When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Cor 6:1-8)
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul reminded the church of their responsibility and authority they had to judge, to discern one another: “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Cor 5:12). The church has been given the authority of Jesus to render true judgments in matters of doctrine and life. There was a man in chapter five who was in an unrepentant, sexually immoral relationship with his stepmother, so Paul commanded the church to exercise judgment and remove the man from their membership. Keeping with the theme of judgment, Paul now turns to another issue in the church: apparently, some in the church are suing each other and dragging one another into the Corinthian court system.
We aren’t told the specifics of what cases are being brought into court, but Paul says that it is a “dispute between the brothers” in vs. 5 and calls them “trivial” in vs. 2. So we assume that these aren’t matters of serious crimes or lawbreaking, but are petty disputes, likely involving money or property (see the word “defrauded” in vs. 7-8). The term for “law” in vs. 1 likely refers to a small-claims court. We know that there was a divide between rich and poor in the church (cf. 1 Cor 1:26; 11:22). Perhaps this dispute was between a wealthy landowner who felt like his employee or servant—who also happened to be a member of the church—had cheated him out of some money or wasn’t paying on a debt owed in a timely manner. Or maybe it was between two wealthy members of the church. Either way, to be successful in the court system then—much like today—you needed money, so this almost certainly included one or two members who were of some financial means.
What does Paul think of this? He strongly denounces this practice.
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? (1 Cor 6:1)
Paul is outraged by the Corinthians’ behavior—not only by those who are suing, but (like in the previous chapter) also by those in the church who are permitting this to go on. Our English syntax is a little different when it is translated, but the first word in Greek is the verb for “dare.” The word is brought to the front of the sentence for emphasis, it is like putting the word in bold or all-caps. So, we can get a sense not only of the words Paul chose, but also Paul’s tone in addressing the Corinthians on this issue: “Does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints, when one of you has a grievance against another?”
Paul uses a number of methods in correcting the Corinthians. He points to the church’s future glory, the church’s present shame, and the church’s freedom to turn the other cheek.
The Church’s Future Glory
Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” (1 Cor 6:2-4).
Paul is making a greater-to-the-lesser argument. If one day the church shall judge the world, they now should be able to judge smaller matters, like these petty disputes. If one day the church shall judge angels, how much more should they be able to settle this problem between brothers. And, lastly, if the church possesses this remarkable authority, why go before the pagan courts? Those who have “no standing in the church” (lit. those who are scorned by the church).
The questions are rhetorical, so the answer is already assumed in the question—do you not know, means, you obviously know this. But, if you are anything like me, the answer may not seem terribly obvious.
Paul points forward to two future positions of authority the church will possess: judging the world and judging angels. “Judging” here could mean judging in the evaluative sense of examining and doling out punishment, or it could just mean more generally to rule over. When we think of what God is doing in rescuing humanity, we don’t tend to think of it in the terms of authority or kingship. But the story of the Bible is a trajectory of kingship. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were made in the image of God. God blesses and charges the first couple: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth,” (Gen 1:28). Subdue, dominion—this is the language of kingship.
This is the unique authority that human beings have over this world that God has made. We are to serve as steward-kings and queens, under the greater authority of the King of Kings. We are to care, cultivate, and rule over the planet in a way that reflects God’s own good rule. And this charge, amazingly, hasn’t been given to angels, but to us.
Which feels almost wrong, does it not? Who are we? Whenever a human in the Bible meets an angel of God, they are overwhelmed with terror and awe. If one of the seraphim who worship God on His throne were to appear in your bedroom tonight, it would be one of the most traumatic and terrifying experiences of your life. Why? Because you are just a feeble, ordinary, person, who struggle peeling the safety seal off peanut butter jars and getting out of bed in the morning. Yet, listen to what the author of Hebrews says as he interprets Psalm 8 for us:
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (Heb 2:5-8)
We don’t yet see mankind in their final bloom of authority. The created world, still under the curse of sin; mankind, still under the curse of sin. Weeds grow, illness spreads, nations rage. We don’t see things respond the way we would like yet. But what do we see? “ 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone,” (Heb 2:9). What is the author’s argument here? Jesus, the son of God became man—for a little while made lower than the angels—has now been exalted above all creation, above all powers, above all angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.
Thorns and thistles push up from the cursed ground because of Adam’s sin, because of our sin. Jesus took those thorns, wound them together into a crown, and bore them away at Calvary, upon the cross. As the thorns were pushed down on top of his head, Jesus was swallowing the very curse, absorbing the thorns into Himself, tasting death for everyone who would believe in Him. And on Easter Sunday the crown of thorns were transfigured into glory and honor, a crown fit for a King.
And now, because of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross to forgive our sins, human beings are being restored to the original dignity and nobility: kings and queens.
“The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father,” (Rev 2:26-27)
“The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne,” (Rev 3:21).
The church, by its union with Jesus Christ, is being restored to what Adam should have been. Therefore, Paul’s argument goes, if that is our final destination, and we are right now united with Christ by faith, filled with His Holy Spirit, able to speak in His name, then the church should have the authority and wisdom to settle these kind of petty disputes.
The Church’s Present Shame
But this brings us to Paul’s next point. He is pointing forward to the future glory of the Church as a way of scolding them. Don’t you realize who you are? What are you doing?
“I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?” (1 Cor 6:5-6).
