Aug 20, 2010 | Comments 22
Nowadays a great deal is being said about lawsuits in the ARP Church. Shamefully, ARP elders and ETS professors have taken the ARP Church to civil court because the General Synod attempted to reform Erskine College and Seminary so that the educational institutions of the ARP Church were in accord with their mission and in conformity with the Scriptures and our Confession.
Some have even attempted to exegete the Scriptures in such a way so as to defend the actions of those who have sued the ARP Church in secular court so as to thwart the church’s efforts at reform. The writings of John Calvin have even been used to defend both such exegesis and actions.
So, what did Calvin write? Would Calvin have defended the actions of those who have attacked the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church through legal actions in secular courts?
Well, Calvin is not here to answer that question directly; however, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Calvin does have much to say about Christians taking Christians to civil court. Most of us in the Reformed tradition take Calvin’s exegesis seriously. If we are going to disagree with him, we want compelling reasons from Scripture to disagree with his conclusions. The following is a condensation of what Calvin writes on 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. The material is taken from John Fraser’s translation: Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians.
Using the Corinthian Church as a universal model, Calvin is very clear in what he writes. You are invited to read Calvin’s words and answer the question: What does Calvin have to say about Christians and lawsuits?
Calvin begins his comments on 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 by noting that GREED is the basic cause for the Corinthian Christians taking each other to civil court. That is, the ones pursuing litigation (the plaintiffs) wanted what they wanted regardless of the “bad name” their actions gave the church and the Gospel or the harm they were inflicting on their brothers and sisters. These plaintiffs were not willing to “suffer injuries” – real or imagined.
(6:1) “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?” (KJV)
- “If anyone has a dispute with a brother, it ought to be resolved before believing judges, and not before unbelievers.” (117)
- “We are slighting our brothers, when we are willing to subject them to the judgement of unbelievers.” (117)
- “It is therefore wrong to take the initiative in instituting proceedings against brothers in an unbelievers’ court. It is in order, however, to come into court and conduct your case, if a charge is made against you.” (118)
(6:2) “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” (KJV)
- “This is an argument from less to greater. For Paul wishes to show that damage is done to the Church of God, when decisions, in disputes over earthly matters, are put in the hands of unbelievers, as if there was no-one in the fellowship of the godly fit for judging.” (118)
- “But someone will say: ‘Lawyers will judge better and more accurately then any ignorant believer; otherwise there is no need for knowledge of the law.” To this I reply: their advice is not absolutely debarred here; for if a decision on any obscure question must be sought from knowledge of the laws, the apostle does not prohibit Christians from consulting lawyers. But the only thing he finds fault with the Corinthians for is their referring their disputes to the judgement of unbelievers, as if there were no suitable judges in the Church. And he reminds them how greatly superior is the judgement to which God has appointed his believing people.” (119)
(6:3) “Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?” (KJV)
- “We shall judge the devils that began in such an excellent way, and even now, after falling from their high position, are still immortal creatures, and superior to this world of corruption. What then? Shall those things which are subservient to the belly, be exempt from our judgement?” (119)
(6:4) “If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.” (KJV)
- “We must always take particular note of the kind of cases he is dealing with. For public trials are not within our province and ought not to be brought under our control. But it is quite in order to settle private matters without the magistrate’s investigation. Therefore, since we do not detract from the authority of the magistrate in reaching a decision ourselves, the apostle rightly tells Christians to keep away from the ordinary court, i.e. that of unbelievers. And in case they might plead that they were being deprived of a better remedy, he tells them to choose judges from the church to settle the cases peacefully and fairly. In case they say that they have no suitable men for this, he says that even the person of the lowest standing can do what is required. Therefore the authority of the magistrate is not impaired here, when he directs that their function should be handed over to people who are looked down upon. For . . . this is stated by way of anticipation, as if he said: ‘Even the humblest and least significant among you will carry out this task better than the unbelieving judges to whom you are running, when there is absolutely no need for you to do so.’” (119-120)
