Lesson 12: Is It Ever Okay for a Christian to Sue?
Topic: Topical Passage: 1 Corinthians 6
[Note: This lesson is adapted from Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004). For more information, see Peacemaker® Ministries (https://pm.training).]
Good morning! We’ve spent the past two lessons talking about involving reconcilers in a situation when personal peacemaking has failed. We talked about who to involve, how and when to involve them, why you should involve reconcilers, and what reconcilers are supposed to do. Then, last week, we talked quite a bit about church discipline.
This morning, I’d like to begin by flipping to the appendix of the book. Sande has an excellent appendix which answers the question, “Is it ever okay for a Christian to sue?” Why or why not? But first, I want to hear what you think. So you tell me: is it ever okay for a Christian to sue. Why or why not?
Is It Ever Okay for a Christian to Sue?
If we’re going to discuss the question from a biblical perspective, we have to start with 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. What does 1 Corinthians 6 teach about suing? It teaches us not to sue fellow believers. So that would be principle #1: “don’t sue fellow believers.”
However, some clarifications are in order. Sande would say (and I agree) that 1 Corinthians 6 applies to believers who are members in good standing at churches that are faithful to Scripture. Now, that definition is complicated by the fact that some churches do not practice membership, but in general, we are talking about people whose professions of faith have been recognized by faithful bodies of believers.
1 Corinthians 6 does not necessarily apply to people who simply claim to be Christians or to those who are under church discipline, since they would not qualify as “brothers” who are “among you.” That would mean, for example, that once you exhaust the Matthew 18 process and the individual is disciplined out of the church, if you still believe that the issue is worth pursuing, you could potentially pursue litigation. (Granted, that is somewhat of a far-fetched situation, but it’s certainly possible.)
It is also important to note that 1 Corinthians 6 would not seem to apply to civil government or corporate organizations. For instance, if you get into a car accident and the other person’s insurance refuses to pay, it is not necessarily wrong to sue. Of course, you should make sure your motives are right, and you shouldn’t view situation as an opportunity to get rich, but those things aside, you could potentially pursue your case in court.
Principle #1: Don’t sue fellow believers.
Principle #2: Only sue if the rights you are about to assert are consistent with Scripture.
Just because you have a right to do something legally does not mean that you have a right to do it biblically. Sande includes a quote from the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in order to support this point. Scalia said, “What is lawful is not always right. Confusing the two concepts is particularly easy for the English-speaking because we use the word ‘right’ to refer both to legality and to moral appropriateness…. We say ‘I have a right to plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer questions about possible criminal activity’–even when the consequences of exercising that “right” may cause an innocent person to be convicted. Exercising such a ‘right’ is certainly wrong.” If you are fighting for a “right” that is contrary to Scripture, do not go to court.
Principle #3: Only sue if you have a righteous purpose. The apostle Paul left a great example for us to learn from. Turn to 1 Corinthians 9:3-12. Did Paul assert his rights every time he could legitimately do so? No! Why not? Because the gospel was more important to him than his own comfort and well-being. Paul says, “I had a right to receive offerings from you. But I chose not to do so, because I didn’t want anyone to accuse me of false motives. I didn’t want that potential accusation to hinder my gospel ministry.” He said, “I have the right to get married. But I chose to remain single because I can do more good for the kingdom that way.”
Drawing from Paul’s example, there are times in which, for the sake of the gospel, we should avoid asserting our rights. Sande says, “[N]ever assert your rights if doing so is likely to dishonor God, harm other people, or draw you away from Christ and deplete your ability to serve him.” He goes on to say, “Do not file a lawsuit unless you are confident that it will somehow 1) advance God’s kingdom…; 2) benefit your opponent…; or 3) enhance your ability to know and serve Christ.”
So just to review: principle #1: Don’t sue fellow believers; principle #2: Only sue if the rights you want to assert are consistent with Scripture; and principle #3: Only sue if you have a righteous purpose.
