To sue or not to sue? That is the question

David McIlroy - Colour

The New Testament contains a lot of sayings which seem to preclude Christians from taking legal action to defend their rights.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). He said 'Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.' (Matthew 5:39-40). Paul wrote that vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19) and said '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?' (1 Corinthians 6:7).

And yet, this gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was the one who cleared the temple courtyard with a whip made of cords (John 2:13-17; Matthew 21:12-13). Paul, who counselled Christians against using the Roman law courts, would invoke his Roman citizenship in order to ensure that he was properly treated (Acts 16:37; 21:39; 22:25-28) and claimed his right to appeal to the emperor (Acts 25:11-12).

Is it possible to make sense of the New Testament's teaching and to find guidelines to help us know when we should insist on, and when we should be prepared to give up, our legal rights?

The difficult case might seem to be disputes between two Christians but, in fact, this is the one which gives us a useful model for how we should seek to resolve all our disputes.

1.   It's a question of priorities

Jesus' parable about the merciful king and the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35) tells us that uncomfortable truth that there is no comparison between the mercy God has shown us, the mercy we may be asked to show one another. We have been forgiven and we must therefore be prepared to forgive (see also Matthew 6:12-15).

This parable is susceptible of being misread as Jesus teaching that if God has forgiven us, then nothing other people can do to us matters. Experience shows that Christians hurt and bleed just the same as other people. Pretending that we are invulnerable when people cheat and assault us, rape and abuse us is not a recipe for emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing but for unhealthy repression and neurosis. Moreover, the message of the cross is that sin matters. God's forgiveness of humankind did not come simply by Him waving His hand and saying that our sin was inconsequential. Instead, the forgiveness of our sins cost Jesus His life. Every time we take communion we recognise the enormity of the wrongs we have done to God and to one another.

If God has forgiven you then it is not that nothing else matters; rather, it is that things assume their proper perspective. Sinful human beings have a tendency to treat wrongs done against them as more serious than the wrongs they do to others, and to over-react to hurts done to them, to lash out. Jesus' teaching makes it clear that love and good relationships are higher priorities than insisting on our strict legal rights.

This may mean, in relation to trivial offences, the sort that get stored up and repeated as gossip, destroying relationships and small communities as bitterness and resentment build up over time, learning to overlook them and let them go (Proverbs 10:12; 17:9; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13). Christians should be the last people to get involved in those ridiculous examples of litigation where two neighbours go to court over 1 inch of land on the boundary between their homes.

However, in relation to matters too important to be overlooked, Jesus wants to see justice done because justice is indispensable if right relationships are to be restored. Law courts are useful as a means of peacefully resolving disputes, if all attempts by the parties to reach agreement without going before a judge have failed.

2.   It's a question of motive

Anyone who has witnessed two children getting involved in a fight will see how they exchange words until one of them pinches the other, who then retaliates with a punch, and is kicked in return, until soon the two of them are on the ground laying into one another with whatever weapons they can find. The desire for revenge leads to the downward cycle of vendetta. Christians are called to abandon the pursuit of revenge, and not to repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17). We should not want to harm our enemies but to do them good.

However, it does our enemies no good if they are not confronted with the wrong of their actions. It is not loving to let the sinner 'get away with it' (see James Dobson Love Must Be Tough and Dan Allender Bold Love). Christians have a responsibility to expose evil, to name it for what it is.

Sometimes confronting someone with the wrong they have done will lead them to an admission of guilt and the recognition of their responsibility for their actions. In such circumstances, restorative justice processes can work, leading the offender to repent. Repentance, the admission of wrong, is essential to experiencing forgiveness and restored relationships.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gives us a model procedure for resolving wrongs between Christians. Relationships within churches and amongst Christians would be transformed if we put this model into practice consistently. The first step is for the person wronged to confront the offender (Matthew 18:15). This should be done privately [In doing this, the reality of power relationships have to be taken into account. It may be necessary for the confrontation to be effective for the person wronged to be supported by someone else who knows about the situation].  If this does not resolve the matter, then the person wronged should take along one or two others (Matthew 18:16). If this still does not lead to repentance on the part of the offender, then it should be brought before the whole church (Mt 18:17a) and if even then he will not back down, Jesus says he should be treated "as you would a pagan or a tax collector". Litigation before the secular courts might therefore be understood to be the very last resort when one Christian has offended another, to be used only when all other means of resolving the dispute within the Church have failed.

