|God, Conflict, and Zealous AdvocacyThis article was orignally published in the Spring 2006 issue of The Christian Lawyer. Reprinted by permission.by David D. Schlachter
Your client has advised you that he has a disagreement with another party. He believes the matter should be easily decided in his favor, if only someone would help him enforce his rights. “I don’t want you to spend a lot of money,” he says, “Just make the demand and get me what I’m owed.” In another matter, the attorney representing the other party in a transaction believes you’re dragging your feet and not acting in good faith to help your respective clients reach an agreement. He has confronted you, expressing his disapproval and irritation. How do you, as a Christian, respond to these or similar situations in such a way as not to diminish your witness?
As attorneys we are trained to help people solve problems, usually by helping someone resolve an existing or potential dispute. These problem-solving opportunities range from helping business clients negotiate transactions or advising estate clients how to accomplish their goal of providing for their families, to helping clients navigate the paths of litigation. The way we view these opportunities, conflicts, and responsibilities will shape the advice and counsel we give our clients, as well as the witness we make to those around us.
The World’s View of Dispute Resolution
Despite an increased emphasis on improving our negotiation skills and seeking better alternatives for resolving disputes, the world’s approach to dispute resolution is ultimately premised on a culture of unbelief, manipulation, power struggles, unforgiveness, and a refusal to value relationships with each other and God over material issues. A review of continuing education classes currently offered reveals that the object is to learn how to be the most effective “negotiator” to accomplish your client’s goal. Such courses include techniques that focus on positioning you and your client to achieve the world’s definition of success.
When we, as followers of Christ, adopt this worldview in our law practices, we must ask whether this worldview is consistent with God’s view and call on our lives. We frequently send confusing messages when we profess to be Christians, but advise our clients and act toward opposing counsel no differently than our non-Christian colleagues. Through our training and our human tendency to follow the path of least resistance, we adopt the world’s view and approach to solving our clients’ problems and issues. We justify our actions by saying we must zealously advocate our clients’ positions and interests. Since our clients live and work in the world, we believe our only choice is to follow and adopt the world’s view, but do it with more compassion, grace, and mercy. This frequently leads to the world questioning whether there really is a difference between the Christian and non-Christian attorney. The result is a discounting and even a rejection of our testimony to the power of Jesus Christ in the world, and the everyday lives of our clients…
The Biblical View of Dispute Resolution
So what is the Biblical view of the issues and problems our clients face? What is God’s plan for addressing our clients’ issues, helping them consider options and choices, and assisting them as they seek to make wise personal and business decisions?
A Biblical worldview of conflict resolution is based on God’s redemptive nature. Scripture is replete with examples of people in conflict who need to assess their positions and resolve the conflicts and challenges before them. Scripture, in these situations, consistently and repeatedly focuses on reconciliation.1
Our God is a reconciling God (Isa. 11:6-9; Eph. 2:14-18; Ex. 34:5-7; John 1:14). The driving force throughout Scripture is God’s desire to bring reconciliation between himself and his people, brought to fulfillment through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal of reconciliation is peace in all things (Col. 1:19-20).
God’s view of reconciliation does not start and end with a resolution of material issues. Instead, he focuses on the sins of relationship, seeking to reconcile relationships through peacemaking. The Christian worldview is based not on the world’s wisdom, focusing on selfish ambition and envy, but on peace, mercy, impartiality, and sincerity (James 3:13-18). We are called to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9; 21-26; 38-48) and imitators of Christ (Eph. 4:24-5:2), making every effort to pursue peace (Ps. 34:14; Rom. 14:19; Heb. 12:14). This worldview requires that we shift our focus from ourselves to God and his reconciling power. We adopt this worldview when we accept the ministry of reconciliation, which God gives each of us (2 Cor. 5:11-21), and apply it to how we advise clients and handle their conflicts.
As believers in Christ, we want to embrace this view and apply it in our lives, but we often struggle with precisely how to apply it in our law practices. As believers in Christ, we are called to incorporate God’s guidelines into both the personal and professional aspects of our lives (1 John 5:2-4; Luke 16:13). He doesn’t ask that we acknowledge him only on Sunday or in church, but at all times and in all venues (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).
