20 February 2009

Are Lawsuits Sinful?

One email list to which I belong has been asking and discussing this question: are lawsuits sinful?

The question arises out of the new online petition designed to show support for Issues, Etc. as LCMS, Inc. opposes Harry Madsen's application for the trademark "Issues, Etc." Along with that matter comes the possibility that the lawyers of LCMS, Inc. could recommend that LCMS, Inc. bring legal action against Pr. Wilken and Mr. Schwarz if they do not meet and agree to certain conditions for obtaining the trademark "Issues, Etc." (I hope I got all that right.)

Here's the specific statement from the petition's letter that sparked the question of the sinfulness of lawsuits:

"The threat of a lawsuit initiated by the LCMS against fellow Christians, whether by the leaders themselves or attorneys hired by the LCMS, is a shameful act, and is in fact a sin, as taught by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8."

Now I've used 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 in this forum and on the petition itself as a Scriptural way of calling LCMS, Inc. (including President Kieschnick, the Board of Directors, whoever else to whom it may apply in this matter) to the carpet for mistakenly trying to settle such matters with fellow Christians via societal legal channels. However, it appears that some have a problem with calling a lawsuit "a sin." (I am not at all criticizing the good folks on this particular email list, for they are my brothers in Office and my friends, folks I respect and love dearly. Hence I focus on the arguments made, not the persons involved.)

So, are lawsuits sinful? Just what is St. Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8?

One comment focused on the "intrinsic" sinfulness of lawsuits. I would wonder how one determines if a lawsuit, or anything else, is "intrinsically sinful" myself. For that matter, what does "intrisically sinful" mean? Does it mean that something (e.g. a lawsuit) is sinful by its very essense or nature? Would that be like saying, "Money is evil"? After all, money is only printed pieces of paper or stamped coins to which give such great value. But this is getting too philosophical for me. :-)

One comment made a distinction between suing in general and this particular suing, referring to the Issues, Etc. matter. So now we need to discern what kind of suing would be sinful and what kind would not? How would we determine when a certain lawsuit would *not* be "sinful"? Again, pardon me for getting too philosophical here. :-)

Actually, in light of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, I do think it would be good, right, and salutary to call lawsuits sinful.

No, I am not denying that law courts are a perfectly reasonable tool to have in the toolbox of the civil authorities. They are indeed God's gifts to us for maintaining justice in a sinful, fallen world. No, I am not saying that anyone who goes to court, especially those who would use the courts to bring justice to the murderers, rapists, etc., is automatically committing a sin just by walking through those little gates on the way to the judge's bench. Again, law courts are God's gift and a protective one at that.

What am I saying? Let's keep 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 firmly in mind:

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!

The sin in lawsuits comes not from the intrinsic nature of lawsuits or from what kind of lawsuit it might be. Rather, the sin that St. Paul calls out here is the lovelessness and fighting between fellow Christians, that is, Christian taking Christian to court. These are the lawsuits that are sinful, because they betray a stark lack of love for fellow Christians, a love that is first shown and given by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Here's how I said it when I weighed in on the discussion via email:

If I may weigh in, I do think that labeling this passage and the issue that it addresses as "sinful" or "a sin" may be a bit misleading from the start, just because we so often think of sin merely as transgressing some clearly stated, proof-text-able command of God. Instead, better to go with the language and ideas that St. Paul himself uses: shameful (v. 5), foolish (i.e. the opposite of "wise enough," v. 5), and defeat (v. 7). Or if we insist on using the "sin" word, then let's remember that a lawsuit against a fellow believer is sin *against our fellow Christian.* After all, that's what St. Paul is driving at here in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8--not that lawsuits transgress some etched-in-stone commandment of God (as in "Thou shalt not go to court, ever" or "Watch out for that immediate dose of fire and brimstone if you do take each other to court!" ;-), but rather that lawsuits between fellow Christians betray the lack of Christian love and unity that should be the very hallmarks of a Christian church.

Specifically applying this to LCMS, Inc., I do believe that we should let the sword of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 cut both ways. The lawsuit from a couple of years ago against LCMS, Inc. (and, no, I'm not defending whatever sinful, selfish, or misguided actions that may have led up to it or sparked it . . . on either side) was just as shameful, foolish, and showing defeat as the current legal proceedings, and/or threats thereof, that LCMS, Inc. is carrying out against folks related to "Issues, Etc." That is, in either case, the fact that Christians were/are suing each other and using society's legal proceedings against each other "is already a defeat for [us]." It is a defeat for us both in proclaiming the Gospel and in showing Christian love and unity precisely because it puts our sinful egos and actions out there on the "witness stand" of public scrutiny for all to see. And when people of the world see us Christians bickering with, fighting against, and suing each other--just as the people of the world themselves do--why, they think, should they bother with coming into the Church? What would be so different?

That, I believe, is what St. Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. Or to say it another way, when we Christians take each other to court, whatever the cause, the reason, the purpose, or the goal, we are showing the shamefulness, the foolishness, and the defeat of our sinful ways. Now, of course, there is forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ Jesus. But let's not use that as free license to sue as we please. Let's also remember how our Lord won that forgiveness and reconciliation: not by asserting His rights (cf. Philippians 2:6) or suing His accusers and abusers (Matthew 27:12-14), but rather by suffering and dying and then rising again to new life. So, yes, God has indeed given our civil authorities, including law courts, for our temporal benefit, but when we're talking about cases of Christian vs. Christian, we in the Church have a better and higher way. We get to lower ourselves in humility to one another. We get to confess our sins to one another. And, should only one "side" choose to confess or forgive, well then, we get to practice our humility and patience (and remember "patience" comes from the Latin word for "suffer" or "allow") even more.

How did St. Paul put it? "Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?" After all, we'll be in good company: with our Lord Jesus Himself, and His eternal vindication is worth so much more than any law court settlement regardless of how sinful or not.


1 comment:

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

It's we who are sinful. Our sinfulness shows up every time we miss the mark, the mark being Christ. That's what sin is, anything short of perfection. Yup, I'd say needing to resort to a court of law to settle a dispute is falling way short of perfection, of Christ.