To Litigate or Not Against a Fellow Christian

Reflection: 1 Corinthians 6: 1 – 11.

Should Christians have a different attitude where litigation between them seemed inevitable? Recently, this question popped up again in a friendly chat, and it spurred me into doing a quick reappraisal of its primary reference in the Corinthians letter. Paul had earlier advised that in matters of sinful behaviour, the church was not to judge those outside, meaning outside the Christian community, but to judge those who are inside (5:12-13). Then, he draws a parallel, by instructing that if the church does not judge those outside, neither does it go outside with inside affairs (v.1). One brother had defrauded another (v.7), and the matter had probably ended up at the civil magistrate. There is a presumption that these two men were possibly men of means and leaders in the church, as not many would own litigable property in those days. The whole episode horrified Paul, as he expressed with rhetorical sarcasm in chastising the two men and the Corinthian church. What concerns us are: should believers litigate against each other, and who should arbitrate any such disagreements?

Paul reserved his sharpest criticism against the church community for allowing this disgraceful event to proceed to the civil court (vv.2-6). As believers in Christ, he expected them to be supremely aware that they were God’s representatives, quite apart from being involved in God’s final future judgment on the world and angels (vv.2-3: Although Paul, nor the NT, explain what this fully means), and therefore bear His testimony to the world. If reconciliation cannot be reached between the believers privately, then the church should be drawn in to provide a peaceful and gracious resolution to their conflict (vv.4-6), rather than a settlement in a civil suit.

In addressing the litigants directly, Paul used the second person plural to indicate that he was speaking instructionally to the church as well. And whatever the plaintiff’s motives were, they should never be based on revenge or preserving one’s honour, but there ought to be a spirit of magnanimity and forgiveness; hence enjoining the non-retaliatory ethic of Jesus’ teaching – to overcome evil with good (v.7; Rom 12:17; 4:16-17). His encouragement in this instant is to plead with the person who had been wronged, to consider the real meaning of the cross, and to be the first to end this cycle of conflict, by taking the higher ground in Christ. For the defrauding defendant, a grave warning of forfeiting his inheritance in the kingdom was given, if he continued to behave like a pagan (vv.8-10).

Is Paul implying that the civil authorities were incapable of impartial judicial decisions? Not exactly, although it was well known that Roman courts were heavily biased against the non-ruling class, but given his willingness to work within state institutions, Paul was convinced that the state too, can serve God’s will (Rom 13:1-4). However, his stance with the Corinthians was that their differences ought to be ironed out within their own church community. What about lawsuits between a believer and an outsider? Or what happens when church-based arbitration fails? What about complex legal issues? Or an inveterate defrauder? Would there be exceptions? Paul’s guiding principle was that God’s wisdom within the church was capable of settling these matters, even when outside resources may be required.

1corinthians13_5The crucial theme raised by Paul in his letter to one of the most dysfunctional churches in the early Christian era, was that the church’s biblical self-understanding as an eschatological community, called to a future glorified existence, ought to be fully grasped by her members, so that they become a model to those around her. May we refocus, as Paul had directed the Corinthian church to do so, with our priorities moulded within the Christological framework of our existence as the people of God, who are totally transformed by love and selfless values, as we live in the present (v11).