Friday, March 09, 2007

GOING TO COURT

I believe any thinking person will agree that the scriptures mean what they mean. It is incumbant upon us to investigate what they say, led by the Spirit, to get to that meaning. Since language itself is a fluid vehicle, we must carefully go to the original meaning of any text, led by that same Spirit, to correctly understand God's intention.

Some things are more readily understood than are others that's for sure. Even Peter acknowledged that Paul the Apostle said some things difficult to understand. I'm with Peter on that.

Also, some things are more important than others. Any issue dealing with matters of salvation supercedes all others. Matters of discipleship and guidance for believers are important, just not to the level of salvation issues.

So we come to a christian suing another christian in a court of law and we would agree that it is of the latter category. You can miss this with your understanding and go to heaven. But you can't miss the nature of Christ, for example, who, as one said, was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier, and enjoy the assurance of that same place in eternity. You HAVE to be right there. No one is saying the former is not important in it's own right, just not one we separate over as brothers and sisters of the Kingdom.

Having said that...let's look at 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. Historically, it was written to a people whose court system was not the best. A.T. Robertson says that the Corinthians were basically a gentile church operating in a culture where civil courts were entertainment almost. They had civil litigation down to a science, if not art. The Judges were a known commodity, corrupt, and persuadable. There was no jury system at all. In short, the court system was a joke. Paul was always ready to contrast the wisdom of God with that of the Corinthian culture, as in chapters 1 @2, and does so here, as he makes it clear that the church can judge these matters far better since they're going to assist in judgment at a later date anyway.

In fact, he may be saying sarcastically in v4 that the least in the church can settle those issues if the leaders are too busy for such matters.

A futher textual study would lead one to see that Paul is not condemning courts completely since, in v12 he says, " all things are lawful [meaning not prohibited] but all things are not expedient. [meaning not the best]
This is in the context of lawsuits etc. Besides that, Paul saw no problem appealing to Caeser [the highest court of all] when he was held without trial and, as a Roman citizen, was not permitted his day in court.

Add to that the 1 Peter 2 passage where Peter indicates that the courts are "God ordained" since the word "ordinance" doesn't mean "law" as much as it means "institution", and is used in relation to God. So it is saying that the institutions of men are God's instruments for our lives. For a guiding institution [court-room] to be appealed to over a possible criminal matter is always correct and godly since they exist to punish and protect in legal problems.

However, in these minor relational matters that the Corinthian christians were suing over, they should be able to appeal to the church and the church should give proper guidance. But that's a big should. It is important to see that Paul's disgust was as much with the church here as with individuals who went to court. If we are going to get upset with a person for going to court against another christian, [the context is speaking only of brothers/sisters] and I wonder the wisdom of our making an individual judgment anyway, we should be just as upset with the church for not speaking out in these matters when the wrong that demands a verdict is being done.

Could it be that the proposed resolution on Church Discipline/Membership at the 06 SBC Convention was really more important than some that were voted on? Could it be that things done in secret should not be done at all, but if they are, should be exposed? Maybe the church has let superstars carry the load without checks and balances which has ultimately helped create the problems our modern day churches are facing. This may well also apply to those times when a pastor thinks of himself [or any leader of any entity] as the one who can do as he pleases with the body he serves being kept in the dark. We are, after all, a congregational people supposedly. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be so.

As in all things, a believers purpose in settling disputes is not a matter of winning/losing or demanding personal rights, but lovingly rebuking a wrong done and speaking the truth about it whether in court or in church. Revenge, anger, and personal rights are not the motivating factor at all. As John Calvin said, "to not go against God, they [the wronged one] must take special care not to come to ANY court [secular or church] with any desire for revenge or any poisonous thing. In all this...love is to be the guide."

Another thought here. Matthew 18 is often appealed to as a guide for believers and rightfully so. But one may need to remember that when Jesus gave that instruction, there was no established functioning local church body as we know it today. The word "church" [ekklesia] was probably used in it's pristine meaning, "a called out group with a specific purpose." It certainly means asking a group to arbitrate and it is to be applied to the group called a "church" as Paul indicates in this passage. But the process should include an ultimate group making a decision if you act upon Matthew 18. To try to personally do Matthew 18 in a matter, but not carrying it to where Jesus took it, final arbitration, is short-sighted and unbiblical in my judgment. If you start it finish it.

In our day of convoluted intricate contracts and trusts and loans, we face lawsuits for injury, malpractice with damage, equal rights, and a myiad of other categories that I doubt even Paul would have wanted the church to try to settle. Like a christian banker, finding a fellow church member in default on a massive loan, may have to let the court settle the legalities of it all, as ordered by his board of directors, but should certainly let the church work on the relationship between the banker and his church friend, [which may be the most important thing after all] that undoubtedly needs repentence, forgiveness, correction, guidance and recovery or whatever.

