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William D. Bontrager

Shepherds for Peace

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326

970-259-3384

wdb@frontier.net

TO PEOPLE IN LEGAL DISPUTES

According to statistics, 1 of 15 in the U.S. are in some form of legal conflict: auto or industrial accident; employer vs employee; buyer/seller; marital/family; etc. And, Christians are not exempt.

For 10 years, I was a litigation attorney; for 5 years, a judge; since 1982, I have tried to assist Christians in dispute to deal with their disputes as the Lord instructs. (If you wish to know more, read chapter 16 of Loving God, by Charles Colson.)

What follows encapsulates the principles which I believe the Bible teaches.

First, what should we not do? In I Cor. 6:1-8, Paul says (1) do not sue others; (2) bring your disputes to the church; and (3) the church has people competent to decide matters. Why does God say this? In I Cor. 6, Paul refers to the law and judges, as unrighteous or unbelievers (vs. 1 & 6).

Let's consider "justice" for a moment. The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution says: "We the people, in order * * to establish justice * *." We even call our legal system "the justice system". But, the Bible says: "Many may seek the favor of the ruler (law, judge, jury, legislator, governor, bureaucrat, etc.), but justice for man comes only from the Lord." (Pro. 29:26)

Justice involves relationship. Law cannot heal relationships and can only swing a sword which makes a decision and divides in the process (I Kg 3:16-28). The law did not restore the relationship between God and man; it only showed man the knowledge of sin. Restoration came through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:19-22). So, don't go to law as you cannot find "justice" there.

Second, Paul, vs. 7, warns that "defeat" is a product of lawsuits -- such a defeat that it would be better to suffer the wrong or be cheated. Why is this so? Lawsuits are a form of warfare whereas we are called to live at peace, to love one another. When we war, we "grieve the Holy Spirit" and "bitterness, etc." will take over (Eph. 4:30-31). "If you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another" (Gal. 5:15). Your value to God will be affected. Thus, "defeat."

Third, there is the matter of your "wronging and defrauding others" (vs. 8). Each one of us needs to see that Jesus Christ is The Source of all our needs. When we force another to look to the law for help, we "wrong and defraud" them for we turn them away from Jesus and towards the world. We take our own vengeance (Rom. 12:18-21) and do not bear the burdens of one another (Gal. 6:1-2).

Fourth, a lawsuit is a poor witness to the unbelieving world who is watching us for the proof that God was in Christ (Jn. 17:19-21). When an attorney writes a legal complaint, he first says what the other person has done wrong, how that has harmed his client, and then he writes: "Wherefore the Plaintiff prays" that the judge do a list of things. Do we pray to the judge because we won't trust God to, some day, in some way, make things right (Rom. 8:28, 38-39; I Pet. 2:23)? What is our witness to the world?

Let's not debate when we might sue, or when we might defend against a suit, or who we can or cannot sue -- let's just leave I Cor. 6 and see what we can and should do when conflict arises before the need for lawsuits even exists.

You will discover that you are in conflict in one of two ways: (1) you wake up one morning and realize that someone has something against you; or (2) you wake up one morning and realize that you have something against someone. Christ told us what to do in each case. But in each case He first reminds us of what we are, for He wants us to be "doers" of the Word, not just "hearers" (Jas. 1:22-25).

We are worthy of burning in Hell for calling another person, a "fool" (Matt. 5:22). We are sheep who have sinfully gone astray, for whom God chose to leave Heaven, come to earth, and die (Matt. 18:12-14). And, we have been forgiven more than any person can ever owe us (Matt. 18:21-35). We are sinners saved by grace who are to love and forgive one another because He first loved us.

Since we should not sue, what are we to do when we are in dispute?

WE ARE TO GO TO THE OTHER AND ATTEMPT TO RESOLVE THE MATTER AND BE RECONCILED. This is regardless of whether we think we have been wronged or the other person thinks we wronged them (Matt. 18:15; Matt. 5:23-24). It is also regardless of whether we think the other is a believer or unbeliever for we are to love our neighbor as our self (Matt. 5:43-48) and are ministers of reconciliation (II Cor. 5:17-20).

Why should this be so important? We are made in the image of God. God made the universe, sat back in His chair, and pronounced it "good" (Gen. 1:25). But, if the universe which we marvel at were good enough, the Bible ends and we do not exist. As good as the universe is, it was not good enough. God wanted more -- and we became the "more".

