Christians suing Christians? Examining James MacDonald’s reasoning
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? (1 Corinthians 6:1, ESV)
James MacDonald, senior pastor of a Chicago-area megachurch, recently sued several believers for defamation—and claimed he had “unqualified support” from “highly qualified Christian leaders” to do so. The only person he cited by name was noted theologian Wayne Grudem. Yet when I contacted Grudem, he said he had “not expressed any opinion on the merits of the specific lawsuit,” but had simply referred Pastor MacDonald to what he wrote previously about Christians responding to slander. None of those other writings condone or encourage a believer to sue another believer.
So is it sinful to sue, or not? Let’s take a look at the question, in general and in this particular case.
First, some more details on this case. James MacDonald’s church is Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC) of Elgin, Illinois. In August 2018, he and his church sued Christian journalist Julie Roys, two former members, and the wives of the two former members, for defamation. The former members write a blog critical of HBC and its leadership called The Elephant’s Debt (TED). Let’s call the plaintiffs who are suing, “HBC,” and the defendants, “TED,” for simplicity. Let’s also set aside whether the defendants really did defame Pastor MacDonald when they accused him of high-handed leadership, greed, and sleazy financial dealings.1 Instead, let’s think about the I Corinthians 6 question: Should Christians sue each other?
In HBC’s post defending their action, they wrote:
In consultation with highly regarded Christian leaders and students of Scripture, we received unqualified support for this difficult decision.
Then HBC quotes the ESV Study Bible notes to I Corinthians 6, which we will examine later.
In a separate piece HBC introduces and then quotes Grudem’s Christian Ethics as follows:
In wrestling with a biblical response to slander, we contacted my favorite seminary professor, Wayne Grudem. He directed me to his book, Christian Ethics.
Here is what Wayne Grudem wrote about responding to slander… — Pastor James MacDonald.
2. The Necessity of Responding to Slander. The Westminster Larger Catechism, in further explanation of the ninth commandment, says that it also requires “love and care of our own good name and defending it when need requireth (Question 144)…. [emphasis in the original]
What the book actually says is that a pastor shouldn’t be silent in the face of accusations, but should respond publicly. Of course, that isn’t the same as suing his accusers, but HBC seemed to be saying that Dr. Grudem supported the lawsuit. I wanted to find out whether Dr. Grudem had really counseled that, so I emailed him. He responded, saying:
When I talked with James by phone, I referred him to the section, “The Necessity of Responding to Slander,” on pages 334-335 of my book Christian Ethics. I also referred him to the notes on 1 Corinthians 6 in the ESV Study Bible. I stand by what I wrote in Christian Ethics and I agree in principle with the notes in the ESV Study Bible.
I have not expressed any opinion on the merits of the specific lawsuit that James McDonald has initiated, nor have I looked into any details about that lawsuit or the accusations from the people who have criticized his ministry online. Nor do I intend to.
Thus, Dr. Grudem didn’t actually tell Pastor MacDonald whether or not a pastor should sue Christian bloggers for defamation. Nor is he prepared to give an opinion now on the general issue or the particular case. His 2018 book, Christian Ethics, is 1,296 pages long, and full of useful advice, but it doesn’t say anything about lawsuits. The ESV Study Bible notes do say a bit more, but they aren’t really helpful, as we will see later.
But let’s do our best to answer the question on our own. First, what does the Bible say? I Corinthians 6 says:
1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! [ESV]
Matthew 18 says:
15 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [ESV]
Suppose HBC thinks TED has defamed it, and TED disagrees. I Corinthians 6 is clear that for HBC to sue TED is a shameful way to address the problem. Rather, after “private appeal” failed, HBC should have explained the situation to some Christians without a personal interest in the case and, if they were persuaded, gone together with them to talk to TED. That’s what Matthew 18 tells us to do. If that didn’t work, HBC should have gone to the churches to which the TED people belong and presented its case to the leaders of those churches, who would administer appropriate discipline, perhaps even excommunication.
Better yet, since this conflict is about accusations against HBC, HBC should appeal to the church leaders with authority over HBC itself, to go talk to the churches with authority over the TED people. Unfortunately, HBC acknowledges no authority over itself, an example of the unaccountable leadership for which TED criticizes HBC. HBC belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention, but that organization is too nonhierarchical to try to exert meaningful authority over its churches. Better, perhaps, would be for HBC to appeal to Dr. Grudem or other Christian celebrities whom Pastor MacDonald would acknowledge as equals, if not superiors. If those celebrities were willing to take up the burden of authority, or even mediation, the evangelicals of the Church in America really could function more like a universal Church (“I believe in the holy catholic church,” as the Apostle’s Creed says).
Suppose HBC had done that. What should happen if there’s still disagreement, because HBC’s superiors (the celebrities) and TED’s superiors (the churches or denominational authorities) disagree? That is indeed a problem for Christians in America, who even if they acknowledge some authority over their own church are split into denominations that often don’t acknowledge each other’s authority.
Should Christians go to court with each other at that point? It would still be shameful, though in the end it might still be the best course for some kinds of disputes. Here’s a suggestion. The two sets of superiors could agree to abide by the decisions, for this particular case, of some third authority whom they both trust. In fact, this is what HBC itself has done in its employment contracts. It has required its employees to sign a nondisclosure contract binding the employee not to tell anyone things like church salaries or budget numbers. (We’ll leave for another day the issue of whether a church ought to require employees to sign such agreements.) The point is that the contract requires both sides—HBC and employee—to agree not to sue each other in civil courts to enforce the contract. Rather, they agree to use binding arbitration, where each of them picks one Christian arbitrator and the two men chosen then pick a third arbitrator to break ties.
What if TED wouldn’t agree to this kind of arbitration? I don’t know. That’s getting to where real thought is needed as to what a Christian should do. It’s clear that HBC should have started with the Christian approach I’ve just laid out. If it were TED suing HBC, that would be harder, since HBC acknowledges no superior authority. Indeed, perhaps repudiating all authority is a sign that a person or a church is not really Christian. Certainly, it means that the repudiator is saying that he obeys only secular authorities, so maybe civil courts are the answer then.
What if HBC thinks the TED people aren’t Christians? Can a Christian sue a non-Christian? Yes, if his cause is just and turning the other cheek is not appropriate, but if the TED people belong to bible-believing churches, HBC isn’t entitled to say they aren’t Christian just because HBC doesn’t like them. Whether they are Christians is itself something to be decided by the Church. HBC has a bad record along these lines. Some years ago, after three of the elders with responsibility for running HBC asked the staff to show them the budget, HBC excommunicated them and told the other members those elders’ actions were “Satanic to the core.” Later, HBC lifted the excommunication and issued an apology. So HBC does not have a lot of credibility when it comes to saying whether critics are Christians or not.
But even if it’s a non-Christian who you think has defamed you, a lawsuit isn’t necessarily the answer. Let’s go back to Christian Ethics. It doesn’t discuss lawsuits, but it does discuss defamation, and that’s the part HBC cites to justify its lawsuit:
Too often today Christian leaders mistakenly allow their own names or the ministries they lead to be slandered relentlessly in the public eye while they give no response. This can be immensely damaging in an age when Internet accusations can multiply rapidly with no accountability for the authors. These silent Christian leaders perhaps think they are imitating the example of Jesus at His crucifixion, but they fail to appreciate the uniqueness of that situation, and so they fail to imitate the example of Jesus during his entire public ministry, when he immediately defended himself and answered false accusations. I do not mean that we must answer everything we hear or read. For sometimes a false accusation has little influence and is best ignored: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you” (Eccles 7:21). But when it seems that a false accusation will gain influence and do harm, it must be answered. [Grudem, p. 334, emphasis added]
A Christian is not just entitled to respond to false criticism, he is required to. The false criticism is not just a slander against him, but against God. The implication, though, is not that HBC should have sued TED, but that HBC should have responded publicly to TED’s accusations rather than ignoring them.
Indeed, what HBC should have done was to open its books and let its members and others know the size of Pastor MacDonald’s salary, the value of his houses, and so forth, rather than keeping those things secret and remaining silent. HBC was not being Christlike when it kept its finances secret in the face of accusations; it should have disproved the allegations by making the kind of financial disclosures that for-profit corporations and secular non-profit corporations are required to make—the top five salaries, insider dealings, and so forth.
There is a further implication. It looks to me as if HBC has been defaming Dr. Grudem. HBC has been implying that Dr. Grudem supports its lawsuit, whereas we see from Dr. Grudem’s email that he is neutral, neither criticizing the lawsuit nor endorsing it. Dr. Grudem’s reputation has been hurt, and since he is the author of a leading theological treatise, hurt to his reputation hurts the Church too. Dr. Grudem ought to have followed his own advice by calling up HBC and told it to correct the misimpression it has been giving the world about his position. If HBC failed to respond, Dr. Grudem should have followed his own Christian Ethics advice and corrected HBC publicly. With something as small as this, though, it would not be worth the effort of trying to get HBC to admit its wrongdoing. Not all defamation needs full-blown resolution by the Church. Indeed, that is what the last part of the I Corinthians 6 passage says. The question “Why not rather suffer wrong?” is the right one for small disputes. Defamation can often be remedied just by denying the charges and telling people the truth about yourself.
What about the ESV Study Bible notes? They say this:
1 Cor. 6:1 “a grievance against another.” Although some have argued that Paul is prohibiting Christians from ever going to court against another Christian, Paul seems in these verses only to be addressing disputes related to property or money (cf. “Why not rather be defrauded?” v. 7), rather than criminal cases, which fall under the jurisdiction of the state. (See Rom. 13:1–5 where Paul shows that God has established civil government for the protection and good of all people.) It is doubtful, therefore, that Paul’s intention is that this specific example should be applied in every situation, since not every situation today matches the circumstances of this specific case in Corinth, where the two parties are in the same local church (“among you,” 1 Cor. 6:5), and where the dispute is specifically related to property or money (“Why not be defrauded?” v. 7). Whatever the circumstances, it is clear from Scripture that disputes between believers need to be handled with the utmost care (vv. 1–8): in a wise and godly manner before the watching world; wherever possible under the disciplinary authority of the church; and with the counsel of spiritually mature Christians who have no stake in the matter and who can give objective, biblical advice. (See further Matt. 18:15–20 regarding the steps that Christians need to take when one believer sins against another believer, and the authoritative role of the church in such cases.)
“the unrighteous.” Paul probably is referring to magistrates who are both unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:4, 6) and who are at times unjust in their judgments. [emphasis added]
I’m afraid I didn’t find these notes helpful in thinking through what HBC should have done. First, the notes say “It is doubtful, therefore, that Paul’s intention is that this specific example should be applied in every situation, since not every situation today matches the circumstances of this specific case in Corinth,” but that’s not the approach of someone who takes the Bible seriously. If you don’t try to apply biblical commands to situations that don’t exactly match 80 A.D., you end up rejecting pretty much every biblical command. The excuse “things are different now” effectively eliminates the Bible’s authority. Even though someone who makes that excuse can still say he believes in inerrancy, it effectively means the Bible is inerrant and eternally true only about an obscure part of the world two thousand years ago. It’s like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the animals wake up one day to find that one of their commandments, “Animals shall not sleep in beds,” has changed to “Animals shall not sleep in beds with sheets.”
Second, I think the author of the study notes is trying to get at the distinction between civil cases and criminal cases, but doesn’t quite understand it. Civil cases are brought by private citizens to recover damages or stop wrongdoing against themselves, as opposed to criminal cases, which are brought by government prosecutors to punish wrongdoers rather than to undo damage. If someone vandalizes your house, you can sue him in a civil suit to pay you for the damage, but that’s entirely separate from the county prosecuting him in a criminal case to put him in jail. However, civil cases don’t have to be about property or money. Suing for defamation is also a civil suit, for example, and so is a child custody case. I Corinthians 6 surely applies to these, as well as car accidents and contract disputes.
Also, the principle is the same regardless of whether Christians belong to the same local church. What if the Christians belong to two local churches, but both are Presbyterian Church in America churches? It doesn’t follow that they are exempt from I Corinthians 6 and can file a complaint with the county judge instead of with the church elders. The logistics get difficult if they belong to different denominations, but even there, the principle still holds that people who recognize each other as Christians should be able to settle their disputes without resorting to unrighteous judges.
I also wish the ESV Study Bible notes had omitted the words “wherever possible” when it said that Christians should settle disputes “wherever possible under the disciplinary authority of the church; and with the counsel of spiritually mature Christians who have no stake in the matter.” The two words “wherever possible” give too much wiggle room. It’s like saying, “wherever possible, Christians should settled their disputes without resort to deadly weapons.” I agree that Christians usually shouldn’t use deadly weapons, but phrasing it that way suggests that quite often Christians should use them. That would be a very special case; something like a war between two Christian countries. Don’t sacrifice the normal to the abnormal.
Similarly, it’s true settling some disputes between Christians in the church would be inappropriate and secular courts would do better. For example, two Christian multinational corporations might enter into a dispute over antimonopoly law or telecom regulation that has very little to do with the natural law or divine law of right and wrong. The dispute might be so complicated that it would take hundreds of hours of court time and millions of dollars in lawyer time to explain the facts and precedents to the court. If the two corporations went to the elders of their CEOs’ churches for resolution, the elders wouldn’t know how to begin. They would, quite properly, say they should go to a secular court, which would deal properly with the matter. However, even in such a case, they are proceeding “under the disciplinary authority of the church; and with the counsel of spiritually mature Christians.”
There are lots of fine lines and hard cases we can imagine when it comes to Christians suing each other. I’d really love to see a book that went over real and hypothetical situations case by case—from church defamation cases to corporate antimonopoly cases to divorce custody—to help us know what to do in the multitude of circumstances we might face. That’s what canon law did in the Middle Ages and what post-biblical Jewish law is so good at. We want to avoid legalism, but we need dispassionate advice, and advice specific enough to convict our consciences when we are tempted to sue each other. The case of HBC versus TED is clear—and our Church experts, celebrities, and authorities should tell us that, not just bloggers like me—but other cases are more difficult. I hope I’ve inspired someone to pick this up and help us out with more thinking about specific cases.