Lawsuits in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

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.

Frivolous LawsuitAs 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.”

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.

14 thoughts on “Lawsuits in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

  1. It seems to me that the modern believer should have no trouble pulling application from this passage. Although lawsuits may be fairly rare in our churches, arguments certainly are not. We are inherently selfish individuals, and as such we are bound to have disagreements. We can, however, look to this passage for insight on how social interaction between believers should look. Paul tells the Corinthians that if their disputes require legal action to resolve then they have already lost (1 Cor 6:7a). Petty disagreements among believers that are left unresolved can damage both the unity of the Church and the respectability of Christianity in the eyes of unbelievers. Our natural tendency may be to defend our own position, but we have to ask ourselves what we are willing to sacrifice in order to be right. Even if the other Christian is clearly in the wrong is it not better to be taken advantage of than to damage the cause of Christ? Paul seems to think so (1 Cor 6:7b). We are called to be imitators of Christ who “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

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  2. In today’s world there are lots of people that only look out for themselves and no one else. Whatever is better for them is a great way, even if it is to short someone out. If someone has a close knit family, then they will sometimes look out for them as well, but not always just watch Judge Judy and you’ll see. Paul even warns us in 2 Timothy 3:2-4 “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” and it has come true. But for a church to be qualified as family is something a lot of people struggle with. We will pray for them, and make sure that they are safe and if they are in need to help them, but every once and a while if someone sees an opening to help themselves or to make something better for themselves they are going to go for it, even if it does hurt one of their church family. Paul tells us he doesn’t want us to be like that. He tells us later on in 1 Corinthians 10:24 “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” It is so hard for us in today’s world to be a close knit family in a household family, let alone in a church family.

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  3. Growing up in the eastern side of the world and now living in Grand Rapids I can see how different cultures produce different churches. For instance, in Congo I knew everyone in my church, granted, our church was made up of only a few hundred. It was very community based with most church members treating one another like family. Of course there were flaws in the system. For example, some modern American churches are able to reach thousands of people as opposed to hundreds simply because of more resources and capabilities to do so. However, we have then lost the closeness of treating fellow church members like family and we resume our love of individualism that is so prevalent within the culture. As P.Long states above, “Paul frequently refers to his readers as ‘brothers’ to emphasize that the church is a new family rather than a social club.” This is something that we need to regain in the modern world today. As we begin to think of others as family members it seems that the church will greatly benefit as we begin to view each other as Christ views us; priceless and loved.

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  4. This post reminds me much of my own family. There is much fighting in my family, which has resulted in lawsuits and estrangement from one another. Firsthand experience here, when arguments get heated, unresolved and escalated it becomes very ugly, very fast. Paul stating that Christians should not sue one another seems to be common sense. However, there are many people in the world, then and now, who lack common sense. The topic of conflict management has become a huge phenomenon in the last twenty years. The ancient world conflict management was not a concept in all, except within the teachings of the early church. Authority and honor were the main priority in Roman culture, which is why the people in the church were so quick to sue one another than think about working the situation out among themselves. Paul stresses the fact that since Christians are redeemed and forgiven through the blood of Jesus, that Christians have no right in trying to assert their own authority over one another through the court system (Longenecker). Paul’s teachings are founded on and within the teachings of Jesus. Jesus showed mercy, forgiveness and service in his ministry, which we as Christians are called to imitate these teachings. Rather than taking one another to court, Christians should try to work out the disagreement themselves (here is our conflict management coming into play). Jesus was the inventor of conflict management, as he states in Matthew 18 that brothers should confront one another, if there is no resolution bring in a few members, then the church and finally kicking this member out of the congregation as consequence. Paul is stating just the same here in his passages in 1 Corinthians. It is always important to remember Grace and extend forgiveness to one another, just as God has done for us. However, it is important that these issues resolve themselves, so they do not divide the church and cause strife between members. Paul shows that taking another brother to court is an issue of pride (Longenecker), where neither of them are willing to swallow their pride, become humble and attempt to create community and healthy relationships with one another. One of the biggest applications to this passage to the modern church is the fact that the church members should not fight with one another. In the chance that they do, they should work together to solve this strife, remaining humble and showing Christ through the entire situation.

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  5. To go off of your question P. Long, How can we bridge the gap and apply this teaching in a modern local Church context? People get defensive and maybe even bitter to where they want some sort of “revenge” or want the other person to pay for what they did. They see a need for punishment and want to take that punishment into their own assertions and doings. There is a thing that Christians can do through Christ which is forgive others and leave the feeling of being walked on like a door mat, which would show and witness God’s kindness to the other Christian. Paul says in 1 Cor. 6:7, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded”? Why not just let it happen? Going along with that, “For Paul, if Christians seek compensation for perceived wrongs done by other Christians, they are in danger of compromising the missionary witness of Christian communities” (TTP, p.121). Let’s say a man’s friend steals something from his home and the man decides to take his friend to court for theft, he misses out on the opportunity to witness to his friend by showing him forgiveness and kindness and for those on the outside watching it happen. Especially when both are Christian brothers. It seems to be the gap to bridge is to practice forgiveness to fellow believers instead of take them to court.

