What does the Bible say about lawsuits and Christian arbitration?

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What does the Bible say about lawsuits and Christian arbitration?

March 31, 2022 - Jim Denison, PhD

© burdun/stock.adobe.com

© burdun/stock.adobe.com

Litigation expenses by large companies in the United States have risen from $19.36 billion in 2015 to a projected $23.71 billion in 2021. It is estimated that forty million lawsuits are filed every year in the United States. 

Unfortunately, some of these lawsuits occur between brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Which leaves us with a few difficult questions: 

  • What does the Bible say about lawsuits?
  • Should Christians sue other Christians?
  • What is Christian arbitration?

In this context, I believe churches, Christian organizations, and individual believers should develop and adopt procedures for resolving these and other disputes within the context of Christian arbitration. 

A survey of relevant biblical resources 

As biblical Christians, we consider the Bible to be the word of God and thus “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). As a result, we look first to God’s word for guiding principles with regard to the issue in question. 

Jesus’ 4 steps for resolving disputes among Christians 

In Matthew 18:15–18, Jesus said: 

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Here we find Jesus’ fourfold strategy: 

  1. Go to the person who sins against you in hopes of repairing the relationship.
  2. If he refuses to listen, engage “one or two others” in mediating the dispute.
  3. If he still refuses to listen, escalate by involving the “church.”
  4. If he still refuses to listen, refuse further engagement with him.

The first step requires initiative on the part of the injured party: “go and tell him.” “Tell him his fault” can be translated, “reprove him” or “have it out with him” (Jerusalem Bible). The purpose is honesty that leads to genuine reconciliation. 

The second step requires expanding the scope: “one or two others” refers to a small group rather than specifying a particular number. Such outside participants are required on the basis of Deuteronomy 19:15, which states that no one is to be convicted on the testimony of a single person. Their role is either to substantiate the charges and/or to arbitrate the dispute as effectively as possible. 

The third step engages “the church,” the body of believers. This refers to a local group of Christians rather than the universal Church. The hope is that the sinner will repent in the face of such united concern and accountability. 

The fourth step treats the sinner “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” groups who stood outside the people of God. “Let him be to you” shows that this step describes the person’s relationship with the sinner rather than requiring that the sinner be excommunicated from the entire Christian fellowship (though such action is within view here if the larger body believes it to be necessary; see discussion of 1 Corinthians 5:1–5 below). 

Paul’s admonition against secular lawsuits between Christians 

In 1 Corinthians 6:1–8, Paul writes:

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! 

Paul begins, “When one of you has a grievance against another,” assuming that such grievances are to be expected. This idiom was typically used for civil litigation in his day. The Corinthian Christians were engaging in such litigation “before the unrighteous” (the term means “unjust” in legal contexts), pointing to the widespread corruption endemic in the Roman court system. 

Such cases were usually decided on behalf of the litigant with the greatest resources and thus value to the state and often involved bribery or other promises of favors for the judge and officers. As a result, this practice among the Corinthian Christians was likely unfair to the poorer members of the church, provoking Paul’s strong condemnation: “You yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” (v. 8). 

This text is more descriptive than prescriptive with regard to all legal disputes between Christians since it requires both parties to be members of the same church (“among you,” v. 5) and the issue relates specifically to property or financial defraudment (vv. 7–8). However, its inclusion in Scripture is evidence that its principles timelessly transcend their original context. 

Here we learn that Christians are not in principle to turn to secular authorities to resolve disputes among themselves. 

A case study in reconciliation 

In 1 Corinthians 5:1–5, Paul writes:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 

The sexual sin in view requires the strongest response among believers: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (v. 2). This decision is to be enacted by the entire church (“when you are assembled,” v. 4). 

They are “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (v. 5a). This is likely a reference to removing him from the fellowship since those outside the church are in the realm of Satan (cf. Ephesians 2:2; 1 John 5:19). The sin in question is so severe that “the destruction of the flesh” would be God’s punishment on it (v. 5b; cf. Acts 5:1–11; 1 Corinthians 11:29–30). But the large purpose is that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (v. 5c). 

Here we see the fourth step of Jesus’ strategy in action: Christian dispute resolution can lead to the excommunication of the offender from the community. 

Paul’s strategy apparently worked and the sinner came to repentance. As a result, the apostle later wrote the same congregation in 2 Corinthians 2:5–11: 

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. 

Repentance should lead to reconciliation. When God forgives our sins (1 John 1:9), we should clearly forgive each other (Ephesians 4:32; Mark 11:25). 

The urgency of resolution

In Matthew 5:21–26, Jesus said: 

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 

Here we discover three facts relevant to our discussion. 

  1. We are not to insult or otherwise harm our “brother.” 
  2. If we do and thus “remember that your brother has something against you,” we must take steps immediately to remedy the situation. This is the reverse of Matthew 18:15, where we are to take initiative to seek reconciliation with those who sin against us. Whoever initiated the injury, we are to do what we can to effect resolution. 
  3. If we find ourselves in a legal setting in the court, we must do what we can to “come to terms quickly with your accuser.” Otherwise, the consequences may be dire. The “accuser” may be a non-Christian, or they may be our “brother” (vv. 22–24). 

