“Do not take a brother to court” – does it mean you can’t seek a protection order against your abuser?
To seek a protection order from the court is not a sin. A victim of abuse does not go against biblical principles by seeking a protection order from the secular justice system, even if the abuser professes to be a believer. The “do not take a brother to court” principle from 1 Corinthians 6 must be weighed with other scriptures to rightly divide the word of truth when it comes to protecting people from abuse and oppression. It also must be understood in the culture of the time Paul was writing. And someone who professes faith in Christ but is abusing another person is not a Christian.
1 Corinthians 6:1-8
How dare one of you, having a problem with another, go to law under the unrighteous, and not rather under the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world will be judged by you, are you not good enough to judge small trifles? 3 Do you not know that we will judge the angels? How much more may we judge things that pertain to this life? 4 If you have trials of worldly matters, take those who are least esteemed in the congregation and make them judges. 5 This I say to your shame. Is there really no wise man among you? What, no one at all who can judge between brother and brother? 6 But one brother goes to law against another, and that under the unbelievers?
7 Now therefore there is utterly a failing among you, because you go to law one with another. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather suffer yourselves to be robbed? 8 Nay, you yourselves do wrong, and rob – and that the brethren. (NMB) (click here to read it in the NKJ)
It would be wrong to take that passage as the only precept that must be heeded. Christians believe in the separation of church and state. Romans 13 says God has appointed the secular authorities to carry out a particular function, for the benefit of society as a whole.
Let every soul submit himself to the authority of the higher powers. For there is no power except from God. The powers that be are ordained by God. Therefore whoever resists authority, resists the ordinance of God. And those who resist will bring retribution on themselves, for rulers and authorities are not to be feared for good works, but for bad. Would you be without fear of the authority? Do well then, and you will be commended by the same. For he is the minister of God for your welfare. But if you do wrong, then fear. For he does not bear a sword for nothing, but is the minister of God to take vengeance on those who do evil. Therefore you must obey – not for fear of vengeance only, but also because of conscience. (NMB)
The secular justice system “bears the sword” for the purpose of dealing with wrongdoers. The civil authorities are to be feared by wrongdoers. Churches do not bear the power of the sword in regard to criminal offenses. Criminal offenses cannot be investigated or tried in the church.
Protection orders in the justice system
Secular laws differ from state to state. I am familiar with how they operate in my state (Victoria, Australia). I’m not a lawyer, and I’m speaking generally, but so far as I know protection orders are civil orders rather than criminal orders. Readers may reverse the genders if need be— The woman who fears because of past behaviour by her abuser can apply to the court for a protection order. The court assesses the application and may issue an order against the alleged abuser, stating things he must not do in the future.
A protection order is about FUTURE BEHAVIOUR. It sets limits on future behaviour. So long as the alleged abuser adheres to the terms of the order, he cannot be labelled as a criminal. But if he breaches the terms of the order that is a criminal offence for which he can be charged, convicted and punished by the court.
Bear in mind that the laws in your state may not be the same as mine, but here is an example from my own experience of having a protection order. The person who has an order against them must not:
- Stalk the protected person.
- Commit prohibited behaviour towards the protected person. (Prohibited behaviour includes assault, sexual assault, harassment, property damage or interference, or making a serious threat.)
- Attempt to locate, follow the protected person, or keeping them under surveillance.
- Publish on the internet, by email or other electronic communication any material about the protected person.
- Contact or communicate with the protected person by any means (except through a lawyer).
- Approach or remain within 5 metres of a protected person.
- Go to or remain within 200 metres of where the protected person lives or any place the protected person works or attends school/childcare.
- Get another person to do anything which the order prohibits.
It may be difficult to get the abuser charged for a breach of the order. Abusers are crafty, and it’s hard to produce evidence of the breach that satisfies the court. So protection orders are often ineffective. But they do restrain some abusers, some of the time.
Here is an example from the Old Testament. King Solomon issued an order to Shimei, the man who had maliciously cursed King David when David was fleeing from Absalom’s mutiny. The order stated terms of future behaviour that Shimei had to abide by: if he remained in the city, he would not be punished, but if he left the city he would be punished.
