dianoigo blog

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Christadelphians, Litigation, and Social Justice (Part 1)

One of the distinctives of Christadelphian moral teaching is that believers in Christ may not engage in litigation for purposes of redress. This is considered such an important matter that it is encoded in the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF) used as a basis of fellowship by most Christadelphian ecclesias (local congregations) around the world:
We reject the doctrine - that we are at liberty to take part in politics, or recover debts by legal coercion. (Doctrines to be Rejected, Article 36)
Formally speaking, this means that any person who affirms that Christians are at liberty to recover debts by legal coercion (litigation) cannot be a member in good standing of any Christadelphian ecclesia that uses the BASF as its basis of fellowship. (In practice, some ecclesias today might not press the issue, if Christadelphian social media discussions are anything to go by.) The purpose of this series of articles is to critique this Christadelphian teaching in light of Scripture and reason.

The Christadelphian position

Christadelphian opposition to engaging in litigation dates back to the movement's founder, Dr. John Thomas.1 However, our main conversation partner here will be Thomas's protégé, Robert Roberts, who more than anyone else was responsible for the establishment of Christadelphianism as an institutional religion (including primary authorship of what became the BASF). In his best-known book, Christendom Astray, Roberts dealt with the issue of litigation under the broader rubric of resisting evil, and he was unequivocal: quoting Matthew 5:39-41, he concluded that "unresisting submission to legal and personal wrong" is "the plainest of Christ's commandments," but one ignored by most professing Christians.2 Roberts held that the examples of non-resistance depicted in these verses are to be adhered to absolutely: "If life and property must be exposed to the ravages of wicked men, unless we do that which Christ tells us we are not to do, let all houses and all lives be unprotected... It is a mistake to hamper the question of duty with any secondary consideration whatever."3 For Roberts, the reason most Christians ignore this commandment against resisting evil is that they mistakenly believe that Christ's teachings were aimed at the goal of social justice here and now. Instead, Christ's disciples should be unconcerned with social injustice here and now, because their focus is on the definitive justice that will arrive with the Second Coming of Christ. For now, believers have no duty to seek social justice for themselves or others but are called to leave things in God's hands.4 In recent times, Christadelphian writer Russell Ebbs has echoed this argument, exhorting believers to abandon "those thoughts of demanding our 'rights' or seeking redress," which are symptomatic of a carnal, disobedient way of thinking.5

Matthew 5:40 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 have historically been the two main biblical texts cited in support of the Christadelphian position that believers must not take legal action against another person.6 Because of this, we will explore them in some detail before commenting more generally on the morality of litigation.

Matthew 5:38-42
38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. 40 If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. 41 Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. (my translation, adapted from NABRE)
This is the second-to-last of the famous Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48). In each Antithesis, Jesus authoritatively contrasts what the crowds have previously heard about obeying the Torah (the Law of Moses) with the true divine intent. Thus Jesus is not annulling the Law but conveying its full meaning (Matt. 5:17), and highlighting the difference between the surpassing righteousness of those who would enter the kingdom of God and the deficient righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. As Charles H. Talbert explains, "Matthew 5:21-48 asks: 'What is the purpose of your Bible reading? It advocates a radical, as opposed to a formal, obedience to Scripture.'"7 The lex talionis (law of retaliation) principle, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:19-20) is the first leg of this antithesis. This law placed limits on retaliation and thus avoided family vendettas. However, as Jesus understands it, the limits placed on retaliation show that no retaliation is actually better than proportionate retaliation.

Jesus then provides four concrete examples of the do-not-resist principle in action. The first concerns a humiliating physical attack: a blow to the face. The second concerns a legal attack: a lawsuit. The third concerns political oppression: being commandeered as a porter by a Roman soldier. The fourth concerns economic impropriety: a request for a donation or a loan, presumably from one whose intentions are suspect (hence the relevance to resisting evil). We must emphasise that these examples are illustrations of a general principle and not regulations to be followed verbatim. Bear in mind that just prior to this, Jesus has ordered, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away" (Matt. 5:29). To use Robert Roberts' language, this too is "the plainest of Christ's commandments," and yet the most ignored, if taken literally. Yet Christadelphians have no problem with ignoring the instruction of Matthew 5:29 (taken literally). Again, the fourth example in this very series orders us to give to every beggar and accede to every request for a loan (Matt. 5:42; cf. Luke 6:30). This case seems to be overlooked by the same Christadelphians who advocate scrupulous, literal observance of the examples in vv. 39-40.

Let us look closer in the example involving litigation, in v. 40. What is sometimes overlooked is that this scenario involves hyperbole to the point of absurdity. A person in first-century Palestine wore two garments, the imation ('cloak') on the outside and the chitōn ('tunic') underneath.8 The Torah permits the cloak to be taken as collateral for a loan, but only until sunset. Keeping one's cloak was an inalienable right (Ex. 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13); one could not be sued for it. Hence, the crafty litigant depicted in Matt. 5:40 sues for the tunic, the undergarment. This litigation is patently contrary to the spirit of the Torah, and therefore unjust. Yet Jesus calls on the one in such a predicament not merely to decline to contest the case, but to hand over his cloak too. If the one so sued handed over his tunic and cloak, he was not only surrendering a basic, legally protected right, but would be left standing naked in public!9 Thus, Talbert rightly scolds fundamentalists for reading the Bible "as a book of revealed morality in the form of particularized commands that are viewed as timeless truths."10 The examples given by Jesus here are to be taken seriously as illustrations of the principle of non-retaliation, but not to be taken literally as case law.11

Another subtlety in these examples is that Jesus is not advocating submission to evil but resistance through non-resistance. In line with the Pauline principle that kindness to one's enemy heaps burning coals on his head (Rom. 12:20), handing one's cloak to the one who is suing for the tunic is a way of awakening the aggressor's conscience to the injustice he is inflicting. The same is true of turning the other cheek to the physical attacker. In our own day, this idea of resisting evil by not resisting has been used to great effect by great civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Thus, again resorting to Paul's language, the goal in following Jesus' teaching here is not to be conquered by evil, but to conquer it (Rom. 12:21). The fight for social justice is not abandoned, but taken up using weapons that are less lethal but ultimately more effective.

