On Suing A Christian Brother In The Civil Courts

Stanley W. Paher

"So, you've been defamed by your brothers in Christ and have been slandered with damage to reputation... You want to sue the brethren? Well, you can't. Christians can't go to law against Christians. You'll just have to suffer the wrong and be defrauded..."

So goes the common argument, based on 1 Cor. 6:1-7. In commenting on this verse, Robertson L. Whiteside wrote, "God never intended anything he said to be used as a shield for meanness... [This] is about as low as a man can get" (Reflections, p. 326). Thus, if a brother can pay a debt and will not do so, he is, according to Whiteside, "guilty of dishonesty and also of an offense against the brother he owes."

Other brethren of late have written that 1 Cor. 6:1-7 has been abused and therefore needs to be restudied. Gordon Wilson in the old Gospel Guardian, Rubel Shelly in the Firm Foundation, the lead article in the January, 1988 Contending for the Faith, and most recently Hoyt Houchen in the Guardian of Truth, all have critically studied I Cor. 6:1-7 and conclude that brethren with legal disputes should resolve them in the God-appointed venue, the civil courts. In contrast, personal matters in everyday life affairs should be settled by the counsel and mediation of faithful brethren.

Nevertheless, traditionalists offer two oft-repeated arguments against the notion that Christians must never go to law, the main one being that such action "brings shame and reproach upon the church." But nothing in I Cor. 6:1-7 suggests possible reproach in the eyes of the world. It is, rather, the shame felt by Christians themselves (v. 5). Therefore, in seeking judicial relief, the Christian does not bring reproach upon the body of Christ. The passage is silent about this.

Moreover, no more reproach is brought upon God's people in a civil suit among Christians than between a Christian and an unbeliever. In the words of Whiteside, "If it is right to sue one who is not a member of the church, it is right to sue such a one as that [Christian who offends]." Whiteside concludes that any unbeliever who would react negatively if both parties are Christians, would be even more inclined to hold against a Christian his action against a non-Christian.

Secondly, it is said that a Christian is forbidden to file in civil court against another brother because a higher and better court, the church itself, should try any dispute. Realistically, is the local church competent to judge intricate matters of law? What about the following examples?

(a) Real Property Disputes. Are members experts on deeds, covenants, surveyors reports, and do they possess the knowledge of real estate values to make a settlement? It is tough enough for lawyers and elected officials to read and understand these documents.

(b)Divorce. If the church decides, can it judge as to both moral guilt and innocence and a proper property settlement, custodial rights, and similar entanglements between the parties involved? No.

(c)Overdue Debts. Can the church order the repayment of a loan or handle a foreclosure? Can a church preside over a bankruptcy? Is the church competent to interpret lengthy contracts and determine its various components in relation to the facts and events? Is the church empowered to enforce penalty clauses of contracts? Of course not.

(d) Theft, Invasion of Privacy, Eavesdropping, Slander, or willful disregard of civil rights, such as the right to face and cross examine accusers. Does the church have the talent or resources to resolve these matters and compel compliance as to its decisions? Can the church insure, as do the courts of this land, due process of law and equal protection of law? Hardly.

In these matters, each of which is greater than mere personal disputes among Christians, God has ordained civil government to establish a system of courts for their resolution. They are responsible, and Christians do not sin when they employ the courts for protection, whether it be marital infidelity, financial fraud, stealing the good name of a brother by slander, theft, or any other legal complaint. As Hoyt Houchen states, legitimate use of governmental courts is not even contemplated in 1 Corinthians 6.

Scripturally, the church may judge only matters between and among disciples common offenses such as name calling, mistreatment of others, ill-behavior -PERSONAL grievances. Should the church try to decide LEGAL matters routinely handled in civil courts, it would act beyond its jurisdictional competence. The division of responsibility is clear: the disciples should handle their own internal disciplinary matters and PERSONAL disputes between brethren, while the civil courts are the proper venue for any kind of LEGAL differences, even those between Christians. No nation would ever permit a Church of Christ to issue binding legal decisions which affect the public welfare.

1 Corinthians 6:1 in context

These verses do not introduce a new subject but continue material presented in chapter five, which discusses sinners in the church whose cases needed to be judged. Particularly, one immoral brother needed discipline (5:12-13) and Paul commands in 6:1 that the true believers, the holy ones, judge him.

