Should Christians Sue Christians?
1 Corinthians 6:1-8
Expository Bible Studies
God moved men to speak for God. God then inspired the words in the original autographs of the inspired authors. God inspired His apostle Paul to write about lawsuits among Christians. God commanded that a Christian should never sue another Christian in secular court (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Please keep in mind the distinction between civil lawsuits and criminal lawsuits. In civil lawsuits, no criminal penalties are involved. No one faces any jail time. Jesus particularly focused upon one Christian suing another Christian to resolve a dispute in civil court. In other Bible passages, Jesus addressed the role of the government in prosecuting criminals where the government brings charges in criminal courts. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 does not concern criminal charges, but civil court proceedings where a Christian sues another Christian in a secular court. Before a Christian dares to bring suit in civil court against another Christian, they should review the commandments of God and avoid going to civil court. Likewise, if a Christian sues a Christian in civil court, then the Christian should take steps to avoid defending that lawsuit in civil court. God opposes all lawsuits where a Christian sues another Christian in any secular court, no matter who the judge is, no matter how much money is at stake, and no matter why one Christian is filing a civil suit against another Christian. God outlines several problems with Christians suing Christians in a public forum for the entire world to see with an unrighteous judge presiding and making judgments about Christians.
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Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?
1 Corinthians 6:1
No Secular Courts
Christians have no option but to seek justice against another Christian in the church, and not before the unrighteous in secular law courts presided over by unrighteous judges in front of unrighteous populations. Jesus prohibited one believer from suing another believer in secular court. Jesus used the word “dare” to describe any believer who has been insolent enough to file a lawsuit against another believer in a secular court. ((Paul wrote: “Τολμᾷ τις ὑμῶν πρᾶγμα ἔχων πρὸς τὸν ἕτερον κρίνεσθαι ἐπὶ τῶν ἀδίκων καὶ οὐχὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἁγίων;” (1 Corinthians 6:1). Paul used the term “Τολμᾷ” in the negative sense of proscribed behavior: how dare a Christian sue another Christian in a secular court. The same term “τολμᾷ” is also used in Romans 5:7 in the good sense, that one may dare to die for a good man. Likewise, in Jude 1:9, Michael the archangel did not dare (“οὐκ ἐτόλμησεν“–aorist, active, indicative verb–meaning, with “οὐκ,” no chance at all of such action) to bring a reviling accusation against the devil in their dispute about the body of Moses.)) The first problem in 1 Corinthians 6:1 centers around the choice of venue to settle the legal dispute. Jesus forbids believers from bringing their claims against other Christians before the unrighteous judge sitting in judgment upon the righteous in secular courts. In the Bible Jesus presented a variety of reasons for Christians not to sue Christians.
The Dirty Laundry Problem
Christians rip off Christians every day, and shame the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians compound the rip off by taking the other believer to secular court to recover damages or otherwise have secular courts impose a judgment against the offending Christian. In 1 Corinthians 6:1 Jesus drew an important contrast between public Christian fights and private Christian fights. Does a Christian bring legal claims “in the presence of” the unrighteous, or “in the presence” of the church? Christians must make a decision: (1) bring my claim against my brother in front of all the unrighteous; or (2) bring my claim against my brother in front of the church. Jesus strongly implied here that public lawsuits always involve airing dirty laundry before unrighteous people, and He forbade such actions.
The Public Forum Problem
Christians may think of public lawsuits as Christians airing their dirty laundry in public. Christians should never go to the public forum of secular courts. The whole world can watch what happens in the lawsuit. It may even gain attention in the media. The church will suffer because two Christians would not go to the church and resolve their disputes with the wisdom from God. Instead, they use a public forum where everyone can watch and see that Christians cannot get along with Christians and churches lack the wisdom to resolve such disputes among themselves.
The Relief Sought Problem
Some Christians may say they are not really bringing a lawsuit in public court, but just an action for a declaratory judgment or other relief. They claim it is permissible to sue another Christian in secular court if they are not seeking a money judgment. When Christians make such an argument, they still air their dirty laundry before the world in a public forum.
