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Today’s Church and Her System of Arbitration

by Church Times


Olufemi Emmanuel Phd

One of the Concerns that prompted the Apostle Paul to write his first letter to the Corinthian church was the case of lawsuit among the members; Paul’s lament was not limited to the challenge of dispute but the act of taking the dispute before the ungodly for judgement instead of before the Lord’s people. The concern expressed by Paul to the Corinthians could be traced to the backdrop of a consistent tradition in the Bible that dates far back to the Old Testament establishment of arbitration system that affords people to settle disputes and seek justice when their rights are violated.

As far back as the Patriarchal period, the concept of just arbitration has been in practice; Abraham made reference to God as the judge of all the earth who would not do wickedly by treating the righteous and the wicked alike (Gen 18:20ff) . Moses could be considered as the first to demonstrate the concept of arbitration when it comes to dealing with disputes among God’s people. Although the cumbersomeness would have killed Moses as he alone sit from morning till night judging cases being brought to him by the people, but for the wise counsel of Jethro his father-inlaw (Ex.18:2-27). Jethro’s counsel became the model, not just in terms of delegation of leadership duties but of arbitration system that provides room for settling cases of disputes, disagreement and infringements among God’s people. Among the many judicial instructions given by Moses to the Israelites is Leviticus 19:34 in which they were challenged to justly treat the foreigners in their midst and avoid dishonest measures and weights.

The period of the judges experienced more of what was put in place in the Mosaic period; time and again judges are raised not only to serve as military but a settlers of disagreement among the people. Deborah the prophet and wife of Lappidoth  was at a time a judge in Israel, the account has it that she held a court in a certain place where the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. Although she got involved in fighting a war as did many others judges, she primarily was an arbiter.

Samuel represented the zenith of the period of the judges though trained as a priest, he grew to become a prophet, a judge and a king maker. Samuel adjudged cases as a prophet of God. His sons also learned the practice, though they violated the ethics involved and that cost them the respect and ultimate placement they could have earned as leaders in Israel. A very key point in relation to the development of arbitration in the Old Testament period was the gate system. According to the Smith Bible Dictionary, “gates were places for public deliberation, administration of justice or of audience for kings and rulers or ambassadors”.

The city gate was a place where elders of the city used to sit and judge cases brought before them (Josh. 20:4); all major transactions are carried out at the gate in the presence of elders who serve as arbitrators at the gate. That explained why the Lord complained that there were Israelites in Amos’ day who hate the one who upholds justice at the gate court (5:10) Those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice at the gate (5:12) hence he pleaded that the people should hate evil, love good, maintain justice in the gates. A very relevant and interesting example from the period of the kings is Solomon’s judgement of the two prostitutes. The wise and just judgement became Solomon’s entry point into the hearts of the people.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that God established administration of justice among his people as an essential aspect of their social life. The Lord Jesus did not dispute this; his redemptive mission and activities did not obliterate it. He even recommended that when an aggrieved brother or sister attempts to express his grievances at a personal level to the perpetrator, he should go back to him or her with one or two others so that every matter may be established by the testimonies of two or three witnesses. But if the perpetrator still refuses to listen, the matter should be reported to the church, and if they refuse to listen to the church, then such should be treated as a pagan (Matthew 18:15-17ff NIV). This expression by Jesus suggests his expectation of what arbitration should be in the church. Although believers are enjoined to live peaceably with each other, the possibilities of disputes are never foreclosed; hence there is strong emphasis on how such situation should be handled. There is no record of any serious issue among the post resurrection believers, of whom it was said that they all were in one accord. But there still was a leadership that was responsible for the arbitration of disputes. The council at the Jerusalem church sat over the disputes with the Judizers who were busy peddling the gospel of circumcision. They generated treatise to lead and guide the faith of the believers all over the world.

Therefore the apparent absence of arbitrating system in the Corinthian church was baffling to Paul; to him it was an aberration that there was no one to judge matters among God’s people. Unfortunately this anomaly still exists today in the church. The case of injustice among the present day church people has apparently gone beyond measure: services are unduly left unpaid for; the down trodden and the weak are unsupported; wages are arbitrarily changed and many of such unjustifiable treatment are meted on people even in the church. The most unfortunate thing is that the victims of injustice among God’s people have no church based judicial system to run to for justice, and when they employ the secular legal system, it becomes a problem. This is a call to the Christian body to wake up to the responsibility of fostering justice among members. Of course it is important for Christians to avoid disunity, but what happens when rights are abused and justice is denied? Who arbitrates?



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