"Matter," in "having a matter against his neighbor," means a ground of action (pragma), a case to be argued. Neighbor means "the other," a fellow member, thus "brother against brother" (v. 6). "Against" (pros) is "face to face;" thus the case is being contested.

"Go to law" (krinesthai) means to seek judgment, the word does not imply a civil law courts or law suit (Houchen). Krinesthai is the infinitive form of the verb krino which "primarily denotes to separate, select, choose; hence, to determine, and so to judge, pronounce judgment" (Vine, p 620).

The contrast in verse 1 is therefore between unjust wicked judges in the church and its holy ones, and not between civil courts and the church, for neither the context nor historical evidence shows that Paul had to rebuke the Corinthians for suing one another in civil courts. Second Corinthians, which noted various correction, is silent about such.

The "unrighteous" in this passage are therefore not civil judges, for in a lawsuit one does not plead before judges as men but before courts as institutions. Civil authorities are honorable, divinely-appointed, ordained of God (Rom. 13). Christians must honor those sent by God to administer justice (1 Peter 2:14) in civil courts. Court institutions cannot be referred to by the term "unrighteous," but the presence of unrighteous people in the church at Corinth is clearly demonstrated in 5:2, 6:1, 4, 6, 9. By noting the parallels in 6:9 and in 5:9-10, it is evident that the two chapters are inextricable.

Verse one amplified reads: "Dare any of you, having a ground of action against the other, seek judgment from those who judge unjustly, and not from the holy ones?

vv. 2-4

These verses discuss judging (krino) by Christians concerning things of this life (bios), matters of church discipline, inasmuch as some day the saints will engage in a great judgment of cosmic proportions. The faithful will do this, not the unrighteous. Judgments in this life take care of disputes in time which would not otherwise be satisfied until the day of judgment (1 Cor. 5:5).

The "ye" in verse four, "If then ye have to judge things pertaining to this life," refers to the saints, the holy ones, who have neglected their job as judges. Church discipline matters must not be left up to unrighteous, for they will not be judging the world or judge angels because they will not be inheriting the kingdom of God (6:9-11). But the righteous were washed, sanctified, justified (v. 10). They would judge the world, angels, and therefore, should decide cases of church discipline.

vv. 5-6

The ironical statement, "Do ye set them to judge who are of no account in the church," refers to sinful, despicable Corinthians occupying the judgment seat. Paul rebukes the faithful for surrendering their duty of judging to brethren of bad reputation. The apostle commands that the righteous faithful must "judge" even these unrighteous ones who had set themselves forward to judge, throwing some out of the church, often by subtle, covert means.

To make the expression "of no account" refer to outsiders in civil courts is to ignore the clear force of the preposition en, which means "location" (in) or "agency" (by or with). En does not mean "on the part of," hence Paul does not speak of any despised judges outside of the church. Thus, those "of no account" are the unrighteous or unbelievers in the church.

In "I say this to move you to shame," Paul wanted the saints to regret their failure to do their duty and to assume their occasional obligation of judging. The "shame" is opposed to the "glorying," being puffed up, in 5:2.

"What, cannot there be found among you one wise man," zeros in on the saints who ought to have the wisdom to judge. This task should never fall into the hands of the unfaithful. "Who shall be able to decide between the brethren," means that the saints should be wise enough to determine the rights of the victim and the guilt of the offender and then discipline him. Their failure to do this, as set forth in chapter 5, resulted in confusion and sinful boasting, forcing Paul by apostolic authority to judge a case which the saints should have judged for themselves.

Verse 6, "But brother goeth to law with brother," has, according to Wilson, no reference to civil courts but to the seeking of equity within the church itself. "Goeth to law" is krinetai, "seeks judgment;" it is third person singular. It is a different form of the word rendered "go to law" back in verse 1 where it is an infinitive. Both are passive forms of the verb krino, to judge. Paul does not forbid the action of a brother seeking judgment with brother, each presenting his side in turn, which is the meaning of "with," meta (Thayer, p. 403). What the apostle condemns is doing this before unfaithful church members.

