Text: 1 Cor. 6:1-8
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!
Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you dothese things to your brethren!
When I moved to Florida about a year and a half ago, there were all sorts of new and different things that I had to get used to. The weather is an obvious one, but there was also the fact that there’s no such thing as topsoil in the yards here. It’s all sand. But the birds were fascinating and beautiful. The citrus crop was delicious. I also noticed that the Buccaneers on are television every Sunday in the Fall. That was really strange. But there was one familiar face posted all around Central Florida. This was a face that I had seen regularly in Jackson, MS. His voice was the same on the radio too, a familiar voice that reminded me of home. Of course, I’m talking about John Morgan of “Morgan and Morgan.” His face was all over Mississippi. In fact, I just assumed he was local to the area, not knowing that his home base is actually Orlando. Here in Florida, just like in Mississippi, he is “for the people.”
Now what does John Morgan do, and why has he bought so many billboards across the South? He’s a lawyer, but he’s not just a lawyer. He is the kind of lawyer who runs a “settlement mill.” Settlement mills are law groups which make lots of money pursuing cases which they have no desire of taking to court. These are usually personal injury lawsuits against insurance companies or employers, and the intent is not to see that justice is done but rather to use the court system to make money. They advertise constantly, and they have no shame in promising big bucks to their clients. There are thousands of lawyers like this, and probably a third of them all use the slogan, “One Call, That’s All!” They represent one the sleaziest aspects of our litigious culture, but they are not alone. Many other lawyers, though not as crassly, use the legal system as a way to push agendas or to get rich. Most recently, we have seen court-ordered fines used to promote sexual identity politics and to coerce businesses. Lawsuits are big business, and they are big politics. What should a Christian think of all of this? How should we use lawyers and the court system? Should we use them at all? What does the Bible say?
Here in 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul addresses this very topic. He forbids Christians from suing one another, and he says that for Christians to “go to law against one another” is an “utter failure.” This is pretty strong stuff, and I suspect that even many conservative bible-believing Christians struggle with this passage. This morning we will dig a little deeper into the passage and attempt to explain some of its trickier aspects. But the conclusion will not be different from the surface reading. It is better for Christians to allow themselves to be taken advantage of than to bring a public scandal upon the body of Christ. Christians should not be litigious people, and they should not use the courts other than as an absolute last resort and never as a way to get revenge or personal gain.
What Situation Does Paul Have in Mind?
Let’s look carefully at what Paul is talking about. The King James and New King James are not very helpful when they translate vs. 1 as “When you have a matter against another.” The ESV is a little better when it says “grievance,” but an even better translation is found in the New American Standard’s “has a case against his neighbor.” The Greek term is one that is specifically used for a lawsuit, and so you should read 1 Cor. 6:1 as talking about a legal dispute over civil and not criminal matters. Paul is not talking about calling the police or testifying against a thief. Let’s be clear about this— in cases of violence, robbery, or other criminal behavior, you should definitely call the cops and cooperate with the system. You should also, in the words of Jesus, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Pay your taxes and obey the law. 1 Cor. 6 is not addressing any of that. Instead, Paul is talking about personal grievances, business disputes, and that now ubiquitous expression “emotional damages.” He is talking about Christians using civil courts to get revenge, prove a point, resolve an argument, or make some cash.
We can also see that Paul is contrasting two kinds of people. One the one hand are the “unrighteous,” “the world,” and “unbelievers.” On the other are “saints,” “the church,” and “brothers.” This contrast is between true believers, those who really are holy and walking in faith, and those who are not, but particularly those who publicly identify as non-Christians. Paul says that Christians should not take other Christians to non-Christian courts. This is his basic rule.