In the broader Matthaean context, love of God and neighbour are paramount (Matt. 22:34-40), and fundamental to love of neighbour are the exercise of mercy and justice (Matt. 23:23). The non-resistance ethic of Matthew 5:38-42 represents an ingenious way of achieving both of the seemingly conflicting ends of mercy and justice. By not resisting the evildoer one shows him mercy; by overcoming evil with good, one seeks justice. However, it is noteworthy that none of the scenarios in Matthew 5:39-42 are life-threatening or even life-altering. It is not difficult to imagine other scenarios in which, for instance, the welfare or very lives of one's children are at stake, and in such cases the higher principle "love your neighbour" trumps the non-resistance principle. Some proportionate resistance is not only permitted but morally imperative in such cases.

Matthew 5:40, consequently, does not command believers to avoid all participation in litigation, though it does give food for thought to anyone involved in a legal dispute, and does pronounce judgment on certain contemporary societies that are "litigation-happy." In order to properly assess the morality of litigation, we need to properly understand the place of the State in fulfilling the purposes of God in the present age, e.g. the preservation of law and order and the promotion of justice. Before we move in that direction, the next article will consider another passage usually cited by Christadelphians in support of their position on litigation: 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.


  • 1 "Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?" (I Cor. 6:2). The verb here rendered judge is the same as is translated "go to law" in the preceding verse. The apostle, therefore, asks, if they do not know that they will sit judicially, and dispense justice to the world, according to the divine law; and because this is their destiny, he positively forbids believers in the covenants of promise to submit themselves to the judgment of the unjust. It is better, says he, for one to be defrauded than to submit to such a humiliation. Let the heirs of the world arbitrate their own affairs in the present state; for it is a strange thing, if men, whose destiny it is to judge the world and angels, cannot settle things pertaining to this life. (John Thomas, Elpis Israel [4th edn.; Adelaide: Logos, 1866/2000], p. 250)
  • 2 "Of all the commandments of Christ, this of unresisting submission to legal and personal wrong is the one that most severely tests the allegiance of his disciples, and which accordingly is most decisively neglected in all Christendom. It would not be too much to say that it is deliberately refused and formally set aside by the mass of professing Christians, as an impracticable rule of life. That it stands there as the plainest of Christ's commandments, cannot be denied; and that it was re-echoed by the apostles and carried out in the practice of the early Christians, is equally beyond contradiction. Yet, by all classes, it is ignored as much as if it had never been written." (Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray [Nottingham: Dawn Book Supply, 1884/1960], 432-33).
  • 3 op. cit., 434. Note that the first part of this particular passage is omitted in an abridged version of Christendom Astray published by The Christadelphian in 1969.
  • 4 "It is commonly imagined that the commandments of Christ apply, and are intended to supply, the best modes of life among men--that is, those modes that are best adapted to secure a beneficial adaptation of man to man in the present state of life upon earth... Christendom resists evil; sues at law; resents injury... It speaks of 'duty to society,' the 'protection of life and property,' and the certain chaos that would set in if the law of Christ were in force. In this, Christendom speaks as the world, and not as 'the church,' because it is not the church, but the world... The time has not come for the saints to keep the world right. It has to be made right before even keeping it right can be in question. The position of the saints is that of sojourners on trial for eternal life. God will take care that their probation is not interfered with by murder and violence before the time. The matter is His. We are in His hands: so is all the world. We need not therefore be distressed by thoughts of what will be the effect of any course required by Christ. He will take care that His work comes out right at last" (op. cit., 433-34)
  • 5 As bond slaves to Christ we have no rights; and, being no longer servants of sin, those impulses which are our natural way of thinking must be put to death—those thoughts of demanding our ‘rights’ or seeking redress must be abandoned... We should not therefore resort to litigation,1 which is a symptom of the spirit that is at work in the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). (Russell Ebbs, "Litigation and the Christadelphian," The Testimony [May 2002]: 198-99). Another writer warns against "the pernicious influence of the democratic human rights philosophy" (W. J. McAllister, Democracy: Its Influence upon the World and the Ecclesia [West Beach: Logos, 1993], 3).
  • 6 "Going to Law: Following our baptism we follow the Law of Christ which forbid us to take legal action to redress wrongs committed against us. We have to suffer wrong for Jesus said 'do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'" (Dawn Christadelphian Bible Study Course, Part 2, p. 16; cf. quotation from 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 on p. 13)
  • 7 Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 65.
  • 8 BDAG 475, 1085.
  • 9 "Obeyed literally, 5:40 results in public nudity and arrest" (Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount, 91).
  • 10 Reading the Sermon on the Mount, 28. I have previously written about the need for a thoroughgoing moral theology rather than a simplistic recourse to "what the Bible says."
  • 11 These examples "should not be taken in a pedantic fashion that would limit their intended application" (David L. Turner, Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 175).