Believers Before the Bench

Reprinted with permission from Paraklesis (Winter, 2007) courtesy of Baptist Bible College

Should a believer take another believer to court? Should a believer initiate a lawsuit against another believer to regain that which his brother owes him? These are relevant questions in today’s world. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, Paul answers that a believer should not take another believer to court; instead, they should appear before the church. We will look at Paul’s response to a specific problem in Corinth (1 Cor. 6:1-6), Paul’s rebuke concerning this problem (1 Cor. 6:7-8), and Paul’s reminder because of this problem (1 Cor. 6:9-11). We will also address the significance of this passage for our present time.

Before looking at the meaning of this passage, let us begin with these premises: the Corinthians are members of a redeemed community, which means that their behavior within the community should reflect their transformed nature. They are also members of aneschatological community, which means that their future destination should also affect their present behavior within the community.

Paul’s response to the problem (6:1-6)

A believer has a grievance against his brother and is taking the case before the civil magistrates (1 Cor. 6:1). Paul is amazed and upset that this believer has done this to a brother; Paul rebukes the church for failing to resolve this problem. He makes his point with several rhetorical questions:

Are not believers going to judge something as great as the world (1 Cor. 6:2) and angels (1 Cor. 6:3) someday? Are they not competent then to judge a case as trivial as the one Paul mentions?

Paul continues by asking the Corinthians how they can take their petty lawsuits to unbelieving and unjust judges who are disdained in the church (1 Cor. 6:4). He wants to shame or embarrass the church for letting this lawsuit happen (1 Cor. 6:5). Paul then asks rhetorically whether there is not a wise man in the church who is able to settle this dispute, assuming that there is at least one wise man in the church. He concludes by repeating the situation and its seriousness. Paul implies that family matters ought to stay within the family.

Paul’s rebuke concerning the problem (6:7-8)

Paul rebukes the Corinthians because this lawsuit has happened. The reality that one brother has a lawsuit against another brother is already a defeat for the brother and the church (1 Cor. 6:7). He offers the believer who has taken his brother to court a different course of action. He should allow himself to be wronged and defrauded by his brother. Instead of fighting for perceived rights, Paul writes that he should forfeit them. Paul also rebukes the brother who cheated his brother and the entire church for wronging and defrauding each other (1 Cor. 6:8).

Paul’s reminder because of the problem (6:9-11)

After Paul rebukes the Corinthians for their unrighteous behavior, he reminds them that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9). He warns his readers not to be deceived in this matter. God’s judgment is certain because He is serious about sin. Paul identifies the unrighteous who will not inherit God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 6:10) and reminds the Corinthians that they were once unrighteous, but they have been washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11).

Believers should not take each other to court, but rather before the church. This may be difficult to hear in our present litigious culture. Paul’s suggestion that a brother should choose to be wronged or defrauded may be even more difficult to hear. However, his teaching is just as applicable today as it was when he wrote it. We are to keep family matters within the family and take them before the church. If the church is unable to resolve these matters, we must allow ourselves to be wronged and defrauded. We do this because we are redeemed people who live in a redeemed community; we have a redeemed future and must live redeemed lives even if someone violates our “rights.” This may mean that we need to reevaluate our present ethic in this area. May we live in the present with the understanding that we will inherit God’s kingdom in the future.

Dr. Bill Arp has taught various NT and Greek courses at BBS since 1988. Before teaching at BBS, he taught at BBC for eighteen years. He has written two Sunday School quarterlies as well as several journal articles. He teaches a Sunday School class and has served as a deacon at Heritage Baptist Church. Dr. Arp received his Th.D. in NT and Greek from Grace Theological Seminary.

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There are 16 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


One distinction that might be helpful for applying the teaching of 1 Cor.6 to our setting is the difference between civil and criminal cases. It appears that Paul had something like civil cases mainly in mind in 1 Cor., and the difference between private and public law was already part of the Roman system of the day I think.
You can read about civil vs. criminal law [URL= here[/URL ].
The reason I'm suggesting that Paul had civil-type cases in mind is that in criminal law, you don't really have party 1 vs. part 2, but rather the state vs. the accused. The offense is viewed as one against society and law vs. one against a private individual or group.

Jim's picture

I've seen something like this in doctrinal statements

We believe that Christians are prohibited from bringing civil lawsuits against other Christians or the church to resolve personal disputes. We believe the church possesses all the resources necessary to resolve personal disputes between members. We do believe, however, that a Christian may seek compensation for injuries from another Christian's insurance company as long as the claim is pursued without malice or slander (1 Cor. 6:1-8; Eph. 4:31-32).