Then the king [Solomon] sent and called for Shimei, and said to him, “Build yourself a house in Jerusalem and dwell there, and do not go out from there anywhere. For it shall be, on the day you go out and cross the Brook Kidron, know for certain you shall surely die; your blood shall be on your own head.” (1 Kings 2:36-37, NKJ)
Three years later, Shimei breached the order, so Solomon had him executed. (vv 39-46)
Understanding 1 Corinthians 6 in the light of Romans 13
Reading 1 Corinthians 6 in light of Romans 13, it is legitimate for a victim of abuse to seek a secular protection order when they are afraid of being abused by their spouse. And if the abusive spouse violates the terms of the order, the abuser can be prosecuted by the state for the crime of breaching the order. The secular justice system would thus be carrying out its God-ordained role of protecting the vulnerable and restraining the wicked. And if the wicked did not submit to that restraint, the secular system could punish (wield the sword on) the offender.
It is impossible for the church to wield the sword like that. And obviously, for the abuser to be so prosecuted, the victim must first have been granted a protection order by the secular court.
Some states only issue protection orders if there has been recent physical or sexual violence. But some places issue them if there has been emotional intimidation, financial abuse, stalking, coercive control, harassment, online slander, etc. States that are at the vanguard of responding to domestic abuse have laws against domestic abuse that criminalise coercive control, e.g. Scotland. (Click this link to find out what coercive control is)
Church leaders need to be aware that although domestic abusers may not commit physical violence or sexual assault against their victims, they all use coercive control tactics to oppress and control their victims.
If a church forbade a victim of domestic abuse from seeking a protection order against her abuser, that church would be violating the spirit of Romans 13. And if a church reprimanded a victim of abuse for seeking a protection order against her abuser, that church would tacitly be enabling the abuser’s wicked conduct, by giving the message to the abuser that he could get away with his evildoing because the church was backing him.
The legal system when Paul was writing to the Corinthians
Most Christians these days are not aware of how very differently the secular justice system worked in the first century AD, when Paul was writing to the Corinthians.
Corinth was a Roman colony so it operated under Roman law. Bruce Winter’s book After Paul Left Corinth has two chapters on the legal system in Corinth. He describes how slaves and freed-slaves had fewer legal rights than Roman citizens, and women tended to have fewer legal rights than men. He describes how Roman citizens often embarked on vexatious litigation against other citizens, in order to enhance their own reputation as orators. The litigant might then attract more pupils to his private oratory school. People pay a lot of money to go to law school these days; in those days people paid a lot of money to be trained in oratory. The skill of oratory (speech making) was important for young men who wanted to be influential in government and public office. Therefore, taking someone to court on the allegation they had ‘besmirched your reputation’ was often a business ploy more than a justice-seeking ploy. Bruce Winter suggests that this is what Paul was forbidding.
In my view, Paul probably condemned ‘taking a brother to court’ for situations in which one professing believer was suing another professing believer for things like defamation or non-payment of debts. Defamation and failure to pay debts are forms of robbery: defamation robs the victim of their rightly-merited reputation; non-payment of a debt robs the victim of money.
Paul could not have been forbidding Christians from seeking justice against professing believers who had committed crimes under Roman Law. He knew very well that Rome had the power to punish crimes. Even the Jews who got Jesus crucified knew that. When the Jews claimed that Jesus was guilty of a crime, they had to ask Roman authorities to issue the death sentence, because they didn’t have the power to ‘wield the sword’ themselves.
No case of domestic abuse is trivial
Paul reminds the Corinthians that the saints will judge the world and the angels (1 Cor 6:2-3). On the Day of Judgement, the saints will be judging the world and the angels, because the saints are in Christ and are one with Christ and the Father has committed all judgement to the Son (John 5:22). But that Day is yet to come.
Paul also says Christians are competent to try ‘small trifles’ pertaining to this life (1 Cor 6:2). The ESV calls these ‘trivial matters’. But no case of domestic abuse is trivial.
