Dear Dr. Moore,
I’ll make this very long story as short as I can. A close family member of ours lost his health due to what appears to be some serious negligence from a government agency. Several people have suggested that we sue this branch of the government. On the one hand, this might help alert the state to other situations, similar to that of our family member, in hopes of bringing reform. Yet, on the other, the Bible is pretty negative about Christians suing and mandates us to obey and honor the government. I don’t know if we’ll sue, but, if we did, would we be wrong?
Grieving and Confused
First of all, I’m not a lawyer so, of course, I can’t tell you whether your lawsuit would be wise, or even if you have a case. But the questions you raise about your ethical obligations as a Christian are, I think, important. You are right that, first of all, the Bible does command us to not only obey the governing authorities (Rom. 13) but to show honor to them (1 Pet. 2:17) and pray for them (1 Tim. 2:2).
That said, a lawsuit in our legal system is not necessarily an attack. It is, however, when it’s the result of vengeance or acrimony between individuals. But the suit of a governing agency is less like an assault than like an appeal for a grievance to be answered. The normal mechanism of a citizen seeking justice, in our system, goes ultimately through the court system.
In that sense, I think, if all other avenues are exhausted, suing this branch of government would simply be the equivalent of Paul appealing to Caesar to settle his legal dispute (Acts 25:1-12) and pointing to his Roman citizenship in order to question the legality of his scourging (Acts 22:25-28).
This is a very different matter from Christians suing one another, which is forbidden by Scripture. But why is it forbidden? It is not because God is uninterested in justice. It’s that when two Christian persons sue one another they are signaling to the outside world that the church is incompetent, not gifted by Christ, to settle disputes among brothers. That is a defective eschatology, and ultimately says something profoundly untrue about Christ and his gospel. It is better, Paul says, to be defrauded than to do such a thing (1 Cor. 6:1-8).
A suit of a government agency is a different matter precisely because the church has no jurisdiction over the state (Jn. 18:36; 1 Cor. 5:12-13). A suit could be simply an appeal to the state to do justice on its own terms in a particular matter.
That said, you must examine your motives. If you are really seeking to address a systemic wrong, to prevent others from being injured, that is one thing. If you are seeking some form of personal vengeance, that is contrary to the spirit of Christ and to the letter of Scripture (Rom. 12:17-21).
Finally, there is a difference between something being ethically permissible and being wise. A war, for instance, might be just and yet be imprudent. In the same way, it may be that you can, in clear conscience, sue this government agency and yet that be an unwise use of your family’s resources and emotional energy right now. Only you, in seeking God’s direction in prayer and the counsel of wiser Christians, can discern that.
Remember to send me your real-life ethical dilemma at firstname.lastname@example.org.