Applying the Biblical View in Your Law Practice
Applying these Scriptures to our law practices, we are faced with the question of whether we can zealously represent our clients while still focusing on relationships and God’s reconciling power. If we are willing to fully submit our law practices to God’s plan, we can represent our clients and help them view their choices from a perspective that looks beyond their own interests. The secular Rules of Professional Conduct recognize that attorneys are to help clients consider their choices in light of moral and ethical guidelines.2 If the client is a professing Christian, then such advice should include Biblical guidelines. Likewise, when we advocate our client’s position before opposing counsel, we should adopt a Biblical approach. We should be humble, gentle in our instruction, and able to teach without resentment, allowing God to do the task of changing the heart (2 Tim. 2:23-24). Although applying God’s plan to our daily practice is not as simple as following a list of procedures, we must intentionally avoid following the world’s pattern of power and manipulation to win at all costs.
If we adopt God’s plan we will seek opportunities to encourage reconciliation between our clients and others, as well as between ourselves and other attorneys. By resolving disputes in a Biblically faithful manner, we give testimony of God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation. When relationships are preserved or restored, despite serious material disagreements and issues, God is glorified because people see examples of his reconciling power and are drawn to this need in their lives.
Sharing the Gospel by Resolving the Dispute
We frequently see this redemption and reconciliation when legal conflicts are resolved according to Biblical guidelines. In a recent dispute between two parties to a contract, the parties initially followed the world’s approach, seeking to manipulate each other to a resolution using verbal attacks, litigation, and public accusations against each other. Even after they agreed to seek help through Christian Conciliation, they each sought merely to find a way for the other to give in or be told what needed to be compromised to settle the material issues. They completely ignored the underlying sin issues: the broken relationship, anger, bitterness, gossip, and damaging public allegations. These unresolved issues prevented the parties from seeking restoration of their relationship and diminished their witness, leaving their reputations damaged and faith questioned.
After being encouraged to follow God’s plan, they agreed to a biblically faithful approach that addressed the underlying relationship issues at the core of the dispute. When the parties discussed how their decisions and actions led to the conflict over the material issues, they willingly confessed their sinful attitudes and actions, and embraced repentance and forgiveness. The result was not only an agreement on the material issues, but also a restoration of the relationship with glory being given to God. Although their previous actions had resulted in public statements that called into question whether believers resolve disputes any differently than non-believers, the settlement addressed the material issues and resulted in a joint, public statement from both parties that acknowledged both sides’ failure to be obedient to God, proclaimed the reconciling power of God’s plan, and gave the praise and glory to God.
This example is only one of many that illustrate how God is faithful when we intentionally chose to act according to His plan versus the world’s. Following a biblically faithful approach to conflict, however, is applicable not only after the disagreement has risen to the level of litigation nor only when the dispute is between Christians. Every time we are asked to advise a client on a business, personal, estate, or other issue, they are faced with competing interests and positions. How we advise them and direct the evaluation of their options and responsibilities, before a recognized disagreement results, is as important as advising them once a conflict has surfaced.
As illustrated in the above example, the application of Biblical principles to how we advise clients and resolve disputes in our daily practice requires an intentional submission of our decisions and actions to God’s Word. God’s plan for our lives does not automatically happen when we proclaim our faith in Christ, or because we publicly acknowledge that we are Christian attorneys. It is a daily walk in which we practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer and reading God’s Word, so that it is fresh and a daily part of our decisions and actions.
As followers of Christ we are called to faithfully apply God’s plan for resolving conflict, as evidence of our obedience to Christ, and as a witness that we are his disciples. This witness should occur in our law practices, our lives, and our relationships, ultimately giving glory to God.
1 See Gen. 1:26-27; 2:15-17; 3:15; Isa. 9:6-7; Rev. 12; 19; 21-22.
2 Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 2.1: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law, but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social or political factors, that may be relevant to a client’s situation.”
David D. Schlachter serves as the director for the Institute for Christian Conciliation (a division of Peacemaker Ministries), overseeing the delivery of mediation and arbitration services and advanced conciliator training through the Certification Program.