Article Summary:

An examination of what the Bible says about how Christians should deal with disputes and under what circumstances an appeal to a secular court system may be justified.

Is Our Appeal to the Courts in Accordance with Scripture?

Matthew 18:15-17

The Christian steps to resolve an unrighteous situation with brothers is described in Matthew 18:15-17. In accordance with this word, we wrote repeatedly to Harvest House Publishers and their authors, John Ankerberg and John Weldon, to explain their wrongdoing and the damages being caused by their book. We also asked repeatedly to meet with them in an attempt to resolve the matter. The reason for our protest was their false statements about Living Stream Ministry, The Local Church, and the local churches in the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, a book which ascribes many evil traits to its subjects, including: “deception and evil,” causing “physical harm,” “degradation and perversion of sexuality,” “encouraged prostitution,” “sometimes raped women, beaten their disciples, molested children, practiced black magic and witchcraft, engaged in drug smuggling and other criminal activities, including murder,” “human sacrifice” etc.

The law in most states requires anyone who has been libeled to file suit within a specific time from “publication.” We wanted to assure that we would be within that time period, but offered Harvest House Publishers and the authors the opportunity to voluntarily extend the statute of limitations while an equitable resolution was worked out. As we continued to work in good faith to extend the statute of limitations and bring about dialogue consistent with Matthew 18, secretly, on Dec. 14, 2001, Harvest House initiated a lawsuit against us. In documents they filed in conjunction with that suit, our overtures to meet together in the biblical principle of Matthew 18 were characterized as “harassment.” After 11 months of attempting to resolve this matter peacefully as brothers in Christ, it became painfully obvious that we were not going to get a hearing with the publisher or authors. Even in the face of this, we gave them every opportunity to settle the problem in an equitable way.

Their disregard for our appeals concerning the book’s falsity, their reprinting of the book during this timeframe despite all the facts we provided to them, and finally, the filing of a lawsuit against us by Harvest House convinced us that we really had no alternative but to seek the relief that the laws of our nation allow. If we did not seek relief from this defamatory writing to the extent the law allows, then damages would continue to accumulate, as Christians and many others believed their false accusations were true. Matthew 18:15-17 sets forth the principles for Christians to attempt to resolve any unrighteous situation with any other believer. However, failing reconciliation, the Lord taught that the offending party is to be considered “just like the Gentile,” i.e. not despised, but now outside of Christian fellowship, to be related to as any other nonbeliever.

First Corinthians 6 and Acts 16, 22, and 25

In First Corinthians chapter six, the Apostle Paul rebuked the practice of an individual believer bypassing the steps in Matthew 18 and, instead of first seeking Christian reconciliation (1 Cor. 6:1-6), taking another brother directly to the law court. Paul says that it would have been better to be wronged than to defraud another believer by not presenting the matter “before the saints” and instead taking them directly to court. Although it may be implied, Scripture is silent as to whether, once fellowship and reconciliation are rejected in such a situation (Matt. 18:17b), and if the circumstances warrant it, the “Gentile” could then be taken to court by the wronged believer.

However, there is a crucial difference between the kind of “personal” lawsuits Paul condemned in First Corinthians 6 and the “appeal” he himself made to his government in the book of Acts. We believe that our appeal to the law courts for relief from this defamation is in the category of Paul’s appeals in the book of Acts. There, Paul first appealed for protection from those who attacked him and his ministry by asserting his rights under his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25). Later, when those opposing him sought to end his ministry he appealed to “Caesar’s judgment seat” and then to “Caesar”(Acts 25:10-12). Paul’s appeal to the established government of his day (see also Acts 25:14-19) was not for his personal gain (he was not afraid to die for the gospel) or to defraud anyone, but to defend and preserve the existence of the ministry the Lord had given him.

We consider the appeal to the courts by Living Stream Ministry, The Local Church and the local churches to be similar to Paul’s in Acts 25 — a necessary step for God’s interests, to continue the ministry the Lord has entrusted to us.

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