Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, James 5:4
Christians In The CourtroomDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 20, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
Why are we such a litigious nation? There’s one simple answer: as we exalt the rights of individuals and allow the descent and corruption of morals and integrity – this provides the perfect recipe for lawsuits.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer teaches us why Christians shouldn’t sue other Christians over civil matters (money, property, grievances), especially in a world where there is a decrease in individual responsibility and where character is no longer important.
God can use injustice to make us more like Jesus. It may hurt, but it will help.
Some time ago I saw a cartoon of a couple leaving the home of some friends. They were going to their car, and the wife said to the husband, “They really are nice people, aren’t they?” And he said, “Yeah, they really are. Let’s sue them.” Well, you can just hear it all over, can’t you? Let’s sue them. He got the money, he didn’t do the job right, pocketed what we gave him. He thinks it is okay, everybody else knows it’s botched up, and now he doesn’t want to do anything about it. Let’s sue him.”
A letter that I believe I received from someone said, “My dad trusted my brother to be the executor of his will because my brother is an attorney. My dad told me he was leaving about $300,000. My brother says that I am going to get about $10,000 or $20,000, because he says everything else is fees and taxes, and all the rest. When I want to see the books, he’s defensive. What should I do? I want to sue him.”
A man whom I know told me that he owed a Christian organization $300,000. There was no dispute; he was not disputing that he owed that to them. But, he had experienced a business decline and it went belly up, and he got into some real financial trouble. He was trying to figure out how he could pay off his debt, trying to work something out, when suddenly, boom! He’s served with papers and he’s being sued. No discussion, no communication with him, “Do you think you’ll be able to pay? What kind of arrangement can we make?” Out of the blue he’s given the papers.
That was about two years before I had this talk with him. He said, “Up till now I have spent $250,000 in legal fees. They have spent about $250,000 in legal fees.” That’s half a million dollars. Let’s remember that the dispute was over $300,000. But, after a time money doesn’t even matter. “I want to just make sure that you get your desserts. I want to humble you, I want to destroy you and I don’t care about the money. I just want you to get zapped.”
One time at O’Hare field I was listening to a conversation. I couldn’t help it. It was on the phone, and I was on one phone and the guy was on the other. I can’t quote it because it was filled with obscenities. But what this guy was saying is, “Somebody’s really gonna get it in this,” he’s talking about a lawsuit. “Now I want to get to him before he gets to me. And I’m going to do unto him before he does to me. And we’re gonna see who’s gonna get this. Let’s sue him!”
And then there’s that celebrated story that got in the news about a woman who was disciplined by her church for adultery. She was not denying the adultery. But what she was saying to the church, though she was a member was, “What right do you have to tell me what I can and can’t do?” My lifestyle; sue the church.
Why are we such a litigious nation? You’ve often wondered that? Well, aren’t you glad that you came today? I am going to tell you. And if you don’t know, you are going to learn something. What we have today is this exultation of individual rights with a corresponding decent, and corruption of personal morals and integrity. So, when you put the two together you have a recipe for incredible lawsuits.
Remember that story in the news, I’m not making it up, where two children in a sand box got into an argument and the parents went to court to settle the dispute. See, it used to be that parents could work those things out, when character was important. But today you see, without character they cannot even settle that, and everybody is going to show everybody else what’s what.
In fact, did you know this? I’m not making this up! Very recently two people were arrested because they were standing in line at a courthouse and they were telling attorney jokes. And a young attorney got angry. And the more angry he became, the more jokes they told. He had them arrested, handcuffed, and brought in. Thankfully, the charges were dropped. But have we come to that, where you can’t even tell an attorney joke? Now, I feel sorry for attorneys.
By the way, we have many of them at Moody Church, and they are all honorable. And some of them tell me that the people with whom they work are some of the most honorable people in the business. So, I have to feel sorry for attorneys. I have to feel sorry about the fact that 95% of them make the other 5% look bad. I mean, I feel sorry for them, but to arrest them?
You know, you notice the difference between America and other countries on this point. My wife and I were in Switzerland. We took a chair lift to the top of a mountain and then we walked around there for a couple of miles. It was just gorgeous! But along the way, about 15 feet possibly from the path, there was a fence with just two wires. I mean it was the kind of fence that any small kid could crawl through. You almost didn’t have to do anything to get past it. And, beyond that fence was a sheer cliff that must be hundreds and hundreds of feet into an abyss.