Ted Bigelow's picture

Dr. Arp,

Thanks for the article. Thanks too for specifying that Paul is indeed expecting one man in the church to deal with the situation. The KJV (and NIV) translation makes it sound like Paul is saying like he wants the "least esteemed" members of the church to judge the case. Not only is that incorrect based on the Greek, I believe, but we are never to lightly esteem any who belong to Christ!

I wouldn't like to be chosen by my church to get involved in an interpersonal conflict among two other members because I'm one of the least respected people in my church!

But now my question. How do you see Paul's request to ask one man to get involved relate to your statement, "Believers should not take each other to court, but rather before the church" ?

Is this one man not to have full adjudicatory power to resolve the case as verse 5 seems to imply: "one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren."

In other words, what is his role, and the role of the church? is he to decide on behalf of the church, take the matter to the church for the church to decide, or merely to understand the issues?


Bob T.'s picture

This passage appears to apply to Christians of common confession under the authority of the same church leadership. There are many relationships in which there is no common relationship that provides an out of court arbitration. Your auto insurance may demand that you sue your best friend regarding an accident. It will be in your behalf againt them and their estate. However, it may be your company against theirs. You must allow the litigation or you violate the policy terms and forfeit your coverage.

There are many other exceptions in civil law involving torts, contracts, etc.. In criminal law you do not take the person to court. The state does.

MShep2's picture

This article - and I Cor. 6:1-11 make it very clear that this is how we must handle civil disputes between believes in a local church.

However, I wonder how much this is meant to apply outside of the church - e.g. where one believer is swindled by another "believer" who then hides behind his Christianity assuming that nothing should be done to him.

Also, when there is more than one person involved in a dispute a Christian can make himself liable by refusing to pursue a so-called Christian legally.

All that being said, it is much better to find a solution outside of the courts. I know there are a number of good Christian arbitration/mediation groups that can help resolve disputes without going to court (Ken Sande and Peacemaker ministries, etc.).

Luke 17:10

Aaron Blumer's picture


A couple of you have pointed out some complications... especially Mshep2's outside the church scenario. Here we've got a problem in independent churches that is far less of a problem in more denominational arrangements, but it only removes the problem one step.
For example, suppose I'm a member of church A in some denomination. A member of church B in the same denom. breaks a contract w/me. I can't very well take that guy before my own congregation, but I do have two options: a) contact his congregation and see if they will hear the case or b) take it to the denomination.

But what if we're in two different denominations... or independent?
Anyone got a good answer for that? I haven't been able to make contact w/Dr.Arp so I don't know if we'll be able to get him involved. Perhaps we can get permission to reprint his lengthier treatment of the subject since it's a few years old now and probably not "paying for itself" in the archives.

I'll throw one idea into the ring: perhaps in the case of independents, the non-authoritative fellowships we enter into can serve this function. I don't know personally of any ever doing that, but maybe it's actually not uncommon. In any case, there ought to be (and probably is) some kind of Christian arbitration organization a person could contact to try to resolve something like this before believers rather than in a civil suit.

Edit: yep, they are out there... don't know anything about these (so I'm not recommending) but they seem to offer various ways to settle disputes before believers out of court:

Ted Bigelow's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
But what if we're in two different denominations... or independent?
Anyone got a good answer for that?

Jay Adams deals with this helpfully in his "Handbook of Church Discipline", chapter 10, "Cross-Congregational Discipline."

The important thing is that lawsuits come under the rubric of Mat. 18.

Greg Long's picture

I just so happen to be preaching on this passage this Sunday. I think the are very important, practical questions that arise in the minds of believers today who read this passage and want to faithfully apply it. Some of these questions have already been raised in this thread. Remember, we must "not go beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6), so we must be careful to examine the text so that we do not apply Paul's command in a stricter way that he himself would have. Here is a portion of what I will say this Sunday. Some of it has already been said on this thread. Please let me know if I'm off base.

Someone might ask, "Does this mean I can never take anyone to court?" Let's notice several important qualifications.

