May a Christian take another Christian to court? This exposition of 1 Corinthians 6:1-10 discusses legal disputes. The author maintains that, as long as they do not include a criminal case, legal disputes must be handled within the church. The author highlights several guidelines around handling these disputes in the church.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2012. 4 pages.

1 Corinthians 6:1-10 - Taking a Brother to Court 1 Cor. 6:1-10 on legal disputes between brethren

Introduction🔗

Christian people often have disputes with one another. Sometimes a point is reached where those disputes need to be settled with the help of a third party either by mediation or arbitration. From the time of the NT on, there has been disagreement among Christians as to when the state’s judicial system should become involved. Should the church judge the dispute, or should the matter be referred to the civil authorities? 1 Corinthians 6:1-10 clearly addresses the issue, but there has been disagreement on the interpretation and application of this passage. We offer here an analysis of this text in an attempt to clear up some of the confusion on the issue. This will potentially have application to a number of situations that are unfortunately rather common in the church: disputes over land and property in the event of church schism; and litigation by brother against brother.

Old Testament background🔗

It is clear from Ex. 18 that the leaders of the Old Testament church were expected to hear disputes between brethren, to “judge between a man and his neighbour and make known the statutes of God and His laws” (verse 16). On Jethro’s advice, this role was extended. Moses was to be assisted by elders. The elders would judge the minor disputes, while Moses would hear the major disputes if necessary, bringing the matter before the Lord and returning to the people with His statutes and laws. Later, the elders would also hear major matters in the city-gates for example, in dealing with a rebellious son (Dt. 21:19).

This role of hearing disputes was continued by the judges. The sons of Israel came to Deborah for judgement, as she sat under her palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim (Judges 4:5). In later times, kings also judged various disputes. Absalom, a would-be king, would stand beside the way to the gate to hear any suit or cause before his father could render judgement (2 Samuel 15:1-6). Solomon “administered justice” with the great gift of wisdom bestowed upon him by the Lord (1 Kings 3). As Gordon Wenham points out in his Law and the Legal System in the Old Testament, under Jehoshaphat that system became even more organised, with Jerusalem functioning as a kind of central court of appeals (2 Chronicles 19:8ff).

In this theocratic situation all disputes could be dealt with within the covenant community. More than that, it was the Lord’s intention that all disputes be settled within the covenant communi­ty, rather than by Gentiles who did not know Him or His laws. The more the Jews became aware of their distinctive­ness over against the nations, the more they developed an aversion to seeking resolution of disputes by Gentile au­thorities. That is not to deny that there were often sinful elements in the Jewish attitude towards Gentiles as the Lord Jesus later pointed out.

When God’s people were under the yoke of Gentile nations, however, another principle comes in to play. Since the Lord, in His providence, appoints all authority, obedience is owed to foreign rulers who temporarily govern the OT saints. One does not have to look far to see the deference with which Esther, Daniel, and Nehemiah treated their respective foreign rulers. In such cases, the dynamics of Romans 13 are already seen to be at play in the OT. Of course, as we also see, with Daniel, the OT saints knew they must still “obey God rather than men” where obedience to the state would lead to sin.

Another important issue that we must consider in dealing with the OT data is the distinction between criminal and civil law. Wenham points out that this is not a sharp distinction in the OT. After all, Israel was a theocracy, in which all of life was to be lived under God’s rule. Sin was involved every time a law was infringed, whatever the character of that law. Nevertheless, Wenham sees some type of civil/criminal distinction reflected in the penalties: wrongdoing demanding monetary compensation corresponding roughly to civil law; wrongdoing requir­ing death, exile or corporal punishment corresponding roughly to criminal law. In the civil law, the focus lies more on the offended party seeking justice. In the case of criminal law, there is more emphasis on the role of judges, indeed the whole community, seeking justice.

New Testament background🔗

In the NT era, Israel was under Roman occupation. The Romans allowed Jews throughout the Empire to operate their usual court system to some extent at the level of civil justice. Charles Hodge mentions that these courts were involved in the settling of property disputes (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 6:1). More serious crimes were to be brought before the Roman authorities. For this reason, Christ could not be executed by the Jewish authorities Pilate had to hear the case. This situation is more akin to the subjection of Israel to foreign nations in the OT.

But as we know, the Lord brought further judgement upon the nation of Israel. The theocracy came to an end. The church dispersed among the nations is now the focus, not a theocratic nation. God’s people are commanded to obey the civil authorities whom God establish­es in the nations (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). These authorities are given the “sword,” to bring wrath on the one who practises evil. They have jurisdiction in the areas of criminal and civil law. With the exception of laws that would require us to sin against God’s law, the govern­ment’s laws in both the civil and crimi­nal sphere must be obeyed. The church must not try to usurp the government’s role in this, for example by attempting to use (or prevent) the “sword.” This is especially important when dealing with criminal matters. When dealing with serious crimes, it is not for the church to decide whether the sword is required or not. That is the government’s call. Significant criminal behaviour of church members should be reported so that the governing authorities can carry out their mandate, having made their own evalu­ation of the situation.

