The Use of the Law (Mennonite Church, 1981)

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The Use of the Law (Mennonite Church, 1981)

The Use of the Law


1. Mennonites understand that commitment to Christ brings them under Christ's lordship and provides resources for living in his way of discipleship, peace, and reconciliation.

2. The Scriptures, primarily the New Testament, are the basis for guidance to resolve disputes and questions of justice when believers use their meaning and intent to formulate a response to specific situations.

3. Because there is in modern society an increasing dependence on the law for resolving issues, the Christian needs discerning guidance to maintain faithfulness to Christ.

4. The role of law is to maintain order and to determine what justice requires in the light of society's values. Christians should uphold the intention of law and honor personal legal obligations and voluntary agreement. They are also committed by the will of God to achieve reconciliation and peacemaking.

5. The congregation, both its local and churchwide resource, should have an active role in discerning appropriate ways for resolving differences.

6. Issues involving church members as well as corporations or institutions in which Christians carry responsibility should not be brought to the courts without the counsel and support of the congregation or other church resource.

7. In seeking to achieve a settlement, the Christian is committed to going the second mile. The Christian should support various alternatives to litigation such as arbitration and meditation.

8. Are there specific occasions when the counsel of the church could be that a Christian may be involved in litigation? Approval can only be for cases that do not share those elements which New Testament examples clearly advise against.

The Use of the Law

A Summary Statement

1. The Call of the Kingdom

Mennonite churches understand that the call of Jesus Christ is to a life of discipleship, following him in ways of peace and reconciliation. Those in Christ have a new relationship with God, having been justified and freed from past sin, and are enabled by the grace of God to grow into the fullness of Christ.

Those in Christ have the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the love and care of brothers and sisters in the church to enable them to overcome the kingdom darkness and to walk in the light. Those walking in the light are called to witness for Christ, often in ways that require suffering wrong. Such meekness and suffering love characterize life in the kingdom and the meaning of the cross in human relationships. Those in Christ's kingdom choose to do his will as they recognize and obey his lordship.

2. Some Scripture Dealing with the Settlement of Disputes and justice

The following Scriptures are given for the convenience of persons or groups facing questions of the Christian and civil law. No interpretation or statement should take the place of congregations and individuals becoming directly involved in interpreting and applying the Scriptures in the light of their particular cases. This paper seeks an approach to interpreting the Scriptures in current situations in the life of the Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of the Christian faith and life, of the role of the church, and of the high place which the Scriptures are given.

"He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

"You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:38-39).

"And if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles" (Matthew 5:40-41).

"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:15-18).

"One of the multitude said to him, `Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.' But he said to him, 'Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?' And he said to them, 'Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions' " (Luke 12:13-15).

"As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort *to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison" (Luke 12:58).

"Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem, and there be tried on these charges before me?" But Paul said, "I am standing before Caesar's tribunal, where I ought to be tried; to the Jews I have done no wrong, as you know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death; but if there is nothing in their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar" (Acts 25:9b-11).

"When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them' before those who are least esteemed by the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren" (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).

"Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;" (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).

"Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:4-5).

Sentences and phrases of Scripture should not be used out of context as proof-texts for creating rules of conduct. The basic meaning of biblical passages is derived from the historical setting in which they were given and the limits of literary and grammatical structures and the overall intent of Scripture. The church today is responsible to provide the authoritative link with the first century church, taking into account the historical experience of the church, and interpreting and applying that experience and teaching to current issues.

Jesus' teachings are not cast in a legal code. They are striking illustrations of the meaning of his gospel. Jesus challenges his followers to find reconciling ways to overcome conflicts in the various situations of life.

3. Legal Involvement and Complexity Call for the Guidance of the Church

There has recently been a rapid increase in lawsuits and a consequent expansion in personal and institutional liability. Especially when liability insurance or larger institutions are involved, there is a tendency to seek higher and higher levels of monetary compensation for personal injury or various kinds of real or imaginary loss. With these trends come subtle temptations to use legal procedures and counsel to satisfy selfish desires, rather than to assure justice in human relationships and follow the Christian way of love.