Only one thing differentiates us from the rest of the universe -- we are able to have relationship with God and with one another. That was what we were created for. But God wanted relationship based upon free choice, so He created us with a will. God knew that if He created us with a free will, we could choose to reject Him -- sin. If we did so, how was He to remain holy, just, righteous, and still offer His creation reconciliation once relationship was breached?

This was the dilemma of our Triune God at the end of vs. 25 and before vs. 26. And God the Father, I believe, said: "I have a Way. I will sacrifice My only Son -- all that is important to Me -- for possible reconciliation."

And God the Son, I believe, said: "I am willing to lay down My life for the possibility of reconciliation."

And the Holy Spirit, I believe, said: "I will go and live in the hearts of the people who kill the Son and bear their burdens in the hopes of deeper relationship."

And then, in vs. 26, it says: "Let Us make man in Our image." We are made to sacrifice all, even life, and to help lift up and meet the burdens of the ones who wrong us in hopes that reconciliation and restoration may take place. It is important that we do so because it is important to God.

Before we go to the person with whom we are in conflict, we need to stop, set all other matters of life aside, and seek the Lord for wisdom.

First, we must consider if this a matter which we are called to overlook, without any alteration of relationship -- Pro. 19:11.

Second, we want to know our faults in the matter, if any, for we must confess them to the other person when we meet with them -- and that must be the opening of the conversation (Jas. 5:16). We must ask Him for wisdom concerning ourselves so that we can remove the logs from our eyes (Matt. 7:5).

Third, we need His wisdom concerning our adversary so that we may offer to, and be able to, bear the burdens of the other.

Fourth, we need to understand that we must go forgiving the other party their faults against us (Matt. 6:12, 14-15; 18:34-35) and know what forgiveness entails. There are promises involved in forgiveness: (1) I will not mention this to you again; (2) I will not mention this to others; (3) I will not dwell on this when it comes to my mind in the future; and (4) I will not allow this to interfere with relationship with you in the future -- you may allow it to interfere, but I will not (Rom. 12:18)!

Fifth, you may need counsel from others to discover your own faults, check your own attitudes, better understand how to approach the other, etc. Get two or three you consider wise and mature and take counsel. In doing so: (1) Always have your counselors together when you take counsel. What we often do is to keep our counselors separate from one another, and separated from us by a telephone line. We need them together (Pro. 11:14; Jas. 5:14) so that the unity which they get through the Holy Spirit may be demonstrated to us. You, because of the conflict, are often unable to see or recognize peace and unity (Lk. 24:16). (2) Once having selected them, stick with them and don't seek counsel from others because you will then be looking for confirmation of what you think rather than wise counsel that points out your faults to you. (3) Do not divulge the identity of the other person to your counselors (Pro. 16:28; 17:9). (4) The focus of the meetings are to be on your actions and attitudes and what steps you must take, not the attitudes or actions of the other person. (5) To the extent that you do speak of the other person, it is so that you may understand their needs so that you may go prepared to bear their burdens. (6) Let the counselors know when you are going to the other party and have them in prayer at that time.

So, you take counsel, and then go, and it does no good. What then? Take counsel again. Go back again and again so long as the other will "listen". Continue to consider if you are to just forgive, suffer the loss, and not sue.

The counselors confirm, however, that the Lord wants you to proceed. Then get "one or two" others to go with you as "witnesses" (Matt. 18:16). Who are these witnesses? First, they are not your friends but friends of the other. You are trying to get the other to listen. If he has not listened to you, he won't listen to your friends. But he may listen to his friends. They may also be people who bring knowledge and life experiences which match up with the needs of the other party which must be ministered to if there is to be peace.

As you gather these witnesses, tell them who your counselors are, authorize them to speak to your counselors and your counselors to speak to them about you. Do not tell them what the conflict is, merely that you have a conflict with Joe, have spoken to Joe, that the conflict remains, and would they, because they know Joe and Joe respects them, come with you to hear you state your complaint, hear Joe's response, and help resolve the dispute and reconcile the relationship.

So you and the witnesses go, and it doesn't work. Again consider suffering the wrong. If the other has violated the criminal or regulatory law of the land, you may need to, after warning them of your intent, go to the authorities and report (Rom. 13:1-7).

