Lawsuits in the Church

By all accounts, America has become the most litigious society on the face of the earth. In the last decade, civil caseloads have increased by 33 percent, which is five times faster than the increase in our population. As a result, new case filings in state courts now exceed 16 million per year. This amounts to one court case for every 12 adults in the United States!

This surge in litigation is being driven by several factors. To begin with, a lawsuit is often seen as an easy path to instant wealth. In a recent survey, hundreds of Americans were asked how they might become independently wealthy. A generation ago, typical answers would have included, "build a successful business," "patent a valuable invention," or "inherit my uncle's estate." These answers hardly appeared on the recent survey. Instead, the two most common answers were, "win the lottery," or "win a big lawsuit." In other words, many people view an injury as a blessing, because it gives them a shot at a million-dollar lawsuit.

Another thing that drives litigation is the American preoccupation with individual rights. If we want something badly enough we begin to think that we have a legal right to it, whether it's a government entitlement or a particular job. And above all else, we think we have the right never to be inconvenienced or offended by others.

These attitudes are reflected in many of the ridiculous lawsuits being filed in our courts. For example, a poodle traveling in a pet cage was accidentally removed from an airplane in Tampa instead of its real destination, Miami. The error was soon discovered and the poodle was safely delivered to its owners only a few hours late. But the owners felt justified in suing the airline for $50,000 to relieve their "emotional suffering."

These kinds of lawsuits bring to light another factor in our litigation problem: the attorneys who are willing to advocate such absurd complaints. There are more than 1,1 million lawyers in America today. Although most of them are dedicated and conscientious professionals, there is far too many who will take almost any case in order to stay in business. Their low standards, combined with the greed and self-indulgence of certain clients, creates just the right mixture for a thoroughly clogged court system.

The Church's Failure

But there is a fourth significant factor that is often overlooked, which contributes to our country's problem with litigation: the failure of the church to carry out its God-given mission to teach people how to respond to conflict in a godly manner. In March 1982, former Chief Justice Warren Burger observed the following in an American Bar Association Journal article:

"One reason our courts have become overburdened is that Americans are increasingly turning to the courts for relief from a range of personal distresses and anxieties. Remedies for personal wrongs that once were considered the responsibilities of institutions other than the courts are now boldly asserted as legal "entitlements." The courts have been expected to fill the void created by the decline of church, family, and neighborhood unity."

After serving as a full-time Christian conciliator for 28 years, I must agree with Justice Burger's indictment of the church. I have found very few churches that are providing systematic, biblical teaching on conflict resolution. Therefore, when disputes arise, Christians are often just as willing to file a lawsuit as are their unsaved neighbors. Worse yet, church leaders are all too willing to violate 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, as they also go to court to solve problems within the church.

I have personally witnessed these failures time after time. For example, when one church refused to pay its pastor extra compensation for the work he did to remodel his own study, he sued his church. Another pastor, who did not get a promotion he wanted, sued his denomination for age discrimination. A missionary couple who found life in the field to be too stressful not only abandoned their mission, but also sued their denomination for failing to prepare them properly for the mission field. In another case, the trustees of a church brought a lawsuit against their own elders because of a disagreement over church government.

In my opinion, the church's failure to educate its people on biblical conflict resolution has significantly contributed to the flood of lawsuits in this country. This failure has also left the church fully exposed to being sued by its own members. Lawsuits that would have been unthinkable a decade ago are now commonplace, as church members sue their own congregations for alleged breaches of confidentiality, for failing to prevent suicides, for discharging ineffective employees, or for exercising church discipline.

Even when churches win these cases, they usually pay an enormous price in legal costs, lost time and energy, and adverse media attention. And when a church loses, it may suffer damages awards in the millions of dollars, which can easily exceed insurance coverage and take away assets the congregation worked for decades to obtain. And in a surprising number of cases, the pastors and elders of a church have been found to be personally liable for damages awards, notwithstanding the church's status as a nonprofit corporation.

But there is an even higher price we pay for our failure to equip church members to respond to conflict biblically. Even when disputes among Christians do not result in a lawsuit, they often create divisions within a church, undermine vital ministries, and drain energy from our labors for Christ. Church families are also weakened by the inability to deal with conflict biblically, and all too many are eventually torn apart by divorce. Many church committees have never learned biblical ways to work through differences, so minor disputes easily distract them from their work.

