Christians Suing Each Other: An Analysis
A quick search of the MinistryWatch website pulls up dozens of recent articles about lawsuits filed by Christians against other Christians.
McLean Bible Church, a large church in northern Virginia, is involved in a case asking a court to order that a church election be redone. Liberty University sued its former president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for breach of contract and conspiracy.
Recently, a judge in Florida ordered that plaintiffs can sue Ravi Zacharias International Ministries to recover their donated money.
These lawsuits raise the question about the appropriateness of Christians filing lawsuits against other Christians in secular courts in light of scriptural admonitions, like the one found in I Corinthians 6, which cautions believers about seeking resolution of their disputes “before the ungodly.”
Ken Sande, a lawyer who has been involved in Christian conciliation for over 40 years, sees a trend toward litigation among believers too. While his perception is based on anecdotal evidence, he told MinistryWatch he sees it pointing to an issue “endemic to the human condition: selfishness.”
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In his book, “The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict,” Sande addresses I Corinthians 6 and when litigation may be the appropriate route. One such scenario is when the opponent is “behaving as a nonbeliever” and refusing to cooperate in biblical conciliation.
Another scenario might involve a dangerous offender where others may be “seriously injured if the offender is not effectively restrained.”
Nevertheless, along with many other attorneys, Sande warns that litigation is expensive and grueling. “It is always better to pursue alternative dispute resolution, and Christians have the added requirement of biblical resolution,” he explained.
An article by the Christian Research Institute entitled “Christians in the Courtroom” also deals with the issues of believers suing one another and the harm it can do to their Christian witness.
It encourages believers to consider alternative dispute resolution as “[t]hese 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.”
Litigation is a long process that begins with an initial consultation, research, and drafting of a petition by an attorney. This phase often involves multiple motions by both sides that must be resolved by the court.
Next comes discovery, an expensive process where attorneys send formal requests to one another to find out more information about the specifics of the case through documents and depositions.
After discovery, most courts require some form of alternative dispute resolution. If no settlement is reached, more motions are filed before a case actually goes to trial. After reaching a verdict, more legal fees are incurred post-judgment.
A survey conducted by the Court Statistics Project in 2013 showed average litigation costs for an automobile case were about $43,000. For a contract case, it was about $91,000. No doubt, the costs have only increased since then.
Sande explained considerations he presents to parties before initiating litigation. For example, in a contract dispute, parties ought to weigh how much time and money is involved and if the lawsuit will take away from one’s Christian witness. If the contract dispute will impact a business owner’s employees and possible income, that must also be taken into consideration.
Several organizations promote Christian conciliation and have trained conciliators to help resolve conflict, including Relational Wisdom 360 (RW360), headed by Sande, and Crossroads Resolutions Group.
Christian conciliation has been used to resolve a wide variety of cases. Examples include marital disputes, settling a family estate after death, custody issues, employment discrimination, medical malpractice, and patent claims.
Parties can avoid litigation by writing Christian conciliation clauses into the contract, according to RW360. These clauses may “formally and legally require that any dispute related to a contract be resolved through biblically based mediation or arbitration rather than through litigation.”
If parties can not locate a certified conciliator near them, Sande said it is often worth the cost to fly a conciliator in to help settle a significant dispute. While online mediation is a possibility, it is not ideal, he says. “The face-to-face dynamic is better.”
While attorneys representing a party are welcome to participate in the conciliation process, Sande says he prefers parties speak for themselves.
“We understand the ethical and professional responsibility an attorney has to advocate for his client, but it is beneficial to have the parties speak in order to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution,” he said.
In fact, he has seen attorneys become very invested in the Christian conciliation process and offer creative solutions to their clients. Some have been so impressed that they have become trained conciliators.
However, before engaging in Christian conciliation, parties ought to try to settle the dispute privately, Sande said. If that doesn’t work, he suggests they go to the local church to seek help.
RW360 offers a variety of resources to guide people as they work through a conflict. The online pamphlet “Guiding People Through Conflict” is one example.
However, if Sande could implement one practice to help stop lawsuits between believers, he would start with emphasizing relational wisdom and emotional intelligence.
“We want to get upstream of conflict so it doesn’t reach that point,” he said.
As such, RW360 hosts an annual conference each summer in Montana to teach these skills. This year’s theme is “Sowing Peace” and will take place August 18-21.
Brian Noble of Peacemaker Ministries is on the same mission to equip Christians to respond biblically to conflict.
“We need to turn to God at the first minute rather than the last minute. Often God is the last resort,” he said.