In it all we should bear in mind that the word "against" [pros] "another" might NOT be violated if one is seeking a legal hearing to protect, for example, a child from a professing christian spouse/parent legally, if such an one is known by the other spouse/parent to be guilty of abuse, and it NOT be a matter of revenge or getting "my rights." Thus it is NOT violating the "against" prohibition. All in all, this may be one of those Paul statements Peter wondered about. Me too.

Finally, some concluding thoughts. I found several on a website that triggered some of my own.

A. The legal system is a gift of God to christians as well as all others in a society and is to be appreciated for it's ability to enact protection and punishment where appropriate.

B.Christians are free, maybe even responsible for the use of those courts in matters that clarify legalities and criminal matters that are beyond the reach of congregations.It speaks of a high submission to the powers ordained of God.

C. The motive for anything is more important than the action. If it is to bring out [speak] the truth in love, it can be right, but, if revenge, anger, self protection or other things motivate, it can be wrong.

D. While it is undoubtedly best to not make a blanket declaration that no christian should EVER take another believer to court, the proliferation of lawsuits is deplorable and the church needs to step up to the plate when christians are having problems. Church membership, discipline, and congregational involvement must take on more sigificance than personal opinions about styles of worship and what goes in. It is what's coming out of us that has me concerned. I haven't found it said better than a pastor did in this statement...And I quote...

"Now it’s at this point that it’s very tempting for me as a pastor to say that this is an iron clad law, that a Christian should never—in any circumstances—take another Christian to civil court to resolve a difference. You see, if I say it’s an absolute law, then we’re more likely to take this teaching seriously. If I suggest that this is a principle, and that in some circumstances other biblical principles might allow exceptions to this principle, then I crack open the door to allow exceptions. And if I do that, knowing human nature, I know every Christian is going to think that their situation qualifies as an exception. So if we allow the possibility of exceptions, then this will end up being one of those biblical principles that all Christians agree with but that no Christians actually apply, because each Christian thinks that his or her situation is an exception. So it’s very tempting to be legalistic, to say that this is an iron clad law, end of story.
But I think this is a principle with the possibility of exceptions. And let me first say that in the vast, vast majority of cases I do think that it’s wrong for a Christian to resort to civil court to resolve a difference with another Christian. But I think in some circumstances other important biblical principles come into play, and in those cases, those other principles take priority over this principle. Let me give you one example: Imagine two Christians who are going through the tragedy of divorce. Imagine that the wife decides she doesn’t want her ex-husband to be involved in the lives of their kids, and the only way for the husband to ensure his ongoing involvement in his children’s lives is to go to court and sue for custody. In that case the welfare of the kids and God’s calling to be a father is a higher principle than avoiding civil action against another Christian. So I think a husband would be justified to go to court and fight for a fair custody arrangement as a last resort. That’s just one example.
So how do you know whether your situation might be an exception to this principle? All I can say is that you can’t know it for yourself, that you need wise, mature input from the spiritual leaders God has placed in your life. You see, this kind of discernment comes from the community of faith as it together seeks God’s direction, not just from yourself because you’re likely to be biased. So when we feel as if our rights have been violated we should look to God’s community for help." Pastor Tim Peck

I say...Amen.

This is one of those..."glass darkly" situations perhaps. My hope is these thoughts will cause us all to tread graciously.

UPDATE______I'm sure all are aware that a rather high-profile situation has presented itself after I wrote this post. I for one will be praying for brothers and sisters on both sides of the issue and I hope we will only give love to all and hold personal judgment until the One comes who will "bring to light the things that are hidden, like purposes and motives, and then all will be praised in the truth."1 Corinth. 4:5 [The Message]

Paul Burleson

9 comments:

Les Puryear said...

Paul,

I appreciate your thoughts on this very difficult issue.

I'm certain your post implied what I am about to say and if I have repeated you, please excuse me. To me, the whole issue comes down to one question: Is what I am about to do, for the glory of God? If not, then I think we should review our hearts for motive.

You're much appreciated.

Kindest regards,

Les

Paul Burleson said...

Les,

The old saying "getting down to brass tacks" is what your comment does. Yes, that's the brass tacks of the whole thng. If I really am convinced of this, [my purpose is His glory]I will proceed with whatever decision I've made in whatever arena and, I believe, A red light OR greenlight will be given me by a Father who guides for that very purpose. Then you and I believe it will be for our good too. You're right too that this is really a difficult thing for us all and I'm going to be praying for our SBC family.

I'm concerned for your Dad by the way. I hope he's doing better. Thanks for dropping by.

GuyMuse said...

Interesting and well balanced presentation of a difficult matter which continues to plague the Christian world.

However, I would like to pursue the matter a bit more. Like your post, I too am writing in general and not speaking directly to the well known case at hand which is making headlines these days.

Why can't we take 1 Cor.6:1-7 at face value and judge among ourselves? Why must we default to earthly courts rather than abide by the decision of the saints? Are we incapable of judging and settling matters amongst ourselves asks Paul? Good question! When there are two opposing parties of saints, cannot the two agree before the Lord to settle their differences before wise, impartial and competent saints? Or am I just an idealistic dreamer?