Our definition of abuse: A pattern of coercive control (ongoing actions or inactions) that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his target subordinated and under his control. (Sometimes the genders are reversed.) This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical. Not all these elements need be present, e.g., physical abuse may not be part of it.
Our definition of a domestic abuser: a family member or dating partner (current or ex) who has a profound mentality of entitlement to the possession of power and control over the one s/he chooses to mistreat. This mentality of entitlement defines the very essence of the abuser. The abuser believes he is justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain that power and control.
All domestic abuse cases are serious. Some cases can be lethal.
And male intimate abusers use dozens of tactics of coercive control (link). They systematically disassemble the personhood of their targets. They oppress and intimidate in multiple ways.
Brad Sargent talks about how churches misconstrue 1 Corinthians 6 in many scenarios of abuse:
They decry the “world system” as evil, and use this or other justifications as an excuse to avoid submission to its systems. Sometimes they even includes the laws of the land (such as refusing the mandatory reporting of known/suspected child abuse). [1 Corinthians 6.] But this passage talks about how Christians should be able to take care of TRIVIAL matters in house. Is spiritual abuse of authority “trivial”? Is clergy sexual misconduct “trivial”? How about harassment, or misappropriation of funds by leaders, or covering up for leaders who have severely failed morally and ethically?
—A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 6D: Analyzing Misused Tools and Processes: What are Key Problems and Their System Impact?
Someone who professes faith in Christ, but is abusing another, is not a Christian
Immediately after the “do not take a brother to court” instruction in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul goes on to say that “cursed speakers” (abusers) will not inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Cor 6:9-11
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived. For neither fornicators, nor worshippers of images, nor whoremongers, nor effeminates, nor abusers of themselves with the male sex, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor cursed speakers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified by the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. (NMB)
“Cursed speaking” is the same thing as railing and reviling. The abuser may or may not use profanity, but all abusers rail against and revile their victims. All abusers verbally abuse and slander their victims when they think they can get away with it.
In addition to verbal abuse and slander, many abusers are sexually immoral, covetous, substance abusers, and swindlers. And most abusers are idolators if you count self-idolatry as idolatry.
So when Paul teaches ‘do not take a brother to court’ in 1 Corinthians 6, he immediately goes on to remind us that abusers are NOT Christians.
As we have said many times on this blog, an abuser cannot be a Christian, no matter how much they profess to the contrary.
A protection order can be helpful, but safety planning is even more important
Dr George Simon Jr says:
There are many times when a protection order is not only warranted but necessary. And in those cases, seeking the protection order is not primarily for the purposes of “control,” because, in fact, many abusers violate these orders. Rather, when necessary, it’s just another affirmative step the potential victim can take to not only improve their safety odds, but also to have legal recourse when court-ordered sanctions are violated (as they often are). But even more important than a protective order is a viable safety plan with ample family/community support. Ending an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a victim. That’s why the safety plan is so critical and why, in the end, it’s often much more effective than any restraining order.
– personal email from Dr Simon
Coming up soon: Domestic abuse victims share their experiences of obtaining a protection order.
Two notes from Barbara Roberts
1) The writing of this post was precipitated by a comment from David who pastors a PCA church in the USA. You can read David’s comment here.
2) This post will become a chapter in my next book. I have planned to write this book for years, and at last I am getting back to working on it.
What about couple counseling? – vital reading for church leaders who think they do mediation in cases of domestic abuse.
How to Collect Evidence if your protection order is breached – a five minute video by Women’s Health West and Victoria Police, Australia. It features local women demonstrating simple and practical ways of gathering evidence. Note: This video is from Victoria, Australia, where protection orders are called “intervention orders’ and the emergency phone number is 000, not 911 as in the USA.
Abuse in the PCA church – Part 1 of Persistent Widow’s story – read the whole series to get a picture of how badly churches can deal with domestic abuse
1 Corinthians 5:11 – does it apply only if there’s common knowledge of the person’s sin? (Part 2) – this post mentions 1 Corinthians 6.
Male Privilege is the underlying driver of domestic abuse – a video presentation by Ken Lay, former Police Commissioner, Victoria, Australia.