Years ago when I was a seminary student, we lived in an apartment beside the seminary’s parking lot. Late one night I was working on a paper, and I went outside to try to wake up in the crisp night air. As I sat on the back steps of our second floor apartment, I saw a car drive into the parking lot, pull up close to one of the buildings, and then turn off the headlights. No one got out of the car. Somehow, that seemed a little unusual to me. After a little while, I went down to the parking lot and got close enough to the car to see four heads silhouetted in the dim light of the parking lot. There had been a number of burglaries in the recent past, and it occurred to me that these four fellows might not have noble intentions.
I went home and called the police, trying to make this matter sound as casual as possible. I told them where I lived and that a car with four men was parked in the seminary parking lot. I informed them that I was aware of nothing illegal taking place, but that it did look a little suspicious in the light of recent burglaries in the neighborhood. I asked if they might have a squad car just cruise by and take a look when convenient.
No more than a couple minutes later, four squad cars converged on the scene, quickly locating the suspicious car and surrounding it. I watched the scene, taken back by the dramatic scene for which I was responsible. I then began to feel guilty. Suppose nothing was wrong, or suppose I had created all this trouble for nothing. A few days later, I mentioned the incident to a professor friend. He told me what had happened. Three of the four men in the car were seminary students. The fourth individual was a man whom they had concluded was demon-possessed. They were in the process of trying to exorcise the demon when the police arrived.
My professor friend and I could not help but laugh at what must have happened. Can you imagine trying to explain to the police what you were doing there in the middle of the night? Can you see the looks on the faces of the policemen if you told them you were casting out a demon? When I asked my friend what he would say, he replied, “I’d lie!” I know what he meant. There is no way that these policemen could possibly understand what was taking place in that car.
This story illustrates the fact that the world of the policeman is a vastly different world from that of the preacher. No doubt preachers would have some difficulty grasping the world of the policeman, but I can assure you the policeman would have an even more difficult task understanding the spiritual world in which the preacher lives and operates. This is exactly the point Paul tries to make as he rebukes the Corinthian saints for taking one another to court. The secular, legal world of the courtroom is vastly different from the spiritual realm of the church. And yet Christians who have disputes with other Christians are looking to worldly judges to settle their differences. Paul’s words to the Corinthians could not be more applicable to Christians today. We live in an age when law suits are more common than they have ever been in our history. Christians are taking fellow-Christians to court. Even churches are being sued. One prominent pastor indicated that the church in which he had been ministering had four lawsuits pending against it at the time he stepped aside to assume other responsibilities. Let us listen to Paul and learn what the Spirit of God has to say to us in this text.
The first four chapters of 1 Corinthians focus on the problem of fleshly divisions within the church. Little factions, each with their own leader, have arisen. Worldly wisdom has been embraced in place of the wisdom of God in Christ. Pride is one of the distinguishing marks of these Corinthians. In their false pride, the Corinthians have begun to judge Paul (and other apostles) unfairly, and to look down upon him, his ministry, and his message. Paul has gently rebuked these saints, and at the end of chapter 4, he urges them to heed his admonition so that he will not have to come to them “with a rod” (4:21).
While the Corinthians are wrongly dividing over petty distinctions, they are unwilling to separate themselves from one who is persisting in sin, a sin so abominable that even the pagans are shocked. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the church for failing to exercise church discipline on a man who is living with his father’s wife. Paul informs the church of his action, even from afar, and urges them to follow his example. They have somehow misunderstood his previous letter, supposing that he is teaching that Christian separation is a separation from unbelieving sinners. Paul corrects this misconception by insisting that the separation he advocates is a separation from professing Christians whose practice is heathen.
Chapter 6 takes up the issues Paul has spoken of in chapter 5. In the first 11 verses of chapter 6 (our text), Paul addresses the sinful divisions of the Corinthian saints which have made their way into public view in the civil courts. The divisions Paul speaks of theoretically in chapter 4 are now addressed specifically in chapter 6. Verses 12-20 continue Paul’s instruction concerning the Christian and the laws of the land. If the Corinthians are seeking to deal with their disputes according to civil law in verses 1-11, they seem to be looking to the same law to define morality. And so Paul seeks to show the Corinthians the “higher road” of morality, which comes not from civil laws but from the gospel.
Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?
Are the Christians in Corinth thinking and behaving in terms of civil law? Then Paul will present them with an indictment in verse 1 of chapter 6. Paul has been exceedingly gentle in the previous chapters, only indirectly introducing the problem of divisions in the church. Now, Paul is becoming very specific and reveals that he is most distressed. The blood must be rushing to Paul’s face as he writes, “How dare you go to law before the unrighteous when you have a dispute with a fellow-believer and not go before the church?”
Several things cause Paul to be greatly distressed by the Corinthians’ conduct. First, disputes are erupting between believers in the church. The saints are at odds with one another. The term “neighbor” in verse 1 may appear to be general, but in the context of the entire passage it is clear that Paul is speaking specifically of Christians who are taking fellow-believers to court (see verse 6). Second, these disputes between believers are being taken to the secular courts by these Corinthian believers. Third, unrighteous (that is, unbelieving) judges are being asked to arbitrate between Christians. Fourth, when these disputes are taken before unbelieving judges, the whole ugly ordeal is carried out before the curious eyes of unbelieving spectators. The world gets to watch these Christians fight with one another in court. Fifth, these disputes have not been taken to the church, where they belong.
I understand all of what Paul has been saying in verse 1 in the light of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18:15-20 and Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 5. If a brother has a dispute or an offense with another brother, this should first be addressed personally and privately, one to one. If this does not bring about reconciliation and harmony, then one or two witnesses must be brought along. If this does not result in repentance and reconciliation, then the matter should be taken to the whole church. If the belligerent party does not heed the admonition of the whole church, the wayward saint must be expelled from the fellowship of the church.
Disputes between believers should be resolved as privately as possible within the church, unless the wayward saint chooses to disregard the church, in which case that individual should be publicly excommunicated. Instead of these two individuals at Corinth going through this process, they have taken their grievances to the local courts to seek a judgment from an unbelieving judge. Paul is shocked and greatly distressed by this approach.
2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, matters of this life? 4 If then you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, 6 but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?
Paul asks a sequence of questions of the Corinthians, which indirectly expose the pathetic condition of the saints at Corinth. Five times in this chapter Paul asks the question, “Do you not know…?” This strikes a very hard blow at the pride of the Corinthians, who think themselves so very wise, and Paul so very naive and provincial in his thinking.
Paul begins, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” They most certainly should know this:
21 “I kept looking, and that horn was waging war with the saints and overpowering them 22 until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was passed in favor of the saints of the Highest One, and the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom… 27 ‘Then the sovereignty, the dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him’” (Daniel 7:21-22, 27).
And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:4).
Paul assumes they do know it, and that their actions are completely contradictory to their theology. If these saints are going to reign with Christ and participate in the judgment of the world, how in the world can these Corinthians turn now to the unsaved for judgment? If the righteous will judge the unrighteous at the second coming, how can the Corinthian Christians now be looking to a heathen to judge the righteous?
Paul asks a second question in verse 3: “Do the Corinthians not know that they will be judging the angels? And, if so, why is it that they are not now able to judge in the trivial matters of this life?” Both the Old Testament Scriptures and the New are clear that the saints will judge the world. However, there is no clear statement in the Old or New Testaments (other than this statement by Paul) that the saints will judge the angels. It is not a great reach to infer this, however. The saints will reign with Christ when He comes and establishes His kingdom. When Christ judges the world, we will participate. Through our Lord, God will also judge the angels (See Isaiah 24:21-22; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; Revelation 20:10). If this judging of the angels is also a part of our Lord’s reign, and if we shall reign with Him, then we too will judge the angels. Furthermore Paul, as an apostle, is given the authority to reveal that which is a mystery in the Old Testament. If these Corinthians have begun to trust in other (false) apostles, then perhaps it is time they reconsider their source of authority and revelation. If they are listening to Paul, they would know such things.
Verse 4 is understood in a number of different ways, depending upon the translation.56 I prefer the translation (paraphrase) of J. B. Phillips: “In any case, if you find you have to judge matters of this world, why choose as judges those who count for nothing in the church?”
