Should we litigate?

Peter Barnes Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
01 September, 2010 3 min read

Should we litigate?

New South Wales is now second only to California so far as litigation is concerned. A part-time masseuse has sued her employer because her clients’ whingeing made her depressed. She was awarded $26,000 as a result.

A basketball referee sued the Mt Isa Basketball Association because she tripped over while running backwards. She was awarded $80,000. I know a woman doctor who, many years ago, fell over while walking down a laneway. She sued the local council because the surface was uneven and won $40,000 in an out of court settlement.


The whole situation has reached lunatic proportions – local councils are removing equipment out of playgrounds because of potential lawsuits; teachers who are supervising playground duty could be open to litigation; before the 2000 Olympics 50 Australian athletes appealed against their exclusion through sports tribunals; doctors in some places cannot pay the insurance costs needed to keep a practice operating; and – the greatest obscenity of all – people born with disabilities are suing, via relatives, doctors for not aborting them.

A Christian can sometimes face quite a dilemma when he or she is confronted with a situation in which standing up for rights becomes an issue. Our natural response is to be defensive and to take on our opponent. However, Christ is not only our Saviour and Redeemer – the substitute who took our place – but our example whom we are to follow.

He does for us what we sinners cannot do for ourselves (he saves from sin and death and judgment) and he does for us what we ought to seek to imitate (he lived a sinless life).

Hence the apostle Peter writes of Christ: ‘He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:22-23).


That seems quite clear – if we profess the name of Christ, we are not to retaliate or take revenge in any circumstances. This is reinforced by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul says that Christians ought not to take each other to court.

Here the apostle points out that Christians will judge the world (vv.1-2). We who have been created below the angels shall reign over them because Christ is above the angels.

Paul also declares that it is more Christ-like to suffer injustice than to demand justice. In verse 7 he says that for a Christian to take another Christian to court is already a defeat (ESV, NIV) or ‘utter failure’ (NKJV). You can win a battle and lose a war.

Better to let the trumpet player blow away half the night or pay for the new fender yourself than to harm the testimony to Christ. ‘Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?’ (v.7).

In any case, says Paul, the church should be able to solve her own problems (v.5). The church can hardly make grandiose claims about her relationship with the eternal all-wise God while at the same time she is not able to settle a few ruffled feathers here on earth.

Charles Simeon was often criticised for his evangelical views and habits. He responded with profound humility, ‘My enemy, whatever evil he says of me, does not reduce me so low as he would if he knew all concerning me that God knows’. Demanding justice and retaliating in a frenzy of self-justification are not gospel-inspired responses to this fallen world.

Legal protection

Yet we find that Paul made use of his Roman citizenship after he was beaten and jailed along with Silas in Philippi. Paul stood firm, and made the magistrates come and apologise before he would leave the city (see Acts 16:35-40). This was undoubtedly done, not to extract some kind of revenge, but to help provide some legal protection for the fledgling church at Philippi.

In AD 404 in North Africa, Augustine was prepared to have Crispinus, the Donatist Bishop of Calama, made liable to a fine as a heretic, but he then intervened and the fine was not paid.

The precedent, however, had been set and Augustine hoped that it would help to spread the gospel and protect his people from the often violent circumcellions [fanatical bands of predatory peasants] attached to the Donatists.

In 1743 George Whitefield did something similar by lodging charges against rioters in Hampton before the Gloucester court. This was done to protect the early Methodists, both preachers and people. Before it went to the King’s Bench, Whitefield dropped the case but the point had been made.

Overall, it seems clear that we may only go to court to defend another’s rights or to protect the cause of Christ. With great reluctance a Christian may go to court against an unbeliever who is treating him unjustly.

The increasing litigiousness in society is yet another indication of its increasing drift from Christ. A society which resorts so readily to law is a society without the salt of the gospel.

Peter Barnes

By permission of Australian Presbyterian

Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
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