What is your view of lawsuits between Christians?

This question is prompted by the fact that in three cases over the last forty years, some of the local churches have found it necessary to take legal action against false and defamatory accusations advanced by a few closely-associated authors. Some believers have expressed the opinion that our actions were not scriptural—specifically, that they contradicted Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 6 concerning lawsuits between believers. We have considered this matter very carefully and seriously and firmly believe that we have not violated any scriptural principles. We agree that the most desirable way to resolve conflicts between Christians is reconciliation and that dialogue should always be pursued to the fullest extent possible. We have always sought to follow the principle set forth by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. There the Lord charged His disciples to take the way of fellowship to resolve any offenses, initially approaching the offending party in private.

In 1 Corinthians 6:1-6 Paul strongly rebuked a brother in the church in Corinth for taking a fellow believer to court over a personal financial dispute. Instead of resolving the problem by way of fellowship, first individually with the offender and then, if needed, together with other believers, the offended party initiated a lawsuit. The reason for Paul’s rebuke was the failure to first address the problem as brothers in the Lord, a violation of the principle of fellowship in Matthew 18.

In Matthew 18:17, the Lord Jesus Himself anticipated that situations would arise between believers in which the principle of fellowship would be rejected by one of the parties: “If he [the offending brother] refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile [unbeliever] and a tax collector” (NASB). This word implies that such a situation has deteriorated beyond the scriptural bounds of reconciliation through fellowship.

“…such an appeal was neither for personal gain nor to avoid personal mistreatment, but purely to defend and preserve the ministry entrusted to him by the Lord.”

Another principle can be seen in the account of Paul’s “appeal to Caesar” (the ultimate civil authority of his time) in Acts 25:10-12 when unlawful actions by unbelieving Jews threatened his ministry. In contrast to the case in 1 Corinthians 6, such an appeal was neither for personal gain nor to avoid personal mistreatment, but purely to defend and preserve the ministry entrusted to him by the Lord. The Lord vindicated Paul’s use of the civil legal system for this purpose: it resulted in a period of peace for his ministry (Acts 28:30-31) and allowed him to write eight more New Testament Epistles.

In a few instances, the local churches have been the subject of libelous publications. The slanderous accusations in these books not only jeopardized the ministry that the Lord has entrusted to us and adversely affected our relationships with other Christians, but they were used as justification to persecute, imprison, and even execute members of the churches in countries that do not have the same guarantees of religious freedom that we enjoy in the United States. As the damages from these false accusations grew, brothers in the local churches sought repeatedly to meet with the books’ authors and publishers in hopes of achieving an amicable resolution, but these requests for fellowship were ignored and the publication of these defamatory books continued.

The rejection of repeated attempts at fellowship and reconciliation left no recourse but to follow Paul’s example of appealing to Caesar for the sake of the ministry’s continuation. Libel suits were filed against The Mindbenders and The God-Men in 1980 and against Harvest House’s Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions in 2001. These were not cases concerning doctrinal disputations or personal gain, but concerning widely disseminated false and defamatory publications alleging gross illegalities. Having made every possible effort to solve the problem according to the pattern of fellowship in Matthew 18 and receiving no response, the local churches took the necessary step of appealing to the law courts in order to make known the truth so that our service to the Lord would not be annulled.

As a result of the legal action taken by the local churches in the 1980s, The Mindbenders was retracted with a public apology, and The God-Men was determined by the court to be “in all major respects false, defamatory and unprivileged, and, therefore, libelous,” and written with “actual malice.” Following this retraction and judgment, the local churches experienced many years of peace in which to minister.

In 1999, however, there was a resurgence of false and libelous material with the publication of Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR) by John Ankerberg and John Weldon, who had a close association with the defendants in The God-Men case. ECNR‘s accusations were even more serious than those that had previously been proven false and libelous. Although the district court that heard all the evidence in the case consistently ruled in favor of the local churches, the Texas Court of Appeals decided in a pre-trial summary judgment that the book’s accusations were protected as religious “free speech” and were sufficiently ambiguous as to whom they applied that they were not actionable. This judgment was based in part on the defendants’ false representation that the book’s definition of cult encompassed only beliefs so that any statements made about the groups in the book were matters of protected religious opinion. It is significant that the Court of Appeals did not rule that the book’s representation of the local churches was factually accurate, which it was not.

“For Christians in America, being labeled a cult member may only result in humiliation; for Christians in Asia, it can result in persecution to an extent we never have to worry about here.”

An article in the Christian Research Journal by its editor-in-chief, Elliot Miller, faulted the reasoning of the court’s decision, saying, “Whether the court agreed to it or not, this reasoning is simply false. Every definition that ECNR offers for ‘cult’ includes practices as well as beliefs” (Christian Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 6, 2009, p. 43). Miller stated that he shared evangelicals’ concerns over the use of litigation to remedy the false accusations made in ECNR but added, “After my tour of China, however, I understood. I shared meals with Christian brothers who served prison terms after authorities were emboldened to take action against them by ECNR and the Appeals Court’s ruling. For Christians in America, being labeled a cult member may only result in humiliation; for Christians in Asia, it can result in persecution to an extent we never have to worry about here” (p. 44). Miller also examined the accusation that the local churches are litigious and stated, “To sum up: what the countercult community perceives to be litigious behavior on the part of the LC can in most cases be documented to be merely an effort to meet with and appeal to countercult writers and publishers to correct false allegations that they have published against a Christian group” (p. 46).

For more information, please see:

For Elliot Miller’s article reviewing the litigations involving the local churches, see “Part 5: Addressing the Open Letter’s Concerns: On Lawsuits with Evangelical Christians,” beginning at page 38 in Christian Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 6, available at http://www.equip.org/PDF/EnglishOpt.pdf#page=38.

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