Paul gives two reasons for this rule. The first reason is that believers have spiritual wisdom and authority in Christ. This gives them an eschatological standing now and makes it inappropriate to go to authorities that do not have this standing:
Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? (1 Cor. 6:2-3)
These verses connect to what we are taught about the authority we will have in the New Heavens and the New Earth. We see this in Revelation 20:4, where those who have been martyred for the faith have “judgment… committed to them” and sit on thrones. Jesus also teaches this in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:28-30, when he says that “in the regeneration” His followers will “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The foundational point is that our identity “in Christ” and the future powers and abilities granted by Him ought to inform our behavior now.
Paul’s second reason is only partially stated, but it is clear enough. He says in verse 7, “Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?” The implication here is that it is better to suffer wrong and be persecuted than to behave in an unchristian manner and bring shame upon the name of Christ. For unbelievers to see brothers in Christ fighting and running to a non-Christian authority is a scandal. It contradicts the message of the gospel that they are supposed to be preaching, and it fails to obey the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount which says that we are to “turn the other check” and “go the extra mile” (Matthew 5:38-42). Both of those references, in context, are references to bearing oppression and exploitation by those with legal authority over you. In fact, in Matthew 5:40, Jesus expressly mentions lawsuits, “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” This is what supports Paul’s thinking in 1 Corinthians 6.
Now, as you might imagine, there have been a variety of interpretations of this point. The classic Anabaptist position, which is very similar to the Rabbinic Jewish position, uses this as proof that the church should be an alternative political society altogether, staying separate from all worldly legal associations and having its own legal jurisdiction and court system. This runs into a number of contradictions when compared to other Biblical passages, especially Romans 13 and the passage in Acts 22 where Paul himself appeals to his Roman “civil rights” for protection against police brutality (Acts 22:25). Paul even demands to be taken to Caesar for trial in Acts 25:11, and so this extreme position cannot withstand Biblical scrutiny.
There’s also the problem that Paul does not seem to simply be contrasting institutions but actually “true believers” over and against all unholy people. The “saints” are those who are really saints, those who will “judge the world” and even “judge angels.” The sort of special judgment that Paul says is given to the church is given to those who are actually believers and walking in holiness. Additionally, Paul also appeals to the ethic of self-sacrifice in order to avoid lawsuits in general, and so it would not satisfy Paul’s commands to have a church court whose members were every bit as active and litigious as secular courts. There is more than a debate over jurisdiction here. It’s about the heart.
Another view which is attractive, because it more or less gets you off the hook, is the one which appeals to historical context. It says that the legal courts in Paul’s day were corrupt and that there was no expectation of justice. But once the Roman Empire was converted under Constantine and the law code re-written under Justinian, this would basically make 1 Cor. 6 null and void. There would no longer be a meaningful prohibition on lawsuits, and this would also fail to incorporate the ethic of self-sacrifice.
The Proper View
Each of these differing views has their strong-points, but eventually they all come up short. What is the correct interpretation then? I believe that Paul, and the rest of the New Testament, does allow for Christians to use all of the mechanisms of criminal law and even to appeal to civil rights in cases of public injustice. As we mentioned earlier, Acts 22:25 is an important passage. There Paul is about to be flogged by a Roman centurion, and he escapes by appealing to his rights as a Roman citizen: “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” Later in Acts, he uses the Roman judicial rules to make sure he is sent to Caesar.
“I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus… answered, “You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!” (Acts 25:10-12)
Another important case is the New Testament advice to slaves. In general, they are to submit to their masters, even harsh and cruel ones (Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18). They are not to use revolutionary methods to get their freedom, and they should view their master as a sort of proper authority to whom they must obey because of their Christian conscience. However, if there is a legal opportunity to acquire freedom, Paul says that slaves can and should take it. “Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it” (1 Cor. 7:21). We could summarize by saying, “Don’t be quick to rush to court and don’t use the courts to cause a scene or run over people. But if there is a legal case with a good chance of success that is consistent with a loving and honest reputation, then use it.”
