This past October, Pastor James MacDonald—founder and leader of the multi-site Harvest Bible Chapel in Illinois, as well as teacher on his radio broadcast ministry, Walk in the Word—famously filed a lawsuit against two former members of his church, as well a former Moody Radio host. His reason? He believes they were actively spreading false information about his church that harmed its reputation, resulting in the loss of many members over several years.
In his words, “… After six years of ‘taking it too personally,’ our church’s Board of Elders decided to take legal action against those who have harmed our ministry through their careless campaign to discredit.”
Specifically, the two former members of his church run a blog in which they have actively criticized the church’s financial health as well as MacDonald’s character and leadership. The lawsuit outlines over 50 points of disagreement with things published on the blog. The former Moody Radio host included in the lawsuit is believed to work in partnership with the bloggers.
All of this has re-opened dialogue for Christians and church leaders around the world on the subject of lawsuits, and specifically—
Should Christians ever sue fellow Christians?
Statement from Harvest Bible Chapel
On October 19, the elders made a public statement to their congregation, saying, “In a specially called meeting on September 29, the Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel carefully considered our biblical options related to three individuals, who have long been outside of our church. Our goal was to end their prolonged and divisive effort to undermine the Elder governance of our church and to discredit our primary leaders. We have chosen to accomplish that by filing a civil suit in Cook County.”
The statement outlines the church’s motivation and rationale for handling the dispute in court, saying, “We believe governmental authorities, whether criminal or civil, are His protection when those who oppose us are actually breaking the law (Romans 13:1-2). In consultation with highly regarded Christian leaders and students of Scripture, we received unqualified support for this difficult decision.”
What’s right with the decision?
First, James MacDonald has been grieved about the situation, calling it “a joyless decision.” Nothing he has said or done publicly has given any credence to this decision being made lightly or carelessly.
Second, the leadership of Harvest Bible Chapel actively prays for resolution outside the legal process. The October 19 public statement from the Elders included these words, “Keep in mind that we continue in prayer for a change of heart among the defendants and only desire an outcome that ensures their wounding of innocent church members will stop and remain stopped. Please pray that the private meeting for resolution we have offered again recently would be agreed to. If that were to happen, our desire would be to halt this process and achieve a lasting peace full of grace and truth.”
Finally, the leadership of Harvest Bible Chapel pursued reconciliation before involving the court. In MacDonald’s words, “We sought reconciliation with former leaders or staff the bloggers identified as offended. Yet it was never enough.”
What’s wrong with the decision?
The Bible is clear that Christians should not sue each other. 1 Corinthians 6 begins, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”
The whole counsel of Scripture indicates Christians should be rightly hesitant to take fellow Christians to court. It isn’t best. God’s desire is that believers wouldn’t sin against each other, and when they do, that they would resolve it privately or with the help of the Church. God is most glorified when Christians resolve their issues according to Matthew 18. Christians should be willing and ready to model forgiveness and longsuffering wherever possible.
Should Christians ever sue fellow Christians?
When it comes to matters of litigation, typically the situation is void of easy answers. The Bible does not condemn judges and courts from doing their job. In fact, Romans 13 calls Christians to submit to their legal authorities.
In some cases, legal action may be the only appropriate response to matters where laws have been broken. In those cases, the decision has been made by the offender and not the offended. In other cases, it may be a last but necessary response to handling sin. When this is the case, Christians should act carefully, prayerfully, and in careful accordance with Scripture and wise counsel … remaining ready to forgive as Christ has forgiven us.