Paul drives home the point he makes in the questions of verses 2 and 3. If the saints will judge both the world and the angels at the coming of Christ, why in the world do they turn to the world’s judicial system to pronounce judgment in a dispute between two believers? Especially is this true after what Paul has already written:
14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).
Given their inability to comprehend or appraise spiritual things, the judgment of worldlings cannot count for much in the church. If this is true, why would church members turn to them for judgment in spiritual things?
In chapter 4, Paul assures the Corinthians he is not trying to shame them by what he says: “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14).
Now, in chapter 6, Paul does try to shame them, and rightly so! They should be ashamed of themselves for taking their disputes before unbelieving judges, as unbelievers look on in amazement, or amusement. We are often told by some alleged psychological experts of our day that there is a great difference between guilt and shame, and that shame has no place in our dealings with others. Hogwash! Shame should be our response to guilt. We should feel ashamed for those things for which we are truly guilty before God. While the guilt for our sins is forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, we still look back on the evil things we did with shame (see Romans 6:21). Those who seek to rid us of shame should be ashamed.
Paul asks the Corinthians if there is not one wise person among them who is qualified to judge the dispute between these two Corinthian saints. What a blow to their pride! These are the ones who are so wise, so very wise. These are the ones so quick to judge Paul and find him wanting. These very saints can proudly follow one leader and condemn the rest. Where are these Corinthian critics when they are needed? Why is no one able to judge such mundane matters? Instead, the saints are at one another’s throats, all the while as the world looks on. The Corinthians are great at being judgmental; they are absent when there is a need for judges.
7 Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that your brethren. 9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.
For the competitive Corinthians, life is all about winning and losing. Lawsuits are certainly about winning and losing. Paul makes a most troubling announcement: any Corinthian Christian who takes another believer to court has already lost. Going to court with a fellow-believer is a no-win situation. The better way is to take the loss. Imagine Paul telling us that it is better to be a victim than a victor. Is Paul saying that it is better to be wronged, better to be defrauded?
How can this be? Looking at Paul’s words from the dark side, just what keeps the Corinthian saints from taking the loss, from being the victim? The only reasons I can think of are all bad ones. We don’t want to take a loss because of our pride. We don’t want to let the other person get the better of us. We don’t want to lose. If we are materialistic, we don’t want to lose money or possessions, which are more precious to us than our relationships with fellow-believers. Those who are self-centered and self-serving do not want to have any of their rights violated. We protect and exercise our rights, no matter what the cost to others.
Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian Christians can only be understood in terms of the utterly different value system of the Christian, as opposed to that of the unbeliever. When Jesus invited men to follow Him, they were instructed to “take up their cross daily” to follow Him. Thus, the Christian is a person whose life is dominated and directed by the cross of Calvary. It was on the cross of Calvary that our Lord was wronged, and this brought about our salvation. The wrongful death of Christ is established by Peter as the model for the Christian in 1 Peter 2, verses 18-25.
This is the reason our Lord taught His disciples not to retaliate, but to return good for evil (Matthew 5:43-48). This is what Paul teaches as well (Romans 12:17-21). Jesus taught that if a man forces you to go a mile, you should go two miles instead (Matthew 5:41). The one who asks of us should receive from us (Matthew 5:42). Our goal in life is not to accumulate possessions or to protect and preserve them. We are to give all these things up, gladly. Our attitude should not be to seek our own interests ahead of others, but rather to seek the interests of others ahead of our own (Philippians 2:1-8). This being the case, we should be willing to be wronged and defrauded, especially for the sake of the gospel and for the testimony of the church.
It is a terrible thing for one Christian to take another to court. Even worse, the defendant is a crook. In verses 1-7, Paul addresses the plaintiff, the one who feels offended or ill-treated. Paul urges the plaintiff to take his grievance to the church and to suffer loss rather than damage the reputation of the church and hinder the gospel by exposing the sins of a brother to the world. Love, after all, covers a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8). But now Paul turns to the defendant, who may have a smirk on his face. How comforting to hear Paul rebuke his adversary. But when Paul gets to him, he is not gentle.
If the plaintiff must be willing to be wronged and defrauded, this certainly is not an invitation to the others to wrong and defraud. Some of these Corinthians are crooks, and they prey upon (not praying for) their own brothers in the Lord. For such as these, Paul has something to say: “Crooks don’t go to heaven!” Would we not agree that heaven is not a haven for sinners, but a blessed sanctuary for those who have been saved, those whose sins have been forgiven, those who have forsaken their sins? It is true that the Corinthians were once sinners, those whose lifestyle was sinful. But that was the past, and this is the present. The Corinthians were a horrible bunch as unsaved sinners. Paul’s list is not complete, but it is broad and all-inclusive.
“Don’t kid yourselves about this fact,” Paul warns, “because sinners will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Sinners include those who commit sexual sin outside of marriage (idolaters), those who serve other gods of various kinds (idolaters), those who commit sexual sins against their partner in marriage (adulterers), passive (effeminate) and active (homosexuals) sexual deviates. Those excluded from heaven are thieves, those who lust for what others possess (the covetous), alcoholics (drunkards), those who speak against others (revilers) and con artists (swindlers). This is a sampling of those whom no one expects to find in heaven, and rightly so. Heaven is a holy place, because God dwells there. Consequently, unholy people will not be there.
The Corinthian church includes those who are characterized by all of these sins. But when they were saved, this became a past, which should be forgotten and forsaken. Salvation includes repentance. Repentance means that we not only agree with God that we are sinners, doomed to eternal torment, and that Christ’s righteousness will save us, but also that we turn from a life of sin to a life of righteousness. Of course this does not mean that we will live a life of sinless perfection. But neither does it mean that we can keep on living in sin, as we once did while we were unsaved. Salvation is the process of turning from darkness to light, from death to life, from sin to righteousness. Salvation means that we should never consider continuing on in sin, even though God’s grace is greater than all our sin (see Romans 6:1ff.).
This is a sobering thought, is it not? The gospel is about sinners who are turned from sin to righteousness. The gospel is about turning away from the sins which once dominated us. It is one of the greatest comforts for the Christian. What we were as unbelievers, we are not now as Christians. Our sins of the past are not only forgiven, they are forgotten by God. When men and women are released from prison, they are often thought of as criminals, even though they have paid their debt to society. Regretfully, many are still criminals because prison has not produced repentance. At best, former prisoners are ex-offenders. But the Christian who was once a thief is not just an ex-thief; he is a new creation. The old things have passed away, replaced by what is new (2 Corinthians 5:17). What we once were as an unbeliever, we will never be again. There are no second-class citizens in heaven, based upon what was once one’s practice as a sinner.
We find another great comfort here in Paul’s words: no sinner is too far gone for God to save. Granted, Paul does not here include “murderers,” but this is not because murderers cannot be saved. It is because there are no murderers in the Corinthian congregation. As we meet as a church today to worship our Lord, there is a man with us who was a murderer, more than once. He was given a 500-year sentence. He even escaped from prison once. That man is a brother in Christ, a new creature. He is not an ex-murderer; he is a new creation in Christ. Some people think homosexuals are the lowest people on earth. Some of the Corinthians were once homosexuals, but they are no longer. There is hope for every kind of sinner, and when that sinner repents of his sin, he need never turn back.
Paul has a very different view of the relationship of the past to the present than that popularly held by many psychologists and psychiatrists today. In the psychological world of our day, what one was in the past determines what he is in the present. This is why so much time and money is spent digging up the past. It makes a great excuse for sin in the present. Paul’s thinking is just the opposite for Christians. What we were in the past does not determine what we are today, because the cross of Christ separates us not only from our sins but from our past. Christ stands between us in the present and us as we were in the past. What we were is not what we are. The cross of Christ is the reason why we can be now what we were not then. The cross of Christ is the reason Christians cannot and must not be crooks. It is not because Christians cannot sin, but because they must not sin. For a Christian to be a crook is for a person to return to that wicked state from which he (or she) was delivered by the grace of God in Christ.
When we were saved, we were completely saved, severed from our past identity and given a new identity. We were washed, cleansed of our sin and our guilt. We were sanctified, set apart from sin unto holiness. We were justified, legally declared righteous through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, imputed to us by faith. All of this transpired in the name of Jesus Christ.
