CHRISTIANS IN THE COURTROOM
BY CLIFFORD W. KELLY, PH.D.
In 1994, Regent University professor Clifford W. Kelly and four other Regent professors sued the school founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson over an issue of tenure contracts. The ensuing trial was televised on Court TV. Kelly and his colleagues lost the suit on appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, and Kelly lost his job. He later reconciled with Regent officials. However, behind the scenes of these lawsuits are the details of the personal struggles the Christian litigants encountered as they chose to “fight” one another in order to bring a sense of truth and justice to the church.
Whatever you may feel about either side of this painful dispute, it is vitally important for us to learn the lessons that the Father most assuredly has in mind. That’s the purpose of this article: to reflect on the Regent conflict and to report what I think the Lord might be saying to us through it. I will not get into fine points of law. But I do intend to bring some fine points of Scripture to bear.
There is broad discussion that surrounds the issue of Christians fighting Christians. And that issue is best posed as a single, burning question: How are serious conflicts between believers to be resolved according to Scripture? Notice I am quite purposefully excluding the trivial sorts of nonsense that we all engage in from time to time-personality differences, disputes over what research literature calls “preferences and nuisances.”
I will concentrate on the kinds of battles that ensue in church splits, or in this case, the split of a Christian university. These are called “veridical” or true conflicts; that is, they exist and divide believers along the lines of real and deep differences that, if not resolved, bring great harm to the body of Christ.
Beneath this overarching question are three subpoints that require our attention in order to answer the larger issue.
When, if ever, should Christians choose to stand and fight against one another? Certainly there are many in the church who believe Christians should never, ever fight, no matter what the circumstances. Unfortunately for us in our fallen human nature, the point is moot since both history and Scripture remind us profusely that Christians do, too often, fight against one another.
Over what should a Christian choose to stand and fight against another Christian? Here we deal not so much with whether or not they should engage in a conflict, but more with the issues over which they do, and sometimes ought, to fight.
How should Christians fight with one another when they choose to do so? Here we deal with the “weapons of our warfare,” so to speak. What methods should Christians use to engage our adversary?
I will share from both from my experience and from the Word of God, the latter always refereeing and judging the former. And I will share from my heart some of the more personal aspects of what it was like to be in the bonfire and whether or not I think it was lit by men or God.
WHEN SHOULD CHRISTIANS FIGHT?
This one is unarguably the easiest to address, believe it or not. I have learned incontrovertibly that you should stand and fight when God commands you to fight and never at any other time. Given the vast array of opportunities that the world gives us to fight, this becomes a bottom-line criterion for every believer, as it was for King David. Remember early in his career when the Amalekites had overrun and burned Ziklag and taken captive all who were left there, including his two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail?
The Scriptures tell us that even though he was extremely discouraged, David first strengthened himself in the Lord. And then he did the all-important thing: “So David inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall I pursue this troop? Shall I overtake them?’ And He answered him, ‘Pursue, for you shall surely overtake them and without fail recover all”‘ ( 1 Sam. 30:8, NKJV).
Even though David was not waging war against his fellow Jews, the crucial point is that he first inquired of God as to the wisdom of engaging the battle. So must we all who are inclined to confront wrongdoing in the church. We fight only when God tells us to fight and never at any other time.
How can we know what God says?
1. We go to the Word of God and ask God. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (Tames 1:5-6).
2. We are to gather sound advice from wise counselors. This includes our spouses and pastors, especially, who will help provide God’s safety net since “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).
3. There must be a strong inner witness that this is God’s voice telling you to go ahead. As Jesus so profoundly put it, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). When the Word, wise counsel and your inner witness- line up, you are in a good position to move in the direction of that counsel and wage the war.
4. We need to look very carefully at our circumstances before entering a battle. Jesus said, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it” (Luke 14:28).
I believed I had all these going for me. But on reflection, I had a number of them going against me. First, the Word did not agree with what I was doing. Neither was there a consensus of counsel on my behalf–more Christians told me. not to sue than told me otherwise. And while I thought I had the inner witness, I never did have God’s peace during the entire affair.
It’s amazing what excuses we make up to cover that absence. But when we’re on our own quest with our own passions reigning, it’s very difficult to hear the voice of God. Had I truly counted the cost–the loss of everything, including finances, health, home, job and almost my very family–I would likely have taken a different course.
WHAT SHOULD CHRISTIANS FIGHT OVER?
In an ideal world, of course, Christians should never fight against one another. Today’s world is filled, as Jesus said it would be, with “tribulations” (John 16:33), which the Greek defines as “afflictions, burdens and troubles,” which tend to make us all the more ready to fight–anyone, anytime, anywhere.