Mennonites have traditionally understood that bringing suit at law is a violation of Christ's call to nonresistant love, peace, and reconciliation. Many believers have felt this so strongly that they sought alternatives to litigation, even when these alternatives resulted in economic losses. As life has become more complex, as liability claims have become more common, and as the scope of governmental statutes and regulations has increased, Mennonites have become more involved in legal proceedings. The threat of and involvement in litigation is experienced by leaders in church institutions, persons engaged in business and agriculture, professional persons, the average householder, conferences, and even congregations.

There is a necessary dependence on legal counsel and proceedings to protect oneself and meet the requirements of the law. However, since the common norms for the practice of law are designed to serve a pluralistic society, we cannot fully discern God's will apart from specific insights of the Christian faith. Therefore, faithfulness to Christ in an increasingly litigious society requires the identification of patterns and relationships that will give guidance and counsel for a faithful witness.

4. Christians Use the Civil Law

This paper assumes a positive role of law in human society and encouragement for the professional practice of law. It is the role of law to maintain order, to clarify and interpret law and statute, and to determine what justice requires in the light of society's values. Law is based on constitution and statute as they are interpreted in the courts. The adversarial system, with its rules of evidence, presumption of innocence, and other customs, is designed to find justice on an objective and fair basis. Christians should use the positive provisions of the civil law with adequate legal counsel in order to fulfill the intention of law. Carefully drawn contracts and other instruments, written according to the provisions of the law, are an obligation of Christian integrity.

Christians should be aware that in securing many kinds of insurance, an agreement is made that gives the insurance company the sole right to resolve any disputes involved. Such an insurance policy usually gives the insurance company the exclusive right to initiate a lawsuit in the name of the insured person. The insured is also required to notify the company of a potential claim immediately and is limited in making other personal approaches or statements. The delegation of these rights and responsibilities (i.e., subrogation) is a matter for careful deliberation.

A part of the church's mission of proclaiming "good news" may be to address structural and institutional evil. For some, basic inequities are rooted in economic, social, legal, and religious structures. These structures can be responsible for injustice in the way service is supplied or in the way the law and custom are construed. The poor, the illiterate, the new immigrant, and other oppressed persons are in special jeopardy, because of the difficulty of equal access to some institutions and to the structures of justice. When the church, its agencies, or groups seek justice for a third party within existing structures, or by appealing for necessary changes in law, structure or procedures, litigation may be warranted. Church persons engaged in such mission should have their proposals for litigation on behalf of others monitored by a church resource so that reconciliation and peace concerns are not overlooked.

While the texts of the Scriptures do not speak to all issues of civil law, there certainly are legal proceedings today that are similar to those the New Testament advised against. Even a proceeding not commonly thought of as adversarial such as the settlement of a decedent's estate or the transfer of real estate can be the occasion in which concerns for justice and the welfare of various parties are neglected.

When differences arise which cannot be resolved with the resources of the church and the Christian faith, there is a sense of failure because Christians are called by Christ to settle their differences quickly and seek to be reconciled to all. In accepting this call, Christians are also challenged to go the second mile when need, opportunity, deficiency in requirement of the law, or the unique Christian witness requires. Tension is inevitable between Jesus' new human community of the Spirit and the secular society under the rule of law. The need to make careful distinctions and a clear commitment of Jesus' way when under this tension will require the counsel, support, and evaluation of the church.

In simple faith and humble obedience, the believers' church seeks to live out the meaning of the Holy Scriptures in the spirit of Jesus' intention and the direction to which his kingdom calls. This kingdom call is not bad news imposed by a legalistic tradition, but is part of the good news of the gospel and an experience of liberty and reconciliation. It is a privilege to share the nature of God's love in Christ in our day-to-day relationships. By exploring these reconciling challenges of the gospel, believers who are involved in business and professions, as well as others, have a resource that can help the whole community solve its litigation problems.

