Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 6 and recent developments in a local church.
Before I begin, let me point you to the January 15, 2007, post "Which is better? To be wronged or File a Lawsuit", in which I thought through 1 Corinthians 6 and the idea of suing brothers in Christ more fully (there dealing with the Tennessee Baptists suing Belmont University, a Christian university supported by Tennessee Baptist moneys). I will only make brief reference to the teaching here, for the sake of application.
First, let me quote verses 1-7:
"Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life? So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between the brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another."
Here's the JB Phillips paraphrase:
"When any of you has a grievance against another, aren't you ashamed to bring the matter to be settled before a pagan court instead of before the church? Don't you know that Christians will one day judge the world? And if you are to judge the world do you consider yourselves incapable of settling such infinitely smaller matters? Don't you also know that we shall judge the very angels themselves - how much more then matters of this world only! In any case, if you find you have to judge matters of this world, why choose as judges those who count for nothing in the church? I say this deliberately to rouse your sense of shame. Are you really unable to find among your number one man with enough sense to decide a dispute between one and another of you, or must one brother resort to law against another and that before those who have no faith in Christ! It is surely obvious that something must be seriously wrong in your church for you to be having lawsuits at all."
And now, the AP story from yesterday:
"Southern Baptists in Nashville, Tennessee, are suing their prominent pastor, accusing him of misappropriating money and refusing to let them inspect church records. The lawsuit filed last week follows allegations that the Reverend Jerry Sutton spent church money on his daughter's wedding reception. The 49 people who joined the lawsuit accuse Sutton of failing to abide by church rules and punishing those who question his authority. Sutton, who lost a bid to become president of the national Southern Baptist Convention last year, has served for more than two decades as leader of Nashville's Two Rivers Baptist Church. The plaintiffs want Sutton and other Two Rivers directors removed from office, access to church records and any misappropriated money to be returned."
I hope that in reading the Scripture next to the news item, you heart is broken for the 49 who are bringing the suit, the pastor being dragged to court, and the local church where it is happening. My guess (and it's only a guess) is that most of the members don't actually agree with what is happening in the lawsuit, but as we all know, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil".
Now, let me say right up front...I have no dog in this fight...I take no side in this argument...the pastor may be wrong, and the people may be wrong. According to the church's press release, the budget and finance ministry team approved using church funds for the reception because it would be a church wide event (there was a separate reception for invited guests only that the pastor paid for himself). Is that an appropriate use of church funds? Good question, but not the issue at hand. Don't let yourself get caught up in which side is right and which side is wrong. It is the very bringing of the lawsuit that is at the forefront of my mind.
In taking this issue outside the church to the court system, believers are putting actions that should fall under the title "church discipline" into the hands of a pagan judge/court. All of a sudden, guilt or innocence in relation to sinning against a brother is going to be decided by a publicly elected official. If the 49 get their way, the pastor will be removed from his office as pastor, which is clearly a violation of the separation of church and state. The state should not have authority to establish or "unestablish" in the realm of religious matters, in general, not to mention in the Christian church.
In response to the idea that believers are taking one another to court, Paul says he is intentionally trying to bring shame on the Corinthians believers. Why would he say that? It's just a lawsuit...they're just trying to settle things done wrongly in their own perspective. Don't bother the church with it...let's just go to court. What a horrific idea!!! It is horrible because it is sinful, and the 49 and any who support them have believed a lie from the pit of hell. What is the lie? The lie is this: "Matthew 18, forgiveness, and reconciliation is fine and good for personal relationships, but this is the pastor...this is different...this is special...he has to be handled differently...the church as a whole would never administer justice as it's needed...we should take it someone who will...I guess the courts will do."
Do you see the truth mixed with lies? Mt. 18, forgiveness, and reconciliation is for personal relationships in the body (TRUE). Because this man is a pastor, there is a special and different element to the process (TRUE...1 Tim. 5:19-20). The church as a whole would never administer justice as it's "needed" (very possibly TRUE). Mt. 18, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not for relationships with pastors (FALSE). We need to go to someone besides the church (FALSE). The courts are a better authority than the church (FALSE).
Certain steps in the reconciliation may have been taken. The pastor may have been approached one to one. There may have been more witnesses taken. However, the media was involved to "expose" the pastor to the community. There was some kind of meeting to rally support for the accusations. The courts are now going to be involved. Now, can you imagine Paul and Barnabas doing all this because they disagreed about whether John Mark should come along on the missionary journey? Imagine Paul getting his camp together, Barnabas getting his together, and deciding that Felix the governor would decide who was right, who was wrong, and whether John Mark was fit for the journey. ABSOLUTELY NO WAY!
I know that money suspicions create deep feelings. I know that mistrust of leadership can cause great hurt. I also know that pride, selfishness, and jealousy can swell to the point of fabricating suspicion and mistrust, leading to hateful "witch hunts" in the church. You know what I would love to see? Not just in this church, but in others that I know are in turmoil. You know what would bring great glory to God, true peace and unity to a fellowship, and an even greater evangelistic witness in the community? Do you? Do you know?
Not a court date...not a church split...not packing away feelings of jealousy, mistrust, pride, suspicion, and the rest so they can show their ugly heads another day...not continuing to attend the church with folded arms, angry eyebrows, and a closed heart...not just avoiding the issue altogether, hoping it will go away or the pastor will go away.
Here's what I believe will bring more glory to churches that experience these kinds of difficulties, whether it's in Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, or Indonesia. Humility, kindness, grace, forgiveness, confrontation, confession, reconciliation, restoration. I have several relationships, with those in my church and even my marriage, that is graced by constant forgiveness and reconciliation. There is a joy in those relationships that does not come from just abandoning the Scripture, the church, and the brother who offends.
May we be a people who pray for those that believe the lie, knowing that our heads and hearts will be bombarded with the temptation to believe the same kinds of things. May we be a confessing people...confessing our sin to one another and praying for one another, that we may be healed (James 5). May we be a forgiving people...forgiving one another just as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4). If the expelling of a member or a pastor becomes absolutely necessary, let us do it with broken hearts instead of puffed-out chests, praying for his ultimate restoration.
Drop the lawsuit, brothers and sisters! Stop denying the power of the Scripture in your church! Do church discipline, if necessary! Examine your own hearts for sinful motivations! If the church decides that removing him and having him repay is unnecessary, find a way to accept the church's decision! Don't abandon your church, your pastor, your responsibility, your Lord, or the faith! Keep your eyes on Jesus!