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Fall 2010 · Vol. 39 No. 2 · pp. 265–270 

Disputes Between Christians

David W. T. Brattston

Christians should not sue other Christians in government courts. This was the command of the Apostle Paul, and Christians followed it for at least two centuries after his time. Although there were a few exceptions in actual practice, the New Testament and other early Christian authorities discouraged civil litigation (lawsuits) and encouraged an approach to one’s legal opponents that would contribute to peace and reconciliation with them. For disputes between themselves, Christians were to use church courts, for which there was much provision by the early third century. Even in the twenty-first century, the laws of many American states and Canadian provinces provide a means for Christians to settle disputes in church tribunals instead of secular courts. If they are not already doing so, Mennonites ought to adopt this means of resolving differences, for it has long been one of their tenets “to seek to avoid lawsuits to resolve personal grievances, especially with other believers.” 1

. . . there were discouragements to Christians engaging in secular lawsuits, and encouragements that they not apply the full rigor of the law to their opponent.

In 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 Paul condemns Christians’ taking grievances against each other to secular courts, which were at that time conducted by non-Christians. He said that the very act of launching secular litigation was a defeat for both sides. He instructed the Corinthian Christians to instead have their disputes decided by a fellow Christian, within the church.

Such distaste for government courts was well founded at the time Paul wrote. Secular law in his time mandated the sin of idolatry by its tradition that litigants offer sacrifices to the pagan gods of justice before the trial began. Roman judges and juries were often corrupt, prone to bribery 2 and showed unfair partiality to those parties who were powerful and influential outside the courtroom, 3 regardless of the merits of the case.

Moreover, the standard Roman procedure in conducting lawsuits was completely contrary to New Testament and other Christian commands to love and accommodate one another, especially those of the household of faith. The procedure fostered animosity and bad feelings. Personal hostility was exacerbated by the rules of procedure. Character assassination was common. No matter who won, a Roman lawsuit left both parties with longstanding bitter feelings and hatred against each other, against the witnesses, and even against the judges and juries. 4

Early Christians shared Paul’s opposition to secular lawsuits. Such litigation was prohibited by Clement of Alexandria (Egypt), the dean of the foremost Christian educational institution of the late second century, 5 and the church father Tertullian, a former lawyer who wrote in Tunisia in the late second and early third century, 6 as well as by the early-third-century Syrian church manual, the Didascalia. 7 A Christian treatise of the mid-third century repeated Paul’s injunction against Christians going to law with Christians. 8

Nevertheless, some early Christians did engage in secular lawsuits, presumably with Jews and pagans. This is shown by the church father Origen, an outstanding professor, writer and preacher whose sermons and writings had great influence on the church of his time (first half of the third century) and for centuries afterward. In one sermon against the lax Christianity of his day, he told his listeners not to be litigious. 9 In another, he condemned legal actions over land of little value. 10 (Remember that 1 Corinthians 6:2 is precise in condemning lawsuits over small matters.) Origen also exhorted his congregation not to sue over the things of the world. 11 More especially, and perhaps in resignation that some Christians were nevertheless involved in secular litigation, he preached against those Christians who attended the law courts at the hour they should be in church for public worship. 12 These exceptions were probably due to remnants of the old Adam in lukewarm Christians of the time. Origen’s sermons were full of criticisms of believers in his day who did not conform their lives to the best of Christian teaching. 13

Further indication that the church condemned secular proceedings at the same time that some members of Origen’s congregation engaged in them is shown by his prohibition against favoritism toward the stronger party in a lawsuit and suppressing the truth in one to help a friend, as well as by his encouraging parties to promoting justice and truth in one. 14 Perhaps continued involvement in secular justice was a necessity of life for these early Christians in disputes with pagans and Jews because church tribunals could not affect parties who were not Christians. 15

Starting with Jesus himself, there were discouragements to Christians engaging in secular lawsuits, and encouragements that they not apply the full rigor of the law to their opponent. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ commanded his listeners to make peace with an adversary on the way to court and even make friends with him or her before reaching the courtroom. 16 Clement of Alexandria repeated this, 17 and also exhorted Christians to ask the judge to forgive their adversary. 18 The Didascalia said litigants should yield to each other, be willing to incur a loss when settling a lawsuit, and also suffer loss instead of suing a Christian in a secular court. 19 This last is similar to the injunction in 1 Corinthians 6:7 to suffer wrong rather than take a Christian to court.

In addition to such counsel not to assert full legal rights, the Sermon on the Mount imposed a further disincentive: the losing party was under an obligation to pay his/her opponent twice what the judge ordered, even if it included the shirt off his back. 20

To decide disputes between Christians, the church developed a system of church courts, presided over by church officers. Origen identified congregational leaders as the proper persons to judge between Christians, settle quarrels and reconcile those who disagree. 21 The church manual Didascalia gave much more detail about proceedings in church courts. For example, it provided that the clergy-judges be diligent and cautious in trying disputes between Christians and to inquire fully into the matter. The clergy-judges were to keep the parties in friendship and to save them rather than destroy them; this was exactly the opposite of Roman secular procedure, which promoted hatred and bad feelings against all concerned. To forestall such unpleasantness, the Didascalia laid on the clergy-judges an obligation to ascertain whether the Christian bringing the complaint was acting out of envy or ill-feeling and whether he himself was a good Christian. If they discovered that he was acting in bad faith, they were to rebuke him and set him out of the church for a while. 22

