1 Corinthians 6
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!
I clipped a newspaper article some years ago that told a sad but interesting story. Listen:
Magistrate tells church, pastor to settle their own dispute
The Associated Press
Spartanburg, [SC] – A magistrate told church members and the pastor they are trying to fire that he may not have the authority to settle their months long dispute and urged them to resolve their differences out of court.
The dispute involves Foster Chapel Baptist Church and its efforts to oust its pastor, the Rev. Douglas E. Dennis. On several occasions, the church has voted to fire Dennis, but he has refused to stop representing himself as pastor or to leave the parsonage.
On Thursday, Magistrate Robert Hall told about 60 church members crowded into a Spartanburg County courtroom for Dennis’ eviction hearing that they need to settle the issue themselves.
“I’m asking you as a judge, and maybe I shouldn’t, but I’m asking you as a Christian, to resolve this matter,” Hall told the crowd, which included Dennis’ supporters and church supporters…
Dennis refused to comment on whether he thinks the dispute is resolvable. “I’ll be back in the pulpit on Sunday. That’s all I can say.” he said.
I am less concerned about the particulars of the actual case than I am the wider dynamics involved:
- A church has a conflict between members.
- The church finds itself unable to resolve the conflicts.
- The church goes to a secular court for resolution.
- The judge, a Christian, pleads with the church to reconvene and resolve the issue.
This raises lots of questions: Why could the church not resolve its conflicts? Were they right to go to a secular court? What did the judge see as a Christian that the members of the church could not (would not?) see? What happened? How were they supposed to resolve their issues? Did they?
These questions and the dynamics lurking behind them were present in the early church as well. In an intriguing text, the Apostle Paul reprimanded the Christians of Corinth for their going to a secular judge for conflict resolution, but, moreso, he reprimanded them for not being able to handle conflict better.
To be human is to live on the edge of conflict. Try as we might—when we try, that is—the possibility of conflict with other people is always there and, tragically, we too often see these possibilities actualized in interpersonal clashes. We might think that the church would be a safe-haven from such, that, somehow, people who all profess Christ would have no reason to conflict. To think this, however, would be naïve. For one thing, the scriptures contain many references to conflict and conflict resolution. This, in and of itself, tells us that this is an issue we need to consider soberly and diligently.
Let us consider, then, the nature of conflict in the church and how we might resolve such conflicts rightly. We will consider a number of introductory considerations first, and then move to specific and particular actions as we progress.
God has given the church everything it needs for rightful judgment and conflict resolution.
Let us approach the issue of conflict resolution in the church by way of a particular problem in the first-century church of Corinth. Apparently, the Corinthians, like many Americans, had become quite litigious. Surprisingly, this was the case within the church as well. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, addressed this issue. Is it right, he asks, for two Christians to go to court against each other when they have a grievance.
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!
My purpose here is not to go into the question of whether or not going to court is always wrong and whether or not there might be certain types of situations between Christians when the resolutions of courts is necessary. That is another topic for another day. I will, however, offer two thoughts quickly on that subject. First, it must be agreed that an honest reading of our text should give us serious, serious pause before going to law against a fellow Christian. Our text is sufficiently clear and strong to warrant such hesitation and, indeed, trepidation at the thought of suing a Christian. Secondly, and on the other hand, our text would seem to apply largely to cases of civil disagreement and not to criminal law per se. To use an extreme example, if I may: sexual abuse within the church must be reported and reported immediately to civil authorities. Churches that appeal to our text to not report such abuse are, I believe, seriously misreading our text. And I do not say this begrudgingly, by the way, as if I wish such issues could be handled in-house. No, those who abuse others should be hauled before a judge, sentenced, and imprisoned. So, yes, I believe our text most accurately applies to disputes and disagreements, not to crimes which should receive the punishment of the state. But on this point let us be clear: this standard would indeed call into question many legal conflicts between believers, no?
Regardless, let us consider Paul’s frustration at the apparently lawsuit-eager congregation. His language is most intense: “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?” The very notion of Christians (a) being unable to resolve their differences and (b) going before pagan judges in the Roman Empire for resolution is abhorrent to Paul.
Why? Paul answers this in a most interesting way:
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!
