Tempted to Sue? An Alternative to Resolving Disputes among Christians

August 25, 2017

“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” (Matt. 5:25).

Scripture is clear: When possible, Christians ought to reconcile. Christians can often work out their problems with each other and avoid the legal system altogether when they turn to biblical guidance. Sometimes, however, it may be appropriate to pursue legal remedies. For instance, in the case of a dangerous crime where others may be harmed, God has provided the civil government for Christians to use (Rom. 13:1-7). Civil authorities can restrict behavior while the church handles heart issues (Matt. 18:17-20). In my counseling of hurting women, I see this often in cases of physical abuse in marriage.

But what about lawsuits? Is there a practical way for brothers and sisters in Christ to settle disputes before they turn into lawsuits? In a moment, let’s consider a case to shed light on an alternative. But first, here’s an overview.

Settling Disputes through ADR

One way to settle disputes outside the courts is through Alternative Dispute Reconciliation (ADR). There are both Christian and secular models of ADR and they are often preferred over lawsuits. One reason for this is cost. ADR is less expensive than litigation. Litigation uses judges, lawyers, and the court system, and it is not only expensive but also time-consuming.

There are several types of alternative dispute resolutions processes, from the least involved (negotiation: personal bargaining between parties to reach a mutually agreeable solution) to more involved (mediation: one or more neutral mediators assist the parties to consider various solutions and choose a mutually agreeable solution) to even more involved (arbitration: the parties agree to present their side before one or more neutral arbitrators, who gives a legally binding decision).

Christian conciliation is also a form of ADR. Its purpose is resolving disputes in a biblically faithful manner. This process includes the valuable advantage of individual counseling or conflict coaching. It is conciliatory, not adversarial, and is preferably carried out by reconcilers who serve under the authority of the parties’ churches or by professional conciliators.

If Christian conciliation fails to lead to biblically faithful settlement of the parties’ differences, then the parties may begin Christian mediation, and if mediation stalls then Christian arbitration can be pursued. In this latter case, biblical arbitrators hear the case and then give a legally binding decision that aligns with Scripture.

Crazy Case of College Fans

To help the reader understand the similarities and differences of these ADR models, let’s consider a fictitious disagreement between Chesley Chambers and Andy Anderson, who are Christians studying for a Doctorate of Ministry in Biblical Counseling. Chesley is a rabid fan of University of Alabama; Andy is equally fanatic about Auburn University. The disagreement began with fun-natured teasing that turned into a yelling match, during which Andy dumped red Gatorade on Chesley’s head, staining her white and red Crimson Tide sweatshirt. She stomped to the parking lot and keyed Andy’s vehicle, which sported at least seven Auburn University Tigers decals. Both Andy and Chesley have grounds for restitution (Num. 5:7; Luke 19:8).

When Andy saw the damage to his car, he was tempted to seek revenge. Instead, he phoned Professor Glenn Woods, shared the story, and asked advice. Glenn, who also is an attorney, said it’s best to work out the matter between the two of them, but if this didn’t end well – remember, their alma maters are rivals — they might choose civil mediation or Christian conciliation. Let’s see how each of these models might work.

How Civil Mediation Works

In civil mediation, Chesley and Andy would be adversaries. They’d arrange for a neutral mediator who would facilitate communication and understanding during a mediation conference that might last the better part of the day. (Andy objected to Professor Woods as mediator, since the professor is an Alabama alum and proud of it; they chose their mutual and fair-minded friend Tremaine Davidson as mediator instead.)

During the mediation conference, the facts would come to light: the yelling, name-calling, emotional distress, irreversible damage to Chesley’s favorite Alabama sweatshirt, and the four-foot scratch on Andy’s car, costing $200 to repair. Progress was made: Andy agreed to pay for two new Alabama sweatshirts for Chelsey, and she agreed to reimburse Andy for the car repair. They also decided to avoid the topic of Alabama versus Auburn while together.

They had achieved a mutually agreeable resolution in civil mediation, but both Andy and Chesley said they felt awkward and unhappy around each other. Time passed but the hurt feelings persisted.

How Christian Conciliation Works

In Christian conciliation, Chesley and Andy would not be adversaries. Rather they would be on the same side of desiring biblical reconciliation. During the first step of Christian conciliation, Andy and Chesley each receive personal conflict coaching on how to resolve their Alabama-Auburn dispute in private, without the need of a third party. However, while they appreciated the conflict coaching, both felt red-hot anger bubbling up as each recalled the unseemly names that were catapulted like canons, the icy Gatorade, and the long, long scratch. They agreed they needed help through biblical mediation, which is the second step of conciliation.

So in a spirit of cooperation they asked Professor Glenn Woods as serve as conciliator, even though he is a hard-core Alabama fan. Andy had been tied up like a twister at the thought of an Alabama alum as conciliator, but when the professor admitted that one of his children graduated from Auburn, married an Auburn sweetheart, and planned to raise their future children in the fear and admonition of the Lord first and Auburn Tigers second, Andy breathed fresh air.

At the conciliation conference, they spoke openly and honestly about the yelling, name-calling, emotional distress, irreversible damage to Chesley’s sweatshirt, and the scratch on Andy’s car. Andy agreed to buy Chesley two new Alabama sweatshirts, and she handed him $200 to reimburse the car repair.

More important, Andy confessed his wrongs specifically, acknowledged Chesley’s emotional pain, and asked her for forgiveness, which she granted eagerly, happy tears wetting her cheeks. Chesley, too, admitted her mishandling of her anger – the yelling, retributive car damage, and hateful thoughts – and acknowledged his pain. Then Chesley asked his forgiveness. “Good as gold,” Andy said, grinning like a possum. If mediation is unsuccessful, the third step in Christian conciliation, mentioned above, is biblical arbitration.

Christian Conciliation: Getting to the Heart

Unlike civil mediation, Christian conciliation is values-oriented and makes it a point to discover the underlying reasons for the dispute, which are a matter of the heart. Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, writes:

Believing God has established moral principles, which he has recorded in Scripture and written on our hearts, Christian conciliators will draw the parties’ attention to attitudes, motives, or actions that appear to be inconsistent with those standards. This will be especially true with parties who profess to be Christians: anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ will be encouraged to obey God’s commands and behave in a manner that will please and honor him.[1]

Questions for Reflection

Have you considered Christian conciliation? If you’ve been a party to a lawsuit, what words of wisdom would you give to another believer?

[1]  Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 274.

Lucy Ann Moll is a biblical counselor at Biblical Counseling Center in greater Chicago
who counsels women and families in person and by Skype worldwide. She is finishing
a D.Min. in biblical counseling at Birmingham Theological Seminary and is the wife of
Stephen and mother of three adult children.

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