Litigation in the Church: How Can We Best Handle Our Disputes?
Litigation in the church: How can we best handle our disputes?
Story by Rhonda Moss Covington with Beth Michaels
We are living in very litigious times. Born again Christians today in the United States file 4-8 million lawsuits every year, often against other Christians, spending $20-40 billion. There are approximately 19,000 church-scarring conflicts in the U.S. each year (an average of 50 per day). Even if Christians sue at only half the rate of non-Christians, the number of lawsuits would be 4 million, reports Ken Sande, founder of Peacemakers Ministries, in his article “The High Cost of Conflict Among Christians” (Feb. 15, 2015, peacemaker.net project).
Bob Burrow, vice president and chief legal counsel for Adventist Risk Management, states that, as a result of rising interest in church-related claims, there is a proliferation of lawyers advertising on mass media today. The various reasons for lawsuits range from personal injury, to job loss to an abusive event.
But, what is the most effective way for Christians to handle disputes? Are there situations when the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes it appropriate to take a matter to litigation? Members may be surprised to learn that the Adventist Church has some solutions already in place for finding “civil” resolutions to many serious disagreements—with each other and with the church.
Lessons From Our Past
Historically the Adventist Church has recognized the biblical admonitions regarding taking a brother to court, referring heavily to the adage found in Matthew 18:15-20, which reads in part: “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 … And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.” Church leaders knew there had to be a better way to resolve disputes and have encouraged members to submit their claims and charges to fellow members for resolution rather than litigation in a court of law.
During the mid-1970s, a number of Adventists took the church to court on disputes arising out of church employment. Litigation proved expensive with attorney’s fees and related costs of a court proceeding. Many of these disputes might have been resolved outside the judicial process if there had been an alternative dispute mechanism in place within the church structure, says attorney Walter Carson, vice president and General Counsel for the Columbia Union Conference.
Instead, the litigation route, where both sides hired attorneys to aggressively pursue their own client’s interests, often ended without full satisfaction for either side, and left the church member with bitterness toward their church, Carson adds.
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