With the lawsuit in Florida brought by 106 United Methodist Churches against their bishop and annual conference, many people have asked, “Should Christians sue other Christians?” And the answer to that is “No”, but also “Maybe”.
Paul counsels the Corinthian church:
1 Corinthians 6:1–8 (NRSV)
1 When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? 2 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? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? 4 If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, 6 but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? 7 In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.
Clearly, Paul discourages lawsuits among believers. But I think we can honestly say that Paul counsels against lawsuits as a first resort. He would rather believers work things out between themselves and not take disputes to secular courts to adjudicate. But that does not mean that it ends there.
In Acts 25, Paul himself is confronted by injustice against him by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Frustrated at not being able to bring the matter to resolution, he appeals to the Roman court in Rome, even to Caesar himself! Clearly, Paul is not totally against using the secular courts to find justice for himself, and so we would assume that there would be a similar provision for other believers.
In Florida, all efforts to reconcile the matter between these Traditionalist churches and the bishop have failed. The lines of accountability in the UMC are not readily open (the Book of Discipline is routinely ignored by bishops and boards of ordained ministry), and so the first, second, third and fourth lines of resort are closed for many United Methodists in many of our annual conferences, including our own. What is left, but to turn to the courts for justice?
I had hoped that through amicable provisions such as the Protocol (of Reconciliation Through Separation), that legal battles could be avoided in the UMC, unlike in other mainline denominations that have fought this out before us (Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.). I, and many others including progressive and centrist UMs, had hoped that we could be different. We hoped that we could bless each other and separate amicably, blessing one another to go and serve the Lord as they saw fit. But institutionalist bishops and their cohorts have seen fit to eliminate any denomination-wide amicable separation plan. What is left, but to turn to the courts for justice? Why should churches that have paid for their own property and that want to abide by the historic doctrines and teachings of the church be saddled with punitive and unreasonably excessive costs in order to separate from those who wish to over-turn our historic teachings and in the meantime simply ignore or openly defy those teachings?
So, the answer to the question, “Should Christians sue other Christians?” is not unless the other Christians will not abide by the church’s authority and submit to legitimate decisions made by the body. Jesus says that there comes a time, when the offending party will not listen to the church, that you should “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17) It is unfortunate that things have come to this. Lord, have mercy!