This text does not invalidate Matthew 18:15–18 or 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 and their call for Christians to seek reconciliation within the family of faith. Rather, it recognizes that we will sometimes face civil or criminal lawsuits if we do not seek to resolve disputes. Jesus’ statement is descriptive rather than prescriptive. For reasons stated above with regard to the corruption of the secular court system of Jesus’ day, it is better to seek resolution within the faith community. 

In addition, our Lord’s statement is relevant to Christian arbitration with regard to the urgency of such resolution. 

The relation of state and church

In Romans 13:1–4, Paul wrote: 

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 

This text requires Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities,” which are clearly “rulers” of the state and thus outside the faith community (v. 3). However, the questions in view relate to paying taxes (v. 6) and respect (v. 7). Nowhere in the text does Paul speak specifically to disputes between Christians. If this text requires secular litigation for such disputes, the apostle contradicts his strong prohibition against such litigation in 1 Corinthians 6. 

In addition, we find other biblical events which seem to contradict Romans 13’s insistence on obedience to the secular authorities. For example, Peter and the apostles refused the Sanhedrin’s order to stop preaching (Acts 4:19–20; 5:25). Early tradition teaches that Paul was himself imprisoned and eventually executed for refusing the state’s edict against preaching the gospel (cf. 2 Timothy 4:6–8). 

The “separation of church and state” is in view here. Christians are to be loyal to the state wherever they can do so while remaining loyal to the Lord and his word (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1–2; 1 Peter 2:13–17). But our highest loyalty must be to our highest authority. 

The doctrine of the sanctity of life 

The matters for which Scripture counsels Christian arbitration refer to civil issues such as financial challenges and interpersonal disputes. These texts should never be taken to require that Christians risk their lives and health to seek resolution with their attackers. For example, if a spouse or child is being abused, they should obviously seek protection and safety. Only then should they consider steps to seek resolution, and even then such steps should be undertaken only with necessary safeguards. 

In addition, criminal acts are the purview of the state (cf. Romans 13:4). The courts will not and should not defer to Christian arbitration in cases involving capital murder, for example. 

In such cases, the biblical texts we have discussed can guide us toward interpersonal reconciliation with the perpetrator, but such reconciliation will be effected within the context of state and secular law. 

The Bible consistently teaches that life is sacred (cf. Exodus 20:13; Psalm 139:13–16). As a result, we must respond immediately to attacks or threats beyond civil matters. To repeat: If a person’s life or health is in jeopardy, they obviously should seek protection and safety immediately.  

Why Christians should seek Christian arbitration with one another 

The relevant biblical resources strongly support Christian arbitration to settle disputes between Christians. To recap: 

  • Believers are to initiate reconciliation between each other (Matthew 18:15; 5:23–24).
  • We are to involve other believers in resolving disputes where necessary (Matthew 18:16–18; 1 Corinthians 5:5).
  • We are to forgive the repentant and work for their reconciliation with the family of faith (2 Corinthians 2:5–8).
  • We are to act urgently to resolve disputes before they escalate (Matthew 5:25).

While Christians are not to engage secular courts to settle disputes between themselves, the way they settle such disputes provides a strong witness to the secular culture: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). 

An overview of legal arguments 

Michael J. Broyde is professor of law at Emory University School of Law and a core faculty member at the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory. I found his article “Faith-Based Arbitration Evaluated: The Policy Arguments For and Against Religious Arbitration in America” to be authoritative and expansive. As a result, I have provided a synopsis of his discussion below. 

Broyde’s 7 arguments against faith-based arbitration 

One: One law for one people. 

This argument against “legal pluralism” claims that society is weakened when various communities can adopt and enact legal processes unique to themselves. However, there has never truly been only one law of the land in the US. Each of the fifty states has its own laws, as do cities and municipalities. There are even different official legal regimes within communities, such as Louisiana’s marriage law by which couples can choose between “covenant marriage” (which is more traditional) and “contractual marriage” (which resembles the making and breaking of a private contractual relationship). 

Two: Religious arbitration produces substantive injustice. 

Here critics claim that religious arbitration can clash with contemporary notions of gender equality, religious liberty, freedom of choice, personal privacy, and distributive justice. A 2005 ban on religious arbitration enacted in Ontario, for instance, was promoted by a broad coalition of different interest groups making this argument. For example, in Jewish or Islamic legal systems, divorces can generally be granted only by a husband to a wife. Islamic norms can require a wife to pay her unwilling husband to grant a divorce. 

However, these claims of injustice can be made against nonreligious arbitration as well. In addition, American courts have long held that arbitration awards can and should be vacated by courts when the substance of such awards is contrary to “public policy.” And these fears can also be directed against contracts which can sometimes lead to results considered unfair by at least one of the parties. 

Three: Religious arbitration produces procedural injustice. 

Critics also claim that religious arbitration typically precludes procedural rules that provide protections for vulnerable parties. For example, under traditional Jewish law, women cannot serve as rabbinic court judges and are formally ineligible from offering witness testimony in rabbinic courts. 

