A commentator at this post asked an important question today that I thought warranted a more substantial answer than just a reply in the comments because I assume it’s one that many other readers may have had themselves.
No matter what happened between you and Perry Noble (whom I have no relationship with or affinity for), do not your actions constitute a direct violation of the teaching of I Cor. 6:1-8?
For background, here’s the text to which he refers:
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 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? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 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!
Before I get to my answer, let’s put a couple of other passages on the table as well so we can let Scripture provide its own context. The first is Matthew 18:15-17:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
The third is from Matthew 5:23-26:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Based on the scenarios described in Matthew 18, I see a hierarchy of desirable dispute resolution between Christians.
- Resolve the dispute privately.
- Resolve the dispute with a small group of three or four (the disputants plus the witnesses). It appears that the witnesses are also judges, because they end up having to something to say that can either be listened to or ignored.
- Resolve the dispute more publicly in front of the church. At this point, it appears that this is more an exercise of reproof and discipline than immediate reconciliation.
- Settle the dispute as if the person were not a believer.
Because all of Scripture is inspired by a single author, Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians must remain consistent with Jesus’ teaching, so it’s not a new rule that cancels out Matthew 18. We need to determine what step the Corinthians were failing at. It appears that the Corinthians were going from failed attempts at private resolution directly to public resolution, bypassing the small group and the church. I think Paul is giving us more detail about how the second, small-group step is supposed to work.
Paul’s argument is that as Christians we are being prepared to rule the angels in Heaven, so we ought to be able to exercise godly wisdom in judging comparatively trivial earthly matters. Paul was upset that the Corinthian believers were bypassing the judgment of the saints in the church and submitting their affairs to ungodly secular judges. The problem was not necessarily that they were disputing with each other (we see from both Matthew passages that such disputes will arise), but that they were looking to the wrong judges.
Some interpret Paul’s rhetorical questions at the end (Why not rather suffer wrong?) to mean that we should just take it on the chin and never sue fellow Christians for any reason. It’s not an unreasonable interpretation, but I don’t think he means it to institute a blanket ban for three reasons:
- It would contradict Matthew 5. Although this advice is written to the defendant, we can infer that the plaintiff if also a believer because it comes immediately after Jesus mentioned a dispute with a brother. Because the settlement between the brothers is financial, this appears to be a civil dispute before a court over some loss of property.
- It would contradict Old Testament property rights. The Old Testament moral law clearly establishes the obligation of an offender to restore property to a victim, often in multiples of the original loss. I don’t see that Paul is telling the Corinthians that this moral law is void if the offender is an obstinate Christian.
- It wouldn’t contradict an intra-church small-group settlement. If we put Paul’s advice inside the context of either step two or three from Matthew 18, we see that he’s telling the disputing parties to trust the outcome of godly mediation. A godly judge is probably not going to assess a case the same way as an ungodly one, so one or both parties may be at a disadvantage by staying within the church. Paul would rather Christians be willing to take the risk of losing their good case inside the church, and so be wronged or defrauded, than to go outside its walls.
In other words, it’s better to lose your case inside the church than win it outside. Notice that Paul sees the benefit in such an arrangement as primarily flowing to the judges, who get to practice Heavenly activities, than to the people being judged.
(If you want to see what happens when Christians assume they have blanket legal immunity from other Christians, look at the mess with Sovereign Grace Ministries.)
If it’s not possible to get a churchly judge, we can move on to step four from Matthew 18. Paul says this is a shame because there’s better judgment to be had inside God’s house. He doesn’t forbid it, though, surely understanding that the more desirable process requires the consent of both parties, and we see in Matthew 18 that this doesn’t always happen.
At this point, according to Matthew 18, we are allowed to treat the opposing party as if they were not believers, which also suggests that a Corinthians don’t-sue-believers rule no longer applies.
Our intent was not to sue NewSpring or its leaders, however it was my judgment as a husband and father that my family had suffered losses at the hands of NewSpring that warranted restitution. We had preferred to do it quietly and privately, though that option was taken out of our hands by NewSpring’s refusal to meet followed by its attempts to shame us for trying the private route.
We wish it hadn’t worked out this way, but we think that, given that NewSpring didn’t want to meet with us, we did right by both Matthew and Corinthians.