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.