As well as the model Jesus offers us in Matthew 18, Paul's comments in Romans 12 about not seeking vengeance come immediately before his famous teaching in Romans 13:1-7 about the role of government. When attempts at private dispute resolution have failed, Christians are called to accept the limited and fallible justice which is available through the courts which the God-given authorities have established. A legal system, even a corrupt, pagan one which institutionalised slavery and other inequalities, could be used by God as His servant, as His "agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4b) [McIlroy A Biblical View of Law and Justice 167-68]. The legal process may act as a schoolmaster to bring the offender to Christ (Gal. 3:24), confronting them with the truth about their actions, forcing upon them the recognition of the evil they have done. Litigation in this context could not just be for the good of the victim, and for the protection of others, but also an expression of love for the offender!

Whereas the world seeks justice for itself and cares less about justice for others, Christians are called to reverse their priorities: we should seek first the kingdom of God and its justice (Matthew 6:33). We are called to prioritise seeking justice for others over getting what we ourselves think we deserve.

The problem is that justice for others and for ourselves are not wholly separable. Not all offences are purely private matters. If someone has been murdered, the community at large has a legitimate interest in seeing the offender prosecuted through the public law-courts and we would regard as dubious an arrangement under which the family of the victim accepted blood money as compensation. If a child has been sexually abused, the prosecution of the offender may act as an important signal to him and to others that such behaviour is unacceptable in this community as well as protecting other children from future harm.

The links between justice for others and justice for ourselves mean that Christians involved in litigation need to ask themselves some searching questions: If I stand up for my legal rights in this instance, might I not be protecting the rights of other Christians who could be adversely affected if I cave in?  Is my stand a point of principle or is this just a rationalisation?

3.   It's a question of faith

When the New Testament describes Christians as brothers and sisters, it means it. The family unit is one in which only where relationships have gone bad, and power and abuse have replaced love and respect, do things end up in court. Litigation in the secular courts between Christians ought really to be reserved for cases when the Church has failed to resolve the dispute itself or where there is an important public interest in resolving the wrong publicly.

Jesus wants us to get our priorities straight. Upholding the name of Jesus ought to be more important to us than asserting our own legal rights. This does not mean, however, that wrong done by other Christians should be covered up. The Catholic Church has been brought into disrepute by the actions of some of its leaders who sought to cover up or minimise sexual abuse committed within the church. The Church ought to reflect God's holiness by not tolerating serious sin amongst its leaders.

The Church ought to be known as a place where sin is confronted not covered up. The Church used to do this through the practice of excluding those guilty of serious sins from communion for a time, and then re-admitting them, with a public declaration of their sins and God's forgiveness on Easter Sunday.

The Church ought to be able to recognise wrong and redress it internally, using the secular courts only where the dispute is intractable. Paul was horrified about the prospect of lawsuits between Christians being fought out in the Roman courts (1Corinthians 6:1-8). He would be similarly appalled by seeing Christians litigating against one another in the British courts today. For Paul, there was a danger that such litigation revealed that Christians were more concerned about the things of this world rather than the things of God (1 Corinthians 6:7).