But over what issues may the Christian engage another Christian?
1. In matters of doctrinal heresy, Christians are to take their stand against falsehood and “fight” for the truth. Certainly this is what Martin Luther did at the Diet of Worms. It is what Jesus Himself did repeatedly as He stood against the lawyers, the Pharisees and the Sadducees who opposed Christ’s doctrinal teachings. It is what the apostle Paul did when he stood against Hymenaeus and Philetus, whose anti-doctrinal talk was compared to a “cancer” that had to be strongly opposed (2 Tim. 2:17-18).
We are certainly to “fight” against such heresies in order to preserve, protect and guard the truth as a sacred treasure.
2. We have both license and responsibility to defend our family members, friends and even strangers who cannot defend themselves. As the psalmist wrote: “Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4, NASB).
The Hebrew word for “vindicate” here translates as “defend,” “judge,” “avenge” or “deliver.” Christ, of course, said it best: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13, NKJV). In all of this, there is the right and duty to risk one’s own life to save or defend the life of another. This is good in the sight of God, even noble, and constitutes “a good fight.”
3. There are times when your whole being shouts, “Stand!” and you can do little else. It is what Luther must have felt at the Diet when, in his flesh, he wanted to find a way out. But in his spirit, he knew that he could but stand and say: “Here I stand. I can do no more.”
It is when Jesus, when cleansing the temple of the money lenders, could stand it no longer, and, as the Scriptures report: “Then His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up’ ” (John 2:17). In such circumstances, we are quite literally consumed by the Spirit of God in resisting some evil or wrongdoing and are thereby justified. Note, however, in all three of these examples the essential motive is love: love of God, love of truth, love of our neighbor.
HOW MUST CHRISTIANS FIGHT?
Undoubtedly, this is where most of us miss it, and it is certainly where I believe I missed it in the Regent lawsuit. Human beings are always prone to disagree in anger; therefore, anger is the culprit that needs restraining and disciplining in virtually every Christian conflict.
Jesus made this very clear when He said: “‘You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not commit murder,” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [here some manuscripts insert “without cause” just to make things interesting] shall be guilty before the court…If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering'” (Matt. 5:21-24, NASB).
Now most of us will say, “Hey! I have cause!” But if you’ll look at this passage carefully, you’ll see that the Lord didn’t leave us too much breathing room for sustained anger. He clearly instructs that even if you have cause, you must make peace with your brother even if you believe that he has ought against you!
Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Ephesus: “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Eph. 4:26, NKJV). No matter how you cut it, no matter how justifiable your “cause,” you are simply not allowed to use anger as your motive for engaging in conflicts with anyone, but especially your brother or sister in the Lord.
On the other hand, God understands that humans do get angry. So what does He do? He gives us a methodology, a tool kit if you will, for resolving serious conflicts: “‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.
” ‘But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.'” (Matt. 18:1S17).
While this teaching’s truths are self evident, at least two problems arise that make Christian conflict-resolution difficult. First, when we get to the stage of “tell it to the church,” there is no formal mechanism or forum through which the offended believer can work. In the case of the Regent lawsuits, for example, one plaintiff appealed to several leaders in the church but could get no takers.
Second, there is little teaching on what the believer is allowed to do in the fourth and final stage of the conflict wherein we may treat the offending brother or sister “as a heathen and a tax collector.” One opinion is that we can dis-fellowship that person; another, more severe, opinion suggests that we can, as a last resort, take that person to court.
It is here that we come full circle to the central point: Can we sue a brother? Our key passage, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, speaks for itself: “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?…Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” ( 1 Cor. 6:1, 7, NASB).
The Greek word for defrauded in this passage means just that. In the words of Webster’s 1828 dictionary, defrauded means “deprived of property or right by trick, artifice or deception; injured by the withholding of what is due.”
Thus the Scriptures appear to clearly indicate that we are not to sue an offending brother or sister, even if they are guilty of the crime of fraud. Yet the prose is not in the form of an absolute commandment, and that’s where we get into both trouble and confusion. And that is where intelligent commentary is warranted. After reading many of them in the last year and a half, I have chosen one that seems to reflect the most balanced view of this passage available.
The key here is found in the meaning of the phrase, a “so-called brother.” Clearly the implication is that, in fact, the person is not a brother at all, but one in “name only.” I have come to the following conclusion about such a line: If a believer is not a heretic, he is my brother, and he shall be subject to all the privileges pertaining thereto. If he is a heretic, and I know this objectively from scripture and the Holy Spirit, then all bets are off. Yet in neither case may I hate or become embittered against my opponent.
