I recently had dinner with a good friend, who, according to his former doctor, is going to hell. The reason for my friendâ€™s dim prospects on judgement day is that he is suing his former doctor. The details arenâ€™t particularly important. Suffice it to say that the doctor stuck a needle someplace that a needle had no business being and my friendâ€™s wife now has a permanently damaged spinal nerve and constant pain in one arm. Being a lawyer (and an outraged husband), my friend and his wife sued the doctor. All parties are members of the Church. A short time ago, the doctor called my friend at home and left a message on his voice mail castigating him for his unchristian lack of mercy and suggesting that this lawsuit is going to destroy my friendâ€™s soul.
The doctor is not without some scriptural support for his position. The Apostle Paul in particular had some harsh things to say about lawsuits between members of the Church:
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 ye have judgements of things pertain 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 against brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. (1 Cor. 6:1-7)
There was a time when Latter-day Saints took this counsel very seriously. Here is how it worked procedurally. Suppose that Brother Smith sued Brother Young in a secular court. Brother Young would then make a formal, written complaint to his bishop, accusing Brother Smith of â€œunchristian-like conduct for suing before the ungodly.â€? The Bishop would then convene a Bishopâ€™s Court to look into the matter. Both brothers would be summoned to appear before the Bishop of pain of disfellowshipment from the Church. Rather than simply looking merely at whether or not Brother Smith had in fact sued Brother Young, the Bishop would resolve the underlying dispute and craft some sort of a remedy, which again would be imposed on pain of formal disfellowshipment from the Church. If Brother Young was at fault, then he would have to pay Brother Smith, even though Brother Smith would generally be liable to Brother Young for his legal fees, since Brother Smith should have gone to the Bishop in the first place. Either party could appeal to the Stake High Council and from there to the First Presidency. About the time of Lorenzo Snow, this practice began to fade. However, as late as the 1920s the Church was still printing complaint forms, which I have copies of, with which one could institute a proceeding against someone in a Bishopâ€™s Court.
Fortunately for my profession, Mormons no longer make such extensive use of their court system. However, with the graceful departure from the stage of a neat institutional solution to the religious issues of litigation, things have gotten more complicated. Paulâ€™s counsel above seems to rest on two principles that are in tension with one another. The first is that disputes between the saints ought to be handled internally because the saints have the competence to judge such things. The second is that we ought to exercise mercy and forbearance with one anotherâ€™s faults. The first principle implies the legitimacy of seeking justice for wrongs, something that the second principle seems to strongly question.
I believe that it is unchristian to assert oneâ€™s full legal rights in every circumstance. If some magazine reprints material from my blog without permission, I am not going to haul them into court, even though I might be within my rights to do so under the copyright laws. I likewise hope to escape through someoneâ€™s mercy the full liabilty to which I may be subject under the libel laws, for what I may have written in intemperate moments. Yet at some point, I think that demanding oneâ€™s day in court is legitimate, and even virtuous. This formula, however, hardly provides much guidance.
Which returns me to my friendâ€™s story. After listening to the doctorâ€™s message on his answering machine, he forwarded it to his lawyer. Were I in his situation, I would have done exactly the same thing.