Paul says that at the end of the age the church will have a role in judging (a) the world and (b) angels. This would refer to the unrighteous world who rejects Christ and the fallen angels. Commentators have struggled to understand in what sense we all will have a role in the judgment, but in the early church Matthew 12 was often appealed to:
41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
In both of these cases–the repentant men of Nineveh and the wisdom-seeking queen of the South—the unrighteous came under judgment because of the contrast between their godlessness and the godliness of the repentant Ninevites and the queen of the South. In other words, the unrighteous were condemned by the very lives of the righteous! Those who turned from God were condemned because, out of their midst, there were many who turned to God.
I believe this is helpful and it further amplifies the point: the lives of Christians should stand in stark contrast to that of the unbelieving world. Why, then, would the church, which is to be comprised of disciples of Jesus, need to go to pagan courts?
Lurking behind this argument is a foundational premise and assumption: God has given the church everything it needs for rightful judgment and conflict resolution. That is, followers of Jesus, if they are indeed following Jesus, should be able to handle the disagreements that come up among them.
The very act of saying this calls into question many modern assumptions about the church. Many of us have made a habit of reducing the church to the place where we go, sing songs, hear sermons, and do religious activities. We are so accustomed to taking our disputes to courts that the thought of the church as a body of conflict resolution will sound strange to us.
But set aside, for a moment, the kinds of disagreements that could warrant legal action and consider this: if Paul is condemning the Corinthians for taking their legal cases to court, how much more would he condemn our refusal to resolve lesser conflicts in the church. I am speaking of, say, having your feelings hurt, of one person making an allegation against another person that the other person believes is false, of personal disputes arising sometimes from longtime grudges, of parents whose children conflict with one another, etc.
Our text assumes that God has given the church everything it needs for rightful judgment and conflict resolution. This will be the foundational premise of this series.
The failure of the church to resolve conflicts within her own walls is a tragedy within the church and a stumbling block outside the church.
If the premise that God has given the church everything it needs for rightful judgment and conflict resolution is true, that leads us to a second conclusion: the failure of the church to resolve conflicts within her own walls is a tragedy within the church and a stumbling block outside the church. Paul’s next words bear this out:
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?
One of the things that Paul is clearly offended by is the fact that the people of God, “brothers,” would appeal to “unbelievers” for justice! To understand what is behind this we need to have an accurate picture of what a first century court in Corinth was like. Mark Dever writes:
The Corinthian courts had a reputation for corruption. Judgments reflected the status of the litigants; verdicts were bought and sold. Therefore, Christians taking their internal disputes to be settled in those courts was a monumental failure—not least in the witness they were providing to the non-Christians around them.
“Judges were always chosen from among the well-to-do,” The IVP Bible Background Commentary reports, “and most legal disputes revolved around money…Members of the upper class received better treatment in the law courts; indeed, this preference was written into penalties prescribed in the laws. Further, social inferiors could not sue members of the upper class.”
There are likely two dynamics at work here: (1) the community of God’s people were proving incapable of resolving conflicts and (2) the courts to which they were appealing were (a) pagan and (b) corrupt. Meaning, they were not even noble pagans with a high sense of justice; rather, they were openly corrupt pagan courts at that!
This means that the failure to resolve conflicts is a failure both inside the church and outside the church. Inside, it communicates to the church at large that a group of people bound together by a mutual love for Jesus and by a mutual filling by the Holy Spirit, a people whose very lives are to be shaped more and more by Jesus, a people who have renounced their old lives and embraced a new life in Christ…that this people cannot settle their differences and resolve their conflicts.
Outside the church, the church’s failure to resolve its conflicts is a double tragedy. First, going to the courts puts the failure of Christians on public display. “Paul did not want them to be judged by outsiders,” wrote Theodore of Mopsuestia, “because he did not want the shortcomings of those who had been taught propriety and righteousness to become a scandal to those outside the church.” Secondly, and connected to the first tragedy, is the fact that the church’s posture toward the pagan world is supposed to be one of evangelization, of witness-bearing, of salt and light.
In other words, we are supposed to be winning the lost to Jesus, not asking the lost to settle our disputes! When we do so we are essentially saying that pagan reasoning is superior to Holy Spirit guidance on such matters. This should not be!
