Ethics: Legal

There are well over a million lawyers in the U.S.A. (1,143,358 as of the end of 2007. Source: wiki.answers.com). There are more per capita here than anywhere. There are only about 954,000 physicians (www.wsj.com).

There are also many lawsuits in the U.S.A., over 16 million civil cases were filed in state courts in 2002 (www.sixwise.com). “Seventy-six percent of American obstetricians have been sued at least once” (Thomas Sowell, Applied Economics, p. 69). ” According to an article in the London Financial Times, June 22, 1991 of all the lawsuits that were filed around the world in 1988 and 1989, a staggering 94 percent were filed in the United States alone … current statistics from the American Bar Association show that if you live in California, and make more than $50,000 a year, there is almost a one-in-four chance that you will be sued” (Anthony Robbins, Await the Giant Within, p. 168).

Is this good? Some think so. It means that in America, wrongs can be redressed.

However, there are also negatives to our society of easy lawsuits. The ease of lawsuits has: (1) Diminished personal responsibility. Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s and won $2.9 million (later reduced to $640,000) after she spilt McDonald’s coffee and burned herself. (John Stossel, Give Me a Break, p. 165). “From the European perspective it seems that Americans are always looking for someone to blame when anything goes wrong” (Anthony Robbins, p. 468). (2) Increased medical procedures. Many doctors admit to running tests, that they feel are unnecessary, out of fear of lawsuits. This is called “defensive medicine” (Sowell, p. 70). “According to The Economist, ‘few clinicians think that babies get cerebral palsy because the obstetrician failed to deliver them by caesarean section.’ Yet ‘fear of being sued prompts doctors to perform unnecessary C-sections …’ Nevertheless, ‘a five-fold increase in C-sections in rich countries in the past three decades has brought no decrease in the incidence of cerebral palsy’” (Sowell, p. 69). (3) Increased everyone’s cost.  “In particular specialties, such  as  obstetrics  and neurosurgery, the cost of malpractice insurance can exceed $200,000 a year, in some places. These cost of course gets passed on to the patient, the government, or whoever is paying for medical treatments” (Sowell, p. 68).

Witnesses

I had been called for jury selection.  During jury selection, the prosecutor asked the group of anyone would be unable to convict if there were not at least two  eye-witnesses to the crime.  She said that some thought that the Bible taught such (Numbers 36:30; Deuteronomy 17:6-7; 19:15; Matthew 18:6; 1 Timothy 5:19, 22).  A few indicated that they could not convict without at least two eye-witnesses.  They were dismissed.

Does the Bible teach that unless there be two eye-witnesses, we shouldn’t convict?  The Old Covenant did demand two or more witnesses for conviction (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6-7; 19:15).  The New Covenant does seem to demand the same (Matthew 18:6; 1 Timothy 5:19, 22).  I have heard that some Roman Catholic priests, and Jehovah Witness leaders have appealed to such when their churches question them about child molestation accusations.  Here is a point to remember: Evidence can serve as a witness (John 5:31-36; 1 John 5:9; 2 Peter 1:18-19).

The Bible teaches that one should not be convicted on the word of one individual.  There must be more evidence than one person’s word.  If the State accuses someone of something, and there is sufficient evidence to back up that accusation, then conviction is possible.  Eye-witnesses are not demanded.

Confidentiality

What if someone has confessed a crime to me (either already committed, or planned to be committed) confiding in me?  Should I reveal such to authorities?  What if I promised to keep such a secret?

The general teachings of the Bible is that we’re to be protective of others.  Consider the following passages: (1) “A talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:13 cf. Leviticus 19:16).  (2) “Debate your case with your neighbor, and do not disclose the secret to another” (Proverbs 25:9 cf. Matthew 18:15-19).  (3) Love “bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). McCord’s reads, “throw a cloak of silence over what is displeasing in another.”  Arndt-Gingrich defines the word to mean, “to cover, to keep confidential”.  Steve Williams comments, “Instead of trying to broadcast all the dirt and filth we know about other people through gossip, let us speak to others the best we can.  Let us quietly work to help others correct their faults” (The More Excellent Way, p. 37-38).