For example, one Christian justified his lawsuit against a church corporation by saying he merely sought a declaratory judgment. He claimed that a declaratory judgment is not really a lawsuit, but merely a “petition for declaratory relief.” In Florida, such declaratory actions are controlled by Florida Statute 86.011(2009), which provides:
86.011 Jurisdiction of trial court.-The circuit and county courts have jurisdiction within their respective jurisdictional amounts to declare rights, status, and other equitable or legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed. No action or procedure is open to objection on the ground that a declaratory judgment is demanded. The court’s declaration may be either affirmative or negative in form and effect and such declaration has the force and effect of a final judgment.
Please notice that the circuit and county courts declare “rights, status and other equitable and legal relations.” Furthermore, the court’s declaration “has the force and effect of a final judgment.” Therefore, Christians are still suing Christians in secular court, plus they seek a final judgment rendered by the court. Therefore, they are breaking the command that one Christian should not sue another Christian in public court.
In all cases, we must listen to the voice of Jesus teaching us in the Scriptures how we must act in this world, and especially, to distinguish ourselves as believers from the unrighteousness abounding all around us, especially in court.
Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?
1 Corinthians 6:2
The Saints Must Judge the World Problem
Paul used the term “saints” to refer to Christians. All Christians are saints. ((Paul used the term “saints” (“ἡγιασμένοις“) to describe the people of the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2). He used similar greeting for the Christians in Romans 1:7, Ephesians 1:1, and Colossians 1:2.)) All Christians must resolve their disputes with other Christians in the Church, because only saints (Christians) must judge saints. Jesus reminded everyone that the saints will judge the world. ((Paul wrote: “ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι οἱ ἅγιοι τὸν κόσμον κρινοῦσιν; καὶ εἰ ἐν ὑμῖν κρίνεται ὁ κόσμος, ἀνάξιοί ἐστε κριτηρίων ἐλαχίστων;” 1 Corinthians 6:2). Notice that Paul used the word “worthy” (“ἀνάξιοί“). He showed that saints are worthy, as the children of God, with access to the abundant wisdom of God (James 1:5), and equipped with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).)) Therefore, saints alone are competent to constitute the smallest law courts. When any Christian files suit against another believer in a secular court, that Christian has forgotten or ignored that Jesus said saints alone are competent to constitute the smallest law courts, where every matter of one believer against another believer must be resolved.
The Smallest Matters Problem
Finally, I have heard of another believer who files suit against anyone for small amounts of money in small claims court. He feels conflict in his heart over the matter of suing believers, but does not seem very concerned because of the amount of money in dispute. Jesus taught that the amount in dispute never matters. Believers must not sue other believers in secular courts before the unbelievers. As believers, we must always appoint a wise man in the church to resolve all disputes.
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?
1 Corinthians 6:3
The Saints Must Judge Matters of This Life
God revealed that Christians will judge angels in the future. Therefore, because angels are greater in might and power than Christians (2 Peter 2:11), and Christians will judge angels, then those same Christians are competent today to judge Christians with disputes. ((Paul wrote: “οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἀγγέλους κρινοῦμεν, μήτι γε βιωτικά;” (1 Corinthians 6:3).)) No matter what dispute one Christian has with another Christian, and no matter the amount in controversy, a wise Christian in the church, and only in the church, must decide the matter. ((Regarding the phrase “judge angels” (“ἀγγέλους κρινοῦμεν“), some angels left their proper abode and sinned. God keeps those angels in eternal bonds (“δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις“) under darkness for the judgment of the great day (“κρίσιν μεγάλης ἡμέρας“) (Jude 1:6; see also 2 Peter 2:4). While God alone judges sin (John 5:22), when the saints come back to reign with Jesus upon earth, Jesus may appoint saints to serve as judges during that time, and their jurisdiction may also include angels upon the earth during that time. Of course, I cannot be sure of that scenario, but it fits the facts of the verse. With certainty Jesus teaches that saints will judge the angels at some point in time.)) Jesus puts all matters of this life under the jurisdiction of the saints in the local church. Jesus first reminds the saints that, in the future, they will sit in judgment upon the angels, (remember that Michael, an archangel, did not dare to pronounce railing judgment against the devil–Jude 9). Jesus has given them the authority, power and wisdom to judge matters of this life, which are less weighty than judging angels. Therefore, Jesus has invested the saints with full jurisdiction over all matters of this earthly life, and every conflict between the brethren. The church has no jurisdictional limits upon its ability to hear all disputes, both great and small, among the brethren.
