This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
Does a believer who has been unable to find justice in the church courts ever have the right to go to the civil magistrate? This is a question that has puzzled pietistic evangelicals. They are quick to quote I Corinthians 6:7 which says, “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?” Based upon this one verse the blanket pronouncement is issued that it is always a sin to go to the civil magistrate.
On the other hand, it is also frequently the case that the church courts are not doing their job and believers immediately run to the civil magistrate in order to resolve conflicts. Divorce is an excellent example of a type of conflict that is rarely adjudicated in the church courts. Quite the contrary, the huge number of professing Christians who obtain divorces almost always go directly to the civil magistrate in order to solve their conflict.
I Corinthians 6 gives us the answer to the question of the use of the civil magistrate to resolve conflicts between believers. Verse 1 establishes this principle, “Does any of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?” The first principle of the civil magistrate for the Christian is that the church courts must be utilized first. Without question, it is always a sin to run to the civil magistrate to try and resolve a conflict with a fellow believer before exhausting all options within the church courts. According to Paul, it is disgraceful that “brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers.”
The problem, of course, is that the church courts are not functioning properly. The elders are not doing their job of rendering judicial decisions and the members have no choice but to go to the civil magistrate to adjudicate a conflict. However, the primary duty of the believer who has a conflict with another believer is to first instruct his elders on their responsibility to resolve the conflict in the church court. I realize that is asking a lot of a member of the church, but it is a necessity. The problem was the same in Paul’s day. He says, “Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren…” Apparently the Corinthians suffered from the same malady that infects evangelicalism in our country.
The purpose of the trial before the elders is to either resolve the conflict or declare one of the parties to the conflict to be an unbeliever (excommunicate). Once it has been established by the judicial decision of the elders that one of the parties is an unbeliever, the injured party has the right, but not the necessity, to continue his prosecution in the civil arena. Until one of the parties to the conflict has been declared to be an unbeliever, neither party is permitted to take the matter to the civil courts. Once that judicial decision has been rendered, the injured party make seek recourse with the civil magistrate.
It often makes sense to continue on to the civil magistrate. Divorce is a good example. Assume for the moment that a husband has committed adultery. The wife prosecutes the case in the church court. The husband refuses to repent of his sin (he has probably already moved in with the other woman) and the elders excommunicate him and declare him to be an unbeliever. That is as far as the jurisdiction of the church is generally able to go. However, there are still many issues to be resolved. It is highly unlikely that the husband would submit to a property settlement and custody decree that was established by the elders. Therefore, it becomes necessary to invoke the power of the sword of the State to enforce a divorce decree. Here the injured wife needs to make her case before the civil magistrate that she is entitled to the property and the children because her husband is an adulterer and should, according to biblical law, be put to death. The State, of course, will mock her religious beliefs and her husband will threaten to use them against her in the custody hearing. That is why Paul warns about going to law before the “unrighteous”. A believer will have to be very wise and use the system the best she can to obtain a just outcome.
In summary, the pietists are in error when they assert that it is always wrong to utilize the civil magistrate. They are correct that it is always wrong to go to the civil magistrate as long as both parties to the dispute are still considered to be believers. However, once the church court has rendered the judicial decision that one of the parties to the dispute is an unbeliever, the victimized party is free, but not required, to go to the civil magistrate. We see that, once again, the failure of elders to do their biblical responsibility has brought tremendous harm and suffering to the church. It is imperative that elders render judicial decisions so the individual believers can determine a proper course of action with respect to the civil magistrate.
Before moving on to conflicts that are the result of weaker/stronger brother issues it is important to make an application of the principles of church discipline to the family.