James MacDonald: Why Suing Is Sometimes the Biblical Choice

1 Corinthians 6:1-9 does not apply to every situation.
James MacDonald: Why Suing Is Sometimes the Biblical Choice
Image: Courtesy of Harvest Bible Chapel

What could possibly possess a Bible church to file a lawsuit against three outspoken critics of their ministry?

Harvest Bible Chapel has not strayed from its 30-year commitment to the unapologetic preaching of God’s Word, nor have we forgotten the explicit teaching of 1 Corinthians 6:1-9. We’d like to share our biblical rationale for reluctantly deciding to take our critics to court.

A Deeper Understanding of Scripture

Throughout church history, cultural happenings have forced a more carefully nuanced consideration of biblical application. In the first centuries, major areas of Christology were refined to combat error. In recent decades, the charismatic movement brought a more nuanced study of the scriptural teaching on spiritual gifts and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Many of us remember the near unanimous evangelical stance on divorce prior to the 1970s, when most churches held strictly to “no divorce, no remarriage.” Then with the rise in divorce rates and a few high visibility Christian leaders getting divorced, all were pushed back into the Scripture for a view that considered all biblical teaching on the subject.

In just a few years, the prevailing view changed to include “exception language” from the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 19:9) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:15). The Scriptures had not changed, but cultural trends had again caused a more careful study of all biblical passages on divorce, versus the more simplistic “the Lord God … hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16).

The perfection of God’s holy Word is best seen in the way all relevant passages work together to form a consistent unity. Reductionism is the logical fallacy of “making the main thing the only thing.” As Christians we can make this error by forcing one passage to speak with finality on a more broadly covered biblical subject.

In a culture that is far too litigious, Christ followers should be loath to go into civil court for any reason. 1 Corinthians 6:1-9 pleads for caution: “Can we not judge ourselves?” “This before unbelievers,” “Law suits among you means that you have been completely defeated,” “Why not rather be wronged?” and “This is shame to you.” It’s such a clear teaching—but not the totality of biblical teaching that some try to make it.

What if allowing “yourself to be wronged” is a greater wrong because of the many others that would be wronged? What if that matter is not a “trivial case,” as in 1 Corinthians 6? What if the brothers are from different churches, one of which refuses to bring significant detrimental behavior into line? What if the matter is demonstrably illegal and would bring immense suffering to your family?

1 Corinthians 6 deals with two brothers in a single church dealing with a trivial matter that should just be “let go.” That size teaching does not fit all situations, and it is somewhat reductionistic to try to make it so.

When The Elephant’s Debt began posting their criticism, we dug deeply into personal and organizational reflection. We have repeatedly tried to meet with them, and if the bloggers let their reasonableness be known to all men” (Phil. 4:5) and simply sat down with us, they would learn of the positive changes that initially came from their critical approach. Ongoing appeals have yielded no fruit, though we remain open to meeting in person and ending the legal case.

In the meantime, by assuming the right to influence our church while refusing to listen to the authority of our church leaders, they forfeit the protection given to brothers in 1 Corinthians 6. According to Matthew 18:17 their refusing to “hear the church” requires that they be related to as non-believers, as “gentiles and tax collectors.”

Protecting the Church

Still some ask, “Wasn’t Jesus lied about and spat upon? Aren’t we called to the same?” Yes, on a personal level we are to turn the other cheek when offended, and Christ in his passion, “when they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate” (1 Pet. 2:23).

A conversation with Wayne Grudem, the widely respected theologian and my seminary professor, helped me understand that we should model our response to criticism after Christ’s ministry (John 8:49) not his road to the cross, when his total silence was a unique fulfillment of prophecy.

I accept criticism as part of my calling; some of it is deserved, most of it well intentioned, and all of it used by the Lord to sanctify myself and our church’s leaders. However, a real turning point for our church leadership was the realization that our first responsibility was to protect the church when that criticism went on to impact them.

In the wake of what was being published online, innocent people didn’t just leave our church, but too often left the church. We saw the effects not just in Chicago, but worldwide, wherever our broadcasts and church plants had spread. Friends lost their sons to the faith. New believers who struggled to trust Christ and any authority too often jumped to “fears confirmed” and retreated into unbelief.

People who were saved through our ministry and feeling first time joy in Christ were devastated to read the vitriol. Treasured staff who supported us fully, resigned saying, “We love you, we believe in this ministry, but we must find a place of peace.”

So much damage to so many innocent people – that is what, after six years, prompted us to study the Scriptures afresh regarding established authority, ordained by God to punish wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1-6).

In America, free speech is not universal. You can’t yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater because negligently causing a dangerous stampede of people is not protected speech, but a breach of the law with serious consequences. We have called on authorities, in this case, the court in Cook County, to look carefully at the actions of these bloggers and rule on whether their publications against our church for six years have broken multiple civil laws.

We are not trying to do God’s job; we are asking the authorities God’s established to do theirs. We are not seeking vengeance or retribution. We have not filed this suit because we fear something big will be uncovered or to gain any damages. (The cost of our lawsuit is covered by two of our elders, not from church family offerings.)

We love the body of Christ, and stand ready to give grace and forgive, for in many ways God used the bloggers in the beginning but there is no righteous role remaining for them. We want them to move on and leave the governance of our church to our biblical eldership and congregation.

We pray for the bloggers’ peace and for a new season of freedom from outside interference for the people of Harvest Bible Chapel. Over and over we have asked God to protect our church—and we now believe he has, through the government authorities he ordained (Rom. 13:1-6).

James MacDonald is founding and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.

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