1 Corinthians 6 – No Shield for Lawbreakers

A discussion of whether a Christian can appeal to civil law in a defense against another Christian
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

Recently I received a letter from a brother in a distant state. He was seeking my advice with reference to 1 Corinthians 6:1ff—Paul’ s prohibition against taking a brother to law. Here is his story.

He was employed by a state agency, but he had two brothers in Christ who were his immediate supervisors. He says they were very superficial, “in-name-only,” members of the church. At any rate, the brother contends that they, by means of false charges and suborned witnesses, were instrumental in causing him to be terminated from his job. A state workforce commission subsequently investigated the case and determined that he had been wrongfully terminated.

The brother’s question, therefore, is this: would it be consistent with the Scriptures for him (and others who were treated similarly) to file a lawsuit for redress of the losses they suffered—particularly since the defendants in the suit would be members of the church?

In the first place, I cannot comment upon this case in particular, because I do not have firsthand access to all the facts. I am hearing only what this brother has told me, though I must say that I have met him on several occasions and have been impressed with his apparent devotion to the Lord. I therefore have no basis for doubting his testimony. What I can do is this: I can comment upon the principle involved in his question.

The context of 1 Corinthians 6 addresses what obviously was a problem within the church at Corinth—a divisiveness (cf. 1:10ff), which, at times, caused certain carnal brethren to vent their differences in the civil courts, thus dragging the church’ s troubles before an unbelieving community and bringing the Lord’s people into disrepute.

Paul therefore urges these brethren to settle their feuds amongst themselves, rather than parading them before the world. The apostle suggests that it is better to suffer loss than to cause the church’s influence to be damaged.

But has the Christian no defense against lawbreakers who are members of the church? How much loss is one required to suffer? Let me cite some personal examples.

I have had a number of brethren order sizable quantities of books from me, only to ignore all invoices and never pay their debt. I have let the matter pass—with but a rebuke. A few have taken my written material, published it for profit without my permission (or falsely claiming my permission), disregarding the ethics of the payment-to-whom-payment-is-due concept. I have let this breach of ethics pass.

But what if I sold my home to a brother, and he decided that he would not make the payments. Might I pursue the matter legally, and repossess the property? What if a brother steals my car? May I not contact the authorities to address this crime? Or must I let him have the vehicle because it would be wrong to “take a brother to law”? The admonitions of 1 Corinthians 6 were not designed as a shield for outlaws. There are several matters that must be taken into consideration in addressing this issue:

First, this question must be posed: is the instruction of 1 Corinthians 6 absolute, or is it relative? If it is absolute, then there is never any occasion when a Christian could utilize the legal process to deal with a kinsman in Christ. Is that a reasonable approach to the Scriptures? No, it is not.

Think about this: In his teaching concerning the family, Jesus authorized the granting of a bill of divorcement and the severance of a marriage on the basis of a fornicating mate. This is a legal procedure. So far as I know, virtually no one contends that this provision is not applicable to members of the church. A Christian wife could take her adulterous, church-member husband “to law” for the obtaining of a divorce, if she met the provisions of Matthew 19:9.

Second, the thirteenth chapter of Romans emphasizes that the civil powers are employed by God for society’s protection. It is right, therefore, to use this tool in the pursuit of justice. A person is not exempt from the demands of civil law simply because he or she is a Christian. No Christian has the right to break the law, or to abuse the rights of others, and then claim immunity from prosecution on the ground: “You can’t touch me; I’m a member of the church.”

Any view of 1 Corinthians 6, therefore, that opens such a floodgate, and accommodates the abuse of Christians, is wrong—very wrong.

Let me cite another example. A brother operates a small business in which he employs several Christians. According to both federal and state laws, this employer is required to pay his employees overtime when their labor exceeds forty hours per week. He does not wish to pay the overtime, however, even though he frequently works his brethren far more than forty hours per week. Less money for them, is more for him!

Here is how he might avoid his responsibility. After the men have worked their initial forty-hour period, he might write them a check for those forty hours, and then start them on a new pay period—even if it was but mid-week.

But, in reality, would not this be a form of stealing? Now the question is this: would there be any legal recourse should an employee desire to pursue the matter? Is there an ethical way to seek redress of this abuse, and thus attempt to obtain the money that is legally and morally owed?

I would suggest that it would be a matter of personal judgment. If one chose to let the matter drop, and suffer the loss (even though thousands of dollars might be involved), it would be his option to do so.

If, however, a person elected to seek the enforcement of the law, in an effort to obtain what rightfully is his, has he sinned? If so, on what basis?

Do I have a right to recover my house from a defrauding brother (as per the earlier illustration), but not the just wages of which I have been cheated? It is poor logic that would argue for the one case, but not for the other. It is apparent, therefore, that there is no quick, easy view of 1 Corinthians 6 that applies readily to every case.

What one must do is this:

  1. He must look at all the facts involved and ask: “Is the wrong I have suffered relatively petty, or is it significant, i.e., disruptive to my life, damaging to my family, etc.?”
  2. Is there any way to settle the matter without displaying the discord between Christians before an unbelieving world?
  3. Is the controversy a matter of mere personal loss, or does it involve lawbreaking that could injure others indefinitely and permit a continued abuse at the hands of unspiritual people?

Perhaps it would be safe to say this: if there is any doubt in one’s mind, if his conscience is not at ease in taking the matter to court, then suffer the loss and leave the execution of justice to God. If one feels that it is a clear-cut case where his personal rights or those of others must be protected, if he is convinced that the principle of justice is greater than any minimal negative influence that might accrue to the church, then he may be justified in using the protection of the law, even though some may not understand.

Somewhere we must strike a balance—a balance between majoring in petty grievances to the detriment of the church’s influence, and the ignoring of injustices perpetrated by abusive lawbreakers.