So there you have it in two maxims: ( 1) Hold your brother accountable according to the procedures set forth in Matthew 18:1517, but (2) do not sue your brother if he is truly your brother. Now none of this disallows the believer from calling in police authority in cases of outright lawbreaking, no matter who commits the offense since every soul is “subject to the governing authorities…and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:12,NKJV).
But in my view lawsuits among believers simply are both forbidden and dangerously foolish. Even lawsuits against nonbelievers were not favored by our Lord. Witness His advice in Matthew 5: “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.” (v. 25).
It is clear that God doesn’t like lawsuits. And it is equally clear that He loves principled attempts at peacemaking. He said in this same chapter, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). And how is it that we can best make peace? Through the higher law of love, which demands mercy and forgiveness.
Christ continues to preach revolutionary doctrine in the Beatitudes, including one of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture: “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two…But I say to you, love your enemies…pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:40-41, 44-45).
SOME FINAL REFLECTIONS
For those of you who still believe in lawsuits among believers, I offer you an olive branch found in 1 Corinthians: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (6:12).
The lawsuits we were involved in completely took over our lives. Every dinner conversation, newspaper article, casual comment, heartfelt reflection and more–all had their point of origin in the tormenting question, “How is the lawsuit going today?”
Because they take years to litigate and mountains of money to fuel, lawsuits exact an enormous toll. Here are just a few of the costs for those of you who still doubt.
Health. Twenty-three days after we filed (on June 1, 1994), my mother died suddenly of a heart attack. Not long after this, my health began to deteriorate.
I began taking anti-stress medications, which I am still dependent on. By January 1995, I suffered my first heart attack and underwent angioplasty surgery. My recovery was neither rapid nor complete. I also developed intestinal problems, and I still battle the intestinal and cardiac diseases.
Finances. We lost everything. We were forced to use our life savings, sell a lovely home and use all of its equity in order to survive. I went on unemployment for six months to supplement our meager income from Suzette’s part-time job. The bright light was that our church members, friends and even unknowns came to our aid, as God provided money, food and shelter for us during these dark months.
After sending out more than 140 resumes by June 1997 and still battling illness, I had no job and very little hope. We were considering filing for food stamps and bankruptcy.
Family. The most painful effects of all of this were felt, however, in our family. My little girl, Christina, developed intestinal problems of her own and was fighting bouts of discouragement, if not depression. Our son, Christopher, fared better (by being 5 and being, well, Christopher). But more seriously, even our marriage was damaged.
Isolation. We predictably became more isolated as our troubles mounted. Friends did keep in touch, but we found ourselves dropping out more and more, just to avoid being around Successful Christians” who didn’t have our problems.
Broken fellowship. Finally, there was the effect on our fellowship with fellow litigants. Though we tried, we couldn’t help but talk about Regent and Pat Robertson incessantly.
In early July 1997, I had become convinced that I had drastically missed God in the lawsuit, in my motives (I once drove by Pat’s house and shouted, “You’re going down!”) and in my method of fighting. There was no love in me for anyone, and I still struggle with that, though I can confess I am angry at just about no one these days.
This is my message to those of you who believe that lawsuits are the answer: They are not! They are violent. They are deeply injurious. They are invasive. They are divisive. They are earthly, not divine. And most tragically, when launched by a brother against another brother, they deeply grieve the heart of the Father.
But thank God for His unmitigated grace. Meetings with former Regent President Terry Lindvall, Provost George Selig and Chancellor Pat Robertson led to my return to Regent in August 1997. Since then, Suzette has been hired as a second grade teacher. My children are doing much better and are happily ensconced at a Christian school. And we have been able to put a deposit on a home.
We are so grateful to God and to the body who helped us so much. But we are still sad from time to time. It’s hard not to look over our shoulders and peek at the devastation. As I have said, some of it stays with us, but God is working on us.
I came face-to-face with a God who shouted from my housetops: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
CLIFFORD W. KELLY, Ph.D., is a professor in the Center for Leadership Studies and the College of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. He lives with his wife and two children in Suffolk, Virginia.
PEACEMAKING IN THE CHURCH
A pastor who takes the mandate of 1 Corinthians 6 seriously should designate at least one trained Christian conciliator (peacemaker) for the church. A trained peacemaker can help members of the body determine how to best resolve conflict and avoid litigation whenever possible.
A pastor who would like to help church members avoid litigation and resolve litigated disputes (whenever they cannot be avoided to the glory of God) can provide valuable services to church members with a systematic approach to conflict management. This five-step approach includes:
1. Centralizing information. Centralize all information about the dispute and share that information with the parties, their attorneys and a mediator.
