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? 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, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. (1 Cor 6:3-7)
In chapters 5 and 6 of 1 Corinthians, Paul is dealing with some specific concerns raised by the oral reports that he received from members of Chloe’s household. In the first part of chapter 6, Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians urging them take responsibility for legal matters within their community, rather than taking them to worldly courts, which was precisely what they were doing. The text gives us very ittle information as to the nature of these disputes, but they seem to concern matters of civil law – in particular everyday ordinary matters that might have to do with money. It is important to understand that it is not criminal activity that he is dealing with here. In Romans 13 Paul clearly teaches that civil authorities exist in order to punish criminals and we ought to be subject to the leaders, laws and courts of our society.
Paul’s primary concern in this section is that the Corinthian church was failing to act as a community and take responsibility for one another. Just as we saw in chapter 5 when they ignored the sin of the incestuous man, here in chapter 6 they are failing to take responsibility to settle their routine internal disputes, instead taking their cases before unbelievers. He admonishes that these matters ought to be handled in house – by the church community.
The language in verses 1-5 of the text indicates that Paul is very disturbed by this report – he is trying to bring the Corinthians to feel shame over what they are doing. While modern readers of the epistle can understand the outrage that Paul might have over the permission of the sin of incest in the church (5:1- 5), lawsuits seem to belong to an altogether different category – what is sinful about lawsuits and taking another Christian to court? Every law court in our nation has for centuries seen Christians involved in some sort of legal litigation – it seems to be the normal and honorable way of handling a civil dispute. What explanation is there for Paul’s indignant reaction? And why would Paul deal with this issue here between two units that deal with sexual immorality (5:1-13 and 6:12-20)? Are legal proceedings between Christians really that scandalous? It must have appeared as odd to the Corinthians as it does to us.
These questions are answered as we understand that in 1 Cor 6:1-11 Paul has not really changed the subject from the topic of chapter 5, or really from the entire epistle, for that matter. His concern remains the unified display of the church. In chapter 5 as well as chapter 6 the real problem is in the words of commentator Gordon Fee, “a failure of the church to be the church.” 1 Corinthians from beginning to end is a clarion call to the church, that we might understand who we are as “Christ’s body,” “the saints,” “the people of God,” called out from society, to form a new society where we are bound together in a manner that is substantially different from our former way of life.
How many things do we do every day as Christians – just because everyone else does it that way? The courthouse in Sin City is a reminder to us that how we live as a kingdom community is to be essentially dissimilar from the customs, behaviors and activities of this world’s system.
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