Two exceptions are suggested. First, where the state has criminalised behaviour that is clearly commanded by God’s Word. For example, we would not encourage Christians to report their brethren for godly discipline of their children even though this might be considered assault in some countries.

Second, there may be some situations where a crime has technically been committed, but at a very trivial level so far as the authorities are concerned. For example, a youthful visitor might be caught stealing from the cookie jar in your house. No doubt this should be dealt with, but not necessarily by calling the police!

Analysis of 1 Corinthians 6:1-10🔗

Keeping the above background in mind, we turn to look at 1 Corinthians 6:1-10. Here the apostle Paul warns the Corinthians against an improper use of the law-courts of the nations. Parallels exist to both OT situations: avoiding situations where people outside of the covenant community are called upon to judge God’s people; and recognising the authority of unbelieving authorities over the church. A number of observations can be made about this passage:

The lawsuits discouraged here fall into the category of civil law rather than criminal law. The situation is one where a believer has a case against his brother (verse 1). Lenski, Interpretation of 1 and 2 Corinthians, 6:1, argues that the verb implies going to law on one’s own behalf. It involves the “smallest law courts” (verse 2), a term that indicates the petty courts of the time. Verse 8 sums up the nature of the cases in view here. A brother feels he has been “wronged or defrauded” some debt is not repaid, some property not returned. These suits concern the more trivial “matters of this life” (verse 3), rather than criminal matters. Of course, there may be situations of a criminal nature where both the state and the church will try the case, each in its own way.

The apostle has in mind more than just mediation. The case is to be “judged” (verses 2-3). A wise brother is to “decide” between his brethren (verse 5). The language implies arbi­tration within the church, rendering a decision, a settlement.

The apostle is doing more than just indicating a preference there is a prescription implied. The apostle asks, “Does any of you ... dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?” (verse 1). This implies a lack of shame, a bold presumptuous­ness. “Any one of you” implies this is a general rule in cases of this nature. The form of the conditional sentence in verse 4 (“If you have law courts ... do you...?”) implies a situation that should not arise. Verse 7, “Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you” or “altogeth­er a failure” shows the apostle’s com­plete disapproval. The fact that Paul views this kind of litigation as morally wrong is also seen in verse 8: “You yourselves wrong and defraud ... even to your brethren.” Paul says this is to their shame (verse 5). The language is too strong to be mere advice.

A number of arguments are used against lawsuits in these cases. The church is competent to judge such matters, since we will even judge the world and the angels how much more the matters of this life, especial­ly in such trivial cases? On the other hand, the Corinthians seem to prefer to have their cases judged by unbe­lievers, who are of no account in the church, who do not know right from wrong as the believer does. It is also a bad witness (“and that before unbelievers,” verse 6). In fact, it is bad to have to go to law at all against a brother – it is already a loss. Accord­ing to Lenski it is a loss of dignity, honour, Christian fellowship and love. Calvin adds that it slights a brother to hand him over to unbelievers (Com­mentary on the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 6:1). R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (p. 537), observes that the counsel to Chris­tians to avoid the courts against one another presupposes the requirement of justice tempered with forbearance in personal relationships. It is therefore better to be wronged and defrauded than to act wrongly in this area. The suffering of wrong without seeking redress is, after all, Christ’s way (F.F. Bruce, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 6:7).

The warning against lawsuits between brethren as we find it in 1 Corinthians 6 does not cover every imaginable situation that might be classified as a civil case by today’s standards. Calvin argues that sometimes “by force of circumstances” a believer will find himself involved in a lawsuit before the civil authorities. If, for example, one aspect of the case has resulted in charges being laid, it is legitimate to proceed with the case. Calvin interprets 1 Corinthians 6 to mean that we should not bring lawsuits against brethren where another remedy is possible. If the law of the land requires us to bring a matter before the courts, and we can do so without sinning, we should obey. Otherwise we risk detracting from the state’s God-given authority. Calvin also allows that there may be cases where we can proceed without doing any damage to the love of our brother. However, he feels that this is unlikely to be the case.

Conclusion🔗

The two most common situations where this principle could be applied would be: claims by one brother that another has defrauded him of something right­fully his; and property disputes between churches involved in schism. The ten­dency is to feel that we are morally obligated to bring charges before the state due to the immoral or unethical behaviour of the other party. The other party will often deny any wrong-doing, or even have counter-claims.

In response to that, note that the apostle Paul was also talking specifically about claims of fraudulent behaviour. He does not say that in such cases we must see that justice is done and restitution made, by hook or by crook if you will forgive the pun. He says that we should first seek a remedy within the church, where that is possible. If it is not possible because circumstances overtake us or the law of the land requires it, we must face the civil authorities. Even then we must do our utmost to avoid bringing the gospel into disrepute or damaging the love of our brother.

So long as there is no criminal be­haviour on the part of our brother or the other church in the case of schism it is better to suffer wrong and be de­frauded, rather than to hinder the cause of the gospel and the love of brethren. As to the brother’s unethical or immoral behaviour, God will judge that either in the short term, through the courts of the church, or at length on the last day. As to any loss of money or other property, that is worth far less than the Name of Christ and the fellowship of the saints. Remember this: that if Christ had demanded His rights, none of us would be where we are today.

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