5. Congregational Responsibility in Discerning God's Will

The teachings of Jesus and the apostles, the nature of the Scripture, the complexity of our situation, and the conflict between selfishness and altruism within each Christian combine to create a specific need for the involvement of a Christian community or congregation to interpret and apply the Scriptures and discern the will of God in a given situation. While congregational involvement does not guarantee faithfulness in every respect, there is a greater possibility of openness to the renewing Spirit of God than a traditional literalism, individualism, or authoritarian leadership.

In seeking to understand and to apply scriptural teaching, the congregation makes use of its elders and pastoral leadership, its teachers and adult discussion groups, its theologians and scholars, and its small face-to-face groups of various types including groups of occupational peers. The congregation, in dialogue with the wider Christian fellowship, should also make use of resources from other levels of the church in its discerning task. The church cannot surrender its responsibility to act without weakening the life, witness, and faithfulness of its membership. In this way the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the congregation each contribute to the discernment of the will of God in each situation.

6. How the Counsel and Involvement of the Church Can Be Effected

When facing a legal dispute, members of the church should commit themselves to work with an appropriate person or committee of the congregation (deacons, elders, pastoral committee, etc.) to identify responsible and trusted counselors. These counselors should seek to understand the situation in which the believer finds himself, to help the believer discern how concerns for justice and suffering love apply, to give support needed to overcome greed or self-justification in order to maintain a reconciling stance, and to serve as a liaison between the individual member and the church. When the counsel is for the Christian to accept loss, this could be the occasion for mutual sharing of loss.

When members are part of large or corporate entities involved in litigation, the local congregation might not be an adequate source for counsel. In such instances the individual member and the congregation may well seek help from the conference to identify counsel and' help in the situation, which would usually include business and professional peers in the church. Managers or business enterprises generally have not had the benefit of direct church support. Effort should be made in the various areas of the church to see that adequate counsel is available to all who desire such counsel.

Church or quasi-church institutions having boards elected by the church or made up of members of the church should also have special church support and counsel for involvements in litigation. These institutions could work with the General Board or other appropriate church resources to identify and appoint qualified persons to this function. These counselors would function in much the same way as counselors chosen in a local congregational setting. They would review, counsel, or help discern direction and practice in the specific situations facing a church institution with respect to litigation concerns might be similar to the relationship of an auditing firm with respect to financial direction and reporting.

The role of the congregation and its counselors does not replace the need for professional legal counsel. Lawyers, given the complexity of modern life, are needed to help believers be law-abiding citizens and carry out the intentions and purposes of complex laws. It is essential that Christians inform their lawyers of their faith and commitment. Christians should not permit lawyers to make moral choices for them simply on the basis of accepted practices of law.

7. Exploration of Alternatives Is a Priority

In any dispute, Christians do not surrender their faith and conscience to accepted patterns of legal practice. Rather, they seek to live and witness in keeping with the kingdom and cross themes of the New Testament. This commits Christians to go the second mile to resolve a dispute. Here are examples of specific alternatives which should be considered individually and corporately.

(1) Before delay and defensive postures have taken their toll in dispute, the believer should seek face-to-face discussion to hear the concerns of all parties. If this does not result in reconciliation, it is appropriate to seek the help of one or two others. This is a norm when believers, who share a common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, are involved.

(2) The Christian should resist depersonalization in modern institutional and corporate life rather than using it as justification for the use of adversarial proceedings. It should be recognized that personal feelings, identities, and relationships are significant factors in institutional disputes. The faith and commitment of managers and directors should cause them to maintain good relationships with persons, conduct corporate affairs with integrity, and seek justice in management decisions.

(3) The church should encourage the use of mediation, arbitration, and other less adversarial ways to dispute resolution. Mediation involves the intervention of a third party for the purpose of helping the parties resolve the dispute themselves. The mediator helps effect the healing of broken relationships by serving as a catalyst to assist the parties reach a settlement rather than by imposing a decision. In arbitration both parties to the dispute agree to the appointment of a third party which hears each side of the argument and makes a decision which both parties have agreed in advance will be binding. Both mediation and arbitration depend on the goodwill and covenant between the parties involved for acceptance of the terms of the settlement rather than the authority of the government on which a typical court settlement depends.

