Are Christians ever allowed to use the civil courts? Does 1 Corinthians 6 prohibit Christians from ever filing a civil lawsuit? If not, how can one know when it is legitimate to use civil courts as a means of settling an issue?


Paul did not forbid all civil lawsuits, but he did forbid many of them. Specifically, he forbade civil suits in which the plaintiffs and defendants were all members of the church. He did not forbid Christians from filing suit against non-Christian individuals or organizations.  

Paul also argued that churches ought to establish courts to solve these kinds of matters. His reasoning was twofold: 1) Christian judgment is superior to worldly judgment; and 2) protecting the witness of the church takes precedence over protecting the rights of an individual believer. The first reason relies on the fact that Christians have a wisdom that comes from God and that is not rooted in a false system of values. The second reason has to do with preserving the integrity of the church's witness to the world. If the gospel is supposed to reconcile believers to one another, and to sanctify us in love so that we do not desire to defraud one another, what will the world think of the gospel if we turn to them to solve our problems? Naturally, they will think the gospel lacks the power to reconcile and to sanctify. Our legal actions will contradict our claims, hardening unbelievers to the gospel unnecessarily.

Now, these reasons are not absolute - we can certainly imagine situations in which a church court would neither demonstrate superior wisdom nor offer greater protection to the witness of the church. In such instances, the ruling principles ought to be first the protection of the witness of the church, and second the preservation of justice for the individual. If the witness of the church is preserved at the expense of individual justice, this is a bad and sinful thing - but Paul insisted that it is not as sinful as preserving individual justice at the expense of the witness of the church.

Of course, we need to use great wisdom in applying these principles. For example, we need to consider how confidential or public the church courts actually are. If our church courts are particularly incompetent, and their decisions are publicly known, then we have not preserved the witness of the church by appealing to them. Rather, we have simply demonstrated to the world at large that the church is hypocritical and that it contradicts its own proclamations in grievous ways. We also need to consider how severe the injustice is, and whether or not criminal activity is involved. For example, if a church court privately rules in favor of an unscrupulous businessman who steals a widow's inheritance, it may be worth turning to the public court system for remediation. Church courts may rightly rule in many civil instances, but God has delegated authority in many matters (such as crime) to the civil government (Rom. 13:1-4).

In giving this instruction, Paul told the church to establish courts to handle these types of issues. But many churches do not have courts and/or are unwilling to establish them, even on an ad hoc basis, when they are needed. What is a Christian to do in these situations? There are a few alternatives, but none are ideal.

First, a Christian can appeal to a court in another church. This may be the best option, if we can find a trustworthy church court. Still, a court in another church is less likely to know the individuals involved well enough to render the best judgment. In civil court, people are generally excluded from judging a case if they are familiar with the parties involved. The reason for this is that familiarity is likely to lead to biased judgments.  But if bias can be restricted so that it does not influence judgment, as the Bible commands (Deut. 1:16-17), then familiarity is highly advantageous. After all, those who best know the parties and the situation are in the best position to judge. Consider a family setting: Who is better at seeing through the personalities and circumstances of battling siblings than their parents? In the same way, if they can remain impartial, those in the same church have the best potential for rendering good judgments regarding their peers.

Second, a Christian can appeal to a civil court. This is not a great option, for reasons already mentioned. Nevertheless, it may be the best option if the negative results of not pursuing the case outweigh the negative results of airing the case in public.

Third, a Christian can resign himself to being cheated or defrauded (1 Cor. 6:7). This is not a pleasant option, but if the negative results of pursuing the case in public outweigh the negative results of airing the case in public, it would seem to be the most biblical option.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.