One of the developments of last week was that the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention just got a little bit gaudier. In the recent election for the president of that august convention, you should recall that Mike Stone and Al Mohler were beat out by Ed Litton, who was almost immediately afterward revealed to have had a big problem with sermonic plagiarism. One of things that this late-breaking news revealed is that the conservatives were apparently doing little or no opposition research.
Litton has remained in his post despite this grave embarrassment because the forces insisting on integrity in leadership only care about integrity in leadership when it suits them, which is not very often, and only to their right.
In the course of the campaigning for that position, it appears that Russell Moore was an active player when it came to opposing Stone, and so now Stone has sued Moore for three quarters of a million clams, alleging that Moore’s opposition included defamation, which is the sort of thing that ought not be done, t’were it done. You can get the basic facts about all of that here.
Now in that election, I thought that Stone was the way for our Southern Baptist friends to go, but in the aftermath of that election, I do not think this lawsuit is the way to go. That being the case, I thought that I should perhaps say a few things about it. This is because it is a high profile case, and a lot of conservative evangelical Christians are going to be asked about it.
Not surprisingly, pretty much everything I will say here relates in some way to 1 Corinthians 6, and so here and here are some additional background thoughts on all of that.
And here comes my thinking on this particular snarl.
What are the 7 reasons why Mike Stone ought not to sue Russell Moore?
The Bible Prohibits It
The apostle Paul flatly prohibits civil lawsuits of this nature between believers.
“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.”
1 Corinthians 6:1–6 (KJV)
I believe that when the Scriptures plainly prohibit something, then that means we shouldn’t do it. That is my simple answer to what some will want to turn into a complex problem. But it really isn’t a complex problem. It is a simple problem with what might well be complex consequences. That much could be true But all those complex consequences are in the hands of the Lord. The assigned obedience is our responsibility.
The Battle in the SBC is All About Biblical Authority
All the great issues that are roiling the SBC right now—women’s ordination, the meaning of ethnic justice, and the meaning of justice for victims of sexual abuse and victims of false accusation both—are issues that all boil down to one thing, and that one thing is the matter of biblical authority. The Bible doesn’t just tell us what thoughts to think, or what doctrines to affirm. The Scriptures instruct us on what to do.
And the Scriptures tell us to do all kinds of things we don’t feel like doing. This means we must mortify homosexual lust, not to mention all the other kinds of lust, we must say no to the desire some women have to lord it over men, and we must reject the desire to sue somebody when you believe you were defamed.
Now one of the shifts we employ, when the voice of biblical authority pinches us in the way that it frequently does, is that we want to say something like “that was then, this is now. Things were different then.”
But the last thing in the world we need right now is for the conservatives to validate one of the principal evasions that the progressives are currently using as a standard maneuver. You say civil lawsuits in the Roman Empire were different then? Why, as it turns out, so was same sex attraction different!
If we only want to obey the Scriptures when it hurts our partisan rivals, then we are not really interested in obeying the Scriptures. Rather we are weaponizing the Scriptures, and weaponizing them in line with the interests of our own party. The Scriptures are a weapon, and quite a sharp one at that (Heb. 4:12), but trying to handle it in a way that only cuts our adversaries is not at all what we are called to. What should that sword do? The language there in Hebrews 4 is sacrificial language. The word translated opened in v. 13 is the verb for pulling an animal’s head back in order to cut its throat. We are cut into pieces and arranged on the altar, and then we ascend to God in a column of smoke. So the sharp edge applies to us as much as anybody. The sharp edge means that we must submit to biblical authority, and not just call for others to start doing so.
The Burden of Proof
There are passages that appear to most readers of Scripture to say something that they don’t actually say. There is such a thing as a common misunderstanding. That possibility should be granted in this case also. Are there extenuating circumstances here? Are there sound exegetical reasons for setting aside what appears to be the plain meaning of the text? We should grant the possibility.
But in such cases, when the stakes are high and the potential for embarrassment is acute, the burden of proof should lie with the person who is going to go against what appears to be the plain meaning of the text. The fact that the lawsuit was simply filed, without a reasoned, careful and very public exposition of the text, reinforces the impression that the text doesn’t really matter.
Suppose all of this happened 500 years from now, when we all living in an ideal Christian republic. Suppose that the civil courts were explicitly Christian, and the judges were wise and judicious men, well-trained in law and in the Scriptures. Under such circumstances, I don’t believe a lawsuit like this would be prohibited by Scripture, because Paul’s anguish was not because the Corinthians were resolving things in civil courts, but rather because they were resolving them in unbelieving courts.
In such a case, because of the general perception of unlawfulness, it would be necessary for the one bringing the suit to make a plain case for the lawfulness of doing so. That is not being done here.
One defense of Mike Stone’s action could be that Paul’s injunction cannot be applied to men who were not members of the same congregation. Because of how Baptist polity works, and because Stone and Moore belong to different churches, there is no judicial way of handling this within the body of believers.
But because of Paul’s insistence on handling this kind of thing within the body, I would argue that this should be a strong reason for dropping Baptist polity. It can’t be a biblical polity if it prevents you from doing what the Bible requires. That is one thing, but I am sure it is the kind of thing you might expect a Presbyterian to say.
However, I am sure there are Baptists, firmly committed to Baptist polity, who agree with me about this being a violation of 1 Cor. 6. So if the arguments for keeping to a Baptist polity are compelling and strong, then that should also be strong argument for doing whatever you can to keep from heaping discredit all over Baptist polity—which is what this lawsuit does. It says that “we Baptists can handle the nickel/dime stuff, but if it gets really big, involving more than one congregation, we have to take it to the unbelievers.” That’s no good.
And besides all that, there is nothing in Baptist polity that would prohibit Stone from pursuing this via an organization like Peacemakers. And, not to let Moore off the hook, there is nothing in all of this that would prevent Moore from offering to take the dispute to private Christian arbitration. And he should be willing to do that if it would keep this out of the unbelieving civil courts. Another reason he should make that kind of counter-offer is that his base of support in the SBC has been, and not that long ago, a strong advocate of “third party investigations.”
But suppose there is no organization out there that both men trust. Then they should form their own committee to handle it. Stone would select three men of good and godly reputation, and Moore does the same. Then those six would select six more, and they would handle the case. And both men would agree to abide by the results. This doesn’t mean that their determination would be perfectly wise, because private reviews can go off the rails also. But that would still be better than a lawsuit before unbelievers.
This case—was this defamation or was it not?—is now going to be handled by a court system that does not know how to correctly identify a human person. This is the court system that gave us 60 million dead children. They are not in a position to say definitively whether there is any real difference between a boy and a girl. They don’t know whether someone with common sense, who does know the difference between a boy and a girl, and who has perhaps said something to that effect at a school board meeting, is a domestic terrorist or not. And another stumper for our federal judiciary is the difference between heterosexual marriage and same sex mirage. These are all real puzzlers for these people.
And you are going to ask them to settle this?
There is an old children’s joke that runs, “What is the difference between a hippopotamus and a mailbox?” “I don’t know, what?” “I am sure not going to send you to mail any letters!”
If you are barely passing your calculus class, why would you ask a kid who is flunking the class to help you with your homework?
A Misguided Invitation
Although our federal court system is of no use at all when it comes to reflecting and defending the moral order of the world God created, there is one thing that they are really good at. They are really good at aggrandizing power. They have, over the course of many decades, deboned the Tenth Amendment, and have transferred massive amounts of discretionary power to the central government. And then, within that central government, they have accumulated a goodish bit of power to themselves.
It may appear that I am changing the subject, but I am not really. How is it that the Romans wound up ruling over Israel in the time of Christ? After the Maccabean revolt gained the Jews their independence in the inter-testamental period, in response to various immediate threats closer to home, Judas Maccabeus sent emissaries to Rome to make a treaty with them (1 Macc. 8:17-20). If you are like me, a little voice in the back of your head might have said uh oh.
The screaming need over the next generation in the Church is going to be the task of keeping the federal government out of the affairs of the Church. And, it seems to me, if we want them to stay out, we should really think twice about inviting them in.
The Issue of Embarrassment
In Paul’s lexicon, this kind of thing is a matter of shame and great embarrassment. “I speak to your shame,” he says.
Let us suppose for a moment that Moore really did defame Stone. That should not be ruled out. Paul is not taking sides in any of the legal disputes that arose in Corinthian. One professing Christian might really have ripped off another professing Christian, and the Christian who wanted to take him to court might really have had a slam dunk case.
That, for Paul, was not the embarrassment. The church is going to have people in it who fail to live up to the standards that Scripture sets out for us to follow. That is why there is such a thing as church discipline. We should not be embarrassed because we have to police our own ranks. Sin occurs within the Church, and we are called to deal with it.
But when we call in unbelievers to deal with our mess? That should be humiliating, as this situation truly is. Don’t you know that we will judge angels?
Hi, everyone. I should have anticipated this, but there are a lot of questions and/or comments on this one. I have opened the comments now, which should keep the glut down for next Tuesday’s letters section. Keep it civil, please. I will try to interact as best I can.
And if you already wrote a letter, feel free to post it here instead. Thanks.
“The apostle Paul flatly prohibits civil lawsuits of this nature between believers.”
Do you really think Russell Moore is a believer?
Guymon, yes, I do. And even if I didn’t think that, I think he absolutely should be treated as one. Until just a few months ago, he occupied one of the highest positions of influence in the SBC. And if it became obvious there that he needed to be disciplined, you still have to go through that process. You can’t just assume the results of such a process—that’s the same kind of tribal justice that we so object to from the left. They have no need of trials when they know what the results have to be. If we object… Read more »
Maybe, but I think we all know Biblically untenable positions on CRT, Revoice, feminism and a host of other issues will never go through that process in the SBC or PCA. At some point we have to realize we’re in an OT-style period with a non-woke/unprogrammed remnant (from all denominations) while seminaries, big churches and parachurch orgs are full of whitewashed tombs, especially in leadership positions.