Principle #4: Only sue if you think the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Even if you believe you are justified in going to court, you ought to pause and consider the tremendous cost of litigation, not only in money, but also in time, energy, and emotional strain. In some cases, the price may be worth it based on the good that can be accomplished. In other cases, the cost of “winning” the lawsuit may completely overshadow any potential good that could come out of it. If you think the costs will outweigh the benefits, you should probably settle out of court.
I think it is safe to assume that those four principles would eliminate most lawsuits. Can you think of a lawsuit that would qualify under those principles? (Larry Nasser lawsuit, lawsuit that involved Christian baker in CO, etc.)
Another question that someone might ask is “What if someone sues me?” I would say that in general, the same three principles apply. If the other individual is a believer, you should try to divert the case to Christian mediation. If he refuses, you should follow the Matthew 18 process as much as possible. If you exhaust that process, you should ask yourself, “Am I following the principles 2-4? Am I fighting over a biblical right and do I have a righteous purpose?” Also, will the benefits outweigh the cost? If so, you may be able to proceed with a clear conscience. If not, you should probably seek a settlement. Are there any questions or comments about that?
I think it is also helpful to note that in certain situations, God has given the church sole jurisdiction, whereas in other cases, the church actually shares jurisdiction with the government. In situations involving sin but not crime, the church has sole jurisdiction. In situations that involve both sin and crime, the church and state share jurisdiction. For instance, if a church member refuses to be reconciled with another believer, the church alone should handle the matter. However, if a church member is accused of abusing a child, the church is required to notify the authorities, even if it also takes actions of its own, like disciplining the member, acknowledging his repentance, or asking him not to attend. But whatever the case, the church will need to cooperate with the authorities as the situation unfolds. Are there any questions about that?
Forgiveness, Part 1
With our remaining time together, I’d like to get into our next major topic in this study, which is forgiveness.
You’ve Been Forgiven.
It’s interesting to me that Matthew 18:15-20, which talks about church discipline and which we’ve discussed in the past couple of lessons, is immediately followed by a passage about forgiveness. Turn with me to Matthew 18:21.
How is Peter’s question related to the previous six verses? The whole goal in vv. 15-20 is to bring your brother or sister to the point of repentance. But Peter rightly recognizes that repentance is not the end of the story. Once your brother repents, you still must forgive him, and that’s not always easy! Plus, what if he does it again? Then it’s even harder to forgive! Also, in order to follow the steps in vv. 15-20, I would argue that you need to have a spirit of forgiveness from the beginning, even if formal forgiveness has not yet been granted. In short, it’s hard to talk about confrontation and reconciliation without also talking about forgiveness.
Now, what is Peter’s concern in v. 21? He seems to be concerned that a brother or sister not take advantage of his forgiveness. Is that still a concern today? Sure it is! Now, lest we be too hard on Peter, the rabbis’ number was three. It was sort of a “four strikes and you’re out” kind of system. So Peter has learned a lot from Jesus. He knows that Christ is not going to be satisfied with three, so he takes the rabbis’ number, doubles it, and then adds one. Seven–the number of perfection! That has to be enough, right? Wrong.
What does Jesus say? Look at v. 22. In other words, He says, “Stop counting.” Isn’t that shocking? Shouldn’t it be? I mean, if someone here at Life Point stole from you or said something unkind to you or lied about you four hundred and ninety times, don’t you think that somewhere along the line, you would lose your patience? I know I would! How can this possibly be the standard? Something must be wrong. Or else, Jesus must be grounding this command in some reality that is so foreign to our natural way of thinking that it rocks our worldview. And that is exactly what He’s doing.
True to form, Jesus introduces this new reality with a story. Take a look at vv. 23-24. One fun thing about this story is that Jesus uses absurd numbers. A talent was originally a measure of weight equal to somewhere between sixty-six pounds and seventy-five pounds. Now, He doesn’t say whether he’s talking about a talent of silver or a talent of gold, but I’ve read that typically, when people referred to a talent as a standard of currency, they were referring to a talent of silver. So the amount owed was roughly the value of three hundred thirty tons of silver, and that’s probably a conservative estimate. Silver is currently valued at $15.55 per oz, so that much silver would cost over $123 million.
