Should Christians take other Christians to court?
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul writes about disputes in the church and how they should be handled. At one point he discusses Christians taking other Christians to court and it is regularly brought up in church situations where the possibility of legal involvement is discussed. It was brought up in the recent issues I faced within my church and so as a means of reflecting and processing what happened I decided to dig into the passage. There are a few other passages that were used during this time and I will most likely have more posts on them over the next few weeks.
Interestingly, one local pastor, who was also oversight of the eldership team I was part of, preaches that it means you should never take a Christian (or church) to court, ever, no exceptions. He says that Paul is saying, and I quote,
"Christians should not sue other Christians, ever, at all, ever, for any reason, at all. Why not? Because it ruins relationships and damages the church."
He also includes a reference to a couple in a local church, "who are about to prove they are not actually Christians by suing the church". This may or may not be the church I was part of or the couple I was supporting given it was preached before my first blog post on this issue. If it was the couple I was supporting, they had no intention of suing the church.
While the sermon is publicly available on a church website, I will not name the pastor or the church as I'm not wanting to give any more fuel to the divisive and angry label being put on me nor be seen as vindictive. My issues are with his teaching and the wider implications on the theology and practice of Christians who agree with this teaching. His conclusions are not unique and that is also why I deem it necessary to include them in this post. If you are local and need evidence of what was said in its context then I'll interact on a more private channel.
You can read the full passage of 1 Corinthians 6 but I recommend reading it as part of the whole of Corinthians as a letter. Here is the main focus of what I wanted to reflect on:
"If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." 1 Corinthians 6:1-11
Firstly, the context of what 'church' means is vastly different. The pastor, when he says 'church', is assuming something very different from what Paul is writing about. Paul was writing to a group of Christians who met in homes and not an organisational structure. When the pastor says a couple is 'suing the church', 'church' is an organisation that has set itself up as a charity in the eyes of the law and puts itself under the scrutiny of the law so that it can receive the government's generous Gift Aid (25% added onto all donations given by UK taxpayers). Because the modern UK church is a charity, it has a board of trustees that oversee the governance of the church and make sure the use of the finances and the behaviour of their employees (the pastor/elder and any other staff are employed by the trustees of the charity) are in accordance with employment and charity law. So in short, the UK church is already set up to be judged by 'outsiders'. If we take the same method of interpretation as offered by this local pastor, all churches should be removing their charity status ASAP to avoid this external judgement.
As employers and legal entities, churches, rightly, have safeguarding policies, employment contracts, and many other legal obligations which means that if they break the law, Christians are not only able to but, in cases of abuse, obliged to take action even if it means going to court. In my situation, the church organisation was the one that engaged the solicitors and is continuing to defend doing so. Even while engaging solicitors, this passage was used against the couple I supported without any recognition of the double standards being used.
A couple suing a church would be a totally foreign concept to the apostle Paul because a church was a congregation of believers and not a legal entity that could be sued. Therefore, the example given by the pastor (and used by many others when trying to use biblical texts to avoid being sued) is not relevant to Paul's warnings regarding taking other Christians to court. What is concerning about the misuse of this passage as given by this pastor, is that it sets up a church to be an unsafe place and unable to deal with abuse. It follows from the teaching that any abuse or wrongdoing of any kind, must be dealt with internally. It teaches that Christians should be either silent or submit to internal investigations because otherwise they will be 'proving they are not Christian', no matter the issue. Simply put, this is wrong.
In terms of church's reputations, it harms the church when serious issues are kept internal. In fact, it benefits the reputation of the church if churches as organisations are open and transparent about how they have dealt with immorality within its walls. Christians are called to walk in the light and in matters of abuse, bullying, and sexual immorality, church organisations seem to be more regularly trying to keep things in darkness, even keeping it from their own congregations.
Secondly, the context of what it means to take someone to court needs to be discussed and isn't. It is not hard to look into the history of the time Paul was writing and find that the law courts were not places that cared for the vulnerable and poor. If you were rich and upper class with the right connections you could influence the courts for your own gain. This still happens today in that if you have the right lawyers and the money and power you can easily litigate people into silence. Unfortunately, due to having the money and organisational structures, it is churches that are guilty of misusing the law to silence others. This includes the use of NDAs and the like to stop people who have been abused speaking out. A couple taking a church to court is unlikely to do so on a whim or a desire to cheat the church especially with regards to allegations of abuse. The church more generally can be just as guilty as society as pushing the myth that victims are likely to be lying and they often push this in order to defend the church's reputation when someone, especially someone in leadership, has sinned.
Thirdly, the emphasis of the passage is missed. I would argue that Paul highlights the issue he is dealing with,
"Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters."
I argue that this is the main issue at the forefront of Paul's letter. He writes at the start of the letter,
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought."
Unity is vital in the church, because the church (a congregation of believers as Paul sees it) should be a family. Using the courts to cheat your brothers and sisters, especially while claiming to be wronged, is antithesis of both unity and the gospel. "Two wrongs don't make a right" and all that. There are times when you need to lay down your rights for the sake of unity, and this is a controversial (but I think powerful and wonderful) aspect of the gospel. Christians are called to outdo one another in love, to forgive when wronged, to sacrifice their rights for the sake of others. However, the idea that Paul is universally condemning all forms of action when someone is doing wrong misses the context just at the end of chapter 5. There are times when someone who claims to be Christian behaves so badly that they should be expelled from the community. In these times, I would argue, their behaviour may well require the use of the law. It is why churches must have safeguarding policies and procedures to protect the vulnerable in their midst! I have no doubt in my mind that Paul would recognise Godly use of the law (is this not what he argues in Romans 13?) to bring justice to those who are abusing others in whatever forms that looks like.
So should a Christian just allow themselves to be wronged? The answer isn't particularly straight forward as there is a bit of a yes and no to it. The context matters. Yes, a Christian should lay down their life and their rights in times when they are persecuted *for their faith*. They should also lay down their rights in order to serve others and point people to the gospel, to remain humble, and to turn the other cheek rather than seeking retribution. The Christian should believe God will vindicate them for injustice and so forgiveness is a command all Christians should obey. But, this verse should not be used without remembering the chapter before!
As I said before, there are times when people should be expelled or removed from either the community or from positions of power due to their behaviour and immoral acts. Paul is not calling the Christian to be a doormat to another believer out of a misguided idea of forgiveness but to utilise the God given judgement within the community to bring about true peace and unity. Paul is calling the Christian to not seek retribution but the other person's repentance. Paul is holding things in tension and it seems we as a modern church have failed to navigate that tension at the expense of the vulnerable and hurting. As we are seeing regularly at the moment, the church organisation's reputation gets defended, even through the use of solicitors, and those who are hurting, along with those helping the hurting, get silenced and expelled as if they are immoral, divisive, and unchristian.
I pray that the more these issues are brought into the light, and discussed openly, the more the church becomes what it was meant to be - a safe and united community where all can find relationship with the Creator through repentance and find forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus.