Disputes within churches, or between ministries, can often give rise to legal claims. In litigation, courts will decline to resolve matters of religious doctrine, but try to apply “neutral principles of law” to resolve disputes. But many Christians believe that such disputes should not or cannot be resolved in legal courts, often quoting the verses at I Corinthians 6: 1 – 9 not to even file such an action. The mandate of that Scripture is that such matters should be resolved within the Church.
To this end, many churches have dispute resolution ministries. Also, Peacemaker Ministries (www.peacemaker.net) provides a formal means of mediation or arbitration to which disputes can be submitted. We have often represented parties in the Peacemaker Ministries process, or other religious dispute resolution programs. When and how should these ministries be accessed; and how can legal disputes best be resolved in them?
First a word about the difference between mediation and arbitration: In mediation, a chosen person or persons tries to help the parties come to an agreed resolution. The mediator has no authority to compel that resolution, only to help facilitate it and then make record of it. If mediation fails, the dispute can be submitted to arbitration, in which the arbitrator(s) do have authority to resolve the dispute and make a decision that the parties are bound to accept.
1. What Type of Disputes are Appropriate for Christian Arbitration?
Legal disputes range from commercial matters, to real estate, to personal disputes, to even family disputes. Most can be resolved by Christian arbitration. There are two major exceptions to the rule. The first are any matters that call for an injunction: a legal mandate for one party to do or refrain from doing something, and which the court will enforce with its power to punish contempt. An injunction is to prevent immediate and irreparable harm, and requires the intervention of a court. The parties can then take their matter to Christian mediation/arbitration, once there is an injunction that preserves the status quo while the dispute is being resolved.
The second exception is any matter dealing with the custody of children in a domestic dispute. The courts always retain jurisdiction to act in the children’s best interest, regardless of any agreement the parents may make, or any decision reached by third party arbitrator.
2. Have a Written Agreement to Mediate or Arbitrate.
Ultimately, the mediated or arbitrated decision may have to be submitted to a court and recorded as a judgment, especially if one party refuses to abide by the outcome. Courts will recognize a mediated or arbitrated resolution in a Christian or other religious forum, but will require a written agreement binding the parties.
A written agreement to mediate or arbitrate can be a short document that will define what dispute is being submitted for resolution, and who the arbitrator or mediator is.
3. Agree on the Mediator and the Basis for Resolution.
It is essential that the parties agree on who is going to resolve the dispute and make the ultimate decision; and whether the dispute to be resolved according to Scripture, or by application of the secular law. If the mediators are pastors, then they are most likely to direct the parties based strictly on Biblical principles; while if persons familiar with the law are selected, they are more likely to look at a legal resolution.
One common means of resolution is for each party to select one mediator/arbitrator, and then those two themselves select a third.
Another alternative (and the one used most often by Peacemaker Ministries) is for the parties to meet in mediation based on Scriptural principles, and then if an agreement cannot be reached, the dispute is submitted to a Christian lawyer who will apply the secular law.
4. Presenting Your Case.
At the mediation/arbitration, you should present your claim or defense factually and supported by credible evidence. Avoid making the matter personal, or casting aspersions on the other party, or making emotional appeals, or generally talking about “fairness.” Rather, have a clear and specific outline of what you want to present, and have the documents or witnesses available to support your position. Do not overreach. Do not try to prove that you are better Christian than the other person. Be honest and tell the truth always.
When the other party is talking – LISTEN. The most important thing you will do during a mediation is to listen to the other side. Do not listen with the goal of disputing their position. Rather, listen to what his/her grievance is, what is most important to the other side, and consider how the matter can be resolved honorably. Always think how to achieve a win-win outcome – how to give the other side what he/she most wants, while also realizing your goal. Do not just give in, or just compromise for the sake of compromise – but try to find a way to satisfy the basic concerns of all involved.
5. Aim to Resolve the Dispute First, with Personal Reconciliation Second.
This is a mistake often made in Christian mediation, and is a primary reason religious mediation sometimes fails. Often the mediator and parties think that they first must be reconciled as Christians, and then once that happens, the resolution of the dispute will come naturally. That is backwards, and (speaking from experience) it does not work.
Paul’s instruction in I Corinthians 6 is that a “a wise man among you … will be able to judge between his brethren.” The purpose of Christian mediation or arbitration is to judge the matter fairly. Once that is done, reconciliation can occur.
Often, much time and emotional energy is wasted in trying to get the parties to personal reconciliation – but usually the dispute is such that the parties cannot get beyond it in their personal relationships. Try to find a good and right resolution to the problem first, and once that is done, personal reconciliation can come with time.
6. After it is Over, Let it Go.
One of the most important goals of any dispute resolution, in any forum, is finality. Often, a dispute that has been finally resolved in the eyes of the law, continues to fester in the hearts of the parties. It is important that regardless of the outcome, you do not allow a root of bitterness to grow in your life, or to foster a sense of wrong.
The ultimate goal in mediation or arbitration is to resolve the matter according to agreed principles of your faith, which if necessary will be enforced by a court. When done well, it can allow the parties to reach a resolution far more satisfactory than the cold harsh judgment of the law courts, and move on to personal reconciliation.