I know there are cases where earthly courts are needed (your post does a good job of helping us to see this) but for most issues that arise between saints, I don't see why we would want to turn to earthly courts rather than some way of allowing "our own" to listen carefully and judge between opposing parties in a fair and Christ glorifying way.

In our missionary work we often have serious matters of contention between brothers/sisters in Christ. A lot of heat, passion and strong words are used--even to the point of coming close to striking blows! In these cases several wise, respected saints are appointed to listen to both sides and to help mediate an agreed upon solution. While this doesn't always work, 2 out of 3 times it does! People usually want to solve their differences, not take the other person to court. I think we need to arise to these uncomfortable situations and make ourselves available to hearing controversial issues between saints and working to resolve them in an acceptable way where we seek both parties "win" at least something of what is important to them.

In closing, I again stress there does seem to be a role for earthly courts and there are times when the saints need to use them--but always as a very LAST RESORT when all else has already been tried and has failed.

It would seem earthly courts come in to play when the opposing Christian parties have not been able to work our their differences before wise, judging saints. But MOST OF THE TIME it would seem we should be able to solve our own "in-house" differences without having to sue one another in courts of law.

Maybe it is time we gave 1 Cor.6:1-7 a fresh, serious, and literal hearing.

Paul Burleson said...

Guy,

This one of those times when my only respnse can be "I totally agree." I, like you I'm sure, recognize this would be a major shift in thinking for the American wing of the Bride. We are so independent and somehow our organizations tend to take on a life of their own with little REAL connection to a church.

There may need to be some new thinking for congregations AND our SBC entities on ways to STEP IN when it appears there will not be honest dialogue and dealing with real personal issues. To say "let trustees handle it" will not suffice if they, in fact, do not. There may need to be a fresh look at some greater responsibility on the part of the Executive Committee with this regard. We, [SBC] after all, are relational and not business minded, in theory at least. But unless we do figure out some procedure by which we can practice Matthew 18 to the conclusion Jesus took it in His instruction, in order to deal with personal issues as are at the fore front of our minds today, we likely will continue to see what we're seeing. I, for one, am concerned with the distance between our SBC people and the actual function of the Convention anyway. As usual, out of pain and difficult God often teaches some great lessons. I'm ready to learn.

Lee said...

That's a very reasonable, balanced, Biblical approach.

How is it that our denomination has missed taking advantage of your experience and wisdom by putting you on a trustee board or the executive committee?

Paul Burleson said...

Lee,

You're very gracious. I have to admit that during the controversy of the past twenty-five years I, along with some of my friends, was marginalized because of what was then perceived as charismatic leanings, which only had to do with free praise and worship since I've been a [don't tell anyone] Calvinist for fifty years. :)

This was not just the conservatives but the moderates [I hate labels] also. Dr. Dilday, a friend during my pastorate at Southcliff in Ft. Worth, told a later pastor search committee "you don't want him, he's too charismatic." By the way, I love him and Dr. Page Patterson equally though I know Dr. Dilday much better. And I REALLY mean it when I say I love them.

In reality I've never been political and don't care to be now. [Though I will admit the actions against a young man I love and know extremely well have prompted me to voice opinions as I never have before. I wonder why?] :)

Anyway, I like where I am and the fact that you would even ask is gratifying to an older guy. [Another smiley face is necessary.]

Bob Cleveland said...

Certainly it'd be nice if all this sort of thing could be resolved in-house, but the practice of discipline is pretty well limited to the local church. FBC Pelham, for example, couldn't disfellowship someone who had wronged me in Juneau, Alaska (pointedly avoiding any innuendo about current controversies).

That leaves me with the thought that, if we all did the sorts of things we ought, all the time, we wouldn't need the SBC or the CP or whatever. Folks could just DO the right thing with no hierarchy. But we're a long way from there so we drummed up the human machinery and it sort of has to look like the world.

Perhaps we look for a good and pleasing answer to the results of sin. I don't think there is one.

bryan riley said...

Paul, I don't know. I'm not for a legalistic approach, but I think we shouldn't settle for less just because of hard circumstances or because we're so imperfect. Plus, we can argue that our court system today isn't much less entertainment than historical ones. I really like what Les said above. That is the test.

questions like: Is it God-glorifying? Is it loving? Is it consistent with Jesus' character?

I still think this should be resolved.

Paul Burleson said...

Bob and Bryan,

Sorry for the delay in responding. I've been enroute and now getting the first couple of days of meeting under my belt here in Ohio. Thanks to both of you for commenting.

Bryan, I can only guess, not knowing Dr. Klauda and not having any inside information about her decision, but I would think that she asked herself all three questions and answered them to her understanding of the totality of scripture. One may not agree with her decision, but would probably be safe in assuming her decision was as she sees scripture and believed she heard from the Lord about it. Ultimately we all must answer for ourselves since there is disagreement among believers. Even those that one would look to for input and help may see things differently among themselves.

I guess we all must stand as His servants, loving each other and trusting that He will set things totally clear one day. You and I are certainly for that I know. Good to hear from you.