Notice here: Paul isn’t merely chastising the two individuals (or whoever else has been suing one another) who are suing each other. He is chastising the whole church! It is shameful for the individuals who are doing this, but it is shameful for the whole church to permit this to happen, to not intervene. Brother drags brother to court before non-Christians and in so doing, they drag the reputation of the Church with them, and with the Church, they drag in Christ—you Christians are all a bunch of hypocrites, this is what your faith leads to, this is what your religions is like? So Paul addresses the whole church of Corinth. Our mutual accountability over one another, our warnings, our encouragements, our seeking one another out isn’t just about us—we seek to avoid the shame of sin because we do not want to bring dishonor to the name of Christ.
If you’ll remember, last week Aaron preached on chapter four of 1 Corinthians, where Paul said: “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children,” (1 Cor 4:14). Yet, here Paul says “I say this to your shame,” or more literally, “I say this to shame you.” And not only here, but later in chapter 15, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame,” (1 Cor 15:34).
“Earlier (4:14) he had maintained that his object was not to shame them, but to warn them. Here the object is shame, pure and simple. His point, of course, is that the matter itself shames them.” (Fee, NICNT)
How do we reconcile these two verses? Obviously, Paul had a careful and nuanced understanding of how shame works. There were problems in the Corinthian church that they may be tempted to feel ashamed over, but Paul cautions them: I am not trying to shame you, but trying to merely warn you because I love you. But there are other sins of such a caliber and heinousness that Paul says: You should be ashamed of this—this is shameful. But, you may be wondering, isn’t wrong for a Christian to feel ashamed? Doesn’t Jesus love us and take away our shame? Well, yes, but that depends on what you mean exactly by shame. If by “shame” you mean a deep sense that you are so ruined, so broken, so foul that you are beyond hope—then Jesus has come to remove that from you entirely. Jesus loves you, even when you feel like no else does, or you cannot love yourself.
But if by “shame” you mean “feeling bad for doing bad things,” then Jesus has by no means come to get rid of that. If anything, He has come to further sensitize our conscience so that we can feel the ugliness of sin more acutely. Failure to feel shame is not a mark of maturity in the Bible, but the mark of a seared conscience (Jer 6:15; cf. 3:3; 8:12). And if someone is plunging into unrepentant sin and they declare confidently that they are not ashamed, then they should feel ashamed. Listen to Paul’s advice elsewhere, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother,” (2 Thess 3:14-15). One of the functions of church discipline is to help to someone who is doing something shameful but failing to see it as shameful feel ashamed of it. Not, so that they would walk away thinking I am so ruined God could never love me—we don’t treat them as an enemy, but warn him as a brother—we say, “You aren’t what is shameful, your sin is, and you are not your sin—so forsake it! Run away from it!”
This may, at face value, seem controversial, but in practice I don’t think it is. We all realize that some acts are inherently shameful, and that there is an appropriate sense of shame that should attend it. If a man cheats on his wife, but then says, “I don’t feel ashamed at all,” we all recognize something is off. There are unhealthy, dark ways we can wrap ourselves in shame, never let it go, refuse to accept the forgiveness that is offered in Jesus Christ—this is just who I am. That is not what Paul is talking about here. A word that may feel more familiar to us is one of conviction or guilt. We experience a conviction, a guilt, over our sin, but that is to lead us to repentance—to forsake it, and embrace what Jesus offers.
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” (1 Cor 6:9-11)
The Church’s Other Cheek
“To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” (1 Cor 6:7-8)
Paul, again, asks surprising rhetorical questions here. Why not suffer wrong? Why not be defrauded?
Well, we might say, because then I would be wronged…I would be defrauded…and I don’t want that!
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matt 5:38-42)
Jesus here offers a bizarre ethic that, if we are honest, cuts against the grain of so much of our natural impulses.
- Do not resist the one who is evil
- If the evil person slaps you, do not turn away from them, but turn the other cheek towards them still.
- If you would be sued over your tunic, don’t only give the tunic, but give more—your cloak as well.
- If you are compelled to walk one mile, go two.
- Give to everyone who begs from you
- Do not refuse anyone who would borrow from you
How on earth do you put that into practice without being taken advantage of every day? Before we rush to qualify what Jesus’ teaching doesn’t mean, just notice how Paul interprets it. To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you—if you are going to court with your brother in Christ, regardless of how the case is decided, you have already lost. You have fundamentally misunderstood how Christianity works. Jesus’ teaching in the sermon the mount isn’t limited to other Christians, but to all people. This is how we are to treat everyone. So then, how much more so should those things be true amidst the body of Christ?
How will the world know we are Jesus’ disciples? By our love for one another.
So, if we are ever thrust into the painful situation of another brother or sister throwing around a lawsuit, Paul simply says, “Why not just be defrauded? Why not just suffer wrong instead?” What we gain in preserving unity is more valuable than what we may lose in money, in comfort, or in reputation.
Qualification: what about the protection of children? Of others?
“If the matter be small, which we may lose without considerable damage to our families, it is good to submit to it for peace's sake. "It will not cost thee so much to buy another cloak, as it will cost thee by course of law to recover that; and therefore unless thou canst get it again by fair means, it is better to let him take it."… If the injury be such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge.” (Matthew Henry on Matthew 5:40)
Most of the time, though, these kinds of tensions can be circumvented by a community of faith who is more filled with the Spirit than with worldliness. What would happen in a community where we all “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21), where we “eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” (Eph 4:3), where we “confess our sins to one another” (James 5:16), where if one of us sins against another we go directly to him and tells him his fault (Matt 18:15), where we first remove the plank of sin in our own eyes before we try to remove the speck in our brother’s (Matt 7:1-5).
And even then, if the worse comes, our future possession enables us to joyfully accept the plundering of our property:
For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Heb 10:34)