This article is about the church and lawsuits or disputes in the church. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 is also discussed.

Source: New Horizons, 1995. 3 pages.

Settling Out of Court

“How could he do such a thing? How can he claim to be a Christian and sell me a car with brakes like these? Why, I could have been killed! Now my car is a wreck, my insurance rates will go up, and I'll have to stay out of work until this injury heals. And who's going to pay all my medical bills?”

Has something like this ever happened to you or someone you know? No, you say? What if it did? How would you respond?

You may be familiar with one popular response. Perhaps you have heard advertisements on TV or radio like this: “Have you been injured by another party? You may be entitled to a monetary settlement for your loss. Call our lawyers today to learn how you can receive what you're entitled to.”

This advertisement illustrates the mindset of our lawsuit-driven age. But if you were injured or wronged by another Christian, would you call a lawyer? Why or why not?

Lawsuits between Christians are nothing new. Apparently some in the church at Corinth were suing their fellow Christians. To these litigious Christians, Paul gave both apostolic admonition and inspired instruction in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.

Practices Condemned and Commended by Paul🔗

The apostle says emphatically that for Christians to sue one another in worldly courts constitutes a resounding defeat for the church, no matter what an individual Christian may win or lose there (1 Cor. 6:7). When Christians do this, they defraud one another and disgrace Christ's church. Thus he warns them (and us) not to take one another to the secular civil courts.

But Paul's instruction is not merely negative. He also directs the Christians to settle their disputes in the courts of the church with the help of competent Christian counsel (1 Cor. 6:5, 7). He goes so far as to say it would be better to be cheated than to drag our disputes into secular courts!

Paul admonishes the Corinthians so sharply because they were both arrogant and ignorant in their understanding of the people involved and the procedures to be followed. He convicts them of their arrogance (“Does any one of you dare?” [1 Cor. 6:1]) and of their ignorance (“Do you not know?” [1 Cor. 6:2, 3]).

The People Addressed🔗

Paul instructs us to take this different approach, first of all, because of who we are in the sight of God. Paul asks the Corinthians,

Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?1 Corinthians 6:1

This question is apparently based on the statement in 1 Corinthians 5:12,

For what do I have to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?

Paul's unmistakable teaching is that disputes between Christians are to be resolved within the family of God!

Calvin, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:1, points out why Christians should not sue each other before an unbelieving judge:

It is because disgrace is brought upon the gospel, and the name of Christ is held up as it were to the scoffings of the ungodly… A second reason may be added – that we treat our brethren disdainfully, when we of our own accord subject them to the decisions of unbelievers.

At least one Corinthian Christian had taken another church member before an unbelieving judge in a matter of this life (1 Cor. 6:3, 4), rather than “before the saints” (a church court) (1 Cor. 6:1).

This title of “saints” is significant because it identifies the Christians at Corinth as the holy people called out by the living God. This reference to “saints” hearkens back to the outset of this epistle, where Paul addresses “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling.”

The believers at Corinth had many problems and sins, including divisiveness, arrogance, and boasting (1 Cor. 1:10-31; 4:6-7). Their attitude more closely resembled the wisdom of this age (1 Cor. 3:18) than the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16). In fact, Paul has this arrogance in view when he asks if anyone “dares” to sue another Christian (1 Cor. 6:1).

Nevertheless, they were still called saints! Paul explains in vs. 11,

But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.

They were distinguished as Christians because they had received the cleansing, justifying, and sanctifying grace of God. Because they were saints by God's grace, they had no grounds for boasting and arrogance.

Yet another reason Paul gives against suing fellow Christians flows from the fact that the saints will judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2) and the angels (1 Cor. 6:3)! They will do so according to “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18-19), which “none of the rulers of this age has understood” (1 Cor. 2:8).

If all Christians will be judges as part of their end-time reign with Christ (Rev. 2:26-27; 5:10; 20:3, 6; 2 Tim. 2:12; Matt. 19:28), why cannot the least of these brethren (1 Cor. 6:5) judge between them concerning the matters of this life (1 Cor. 6:3)? If Christians are going to judge the world in the age to come, how dare they resort to the world for justice in this age?

Unbelievers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9), and therefore are not worthy to judge between God's holy people. Lest the Corinthians overlook what sort of people might be adjudicating their disputes, Paul adds in verses 1 Corinthians 6:9-10,

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

And what kind of people might you reasonably expect to encounter as judges from among the unrighteous of our crooked and perverse generation? The list of sins by which Paul characterizes unbelievers in verses 9 and 10 is as true of our generation as it was of his, if not more so. If you have come to see the world as your advocate, and your Christian brother as your adversary, you may be closer to changing sides in the conflict between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness than you realize.

Procedures Established by God🔗

Apparently Paul was so scandalized by the Corinthians' unholy judicial practices because the biblical procedures established by God were so clear. In fact, they were sufficiently clear to render the Corinthians without excuse.

We see the first hint of this when Paul quotes from Deuteronomy in 1 Corinthians 5:13: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (Deut. 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7). Here the judicial laws of the Old Covenant provide an important principle of New Covenant church discipline.

There was also Old Testament precedent for the saints to solve their problems within the congregation. Elders in Israel judged disputes even before Moses became the mediator of the Old Covenant (Ex. 3:16-18). Moses established a formal court system for appeals in Israel (Ex. 18). After the giving of the Law (Ex. 20), courts dispensed justice in Israel (Ex. 21-22, etc.). Elders judged disputes on the basis of God's law at the city gate (Ruth 4; Ps. 127:5).

In the Apostolic Age, elders continued to serve the people of God with the apostles as those who ruled in the midst of the saints, having been appointed by God and chosen by the people (Acts 14:23) to judge in matters of dispute (Acts 15:4, 6, 22).

Once, when a dispute arose about food distribution to widows, the church handled the whole problem internally (Acts 6:1-6). They kept the dispute within the family. The apostles also proposed a solution that would enable them to handle future complaints in the church. No one would need to resort to courts outside the church, since there were now “seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” who were put in charge of solving such problems. This dispute did not impede the church's growth. When the church settled its problem God's way, he confirmed his Word with his blessing!

Disputes Today🔗

Since the times of the apostles, elders have continued in this ruling function. They are variously known in the New Testament as leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17) and overseers (Philip. 1:1), and are called to rule well (1 Tim. 5:17-18) in the household of faith.

Accordingly, the OPC's Book of Church Order calls for the establishment and use of sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies as courts at the local, regional, and denominational levels. Part of their task is to resolve disputes between church members. But Paul's point is that even the least of our members would be better than an unbelieving judge!

So if you are injured or wronged by another Christian, should you call a lawyer? No, keep it in the family and settle out of court!

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