The motives in Legal Action Or Why the Synod Owes us an Explanation, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(This is part five in a series. To view the other posts in this series click on “Klemet Preus” in the Brothers Café.)

It is almost impossible to know what a person’s motives are especially in legal matters. Luther says in his Treatise on Two Kinds of Righteousness:


Private individuals with their own cases are of three kinds. First, there are those who seek vengeance and judgment from the representatives of God…


In the second class or those who do not desire vengeance. On the other hand, in accordance with the Gospel (Matt.5:40), to those who would take their coats, they are prepared to give their cloaks as well, and they do not resist any evil. These are sons of God, brothers of Christ, heirs of future blessing…


In the third class are those who in persuasion are like the second type just mentioned, but are not like them in practice. They are the ones who demand back their own property or seek punishment to be meted out, not because they seek their own advantage, but through the punishment and restoration of their own things they seek the betterment of the one who has stolen or offended. They discern that the offender cannot be improved without punishment. These are called “zealots” and the Scriptures praise them. [1]


These wonderfully helpful distinctions should be applied by every Christian to his own actions especially in contested or disputed matters.


Further, rarely is it helpful to apply these helpful distinctions to others. Why? Because outwardly the actions of those who fall into the third class of people are the same as those who fall into the first class. The only difference is in the motivation and we cannot read hearts.


Let’s provide an example. Let’s say two of your grandkids break into your house while you are on vacation, live there for ten days, eat your food, steal your money and basically take advantage of your absence and of their relationship with you.


You might be so angry that you want a pound of flesh from these kids. You may grow resentful and unforgiving and use whatever resources you have to put them away for as long as the law allows. That’s vengeance.


Or you may want to spare them the stigma of criminal record and the humiliation of going to jail. So you decide to keep that matter out of the secular courts and simply deal with your grandkids yourself or use the help of qualified counselors in the church. That’s mercy.


On the other hand you might believe that the best thing that could happen to these hooligans is to face up to their own dishonest actions and actually spend some time in jail. You may, in love, believe that the best thing for them is to be found guilty in a secular court of law. That’s zealousness.


In both the first case and the third your actions would be the same. How would anyone know your motives? They really couldn’t. Yet the first case is wrong and the third is praiseworthy.


Of course there is another possibility which Luther does not mention. It is possible that two Christians have an honest disagreement over a legal matter, and simply cannot come to agreement. Sometimes the only option is to have the court decide the issue.  There are many circumstances where this may arise.  Both are motivated to protect their own personal interests, but not to cheat the other.  They only want justice and the only means of justice is through the courts.  In reality, this is a very common situation.  However in such cases it would be expected that the parties have talked in a Christian manner with each other and that the parties agree together that they want to seek a remedy to their disagreement through the courts.


Next time we will apply these explanations to the “Notice of Opposition” against Harry Madsen which the synod filed December 2, 2008.


[1] Martin Luther, American Edition, 31 (Muhlenberg, Philadelphia, 1957) 304-306

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.

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