Moreover, for Paul, Christians ought to refer their disputes against one another to Christian judges (1 Corinthians 6:1-5). There are several important reasons for this. First, keeping disputes between Christians 'in-house' reduces the damage to the Gospel which occurs when Christians are seen to be litigating against one another. The newspapers seize on stories of Christians at war with one another in order to discredit the faith. Instead of being known as people who sue one another, Christians should be known as people who love one another (John 13:35; Romans 12:10; 13:8; Eph. 4:2). Second, for Paul there was an expectation that Christian judges would be honest and impartial, and this was not something that could be guaranteed in the Roman law courts of his day. Third, Paul picks up on the Old Testament tradition which understands the giving of judgment to require wisdom (illustrated in the paradigm of the wisdom of Solomon – 1 Kings 3:16-28). Even an ordinary Christian could be expected to display more wisdom and creativity in finding a solution than a pagan judge (1 Corinthians 6:4)!

Christians ought to make much more use of Christian mediators and arbitrators to resolve their disputes with one another. This ought to be the preferred way in which we deal with our disputes, whether employment-related, contractual, matrimonial or to do with the running of a church.

4.   Applying the model to disputes between Christians and non-Christians

The model for dispute resolution which we are offered in Matthew 18 potentially has application in situations outside the church. In relation to disputes at work, between neighbours or contracting parties, it is easy to see how a Christian party might seek to resolve matters first by speaking to the non-Christian party alone, then by involving a few others in the meetings and then appealing to the ultimate boss, the neighbourhood as a whole or the industry bodies before going to the courts.

5.   Our aim ought to be good relationships

Jesus said: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Mt 5:9). Peace, shalom, occurs when right relationships are restored. Right relationships are ones in which the boundaries of the relationship are respected. Right relationships do not involve the abuse of power or other forms of abuse, coercion or manipulation. Right relationships take account of the history of the relationship, and in extreme cases, even after forgiveness has occurred, the appropriate relationship going forward is no relationship. You wouldn't put a kleptomaniac back in charge of the Church offering or demand of a victim of child abuse that they remain in contact with their abuser!  Nonetheless, there needs to be a moment of encounter, when the victim is empowered and the offender forced to confront the truth about the effects of their actions.

The peace which Christians ought to seek is one which acknowledges the requirements of justice rather than simply ignoring them. However, it is a peace which goes beyond the requirements of justice, which prioritises mercy over judgment (James 2:13-14).

To return to the point made at the beginning of this article, it is because we recognise that we have been forgiven so much by God that Christians are able to compromise in their disputes, to accept something other than their strict legal entitlements in order to promote the higher goals of the cause of the gospel and the restoration of good relationships.

6.   Think before, and after, you sue

Christians may make use of the God-given means of dispute resolution through the secular courts when a wrongdoer will not admit their wrong, when no private resolution of the matter is possible or appropriate, and in respect of important matters where the intention is to seek limited justice, to act for the benefit of others, and as an act of love in demonstrating to the wrongdoer the truth about what they have done.

However, litigation is, for Christians, fraught with moral dangers. It should not be undertaken lightly. It is easy to persuade ourselves that we are acting out of good motives when in fact our true motives are selfish ones: "The heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9).

Ideally Christians involved in litigation should have someone to whom they are accountable both for the way in which they conduct their litigation and also for the goals which they pursue through litigation.

7.   And finally …

So where does that leave turning the other cheek?  Jesus spoke to the poor and the oppressed, those who could not afford legal representation, who were at the mercy of the moneylenders, the occupying army, the tax collectors and the rich. The Roman and Jewish courts were not a forum where they were likely to see justice. Did that mean that they were simply to be passive victims of the oppression and injustice foisted upon them?  Jesus' words opened up to them the possibility of becoming actors in this dire scenario once more. When all other options were closed off, he taught them to respond to evil without bitterness but instead with such a display of grace that the evil-doers were shamed into a recognition of their own injustice.

At the time of writing Dr David H. McIlroy was a barrister; Visiting Lecturer in Law, SOAS; Associate Research Fellow, Spurgeon's College; author of A Biblical View of Law and Justice. With thanks to my mother, Tricia McIlroy, Director of Centre for Pastoral and Professional Counselling, Spurgeon's College and to Ian Miller for their wise contributions and corrections.

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