It’s a common view: Christians shouldn’t sue other Christians, or for that matter anyone—ever. You’ve probably heard people make this comment if you haven’t heard a pastor preach it.
1 Corinthians 6:1-8 is the most extensive treatment of lawsuits found in Scripture. Here the Apostle Paul warns the Corinthian Church away from taking personal disputes to the courts, asking non-Christians to adjudicate them. Paul’s primary point? For Christians to take internal church or personal matters to court is a poor testimony. It undermines the unity, fellowship, and moral credibility of the Body of Christ. Christians should have the maturity to handle our own problems.
So despite forming the foundation of a widely held erroneous interpretation these verses really do not say Christians may never ever sue. Actually, this passage is about church fellowship, not criminal behavior and, for that matter, not civil lawsuits protecting rights or seeking justice. Yet the passage has long been cited as the traditional proof text for the principle variously stated as “Christians should never sue.”
There are other passages relevant to this question. Matthew 18:15-17 details how Christians should seek to resolve conflict: approach the offending person; if the person doesn’t respond, approach the offending person along with two or three others; if that doesn’t work, take the issue to the church. Few people I’ve ever known have gotten past the second step or needed to if they followed the process sincerely. But this process isn’t always applicable, for example in terms of civil liberties threatened by government or instances wherein laws have been broken.
Matthew 5:40 recommends Christ’s ethic of love. If persons sue you and want to take your coat, Jesus said let them have it—the coat that is. Here the message is one of compassion, turning the other cheek, loving ones enemies, or doing good to those who persecute us. All of these attitudes or behaviors are aspects of the Christian ethic and should be lived. But these injunctions are not absolute for every circumstance and do not displace other passages of Scripture in which Paul, for example, cites his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-40) or in which government is ordained by God to secure order, liberty, law, and justice (Romans 13).
Nowhere in Scripture does it say Christians may never sue. It says we should not sue for frivolous personal matters outside what can be handled amongst believers. Scripture says we should bless those who seek to harm us and not seek vengeance. It says we should, as much as possible, live at peace with one another. But this is not always possible even when we behave wisely, so Scripture indicates we may employ duly appointed governmental means to overcome evil.
I thought about this matter a few years hence as I watched in shock the unbelievable number of people who came forward attesting to the abuse done them during their childhoods by Catholic priests. It was and is a sickening story.
I’ve been thinking about this matter again recently as I’ve watched a grievous case in which a Christian perpetrator harmed many people via actions now long ago and long hidden and, it appears, actions at least in part known, mishandled, and covered up by a Christian organization.
I thought most victims of priest abuse acted responsibly when they pursued class action lawsuits seeking not simply money but truth and justice. Since I am not privy to all details on the recent story I cannot say I know exactly what the harmed should do. They will have to make this decision based upon their evaluation of how the Bible calls for us to integrate truth, justice, and grace in our lives. In any event, I believe Christians sometimes must sue and can be biblically justified in doing so.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011
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