(6:5-6) “5 I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.” (KJV)
- “The meaning is: if other considerations leave you cold, then at least turn this over in your minds, how disgraceful it is that there is not even one of your number, who can, in a friendly way, settle some matter that has arisen between brothers, for you concede this honour to unbelievers.” (121)
(6:7) “Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” (KJV)
- “We now come to the second part of the reproof, . . . he is finding fault with them, not on the ground that they were exposing the Gospel to mockery and a bad name, but because they were taking legal proceeding against each other. Paul says this is a fault or failing.” (121)
- “Therefore what Paul is condemning in the Corinthians is their making trouble for each other by going to law. He tells them that this is because they are incapable of suffering injuries patiently.” (121)
- “But in this way Paul seems to do away altogether with legal judgements on behalf of individuals. ‘Those who go to law are completely in the wrong, therefore it will be wrong for anybody to protect his rights before a magistrate.’” (121)
- “Indeed, wherever law-suits occur frequently, or the parties are obstinate in joining issue with each other with the utmost rigour of the law, it is perfectly obvious that their minds are inflamed for too much by wrongful, greedy desires, and that they are not prepared for calmness of mind and endurance of wrongs, according to the commandment of Christ” (122)
- “Let me speak more plainly. Paul disapproves of lawsuits for this reason, that we ought to endure injustices quietly. Let us now see if it is possible for anyone to take legal proceedings without becoming impatient. For if that is so, it will not be wrong to take legal proceeding in every case. . . But I acknowledge that, as men’s manners are corrupted, impatience or lack of endurance (as they say) is the inevitable accompaniment of almost all law-suits. But this does not however prevent our distinguishing between the thing itself and its bad accompaniment. Let us therefore remember that Paul does not disapprove of law-suits on the ground that it is wrong in itself to uphold a good case by having recourse to a magistrate, but because they are nearly always bound up with improper attitudes of mind, such as lack of self-control, desire for revenge, hostility, obstinacy and so on.” (122)
- Calvin asks a hypothetical question: HOW COULD A CHRISTIAN, ACTING AS A PLAINTIFF, TAKE A BROTHER TO THE CIVIL COURT? He answers in this manner: “For if we are forbidden to seek vengeance, even from God; in the same way we would be debarred from having recourse to the magistrate for retribution.
“Therefore I acknowledge that all revenge is ruled out for the Christian, and he must not practice it either by himself or through the medium of the magistrate; no, and he must not even desire it! If a Christian therefore wants to prosecute his rights in a court of law, without going against God, he must take special care not to come into court with any desire for revenge, any bad feeling, any anger, or in a word any poisonous thing. In all this love will be the best guide.
“If someone points out that it is a very rare thing for anyone to go to law free from and innocent of every unworthy attitude of mind, I indeed admit as much, and at the same time say that is rare to get any example of a good litigate. Indeed, for many reasons it is worth while showing that the thing is not evil in itself but is spoiled by abuse. The FIRST is that the impression may not be given that God was wasting His time in establishing law-courts. The SECOND reason is in order that believers may know exactly what they are allowed to do, so that they may not undertake anything that would be against their conscience. That is why many rush into open contempt of God, once they have begun to reach beyond those limits imposed on them. The THIRD reason is that they may be warned that restraint must always be observed, so as not to spoil, by their own misbehaviour, the remedy which God has entrusted to them The FINAL reason is that the boldness of the wicked my be checked by an unspoiled and genuine zeal; and this could only be done if we were allowed to subject them to legal punishments.” (122-123)
(6:8) “Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren.” (KJV)
- “It is clear from this verse why he inveighed against them with so much severity: because an improper lust for possessions had them in such a grip that they could not refrain from hurting each other. In order to bring out the extent of the evil, he has just said that people who do not know how to suffer wrongs against them are not Christians. Here therefore there is an amplification taken from a comparison; because, if it is wrong not to bear wrongs patiently, how much worse is it to inflict them? (123)
Once again: What does Calvin have to say about Christians and lawsuits? There is a more timely question: In what Calvin writes, is there anything that gives justification to the three plaintiffs who have brought a lawsuit in civil court against the ARP Church?
This was compiled by and the comments are by
Charles W. Wilson
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