Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 6:1–6:11
1 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!
9 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.
The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise which dates back to the 5th-century before Christ. Attributed to a general named Sun Tzu, it is a document comprised of thirteen chapters, each devoted to a separate aspect of warfare. To this day, military leaders throughout the world continue to study it and draw upon its precepts. Interestingly enough, it is also studied by those in various professions ranging from athletics to law and business.
Perhaps the most well known section of The Art of War is the one that begins with these words: “There are six ways of courting defeat, which must be carefully noted by the general who has attained a responsible post.” And from there the text goes on to list and discuss those things that are guaranteed to bring certain defeat in any encounter against an opponent. They are...
- neglecting the strength of the enemy
- lacking adequate authority
- demonstrating defective training
- acting on the basis of unjustified anger
- failing to observe discipline
- failure to select the right personnel
You may be wondering what a centuries-old Chinese book on war has to do with the local church and the passage I have just read from 1 Corinthians 6. My answer is, probably more than we might think. That is because the church to whom the Apostle Paul was writing this letter was heading straight for defeat. Their proud and boastful arrogance toward one another was misrepresenting the Christ who had called them to salvation and to serve as His representatives in a fallen world. If their present course was left unaltered, they were headed for certain defeat.
Paul had far invested too much and energy into the lives of these Corinthian believers, and was well aware that the Lord Jesus had invested so much more. He wasn’t about to let them go down to defeat when victory was in their grasp. The content and tone of his letters do not in any way hide his exasperation with them for the slow pace with which they were moving toward spiritual maturity.
He had labored among them for a year-and-a-half, relentlessly preaching the Gospel, and leading many of the residents of that sin-filled city to faith in Christ. He loved them deeply—as evidenced by the manner in which he continued to instruct and disciple them, even from a distance. Nevertheless, he grew impatient with them and was unable to hide his frustration at their inability to live up to their newfound identity in Christ.
Their tolerant attitude toward those in the church who were guilty of blatant sin drew harsh words of rebuke in chapter 5. You recall that these believers had refused to pass judgment on a case of “sexual immorality” because of their proud and arrogant spirit. Consequently, they were unable to see that sin left unjudged affected the entire church. In response and with apostolic authority, Paul had ordered that a guilty verdict be rendered and that the offending believer be removed from their membership role. The reputation of Christ was too important to let open sin continue without being judged.
Moving now without transition into chapter 6, we notice right away that the topic of “judgment” is maintained. Paul continues to address the various disorders that had arisen within the Corinthian church from the members’ failure to make wise moral decisions. Two such examples are mentioned in this chapter. The first of these is addressed in verses 1 through 11, and deals with their practice of taking of taking one another to pagan law courts because of their failure to recognize their own spiritual competence to settle disputes. And the second is discussed in verses 12 through 20, and deals with their practice of immorality with prostitutes because of their failure to see that sexual sin is incompatible with their relationship with the triune God.
And while there is a connection between these two topics that may not be immediately apparent, we will be dealing with them independently over the next two weeks. This morning we will be looking at just the first eleven verses, which address a problem that was prevalent in ancient Corinth...a practice where believers were taking one another to court in order to settle disagreements and disputes that existed between them.
Given the backlog of cases that has clogged up our own judicial system, someone has quipped that America’s national motto has changed in recent years from “In God we trust” to “I’ll see you in court!” A similar mindset was prevalent in many cities of the ancient world. In fact, the debating which took place between a plaintiff and a defendant before a civil magistrate frequently drew a crowd of spectators who would view the proceedings as entertainment and, at times, with great amusement.
In the passage before us this morning, the Apostle Paul clearly states that Christians, of all people, ought to be able to settle their own disputes with one another without having to go to court. And the key to doing so is to recognize our true identity in Christ. When we understand who we are in Jesus, we will not have to war with one another over material matters or legal rights. The apostle’s point is that we should be mature enough in our faith to recognize not only who we are, but whose we are as well.
Verses 1 through 11 provide us with a pair of exhortations aimed at getting us to be who we have already become in Jesus Christ. The first of these comes out of verses 1 through 8, where Christians are instructed to...
