Mediating Disputes Among Christians

What is better: To have someone resolve a dispute between two believers, or for the believers to resolve the dispute themselves? The second method is certainly preferable since there is a voluntary agreement on how the matter is to be settled. There is also the opportunity for admission of fault (often mutual) and forgiveness. Jesus pointed out repeatedly that he wanted Christian brothers to resolve disputes with each other. Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15.

He also emphasized the advantage of settling a dispute with an adversary on the way to court. Matthew 5:25-26. Jesus points out in this passage of Scripture the danger of allowing a controversy to be decided in Court. He remarked that if the person did not settle on the way to Court, he would not get out of prison until he paid the last penny.

Even though we do not have debtor's prison in this country, the cost of litigation can be devastating. Even the so-called "winner" of a lawsuit may have won only a "pyrrhic" victory. In order to try a lawsuit, an attorney must do a lot of preparation. Unlike the television stereotypes such as Perry Mason or Ben Matlock, a small percentage of trial attorneys' time is spent in the courtroom. An attorney must conduct legal research, draft pleadings, review documents, send out interrogatories and requests for production of documents, attend depositions and line up an expert witness. In the weeks before a trial, the attorney generally reviews testimony with witnesses, prepares opening and closing statements and outlines direct examination and cross-examination questions for each witness. Depending on the complexity of the case, a jury trial can cost a litigant thousands of dollars.

Two alternatives to litigation are arbitration and mediation. Even though arbitration is less formal and less costly than litigation, there is still a decision in favor of one party and against the other. There is usually no sense of restoration between two believers with this result. Mediation on the other hand assists the parties in resolving the dispute itself. It is a voluntary attempt to settle the controversy without a judgment being imposed by an arbitrator, judge or jury. The mediator's function is to determine each party's true interests and concerns.

Often money alone is not the center of the dispute. For instance, two Christian business partners may be more concerned about keeping certain clients and sales territory than a cash settlement. The mediator starts off by meeting the parties and laying the ground rules. During the mediation session, the mediator may talk to each party separately (referred to as a "caucus"). The mediator may not disclose information obtained during a caucus to the other party without prior approval. Possible solutions to the conflict may be discussed separately or with both parties present. The mediator is not there to judge, but to objectively discuss each party's position from a neutral vantage point. Direct communication between the parties is encouraged.

As human beings, even Christians tend to get entrenched in opposing positions. Often our emotions cloud an honest evaluation of the dispute. A mediator can reduce the tension and allow for an orderly and objective consideration of the problem. If the mediator is an attorney, the parties can request an opinion on how the legal issues might be decided in a court of law.

I believe the Biblical progression for Christians to follow in resolving a legal dispute is set out below:

  1. Settle the matter with your brother, directly. Matthew 18:15.

  2. If you are unable to do so, ask one or two Christians to assist you in reaching an agreement (mediation). Matthew 18:16

  3. If that doesn't work, select a mutually agreed to Christian to make a ruling on the dispute (arbitration). 1 Cor. 6:4.

  4. If the believer refuses Christian mediation or arbitration, you may treat him as an unbeliever and file a lawsuit. Matthew 18:17.

Jesus will honor this approach. As you know, he is the mediator between God and man. 1 Timothy 2:5.

This article was published in the St. Louis MetroVoice and may only be reprinted with its permission and the permission of author Robert D. Arb.