Litigation Between Brethren

1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? 4 If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! 7 Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? 8 No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! 9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Corinthians 6:1-10 (NKJV)

Being both a trial lawyer and a Christian, Paul's message to the church in Corinth about litigation between brethren has always been of special interest to me. Being a Christian, I have always understood that Paul wrote by divine inspiration (1 Thess. 3:16-17).

Thus, it is not simply Paul who has condemned litigation between brethren, but the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

The admonition in 1 Corinthians 6:1-10 is universally applicable (1 Cor. 1:1-2). Thus, it applies not only to the First Century members of the church in Corinth, but to you and me as well. Paul begins by warning, "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?" Paul's use of the word "dare," appears to suggest that by "going to law" against brethren, one tempts God. Paul does not say, however, that Christians are not subject to the judicial systems of governing authorities (cf. Rom. 13:1-7), nor does he prohibit the use of the system altogether. Rather, Paul is criticizing the use of these systems by brethren to resolve disputes between brethren.

Paul himself exercised the rights to trial he enjoyed as a Roman citizen (Acts 18:12ff.; 25:16). Thus, the problem is not resort to the system for any reason, but resort to the system when God has prescribed an alternative procedure for resolving disputes (Matt. 18:15-20).

Stated differently, the problem is not the courts, but the Christians. As one writer has noted: Lawsuits are the world's way of settling disputes legally. The issue here is not the civil right of brethren to sue one another at law, but the teaching of Christ regarding the settling of disputes between brethren. All that is legal before civil authority is not lawful for the people of God.1

Paul seems to echo the notion that the problem was not the courts themselves, but the Christians at Corinth when he writes that the courts were being used by brethren to wrong and cheat each other (vs. 8).

The Scriptures implicitly acknowledge the right, indeed the obligation, to submit to the judicial system to accomplish a divorce when a divorce is permitted by the Scriptures (compare Matt. 19:1-9 with Rom. 13:1-7 and 1 Pet. 1:13-14). This must be so where the Scriptures require submission to the lawful authorities, and the authorities regulate marriage and divorce. This does not authorize Christians to divorce for any reason permitted by governing authorities. Instead, this simply means that where Scriptural authority for a divorce is present, Christians must accomplish the divorce through the procedures promulgated by governing authorities.

Similarly, Christians subject to criminal prosecution, however innocent, must submit to the criminal justice system governing their prosecution (Rom. 13:1-7, 1 Pet. 1:13-14).

Note that litigation between believer and non-believer is not prohibited. Nonetheless, the right of a Christian to avail himself of the judicial process against non-Christians is still governed by all other Scriptures governing Christian conduct. Freedom to sue is not a license to behave in an unchristian-like manner.

There are even situations where resort to civil court between brethren may not only be permissible, but appropriate. For instance, as brother Kimbrough writes about situations where liability insurance is applicable: [Imagine] A brother is injured by the negligence of another and the one who causes the injury acknowledges his fault. He is willing to grant his brother full compensation, but must go to law to obtain it.2

Of course, in most such instances, the offending brother need only admit fault, and inform his insurance carrier. Occasionally, a lawsuit will be required when the insurance company refuses to pay what the injured party believes is necessary to compensate him for his losses. In such cases, the lawsuit may not violate Scripture where there is no animosity or gamesmanship between the brethren.

Despite the exceptions, impermissible litigation between Christians is not to be taken likely. Paul describes this conduct as shameful (vs. 5) and an utter failure (vs. 7). Instead of litigation, Paul suggests two alternatives: (1) submit the dispute to other brethren (vss. 2-5), or (2) accept wrong (vs. 7). Simply put, brethren should not sue each other, but should seek the counsel of an impartial third brother to help resolve the dispute.

Christians who sue one another have a bigger problem with Christ than they do with each other. For Paul does not give the Corinthians a new commandment, but rather simply echoes Christ who said for Christians to seek a third Christian to help resolve disputes (Matt. 18:15-20). Nor did Paul say anything new when he suggested that it is better for Christians to accept loss instead of suing one another because Christ Himself said: "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also." Matthew 5:39-40.

Christians who ignore the words of Christ and Paul forget what it means to be a Christian (see John 15:1-11; 1 John 2:3-11). As Kimbrough said, "Lawsuits are the world's way of settling disputes legally," but not the way of Christians or the church. A brother who sues another brother shames himself (1 Cor. 6:5), is an "utter failure," (i.e., defeated already), and shames the church by taking the dispute to unbelievers (see 1 Cor. 6:6). For what must the world think of us when it sees us behave so poorly, when we claim to love one another?

Sometimes litigiousness can be a collective problem, especially in the realm of church splits. Such a problem arose in 1902 when the church in Newbern, Tennessee split over the introduction of an organ into the worship service. Once brethren decided to split, the next issue became who was entitled to the congregation's building, the "pro-organ" brethren, or the "anti-organ" brethren"? Answering this question, David Lipscomb counseled the anti-organ brethren against going to law over the building when he wrote: The strife and contention of a lawsuit will result in a spiritual declension and loss that cannot be compensated for by any pecuniary of property gains. It would be better and more in harmony with the spirit of the religion of Christ to quietly and earnestly protest against the wrong, but bear it for Christ's sake and seek another place of worship and diligently and meekly strive to build up a faithful church in Newbern.3 Brother Lipscomb appears to have given wise counsel.

When we are wronged, we should stop and reflect before acting, and then seek to act in a manner befitting our calling. Remembering, all the while, that Christ, our example, "who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously." (1 Peter 2:23).

Therefore, let us remember Christ in "whatever [we] do in word or deed," including dispute resolution and litigation, and "do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." (Col. 3:17) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

By: William W. Blue


1 Earl Kimbrough, "Lawsuits Among Brethren," Christ and Culture at Corinth: Lessons From First Corinthians 118 (Florida College, February 5-8, 1996).

2 Ibid. at 119.

3 Ibid. at 124.

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