It has come to our attention that several Orthodox laymen (and one priest) are being sued by another Orthodox priest for defamation of character. The details of the lawsuit can be found here. Our concern however is not with this specific case but whether it is moral for Christians to sue each other. The issue was addressed by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians:
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! (1 Corinthians 6:1-5)
This passage is unambiguous and clearly states why it is immoral for Christians to go to secular court against each other. But it is also not a call to inaction. Christians are not to use a false sense of piety to restrain themselves from seeking justice when wronged. That is also clear from the text. In addition, St Paul’s admonition must be viewed in the proper historical context. For one thing, Christians were on the cusp of being persecuted at this time. (St James the Greater had already been beheaded by King Herod Agrippa and other Christians like St Stephen had already been subject to mob violence by Jewish communities throughout the Roman world.) Their exposure to the civil court system of the Roman Empire might have resulted in both parties being put to death. The Roman government didn’d care if one Christian wronged another; if both were found to be Christians, both were executed.
Thirdly, the various Christian communities had already established their own informal system of adjudicating torts and other wrongs perpetrated by one Christian against the other. St Paul himself had been subjected to shunning by the Apostles because of his former persecution of the Church; Ananias and Sapphira likewise suffered death because of the pronouncement against them by St Peter when they reneged on a promise. Other examples include the resolution of the plight of the Hellenists’ widows with the creation of the diaconal ministry and the question of whether gentile converts would have to undergo circumcision (Council of Jerusalem). Other examples abound, too numerous to mention here.
Clearly the early Church resolved quandaries and problems based on a wide variety of legally binging solutions. Usually this was done in a conciliar fashion but other times the word of a single Apostle was enough to render judgment against an offender, as when St Paul excommunicated an incestuous couple in the Church of Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1-8). What these incidents tell us is not that the Christian Church didn’t have sinners and miscreants in it —as has always been the case—but that wronged parties could seek just restitution from within the Church and more importantly, that the Church (or its agents) ruled justly.
There is no denying the validity and righteousness of the punishments that Sts. Peter and Paul meted out to Annanias and his wife, or to the immoral couple in Corinth respectively. Likewise, the justness of the resolution of the gentile converts is apparent to all. Paul’s initial shunning may seem harsh to modern sensibilities but we cannot forget that real people were injured—and killed—because of the actions of Saul of Tarsus in his capacity as enforcer of the Temple cult.
This clearly is not the case today, when the defendants named in this lawsuit have done very real damage to real individuals (to say nothing of the Church). The mechanism of episcopal action, up to and including excommunication certainly existed but was never used. That the Bishop of Chicago finally disciplined one of these defendants is cold comfort as the damage that this same person had done over the past several years is unatoned for.
Regardless, the other defendants continue to pursue their selective crusades and/or vendettas. One in particular continues to libel many innocent men in the most toxic language imaginable without any suffering any consequences. To my knowledge, these people are Orthodox Christians and thus accountable to their diocesan bishops. Yet no discipline has been forthcoming. Of course their selective outrage cast a pall over their credibility but that is tangential to the issue at hand.
There is no other way to put this but to state outright that the systemn prescribed by the Church for dealing with such matters is broken. Perhaps irretrievably so. As we have learned from the affair concerning the former Chancellor, the ecclesiastical “court” which tried him was hopelessly corrupt and inept. All normal things we associate with due process were callously thrown out the window. It was, if anything, a buffoonish caricature of a kangaroo court. In such a context, it is difficult to fault a wronged party from seeking recourse to repair the damage done to him.
What is particularly sad is that the First Amendment to the Constitution has been unambiguous in upholding the freedom of religion. This always meant that religious intitutions could always act as they wished in internal matters. Recently, with the Tabor decision, the Supreme Court upheld this doctrine unreservedly, and more importantly, unanimously. This is a huge victory for freedom of religon and a great bludgeon to be used by religious people to beat back the forces of atheist/secularist tyranny. Regadless of its merits, it signals to our episcopate that they no longer have to fear repurcussions against them should they act in their capacity as ecclesial jurists. Nor should they restrain themselves from a false sense of modesty or a warped view of mercy. The same passage quoted above admonished the Church to not withhold judgment. Indeed, it is the other side of the same coin. As for mercy, that can only be effective where there is genuine contrition. This includes a desire to make restitution. To our knowledge, the named defendants have not shown remorse for their egregious actions.
Until that time in which the bishops decide to act like bishops, we will continue to see wronged parties seeking redress elsewhere.