  1. Paul is addressing disputes between two believers (1, 5, 6, 7, Cool. Why? Because of what believers have in common in Christ. So, this passage does not necessarily apply to a dispute between a believer & an unbeliever. If someone from the world defrauds you, you shouldn’t feel prohibited by this passage from seeking restitution. Remember, believers in a church are held accountable by church leadership and by the body. Unbelievers are not and are only accountable to civil authorities. If you don’t hold this person accountable, he may harm or defraud other people.
  2. Paul seems to be addressing disputes between two individuals. He begins by saying "When one of you has a grievance against another" (v. 1). Later he refers to "brother" (singular) going to law against "brother" (singular) (6). I think we should be extremely careful about applying this to a situation where other people are affected by one person's decision. For example, Brother Sam owns a construction company and has employees who aren’t Christians. Brother Sam builds an addition on Brother Bill's house. Brother Bill and Brother Sam attend the same church. After the addition is completed, Brother Bill tells Brother Sam he doesn't have the money to pay him, even though the work was done satisfactorily. Brother Sam comes to you and ask you if he should sue Brother Bill. Would you say to him, “You can’t sue him because of 1 Cor. 6”? I would say, "Sam, If you’re willing to take all the liability personally, that’s one thing. But if it means you can’t pay your vendors or your employees, then they are being bound by your conscience. And that might actually end up having a negative testimony for Christ."
  3. Paul seems to be addressing disputes involving personal grievances. He calls them "grievances" (1), a broad term which can refer generally to "matters" or "business transactions" but in this context probably refers to "legal matters" or "lawsuits." More to the point, in v. 5 he refers to "matters pertaining to this life.” This term was sometimes used to refer to property matters (IVP Bible Background Commentary). Also, he refers to being "defrauded" and defrauding (7, 8). This term refers to the action of not paying someone what is owed, of taking something that is not one's own, or of taking something by means of deception. So, as Aaron pointed out above, perhaps this situation is applicable to civil disputes involving property or money (“defrauded”), but not necessarily applicable to criminal cases involving physical harm, etc. For example, if there were a reasonable suspicion a church member had abused a child, we would NOT say, “We can’t go before the courts; we’ll just settle this in house.”
  4. Paul may be addressing disputes involving “trivial matters” (v. 2). Perhaps Paul is addressing the kind of thing that would be addressed in our modern-day "small claims court," where you “sue someone (the defendant) to collect a small amount of money that you believe is owed to you (usually less than $5000)” (, If a fellow believer does something to you that will cause you to come to financial ruin, you may not necessarily be prohibited by this passage from pursuing legal action.
  5. Paul seems to be addressing disputes where the intent of the one bringing the lawsuit is to “defraud” his brother (8). For example, if Sister Sally backs her car into Sister Joan's car in the church parking lot (where in some cases there is "no fault") so that Sister Joan's car is undrivable but refuses to pay for repairs. Sister Joan might be justified in joining with her insurance company in a lawsuit against Sister Sally for the amount of damages, but she would NOT be justified in seeking an additional $100,000 for emotional distress because she could be seeking to defraud her sister.

    Now, we shouldn’t give so many exceptions that we throw out the rule! It would be easy for someone to use the above qualifications to justify their behavior, even if it clearly fit the situation Paul was addressing. Remember the principle of v. 7: "Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?" I like how Dr. Arp stated it in his article, “Instead of fighting for perceived rights, Paul writes that he should forfeit them.”

Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

MShep2's picture


Great summary. I trust it will go well on Sunday as you present it to your church.

Luke 17:10

Rob Fall's picture

I've thought this passage should be considered in light of the passage on church discipline in Matthew. If the offender won't hear the church, then he\she is to be as a heathen or a publican. Being as a heathen to me means, that person is no longer under the jurisdiction of the particular congregation and can be dealt with in court,

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I'll throw one idea into the ring: perhaps in the case of independents, the non-authoritative fellowships we enter into can serve this function. I don't know personally of any ever doing that, but maybe it's actually not uncommon. In any case, there ought to be (and probably is) some kind of Christian arbitration organization a person could contact to try to resolve something like this before believers rather than in a civil suit.

The fact that you have to suggest this is, I think, a telling case against independent church government. If you feel the need to pretend that your non-authoritative fellowship is actually authoritative, maybe you need more authoritative government. Or, to put it another way, if you need to construct a pseudo-presbytery, maybe you need a presbytery.

My Blog:

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture


Charlie... in light of Greg's post above, I think the situation where Christian arbitration beyond the local church is needed is relatively rare. Secondly, there's a difference between the authority of a presbytery and the authority of a body that two would-be litigants voluntarily enlist to help them settle the dispute without going to law.
But either way, I think we'd agree that being governed by a presbytery requires a better biblical basis than "we need this to deal w/the civil cases to avoid the courts" just as the idea of independence requires a stronger basis than "we don't need a presbytery."
The practicality of one or the other is really not all that weighty.

Rob Fall's picture

on church councils. IIRC, he covers this situation.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

gpinto's picture

It's interesting that in all of the discussion of civil/criminal lawsuits, no mention was made of divorce. With divorce statistics within the body of Christ equal to those of the world, it seems to me that Paul's prohibition of taking a brother (or sister) to court before unbelievers would be applicable to marriages on the brink. Do you think the Lord might prefer marital disputes handled within the context of the Church rather than in family court?


Rob Fall's picture

Considering many have viewed marriage as a civil matter not a religious one. Yes, churches have parts to play in these United States. But at the end of the day it's the license issued by the civil authorities that makes for a lawful marriage.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

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