As recorded at 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, the apostle Paul discussed lawsuits between fellow believers. He expressed dismay that some Christians in Corinth would “dare to go to court before unrighteous men.” (Verse 1) Paul gave strong reasons why Christians should not sue one another in secular courts but rather settle disputes within the congregation setting. Let us consider some of the reasons for this inspired counsel and then touch on a few situations not necessarily covered by this directive.
If we have a business dispute with a fellow believer, we would first of all seek to handle matters Jehovah’s way, not our own. (Proverbs 14:12) As Jesus showed, it is best to settle a disagreement quickly before it escalates into a major issue. (Matthew 5:23-26) Sadly, though, some Christians become overly contentious, even taking disputes into secular courts. Paul said: “It is already a defeat for you when you have lawsuits with one another.” Why? A key reason is that such proceedings may well reflect poorly on the good name of the congregation and the God we worship. We therefore take to heart Paul’s question: “Why not rather let yourselves be wronged?”—Verse 7.
Paul also reasoned that God has given the congregation a fine arrangement for settling many disputes. The elders are Christian men made wise by their knowledge of Scriptural truths, and Paul says that they are “able to judge between . . . brothers” when it comes to “matters of this life.” (Verses 3-5) Jesus showed that disputes involving serious wrongs, such as slander and fraud, should be settled according to a three-step process: first, endeavoring to settle the matter privately between those involved; second, if the initial step fails, bringing along a witness or two; and third, if the preceding step fails, taking the matter to the congregation as represented by the elders.—Matthew 18:15-17.
Of course, Christian elders are not necessarily lawyers or businessmen and do not need to act as such. They do not set the terms for settling business disputes between brothers. Rather, they seek to help all parties involved to apply the Scriptures and agree on an amicable resolution. In complex cases, they may wish to consult with the circuit overseer or the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, there are situations that lie outside the realm covered by Paul’s counsel. What are some of these?
In some cases, a lawsuit may be a simple formality or a legal necessity in pursuing unselfish and peaceful ends. For instance, a lawsuit may be the only mechanism available in getting a divorce decree, acquiring custody of a child, determining alimony payments, obtaining insurance compensation, being listed among creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding, and probating wills. There are also cases in which a brother might feel compelled to countersue in order to protect himself in a lawsuit.*
If such lawsuits are pursued without a spirit of contention, they may not violate the spirit of Paul’s inspired counsel.* Nonetheless, a Christian’s priority should be the sanctification of Jehovah’s name and the peace and unity of the congregation. Christ’s followers are marked first and foremost by their love, and “love . . . does not look for its own interests.”—1 Corinthians 13:4, 5; John 13:34, 35.
In rare instances, one Christian might commit a serious crime against another—such as rape, assault, murder, or major theft. In such cases, it would not be unchristian to report the matter to the authorities, even though doing so might result in a court case or a criminal trial.