Q: I was taught that litigation in the civil courts among fellow Christians is impermissible. Why can we find at times Christians bringing civil lawsuits against each other and yet remaining the ‘good standing’ in their church?”
A: Either one of two answers can be given: 1) Putting the best construction on the kind of lawsuit and the motivation behind it, a congregation may see no greed or malice involved on the part of either party, and certainly no thought of revenge. For example, the suit may have been filed purely to obtain payment from the appropriate insurance company (with no intentional loss to the defendant); or, minus any monetary awards, the primary purpose could be to seek a civil statute change/ratification that would protect the welfare of other potential “victims.” In such a case, although public offense would have to be minimized, the church would be hard pressed to declare the lawsuit was carried out in a spirit of vengeance. 2) But if indeed the lawsuit is brought by non-Christian motives, and a church refuses to deal with the issue, then we have a situation which parallels the church at Corinth (I Corinthians 6:1-8) where the Apostle Paul had to issue a necessary reprimand.
The believers in the Corinthian church were quickly “airing their dirty laundry” in pagan civil courts when sharp differences arose between members, rather than letting the reconciliation process run its full course within the church itself. Paul wrote, “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” (6:1). Then, he asks somewhat sarcastically, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (6:5).
In the “lawsuit happy” climate of today, Christians need to guard against any knee-jerk reactions when they have been wronged by another. “Do not take revenge, my friends,” we read in Romans, “But leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (12:19). In our synod’s explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism, we find the remark under the Ninth Commandment that it forbids any “‘show of right’ that is, every manner of legal but loveless practice by which a person takes away another’s property or home.” And in his Large Catechism, Dr. Luther states: “In whatever way such things happen, we must know that God does not wish that you deprive your neighbor of anything that belongs to him, so that he suffer the loss and you gratify your avarice with it, even if you could keep it honorably before the world.”
Even when in rare circumstances a Christian may feel bound by conscience to bring a case to civil court [as did Paul in Acts 25:9-11; see also Acts 16:37], his/her conduct and motives ought to reflect the injunction, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).