The New Testament allows Christians to use courts for matters of public justice which are appropriately under the jurisdiction of the magistrate. This can even apply to finances and property. If a large company is wrongly taking money from smaller investors or individuals, then lawyers can be enlisted to point this out. If a city attempts to seize a building or property by way of imminent domain, this too can be rightly challenged in court. Christians would certainly want to make this a last resort, and they would definitely have to keep a close watch on their spirits and emotions, making sure to never use the courts as a weapon. But there are plenty of scenarios where public justice would warrant legal action, including professional lawyers. You should also consider whether it is only yourself who is being impacted or whether there are many other dependent people who are hurt. You always have the liberty to allow yourself to be defrauded, even seriously, but you do not have the liberty to make that decision for other people.
But for personal grievances, what we typically refer to as private or civil lawsuits, Christians should never sue other Christians. They should instead follow the outline of Matthew 18:15-20. There Jesus says that, “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” Christians must use every opportunity, especially conflict, to show love and bear witness to grace. If the individual brother will not hear you, then Jesus says to take 2 or 3 witnesses. These have to be actual witnesses, those who have firsthand knowledge and are not just gossip bearers. And they need to actually be involved in the conversation. They need to go with you and speak to the brother. Finally, if the person still refuses, then he should be brought to the church.
This scenario actually assumes that true Christians will never have to take it this far. Remember what Paul said, “it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another.” The very fact that the disagreement makes it to court shows that someone is not living up to their identity in Christ. If a so-called Christian will not hear his brethren, closes his ears to 2 or 3 witnesses, and rejects the counsel of his own church, then what he is demonstrating is not so much a disagreement or difference of perspective, but a hard heart. He is showing that is not currently walking with the Lord, and the final step of church discipline is the removal of the unrepentant brother from the church.
Discussions of church discipline can easily lead you to think of nasty breakups and painful examples of the church not acting in love. Too-often, unfortunately, that’s how they occur. Sometimes the church leadership is even the offending party. And so we need to pay attention to Paul’s big-picture point in all of this. He isn’t really concerned about the ins and outs of church polity. He isn’t laying out the perfect system of Christian litigation. Instead, he’s arguing that Christians should not be getting into these kinds of disputes or disagreements at all. They should gladly choose to be taken advantage of rather than fight a nasty court fight. 1 Corinthians 6 needs to be connected to those earlier passages in 1 Corinthians 1-4. We are not supposed to be proud people who think highly of ourselves. We are not supposed to use worldly tactics. We should not find strength in the same places that the world does. We should not split into parties and follow after men. We should live simple, humble lives, where we are willing to be considered “fools for Christ.” As Paul put it in chapter 4, “Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat” (vs. 12-13). Don’t keep a record of wrongs, but let love cover a multitude.
As Christians we must define our present reality by our eschatological destiny. This is the only way that we can sacrifice without actually losing. We know that we are justified in God’s eyes through the work of Christ, and so we do not have to receive perfect justice from the world. We know—we expect—that we will be cheated and wronged, and we bear it as Christ did. In fact, we should be willing to be taken advantage of so that we can have an opportunity to demonstrate sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. Think of the next dispute or fight that comes your way as an opportunity for evangelism. You might find out that the person who is coming against you is not actually a Christian. Perhaps they have been an imposter all this time. But in that case, don’t get angry. Consider that your example of sacrificial love might be the tool that God uses to convert them. Perhaps they are a Christian but just confused, or they have fallen back into sin through unguarded lusts of the flesh. In this case, your testimony is a way to grab their attention again, not through force, but through the gospel enacted before them.
Brother and sisters, do you not know that you will judge angels? Use this wisdom of Christ then to decide to live your lives righteously today. Be willing to be cheated before you compromise the reputation of Christ. Don’t sue your brothers but instead walk together in love so that the gospel might go forth. God will see to it that all things are put to right. You will reap what you sow, and so will they. We will all be repaid. But the glory of the gospel of free grace is that, for those of us who have faith in Christ, we will never actually get what we deserve. You see, God has forgiven us, and so we must forgive others. Therefore put away your quarrels. Mortify your desire for revenge or personal gain. Lay down your life so that Christ might take it and use it for His kingdom.
Let us pray.