Let us be clear on what Paul says here. Paul rebukes the Corinthian saints for failing (or refusing) to resolve their disputes with one another within the church. Paul wants his readers to see the folly of taking spiritual matters before unbelievers, who can have no grasp of the real issues. Paul knows, as the Corinthians should, that the legal system deals with the protection of men’s rights and the seeking of one’s self-interest, while the gospel is about the surrender of one’s rights and the seeking of the best interests of others. If the dispute cannot be resolved within the church, Paul advocates that the offended party suffer the loss, for the sake of the gospel. In no case should any Christian think that breaking the laws of man or God is something a person can continue after coming to faith in Christ, as though this doesn’t matter. Crooks do not go to heaven; saints do.
Why is Paul taking this situation in Corinth so seriously? Why, in the light of his gentleness in the first four chapters, does Paul suddenly become agitated about lawsuits between Christians? First, the issue is the unity of the church, the body of Christ. The church is one body, and believers are all brothers. The focus of each believer is to build up the body of Christ, which means that he must build up individual believers. Taking a fellow-believer to court is not what edification (building up) is about. Generally, we take another person to court to take him apart, not to build him up. The church is a temple, the dwelling place of a holy God. To destroy the temple (by attacking its members) is to invite divine destruction (3:16-17). Lawsuits in Corinth are a denial of the gospel. To continue to act an we formerly did, as sinners, denies the radical change the gospel makes. We were sinners; we are now saints, a holy nation, declaring the excellencies of Him who saved us (1 Peter 2:1-11). As Christians, we cannot persist in thinking and acting as we formerly did, apart from Christ.
Unreconciled relationships have an adverse affect upon our worship, and there must be reconciliation before we can worship in unity and harmony:
23 “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24).
5 Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; 6 that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:5-6).
Paul knows, as our Lord taught as well, that the process of litigation is the opposite of the process of reconciliation:
25 “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 “Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent” (Matthew 5:25-26).
Reconciliation is the goal of the Christian. Retribution or restitution is the goal of litigation. Reconciliation can be commenced immediately; litigation drags on endlessly. Reconciliation is pursued privately, and becomes no more public than is necessary. Litigation is public. Jesus therefore instructs His followers to seek reconciliation before, and instead of, litigation. Once the process of litigation has commenced, it is nearly irreversible, and the two litigants become irreconcilable. I have seen marriage partners repent and be reconciled through biblical counsel and rebuke. I have yet to see a reconciliation take place in the divorce courts. The law may do well at defining separation, but it does not do well at uniting. No wonder Paul is so distressed at what is happening at Corinth.
It seems that the Corinthians do not ignorantly or innocently pursue the resolution of their disputes in the law courts of that day. I believe these saints purposely avoid taking their dispute to the church. They do not want to deal with this matter on a spiritual level. They do not wish to reconcile. They most certainly do not want to be confronted with their sin and challenged to repent. They do not wish to run the risk of being under church discipline. They want to protect their rights and their possessions. They want to get ahead of their opponent, not to take a loss. The law courts held “clout” and could force a person to act in a certain way. The church only has spiritual authority, which to the carnal saints is another form of weakness. They want to make something happen, and so the process of seeking reconciliation in the church is carefully avoided, and the secular courts are chosen instead.
Several principles are either taught or assumed in our text, which I shall enumerate.
(1) The Christian’s values and guiding principles are diametrically opposed to those of the world, and thus they are incomprehensible to the unbeliever. Christians march to the beat of a different drum. We do not live for the present, but for the future. Our actions in time are governed by the future certain realities of the kingdom of God, as declared in the Scriptures.
(2) Unbelievers are unable to judge spiritual matters, and they should not be asked to do so. Because the views and values of the unbeliever and the Christian are so vastly different, non-believers are simply not suited to the task of judging believers in spiritual matters.
(3) The Christian’s citizenship is not in this world, but in the next. The values and guiding principles of the Bible must take priority over the values and guiding principles of this age. The “wisdom” of the Christian must be the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the cross of Christ, the wisdom of the Bible, and not the wisdom of this age. We are therefore guided and governed by the Scriptures. The Scriptures teach us to obey the laws of the land, but always as subordinate to the laws of God.