Now, here’s the difference between other countries and ours. Let’s suppose a child goes over the fence and falls over. In America, who are we going to sue? “It’s the fault of the park district; it’s the fault of somebody. Who owns this mountain, anyway? They should have put up a decent fence. That fence… I’m going to sue!” You know what they say in Switzerland? “Isn’t it too bad that parents don’t take better care of supervising their children?” It’s a whole different way of looking at life.
But you see what we have today, follow this carefully, is a decrease in individual responsibility and a heightened increase in personal rights. And so everybody is suing everybody else to get every last dime and every last little bit. Because you see, the people of the world believe that this is the only world that there is.
Well, our text today is I Corinthians, chapter six, where the Apostle Paul is talking about lawsuits among Christians. And what he does in I Corinthians chapter six is he gives us a number of reasons why Christians should not go to court with other Christians in civil cases. Grievances, that’s my translation here, in the ESV. “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”
Why shouldn’t Christians sue others when it comes to these kinds of grievances? First, because of your witness to the world. What you are really saying to the people of the world is, “We’re Christians, but we can’t resolve our dispute. We don’t have any wise people in our church to be able to negotiate, to mediate. No, no, no. So, we have to go to secular courts just like the rest of you to resolve all of these issues, some of which may be great, some of which may be petty. But, what we need to do is to get your wisdom, because we don’t have it in the church.”
Paul says, “Wait a moment. Have you ever thought about how that makes Jesus look? It makes Jesus look bad.” Remember this: the world is always trying to find out reasons why they don’t need a Savior. And when we act like they do they say, “You know these people are Christians. They attend the Moody Church or some other church, and look at them! They are suing one another just like the people of the world. They are just like us! Paul says, “Don’t do that because of your witness to the world.”
Secondly he says, “It shows your love of worldly values. You have absorbed into your system the values of the world.” Notice what Paul says: “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more then matters pertaining to this life? So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?”
That phrase is variously interpreted, but it is translated this way as I’ve read it. The idea is that, “You are going before people who are not regarded as Christians. I say this to your shame! Can it be that there is no one wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?” says Paul. He says, “It really shows that you’ve absorbed the values of the world if you go to court in these civil cases with another Christian. Because after all these cases are trivial in comparison to the ones that we are going to judge.”
They’re trivial, that’s what Paul says. You say, “Oh what do you mean, $100,000 is trivial? What do you mean the guy came in here recommended by the church, of all things? We should sue the church because he didn’t do a good job.” Paul says, “These cases are trivial.” You say, “Oh, trivial? I think about them night and day.”
Paul says, “Wait a moment. You’re talking like an unbeliever. Do you not know that we are going to judge the world?” This is what the Bible says. Now, I am going to read it directly. Because if I don’t, some of you are going to say, “He’s making it up.” Jesus said, “The one who conquers and who keeps My works until the end, to him I will give authority over all the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.” Jesus said, “I’m going to rule over the world, and you are going to be ruling there over the world with me. And I’m going to give you assignments that have to do with authority and judication.” That’s big stuff! Paul says, “You’re gonna rule over the world.”
Jesus said also in the book of Revelation, “To him who overcomes, I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, even as I overcame and sat on My Father’s throne.” Jesus said, “You are going to sit on the throne with Me in the coming kingdom, judging the world, judging angels,” which could refer to fallen angels. We may have a hand in judging the devil and his demons. If the text is referring to good angels, the holy angels, then of course we won’t judge them in that sense. But we will rule over them, which is another way to interpret that word “judge.”
But either way what Paul is saying is that, “There’s an eternity out there with huge eternal issues in comparison to your petty differences. You being cheated out of money is trivial. You want the whole world to stop on its axis because somebody did something to you that was hurtful and wrong. And you want justice and you want it now.” Paul says, “Wait a moment, wait a moment. You’re talking like the people of the world who want justice now because they don’t believe that another world is coming.” So the second reason is you’ve accepted worldly values.
Thirdly, you show your lack of submission to church authority. Paul says, “Are there not wise people in your church who are willing to arbitrate? Can’t you be submissive? If there are two brothers and they are in the same church, couldn’t you take this to an elder or a wise person in the church who would be able to arbitrate between the two of you, and you would accept the verdict?”
The people say, “Oh no, I wouldn’t accept the verdict because, I don’t know… I don’t know. What if he came down on the wrong side?” And of course if he does come down on the wrong side, what you can do is you can leave the church and you can go next door because, “I don’t like what the elders did, and I can’t accept their authority and so I’m out of here. There is some other church that will accept me.” And yes, there is another church that will accept you. You can always find somewhere else to go to church, and not use what has happened in your life and your submission for the glory of God. You can escape what God wants to do in your life.
