Believers Before the Bench

From the archive: May 18, 2010, with permission from Paraklesis (Winter, 2007).

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 Baptist Bible Seminary 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 ThD in NT and Greek from Grace Theological Seminary.

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There are 5 Comments

Jim's picture

http://www.christian-attorney.net/christians_lawsuits.html

There are gray areas. The article above addresses. Briefly:

  1. Criminal Matters
  2. Christians Acting on Behalf of Others
  3. Christians Covered by Insurance
  4. Christian Filing Bankruptcy
  5. Christian Evicting a Christian From a Residence or Business Property
  6. Christian Versus Christian Divorce
  7. A Christian refuses to have another Christian evaluate and decide the issue of dispute

    Some church constitutions address this - and I think they should. Do not go to court - EVER - is too simplistic

    An example: http://fellowshipbaptist-salisbury.weebly.com/our-beliefs.html

    Quote:
    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).
Jim's picture

Simply:

  • I have homeowner's insurance with a coverage of $ 200K
  • Church group comes to my house in the winter time
  • I've shoveled but nevertheless the steps are icy
  • Person slips on icy step and breaks hip in fall
  • Resultant surgeries, recovery, lost work time, etc add up to thousands of dollars
  • I don't have the thousands of dollars
  • The injuried person does not have the thousands of dollars
  • The church does not have the thousands of dollars
  • The only way for the injuried to engage the insurance company is to file a lawsuit against me
  • That's what I have insurance for, I'm OK with it

The simplistic conclusions of the article don't work:

  • "Believers should not take each other to court, but rather before the church."
  • "a brother should choose to be ... defrauded"

The church:

  • Really does not have the umbrella authority to adjudicate
  • Are they going to declare the the injuried: "choose to be defrauded" ... pay out of your own pocket?
  • To the homeowner: Pay the brother

Conclusions:

  • Really 3 parties involved. One is an insurance company
  • The do not sue does not apply
Jim's picture

I have some experience (half a dozen cases) with this:

Example 1:

  • Party A separates
  • Party A mines $$ from joint accounts and runs up debt on CC
  • Party B engages legal representation to protect self

Example 2:

  • Party A files for divorce
  • Party B dithers about legal representation.
  • My advice to Party B: hire an attorney ... Christian if possible
fjbarnes's picture

Some of us older SI readers may remember when it took a lawsuit to remove Dr. Carl Mcintire's stranglehold on the ACCC. Such occasions are sad, but oftimes necessary.

JCarpenter's picture

Perhaps nothing better reveals the narrowness of modern evangelical piety, it’s striving to escape from the realities of life in this world, than its approach to what scripture explicitly says is the institution established by God for the imposition of justice: the courts. Admittedly, there is some Biblical basis for the modern aversion to the courts: In 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, for example, the Apostle Paul scolds Christians for taking each other to court. Better to be hurt by a brother than allow the Name of Christ to be soiled by airing the church’s dirty laundry in a courtroom. And these words stand as sobering reminders, especially in our age of insistent “individual rights”, that sometimes it’s better not to fight for what’s yours. Sometimes, it’s better to just let go. To be defrauded.

Further, the Lord Jesus gave one bit of advice to anyone being sued: settle! (Matthew 5:25, 5:40). (By the way his advice to plaintiffs appears to be: persevere! -- Luke 18:18.) There is, then, a bias in scripture against litigousness.

But is this really the whole counsel of God on the subject?

I believe the overwhelming testimony of scripture shows that the quest for the Kingdom of God in this present age, while knowing it would not perfectly come until Christ returns, is Biblical. That victimized man may seek justice not just for himself but for the family that needs the money he provides. If it were only his livelihood at stake, he could, indeed, “turn the other cheek” and suffer wrong, without going to court and demanding recompense. But he has not just himself to consider. He must provide for his family and “if anyone does not provide for his own relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8.) He also has other people generally to consider. Today, one-way justice is procured and evildoers punished, is by a private individual taking a complaint to the government (in the form of the civil courts) and asking for “Caesar” to wield its sword of justice. Failure to do so allows evil to continue unchecked and thus allow someone else to be victimized.

What if the victim and the victimizer are both Christians? Then matters are changed. The injured man should first take it to the church (especially if they’re both members of the same church), beginning with the leaders. There should be those “wise” among us capable of deciding what is just (1 Cor. 6:5.) If the church cannot get a voluntary settlement out of the employer, and the employer is clearly in the wrong, then the church will need to obey the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 and begin church discipline. At the end of that process (as noted Pastoral Theologian Jay Adams writes), if the victimizer still will not take responsibility, then he may be treated as a “pagan and a tax-collector.” A Christian can sue “pagans” and defend a suit. Sadly, because of the break-down of discipline in most churches over the past century and the unsurprising rise of wolves in those churches – wolves who find they need less and less sheep’s clothing in today’s church – such scenarios will be more common.

In one church I know, a faction rose up and through surprise meetings, secret schemes, and slander, drove out the pastor, changed the locks to the church building, and took over. In so doing they not only violated the by-laws of the church but the laws of the state under which they lived. Should the pastor, then, take that group to court? The modern, narrow-pietist, escapist is aghast at the idea. For him, Christ and culture are in paradox. We are merely pilgrims in this world, they might opine, and shouldn’t expect things to be any different. Or, the courts are “tainted” and so anything from this is so contaminated.

The Christian is called to “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Did they break the laws of the land in their quest to usurp a church? Yes. Before the bar, an incorporated church is a person that must obey the laws as any person. Then the Christian is obligated to do what he or she can to rectify it. And the Christian would understand that “Caesar” has been established by God Himself precisely to bring that justice to bear. The courts, far from being a dirty, debased place that Christians ought to avoid as far as possible, are, in fact, instituted by the Lord to implement His will in society.

Despite today’s prevalent spirituality that we are to simply passively accept whatever injustice is meted out to us, the Apostle Paul availed himself of his legal rights when he was illegally punished by the authorities in Phillippi (Acts 16:35-29). Later, rather than let himself be flogged, he respectfully asserted his rights as a Roman citizen to the centurion who arrested him (Acts 22:22-29). Whatever the Apostles meant by meekly accepting the tribulations we are afflicted with in this present age, must be seen against the back-drop of the very limited civil rights they were afforded but which they availed themselves.

The escapist spirituality that tells Christians to let injustice spread unchecked is not Biblical. The great goal of all Christians is to glorify God by seeing the spread of His Kingdom on earth. God has instituted authorities just for the purpose of ruling on earth (Romans 13:1-4). Christ is “the Transformer of Culture.” When we see injustice and have the power to move the hand of Caesar and impose the rule of God on earth (through the courts) and we do not do so, we have failed as Christians. It’s true, in this imperfect world, the courts may sometimes deliver miscarriages of justice. But that is no excuse to sit idly by. Rather, we may go to court, seeking justice, and still suffer wrong, still have to turn the other cheek.

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