Commit to settling disputes within the church (verses 1-8)
By saying, “When one of you has a grievance against another,” Paul was letting his readers know that he was aware that such matters of dispute were going on in their church at the present time. Roman and Greek legal proceedings were handled by taking them before a judge or judges in what today would be known as “civil court.” Justice, however, was rarely blind. Scarce were the outcomes of such hearings when those persons who were able to float the judge the higher bribe did not receive the favorable verdict
The apostle was appalled that these Christians were asking pagan judges to adjudicate their disputes when such matters should have been resolved within the church by the family of God. In fact, their inability to resolve conflicts among themselves was projecting a very poor image of church on the world stage.
You may recall that there was a precedent established in the Old Testament when Moses’ father-in-law Jethro wisely instructed him to establish a counsel of “men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and ...let them judge the people at all times” (Exodus 18:21-22). Before the nation of Israel was even established, the Lord wanted His people to know that the world’s court was not the venue in which God’s people were to resolve their disagreements.
Our Lord Jesus made a similar point in Matthew 18. We alluded to this passage last Sunday within the context of church discipline, but it wouldn’t hurt to spend a little more time there this morning and consider it in its broader context. Walk with me through this text, beginning with verse 15, where we hear Jesus teaching...
“If your brother sins against you (implying that a matter of dispute has arisen between two believers), go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” (Generally speaking, most conflicts between mature Christians can settled through a one-on-one conversation over Scripture, and being willing to commit the matter to the Lord in prayer). If he listens to you, (Jesus adds) you have gained your brother. (Sadly, that is not always the case. There are times when mediation is needed. So our Lord continues) But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Sometimes one party in a dispute is clearly wrong, while at other times both parties are in the wrong. So Jesus’ instructive counsel adds) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
Last week we looked at the entirety of this passage within the context of the incident described by Paul in chapter 5, namely that a member of the Corinthian church was living in blatant sexual sin. Here is chapter 6, the specific subject he is discussing may not have been as openly scandalous, but the procedure for handling it must still be based on Jesus’ teaching. “Tell it to the church,” Jesus said....not “take it to court.”
By using the word “dare” in 1 Corinthians 6:1, Paul seems to be incredulous that the members of the church considered themselves incapable of settling their disputes and grievances “in house. It was an absurd notion that they would “go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints.”
The apostle’s incredulity is further seen in verses 2 and 3, both of which are introduced by the phrase, “Do you not know” (“ουκ οιδατε”). We might paraphrase Paul saying, “I shouldn’t have to tell you these things!” Three times this phrase introduces a rebuke in the eleven verses we are looking at this morning, and we see them repeated three more times in the latter half of this chapter. Paul is absolutely amazed that they would drag one another before a pagan judge to settle an issue that brothers in Christ should have been able to resolve among themselves.
He goes on to explain that because “saints will judge the world...(and even) angels,” believers are capable of adjudicating their own grievances. Those are but “trivial” to the matters of “cosmic proportion” that they will one day be given authority to judge. This future role, as remote as it may seem to us today, is taught several places in both the Old and New Testaments, including Daniel 7:22, Matthew 19:28, and Revelation 20:4. Earlier, the Corinthians had been accused of living with an “over-realized eschatology,” but the charge here is that they were failing to recognize that they would one day “judge the world.” Shouldn’t they, therefore, be capable of judging “matters pertaining to this life”? At the present time, however, they were showing themselves to be “incompetent to try trivial cases.” In other words, how would they ever be able to “judge the world” if they could not judge themselves?
By mentioning “the church” in verse 4, the writer not only links this text with Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 but points out the distinctiveness of God’s people, who although living under the present world-system are not to be a part of it. Why invite someone who is “outside” of the community of faith to settle matters involving those who are in it? Paul “shames” them for that practice and—speaking as sternly as Jethro did to Moses—urges them to find “one (or more) among (them) wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers.” How ironic these words must have sounded to those who at that very time arrogantly boasted as being “wise” in their own estimation (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:10).