On a larger scale, we allow insignificant doctrinal differences to break our fellowship and cooperative ministry with neighboring churches and denominations. So instead of slamming against the gates of hell as a solid, unified, and well-coordinated army of Christian churches, we are only able to sporadically tap against the enemy's fortress with weak, uncoordinated, and ineffective efforts.

In summary, we are not presenting the world with the kind of love and unity that demonstrates the reality of a loving Father and resurrected Savior (see John 13:34-35; 17:20-23). We are allowing unresolved conflict to rob us of our testimony, thereby giving the world yet another reason to blaspheme God and mock His church (see Romans 2:24).

That's the bad news.

The good news is that for a Christian it is never too late to start doing what's right. With God's help, every deficiency noted above can be remedied. Instead of being an occasion for failure, conflict can be turned into an opportunity to glorify God, to serve others, and to grow to be like Christ. In order to achieve these results, work must usually be done on two major fronts. First, we need to teach our members how to respond to conflict biblically as individuals. At the same time, most churches need to upgrade their policies and practices to protect themselves from devastating lawsuits. This process may be divided into six distinct steps.

Six Steps for Protecting Your Church

First, we need to teach biblical peacemaking principles and skills to the adults and children in our churches. This education can take place through sermons, Sunday school classes, and small-group Bible studies. With such training, the vast majority of conflicts within a church can be resolved between those who are involved in a dispute.

Second, church leaders should be inspired and equipped to serve as peacemaking shepherds who can guide their people through conflict in a gospel-centered way. Then, when a dispute cannot be resolved just between disputing members, these leaders may step in (as instructed by Matthew 18:12-16 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-8) to offer godly counsel, serve as mediators, or even provide an arbitrated decision.

Third, most churches need to recommit themselves to the ministry of church discipline. Then, if a member refuses to resolve a dispute in a biblical manner, the church will be prepared to intervene in a loving and redemptive way, as Jesus commands in Matthew 18:12-20, to promote repentance, reconciliation, and justice.

Fourth, most churches need to improve their membership policies, a process which usually includes rewriting bylaws and clarifying guidelines on church discipline. By carefully explaining membership privileges and responsibilities to people before they join a church, churches can secure informed consent to their conflict resolution practices, including church discipline. Such consent serves as the best legal protection against future complaints that a church violated a person's privacy or caused undue emotional distress while dealing with a conflict.

Fifth, all churches should make a greater effort to ensure that they are following certain basic legal practices. These practices include being properly incorporated, having appropriate insurance, using conciliation clauses in all agreements, using permission slips and release forms, and getting all important agreements in writing.

Finally, churches should implement policies to prevent the most common lawsuits that are brought against churches today. Custom-designed Relational Commitmentsdeveloped by Peacemaker Ministries cover conflict resolution; policies on marriage, divorce, and remarriage; protecting children from abuse; confidentiality and counseling guidelines; and accountability and church discipline.

You do not need to develop these materials on your own. Drawing on our experience in working with hundreds of churches over the past twenty years, Peacemaker Ministries has developed two comprehensive resource sets that include all of the materials needed to implement these steps: The Leadership Opportunity and the Peacemaking Church Resource Set.

It will take a significant amount of time and effort to implement these steps. But facing a lawsuit is a hundred times more burdensome. Hundreds of churches, including my own, have implemented these steps and are unquestionably stronger because of it. Exposure to devastating legal liabilities has been dramatically reduced. (Only one church has reported a lawsuit related to these issues, which was eventually dropped.)

More importantly, members in these churches are now well-equipped to solve their personal and family conflicts, which means that the leaders have far less counseling and conciliation work to do. And when the leaders do need to get involved in a dispute, members are not surprised or offended: they know that such involvement is simply part of being involved in a church family. Members are also better prepared to deal with conflict in the work place and in their neighborhoods, which strengthens their Christian witness.

As our Lord promised, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." Members of "peacemaking churches" have experienced that blessing again and again, and thank God when others notice it and want to know how they too can experience it.

This article originally appeared in the April 1995 issue of New Horizons, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination. The author updated it for TheYourChurchBlog.com.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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