But, witnesses and counselors agree that something further needs to be done. What now needs to be done is not done by you, but by the witnesses -- they tell it to the leadership of the church of the other party (Matt. 18:17). They do the telling because they are not the one directly affected by the dispute, they will more likely be heard by the church, and you must release the other party to the Lord and to the church to be dealt with rather than sue the other (I'll get to the matter where the other is suing you in a moment).

Should you, under any circumstances, file a lawsuit against the other? First, you should have attempted Matt. 18:15-17a and Matt. 5:23-26. After that, I believe that you may proceed if the church is not meeting the need (Is. 58:3-12) and if it is a matter of seeking justice for another, rather than for yourself. The Bible is full of the cry to "do justice", to protect the widow and orphan, the stranger in the land. But do not make such an important decision on your own. Let the counselors make the choice.

What about starting a personal lawsuit? Should you? Ask yourself these questions: Am I saying that the problem is too big for God? Am I trusting man, man's laws, man's ways, rather than God (Matt. 6:25-34)? Am I placing my focus on the treasures of this life rather than the treasures of the next (Matt. 6:19-24)? I am not going to say you can't -- the decision is yours.

If, however, you proceed, you need to understand that God will hold you accountable for the actions of your attorney. You cannot simply turn matters over to the attorney and allow him to do what the Lord would never allow you to do. You must handle the lawsuit without personally attacking the other party or demeaning them or holding them up to ridicule -- hate the sin but love the sinner. And you must be willing to drop the suit at any moment. I suggest that you have your counselors supervise both you and your attorney in the conduct of the case.

When, and under what circumstances, might we properly defend a lawsuit filed against you? As in filing a lawsuit, you must attempt Matt. 5:23-26 and Matt. 18:15-20 before entering into defense. The fact that you have insurance or your opponent is a corporation is no excuse for not trying God's way, either. Then, look at who is suing you. You are told to let your "yes" be your "yes" and your "no" your "no" (Matt. 5:37). In many instances, the nature of the suit and the nature of the person suing you will allow you to defend within these boundaries. Suits by government, corporations or businesses, and suits over such matters as auto accidents, etc., will often fall into these categories -- but not always; seek counsel of the saints.

But, beware. If the only way to defend is to bite and devour; if the only way to defend is to wrong and defraud; if your defense will demean them, degrade them, turn them away from the Lord, etc. -- then you may be unable to defend.

There is also a matter concerning the method of defense. It involves claiming Constitutional or legal "rights" granted by the government. I believe such defenses may be raised, if they do not contradict God's Word, but only after you respond to all questions asked of you (Matt. 5:37; I Pet. 3:15). Your trust must be in God, not man, for deliverance (I Pet. 2:23). If you use the law as a shield against speaking or allowing your actions to be examined, you dishonor the Lord. It shows the world that your trust is in man and not the Lord. Consider how the Lord conducted Himself during His trial, and look back to Shadrach, et. al. (Dan. 3:8-25). Also, as in filing a lawsuit, you need to place yourself and your attorney under the authority of spiritual counsel.

I do need to add a very personal note. I believe the Bible forbids a Christian filing a lawsuit in two instances: (1) libel and slander -- Is. 50:4-9; and (2) divorce -- Mal. 2:16; Gen. 2:24. I also believe that there is one instance in which a Christian may not defend a lawsuit and must "suffer the wrong" -- divorce. I could write volumes in an effort to establish these beliefs, but will leave that to the Holy Spirit.

One last thought. What if you choose to behave as Christ did, and you lay down your life, you suffer the wrong, you are defrauded, and find yourself and your family on the street with nothing but the clothes on your back? True, we are to give thanks for all things (Eph. 5:20) and in all things (I Thes. 5:18), but that is sometimes hard when you are freezing for lack of shelter. Then turn to the fellowship of believers and, like Bartimaeus at the gate of Jericho (Mk. 10:46-52), stand up in the middle of the sermon and cry out your need. As you cry, do not place expectation upon the congregation to meet the need, any more than you would place expectation upon the law and judge for justice. They may say: "Shut up; you are interrupting the sermon." That is what they said to Bartimaeus. But Christ still met the need. Place your trust and expectation upon Jesus Christ.