Church, if you have conflicts with one another, surely the Holy Spirit operating in your own lives and in the wider body of Christ is capable of leading to resolution. Surely you see the damage done by going to the lost for resolution as more terrible than your own being right is wonderful.
And does this not raise another uncomfortable thought: is it not the case that airing your grievances with fellow Christians before the non-Christians world causes the same scandal and tragedy? When you complain to or in front of your lost friends and coworkers about a conflict you are having with a professed follower of Christ, are you not communicating to the lost that the church is truly no better than the world? Are you not hindering their progress toward Christ?
And if this is so—and I would argue strongly that it is—does this not mean that conflicting with fellow Christians on social media is itself a violation of everything that God is asserting in 1 Corinthians 6? If Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is outraged that the church would air its conflicts before a secular judge, how much more would he have been so at the thought of the church airing its conflicts before the watching world on an online forum!
When you are tempted to do so—when you are tempted to take your conflict with a brother or sister in Christ out of the church and into the lost world for all to see—could you not say to yourself and the person with whom you have the conflict, “Look, you and I do not see eye-to-eye on this matter. And we need resolution. But what we do agree with is this: us airing our grievances before people who need Jesus, before people that you and I are both tasked with leading to Jesus, is simply not worth it. This whole disagreement is not as important as a single soul. So however we resolve it, let us resolve it carefully and amongst ourselves and, if need be, with the assistance of other Christians.”
The cross must shape Christian conflict resolution.
Once we have this right understand about what is at stake in our conflicts, we are now prepared to accept an even hard truth. That is this: the cross must shape Christian conflict resolution. Consider what Paul says next:
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!
What on earth can this mean: “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”
Paul raises a fascinating question: would it be that bad if you simply chose to lose in this conflict? Why must you win at all?
In saying this, Paul is doing two things. First, he is simply repeating the kinds of things Jesus said. Consider, for instance, Matthew 5:
38 “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.
Yes, we have heard this before. We have heard it from Jesus Himself.
Why must we win? Why must we demand justice for ourselves? I struggle with this, personally, but there it is in all of its awkward but undeniable clarity. Must you get your way in this matter? Could you perhaps win something greater by being willing to lose something lesser? And could you not possibly win the person with whom you are conflicting if you would simply let them win the conflict at hand? John Chrysostom said to his congregation so many years ago:
If it were an evil thing to suffer injustice, God would not have told us to do it, for God does not enjoin what is evil…But someone will say, “It is a terrible thing to suffer wrong and be maltreated.” No, my friend, it is not terrible, not at all. How long will you be distressed about present things? God would not have commanded this if it were terrible. Consider this: the one who has committed injustice leaves the court with money but with a bad conscience, but the one who has suffered injustice, even if he is deprived of his money, has confidence before God, a possession more precious than countless treasures…
But it is not only that Paul is repeating the kind of thing Jesus Himself said; Paul is calling us to do what Jesus did! Did Christ not submit Himself to wrong—to an unjust sentence handed down by wicked men leading to a cross—so that we could be saved? Is Christ Jesus asking us to do something He did not Himself do? Surely He is not.
Could it be that in whatever conflict you are caught up in you are simply being called to carry your cross? Jesus, in Matthew 16, said:
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Yes, what a painful and needed word. Perhaps you simply need to deny yourself in the conflict in which you find yourself: your need to win, your need to be right, your need for justice. What if in being willing to “lose” you actually find something precious indeed: a renewed intimacy with and understanding of Christ crucified and risen? What if in being willing to walk the hard road of injustice you are able to say with John the Baptist, “I must decrease and He must increase?”
The cross of Christ must be planted in the very center of our relationships with each other, be they healthy or conflicted. We must seek to resolve our conflicts in the shadow of the cross. Only there can we find what we need to see, peace and unity restored.
 Mark Dever, Twelve Challenges Churches Face. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), p.57-58.
 Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background New Testament, New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.463.
 Gerald Bray, 1-2 Corinthians. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol. VII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p.50.
 Judith L. Kovacs, ed., 1 Corinthians. The Church’s Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p.95.