As a Christian, and a lawyer, I have been asked about this many times. As with any question, we should consult the Scriptures first.
The Biblical text that is most often cited is Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8:
If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. (NIV)
Let’s look at the passage carefully. The kind of cases involved in the passage are described in the text:
A “dispute,” that is “trivial” in nature, “between believers,” involving being “cheated” and “wronged” and this dispute could well be judged by a “man of little account in the church.”
The type of actual dispute is not revealed, but from the description above it is clear that it involves a matter that is between two believers, where one feels cheated or wronged and appears--to others at least--as “trivial” in nature. The Bible expressly states that legal action in that situation is shameful.
An example of that might include a Christian church member suing another member for slander for unknowingly sharing partially false information in a prayer request about her, and hurting her reputation. Or, it could involve a dispute between two members of a church suing one another over the giving of a poor reference for a job. (Yes, both of these are unfortunately based on real cases).
There is little doubt that these bring the reproach of men upon the church, and are horrible examples. However, Paul himself resorted to law twice when he was wrongfully arrested as a Roman citizen. He also used the threat of law in Acts 16:37. When one examines the Biblical admonition carefully, there is a clear distinction depending upon the type or nature of the dispute.
For instance, cases that I handle generally involve serious injuries or death. Any case involving grievous injury or death, by definition, is not at all “trivial.” I hasten to add that 98% of cases settle without trial, so even the most serious cases rarely see a courtroom. Mediation, which is based on Matthew 18, is often used with great success.
Further, these types of serious disputes are rarely actually “between believers” in any real sense. For instance, if I represent you because you were paralyzed when a truck rear-ended your car, I have to name the negligent driver of the truck (who may be a Christian) in order to obtain the compensation due from his auto insurance. Recall as well, that insurance is purchased to assist us all in paying for accidental acts that may harm someone, and to help protect our assets in that event. It is exceedingly rare for any case to cost an insured driver one penny personally. Many cases are against large corporations that, of course, do not have souls, and therefore cannot be believers.
I may represent a Christian, against a nursing home chain for neglect in allowing terrible bedsores. This is usually a large corporation that often put profits over people. These cases are clearly not what is banned in the Corinthians passage.
Finally, cases that I handle, against negligent drivers, doctors, hospitals and nursing homes are not at all the type of cases that can be resolved by “men of little account in the church.”
While there are many other types of law, the type that I deal with is mentioned frequently in Scripture. Much of our civil injury law (called “tort law”) is actually based on the Bible’s passages.
For instance, the law governing dog bites in Tennessee states that if my dog is not known to bite I have no liability for it doing so. However, if my dog has a vicious nature and is known to bite then I am liable in tort law for all damages. Compare, Exodus 21:28:
If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded.
Or, look at the law regarding a slip and fall on a premises owned by another. If I create a condition that I know is dangerous and leave it as a virtual trap for another, I am liable in civil damages. Compare Exodus 21: 33:
If a man uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay for the loss;
Other interesting accidents in Scripture include the negligent attaching of an axe head to an axe handle such that it flies off and kills someone while chopping wood (Deut. 19:5); and the dropping of a stone on an unseen man (Num. 35:22).
Also, the negligent person has a responsibility as well. Sometimes people talk of lawsuits being a way of making another person responsible for one’s own misfortune. But, if not for lawsuits generally, we may still have Ford Pintos with exploding gas tanks on the road, burning people alive after very minor car accidents. The medicines we take would not be so thoroughly tested. Nursing homes would not be under any incentive to give better care.
As you can see, the Bible does not forbid lawsuits, but it gives us much direction. Here is a Biblical checklist that may be helpful in evaluating a potential claim:
1. Is this matter “trivial?” (If so, overlook it.) (1 Cor 6:2 & Col 3:13).
2. Is this matter solvable by involvement of others at church? (1 Cor 6:4 & Matt 18:15).
3. Are my motives selfish or vengeful? (If so, stop). (Phil 2:3)
4. Have I tried to resolve my claim before suit or court? (Proverbs 25:8).
In the end, some will say, my cases are about money. I understand the criticism.
However, as I may tell a jury, “Don’t give her money---give her back time…give her back years of pain…give her back a life without this suffering…give her back her quality of life. But if you cannot give these things, then compensation is all we can ask for. It gives her freedom and it gives her choices. That is all we have to offer her.”
David B. Peel