"And that before unbelievers" is a qualifying clause which points out that the procedure in Corinth was wrong. "Unbelievers" apiston (Vine. p. 1188) means unfaithful or untrustworthy church members and is so used, for example, in Titus 1:15, "of those among Christians themselves who reject the true faith" (Thayer, p. 57). To assign this to aliens, particularly to judges in civil courts, is to argue that a believer cannot become an unbeliever. In Corinth, some believers had become unbelievers, for they had become untrustworthy and should not have been allowed to become judges.

vv. 7-8

"Nay, already it is altogether a defect in you," means "it is a loss to you." These cases of dispute were a loss to the church because saints had neglected their right to act as judges, and secondly, an offended brother could not hope for justice to prevail as long as the unrighteous were making the decisions. When the saints would see that the situation in Corinth was a defect in them, they would take steps to correct the judging process.

The meaning of "That ye have lawsuits one with another" is determined by the context. Lawsuits (krimata) means "cases to be decided.'' The word itself gives no clue as to who is to do the deciding. To arbitrarily refer it to civil courts is purely an assumption; the church was to render the decisions. That there were cases of dispute was not what Paul condemned at Corinth; it was that such cases were presented to unfit members for judgment. To try to solve disputes under such conditions was futile.

"Why not rather take wrong? Why not rather be defrauded," does not mean (as so many have construed it) that a Christian is to permit himself to be defrauded, without defending himself or fighting for his rights. God never gave a law designed to give an advantage to the ungodly over the faithful. One would have little hope of obtaining his rights (as at Corinth) as long as its leaders were unrighteous. Offended Christians in such cases will suffer wrong. If there is a possibility that grievance would be redressed, a Christian then should present his case. No one should be defrauded when they can prevent it by doing and standing for what is right.

The passage climaxes in verse eight. The "ye" in "Nay but ye yourselves do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren" is still the saints. Paul does not identify them as in the wrong in the cases of dispute. Rather, he points out that by letting the judging go by default to the unrighteous, they were unintentionally committing a wrong against the entire church, defrauding brethren of the right to obtain just decisions in cases of discipline and rumple personal differences.

Thus, 1 Cor. 6 is directed to the standard of judgment within the church and the persons who should judge them, the saints (hagion), the holy and wise members, the faithful. Paul specifically prohibits the unrighteous (adikon) (vv. 1, 9), the unbelievers (apiston) (v. 6), those "of no account in the church" (v. 4), and the "so-called brothers" of 5:9, to judge and settle disputes.


Traditionalists on I Cor. 6:1-8 argue that Christians must not sue another brother because we are to love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, pray for our adversaries, and not resist the evildoer. We are to suffer the wrong, turn the other cheek and be as submissive as our Lord, who during His trials did not fight back but took the blame. Vengeance belongs to God, not us.

These general principles would prevail concerning court action, except that none of the above addresses litigation and legal disputes when a Christian breaks the law. None of the above commandments and examples forbids the right of an offended Christian to employ the courts to rectify the wrongs. All four gospels (Mt. 26:59-64, Mk. 14:55-62, Lk. 22:66-71, Jn. 18:19-24) report that Jesus in his trial before Caiaphas spoke out in defense of Himself, according to the law (Ex. 23:1; Deut. 1:16, 17:6, 19:15; John 5:51).

During his civil trial before Pilate, Jesus defended Himself and His ministry (John 18:33-37). Our Lord answered through involvement in the litigation process, exercising His legal rights within the law. The example of Christ does not teach abstaining from asserting our rights in court. Since securing governmental rights and exercising them as a good citizen in daily living is scriptural, then maintaining them is right if they are being violated, through use of the God-ordained court system.

The understood principles, such as "turning the other cheek" are all governed by the example of Christ Himself, as well as the apostles. An unqualified "turn the other cheek" rule did not prevail when Paul had his rights restricted at Philippi, where he demanded that certain adversaries come to him directly to make things right (Acts 16:37). Paul did not observe this principle when he stood before the High Priest (Acts 23:3), and the apostle certainly did not turn the other cheek when he left Damascus in a basket (Acts 9:25). There are other examples on the part of Paul, Peter, and Stephen, elsewhere in Acts.