And, sometimes elders and sometimes other people in the church are not infallible. Sometimes they make mistakes. But, people that are under subjection say, “Despite the mistake I’ll accept their wisdom and trust God through it.” So what he said is, “You show a lack of submission.” He says, “You accept defeat and not blessing.”
Notice in verse seven, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong, why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud even your own brothers.” What Paul is saying is, “For openers, the very fact that somebody in the church does something wrong to you and then will not make it right, that in itself is a defeat. But then that the person takes you to court, the person whom you have wronged, he is becoming a part of that defeat. He is submitting to the worldly system regarding the resolution of a conflict. And, he’s doing it in the wrong way.”
A Christian attorney said that in all the cases that he has seen, when a Christian goes to court with another Christian, he does not receive blessing even if he wins the case. So you win the case, okay, you do. But at what cost and at what expense? Suffering wrong, as we shall see in a moment, is highly prized by the Apostle Paul and highly prized by Jesus. Would you not rather suffer wrong? In taking a brother to court you participate in his guilt, assuming that he is guilty.
Now, I need to talk with you very, very, practically about some matters. First of all if you are taken to court, if you are sued, you certainly have a responsibility and a right to protect yourself. The Apostle Paul, when he was in difficulty, appealed to his Roman citizenship. So, if someone serves you papers you have really little option except to respond.
And in fact attorneys will tell you “Don’t talk to the person who is suing you.” They cut off brother from brother, and sister from sister, and they simply tell you, “Now, no talking, no phone calls, no cards, nothing until this is resolved.” Because you are part of a legal system now you have to go along with that and you have to defend yourself.
Also, I need to say that I do believe that Paul here is talking about civil cases. If you as a woman are married to a man and you discover that he’s a petafile and is dangerous with your children, whatever you do don’t say, “Well, we’re just going to let it happen and suffer wrong.” You have a responsibility to yourself, you have a responsibility to your children, and you have a responsibility now in those matters of criminal activity where the state has an interest. And so in no way are we simply saying that you always need to accept what is happening and suffer wrong. Paul is talking about grievances that have to do with money and property issues and those kinds of dealings among people.
Also, if you are married to someone like that, he should really be regarded as an unbeliever. It’s part of the responsibility of the church. The next message in this series is on reconciliation, and I’ll explain that more clearly. You get to a certain point in a person’s life where his behavior, regardless of what he says, needs to be interpreted by fallible human beings as him being one who is not a believer. In which case it would seem to me that the Apostle Paul’s warning and admonition does not directly apply, if indeed such a person is an unbeliever.
And thankfully there are today Christian arbitration organizations. There are those who say, “What we will do is provide an attorney and maybe a pastor along with the attorney.” And, there’s such a thing as binding arbitration where two Christians who can’t resolve a dispute come together, and after they’ve come together, the case is heard and a decision is made, and in advance both parties agree that they will accept whatever decision has been made. This surely is a much better way. And of course the legal fees are minimal in comparison to all of the legal fees and the meandering that goes on within our judicial system. So, we do need wisdom in the application of this text.
But I do need to emphasize that Paul is saying that, “It is better for you to suffer wrong than for you to be defrauded.” That’s the last reason why he gives why Christians should not take other Christians to court. You avoid the privilege of suffering.
Now I can imagine I’m speaking to somebody who says, “I can’t believe what I’m hearing! The privilege of suffering? I’ve suffered and I don’t consider myself blessed or privileged.” Actually, the whole series of messages that I’ve preached is entitled, “Suffering Wrong.” Someone who saw the series title said, “You can’t be preaching that, because nobody is willing to suffer wrong today.” And I said, “Well, you never know. I’m preaching to a group of Christians, and there may be those who are willing to suffer wrong.” Sometimes we have no choice.
Let me give you three reasons why biblically suffering wrong would be considered to be a great privilege. First of all, because you identify with Jesus, “Who when He was reviled, reviled not again, and when He suffered, he uttered no threats, but kept committing himself to the Father who judges righteously.”
Jesus said, “I’m being falsely accused, I’m being constituted and considered a great sinner. Slander is against me, injustice is against me, the hatred of the Romans and the hatred of the Jews is against me, when all that I’ve tried to do is to do good. But I keep entrusting myself to Him that judges righteously. I’m not going to lash out, I’m not going to vaporize the people who come for me and use my awesome power to simply wipe them out and tell them what I really think of what they’re doing.”