As it was, however, the Corinthians were dragging one another before civil magistrates. Regardless of how those pagan courts ruled—win or lose—it was “already a defeat” for God’s people. Why was that so? Because in any instance of litigation, the goal is always to achieve a personal victory or vindication. And while hoping for such outcomes is both natural and understandable, that alone should not be the primary focus of the believer. There is a higher motivation by which the follower of Christ should be living, and that is to bring honor to the One whom He serves.
Perhaps surprising to them, Paul states, as emphatically as he can, that the outcome of the present case before them already was known. It had been decided long before a judge handed down his ruling. No matter the result of the lawsuit, whether the plaintiff or the defendant won, it was already a “defeat” for both parties, with the church as a whole becoming the real loser. These Christians were defeated the moment the legal proceedings began, because it testified to the church’s failure to resolve the conflict as a healthy family would be expected to do. In other words, the reputation of the church—namely its witness to the world—was being seriously endangered. And the end result would be that someone other than God would get the glory.
Therefore, as verses 7 and 8 point out, it would be much better for those believers who were involving themselves in such disputes to forego their rights and willingly suffer injustice and abuse for the cause of Christ and the preservation of their testimony rather than taking their disputes before pagan courts. How counterintuitive Paul’s advice must have sounded to them.
What these Corinthian believers were unable to see—and what we, by way of application, are sometimes unable to see as well—is that when we become followers of Jesus Christ, no longer are we to be committed to following the ways of the world.
Our identity—our primary identity—is no longer to be based upon those things upon which the world places so much value. We are no longer to govern our manner of life after cultural custom or social institution. Our prestige, power, and name recognition—at least in the eyes of the value system of this world—all died at the cross. No more am I to be one for who I live my life. I now serve a new Master. We must continually remind ourselves that, although we reside in this world, we do so as “sojourners and exiles” (cf. 1 Peter 2:11). As followers of Jesus, we are “new creations” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17) and our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (cf. Colossians 3:3). Christians are different people, and we need to see ourselves that way, and the world needs to see us that way as well.
That brings us to the second exhortation of Paul found within this passage. He has urged them to commit to settling their disputes within the church, and now in verses 9 through 11 he tells them how to do that. His apostolic counsel is that they...
Commit to living out a new identity in Christ (verses 9-11)
Follow along as I again read these verses:
“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, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 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.”
Again, the apostle introduces his remarks with the familiar “Do you not know.” Here it amplifies the fact that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul is well known for his so-called “vice lists,” interspersed throughout his epistles. We have already seen a sample of them in chapter 5, verses 10 and 11. There he made reference to such sins as “sexual immorality,” “greed,” “idolatry,” “reviling,” “drunkenness,” and “swindling.” Here he adds additional items to that list in more fully illustrating the types of behavior that are characteristic of the “unrighteous” people of the world, namely “adultery,” “homosexuality,” and “theft.” And twice he says, those who practice such things “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
In our politically-correct, sinfully-permissive, and sexually-tolerant age, many pastors and teachers choose not to preach on several of the sins mentioned here for fear of offending some people. Paul didn’t share their hesitation. Rather than regarding the apostle’s intolerance of such behaviors and consigning his condemnation of them to a less-enlightened period of history, we had better ask what grounds we have doing so. Each of these sins—whether sexual in nature or not—are perversions of God’s holy and perfect pattern for His people, who are called to live in a manner that is distinctive and different from the present world system.
How do we know that? Because Paul writes in verse 11, “Such were some of you.” Past tense...”such were,” but you are not any longer. Consider what he is saying here. There were members within the church at Corinth, at the time he wrote this letter, who had been living “adulterous” and “homosexual” lives. There were also former “alcoholics” and “drunkards. There were “brawlers” and “cheats” among them. But they were those things no more.