I’m sorry, but I think that’s a terrible position. I find it interesting how we’re willing to rant and rave against all manner of liberalism in the church, of which Moore has been a champion of evil, and yet when it comes to the (apparently) cardinal sin of calling someone an unbeliever, particularly when the facts warrant such a determination, I guess that’s a bridge too far?
Which facts warrant such a determination? I’m not at this point saying there aren’t any, I’m asking you what they are.
Pastor Doug, I mentioned this to you on Twitter if you remember. Here’s my copy & paste with a little expansion: I’m not persuaded by your argument entirely but open to being so persuaded. Here’s the section I’d like to ask about specifically & would love to read any response you’d give. 1. I’m going to set aside the “find a Biblical polity” thing because Baptist polity is the Biblical polity. That said, the point about Presbyterianism in contrast to Baptist polity (i.e. “It can’t be Biblical if it prevents you from doing what the Bible requires”) breaks down here… Read more »
Jeff, thank you. Your questions are most reasonable, and I will do what I can. First, I am aware that Presbyterian polity is no sure fire defense against ecclesiastical travesty. As a loyal Presbyterian son, I need to point out that Jesus was convicted by the General Assembly, though it had a different name back then. I was simply responding to an argument I saw on line that said “we can’t do that” because of our polity. Well then, change the polity. But then I went on to say that there were no doubt Baptists who agreed with me about… Read more »
Thanks Pastor Wilson. Well answered, particularly the second set there about the inherent moral corruption of the gov’t judicial system. I would only slightly push back that God nonetheless appointed the gov’t for the restraint of evil and I don’t know which institution is more corrupt in terms of justice – a woke church or a woke gov’t. I guess, in this specific case, Ortlund’s church at least retains a memory of a healthy understanding of justice plus has direct access to the oracles of God. Nonetheless, thanks again for the answer. All my best.
Pastor Doug, thanks for text! When you brought up “How is it that the Romans wound up ruling over Israel in the time of Christ?” I though you were about to mention the Hasmonean civil war in which the two Jewish brothers Aristobolus and Hyrcanus were fighting for the jewish throne (indeed independent since the Maccabean revolt), and the defrauded brother Hyrcanus invited the roman general Pompey to solve the issue, which ended with a roman siege of Jerusalem and the romans taking Israel as their territory. It seems to fit the case here better IMO. The treaty between Judas… Read more »
No, actually. I was missing something.
I found the example superb. The inability of the jewish leadership to judge the issues themselves lead to the end of the independent Jewish state, the end of the Maccabean dynasty, the corruption of the high priesthood (Hyrcanus was given the consolation prize of being made high priest) and the establishment of the Herodian dynasty, who were not even jewish! It would truly have been better to suffer the wrong.
Brother Wilson Thank you for this article. As a Southern Baptist this article is helpful in thinking through the text on this issue. My question is say a legal issue “case” is brought resulting in church discipline to one or both parties. However one gets there :) (Presbytery, third party, convention etc.) The disciplined party or parties will not repent and restore and so is treated as an unbeliever is it lawful then to take them to secular courts in your opinion? How would that look? What if the judge was a believer. I feel I know your answer on… Read more »
Alan, if one of the parties were excommunicated, then I believe it would be lawful to treat him as an unbeliever. If the judge were a believer would only work if the appeals system were also a believing one, with believing judges.
Great post, but I will say that it feels like a major point was still missed. Paul mentions that it would be better to let yourself suffer, or even be defrauded. It seems like unity is more in Paul’s mind than even justice. Thoughts?
I think 1 Cor 6 answers this without needing to examine the Greek. I did notice that the sentence Do you not know the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God follows on from the passage dealing with going to law over Christian wrong-doing. There is another aspect that also comes to mind from Romans 3: … if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth —… Read more »
If the narrative in your second to last sentence is true, I grieve that Moore stayed quiet for the year and half or longer it took him to release the letter. And he still has not named names and details also. Damnable cowardice if true, damnable false witness if not. Lord I pray for repentance and justice to all parties.
Pastor Wilson, I appreciate the thoughtful article. Semi-related question: do you draw a distinction between the 1. defamation claim being alleged by Stone and 2.other torts, such as cases for personal injury caused by auto wrecks, dog bites, battery, etc? In many such cases, plaintiffs suffer substantial injuries necessitating tens or hundred of thousands of dollars in medical treatment to recover. Almost always, insurance companies defend those cases and pay the settlements or verdicts.(keep in mind, you pay monthly premiums for just such an occasion). This is predicated on the use of the various civil courts. If you think such… Read more »
Jarrett, yes, I do make a distinction between those two different kinds of civil cases. Say two Christians get in a fender bender, I don’t think the spirit of Paul’s teaching is violated if one of them says, “The accident was my fault, and I have coverage. Please file a claim.”
One way to see who their god is, is to look to whom they run when they get in trouble…