By: Joe Maxwell

Christian suing Christian.

Some flatly call it unscriptural. Most believers would call it lamentable, at best. In I Corinthians 6, the apostle Paul reasons that those who are destined to judge angels certainly are more fit to judge one another than are “the unrighteous.” Yet, Christians file law-suits against one another every day, choosing to air their arguments in secular courtrooms.

Earlier this month, a disagreement , between James Dobson of Focus on the Family and his former radio co-host, Gil Alexander-Moegerle, and his wife, Carolyn, entered civil court in California. Though both sides said they were willing to consider efforts to settle out of court, in the end, they did not. This case prompted many to ask once again, “If Christian leaders won’t agree to biblical mediation or arbitration, why expect the average person in the pew to heed the apostle’s admonition?”

“That’s the question that has torn at my guts for years, and it’s not just this [Dobson-Moegerle] case, it’s Christian leader after Christian leader,” says Bill Bontrager, a 49-year-old former Minnesota judge who now travels the country preaching the principles of Christian mediation and arbitration. In light of the apparent attitude of some Christian leaders, Bontrager wonders, “Why should any of those on the street listen?”


Biblically faithful

Some leaders and laypeople have listened, choosing Christian conciliation, which is defined by the Association of Christian Conciliation Services (ACCS) as “a process for reconciling persons and resolving disputes out of court in a biblically faithful manner.”

The process, based largely on Matthew 18:l5-20, involves first encouraging two parties to resolve their dispute in private. If that doesn’t work, mediation comes next, in which the parties resolve their differences with the help of a specially trained mediator. If needed, the parties could go to arbitration, in which both sides of a dispute agree to a binding settlement handed down by an impartial, trained arbitrator or board of arbitrators. Only as a last resort are the secular courts used.

The approach has worked. Author and speaker Josh McDowell just months ago settled a potentially litigious contract dispute out of court through arbitration. “It was one of those things where there was a little bit of truth on both sides,” McDowell says, adding that the outcome was much more preferable than going to court, especially since Christian arbitrators also
stress personal reconciliation, something not built into the secular court system. “No question about it. It is one of the most biblical practices you can get,” McDowell says.

In another recent case, John Brown III, president of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, encouraged two parties tied to the school to enter arbitration for a civil dispute. Because both parties were close to the school, a suit could have reflected on the university, Brown says. Instead, arbitration was used. “The Holy Spirit really did work through the process in a very moving way,” Brown says.

Since about 1980, when the Christian Legal Society (CLS) formed what is now ACCS, hundreds of cases pitting Christian against Christian have been settled out of court. The cases include laypeople considering divorce, Christian colleges charged with unfairly firing employees, contract disputes, and even two ranchers who disagreed about the right-of-way for a road.

Ken Sande, president of ACCS, which separated from CLS about four years ago (the groups still work closely together), says there arc 27 ACCS programs nationally, plus 56 individual members. About 60 to 70 percent of ACCS members are attorneys.

Other groups include the Mennonite Conciliation Services (MCS). Some disputes involving Christians are handled by the American Arbitration Association, a larger, secular group with a longer history than ACCS. Still other organizations, such as the Alban Institute, Inc., based in Washington, D.C., deal with church conflict management, which may or may not involve matters fit for mediation or arbitration-such as a church at odds with its pastor.

Christian mediators and arbitrators point to the fact that many Christian organizations and colleges now write into contracts that any potential disputes should be settled by mediation or arbitration. But even with all these groups at work, and with many organizations accepting the conciliation idea, the vast majority of Christians still take their disputes to court, says Lynn Buzzard, professor of constitutional law at Campbell University in North Carolina. Buzzard founded ACCS while serving as CLS’s director. He also co-authored the book Tell It to the Church, which stimulated interest in the early 1980s for Christian conciliation.

Statistics from the National Center for State Courts show 17,321,125 civil lawsuits filed nationally in 1989. Buzzard says it is fair to assume a percentage of that number proportionate to the evangelical population involves evangelical Christians.

In comparison, Sande estimates Accs handled about 5,000 cases last year through its 27 city- and state-based programs. Some were settled, as ACCS urges, when the parties talked one on one. A much smaller number actually completed mediation or arbitration. Some ended up in court.

“At no time has there even been a dent in the [courts’] case loads,” Buzzard says, noting that most Christians still choose to litigate.


An imperfect ideal

Buzzard says American individualism has so penetrated the church that litigation often is considered without a second thought. “There is generally not in the [American] Christian community a sense of accountability… to provide mediation and arbitration the sort of atmosphere in which people turn to it and give it weight,” says Buzzard.

Experts admit the hardest part about Christian mediation or arbitration seems to be getting people to agree to use it. That apparently is what sent the Dobson-Moegerle dispute to court: While Dobson was open to mediation, Alexander-Moegerle sought binding arbitration. In the end, neither side sat down at the table.

Another difficulty comes from the fact that Christian arbitrators often arrive on the scene after a suit has already been filed by one party, who by then is listening to the advice of a hired attorney. That was the case at Northwestern College, a Christian college in St. Paul, Minnesota, which was sued by a former employee who claimed damages from a relationship with a teacher. Northwestern College president Donald Ericksen said a Christian arbitrator tried to intercede after the lawsuit had been filed against the college but could not convince the employee to opt for arbitration.

Some Christian mediators and arbitrators have been criticized for relying too heavily on certain passages of Scripture, such as Matthew 18:15-20 and I Corinthians 6:1-8. Using the verses almost as a magic incantation, they fail to appreciate the complexities of certain civil conflicts, critics say.

Ericksen is sold on the biblical concept of mediation and arbitration. But in the Northwestern College case, he believes the arbitrator’s expectations “somewhat naive” and failed to appreciate the depth of emotion involved in the matter for the plaintiff. “The arbitrator’s opinion about the issue was skewed,” Ericksen says.

While some evangelicals have specific criticisms of arbitration and mediation, often confined to individual cases, those who criticize the process as a whole seem few and far between.

Sam Ericsson, executive director of CLS, says the Christian conciliation system is proven to work, but that like anything else, people can fail. “If you don’t bring in a competent, godly, wise arbitrator or mediator, don’t expect competent solutions,” he says.


A place for the courts

Christian arbitrators like Bontrager and CLS’s Ericsson strongly assert that any dispute between Christians can be solved out of court. Even so, ACCS’s policy manual recognizes that God has given the civil courts jurisdiction to enforce the laws of the land (Rom. 13:1-7) and that, therefore, issues such as criminal violations and some constitutional questions “may legitimately be resolved through litigation.”But, says Ericsson, “It is foolishness of the highest order to think that the secular system will produce better results than competent, godly arbitrators.”


Solving Conflicts in the congregation

1. Confrontation

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matt. 18:15)

2. Mediation

“But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (v. 16)

3. Arbitration

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (v. 17).

4. Appeal

If the biblical process fails, the dispute could go to a higher church board – or, as a last resort, perhaps, to the secular courts.


(The above material appeared in a May 27,1991 issue of Christianity Today.)

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