So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church?
1 Corinthians 6:4
The No Account Problem
God revealed that no secular judge, even a Christian secular judge, should settle a dispute between two Christians. God had already directed that all disputes between Christians must be resolved in the church, and not in secular courts. God asks why would any Christian in any local church possibly appoint secular judges to resolve a dispute? All secular judges are of no account in the church. ((Paul wrote: “βιωτικὰ μὲν οὖν κριτήρια ἐὰν ἔχητε, τοὺς ἐξουθενημένους ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ, τούτους καθίζετε;” (1 Corinthians 6:4). Paul used the word “you seat” (“καθίζετε”–present act verb, meaning to sit on a judgment seat–see, for example, Pilate (John 19.13). Paul also described the secular judge as of “no account” (“ἐξουθενημένους“–perfect, passive participle–see 1 Thessalonians 5:20 regarding “do not despise prophecy”) in the church.)) God has already declared that saints must never go to law before the unrighteous, because saints alone must judge all disputes concerning matters of this life. When any saint files any legal action against another believer in front of the unrighteous (in any court), then the saint has effectively appointed a secular judge to decide a dispute among saints.
In one lawsuit, a church was suing the denomination over the retirement program and the ownership of certain property after a split. The faction filing suit said the judge hearing the case in secular court was a Christian, so, in their minds, it was fine to use the secular court system. Such an argument misses the entire point of this passage. When Christians sue in a public forum, then the entire public hears about the dispute and sees that Christians cannot settle their disputes among themselves, with the wisdom of God resolving matters. All secular judges, even Christian secular judges, are of no account in the church when it comes to settling disputes between believers.
I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren,
1 Corinthians 6:5
The Shame Problem
If a Christian files suit against another Christian in a secular court, Christians should always direct the Christian filing suit to immediately dismiss the lawsuit, and take the matter to the church, so that a wise man in the church may decide the dispute. ((Paul wrote: “πρὸς ἐντροπὴν ὑμῖν λέγω. οὕτως οὐκ ἔνι ἐν ὑμῖν οὐδεὶς σοφός, ὃς δυνήσεται διακρῖναι ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ;” (1 Corinthians 6:5).)) Any believer filing a lawsuit against another believer in secular court brings shame upon the name of Christ. ((Paul used the same term “shame” (“ἐντροπὴν“) in 1 Corinthians 15:34 to describe the shame in Corinth because (a) some Christians are sinning because they are not sober minded; and (b) some people have no knowledge of God.)) After describing all the reasons Christians must avoid suing Christians in secular courts, Jesus then said that such suits bring shame upon the Christians, and by implication, upon His name. Jesus then directs the Christians to appoint a wise man to decide the matter between the Christians. Jesus means that the parties agree to appoint a wise man, being a wise Christian in a church, to decide the dispute between the two Christians. If one party insists upon his choice of churches and his wise man within that church, so be it. At least you may have your suit heard and follow the Biblical teaching on the subject. Following the Word of God will always be vastly superior to presenting the matter in a secular court before unbelievers.
but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?
1 Corinthians 6:6
The Brothers Problem
Jesus absolutely barred one Christian from ever bringing a lawsuit against another Christian in secular court, before unbelievers. When Christian sues Christian in secular courts, before secular judges, those Christians have created a spectacle of shame for the entire church. Brother sues brother, and the church suffers. ((Paul wrote: “ἀλλ’ ἀδελφὸς μετὰ ἀδελφοῦ κρίνεται καὶ τοῦτο ἐπὶ ἀπίστων;” (1 Corinthians 6:6).)) Jesus re-emphasized that Christians must only go to the church to resolve their disputes, with a wise man deciding the matter. Never use secular courts with “no account” judges to resolve any matter of this life between two Christians, brothers in Christ.