Christian courts need not be confined to the early church. The laws of most American states and Canadian provinces today provide that parties can take their disputes to church arbitration rather than a government court. 23 If the parties agree in writing to appoint an arbiter and to submit the grievance to him or her, the arbiter’s decision is final and binding on the parties and has the same force and effect as if it had been made by a government court. An arbiter can administer oaths (or solemn affirmations for Mennonites) and issue subpoenas to compel the presence of documents and witnesses. Thus the laws of most states and provinces provide for conscientious Christians a way of avoiding secular courts and going instead to a member of their church to settle disputes, as the Apostle Paul recommended in 1 Corinthians 6:5. 24

Reginald H. Fuller of the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia believes that Paul was alluding to a method of dispute resolution already well established among Jews in his day. Among Jews, some grievances could be adjudicated by a three-person panel or one qualified judge sitting alone, but a single layperson could hear and decide a dispute if the parties had agreed beforehand. 25 A formal court of twenty-three judges was mandatory in cases involving sexual transgressions or capital punishment, but since 1 Corinthians 6:2 characterizes the matters in issue between the Christian litigants as “trivial,” it would appear that Paul did not have such serious cases in mind. 26 After all, the church legally could not—and according to its beliefs would not—inflict the death penalty.

Fuller states that what the Apostle opposed was Christians asking their pagan neighbors to act as such paralegal arbitrators. 27 This was indeed a defeat for Christian parties and for the whole Christian movement because it was a tacit admission that they did not love each other very much and the church lacked persons wise enough to settle their differences. If Christians had to choose pagan arbiters, “those who are least esteemed by the church” (1 Cor. 6:5), how could believers fulfill their function of competently judging pagans and the rest of the world (v. 2) and even angels (v. 3)? It would give a scandalous impression to non-Christians if people who claim they will one day reign and judge with Christ cannot settle their own quarrels over trifles without the assistance of outsiders. 28

The last several years have seen North American secular law and practice favor a shift to “mediation” or “alternative dispute resolution,” with the parties agreeing to keep all or part of a dispute out of court by submitting the issue(s) to (an) arbitrator(s) and agreeing beforehand to abide by his/her/their decision. There are even professional mediators who decide such matters on a part- or full-time basis. The teaching of 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 for today would appear to be that Mennonites and other Christians should consent to having their case heard only by arbiters who are themselves of the same faith, preferably a member of their own denomination, i.e., by those who are most esteemed by the church.

Above and before all this, Jesus commands us not to resort to a court or even a church arbiter hastily. According to Matthew 18:15–17, a Christian must take certain preliminary steps before legal action or appointment of an arbiter. If you have a grievance with a Christian brother or sister, you must first approach him or her in private and discuss the matter between you two alone. Only if this does not produce results, repeat the grievance to him or her in the presence of one or two witnesses. After—and only after—these preliminaries are tried and have failed, is the Christian to resort to secular courts or an arbiter within the church or in any manner to the church. Any other course of action is a defeat for both of you, to use Saint Paul’s phrase. 29


  1. Confession of Faith of the U.S. and Canadian Conferences of the Mennonite Brethren Churches (Winnipeg, MB; Hillsboro, KS, 1999), Article 10: Demonstrating True Faith, 17.
  2. Bruce W. Winter, “Civil Litigation in Secular Corinth and the Church: The Forensic Background to 1 Corinthians 6.1–8,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 563–6.
  3. Ibid., 564–6 and 572.
  4. Ibid., 566–8.
  5. Clement of Alexandria Stromata 7.14.
  6. Tertullian De Corona 11.
  7. Didascalia Apostolorum 11.
  8. Pseudo-Cyprian Testimonies Against the Jews 3.44.
  9. Origen Homilies on Psalm 36 2.1.
  10. Origen Homilies on Exodus 1.5.
  11. Ibid., 6.6.
  12. Origen Homilies on Genesis 10.1.
  13. For more examples, see my “The Bad Old Days: A Comment on ‘What Can the Contemporary Church Learn?’ ” Christian Education Journal 15, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 110–17.
  14. Origen Commentary on Romans 2.5.6.
  15. 1 Corinthians 5:12–13.
  16. Matthew 5:25; Luke 12:58.
  17. Clement of Alexandria 3.3.
  18. Ibid., 7.14.
  19. Didascalia Apostolorum 11.
  20. Matthew 5:40.
  21. Origen Homilies on Exodus 11.6.
  22. Didascalia Apostolorum 11.
  23. For example, The Uniform Arbitration Act (Arbitration and Award) Kansas Statutes Annotated Chapter 5, especially Article 2, and to a lesser extent Article 4 (2005); The Arbitration Act, Revised Statutes of Nova Scotia 1989 Chapter 19, vol. 1, pp. 213–21.
  24. Christian lawyers would know the details of the process in your state or province.
  25. Reginald H. Fuller, “First Corinthians 6:1–11: An Exegetical Paper,” Ex Auditu 2 (1986): 99f, 103.
  26. Ibid., 99f.
  27. Ibid., 100.
  28. Ibid., 103.
  29. 1 Corinthians 6:7.
David W. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer and Adjudicator of the Small Claims Court who resides in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada. His articles on early and contemporary Christianity have been published in Canada, Britain and the United States.

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