Forced Christian Arbitration Agreements Trivialize Health Care

It is no secret that more and more for-profit companies and non-profit organizations are using binding religious arbitration agreements as a means to bypass legal liability. It has been reported that entities that have little or no religious purpose, such as bamboo floor vendors and vocation cabin rental agencies, have quietly inserted binding arbitration clauses into everyday agreements. In the event of a dispute the consumers or victims cannot take these entities to a secular court, but rather to a religious tribunal that claims to be capable of settling any dispute using their interpretations of the Bible. A common reaction against these questionable practices follows this line of critique: shouldn’t religious arbitration, if tolerated at all, only be used for disputes concerning religious or spiritual matters on which the secular courts cannot adjudicate? What does buying bamboo floors or renting a vocation cabin have anything to do with Christian doctrines?

Unfortunately, these questions cannot adequately challenge the religious reasoning behind Christian arbitration agreements. This is due to the counter-intuitive fact that, according to relevant biblical texts, disputes settled in a so-called Christian arbitration tend not to be about important spiritual matters, but trivial matters instead. Here is the text pertaining to lawsuits among Christian believers:

“When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! 4    (1 Corinthians 6: 1-4)

At first look, these verses seem to make a strong case for Christian arbitrations. However, upon a closer look, it could be argued that Christians can still settle disputes with others in court under certain circumstances. Verse 1 suggests that Christians shouldn’t “dare to go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints,” but it only excludes the court system if we assume that the judges at the civil courts are all “unrighteous sinners”. What if they’re not? What if some judges turn out to be devout Christians in private or possess “righteous” and “saintly” qualities? The remaining verses all point to the scope of judging powers the believers are entitled to, since they are to judge the entire world and even angels. Nonetheless, the structure of these rhetorical questions is meant to convince the believers that because they are qualified to judge angels, trivial earthly matters should be a piece of a cake. Since the disputes between Christians are not at all about angels or the whole world, these lines essentially imply that the matters that fall under the purview of Christian arbitrations are precisely trivial matters pertaining to this life on earth, not complicated spiritual affairs.

In contrast to renovating the floors of one’s house, matters concerning a person’s health are not trivial. Yet, certain Christian health care sharing ministries (HCSMs) impose harsh arbitration requirements on their members. Both Samaritan and Medi-Share, two largest HCSMs, require arbitration through “Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation of the Institute for Christian Conciliation” under Peacemaker Ministries. Arbitration decisions are based on evangelical interpretations of the Bible as revealed in a single book: The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (2004) by Ken Sande. Far from being recognized as a religious authority, Sande is a mechanical engineer with a law degree. Yet, it is interesting that an entire Christian arbitration industry could be based on the writing of a single lay believer.

By imposing binding pre-dispute arbitration agreements, these ministries are technically regarding disputes over health care issues as trivial matters of this world, not that different from those over bamboo floors. Possible disputes with HCSMs could include life and death matters, such as whether a patient could afford to undergo a heart surgery to preserve his life, like what happened in the Michael Rowden case. Many HCSMs categorically exclude cost-sharing of pre-existing conditions, including lifelong disabilities, and health care expenses accrued through “non-biblical lifestyles” such as STDs contracted outside of heterosexual marriage. It could be argued that, from a Christian perspective, none of these conditions, even those resulting from behaviors many Christians consider as sinful, are trivial in the eyes of God. Jesus and his disciples devoted a large part of their ministry to healing the sick and the disabled, and therefore health matters almost always carried a spiritual significance beyond the concerns of earthly lives.

The analysis above by no means rejects the virtue of sincere, peaceful attempts at reconciliation outside of the court system. But how could reconciliation be sincere when one party is forced to participate with other legal options preemptively given up by the way of religious command? How are forced arbitration considered Christian or biblical when it protects an institution from all legal liability after a LGBT teenager died after running away  from its conversion therapy program? It is time for entities that adopt forced arbitration to honestly admit that their motivation stems more from evading their responsibilities under law than a desire for sincere religious practice. Perhaps, they should revisit the command that “You shall not pervert justice” under Deuteronomy 16:19, and “let every person be subject to the governing authorities” in Romans 13:1-15. No matter whether these texts could be interpreted differently, uncritical applications of Christian reconciliation principles must be further examined in order to prevent more innocent lives from being lost and trivialized.


During his fellowship year, Aobo Dong was an MTS candidate studying the intersections of religion, ethics, and politics at Harvard Divinity School. He received his BA from the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University, where his honors thesis examined the alliance between American evangelicals and the GOP. At Harvard, his research interests shifted toward reconciling potential conflicts between religion and the modern human rights discourse, particularly in terms of sexuality, health, and other socio-economic rights. He was also a junior fellow at Harvard's Science, Religion & Culture (SRC) program. For his fellowship project at the Petrie-Flom Center, Aobo investigated the legal and ethical challenges surrounding the fast-expanding health care sharing ministries (HCSMs) that provide members with an alternative model to traditional health insurance.

3 thoughts to “Forced Christian Arbitration Agreements Trivialize Health Care”

  1. Your premise about the Samaritan Ministries health care sharing ministry’s “arbitration” is misleading. In the case of an appeal of a decision of whether a particular medical bill can be shared under Samaritan’s guidelines, the issue is not decided under Peacemaker procedures, rather a randomly chosen panel of fellow members considers the issue and makes the decision. Despite sharing hundreds of thousands of bills over 25 years, only 4 of our members have thought that our staff was wrong in applying the guidelines such that they made an appeal to their fellow members, which is their right. In 1 of those cases the staff’s decision was overturned and the bill was shared. This is a true jury of peers ,and none of our several hundred thousand members over the years has ever complained that they find this remedy for disagreement inadequate.

    Further, the process can not effect Samaritan’s “liability-” because it explicitly has no liability for any medical bill. Rather, if a bill is to be shared, other members are simply directed to send their monthly share to the member in need- this has no impact on the finances of the ministry. Thank-you for the chance to clarify.

    Brian Heller
    General Counsel
    Samaritan Ministries

    1. Thank you for your comment on my post. You’re right in pointing out that disputes over the sharing of medical bills are technically decided on a panel of fellow members, not using Peacemaker arbitration procedures per se. Nonetheless, the official guidelines of Samaritan Ministries clearly stated that all other disputes “shall be settled in accordance with the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation of the Institute for Christian Conciliation (Peacemaker Ministries).” (SMI Guidelines, p74) “All other disputes” may include but not be limited to concerns over non-medical expenses or damages resulting from a denial of sharing request, dismissal of staff or members on questionable grounds, or broader concerns over discrimination or enrollment eligibility that are far beyond the scope of the “randomly chosen panel” of regular SMI members. This is by no means to suggest that these disputes have arisen in the past, but simply to illustrate the possible scenarios under which the religious arbitration process could be initiated.

      In fact, the guidelines handbook clearly deters members from seeking legal remedies in court, since doing so would result in a loss of membership status and/or sharing eligibility:

      “A member who chooses to violate this command of Scripture and his covenant with his SMI brethren and takes a dispute to court, destroys our fellowship and has chosen to be as if he had never been a Samaritan Ministries member, and to not have his needs shared with the membership.” (SMI Guidelines, p73)

      Moreover, it is possible to regard even the peer-panel itself as arguably a form of extra-judicial arbitration, for its decisions are considered binding on both SMI and the disputing member, decided outside of state and federal court systems. It is good to hear that this peer model has been working fairly well for Samaritan Ministries, potentially saving both parties arbitration expenses that could be better directed elsewhere. But it might still be worthwhile to consider how to meet and address potential future disputes that may not be adequately addressed by current practices.

  2. In all honesty, your arguments are weak at best and misleading. Your interpretation of the biblical text is laughable. You’d be better off to just state your bias and rant. Nice try.

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