1 Corinthians 6:1-8 – Lawsuits Among Brothers

There appear to have been problems with Christians within the church suing each other in a court of law rather than dealing with the matter “within the family” (6:1-8).  We are not told what the content of the lawsuits might be, but it is possible that these are lawsuits the results of perceived insults by members of the “parties” within the church.  Perhaps a member of the Paul group insulted a member of the Peter group, who responded as any good Roman would by making a lawsuit against the offender.  Imagine a typical argument in a classroom which spills over into Facebook insults which then results in a lawsuit, a counter lawsuit, and a major clash in a court of law.  really, imagine that.

As strange as it sounds, this is the sort of thing which happened in the Roman world.  Dio Chrysostom reports that the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments.” (Cited by Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 62). These lawsuits were politically motivated, between members of the rich and elite class (or want-to-be elite.)  These lawsuits were opportunity for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens (the judge, magistrate, jurors, etc.)

Paul’s solution to the problem is to “shame” them for suing their brothers.  Shame is an important factor in first century personal politics.  Paul says twice in this letter that he desires to put the church to shame over some behaviors (here and drunkenness in chapter 11.)  If the lawsuits were motivated by a perceived loss of honor in the first place, Paul turns a popular expectation upside down by saying that it is a loss of honor for a Christian to take his brother to court.

This therefore is the “shame”:  they are suing family members.  Paul frequently refers to his readers as “brothers” to emphasize that the Church is a new family rather than a social club.  A person is not suing some stranger who has insulted them, they are suing brothers.  The Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits, therefore Paul is emphasizing brotherhood of the believers.

Paul does not recommend going through a private arbitrator to solve disputes, as was the right of citizens.  He says that they church ought to be able to deal with such disputes within the family. There are people within the congregation, presumably, that are styling themselves as orators, and all of the citizens would be familiar with the process of arbitration.  Paul is saying that the church ought to function like a family, brothers dealing with one another with “strife and discord.”

In fact, of one were really living out the teaching of Jesus there would be no need to sue over a perceived insult.  The brother forgives his brother.  Given the cultural background above, this is counter-cultural and radical!

How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context?  At the very least, the church needs to return to the truth than all members of the Body of Christ are brothers and that it is a loss of honor to treat a family member like a stranger.  This alone would have a positive effect on the local church.

17 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 6:1-8 – Lawsuits Among Brothers

  1. I think that people in the church today can get on board with Paul’s preaching of unity in principle. But there is a problem with people taking it as seriously as Paul took it, especially in the USA. Our culture is too individualistic. We aren’t taught to care about family and honor the way that other cultures were and are. We want what we can get for ourselves and we’ll get it whatever way we can. We don’t use the term “honor” anymore. We prefer to push morality into grey areas and leave behind the black and white honor system. Look at the church today. I think we could learn a lesson from the Klingons about honor.

    As for the problems in the church today, it seems to me that one of the biggest legal problems is money. There seems to be a big problem with people within the church stealing from the church or from each. I’ve heard of churches that have been forced to put safeguards in place when handling the offering. Two people have to count the money and place in safe and other such measures. Its a terrible insult to the integrity of the body that we have to be so careful within the church itself.

    • I disagree with you. People in the church today need to get on board with Paul’s preaching of unity. Individualism is one of the biggest hindrances of this, but the USA is by no means an exceptional example. Perhaps it is a difference in where we grew up, but I and most everyone around me was raised to care about family and honor (or integrity). While individualism does exist in the USA it is not as bad as you make it out to be. Generally, people do not do whatever it takes to get what they want. They typical American has enough decency and integrity or honor not to be stealing church funds or taking things that are not theirs. If they do they are usually punished by the law and looked down upon. Yes the USA does have some exceptionally individualistic people but the majority are not anymore individualistic than most of the world. Also I’m not so sure the honor system is as black and white as you imply. Morality and ethics are never quite that straight forward.

      Now for the real question, “How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context?” I think it could directly apply. Do not use the legal system for disputes, rather settle issues inside the Church among brothers. It seems simple, but would be radically counter to our culture. It would definitely present an enigmatic and impressive witness to the culture and those outside the local Church. Even just returning to recognizing our fellow Christians as brothers and sisters would make an enormous impact.

  2. In today’s culture and context, I don’t believe that the direct application of these teachings are super relevant simply because the issue of lawsuits within the Body is not as prevalent or shocking. Rather, it’s the spirit of these teachings that need to be conveyed most to us. This concept of working through issues in the Church between those involved could definitely change the face of the Body. Polhill says, “…the very fact of disputes was an admission of failure in the fellowship. In an atmosphere of genuine Christian love and selflessness, there should be no occasion for one member to bring legal action against another.” (240) What this all really boils down to is the depth of unity within the Body. If we all took into account the fact that we’re all sinners saved by grace and that we are nothing without Christ then our drama would minimize drastically. If we took it a step further and remembered that it’s not actually about us, but did as Philippians 2:3 instructs (doing nothing out of rivalry and conceit, but though humility esteeming others better than ourselves) than the issues that are generally of greater dispute would be left in the dust of our brotherly love.

