I. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT, BUT YOU MAY NOT WANT TO USE IT
The quick answer is that you have the right to do so, but you may not want to. You have the legal right to sue when you are wronged, or defend yourself when someone sues you. Defending yourself legally is no more a sin than defending yourself physically would be. But you may want to forgo your legal right at times in order to be a better witness to others, and to demonstrate God’s mercy and grace.
The long answer is that it really depends on the circumstances. One overarching principle of inductive bible study is to consider the context of the verse in which you are studying in light of the immediate chapter and book, and how it fits in with the whole counsel of the rest of the word of God (Acts 20:27, Isaiah 28:10). The circumstances may mean that you feel you can better show the mercy and grace of God by not suing, or not defending yourself. But the circumstances can also dictate that it may actually be a sin of omission for you not to sue or to sue on someone’s behalf in the same way that it may be a sin of omission not to physically defend yourself or someone else.
A. Christians Should Suffer Wrong Rather Than Sue Other Christians
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather [let yourselves] be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and [you do] these things [to your] brethren! –1 Corinthians 6:1-8
One of the duties of the church is to be a judge and mediator for disputes within the body of the church. Here, Paul argues that it would be better for them to be wronged and cheated than to go to law before the unrighteous. This was because it was a bad witness to unbelievers.
So when a Christian wrongs you, you would be better off being wronged.
B. Steps To When You Are Wronged
But you’ve been wronged. So what are the Biblical steps you can take?
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ “And if he refuses to hear them, tell [it] to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. –Matthew 18:15-20
The Biblical way to mediate issues within the church, when a brother (a Christian) sins against you is to go to him/her one on one and confront him/her.
If that doesn’t work then take with you one or two other Christians as witnesses.
Finally, if that doesn’t work tell it to the church. And if he still won’t hear it from the church then he is to be treated as though he were a heathen and a tax collector.
Here is where reasonable Christian minds differ: what does it mean to then treat him as a heathen?
Some think that this simply means to kick him out of the church.
Others think that not only could he be kicked out of the church, but that this is your green light to treat him like someone outside of the church and take him to a court of law.
Personally, I tend to lean more towards carefully applying 1 Corinthians 6 when dealing with a Christian. Especially if it is on a Christian issue that could cause embarrassment to the church and may be a bad witness if you get into a big legal battle over it.
II. BUT WHAT IF THEY ARE NOT A CHRISTIAN?
A. The Big Picture
But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not [in] the oldness of the letter.
What shall we say then? [Is] the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” -Romans 7:6-7
As Christians, we have been delivered from the law in that the law required an obligation of righteousness that we could never fully perform. Christ came to fulfill the law, but not to destroy it. The law of God is not evil, it is good, and it is by the law that we know that we need Christ to fulfill it for us.
In Matthew Chapter 5 Jesus gives his sermon on the mount where he discusses this very concept. He proclaims in 5:17 that he “did not come to destroy the law or the Prophets… but to fulfill.” He also says that our righteousness must exceed even that of the Pharisees (the religious leaders of the day [see 5:20]). This righteousness can only come from God, through faith in Christ, but He wants us to allow him to live it out in our every day lives as well in order to be a good witness for Him.
To the scriptures of the Old Testament as their rule, and therein Christ here shows them they were in the right. To the scribes and the Pharisees as their example, and therein Christ here shows them they were in the wrong; for,” -Matthew Henry
In verses 21-48, I believe Jesus explains what the newness of the Spirit looks like. In that we should not serve by the letter of the law, but in the newness of the Spirit. What Jesus is getting at is the attitudes of the heart are even more important than following the mere letter of the law outwardly. The Pharisees were expects at following the law, but in their hearts they were more wicked than all. God sees the heart, and that is what He is interested in changing. Through these verses Jesus teaches the importance of forgiveness (21-26), purity in heart (27-30), faithfulness (31-32), forthrightness and honesty (33-37), mercy and grace (38-39), and love (43-48).
They [the Pharisees] were partial in the law, and laid most stress upon the ritual part of it; but we must be universal, and not think it enough to give the priest his tithe, but must give God our hearts. They minded only the outside, but we must make conscience of inside godliness. They aimed at the praise and applause of men, but we must aim at acceptance with God: they were proud of what they did in religion, and trusted to it as a righteousness; but we, when we have done all, must deny ourselves, and say, We are unprofitable servants, and trust only to the righteousness of Christ; and thus we may go beyond the scribes and Pharisees. –Matthew Henry
It is with that backdrop that we turn to examine Jesus’ teaching on the law of retribution, specifically verse 41 which states “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.”
B. The Law of Retribution and The Amendment of Mercy and Grace
The law of retribution was “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (5:38). It commanded and limited, but the emphasis was to limit. Retribution is an ancient concept, and it has the tendency to escalate quickly. The classic Romeo and Juliet encapsulates and dramatizes this very thing, where a family feud existed from time immemorial. One retaliation always led to the next.
The law of God was to be a limit on the social mores of retaliation. One was to take no more than an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. This is in stark contrast to the human passion which angrily proclaims “if someone takes my eye, then I’ll take both of his!”
Jesus took this righteous law one step further, and added (without abolishing it it may be noted) the amendment of mercy and grace.
A Physical Affront to Your Dignity
“But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (5:39)
Turn the other cheek is an adage that few haven’t heard, regardless of one’s Biblical knowledge. The use of the word “cheek” in 5:39 is an important one, since Jesus had just quoted the law of retribution one breath before and used the word “eye.” A slap to the cheek may string, but it is not a permanent injury. The Pharisees, knowing the law, would know that they had the legal right to exact any and all physical and insulting harm done upon them to the other person. But Jesus here teaches to let it go. It’s just a slap. And in fact, turn the other cheek. Mercy, then, would be to refrain from slapping them back; yet grace is to turn the other cheek as well.
A slap is also more than just a physical sting. It’s an insult. Some Christians take this verse out of context and use it in such a way that they should never defend themselves, or never defend another. But the context is that just because you have the legal right to slap someone back doesn’t mean you have to. In fact, you would do better to let the little things go and show them an example of God’s grace.
A Legal Affront to Your Property
“If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have [your] cloak also. (5:40)
Here, once again the word “tunic” must be noted. A tunic was an undergarment, and a cloak was an outer garment to keep you warm. Clothing would have been much more valuable to people in the time of Christ, but even still it was not something you would have likely depended on in the mediterranean climate of Israel for survival.
In other words, if it’s trivial, let it go. If you can be a good witness in losing, then let it go. If someone wants to sue you over something like a mere tunic, then they probably would be blessed by a cloak as well. This would be a great example of the grace of God to them.
But, like self-defense and turning the other cheek, this does not mean you cannot defend yourself legally if you are assaulted with serious criminal charges, of which you did not do, or far reaching claims which would deprive you of your liberty, your rights, or your ability to provide for yourself and your family.
If the matter be small, which we may lose without an considerable damage to our families, it is good to submit to it for peace’ sake. “It will not cost thee so much to buy another cloak, as it will cost thee by course of law to recover that; and therefore unless thou canst get it again by fair means, it is better to let him take it.’ The sum of all is, that Christians must not be litigious; small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them; and if the injury be such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge: though we must not invite injuries, yet we must meet them cheerfully in the way of duty, and make the best of them. – Matthew Henry
The concept here is that we are not to have the heart attitude of revenge when we are wronged. We are not to repay evil for evil, out of a spirit of vengeance (Romans 12:19, vengeance is the Lord’s). If you do defend yourself legally, it must be to seek a “good end” without the “thought of revenge.” Your motivation must be out of good, and not evil.
If someone wants to sue you for flowers, then give them flowers and give them a vase to go along with it. But that is provided the suit about flowers is only about flowers, and not about a deprivation of something much more meaningful than mere flowers.
III. WHAT IS TRIVIAL IN LIGHT OF THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM?
A. Stare Decisis
I remember back when I was in Bible college a teacher would interpret a verse, and then we would often move on. Just as often I wanted to yell out “Ok, that’s nice, but how do I actually use that?” Ever since, I’ve made it my mission to include practical application as often as I could when teaching from the Bible.
If we are to let the trivial things go, in order to better be a witness for the Lord, how does that square with our modern American justice system?
One of the key foundations of the American judicial system comes from the 1803 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison, where Chief Justice Marshall is credited with the principle of stare decisis. Stare decisis is a principle that precedence should be adhered to in deciding future cases.
This means that a case, especially one that affects your constitutional rights, may not be as simple as mere tunic personal property rights. If someone sues you for your tunic, perhaps over a dispute as to who actually owns it, then give it to him. If someone needs a tunic that bad, they are probably cold and could use a coat as well. But if it’s about your right to sell tunics in order to make your livelihood, that is a different circumstance altogether.
In the modern American judicial system, the decisions and the hills you make a stand on can have a lasting impact upon your life, and lives of your children’s children. Not every hill is worth fighting for, and we need to pick and choose our battles for those that really matter. But there are some hills that we take a stand and die on. We will get into those types of situations in a moment, when we look at the life of Paul, but for now just keep in mind that in applying that verse the concepts of rights and precedence should be a consideration.
B. You Are Pilot
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil. [Rom 13:3-4 NKJV]
When reading about Pilot and his failure to not only recognize Jesus as King of the Jews, but to worship Him as King of the Heavens, Christians are apt to criticize him for doing so. After all, he had the power of the government of Rome behind him. And God, in His sovereignty, could have allowed the betrayal and crucifixion to come through the hand of another.
In the United States we are a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. You are Pilot. You have the power in your hands to do good or evil, and by exercising your rights you may participate in bearing the sword of judgment. Ultimately, God is in control, and His plan will be made manifest with or without you. But do you want it to be without you?
Or do you want to enter into the gates of heaven, hang your armor on the wall, and hear “well done my good and faithful servant, now enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:23).
B. Sins of Omission
Keeping in mind context, Christians are to generally be good citizens, meek, humble, loving, forgiving, merciful, gracious, faithful, loyal, trustworthy, honest, etc. But part of that is not just in what you do, but in what you do not do as well. There are sins of commission (those that you do by your actions) and sins of omission (those that you are guilty of by not acting).
17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do [it], to him it is sin. [Jas 4:17 NKJV]
Pilot wanted to let Jesus free, and tried to convince the mob by offering to free a prisoner. In reply, and at the behest of the religious leaders of the day, they demanded a murderer to be released. And with equal fervor demanded murder.
Pilot knew it was wrong to let an innocent man die, and knew the right thing to do would be to let Jesus free. But knowing what is good and doing good are not the same thing. Not only is it not the same thing, but it is sin if you know what is good but do not do it.
IV. PAUL’S USE OF LEGAL RIGHTS
What does using your rights look like in the the Bible?
In Acts 22 Paul, formerly known as Saul, asserts his legal rights to a Roman Army Commander as they are preparing to scourge him. He had just received a beating from a Jewish mob for preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, and the uproar was only put to an end by the presence of the garrison who had established order and taken Paul into the barracks. Paul reminds them that he is a Roman citizen, and reminds them that it is unlawful to scourge a Roman who has not yet been condemned. In so doing, Paul uses his legal rights to spare him from harm.
[Act 22:24-30 NKJV] 24 the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him. 25 And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard [that], he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.” 27 Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” He said, “Yes.” 28 The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.” And Paul said, “But I was born [a citizen].” 29 Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him. 30 The next day, because he wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released him from [his] bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them.
Later, in chapter 24, Paul was brought before Ananias, and then Felix the governor. Felix then heard Paul’s case, which was brought against him by the orator Terullus on behalf of the High priest Ananias. During oral argument, Terullus accused Paul of being a creator of dissension in the land and that he was a “ringleader” of a sect. The Jews acted as witnesses confirming that this was so.
Then came Paul’s turn to speak, and he did not shy from the occasion. He did not bend his head to the chopping board. No, Paul took a stand on that hill that day. He claimed that they could not prove their accusations that he was spreading dissension (failure to state a claim or something of the like). He did not deny that he was a follower of the “Way” (the name of the Christians in that day), but he did assert his right that his accusers must be present (24:19).
Felix adjourned to wait until Lysias (the commander who had arrested Paul) would come down to make his decision. In the mean time, Paul used the opportunity to witness to Felix. For two years Felix made Paul wait, hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe for his release until Festus succeeded Felix.
Under Festus, a case was once again made against Paul, and once again Paul made his legal defense. Paul, after all, was the equivalent of a Jewish lawyer in his day. He had tutored under Gamaliel, one of the greatest teachers of the Mosaic laws of his time. He knew the law of God, and as a citizen of Rome he knew his rights as well, and argued both with equal fervency.
[Act 25:7-8 NKJV] 7 When he had come, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood about and laid many serious complaints against Paul, which they could not prove, 8 while he answered for himself, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.”
Finally, Paul asserted his right to have his case heard by Caesar. The story continues in that King Agrippa makes a claim that he would have released Paul, but because Paul had appealed to Caesar he was bound to go to Caesar.
Some Christian scholars believe Paul was fighting this legal battle so that other Christians wouldn’t have to in the future. He was making a stand, and taking the beatings, the imprisonments, the hunger and the suffering in hopes to bring the gospel to the rest of the world, and in making a defense for Christians while he did so. Paul saw no legal conflict in his preaching the gospel, and so he would assert his lawful rights to this effect until his last dying breath.
In 2 Timothy 4 Paul reflects near the end of his life, as he sits in chains knowing that his time is at hand and that he will likely receive the death penalty. He was not discouraged though, he had fought the good fight. He had used his legal rights to take the gospel to the world, to the very throne of Caesar.
[2Ti 4:6-8 NKJV] 6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
He ends up losing this fight on earth, but he is forever a victor in heaven. Not for using his rights, but for how he used them. He used them for the glory of God, and you can too. At his first defense, there before Felix, no one but the Lord Himself stood with him. If you take a stand you might feel alone, but know that God will be right there with you.
[2Ti 4:16-18 NKJV] 16 At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them. 17 But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and [that] all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. 18 And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve [me] for His heavenly kingdom. To Him [be] glory forever and ever. Amen!
If you live in a government that has laws then you have rights, and you can use those rights for the glory of God. The world may hate you for it, and some (like Alexander the Coppersmith, 2 Ti 4:14) may even betray you as you do so, but we look to heaven for our reward.
Do all that you do for His glory, and if you have rights, then use them!
As you can see, this is not an easy yes or no question. The answer really depends on the circumstances.
The first question to ask is if the person suing you, or that you want to sue, is a Christian. If yes, then follow Matthew 18 and go and talk to them one on one, then bring along a witness. If that fails take it to the church. If they still won’t hear you, then you are to treat them like one who is outside the church (a heathen). At this point you have two choices: suffer the wrong to be a better witness or treat them like a heathen and take them to court (provided it’s not trivial). Out of the two options, I feel much more comfortable saying that if they are a Christian then just keep it out of the courts. If they are not a Christian then the concept of Matthew 5 is controlling: if it’s trivial let it go. If you can bless them by not suing, and even give to them, then do so. But if it’s more than trivial, then fight the good fight.
Suffering the wrong is especially true when it is over a trivial matter. But the law is still good, and if someone takes your eye legally so to speak then it is not wrong to get compensation for that eye. Just do not forget the concepts of mercy and grace which should be controlling in every aspect of your life. Do not sue out of revenge, but if you must sue to defend yourself or to right a serious wrong then that is not evil per se.
If it’s not trivial, and someone wants to take your life, your right to preach the gospel, and your livelihood, like they did with Paul, then by all means follow in the example of Paul and fight the good fight. Use your rights. And do not back down, till your very last breath.