(4) Churchwide institutions should commit themselves to the use and development of mediation and arbitration to resolve questions usually presented to the courts for resolution. They should serve as a model for the development of reconciling skills and structures in congregations.

(5) Members of the church involved in business, professional, or administrative vocations should use their influence and conviction to develop models of mediation and arbitration where this may be feasible.

(6) Persons involved in providing essential materials and services sometimes realize that a hardship may be caused for some consumers if collections are made according to contract. Where there is hardship, professional and business people should consider suffering loss rather than taking what the law allows. The church should mutually share losses which cause hardship.

(7) Mennonite credit unions and the stewardship and finance committees of churches should develop effective patterns of financial counseling to help persons avoid excessive indebtedness.

8. The Council of the Church Could Discern That a Given Legal Proceeding Might Be Appropriate

Using the ideas of this paper, counselors from the church could be involved in considering case by case whether a formal legal proceeding may be warranted or whether the case has qualities that exclude litigation generally in keeping with New Testament examples.

(1) If a lawsuit has been filed against a believer, should he or she make the best defense possible and will this include a counter suit?

(2) If a Christian has acted negligently and then encounters unrealistic demands from the injured party, is litigation appropriate to establish the extent of the Christian's responsibility?

(3) Is litigation necessary to protect children, the aged, the poor, or other persons with limited power?

(4) Is a lawsuit the best way of dealing with a government agency or public institution that will not acknowledge questionable behavior or liability until such a proceeding is initiated?

(5) If a fairly negotiated business contract is broken, should it be enforced by a court?

(6) Is litigation an appropriate method of involving a party who refuses to acknowledge any responsibility?

In each of the above, it cannot be assumed that justice as well as reconciliation would be served by litigation. The church resource can help clarify the issues of morality and Christian witness involved in a given case. Such counsel can also address the feelings of anger, revenge, hostility, hurt, or guilt that may be present. In each case the Christian concern should lead beyond order and justice to peace and reconciliation.


This statement on the use of the law seeks to take the Scriptures seriously. It recognizes the constant involvement of believers with the law and the selfish overuse of the law in modern life. It appeals for an effective witness against current excesses in the use of courts and for involvement of the church in trying to discover alternatives to adversarial patterns. This statement is a call for a larger commitment to the congregation of believers in discerning and doing the will of God.

Context of this Statement

Since the early 1950s the issue of the Christian's use of the law in litigation has been raised with increasing frequency in the Mennonite Church. Agencies and individuals have often felt alone as they worked at faithfulness to Christ in the midst of business and legal involvements which demand hard decisions.

From 1959 to 1965 Mennonite Auto Aid sponsored a study of litigation. This study along with a conference on this issue in 1961, while helpful, drew no conclusions. In 1976 a task force was appointed by the Mennonite Church General Board to study the ethical implications of litigation. As they proceeded with their assignment, this study group reviewed their work with the General Assembly in both 1977 and 1979 with the final document presented and approved in 1981 at Bowling Green, Ohio.

This statement is intended as guidelines and resource material for individual, congregational institutional, and churchwide use in discerning the mind of Christ and the path of obedience.

Ivan Kauffmann, General Secretary Mennonite Church General Board [1981]

The 11-person Task Force that composed this statement was chaired by Carl Kreider. Richard Yordy, then pastor at the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in Ontario, was the secretary and writer of the document.

Statements by the Mennonite Church General Assembly state the understanding of the Mennonite Church at the time of the action. Statements have informal authority and influence in the denomination; they have formal authority as confirmed or endorsed by area Mennonite Church area conferences and/or congregations.

Context written 1981 by Ivan J. Kauffmann


Assembly Workbook, Mennonite Church General Assembly, August 11-16, 1981. Lombard, IL : Mennonite Church General Assembly, 1981.

The Use of the Law: a Summary Statement Adopted by Mennonite Church General Assembly. Scottdale, PA : Mennonite Publishing House, 1982.