  3. You would think that after two thousand years of the existence of the church, we would have been able to smooth over this problem and it would be something that we talk about as a bygone. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do this and so we are stuck with having to deal with this issue. It’s appears that the church in Corinth already forgot about Jesus’ teachings on conflict resolution in Matthew 18. I admit, they might not have had the actual writings of the passage but most certainly they would have heard it through the oral traditions. Even today, we forget or choose to ignore this very simple yet effective method. All this to say, believers were suing each other in public court. According to Polhill, “The Roman courts were often anything but “just”, notorious for bribery, differential towards the privileged classes” (Polhill 240). It wouldn’t be outrageous to assume that the believers would attempt to bribe the magistrates for a favorable ruling. Paul is trying to discourage this by explaining to them just what kind of poor example they are making to unbelievers. He even has a thinly veiled (not even… he is very blatant about it) insult pointed to the church leadership when he says “I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (1 Cor. 6:5). Paul is very clear: resolve your petty arguments among yourselves and don’t involve the secular world to resolve them! Words that we as modern Christians need to hear but often fall on deaf ears…

  4. To even put the passage of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 into the context of today seems foreign. First of all, as someone else already commented, we are an individualistic society that is obsessed with placing blame on someone else. We can see this today in the nature of the lawsuits that are being filed on a regular basis. Secondly, Paul is writing this passage to the church in Corinth but they were more than that. They were a community of people who ate together, worshiped together, and functioned as a separate culture within the greater Roman Empire. They were deeply involved in one another’s lives on a level that we know little of in our western context. I do not believe that the churches we attend on Sunday mornings function this way. I am not saying this is right I am just observing the way things seem. Because of that, suing someone within your own church carried many more ramifications than it would today. Back then it would have been a huge disruption and so Paul felt the need to address it. If it happened in today’s church the people involved would probably just quit talking to one another, and it would be kept quiet among the rest of the congregation.

    • Scott – it may sound foreign, but I can think of several very real situations where believers had serious legal disputes that ended up in the courts. They were not petty insults, but broken contractual obligations. When asked, should a Christian sue another Christian, this is the text that must be consulted and applied! Very few people would accept the decision of a church board on a legal matter, but until very recently in history, that is the way legal matters were decided for Christians.

  5. I would dare say that this is a relevant passage of today. We just don’t hear about it as much as it actually happens. Here in West Michigan it may not be as prevalent, but that does not mean that it still doesn’t happen. Whether it happens a few times or a lot there is still a need to address it. Paul says not to bring up a lawsuit against a brother. People go to court all the time to settle disputes, believer against believer, believer against unbeliever, unbeliever against believer, and so on. Paul says as a believer do not do it. He goes as far to say that you have wronged each other. He says “But you yourselves wrong and defraud ever your own brother (1 Corinthians 6:8)!” It is another one of those social norms that Paul talks about like going to the banquets. People had lawsuits against believers just as we have lawsuits against believers today. Polhill says “…the very fact of such disputes was an admission of failure in the fellowship (Polhill 240)”. Fellowship is such a big part of our faith, and to throw that away and admit that we cannot even get along among ourselves is a shame. It happens everyday though. This is why I feel that Paul’s words still ring true just as they did in the past when he wrote it.

  6. This topic is particularly close to home in that my family had a dispute in our church (5 years ago). And being that my dad is a pastor it was really close to our entire church. One of my family members was really opposed to everything that my dad was doing for the church, and this family member would undermine and argue everything my dad did. They even talked to members of the congregation trying to get them to go against my dad too. After my church moved buildings this person made their whole family stop coming to my church, and we barely ever see them now. While this was all kept quiet in front of the whole congregation, the people the person contacted still knew. I really respect my dad for not bringing it in front of the whole church. Even to this day my dad has kept it quiet and tried to not bring it up in front of people which can often be really difficult. I think my dad and my family have done a really good job following Paul’s teaching here, especially considering that my family is, in a sense, the center of the church.

  7. When a Church is faced any issue it is hard to come to any sort of agreement without a personal attack or without the threat of disowning their brothers or sisters forever. At least that shows that the involved people really care. But, is it true concern over the issues and how it affects the spread of the gospel or is it pride? First off many Churches aren’t really that unified, sure they all can do all the get togethers they want but, there just isn’t that feeling of unity unless someone dies or something to that effect. Maybe that is why I like being a part of small churches. But, we will save that for another post.Tying this thought back to a previous week’s post I wonder how churches that actually deal with persecution deal with internal arguments. There has to be arguments but, would they even have arguments that are similar to the ones going right now in the churches of the Western world. If they did I am sure they would not even think about dealing with the local government as the Corinthian Church did, to settle the dispute because it would be the end their Church. This is the shame we need to feel in the context of churches in the Western world.