However, an ever better way to calculate the size of this debt is to use the standard day’s wage in Israel. In Israel, the common day’s wage was a denarius. One talent of silver was equal to six thousand denarii, or about twenty years’ worth of wages. Therefore, ten thousand talents would take the average laborer 200,00 years, or about five thousand lifetimes to earn.
One commentator points out that “ten thousand” is the highest number for which any Greek term existed and that a talent was the largest known measure of money. It’s as if this man owed a zillion dollars. What’s the point? The sin debt we owe to God is incalculable. We could never pay it off, even if we worked for five thousand lifetimes.
Obviously, the servant could not pay (v. 25). But he doesn’t want to be sold into slavery either, so he pleads with his master. What does he say (v. 26)? Is that realistic? (no) It is totally unrealistic to think that the servant could ever have repaid this debt; and yet amazingly, the master doesn’t ask him to. Instead, he simply has compassion and waives the entire sum (v. 27). Just like that, five thousand lifetimes of wages is forgiven.
Does this remind you of your salvation? It should! One modern hymn writer puts it this way:
What love could remember no wrongs we have done
Omniscient, all knowing, He counts not their sum
Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore
Our sins they are many, His mercy is more
The third verse says:
What riches of kindness he lavished on us
His blood was the payment, His life was the cost
We stood 'neath a debt we could never afford
Our sins they are many, His mercy is more
This is the new reality that I mentioned earlier! And in in light of this reality, it makes perfect sense to forgive someone who has sinned against me four hundred and ninety times. Because no one can possibly owe me more than I owed God, or even come close to that amount. And God has freely forgiven me. So why shouldn’t I freely forgive them?
But the story goes on (v. 28). Now, based on what we’ve learned about the value of a denarius, is one hundred denarii a small sum? No! That would be the equivalent of about four months’ wages! In other words, Jesus is not downplaying the significance of sins that are committed against us. It’s no small thing if someone owes you ten or fifteen thousand dollars! But when God has forgiven you 600,000 times that amount, how could you not forgive the debt?
Ironically, the servant’s debtor begged for mercy using the same words that the servant had used previously (v. 29). But unlike his master, the servant showed no mercy (vv. 30-31). When the master found out, he was livid, and he handed down a chilling sentence. The man’s wife and children would apparently be spared, but he himself would be tortured indefinitely (v. 34). Jesus concludes by saying that God will respond in kind if we withhold forgiveness (v. 35).
Next week, we’ll get into more details about forgiveness, but I wanted to consider that story at the outset, because it lays the groundwork for everything else that needs to be said about the topic. Forgiveness is not easy. In fact, in some cases, it’s the hardest thing you could possibly do. And I think we tend to get defensive when someone tells me to forgive. “How could you be so insensitive? Don’t you understand what he did to me?” But it’s not about what he did to you; it’s about what God did for you. And in light of that new reality, forgiveness just makes sense, even if it’s really, really hard.
Any questions or comments?
I’m reading a book right now–it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read–about a man who was imprisoned by the Japanese during WW2. The crimes committed against him are almost unspeakable. And yet amazingly, when he comes to know Christ as Savior (spoiler alert), all of his bitterness falls away. The day before, he wanted to kill his former captor. But once he got saved, those thoughts went away. Again, I’m not trying to suggest that this is easy, but that is what the grace of God does to you. And I think that is what Jesus is saying in v. 35. Sometimes we struggle with this verse. “Will God really send me to hell for failing to forgive?” Perhaps the best way to say it is that if you stubbornly refuse to forgive, you’re probably not His child. People who inhale grace also exhale it.
So is forgiveness hard? Yes. Can we do it? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” What does it look like and how do we do it? That’s what we’ll talk about in two weeks