Lawsuits and Court

Rev. Dr. Karl Weber wrote this very timely piece after gleaning comments and posts here at BJS.  He has compiled a lot of the argumentation around the ULC situation and placed it here.

On occasion parishioners ask whether it is permissible for Christians to go to court. The discussion revolves around these two verses in particular;

“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!” (1 Cor 6:7-8).

Questions surrounding these verses were heightened when the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (hereafter CTCR) in April, 1991, released their document; 1 Corinthians 6:1-11: An Exegetical Study. [endnote 1] This document states that should you bring a fellow Christian to court you are guilty of “an offensive conduct” that is grounds for removal from the synod (Constitution XIII).

No doubt it is sad and unfortunate when people enter court for the Gospel is not served. Surely there are times to suffer the wrong as we are called to carry our cross. But where in these two verses does St. Paul say it is “wrong”, or, “sinful”, to go to court? Sad, yes. Unfortunate, certainly. But “sinful” and “wrong”—where does St. Paul say that?

As I address this issue I will reference the Lutheran Confessions found in the Book of Concord. [endnote 2] Why this book? This book defines what Lutheranism is, as it claims to be a faithful representation of what Scripture reveals. This is why pastors at the time of their Ordination swear to teach according to this standard and norm.

Non-Lutherans such as Quakers, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and some Evangelicals teach it is sinful for Christians to use the courts. This teaching has historically been rejected by the Lutheran Church. Not one recognized founder of Lutheranism—from Luther on—has taught this. As will be seen, the permissibility and beneficial use of going to court is acknowledged in Synod’s bylaws as well as in the very document that says you may be expelled from Synod should you use the court system; CTCR’s document; 1 Corinthians 6:1-11: An Exegetical Study. For the moment we turn to the Augsburg Confession:

 It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc.

Condemned here are the Anabaptists who teach that none of the things indicated above is Christian. [endnote 3]

Talk of “judges,” “swords,” and “oaths,” pertains to the judiciary and Lutherans condemn those who say that such activity is not Christian for such teaching is not Lutheran. Needless to say, going to court based on greed and covetousness is wrong. There is even a time to suffer wrong and carry our cross as we love our neighbor. Private revenge is forbidden for God has given lawful Government the responsibility of implementing God’s wrath not the individual citizen (see Rom 12:19; 13:4). There is a time though, to go to court to stop the advance of evil much like a soldier is summoned to stop the advance of evil as enunciated in St. Augustine’s teaching on just war. To those who say that going to court is categorically wrong [endnote 4] I would ask them to read what follows from our Lutheran Confessions and notice how going to court is commended as a work of God, and as such is pleasing to God, and is anything but prohibited!

 … [P]rivate revenge is forbidden not as an evangelical counsel but as a command (Matt. 5:39; Rom. 12:19). Public redress through a judge is not forbidden but expressly commanded, [sic!] and it is a work of God according to Paul (Rom 13:1ff.). Now the various kinds of public redress are court decisions, punishments, wars, military service. How poor the judgment of many writers in these matters has been is evident from their erroneous view that the Gospel is something external, a new and monastic form of government. Thus they failed to see that the Gospel brings eternal righteousness to hearts, while it approves the civil government. [endnote 5]

The Confessions state poor judgment was used by the “many writers” of the CTCR document, 1 Corinthians 6:1-11: An Exegetical Study when it forbids Christians to use the courts! Luther speaks of going to court to stop the advance of evil as a Godly activity. 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. [endnote 6]

So what was St. Paul talking about when he wrote 1 Cor 6:7-8? The Greco-Roman world was unashamedly pagan and openly hostile toward the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The courts of that time reflected the worldview of their society which rejected any concept of transcendent truth. This worldview empties the court of any validity and opens it up to the highest and most lucrative influences. Embedded in a non-Christian worldview the courts were not interested in getting to the truth of a matter. The problem was not one of incompetent personnel, but rather the entire system was flawed based on a foundation which rejected transcendent natural law.

In the US and Western civilization Christians and non-Christians fulfill their vocation in the judiciary so one would be hard pressed to say the courts were pagan as they were in the 1st century. In our day Law and the courts are still influenced by a Christian worldview that believes in transcendent truth which makes itself known in right and wrong. Certainly, there are problems. However, in contrast to the Greco-Roman world, the problem in our society, as well as Luther’s Germany, is not a systems issue. These days the issue is one of personnel as evidenced by activist judges who bypass the doctrine of original intent—the immovability of the law [endnote 7]—and see the Law as a living organic entity, and hence, a malleable set of statements. By-and-large our courts are a lot closer to 16th century Germany when the Reformers wrote than to the 1st century of the Mediterranean basin.