"Turn the other cheek" is certainly applicable if a Christian employed the courts for personal vengeance to get back at a hated enemy. It also aptly guides the assessment of a penalty which any unjust deed might receive.


Indeed, God will avenge for us (Rom.. 12:19, cf. Lev. 19.:17). The avenging of injustices against us occurs not only at the judgment and in hell but also through the present social order, the civil government. God uses the due process of law to avenge His faithful today, even as He did under Moses (Deut. 16:18), where judges and other officials protected the rights of individuals and society.

Thus, God ordained the "powers that be, a system of government (Rom. 13:1-7), for avenging. Christians are part of that system, as citizens of this country. They are accountable to the courts; the courts are not accountable to the local congregation. Some people have it backwards! And so if someone steals your car, you right the wrong by reporting it to the police, bringing charges against the thief, and testifying against him in court. The same process may be followed in avenging murder, invasion of privacy, extortion, or any other lawless deed. Christians may have the offender charged, arrested and ultimately brought to trial, doing all of these things without malice or personal vengeance. We still love the offender but not his deeds, and we still pray for him.

In the New Testament, Christians freely used both religious and civil systems to protect themselves and the Lord's ways. This is not unscriptural, for the legal system is, after all, a servant, a friend, and a "minister of God for good" (Rom. 13:4). Some examples in Acts are:

(1) Paul, in his legal defense (22:1), called upon the High Priest to corroborate his witness, thus sustaining his argument (v. 5). (2) Paul turned upon the judge (23:1) while litigating his rights by seeking protection under the law. When the court turned its back on Paul, he continued to defend his actions and statements (v. 6fi). (3) In 25:11-12, Paul legally exercised his right to appeal to Rome. Festus and other accusers had made legal assaults upon Paul, who denies their assertions (25:7). Paul plainly acted within the legal system while defending his rights as a citizen. (4) Before Agrippa and Festus (25:21, 25; 26:32) Paul participated in the legal process by having his case heard by Caesar, feeling "constrained'' to do so (28:19). Thus, all of Paul's actions were in accord with what Christ actually taught and His own actions before the courts. Paul availed himself of all benefits and protections of the Roman legal system in accordance with what he himself wrote in Romans 13:1-7: "The powers that be are ordained of God." An offended Christian has a perfect right to accept all benefits which stable government and just laws confer.

Like his Lord, Stephen in Acts 7 strongly defended himself and the gospel by "disputing" (a legal term in the Greek) before the Jewish council. This is a court process. In Acts 12 God released Peter from King Herod's wrong civil action, even taking the lives of those who detained Peter. His teachings about the governmental courts coincides with Paul's (1 Peter 2:13-17).


What is the point of the above for the faithful Christian? For the trapping and ensnaring authoritarian types in the church, who go beyond reason and propriety to snoop, eavesdrop, restrict civil liberties and discriminate - they need to fear the government (Rom. 13:3b, 1 Pet. 2:14). It is these very people who claim total immunity from any court action, shielding their ungodly behavior behind a traditional interpretation of I Cor. 6:1-8.

They cover up their own false words and ungodly ways, unverified accusations and other indiscretions in self-righteous indignation, angrily responding to opponents by wild charges of "false teacher" or "liar." They essentially distrust the entire governmental process, especially the courts, labeling civil judges "unbelievers" (1 Cor. 6:1).

On the other hand, offended Christians can and should enter into the court arena to protect their rights and defend themselves in the gospel. This too can be done in love (1 Cor. 16:14).

1 Cor. 6:1-8 has no reference to civil government but instead addresses internal problems within the local church. When saints fail to step in and decide internal disputes but allow unrighteous church members to render judgments, the innocent will not receive fair treatment and the guilty will not be disciplined, thus giving tremendous advantage to unfaithful, reprobate church members.

This is exactly what happened in 1 Cor. 5, until Paul corrected the Corinthians. Now in chapter 6, the apostle shows how to prevent this kind of situation from recurring, teaching the Corinthians the proper way to handle cases of discipline and common offenses among Christians. This is the point of I Corinthians 6:1-8.

The lesson is clear. Let not crooked church members take for their own wicked uses and spiritual aggrandizement that which belongs to the faithful, who have often allowed such takeover without a fight, just because of a traditional, mistaken view of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.