The Christian Party Problem
Some Christians may argue that they are only suing the church, a non-profit corporation. The same principles here that apply to suing individuals would also govern suits against non-profit corporations. All corporations, profit corporations or non-profit church groups, and limited liability companies act through agents of the organization. Those agents may be saints in the church. The same reasons given by Jesus for not suing individual Christians would also apply to suing church corporations. Often, small businesses have only one or two shareholders or members. The guiding principles in this passage would apply to closely held business organizations, and if they are owned only by Christians, then the same principles apply.
Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?
1 Corinthians 6:7
The Already Defeated Problem
When one Christian sues another Christian in secular court, then all the church has suffered a defeat. ((Paul wrote: “Ἤδη μὲν [οὖν] ὅλως ἥττημα ὑμῖν ἐστιν ὅτι κρίματα ἔχετε μεθ’ ἑαυτῶν. διὰ τί οὐχὶ μᾶλλον ἀδικεῖσθε; διὰ τί οὐχὶ μᾶλλον ἀποστερεῖσθε;” (1 Corinthians 6:7).)) God provided three related instructions here. First, when one Christian files a lawsuit in secular court, then the whole church has suffered a defeat. ((Paul used the word “you” (“ὑμῖν“) in the plural, meaning both parties and the entire church suffered the defeat and shame.)) Second, why not be wronged? Paul meant that it would better for one Christian not to file suit in secular court and be wronged, than to cause defeat and shame for the entire church. Third, if a Christian sues another Christian, the defendant Christian should not participate in the secular court proceeding, even if means being wronged and judgment entered. Third, a Christian would be better off defrauded than to participate in litigation in secular court against another Christian than to cause the entire church to suffer a defeat (no matter the outcome in court) and shame before the world. While secular Greeks and Romans sought victory and judgment in their secular courts, the church has already suffered “defeat” by the mere presence of lawsuits between Christians. Jesus said Christians are better off “wronged” (treated unjustly) or “defrauded” (robbed of what you own) than to go to law in secular courts, with Christians suing Christians. The practical implication of this teaching means that if a Christian files a lawsuit in secular court against another Christian, then the defending Christian should not respond in secular court to the lawsuit. Christians respond in the church by appointing a wise man to decide the matter, even if only one saint shows up for the church proceeding. Merely filing a lawsuit in secular court brings shame upon the entire church, and shows the believer filing such action to be squarely against the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christian attorneys helping Christians sue other Christians in secular court fall into the same troubles as their clients. They become instruments of defeat and shame to the church, and assist one Christian to defraud another Christian before public eyes and ears.
On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren.
1 Corinthians 6:8
When Christians file lawsuits against another Christian in secular court, then they always wrong and defraud one another, no matter how meritorious the case may be. ((Paul wrote: “ἀλλ’ ὑμεῖς ἀδικεῖτε καὶ ἀποστερεῖτε, καὶ τοῦτο ἀδελφούς” (1 Corinthians 6:8).)) The effect of lawsuits in secular courts means that one Christian will be wronging and defrauding other Christians. Christians should always keep the problems between Christians in the church, and appoint a wise man in the church to resolve the dispute. Christians can pray over the matter, and seek the guidance of Jesus Christ to resolve the matter. Only a Christian can apply properly the spiritual principles of justice, mercy, grace and love to resolve serious disputes among believers, and the church must be the only forum for such activity.