2. Coordinating the effort. Create a plan for collaboratively gathering information, analyzing the case and evaluating various resolution alternatives. Utilize money, time and resources efficiently through coordinated effort.
3. Setting measurement standards. Set standards for measuring the ability of the parties, their attorneys and the mediator to resolve conflict effectively.
4. Measuring performance. Measure each person’s performance against the set measurement standards.
5. Rewarding good results. However, even a trained peacemaker will encounter disputants who regard mediation and negotiation as a waste of time, who believe that there is no way the other party will be reasonable and see things their way–the only way. In these cases, litigation often results.
Matt Radin is a messianic Jewish attorney practicing in Sanford, Florida. His In House Legal Service helps clients avoid expensive and painful litigation. He also: developed Christian Ministries RULE (Reducing Unnecessary Legal Expense) to provide Christian conflict resolution systems for hospitals that are being approached to join Healthcare Providers RULE, especially those hospitals funded by Christian organizations. For more information, write Christian Ministries l RULE, 750 Wylly Ave., Suite 5, Sanford, FL 32773; or call (407) 328-3010.
Other resources include:
Mennonite Conciliation Services
A Peace and Justice Ministry of
Mennonite Central Committee
U.S. 21 South 12th St.
P.O. Box 500
Akron, PA 17501-0500
Christian Conciliation Service
Dana Cheryl Wynn
8322 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92111
FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ON ‘TRUTH’ AND ‘LOVE’
Let me point you to the words of my dear and now deceased mentor, Francis Schaeffer. Just before he died he completed what was for me his best work in The Great Evangelical . Disaster. I loved Schaeffer and his books because he talked so lovingly about “truth”–my favorite topic, as my students would tell you.
In this work, he wrote of “radicals for If truth,” and that spoke powerfully to my ! heart. But for all his talk about truth, he said that “the mark of a Christian” was not truth, but something else.
He quoted Christ to make his point: “A new commandment I give unto you. That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another”(p. 156; John 13:34). And though he talked endlessly about truth and its importance for an age that has largely forgotten it, he ended his book with several suggestions about the even higher importance of “love.”
First, wrote our brother Francis, love means that when I have made a mistake and failed to love my brother, I must go to him and say: “I’m sorry. That is first” (p. 169).
Second: “There must also be open say, ‘I’m sorry,’ it’s even harder to forgive” (p. 171).
Third: When Christians disagree, “We should never come to such difference with true Christians without regret and without tears” (p. 173). Such an important point. Tears are always superior to anger. Always.
Fourth: “In proportion to the gravity of what is wrong between true Christians, it is important consciously to exhibit a seeable love to the world” (p. 174).
Fifth: “We must show a practical demonstration of love in the midst of the dilemma even when it is costly” (p. 17 5 ).
Schaeffer brings us fully home on this last point when he elaborates on 1 Corinthians 6:8. “What does this mean. The church is not to let pass what is wrong; but the Christian should suffer practical, monetary loss to show the oneness true Christians should have rather than to go to court against other true Christians, for this would destroy such an observable oneness before the. watching world. This is costly love, but it is just such practicing love that can be seen” (p. 176).
Schaeffer closes his remarks with a final recommendation that we can show a true, practicing love for one another by keeping consciously before: us and helping one another remaining aware that ( 1 ) it is easy to compromise and call what is wrong right, but (2) it is equally easy to forget to exhibit our oneness in Christ.
–CLIFFORD W. KELLY
WHO IS MY BROTHER?
In The Full Life Study Bible, published in 1992, senior editor Donald C. Stamps offers this interpretation of the Corinthian passage: First, when “trivial disputes” between Christians occur, they are not to be in a court of law but within the confines of the church, he says. Virtually all commentators agree on this interpretation of “small matters.”
Second, however, this does not mean that a believer cannot use the courts in “serious cases with nonbelievers,” as Paul himself appealed to the judicial system on his own
Third, neither is Paul saying that the church must allow its members to “unlawfully abuse or mistreat the innocent, such as widows, children or the weak.” Blatant sinful actions must be dealt with, but handled according to Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18:15-17.
Finally, Stamps offers hits severe opinion: “Furthermore, in cases where a so-called ‘brother’ has . divorced or deserted his family and refuses to support his wife and children with alimony, a mother with the I right motives and concern for her children may take recourse in the courts. Paul is not advocating that those who break the law be allowed to defraud and threaten the life or well-being of another.”
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY MINISTRIES TODAY, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER, 1998, PAGES 62-68. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY