Thus far in our studies on the subject of our relationship to the State we have looked at the key scriptural precedents outlining our obligations and privileges as God’s people living under governments that have been “ordained of God”.

We now come to consider how all these principles are to be practically applied. Here are some of the challenges that face us today:

  • are we permitted to pursue financial compensation through legal means?
  • are we obligated to report crimes committed by brethren?
  • are we permitted to take out restraining orders?
  • are we permitted to defend ourselves from legal attacks?
  • are we permitted to take brethren and sisters to court to seek justice when we feel that the ecclesial decisions
  • have failed to achieve justice?
  • what should we do if our ecclesia is taken to court by a disaffected ex-member?
  • to what extent can we contest custody battles for property and children in the case of marriage break-ups?
  • what are our legal obligations in relation to brethren who are perpetrators of sexual abuse?

As society becomes more and more litigious we are faced with many complex scenarios and hand in hand with that we are finding an increasing perception in our midst that the law is there to provide justice and fairness.

Before we examine some of these issues it is important to bring together and summarise some key passages of the New Testament that deal with a disciple’s contact with the law.

Matthew 5:25–26 If we have not paid our debts and our adversary (Grk ‘opponent at law’) takes us to court, the Lord advises us to pay as quickly as we can or suffer the full consequences of the law.

Matthew 5:39–45 Resist not evil. Love your enemies. Give when people ask. Go beyond what people demand of you. Do good to those who hate you and pray for those who despitefully use you.

Matthew 7:1–4 Don’t be judgmental and condemning. The judgment you make against others will in turn result in a similar judgment against you. We are permitted to judge and discern issues with understanding and mercy (John 7:24; 1 Cor 10:15; Jas 2:13), but we are not permitted to condemn or set at naught our brethren (cp Luke 6:37; Rom 14:4,10,13).

Luke 12:13–15 One of the Lord’s company felt that he had been cheated out of his inheritance and sought Christ’s authority to redress the wrong. Although the Lord could have judged between them, it was not his commission to do so. He came to deliver people from sin and death. Adjudication will occur when he returns as judge of all the earth. This response was instructing the disciples that it was not a time to pursue earthly treasures and insist on vindication of one’s rights. Instead he left them with a warning to beware of covetousness.

Romans 13:1–7 The “higher powers” (governments) are appointed by God. We should therefore submit to their laws. This is, of course, providing they don’t conflict with the laws of God (Acts 5:29). Although God rules in the kingdom of men it does not follow that the people He places in power are good or that the actions of these rulers are pleasing in His sight. They have been permitted to rule until He takes control through His Son.

If we resist the government we resist God’s appointment and we will receive condemnation. This condemnation is explained in verse 3 as punishment from the rulers.

The “powers that be” are “God’s ministers” (Grk ‘attendants’) organising society economically and politically for the good of its citizens. Generally laws in society are framed for the benefit of that society and hence if we are law-abiding citizens we have nothing to fear from the law.

The reality of these arrangements is that we should pay our taxes and dues.

Paul and Roman law

In previous articles we have examined the way in which Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship. It is clear from his example that his use of these privileges was solely limited to the proclamation of the gospel. There is no record of Paul using the law to redress wrongs or to punish brethren.

Hence we find that he used the law’s protection when defending himself against false accusations brought against him because of his proclamation of the Truth (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11). He did not seek retribution against those who accused him. In fact, when he was smitten on the cheek before the Sanhedrin he replied: “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall” (Acts 23:3). He left the matter of any vindication up to God.

We have seen, too, that it was a personal decision as to whether he took advantage of the protection of the law. For example, he allowed himself to suffer as a criminal in Philippi and only afterwards revealed that he was a Roman citizen. He probably did this in order to leave a powerful example of how the ecclesia could better identify with the sufferings of Christ (Phil 3:10; 2 Cor 1:5). He also applied Roman law to regain his freedom and used the implied threat of using that law to restrain his antagonists (see Acts 16:37). It should be noted, however, that in contrast to his experience at Philippi he protected himself from a beating by declaring that he was a Roman citizen just before they were about to scourge him (Acts 22:22–29). So whilst he could exercise his legal rights for protection he did not always insist on using them this way.

Another example of taking advantage of Roman protection can be illustrated by Acts 23:16–24. Paul’s nephew became aware of a plot to kill Paul. Paul requested that this information be passed on to the captain of the guard. Paul did not presume to tell Claudius Lysias what action he needed to take, but he knew that by highlighting his plight the Roman sense of upholding justice would work its way out and ensure his adequate protection.

Paul’s appeal to Caesar also illustrates the way in which Paul brought the Truth to the highest tribunal in the land.

Another legal metaphor that the Spirit employs is the Greek word parakletos – translated “advocate” in 1 John 2:1. This word “was used in a court of justice to denote a legal assistant, counsel for the defence, an advocate; then, generally, one who pleads another’s cause, an intercessor, advocate, as in 1 John 2:1, of the Lord Jesus. In the widest sense, it signifies a ‘succourer, comforter’” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). It is unlikely that the Spirit would have selected a legal metaphor like this if it was totally inappropriate in the world of human affairs.

Paul and slavery

Paul’s knowledge of the Roman laws of adoption were used to illustrate the parable of adoption in Christ (Gal 4:1–2; Rom 8:14–17).

His attitude in relation to the laws of slavery was pragmatic – don’t go out of your way to pursue freedom; but if opportunity arises take it (1 Cor 7:20–22). He counselled special considerations between believing masers and believing slaves in 1 Timothy 6:1–2: “Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren.”

The most intriguing contact with Roman law though, comes to the fore in the letter Paul wrote to Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway slave who escaped from Philemon and ended up coming in contact with Paul where he became a brother. From a purely natural perspective this introduced a number of legal difficulties.

There were three competing laws that Paul had to consider.

There was the Law of Moses which said in Deuteronomy 23:15–16: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” This was a reference to a slave who had run away from a foreign master and had arrived in the camp seeking refuge. The key principle behind this law was for Israel to protect all-comers from oppression.

There were specific Roman laws governing slaves. This is illustrated by the following quotation:

“According to the strict principles of the Roman Law, it was a consequence of the relation of Master and Slave that the Master could treat the Slave as he pleased: he could sell him, punish him, and put him to death … A runaway slave (fugitivus) could not lawfully be received or harboured; to conceal him was Furtum [theft]. The master was entitled to pursue him wherever he pleased; and it was the duty of all authorities to give him aid in recovering the slave. It was the object of various laws to check the running away of slaves in every way, and accordingly a runaway slave could not legally be the object of sale. A class of persons called Fugitivarii made it their business to recover runaway slaves. The rights of the master over the slave were in no way affected by his running away” (Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities – Article “Servus”).

And there was the law of Christ which expected believers to obey the laws of the land but ensure that justice should be balanced with mercy.

So what did Paul do? He needed to comply with the laws of the land relating to master and slave but at the same time reconcile master and slave in Christ. The letter to Philemon is a masterful touch of diplomacy, warmth, love and appeal. He did not gloss over Onesimus’s wrongdoing or seek to make excuses for him. Instead he makes an appeal to Philemon in love – receive Onesimus as my son in the faith, as a beloved brother, as you would accept me. He did not treat Onesimus as he would a runaway slave who, under the laws of the Roman Empire, deserved to be punished for his disobedience. If Onesimus had stolen anything or wronged Philemon, Paul counselled Philemon to put that on Paul’s account – in other words, forgive him.

In this masterful way reconciliation, forgiveness and compliance with the laws of Rome were all achieved. Although not specifically, the principle of the Law of Moses (providing protection for the oppressed) was also tacitly upheld as well.

We learn from this that there is a way to resolve disputes that is far superior to anything that the courts of the world can offer. It combines brotherliness and forgiveness without minimising the wrong doing of the offending brother or sister.

Resolution of disputes – the biblical way

In relation to the resolution of disputes we once again need to take a look at some key principles involved.

Matthew 5: 22–24 if you are conscious of having caused a breach in your relationship with your brother, take the initiative and speak to him with a view to reconciling the difficulty as a matter of urgent priority.

Matthew 18:21–35 forgive from the heart

Matthew 18:15–18 if the matter is of such a serious nature (and this surely would be the exception) then discuss the matter with the brother individually first with a view to gaining him and restoring him. If there is no satisfactory resolution, then you may need to introduce a third party as witness so that the accuracy of the discussion can be noted (to protect all parties) and also this additional impartiality may break through any deadlock. If that fails, then the matter can be brought to the attention of the ecclesia; which is usually through the ecclesia’s representatives – the Arranging Brethren.

1 Peter 5:5 mutual respect and submission should prevail – “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.”

1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:13 private or public rebuke may be needed in cases where there is intransigence. The elders are to be appealed to rather than rebuked (1 Tim 5:1).

If the brethren involved in a dispute are spiritually humble and there is goodwill present in the discussion then the opportunity for resolution is very high. It is only when these qualities are absent that we find bitterness, rancour and an inability to forgive emerging from the quagmire of accusation and debate. As Proverbs 13:10 accurately records: “Only by pride cometh contention.”

It was this lack of spirituality that drove some of the brethren and sisters to the law courts of the land to seek some form of justice in their disputes with each other. What was Paul’s counsel in these matters? The issue is very clearly outlined in 1 Corinthians 5–6.

Paul and litigation

The subject of judging arose in 1 Corinthians 5 when Paul had to deal with an open and irrefutablecase of immorality, which the ecclesia had failed to act upon by removing a brother from their company and association (v1–2). Though Paul was absent he was able to judge the matter and commit the offender to the adversary – an action explained in verse 13 as putting away from among the ecclesia that wicked person.

God will judge those outside the body, but we are to judge between right and wrong within the body (1 Cor 5:9–13).

This inability of the Corinthians to discern moral evil and deal with it within the ecclesia was also manifested in their litigious bent when it came to resolving disputes amongst themselves. They were settling their disputes in the local courts before magistrates whom Paul labelled “the unjust” (1 Cor 6:1). These officials were both unjustified (ie unbaptised) and incapable of upholding God’s sense of justice outlined in the Scriptures.

“Dare any of you”, he wrote, “having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?”

This clearly teaches that we are not permitted to take our brother to court to seek legal redress. But what did Paul mean by “a matter”? Does this relate to a civil action or a criminal action or something else?

The events of chapter 5 and the context in chapter 6 help define the idea. In chapter 5:1 it included “fornication”. In 6:2 it encompassed “the smallest matters”. In verses 3–4 it was anything that related to “things pertaining to this life”, and in verses 7–8 it included fraud. This is indeed a wide-ranging definition, inclusive of moral issues and financial disputes.

Paul’s reasoning was expansive. If we are deemed worthy to judge and administer the whole world in the future age, we should not consider ourselves unsuitable for handling the smaller issues of this life now (v2). The Revised Version translates verse 4: “If then ye have to judge things pertaining to this life, do ye set them to judge who are of no account in the ecclesia?” Who are these of no account? They can’t be saints because in verse 5 Paul seeks a wise brother to be appointed in these matters of discernment. They must refer to those magistrates whom the ecclesia had no confidence in.

It is significant that Paul was seeking people with wisdom to step in and resolve the differences. This is a reference back to the spiritual qualifications of the leaders of the nation in Deuteronomy 1:13–17. This wisdom was that which came from above and seen in brethren who had the practical understanding of the wisdom of God in the Scriptures.

But there was an altogether better way, and that, to suffer loss and take the wrong rather than insist on your own way (6:7). To the natural mind this may be seen as failing to obtain justice, but it is a matter of committing our cause to God in prayer and letting Him make good the matter in His own way (Rom 12:19; 1 Pet 2:23).

But let the guilty party also beware, because if the spiritual brother suffers himself to be defrauded that doesn’t mean that wickedness will not go unpunished. The justice may never be seen to be done in these instances but Paul was absolutely clear: the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9). The wicked brother may seem to have been a winner in the outcome but in the end he will lose his inheritance in the future age.