The Church Solution
Whenever a church learns that a Christian in that fellowship has filed suit in secular court against another Christian, then the elders of the church should immediately follow the pattern of Matthew 18:15-18. First, the person filing the lawsuit should be confronted in love by a single brother. Second, if the person fails to repent and dismiss the lawsuit, then two brothers should go to the brother. Third, if the person still fails to repent and dismiss the lawsuit, then the matter should be brought before the church. Fourth, the church should then render a decision about the person filing the lawsuit. If the Christian still fails to dismiss the lawsuit, then that Christian should be treated as an unbeliever. Any Christian attorney who assists the believer in filing suit in secular court against another believer, for a purely civil matter, should be submitted to the same disciplinary process. Christian attorneys should never even threaten to file suit in secular court where one Christian would be suing another Christian in secular court. Too many times I have seen “Christian” attorneys threatening to sue in secular court on behalf of their “Christian” clients, even after warning from this passage about how such actions bring defeat and shame for the church.
The Church Discipline Remedy
No Christian should ever file a lawsuit in secular court against another Christian merely because the first believer will not submit to the jurisdiction of the church to resolve the dispute in the church. In that case, Jesus teaches that Christians should be willing to suffer wrong or be defrauded. Jesus will always sustain His own children. The entire church should treat the Christian filing suit in secular court against another Christian, and any Christian attorney assisting that Christian in secular court, as persons under discipline and excluded from the fellowship until they repent and confess their sin.
Often, one Christian will turn to the secular court system because that Christian cannot get the other Christian to appear in the church for a wise man to resolve the dispute. They claim to justify such a secular lawsuit because they only want to force arbitration (an arbitrator (not a judge), after hearing the evidence, renders a final decision binding on the parties and enforceable in court) or to send the parties to mediation (a mediator talks with the parties, but renders no decision). Jesus did not allow Christians to file lawsuits to decide matters of this life in secular courts for any reason. If a Christian wants to go to mediation, then seek mediation in the church, not through a secular court. If a Christian wants someone to decide a dispute with another Christian, then appoint a wise man in the church. In all matters, Jesus never allowed lawsuits in secular courts among Christians for any reason. He said it was better to be wronged or defrauded than to file suit in secular court and sue another Christian. Jesus recognized no exceptions in civil matters between two Christians. Criminal cases are an entirely different matter. The state will always have its power to enforce the law, and Christians should submit to state authority, provided it does not conflict with Scripture (Romans 13:1-7).
The Cultural Argument
Some people may argue that Paul offered only cultural opinions in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, and now the culture has changed. They would argue further that a Christian should not suffer significant loss by failing to answer a lawsuit filed by a Christian. The answer to such questions always revolves around the passage under discussion. Did Jesus give cultural reasons for His teaching through Paul on lawsuits? Read the passage and you will clearly see that the principles Jesus taught there are not cultural reasons, but spiritual reasons. Culture plays no part in the secular judges sitting in secular courts, ruling on disputes between two Christians. We must always care more for the testimony to unbelievers than we care about being defrauded. The church should always take action against any Christian filing a lawsuit, and ultimately exclude that person from the fellowship, if that Christian refuses to dismiss the lawsuit. If one Christian has already obtained a civil judgment in secular court against another Christian, then that Christian should satisfy that judgment of record to avoid any further shame or damage, and then pursue the matter in the church. Jesus said Christians have defrauded the other Christians by merely filing the lawsuit in secular court before unbelievers.
Jesus provided only one rule for lawsuits between Christians: Christians must not sue one another in secular courts, but have a wise man in the church decide the dispute. He explained that only Christians should judge Christians, and Christians bring shame upon all Christians by going to secular courts before the unrighteous. Finally, Jesus said, if necessary, Christians should allow other Christians to wrong or defraud them in secular courts. When the sinful Christian files suit in secular court, the righteous Christian goes to the church and seeks a decision from a wise man in the church. Furthermore, the Christian filing suit in secular court should be disciplined in the church for filing suit in secular court and, if that Christian fails to dismiss the suit, that Christian should be treated ultimately as an unbeliever. Do you want the blessing of Jesus to resolve your disputes or do you intend to ignore Jesus and file suit? God gave us very clear instructions about resolving disputes between Christians. We can always trust Him.