Something had happened to change them from what they once “were.” Paul describes this transformation by using the strongest contrast that the Greek language allowed him to employ. Here is way he put it: “Such were some of you. But (‘alla’) you were washed (that is, the filth of sin has been removed), (but) you were sanctified (the grip of sin has been released), (but) you were justified (the debt of sin has been replaced and they have been declared righteous) in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” In other words, by grace the Spirit of the living God had opened the eyes of their hearts to be able to see the depravity of their sin. And in stark contrast, they also beheld the incomparable beauty and surpassing of the Lord Jesus Christ. And when they acknowledged their desperate need and embraced the One who shed His blood in order to cleanse them of their sin’s awful stain, they were transformed from what they once were to what they now are.
In other words, they were given a new identity. And, as Paul, will later write to this same church, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). How about you, my friend, have you taken your sin to the cross, left it there, and walked away taking with you His gift of grace? Have you become that “new creation” that Paul speaks of because of His sin-bearing work in your life? Are you now part of that gathered assembly of others who too have experienced His justifying, sanctifying, and cleansing work?
If so, then this same author further exhorts us in Ephesians 4:4-6 that “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” This is our new identity in Jesus Christ!
Therefore, the solution to settling disputes among believers is to begin living out that new identity in Christ. We have no excuse to go on living as we once did in our pre-Christian days. I am now united in Christ Jesus, along with every one of my brothers and sisters who know Him as well. We are members of His one Body and, therefore, members of one another (cf. Romans 12:5). Paul will devote a considerable amount of time and space to developing that thought when we get to chapter 12 of this epistle.
For now let us realize that the opinion that the world has of Jesus is largely formed by the impression they have of His followers. That is why we must identify with Him in the way we live with one another, and that includes the manner in which we settle our disputes.
Make no mistake, as Christians we are engaged in a war. But our conflict is not with one another. Rather than fighting face-to-face one against the other, we are fighting back-to-back against a common foe. As fellow soldiers we have been charged to strap on the spiritual armor (cf. Ephesians 6:10-20) and hold our position against the enemy.
Divisions and disorders were part and parcel of the church at Corinth, but they don’t have to characterize us individually or as a local church. The grace of God offered through the cross work of Jesus Christ is able to change the heart of the most stubborn sinner. Along with the gift of life that comes to us when He becomes our Savior, He invests within us a collective authority to serve as His designated representatives among those with whom we live.
The Corinthian believers were taking one another to pagan law courts because they failed to recognize the spiritual competence and authority they had been granted to settle their internal disputes. They were taking their grievances before unbelievers for settlement when they should have taken them for arbitration before the saints in the church.
Paul cites three reasons why it is illogical to ask unbelievers to settle disputes between believers:
- In the first place, secular litigation among Christian brethren is inconsistent with the future role of judging the world that the followers will one day play. It is a role that has been delegated to us by Jesus Himself, the One to whom all judgment has been committed (cf. John 5:22 and 27).
- Secondly, seeking arbitration before unbelievers is inconsistent with the attitude that God calls upon us to exhibit before the world. Paul asks, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” In this same regard Peter reminds us, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed” (1 Peter 3:14).
- And then third, pursuing a judgment from a secular mediator is inconsistent with our righteous standing in Christ. Just as Paul contrasts what we once were with what we have become in Jesus, the Scriptures tell us that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).
Could it be that you are right now harboring a grievance, dispute, or an unresolved conflict with a fellow believer? Perhaps it is a long-standing one. It has been said that forgiveness must be felt before it is practiced. In other words, we must know in our heart of hearts what it means to be forgiven. If you, as a sinner, have been “washed...sanctified... (and) justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of...God,” then you have within you the capacity to forgive others...even if that means being willing to “suffer wrong.”
Could it be that there is someone who needs your forgiveness? If that is the case, then may your heart be moved by the work of grace in your own life, and may you be led to seek out those who may have wronged you in order to forgive them. The failure to do so is to court certain defeat.
There will always be a tension between the indicative and imperative in the life of the believer...what we are and what we should be. This passage urges us to be what we have already become in Christ, and thus to live our true identity in Him.
To borrow from Paul’s repeated phrase, “Do you not know” that it remains the duty of us all to “glorify God” in all things...including in the manner in which we settle our disagreements?