  8. It is a terrible thing that Christians feel the need to resolve conflict in such a way as to get the government involved and to go to the courts. For one thing we are talking about two different cultures. There is the court culture which is primarily pagan and there is the Christian culture. When you put yourself before a pagan judge to help you with a dispute many of the Christian values may be at stake. 1 Cor. 6:4 says it better than I could but this is unacceptable. I think that Paul was right to shame them. He also called them to think of the Church as a family. For many in America the family unit is a very close bond between one another. However, I think that for many it can also not seem like too big of a deal. As Cody said, America is very individualistic. Marriages often are not held sacred and are broken, family are torn, and many in this culture do sue one another especially for financial reasons. It is very sad. I think it would be amazing if we could have a very redeemed view of family and of our roles within the church reflected that. Not only within our individual bodies but also if the Body could reach out to the other churches and become more unified and loving to one another I think that that would be a great testimony on our part to the rest of the world.

  9. In today’s culture, the answer to conflict between people is division. There are many churches that encounter division between groups of people and the solution is to divide into two churches. Even at Grace, I hear occasionally about two people who dislike each other because of a trivial matter. What is lacking here? Forgiveness, as P. Long said. Forgiveness is an obvious must in the Scriptures. Matthew 6:14-15 stresses the importance of forgiving others as God has forgiven us. So how have we forgotten this principle that is so obvious in Scripture? First off, the existence of such division is a failure to start with. “In an atmosphere of genuine Christian love and selflessness, there should be no occasion for one member to bring legal action against another” (240). Of course I realize that disputes will arise with different people, personalities, and values. But where we go wrong is how those disputes turn personal. Instead of simply disagreeing with each other, people attack the person who disagrees with them. That should not happen. Even in instances where one person harms another person, we take it so personal that we cannot forgive. Just imagine if God did that! God forgives out of love, and so should we, especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

  10. I liked how Jason brought up the issue of what a poor example the lawsuits were to those unsaved yet. I think that is a huge issue hidden within this passage of scripture. Polhill says, “if the Christian community had its own standard of holiness, it follows that the worldly, secular judgment is not the domain for the Christians” (Polhill 239). The Christians of Corinth were not “putting off the old self” (Colossians 3:9), but rather they were constantly succumbing to their old ways, and succumbing to laws of the world instead of the Laws of God. Paul urges the Corinthians to remember that they were “washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor 6:11), and that the lawsuits should not be taken up – especially before those “who have no standing in the church” (I Cor 6:4). The Corinthians were falling prey to the ways of the world, and Paul continued to remind that that they were not only supposed to be examples of Christ to the world, but also that they were to be brothers – all part of the family of Christ. This is applicable even today, the church needs to remember that we are not only an example to the lost, but also that we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

  11. Unity seems to be quite a prevalent theme in most of Paul’s letters. We certainly see it in Philippians, and also in Galatians and Ephesians (and others as well), usually concerning how to deal with false teachers. Here in 1 Corinthians, we see it in terms of disputes among the members of the church, and the ensuing lawsuits. If, as P. Long says, “the Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits,” then Paul was indeed quite clever in characterizing the members of the church as “brothers,” saying: “But you yourselves wrong and defraud – even your own brothers!” (6:8). A family should be unified! Not suing each other and creating fractions among themselves! Paul goes on to ask that since they have already been washed clean of their sins and forgiven by God Himself, why can’t they forgive their own brothers in Christ?
    How do modern day Christians “bridge the gap” in this context? I think we need to ask ourselves the same question Paul asks the Corinthians. If we have already been washed clean of our sins and have been forgiven by God Himself, why can’t we forgive our own family in Christ? When a healthy family has conflict, they do their best to work it out on their own. If that doesn’t work, they go to the head of the household (usually the father), and things will eventually return to relative peace. In the same way, when conflicts arise in the church, we must do our best to prayerfully reconcile. If that doesn’t work, we must go to the pastor with the problem.
    (However, because of the nature of problems such as abuse, monetary fraud, murder, or any of the more major crimes, it is the legal duty of the church to turn such matters over to the nation’s government. I don’t believe Paul would have a problem with this. His focus in this section was mostly towards minor insults and disputes. Just thought I should clarify…)

  12. I do not think it should be difficult for us as Christians to bridge this gap. That being said, we have definitely made it difficult. It would be interesting if we could emulate the Jewish church in the way Polhill talks about it. He says, “In the Jewish theocracy, there was no separation between sacred and secular courts, and Paul implied that the same should pertain in the Christian community” (Polhill 240). I wish that it could be this way in the United States. I think that disputes would be settled much more smoothly if this were the case. If Christians truly loved each other like Jesus told us to we would not have these issues in the first place. In John 13:34 Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Polhill says, “Ideally, Christians would completely forebear, having no disputes with one another and turning the other cheek when wronged” (Polhill 240). I think the key word here is “ideally.”

  13. Oh man, this sort of thing, in a smaller context, goes on at churches all over, even at GBC. People don’t want to talk it out with people one on one about their conflicts and problems. Instead they go blabbing to other people and make a big deal out of things. As Paul says, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (1 Corinthians 6:7) It’s better to forgive, because “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 2:8). We should follow the example given in the gospels, where Jesus talks about first going to the person directly when we have a conflict; then if needed, bring one or two witnesses; then finally if needed, bring it before the church. Don’t make step three into step one.

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