(4) The Christian’s responsibilities take priority over his rights. The essence of the Christian life is “taking up our cross,” of “dying to self,” and serving God by serving others. Our goal is neither to promote our own interests or to preserve them, but to sacrifice these for the cause of Christ.
(5) Spiritual issues are very different from legal issues, although the two are related. Spiritual issues take priority over legal issues. This is the reason the Christian is instructed to stay out of court if at all possible, even if it means taking a loss to do so.
(6) When Paul teaches Christian doctrine, it is not isolated from Christian practice, but directly linked to practical matters. Paul does not teach doctrine in isolation. He teaches doctrine as the basis for our actions. Doctrine is the basis of godly living and practice. Thus, when Paul teaches us about the doctrine of Christ’s kenosis, His “emptying” of Himself, he does so in the context of strife and contention in the Philippian church (see Philippians 2:1ff.). Doctrine is not meant to be heard and filed away; it is meant to be lived.
(7) The litigation process does not facilitate reconciliation and harmony, but is counter-productive to it. This is the reason we are urged to avoid litigation if at all possible.
(8) The legal battles referred to in 1 Corinthians 6 are a concrete example of the divisions which existed in Corinth, as first mentioned by Paul in chapter 1. Strained relationships, relationships not reconciled in the church, are the cause of all sorts of other sins. Husbands and wives, children and parents, struggle with unreconciled relationships. Many of the problems we face can be found to originate here with unforgiving, unrepentant hearts. The gospel is not only about man’s reconciliation with God, but also about man’s reconciliation with man (see Ephesians 2:11-22). To be reconciled with Christ is to be reconciled with men. Our calling as Christians is to be reconcilers (2 Corinthians 5:17-19), and this will not happen in the secular court room.
Having set down some of the pertinent principles which govern our handling of conflicts in the church, we must make some attempt at answering some very hard questions. Is the Christian never to go to court under any circumstances? Does this apply to civil proceedings or to criminal proceedings as well? Should a Christian ever “press charges” against a fellow-believer? These are very difficult questions, for which there are not always black and white answers. Allow me to make a few comments on these issues for your consideration.
We know from the Scriptures that Paul has several encounters with the court system of his day. When Paul is brought before Gallio, it is in Corinth (see Acts 18:12-17). There, Gallio’s decision is reached and announced before Paul can even speak a word, and the result is a landmark decision. Gallio rules that Christianity is Jewish, and thus men like Paul can proclaim the gospel under the same protection of the Romans that the Jews enjoy. Later, when Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, he appeals his case to Caesar, knowing that a fair trial is impossible in Jerusalem or Caesarea (see Acts 25:6-12). We do not know the outcome of his trial for certain. The Book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome, and we know a few more details from Paul’s “prison epistles,” such as Philippians.
It is not wrong for Paul to appear in court in these cases, so we must conclude that while Christians are urged not to take one another to court, this is not the same as saying that a Christian should never appear in court. A Christian may find that his or her spouse files for divorce in a civil court, and we may have no other choice but to respond (failure to respond brings its own foreknown results). It would seem, at least in my way of viewing the New Testament teaching on divorce, that a Christian may even have the option to file for divorce in the case of immorality (see Matthew 5:32). When another party chooses to sue us, we have little recourse, other than to make our best case before the court. In this day and age, churches are being sued much more frequently, ironically, sometimes because they have exercised church discipline.
What Paul seeks to forbid in our text is Christians looking to the secular court system to resolve spiritual conflicts between themselves. There are times when two Christians appear in court when neither is attempting to harm the other. For example, one Christian might accidentally run into the car of another believer. His insurance company may try to withhold payment, even though he admits guilt. In such a case, the two parties might appear in court, but it is the two parties’ insurance companies seeking some kind of legal judgment. I know of one case where a property deed was altered, and the property in question belonged to a Christian camp. The property was donated by a Christian, who allegedly altered the deed. In this case, the ownership of the property had to defined, and it could only be done in court (or so I was told).
It may be necessary to go to court to protect the interests of someone other than ourselves. Suppose you were appointed the guardian of two young children, and a relative was illegally trying to gain control of the property of these children, property for which you were given responsibility? In such a case, you might have to act through the court system to protect the interests of the children. When we are acting in a fiduciary capacity, and not for self-interest, legal action may be necessary for us to serve others well.