Can you imagine what you and I would do if we had the power of Jesus in a situation like that? We would make sure that we were going to set it straight. Jesus said, “I don’t need to do that because I have a Father who judges righteously.” So first of all because you identify with Jesus.
Secondly, it gives God an opportunity to display His grace. In fact, all suffering gives God an opportunity to display grace in our lives. But there is no suffering that is as painful in my opinion, there’s no suffering as painful as the suffering of injustice. You see, if you get cancer or some other disease, I mean that can be excruciating and terrible, but there’s nobody really who is trying to get even with you, nobody who has slandered you, nobody who has stabbed you in the back, no friend who has betrayed you.
Those kinds of hurts, the latter hurts that I have mentioned, they go deep into the soul. They are a part of who we are. It is those kinds of hurts that keep us awake at night. And what keeps us awake at night is this desire for revenge, to finally see the score evened. And there are times when we will not see the score evened in this life.
But what an opportunity it is for God to display His grace, to say, “In the midst of all of this I pour grace into your soul.” Grace upon grace, like an elastic band stretching to the extent of your need. You see, injustice has a way of cutting us deeply. But in the middle of the cut, God comes along with healing – healing within our souls.
And there’s a third reason: it gives a testimony that you believe in another world. This is critical. I am not telling you today to give up your desire for justice. The desire for justice is built into our lives, it is part of who we are, it is part of the creation of God in Him image. We desire justice!
I’m simply asking you to be willing to have the faith to punt the ball to the Supreme Court of the universe. Notice what Jesus said, He kept entrusting Himself to “Him who judges righteously.” To believe that there is a day coming when every single wrong will be answered. You say, “Well, but you know the person who’s suing me has done me evil. He is a member of God’s family and he is going to be in heaven. And when we get to heaven God is going to forget about all those things.” Oh, really? What Bible are you reading? You must be reading the reversed vision! That’s what the judgment seat of Christ is all about!
Here’s a couple who walk hand in hand, they’re married, they have children, the man runs off and marries somebody else, goes down to the South somewhere and lives in luxury and money, and won’t even make child support payments. And let’s suppose he is a Christian, not acting like one, but let’s suppose for the purpose of this, and now suddenly they both die and they get to heaven. And God is going to ask them, “Oh, just walk hand in hand in the heavenly kingdom and just forget everything. Because after all, you are both Christians and you are both accepted, just like Jesus is accepted.”
It’s not the way it’s going to be. That’s why it’s called the judgment seat of Christ. And that’s why He says, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.” Why? Another day is coming, and you entrust your case to a higher court, and you know that someday justice will happen. Someday the truth will be revealed, and every injustice will be answered. And in the case of the unsaved? They will have to bear the full brunt of their evil for all of eternity, as their life is dragged out in the presence of God. So justice does rule.
We think of slavery and its injustice. James, in his book, makes an astounding statement, because in those days many of the same things happened. What happened is rich people exploited the poor. They had them work real hard in their farms and in their work and never paid them. And so James in chapter five is talking to rich people, and he’s speaking with biting sarcasm about them and their exploitation.
And then he says, and I’ll skip to verse four, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.” God is watching! And what James is saying is these people did not have the opportunity to appeal to certain things that we might have the same opportunity to appeal to.
But what he’s saying is, “Be patient in suffering because there is another world coming. There’s a world where justice will prevail, when the exploiters will be exposed, because the cry of the oppressed has come and reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.”
What I’m asking you today is to simply turn over that terrible desire to get even, to simply give it to God and to say, “God, like Jesus I am going to keep entrusting myself to Him who judges righteously. Thank you Jesus that I know that sometime the truth will come out and righteousness will prevail. The innocent will be vindicated, the exploiters will be exposed. That brother that lied about his dad’s will - he will have to answer to God. And I am willing to entrust my case to the highest court.” And you know what God will do? He’ll pour grace into your soul and He will use injustice to make us more like Jesus. It hurts, but it helps.
“Father, for all today who suffer because of injustice, Christians doing evil things against others, Father, we wish that we could right every wrong. We wish that the truth would come out in every situation, we wish that every person who was chiseling will’s from family members would be exposed. We wish for that, but we can’t have it in this life. We thank you that another day is coming when Jesus, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and God of all Gods will rule, and justice will prevail. Now Father, for your people, how we wish that we had more time to help them transfer the weight of their own pain to you, but grant them that ability we pray. In Jesus blessed name, Amen.”