Broyde responds with the observation that those who choose religious arbitration do so precisely because they wish to be judged by religious standards. 

Four: Religious arbitration is often subtly coercive to its members. 

In some religious communities, those who refuse to consent to religious arbitration experience ostracism by friends and family. Others have lost jobs in churches and religious schools and been made unwelcome in places of worship. However, such consequences can result whenever a person in a religious community no longer wishes to abide by the standards and regulations of that community. 

Five: Liberal society has a difficult time policing religious arbitration. 

Existing legal frameworks from judicial review of arbitration are intended to prevent substantive and procedural unfairness and duress. However, courts are highly deferential to religious arbitrators. The “religious question doctrine” states that state authorities cannot determine the truth or falsity of religious doctrine. 

As a result, secular courts can be ineffective at protecting vulnerable parties from procedural unfairness in religious proceedings. However, arbitration laws often provide norms for the purpose of offering such protections. 

Six: Enforcement of religious arbitration sometimes violates people’s rights to religious freedom. 

Critics claim that requiring religious arbitration may force recalcitrant parties to participate in religious practices or abide by religious norms that they may not hold personally. Such arbitration can also bind individuals in the future even if they change their commitment to the faith principles advocated by the organization. On the other hand, religious arbitration enhances religious freedom for those who share these practices and norms. 

Seven: Allowing religious arbitration can promote isolation and non-integration of religious communities. 

Critics claim that the state should encourage unity rather than multicultural polarities and widening gaps between members of society enhanced by religious arbitration. They also argue that allowing religious communities to be more autonomous and separate from the broader society undermines their ability to transmit their religious practices and values. However, proponents counter that religious arbitration can preserve the autonomy and faith positions of religious communities so that they remain vibrant and available to the larger culture. 

Broyde’s 5 arguments in favor of religious arbitration 

One: Religious arbitration is a religious freedom imperative. 

Broyde notes that “the doctrine of government neutrality between religion and irreligion is firmly established in American law and policy.” He adds, “Consistently, the American attitude toward religion has been to allow individuals to carve out areas within society to practice as they see fit and only step in when the practice would violate a core societal tenet.” 

Two: Religious arbitration can resolve some commercial disputes more accurately than secular courts can. 

Broyde observes, “Many of the conflicts that arise between religiously observant individuals, institutions, and organizations are situated in particular religious and communal contexts that are best—and perhaps really only—understood by those who are themselves situated within those same contexts.” People often turn to religious arbitration because they feel that religious arbitrators will understand their problems and disputes better than secular judges. 

Three: Religious arbitration is the only way to resolve certain religious problems. 

Many Jews, Muslims, and Christians hold religious beliefs that create problems for which religious arbitration is more suitable than secular legal responses. For example, both the Bible and the Qur’an contain explicit teachings that require believers to arbitrate their disputes with other believers in the context of the faith community. Refusing such arbitration requires these believers to violate their faith principles. 

Four: Secular regulation of religious arbitration helps moderate and integrate religion. 

Broyde warns, “Isolationism born of pluralistic indifference to religion can result in religious extremism in much the same way as can draconian restrictions on religious freedom.” As a result, he argues, “Society should create frameworks in which religion can exist, operate, and be practiced within society, albeit with some societal oversight.” 

Five: Religious arbitration promotes value sharing between religious and secular cultures and as such enriches public discourse. 

Broyde notes, “Many think that societies work better, progress faster, and innovate more creatively when public discourses on important issues of law and policy are more diverse.” A robust practice of faith-based arbitration encourages faith leaders to utilize religio-legal sources and methods to address and resolve real-world problems. This strengthens faith communities internally and provides “a valuable repository of wisdom and experience on which general society can draw as it works to address similar concerns through law and policy.” 

Practical steps and conclusion 

The article “Christian mediation and arbitration: How to keep your church or non-profit out of court” offers a further overview of case law regarding “Christian conciliation” and outlines “tips for applying Christian Conciliation”: 

  1. Christian Conciliation clauses may be used to settle disputes over church leadership, building contracts, employment agreements, business contracts, and other conflicts.
  2. Christian Conciliation clauses in a contract should always be carefully and clearly explained, making certain the parties understand that signing the agreement may remove the right to redress in a secular civil court. Clear informed consent is essential to having Christian Conciliation clauses upheld in the courts.
  3. An attorney familiar with these types of agreements should be consulted since legal requirements vary from state to state and may be arbitrary and unpredictable.
  4. The other party to the contract must see, read, and understand the rules of procedure being utilized. These rules must also be readily available for parties to the contract to review at any time.
  5. When choosing arbitrators, be sure that you know and trust them because courts may void arbitration holdings if partiality, fraud, or other misconduct on their part is shown.
  6. Christian Conciliation may not be able to cover all types of disputes, such as child custody cases, since the court may intervene in the best interests of the child.

As churches, Christian organizations, and individual Christians consider these and other practical steps, it is vital that we develop a proactive strategy for resolving disputes within our community. Such a biblical strategy will honor the Lord, promote the unity of his people, and show the secular culture the relevance and power of his word for our lives and challenges today. 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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