since most of the believers in Corinth were poor (1 Cor. 1:26-31), and the lawsuit dealt with one financially cheating another, it is likely that the suit involved two of the more prominently wealthy persons in the Corinthian church. It appears that the plaintiff had filed the suit rather than following the admonition of Jesus (Matt. 5:38-48) or involving the church according to Matthew 18:15-20). Unfortunately, the Corinthian church had done nothing while the Christian community was scandalized by the airing before a secular court of a struggle between two believers. Here was a church recognized for its "wisdom" (2 Cor. 11:19), but which had not had "anyone wise enough to judge a dispute" (1 Cor. 6:5). Paul chastised the plaintiff by telling him it would have been better to have suffered wrong rather than to disgrace the church (1 Cor. 6:1-7); he chastised the defendant for having cheated and done wrong (1 Cor. 6:8); and he chastised the church for not taking care of the matter (1 Cor. 6:2-6).
Paul never addresses the question of whether a lawsuit would be appropriate if the church had declared the offending party to be "a pagan and a tax collector" (Matt. 18:17). Perhaps such a lawsuit 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.
So when a believer is wronged by another believer, the offended believer must seriously consider whether or not he or she should simply drop the matter, leaving the judgment to God alone. If the believer, following prayer and careful consideration, determines the matter should be pursued, then a face-to-face meeting with the offending party should be the first step. Failing that, one should seek out a believer mediator. If that does not provide resolution, the dispute should be brought to the church (the pastor, the recognized board of elders or deacons, and if need be the membership).
Sometimes the legal conflict does not pit believer against believer, but believer versus unbeliever. What is the Christian response then? Paul himself exercised the right of defending himself under Roman law (Acts 16:37-40; 18:12-17; 22:15-29: 25:10-22). Clearly, Paul did not interpret "turning the other cheek" to include forfeiture of all legal rights pertaining to citizenship. No doubt he exercised those rights consistent with his Spirit-given understanding that the function of government is to uphold justice and punish wrongdoers (Romans 13). Punishing wrongdoers also means protecting the innocent. Thus the question for a believer is never "How do I get personal vengeance?" Instead, the proper question is "Which action on my part (filing or not filing a lawsuit) will best promote justice in society, punish the one who does wrong, protect the innocent, and bring the least possible negative reflection on the cause of Christ?
If all avenues of settling a matter between believers have been exhausted, and the offending party refuses to correct the wrong, then the injured believer must balance Matthew 5:38-48 and 6:14,15 with Romans 13:1-5. The following questions, to check personal motivation, should be asked.
- Is my desire for a redress of injury motivated simply by personal gain, or am I involving the secular power of the court in order to uphold justice and prevent lawlessness?
- If I bring action before a secular court, will that, in the context of American rather than Corinthian society, bring harm to the Church and the cause of Christ?
- Am I totally honest with my claim (or defense), or am I seeking through self-deception to gain (or avoid) a compensation that 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?
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 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, that a Christian is severely injured by the bad driving of another believer. A suit between the two really does not stem from personal malice, but 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 to be made "whole" from their injuries.
In many American communities, attorneys who are believers have formed Christian conciliation or mediation groups that a wronged person may also seek out. The legal advantage to seeking mediation from such an organized group is that, upon proper stipulation by the parties, the judgment of the Christian conciliation group may be recognized by the secular course as a substitute for the court’s involvement.
The above statement is based upon our common understanding of scriptural teaching.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise specified.