One of the challenges of Christianity, and perhaps a significant limitation we have as a human race, is that we greatly fall short in the imitation of the kind of Divine love and forgiveness that our Lord has for us. Human nature often demands (and wrongfully misapplies Exodus 21:12-36) retribution for wrongs committed by others.
To satisfy worldly disputes, a last resort for many people is pursuing a court action against the offender to ‘right a wrong’. While this option may provide a forcible resolution to the matter, it is often accompanied with significant legal costs on both sides, as well as damage to the relationship, and the all too familiar “win lose” situation.
As a matter of fact, Ontario lawyers are instructed by the Law Society to encourage alternatives to dispute resolution such as settlement or mediation. Through these methods, legal professionals hope to accomplish a resolution through compromise. Both parties are not happy, but they can live with the result.
Yet, as Christians we are not called to simply satisfy our worldly understanding of justice and punishment. Rather, God has ‘set the bar’ by instructing us to forgive continuously if there is repentance by the person who committed the wrongdoing (Luke 17:3).
But what happens if the wrongdoing causes significant financial hardship on a Christian, or if it affects a loved one such as a spouse or child?
To answer this, we must look to a Biblical approach.
Using the Law is Not Inherently Un-Christian
In Acts 22, Paul defends himself from the law by applying it. He confirms that he is a Roman Citizen by birth in order to avoid an unlawful punishment at the hands of the Roman soldiers:
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”Acts 22:25 (ESV)
This is not to say that Paul never felt punishment for his faith in Christ, but that the law is simply a tool used by people. We make no mistake that God is indeed sovereign (Psalm 22:28). The Lord will discipline nations (Jeremiah 18:7-10) and leaders (Daniel 2:20-21) for their actions.
Yet government was ordained by God for the good of man (Romans 13-1, 3-4). Because of this, we are to be subject to authority.
We as Christians obey the law as long as it does not contradict with the word of God. (Acts 5:29, Daniel 3:18, Exodus 1:17, 20-21)
When Deciding to Pursue Legal Action, First Pray to God for Wisdom
In all things we do, we must do so for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). As such, the decision to pursue legal action should not be made in anger or in haste, but as a decision to be made that is reflective of a Christian character, and based on careful meditation on God’s word. It is important that we pray to God for wisdom (James 1:5). Some considerations when making this decision include the following:
- As the steward of your resources, are you responsibly using what is available to you in the law? (e.g. do you have the funds to care for an injured child, and if not, is legal recourse appropriate?)
- What is the extent of what you are seeking? (e.g. is what you want in court something that is a necessity, or are you trying to ‘punish’ the one who wronged you)
- Can you continue on with your life reasonably without needing to pursue legal action?
- What effect will pursuing legal action have on the other person? (e.g. will they be covered by insurance)
- It is also important in seeking wisdom that when needed, we seek spiritual consultation from our Pastors. It is surprising how often our anger and frustrations needlessly “amplify” the severity of the situation. A spiritual audit may assist in keeping us grounded in humility, and help us to reconsider our options from a Christian point of view.
We are Instructed to Avoid Court Whenever Possible Within the Body of Believers (i.e. the Church)
The Apostle Paul advised the Corinthians to avoid court matters against each other in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 when it comes to disputes within the church. The relationship between members of a church should be built on trust, fellowship, and obedience to God, but never on worldly conflict. Pursuing a resolution in court as an immediate first option, goes against the higher standard that God has called us to. We are told to not seek our own good, but rather the good of our neighbour (1 Corinthians 10:24).
Jesus Calls Us to a Higher Standard of Forgiveness
in Jesus speaking of The Beatitudes, he emphasizes the importance of not retaliating negatively to the wrongdoings done to you by others:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”Matthew 5:38-42 (ESV)
The standard of a Christian goes beyond what non-Christians may deem to be minimal. Paul goes as far as to say that when we pursue lawsuits amongst each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and leave justice to secular judgment, we are already completely defeated. Therefore, it is actually better to be wronged or cheated by others because by contrast, even in our own sin, we were washed and sanctified by God (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).
We are to forgive much, as we have been forgiven much more (Colossians 3:13).
We should always try to resolve our disputes within our church family (Ephesians 4:32).
While there is no cookie cutter solution to every legal problem, it is important to consider not only the worldly options that exist, but to also pray and focus on the Christian mindset to determine if there is an option that ultimately glorifies God and reflects His mercy on us. With a pure heart, legal action could be a viable solution to a problem when it is necessary. But we should not pursue court just for the sake of doing so.
Some considerations to make when pursuing legal action include:
- whether or not compensation can be achieved without drastically hurting the other party
- if the civil wrong that was done to us is severe enough to merit pursuing legal action
- if there is a necessity (financial or otherwise) that requires the intervention of the court
- if ultimately, the matter is something that we can forgive and just move on without the need of the court
If you have prayed and consulted God’s word, and are still convinced that legal options for disputes outside of the church are your best priority, then it is important to speak to a lawyer to understand how to properly apply the law. Doing so may give you better clarity that might even help you RECONSIDER pursuing legal action altogether.