However, there are times when things should not be kept covered.  (1) Legally, disclosure is demanded at times (Leviticus 5:1; Deuteronomy 13:6-8; Proverbs 29:24).  We are to be a law-abiding people (Romans 13:1-ff).  (2) Love for others demands disclosure at times (Matthew 7:12; Romans 13:8-10).  Imagine if disclosure could prevent terrorism, rape or murder – could one remain silent?  (3) Sometimes in order to help save a soul disclosure is necessary (Matthew 18:15-ff; 1 Corinthians 1:11; 11:18).

What if a promise of secrecy had been made?  (1) The Old Covenant taught that men should be careful in what they promise (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:5).  However, there was a provision for rash vows (Leviticus 5:4-6).  (2) Common sense seems to tell us that sins of the lips should not be magnified in action (or lack of action).  Illustration: If I swore to another that I would kill you, should I keep my word?  Or should I repent for swearing what I never should have sworn?  Illustration: If I swore that I never would attend the assembly of the church again, should I keep my word?  Or should I repent for saying such?  There are some things which never should be promised.

Oaths

You’re called to the witness stand.  You’re instructed to place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right hand.  Then, you’re asked, “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”  God is sometimes invoked as a witness to this oath.

This practice is ancient.  It goes back to at least medieval Europe.  The right hand was raised in medieval Europe because in medieval Europe felons were often branded on the palm of the right hand, and felons were disqualified as witnesses.

This tradition was carried over into our own country.  Zephaniah Swift (a founding father) said, “An oath is a solemn appeal to the Supreme Being that he who takes it will speak the truth, and an imprecation of His vengeance if he swears false” (David Barton, Original Intent, p. 33).  In the early days of this country some witnesses were rejected who did not believe in God (ibid).

However, some have religious problems with this legal custom.  This objection is based upon the following passages: Matthew 5:33-37; Matthew 23:16-22; James 5:12.

There are internal things in these passages which help us to understand the issue: (1) It is clear from Matthew 23, that the Jews viewed some oaths as binding and others as not binding (or at least not as strongly binding).  Guy Woods commented, “Some rabbis held that one was bound to tell the truth only when the names of Deity were mentioned… but if His name were not included in the oath any promise made one did not have to keep.  Thus, by trickery, and evasive methods, by skillful use of words, many in that day callously broke their promises and violated their oaths” (The Epistle of James, p. 289).  (2) James says, “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath” (James 5:12).  The word “other” is “allos”, meaning “another of the same kind”.  Not all oaths are being forbidden but a certain kind of oath.  The words “heaven” and “earth” take one back to Matthew 23:16-22.

There are external things to consider: (1) God, under the Old Covenant, regulated oath taking (see Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23, etc).  Therefore, it can’t be that the Pharisees were being rebuked for taking oaths.  (2) God swears (Hebrews 6:13; Acts 2:30; Luke 1:72).  (3) Paul, under the New Covenant, swore (Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8).

The term “swear” means to take an oath, to make a promise, to vow.  If all oath-taking is wrong, then what about: (1) marriage vows? (2) business loans/contracts?

The Government has wanted to remind society how serious it is to testify falsely.  They have wanted to remind man or God.  I have no problem with such; However, Christians should tell the truth regardless of whether he is sworn in or not.

Note: If you have conscientious objections to the process, there are now legal alternatives to the traditional oath.

 Suing

Let us consider, the ethics of brother suing brother.  The Corinthian brethren were rebuked for how they were handling issues which occurred between brethren (1 Corinthians 6:1-7). Some, it seems, thought that the primary place (even the first stop) to settle real or imagined grievances was in government courts of law.

Jesus had already spoken on how to handle a situation of personal sin between brethren (Matthew 18:15-17). Were they not involving brethren, as steps two and three required in Matthew 18, but instead relying upon the court? Did there issues involve sin? Not all difficulties or injuries between brethren involve sin. Example: A brother, literally steps on a sister’s toe, breaking it. Example: A sister accidentally backs her car into a brother’s car in the church parking lot. Example: A brother loans a brother a certain item. The item is stolen while in the possession of the borrower (I’ve seen all of these things take place). None of these examples involves a brother sinning against a brother. However, damage was done. Should brothers rush to court against brother?

