(1 Cor 6:4–6 ESV) 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?
The Jews did not take their disputes before pagan judges. The synagogues provided a private dispute resolution system, keeping the Jews out from under Roman scrutiny and a brand of justice that was foreign to Jewish sensibilities.
The Jewish communities outside Palestine were very conscious of their minority status and did not wish to reinforce negative pagan conceptions of their morality. Consequently, they usually dealt with Jewish problems within their own community. Christians were an even smaller minority at this time.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 464.
(1 Cor 6:7–8 ESV) 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!
This passage has often been misunderstood. Paul has just suggested in v. 5 that the church should resolve disputes internally. His argument in verses 7 – 8 is in the nature of a fortiori, that is, given that it would be better to suffer injustice than to go before a pagan court, why on earth aren’t you unwilling to settle the dispute internally?
All of which raises the question of how Christians should settle their disputes. And the first answer is found in Matthew —
(Matt 5:25–26 ESV) 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
(Matt 18:15–17 ESV) 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.
In short, talk it out and settle the dispute.
But sometimes it’s necessary than an objective third party participate as a mediator to help the parties settle the case, and there are Christian lawyers and retired judges in most communities available to help in such a case, often with specialized training as mediators.
In fact, most of the universities affiliated with the Churches of Christ have a conflict resolution center with experts trained in mediating congregational disputes and even private disputes. I’ve never nothing but the highest praise for their work.
In the worst case, sometimes a decision has to be made, and state and federal laws encourage parties to contract for private arbitration. In the church setting, in theory, the disputants could bring their problem before the elders and seek the justice and wisdom of the church’s elders.
In my experience, elders often decline to serve as arbitrators for their own members, preferring to bring in a respect arbitrator from another congregation — to avoid any concern about undue influence (and so that the friends of the loser don’t get mad at the elders and leave the church).
It’s sad that our churches aren’t bound as tightly in love as human families so that the elders could decide disputes just as parents of children often must do — but most American congregations will do better if the arbitrator is from out of town.
Nonetheless, a Christian arbitrator from out of town is a Christian decider and he preserves the confidentiality of the dispute so that the fact that brothers in Christ dispute will not be a matter of public record. And in the US, his decision is absolutely binding and fully enforceable by the courts.
I’ve been involved in several such arbitrations, and my experience is that the arbitrator never has to rule. Once the parties come to see each other as brothers and not enemies, and see that the decision will be made by a Christian among Christians, they work it out.
And this is so even when the parties are represented by attorneys. In fact, good attorneys are good at settling cases.
Is this true today? What about if the local judges are Christians?
For a dispute between members of the same congregation, should the decision be made by the elders? A Christian arbitrator trained in the law? Is legal training helpful or a problem?
What if a party refuses to cooperate? Can he then be sued in court or does he get rewarded for his cooperation by having the claim dropped? How should elders deal with an uncooperative disputant?
What about a dispute with a member of another Christian denomination? What about a claim against a Christian’s corporation or partnership?