This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 40, number 01 (2017). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
America is an increasingly litigious society. According to a July 2012 estimate, over 15 million civil lawsuits are filed in the United States annually.1 There is a good chance that the average Christian someday will find himself summoned to court, whether it is over a factual tort or a frivolous triviality.
What does the Bible say about Christians in the courtroom? Passages relevant to litigation should be applied cautiously to our modern world. In the Old Testament, the “court” consisted of village elders responsible for weighing evidence and rendering a decision. In the New Testament, justice was administered primarily by local authorities, who answered only to their Roman overlords when it came to important matters, like capital cases. Attorneys like Tertullus (Acts 24:1–9) existed, but few could afford their services. Most would do as Paul did in that situation, and defend themselves pro se (“on one’s own behalf”). Taking into account this different setting, what does the New Testament teach us about Christians in the courtroom?
Quick Settler. One verse often misused is Matthew 5:25: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.”2 Critics argue that this verse commands Christians to assent meekly to charges made against them in any lawsuit, such that they should immediately pay a settlement rather than let the matter go to trial.
This interpretation may be paired with an equally risible reading of Matthew 5:40: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” Critics take this to mean we should not only offer a settlement but also be more generous than our adversary demands.
Jesus, however, was speaking to an audience of mostly poor agriculturalists. Such people, when hauled into court, were usually brought there by the rich, who sought to oppress them (James 2:6). Against an adversary like this one, the poor person was a guaranteed loser even if they were in the legal right.
What could the poor person do in this no-win situation? Jesus indicates that they were not to do the most obvious and tempting thing, which was to fight back. Instead, Jesus teaches that the poor person, as a citizen of God’s kingdom, was to set an example by settling with the rich person. They might do this, for example, by agreeing to work off the debt.
Does this mean we must do the same thing today? No, because our modern courts are not automatically a no-win situation. Our judicial system is intended to be equitable to all, regardless of a person’s financial standing. It is easy to come to grips with a judicial adversary in a way that brings honor to God — by admitting guilt where required, or, if we are not guilty, by answering the false charges straightforwardly. That places us within the bounds of Paul’s admonition to obey those in authority (Rom. 13).
The command to hand over your coat, in contrast, was an act of subversion, not an act of surrender. As the biblical scholar Craig S. Keener points out, this verse offers a “shockingly graphic, almost humorous, illustration of what [Jesus] means by nonresistance to force his hearers to consider their values.”3 Giving away both garments would have resulted in total nudity, an “intolerable dishonor” in ancient Palestine. The wealthy adversary, furthermore, was compelled by biblical law to return a garment taken as pledge (Exod. 22:26–7), and risked the displeasure of God if they did not do so.
In light of the contextual realities that informed these verses, there is little application for them today, at least in the modern West. Our courts are not, at least in theory, predisposed to assist the rich, and it is possible for a poor person to get equitable justice. The context within which this teaching was applied virtually has vanished from our legal landscape.
Can You Sue a Brother? In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonishes that troubled church by saying, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court — and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already” (6:5b–7a). Does this passage still admonish us to keep our internecine conflicts out of the courtroom?
The answer is again found when we consider the historical context of this passage.4 The early Christian church taught that all Christians were equal in Christ (Gal. 3:28). People who lived in the New Testament world, and who were social equals, did not consider it honorable to take each other to court. It was better for equal parties to resolve the issue themselves.
However, when social equals did go to court, it made public a dispute between two people who should have been able to resolve the issue among themselves. Then, once the matter was decided, the loser lost honor and reputation, while the winner gained honor at the loser’s expense, which incurred even more ill will between parties. This is why Jesus refused to arbitrate a dispute between two brothers (Luke 12:13–14). He was being asked to take part in what would end up being a no-win situation.
This is the problem that faced Paul. Christianity was supposed to make every convert equal in status. If a Christian took another Christian to court, it was an effective denial of equality before Christ. This would make the Christian faith, in general, look bad; pagans would not fail to miss that believers taking each other to court stood square against Christian professions of equality in Christ.
Does this passage apply to Christians today? Yes and no. Paul’s reasons for this admonition (the social code of honor) do not apply to twenty-first-century America. Yet it hardly can be ignored that Christians taking each other to court is a poor witness. What this means in practical terms can be difficult to determine. Working out the matter within the confines of the church body may be practicable for simple disputes between Christian neighbors arguing over, say, damage done to one person’s property by the other person’s pet; but that kind of resolution may not be practicable concerning complex litigation issues, such as when two Christian businesses have a dispute. Indeed, Christians who take complex matters into their own hands may find themselves at odds with the law.
For the modern Christian going to court with a Christian on the other side of a complex dispute, our best option is to take advantage of court-sanctioned methods of alternative dispute resolution. This can include mediation (using a third party to negotiate a settlement) or arbitration (where a third party is authorized by the court to be an informal judge in the case). These methods will be less likely to take the matter public, and so would be more in the spirit Paul intended than taking a fellow Christian to court all the way to the point of trial.5
Can We Judge Those Outside? A final passage to consider is 1 Corinthians 5:12–13a: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” Critics argue that this passage forbids Christians to, in any way, judge the behavior of nonbelievers at any level — on everyday matters of behavior, all the way up to the formal level of a courtroom.
A highly literalist interpretation of this passage would, indeed, have a serious impact on a Christian’s ability to function in the everyday world. It means a Christian could never be a judge, a lawyer, a policeman, a meter maid, or even an official at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. It also means that Paul himself would be a hypocrite for condemning pagans for doing immoral things (e.g., Rom. 1).
As in the prior instances, however, context limits the application of this passage. Here, Paul is addressing a problem involving a man who violated the church’s moral code and needed to be expelled from the group (5:13). This is a judicial process within the church, not in the legal system of the day.6
In that light, Paul’s meaning is that, once the man had been expelled, judgment on the man was over, and it was time to move on with other matters. In all likelihood, as was normal in that social world, people continued to gossip about and condemn the man and also continued to berate and judge him even after he was gone for acts he continued to do. By analogy, it would be foolish to go to a meeting of atheists and try to get an atheist, who used to be a member of our church, judged for being a sinner. Once we expel someone from a group, for immorality or some other reason, we also should cease with the internal judicial process of the church. There is no need to “collect more evidence” or continue condemning the person.
Judge Rightly. The New Testament’s recommendations for Christians in the courtroom are, not unexpectedly, limited in use for people who today live in a more democratic society, where justice is more often than not fairly dispensed. Nevertheless, as is almost always the case, the Bible presents to us certain core principles that remain applicable to this day, and it should be no surprise that much of our modern judicial tradition is rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview. Though he would never see the inside of a modern courtroom, Paul, representing himself pro se, would have solid moral guidance concerning how to conduct himself in one.
—James Patrick Holding
James Patrick Holding is president of the Apologetics Afield ministry and author of Scripture and Slavery (Tektonic Plates, 2014).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith