Resolving Personal Disputes
1 Corinthians 6:1-11
vv.1-11 The Corinthians had imbibed worldly wisdom (ch.1-4) it had resulted in worldly practices (ch.5-6). Not only had they fallen into fleshly lusts (ch.5), but into secular protocols (ch.6, v.1-11). The apostle had gotten word (probably through common report, 1 Cor. 5:1) that they were appealing to secular courts to settle personal disputes! There were actually two issues that contributed to this (see v.8); a lack of meekness caused one brother to defraud or take advantage of another, and a lack of lowliness on the part of the other caused him to seek retribution in court! Paul spends vv.2-8 addressing the lack of lowliness first, because the direct result had a more outrageous impact on the name of glory of Christ. Then he deals with the lack of lowliness in vv.9-11, because it was really the root instigator of every problem.
- The Problem: Believers Prosecuting One Another in Secular Courts (v.1)
- Reasons not to Bring Personal Disputes before Secular Courts (vv.2-8)
- Reasons not to Act Unrighteously Toward our Brother (vv.9-11)
The Problem: Believers Prosecuting One Another in Secular Courts (v.1)
¶ Dare any one of you, having a matter against another, prosecute his suit before the unjust, and not before the saints? v.1 The apostle begins the new exhortation with a strong question; “How dare you?”. The public prosecution of personal disputes before a secular court is outrageous to Christians who are walking in the Spirit. These “suits” were most likely matters of personal property, not criminal offenses. However, the principle is not limited to money fraud, because other interpersonal offenses have the same root issues (vv.7-8). But I believe the specific context is money/property fraud: taking money or property from another through deception. For example, if one brother borrowed money from another and refused to pay him back. Or, if one brother made a foolish investment with another’s funds. Or, if one brother borrowed another’s lawnmower and broke it, and then refused to repair it. In these cases, the natural man has a recourse to recover his losses; to sue in civil court. However, a believer should never drag his brother before a secular court to extract repayment of damages. It is not merely appealing to “the world” (v.2), but to “the unjust”. He juxtaposes “the unjust” with “the saints” or sanctified ones. The Spirit of God would remind us what the true character of the world is; unrighteous. It was a secular court that ordered the death of Jesus. It was a secular court that ordered the death of the apostle Paul. Why in the world (no pun intended) would you bring your case before the unjust if you were really looking for justice? There can be no justice from this world-system that has cast out “the Just One” (Acts 3:14; 7:52). Not only is a grievous dishonor done to the name of Christ, but it is totally unbecoming of the saints of God. It is Paul’s business to establish in the following verses that it becomes the dignity of saint to resolve every personal dispute among themselves.
What is our standard of morality? As a side note, this chapter shows us that secular courts are an unreliable standard of morality. As seen in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade (1973) when abortion was legalized, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) when gay marriage was legalized, the secular powers do not have an objective standard of morality. But the Christian does! The Bible sets forth God’s moral standards which never change or become outdated. How sad it would be if Christians relied more on the word of the courts than on the Word of God. We must be subject to the powers that be, but never to take our standards from them, because they are “the unjust” (v.1).
Reasons not to Bring Personal Disputes before Secular Courts (vv.2-8)
Reason #1: The Saints are Far More Competent to Judge than the World (vv.2-4)
2 Do ye not then know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world is judged by you, are ye unworthy of the smallest judgments? v.2 First of all, at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ He will come “with all his saints” (1 Thess. 3:13), and we will share with Christ in the administration of the Millennial kingdom (Rev. 21:9 – 22:5; Eph. 1:11,18). “Do ye not know?”… this was something that the Corinthians had been taught (see 1 Cor. 1:7b), but they were living inconsistent with it. Their lusts had caused the truth of the coming of Christ to grow dim in their minds. The truth of the Millennium was so familiar and unquestioned by all the saints that Paul could reason from it as an established fact! As a side note, how sad that within a few centuries the belief in a literal reign of Christ on earth was given up (Augustine)! If we lose sight of our future reign with Christ over all things, we can be tempted to insist on our rights now, that we might “reign as kings” (1 Cor. 4:8) before the appointed time. The Corinthians had “enriched themselves” with great sums of money, and they were defrauding one another to get more, or willing to sue in court to protect what they had. This is a nice example of how prophecy is like “a light shining in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). Knowing what will be our portion in a coming day has a practical effect on our dealings in the present. The types of things that we will be judging run all the way up to the global scale (“the world”). For instance, deciding how much tax to levy on the entire country of France, or something like that. If we are counted “worthy” by God to have such a place over this world, why can’t the saints resolve the little disputes between brethren?
3 Do ye not know that we shall judge angels? and not then matters of this life? v.3 Another great change that will occur when Christ comes forth as a judge is that the saints in association with Christ will replace the angels as administrative executors. This administrative shift will occurs when the Lamb takes the seven-sealed book in His hand (Rev. 5), but it will be fully developed in the Millennium. We are morally superior to angels now by virtue of being in the New Creation race, but we will be administratively superior to angels then! “For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come” (Heb. 2:5). We will join the glorified Son of man as administrators of the “world to come”. If we will judge the supernatural in that day, why can’t we resolve the mundane disputes of this life now?
4 If then ye have judgments as to things of this life, set those to judge who are little esteemed in the assembly. v.4 It doesn’t take great spirituality to judge the “things of this life” which are disputes over personal property, etc. A person must have common sense to be able to understand the dispute, and honesty to make a righteous decision. Otherwise, there are no special requirements. Paul is not being sarcastic here; even the least esteemed brothers (howbeit those with all their mental faculties and a godly life, of course) are capable of deciding these issues. It would be better to ask a brother of little estimation because he wouldn’t be swayed by public opinion or party loyalties. Notice that he says “those”; plural. I take it that this is a reference to Matt. 18:16, where the offended brother is to take “one or two others” with him, that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word should be established”. We should not be political when choosing witnesses. The witnesses will hear the case and, if they agree that an offense has occurred, they should join with the first brother in seeking to restore the offender.
Reason #2: Public Prosecutions are Shameful before Unbelievers (vv.5-6)
5 I speak to you to put you to shame. Thus there is not a wise person among you, not even one, who shall be able to decide between his brethren! v.5 To prosecute one another in secular court is basically to say there is more wisdom in the world than there is in the assembly. And sadly, it was true. The Corinthians were so worldly that they had no “wise person” or spiritually discerning person among them.
6 But brother prosecutes his suit with brother, and that before unbelievers. v.6 The result of worldliness is strife between brethren. Paul now emphasizes that their discordancy was on public display for the world to see; which is why he says “and that before unbelievers”. What shame was brought on the name of Christ but this display! In v.1 Paul had juxtaposed “the saints” with “the unjust”, now in v.6 he juxtaposes “brothers” with “unbelievers”. The idea of “brothers” is one of friendly love or affection. “By this all shall men know that you are My disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). When brother sues brother in court, the only one who is sure to win is the lawyer; he always gets his fee. A cartoon depicts this fact: a plaintiff is pulling the head of a cow, the defendant is pulling the tail—and the lawyer is milking the cow. But the other winner is Satan… he loves to have believers ruin their productivity and testimony through public disputes.
Reason #3: Lawsuits Stem from a Lack of Humility on Both Sides (vv.7-8)
7 Already indeed then it is altogether a fault in you that ye have suits between yourselves. Why do ye not rather suffer wrong? why are ye not rather defrauded? 8 But “ye” do wrong, and defraud, and this your brethren. vv.7-8 There were two problems that contributed to lawsuits between the Corinthians; one problem was on the offended brother’s side (v.7), the other problem on the offending brother’s side (v.8). Both have to do with humility of the heart. If either of these problems were fixed, the brothers would never end up in court. The first problem was that they were not willing to “suffer wrong” or “be defrauded”. This is a lack of lowliness. As believers, we are to be willing to give up our rights and refrain from retaliation (Matt. 5:39-42). The second problem was that they were prone to “do wrong” and “defraud”. This is a lack of meekness. As believers, we are not to live our lives like a bull in a China shop. We are to be careful lest we cause the least offense (Matt. 18:7). Both these characters (meekness and lowliness) were displayed perfectly in the life of the Lord Jesus on earth (Matt. 11:29; 2 Cor. 10:1). It could also be that v.8 is referring to the legal retaliation of the defrauded brother. It is quite possible to obtain an unfair ruling in secular courts, and in that way defraud the one who has defrauded us! Paul’s point in these verses is that the issues between brethren stem from a problem with the human heart; pride makes me easily offended, and carelessness makes me prone to give offense. These issues can be quickly resolved best when we exercise self-judgment.
Does every issue need to come before the assembly? No. In fact, we do not get the assembly judging any matter as an assembly in ch.6. We do get assembly judgment in ch.5. In a very serious case, the dispute would come before the assembly. We know from ch.5 that the assembly has the authority to judge a covetous man as a wicked person, if it comes to that point. However, the procedure in Matt. 18:15-17 should be followed first, before the assembly would need to take administrative action. We find in v.4 a reference to what we have in Matt. 18:16; “take one or two others”. Paul’s point is that it never needs to get beyond step two! Even if you took two of the least esteemed brothers with you, the matter could be resolved right then. But there is a higher road than involving other brethren; judging the matter in the heart. It we all “bind on humility” (1 Peter 5:5) it will never come before the assembly. The order is as follows:
- vv.4-6, issues are to be resolved in the assembly rather than the world.
- vv.7-8, issues are to be resolved in the heart rather than the assembly.
Note: The actual dispute might be resolved by one brother humbling himself, to choose not to insist on his own rights; for “It is a man’s glory to pass over a transgression” (Prov. 19:11). However, that might do little to help the offending brother. Depending on the circumstances (i.e. grievous offense, repeated offense, etc.) the offended brother may be moved with shepherding care for the other, and might go after him that he might “gain his brother” by restoring him to the Lord. This is the context of Matt. 18:15-20. In this case it would be right to pursue the offender, not out of a desire for self-vindication, but out of love.
What about submission and obedience to “the powers that be”? This chapter in no way suggests that Christians do not need to cooperate with the civil powers. Clearly, Romans 13:1-7 teaches that we should. If a person violates the laws of the land, the assembly cannot cover it up. The assembly collectively is not subject to the civil powers (it is heavenly), but as individual Christians we are subject to them. In a case of a law breaker, individuals may be responsible to testify in court, etc. but not the assembly.
Reasons not to Act Unrighteously Toward our Brother (vv.9-11)
Reason #1: Understand the Seriousness of Sin in God’s Sight (vv.9-10)
9 Do ye not know that unrighteous persons shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who make women of themselves, nor who abuse themselves with men, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor abusive persons, nor the rapacious, shall inherit the kingdom of God. vv.9-10 Paul now speaks to the conscience of the Corinthians. He states the simple fact that “unrighteous persons” cannot be saved, or inherit the kingdom of God. He is not doubting the eternal security of the believer, but rather showing the end of the path of unbelievers who walk in these sins. This is a very common method used by the Spirit to speak to the conscience of believers (see Eph. 5:5-6). We must understand that God takes unrighteousness seriously! Paul is drawing a connection between the sins of defrauding and suing and the unrighteous sins the send unbelievers to hell. Paul lists ten forms of corruption, beginning with fornication. The city of Corinth was characterized by these sins. In those days there was a common expression in the Greek world, when they wanted to say a man was living in luxury and debauchery, they called it “Corinthianizing”. A common proverb had arisen with regard to the high-priced prostitutes of that city; “Everybody cannot afford to go to Corinth” [Dialogues of Courtesans, p.253]. It is very possible that the sins listed in these verses indicate perhaps more than just money issues were involved with the lawsuits between brethren. This was the moral background of some in Corinth (v.11), and they were in danger of slipping back into their old ways. A past history of sin is nothing to be gloried in… it gives Satan an advantage. Old habits die hard, and can easily be resurrected.
Reason #2: Understand our Salvation through Christ (v.11)
11 And these things were some of you; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. v.11 While this list (vv.9-10) of grievous sins described their background and potential pitfalls, there is much to encourage. Grace had picked them up from such a low place and given them the place of saints! Three things (all in the aorist tense) were true of the Corinthians regardless of their walk:
- New Birth. “Ye have been washed”. We might think the word “washed” alludes to baptism, which is an outward cleansing of association with sin (Acts 22:16). However, based on the context of the word, it cannot refer to something external. We might think “washed” refers to the on-going need of the application of the Word to cleans us from the daily defilement of the world (John 13:10; Eph. 5:26). However, the word is in the aorist tense (actually, all three words are) which means a once-and-for-all action. Foot-washing needs to be repeated. Here Paul alludes to the inward moral cleansing associated with New Birth. When the Spirit works the New Birth, a new nature is imparted which has holy desires, and the soul is cleansed morally before God (see notes on washing).
- Sanctification. “Ye have been sanctified”. Sanctification means “to be set apart as holy”. There are three types of sanctification in scripture: positional, practical, and provisional. Whenever sanctification is mentioned before justification, it is a sanctification connected with our position; i.e. we can never lose it! Positional sanctification has two parts; one connected with new birth, the other with sealing. Here it is sanctification “by the Spirit” so it is connected with new birth. We are sanctified in this sense from the very earliest beginning of the work of grace in our souls.
- Justification. “Ye have been justified”. Justification is connected with our standing of righteousness in God’s sight. On the basis of the finished work of Christ, God has declared those who have faith in Jesus to be righteous in His sight. Every charge that could be laid against us on account of our sins has been settled forever to God’s satisfaction, and we stand accepted “in Christ”; i.e. in Christ’s place before God.
These three things were true, not because of any good in the Corinthians, but for the Lord’s glory (” in the Name of the Lord Jesus”) and by the power of God (“by the Spirit of our God”). These three beautiful facts form the basis for the exhortations in the second half of ch.6.