Paul reasoned with the brethren at Corinth, saying: (1) There ought to be someone within the congregation who can help settle a difference between brethren (1 Corinthians 6:5). At least some at Corinth prided themselves in their wisdom (see 1 Corinthians 4:10; 10:15; 2 Corinthians 11:19). If they were so wise, then couldn’t they handle some of these issues in the church? (2) There ought to be more wisdom in the church, than there is in a non-believing Roman judge (1 Corinthians 6:4). J.W. McGarvey commented: “If called on as a church to judge any matter, would you choose its simpletons and numbskulls as judges? I ask this to make you ashamed, for you do even more foolishly when you submit your cases to worldings…” (Thes. Cor., Gal., Rom, p. 75). (3) Do you not know that the saints will judge the world and angels? (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). The words “do you not know …” seems to be Paul chiding them for their self-appraised wisdom (1 Corinthians 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19). How will we judge the world and angels? (a) Some think that Christ actually will allow us to take part in the final judgment. I know of no clear passage which teaches such. (b) It probably is a reference to the fact that the message which we believe, obey, and proclaim is the message by which man will be judge (cf. Romans 2:16). Moreover, it is a message which declares judgment upon certain angels (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). (c) It could be a reference to our example which condemns the lack of proper response in others (cf. Hebrews 11:7; Matthew 12:41-42). The passage is difficult. The point isn’t. You should have enough wisdom to properly handle these type issues. (4) Some of these lawsuits are frivolous or even attempts to cheat another (1 Corinthians 6:8). (5) If you have been wronged, why not bear the wrong (1 Corinthians 6:7)? Sometimes it is better to suffer the loss [obviously, we’re not speaking of a situation which would result in a man being unable to provide for his family (1 Timothy 5:8)]. It is better to suffer a loss than to destroy harmony in the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 1:27; 2:1; Hebrews 12:14; Romans 12:19). It is better to suffer loss than to endanger a brother’s soul (Romans 14:20-21; 1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:33-34).  It is better to suffer loss than to bring reproach on the body of Christ [it seems to me that this was a great concern of Paul’s in this book. Their behavior was dimming the light of the Gospel. The church was: (a) Divided (1 Corinthians 1:2; cf. John 17:20-23); (b) Tolerating shocking sin that even the non-Christian wasn’t typically engaged (1 Corinthians 5:1; cf. Romans 2:24); (c) Worshipping in such a manner that others would think of them as mad (1 Corinthians 14:23). (d) Suing one another (1 Corinthians 6:1-ff; cf. John 13:35; 1 Corinthians 13:4-ff)].

Does this passage (1 Corinthians 6) forbid all usage of the judicial system to settle differences between church members? I do not believe that it does. Consider the issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Matthew 19:9). How could this issue possibly be handled within the church alone? If one remarries (even if the church says that it’s permitted) without a court declaration of divorce, the government calls such bigamy. Bigamy is a crime. Aren’t we to obey the laws of the land? This illustration should help us to see that not all usage of the judicial system is in view.

However, while this passage may not forbid the use of the court system in every circumstance; it does teach a clear point. We are to seek to handle disputes between brethren within the church.

Meditate on the following:

1. John 13:35—“By this all will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another.”

2. Romans 12:18—“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”

3. 1 Corinthians 13:4-ff—“Love suffers long and is kind … is not provoked …”

4. Hebrews 12:14— “Pursue pence with all people, and holiness, without which no one will sue the Lord.”

5. Philippians 4:5— “Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men (NASB).

Note:The purpose of this ethics series has not only been to provide ethical answers to modern problems, but also to remind us of certain things.  Things like: (1) Every issue should be tested by the scriptures (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).  (2) The Bible contains the answer to issues affecting every area of life.  (3) The Bible, in principle, speaks to even modern-day concerns.

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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