It is possible that while one cannot take a brother to court apart from church discipline, it might be required after church discipline. You will remember from our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18 that once the whole church has sought to turn a man from his sin and been ignored, the church is to excommunicate him, treating him as a “Gentile and a tax gatherer.” As I understand our Lord’s words, the person is to be dealt with as though he were an unbeliever.57 If this person were, let’s say, sexually molesting his little girl, a concerned Christian mother might have to seek a custody hearing or might even request an injunction. Once again, this cannot be for revenge, but for the best interests of both the husband and the child.
It should be said that some Christians get into legal troubles, troubles which necessitate them going to court, because they do not seek proper legal counsel before making agreements or commitments. Lawyers are not just in practice to get us out of trouble; they are also there to keep us out of trouble. Sometimes we may get ourselves into trouble because we want to appear spiritual, and so we agree to do things without defining the details. Differences and disagreements which result from such agreements are unnecessary, and the result of our own carelessness.
There may be a time to involve both a lawyer and a Christian brother. (If you are fortunate, you may find a good Christian lawyer who meets both of these requirements.) As I understand and have observed the legal system, a person accused of a crime may very well need to be represented by one who is an expert in the law. The court system is set up in such a way that both the prosecution and the defense do their best to prove their case. The prosecution is not going to try to defend the one they are accusing. To fail to have an attorney when accused of a crime seems foolish in most instances. At the same time, spiritual issues need to be addressed, and an unbelieving lawyer is not capable of dealing with these matters. A similar situation is evident when visiting someone who is hospitalized with very troubling symptoms. This person needs the best medical help he can find. On the other hand, he and his family members and friends need prayer and biblical encouragement. While there are cases in which we must choose between a lawyer and a Christian who is wise in the Word, there are also many times when we need both. Sometimes we must choose the courtroom or the church, but at other times we must not lose contact with either.
I must admit that in the past I would have said that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6 are to be applied to civil cases, and not to criminal matters. The list of offenses Paul gives us in verses 9 and 10 include those matters which are morally wrong (adultery, covetousness) and those which are criminally wrong (e.g. swindlers, thieves). There may be times when the Christian chooses not to press criminal charges against a fellow-believer. There may also be times when this is done for the good of that believer and for the good of society. Violent physical abuse may be an occasion where pressing charges is in order, especially after church discipline has been carried out. There are no nice and neat answers to such troublesome matters, but we do have spiritual principles to guide us. In the final analysis, we should act in a way that we believe takes God’s Word seriously, which promotes the gospel, and which brings glory to God.
Do not ever forget that the courts before which we may stand now are not the “court of final appeal.” God alone will bring justice to this earth. It is before God whom we must all stand. If we are wronged in this life, be assured that God will make things right in the next. The ultimate judgment is the one which we should regard as the final judgment. How awesome it will be for sinners to stand before God to give an account for rejecting Jesus Christ as God’s provision for sinners to be saved, to be cleansed, to be sanctified, to be justified. For those of us who have been forgiven, let us count it a privilege to forgive those who wrong us.
One more thing which is very important must be said. The Corinthian Christians end up in the civil courts because their conflicts were not dealt with in their early stages. Conflicts are like cancer: the sooner we get after them, the sooner we will be healed, and the more likely it is that the consequences will not be devastating. There are those who are reading these words whose relationships are in trouble. Husbands and wives, be reconciled to each other. If you cannot resolve your conflicts by yourselves, do not seek to solve them in a court of law, but follow out the principles of Matthew 18. The sooner conflicts are addressed, the more likely the cure. Parents, don’t wait until it is too late to try to heal broken relationships with your children. Believers, you know who has something against you, or against whom you have some kind of grudge. Seek out your brother, and heal that relationship. It will be not only for the good of the gospel, and the glory of God, but for your good as well.
56 In reality, it is probably one’s understanding of the meaning of the verse which dictates the translation.
57 This must be qualified, however, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. The willful saint is to be treated as an outsider but still considered (in heart) as a brother. The brother is to be shunned, not despised.