Perhaps an analogy might help. The early church forbad Christians to go to the theater while today we do. Why? In the Greco-Roman world theater was performed in the nude. Enough said! While today, when one is selective, one can enjoy a fine theater production.

Regarding 1 Corinthians 6:1-11: An Exegetical Study, Martin Noland has observed:

 The “I Corinthians 6” CTCR document was the basis for the expunging of old LCMS Bylaw 8.07B, which stated that if a party to the case refused to respect the jurisdiction of the Commission on Adjudication or Appeals, they would lose all rights under the bylaw section on adjudication. And then the old bylaw stated “In such cases, each party to the disagreement, accusation, or controversy shall be free to enforce or defend his rights in civil courts” (old bylaw 8-07B, prior to 1992).

So, this means, from 1847 to 1992, members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod were free to enforce or defend their rights in civil courts with impunity. Then, suddenly in 1992, according to that CTCR document, the LCMS had been wrong–painfully, morally, and embarrassingly wrong–for one hundred and forty-five years. After 1992, any member of the synod who takes another member of the synod to civil court, … is guilty of “an offensive conduct” that is grounds for removal from the synod (Constitution XIII). [endnote 8]

At the same time the bylaws of the LCMS state Christians are free to use the courts in certain instances! Synod’s bylaws state church courts do not “provide an exclusive remedy” for “disputes concerning property rights (e.g. real estate agreements, mortgage fraud, or embezzlement) or disputes arising under contractual arrangements of all kinds (e.g. contracts for goods, services, or employment benefits).” [endnote 9]

We operate in both the left hand (civil) and the right hand (church) kingdoms. Our Synod, Districts, and congregations must follow Caesar’s laws. For this reason Synod and Districts have lawyers to represent them in court. If it is good and right for Synod and District to retain legal counsel is it not also good and right for congregations, pastors, and Christians to do the same? It carries no water to say the Synod and District bring suit only to non-Christians.

In addition to the bylaws of Synod 1 Corinthians 6:1-11: An Exegetical Study, states in certain circumstances it is God-pleasing when Christians use the courts. In section IV, we read:

 1) The legal system by which order is maintained is a gift of God not to be despised. It may be used properly for certain purposes. The statements in I Corinthians 6 are not to be understood as absolute prohibitions against the use of courts by Christians.  …

2) … Christians may indeed have a responsibility, if not a duty, to pursue, on behalf of any fellow human being in need of help, legal action against others (whether or not they are Christian) (e.g., in Christians’ capacity as guardians, trustees, parents or other fiduciaries on behalf of their ward, beneficiary, child or charge).

The end notes in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11: An Exegetical Study show the document used many non-Lutheran sources with not one quote from Martin Luther, which, is to say, hmm …, puzzling for a Lutheran document. So, I will end with a quote from Luther’s Sermon on the Mount:

 [W]hat if only your own person is involved and an injury or injustice has been done to you? …  [I]f you are unwilling or unable to stand it, you can always take him to court and get what is coming to you there.

It is permissible for you to use orderly procedure in demanding and obtaining your rights, but be careful not to have a vindictive heart. Thus it is proper for a judge to punish and execute, and yet he is forbidden to have any hatred or vindictiveness in his heart. … Where … you are simply seeking to use the law for your protection and self-preservation against violence and malice, rather than for your vindictiveness or malevolence, you are not doing wrong. When the heart is pure, then everything is right and well done. …

Thus you are not forbidden to go to court and lodge a complaint against injustice or violence, just so long as you do not have a false heart, but one that remains as patient as it was before, one that is doing this only to maintain the right and to avoid the wrong, out of a genuine love for righteousness. [endnote 10]


Endnotes —

[1] 1 Corinthians 6:1-11: An Exegetical Study, Commission on Theology and Church Relations, of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, April 1991 (link)

[2] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959).

[3] Augsburg Confession, XVI, “Civil Government,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 37:1-3.

[4] Our Lutheran Confession refute again the notion that Lutherans may not use the court system when they state as a false teaching of Scripture:

10. That no Christian may with an inviolate conscience use an office of the government against wicked persons as occasion may arise, nor may a subject call upon the government for help.”

Solid Declaration, XII, “Other Factions and Sects Which Never Accepted the Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 634:19.

[5] Apology, XVI, “Political Order,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 223:7.

[6] Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” (1519), Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 volumes, edited by J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia and Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-1986), 31:306.

[7] “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev 19:15 NIV). See also Ex 23:3.

[8] Martin Noland, in Brothers’ John Steadfast, ULC and the courts – a back and forth between pastors. [Accessed May 15, 2012].

[9] 2010 Handbook, of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (St. Louis: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2010), Bylaw: p. 44 §1.10.3.

[10] Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 volumes, edited by J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia and Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-1986), 21:111.

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