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  6. The first thing that came to my mind, is the fact that today in Grand Rapids, as well as other large cities in America, have so many large churches, that it is definitely possible that one churchgoer would make a lawsuit against someone else in the church and not even realize they go to the same church. Just this morning I found out that the receptionist at my internship goes to the same church as me, and we have been both going for 2 1/2 years. Besides that, you point out that this was an issue of shame and loss of honor for the Corinthians. Today we still have the choice to treat others with respect and honor, even if we have differences. Paul’s claim applies in this way as disagreements within churches because people are prideful and have stubborn hearts have to lead to church splits and hurt Christians. Paul states that it would be better for them to be defrauded than to make lawsuits against each other. He also categorizes these people with the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, those who are greedy, drunks, revilers, and swindlers. He reminds them that these are the ones that deserve Hell, but THEY are different because they have been washed. sanctified, and justified by the Holy Spirit (6:9-11). If we too are washed, sanctified and justified, we should know that holding grudges, prejudging, and starting unhealthy disagreements are not worth the strife and brokeness they bring into a church.

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  7. While members in the Church today are not suing each other over trivial issues, I agree that members of the modern church need to remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. One major difference between churches then and churches today however is the size. While it’s unknown what the exact size was, Churches in Corinth were small enough to gather in people’s homes (1 Cor. 16:19). In contrast, I attend Central Wesleyan Church in Holland and our campus alone has an attendance of roughly 2,600 per week with our network having upwards of 4,000 people weekly. It would be nearly impossible for me to meet everyone involved with my Church and some members will always be “strangers.” Throughout many of Paul’s letters, he reiterates the idea that we are all brothers and sisters and connected through Christ (1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Cor 12:26; Rom 12:5; Gal 3:28; Phil 4:1), and despite our relationship with each other, we share a common denominator of Christ which connects us on a deeper level than anything else in this world can. Even though the church will always be full of strangers in the cultural sense of the word, we are family through our unity in Christ. Having this mindset can revolutionize the way the church treats each other as family members typically have a higher level of love, respect, and kindness for each other. Even family members who struggle to get along typically work things out because the majority of our world understands that there is an importance in family and a lasting love despite the challenges. If a church could learn to operate like this, I believe that there would be more loyalty, more compassion, and a closer bond that would hold stronger against the difficulties that the world brings.

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  8. One thing that may be interesting to note is that the Church at Corinth was likely not very large. One evidence for this is that according to Romans 16:23, Gaius, one of the believers, was evidently able to host the entire Corinthian Church in his home. The last thing that a small group of believers needs is to have the problem of suing each other. Not only would this cause division (or at least extra stresses) among the believers, but it is also a terrible witness toward the unbelievers who are judging the case and who would have been listening in on it. Because of this, Paul makes the extreme claim that if the believers were unable to handle their issues among themselves (which they certainly should have been able to), that it would have been better for them to have been wronged than to maintain their honor. This would logically have been even more challenging for the wealthier, more elite members of the Church in Corinth to follow who may have worried more about saving face (Christians like Gaius). Regardless, however, this is how Paul argues that believers aught to since we are now washed, sanctified, and justified in Jesus (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

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  9. People in the ancient Greco-Roman world was very conscious of how their actions would be perceived by others. They always sought to improve their standing in the community and avoided any actions that might bring shame to the family. Paul uses this knowledge in his letter to the Corinthians. In several places, he implies that certain activities were shameful. First, he severely rebukes their treatment of the man who was having an affair with his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5:5). Up to this point, the Corinthians were proud of their association with him (TTP, 122). Second, when Paul addresses the lawsuits in chapter 6 he says that he wants to shame them for their behavior (1 Corinthians 6:5). Believers were taking each other to court possibly because they viewed their honor was at stake. However, Paul argues that because of their position in Christ they should not follow the culture’s definition of honor (TTP, 120). Third, honor and status seem to be the primary motivators of those who were misusing the Lord’s Supper (TTP, 126). Paul says that those who were overeating were “humiliating those who have nothing” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Those that were eating did not consider the needs of their fellow believers. These are only three examples of how Paul uses the honor and shame culture to make his point.

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  10. If a Christian brings a lawsuit against another believer it is usually because of one of three reasons: 1: they are not truly a believer. 1 John 2:9: “Those who say they are in the light but hate other believers are still in the dark”. Matthew 15:8: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. 2: they are not a person of peace. Luke 10:6: “If a man of peace is there, it will rest on him, but if not, it will return to you. And 3rd: they may be a believer, but have an evil, quarrelsome or condemning spirit. 2 Timothy 2:24-26: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will”. If a believer offends or hurts another brother or sister, either intentionally or unintentionally, out of true love for Christ and the hurt one they both ask for forgivness, and find a way to make amends and/or restore what was lost. As for the hurt one, out of true love for Christ they would accept the offenders ask for forgiveness, and in this ideal hypothetical scenario, all lawsuits would be avoid between believers. However, we know that this never has been and never will be the case. But yet, it provides for us a model of what forgiveness and repentance should ook like in the area of lawsuits against one another.

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  11. There are so many people that struggle with the concept of forgiveness. Even I have had my fair share of holding onto grudges until it hurts. Right now, for my Formation and Service class we are reading a book called, The Bait Of Satan. In the first chapter of the book the first thing the author addresses is how people often act out when they are offended. Our pride is the main thing that gets in the way of truth and healing. When people offend us then in our heads once we become the victims then any action made towards them by us instantly become validated. This is one of the many ways that a bad cycle begins to create. A problem like this does not only affect the parties involved, but also those closest to them. People begin to lose trust and carry resentment in their hearts that only weighs them down. God did not create us to harbor such feelings inside. One reason why is because, it blocks us from reaching our true potential in growing our relationship with Christ. We are called to forgive others and that is because God chose to forgive us first. If the creator of everything can do this then who are we not to do the same? This is a gift that is called grace. Even though in our eyes someone may be undeserving we must administer it anyway. God gives us grace every single day and we need to learn how to pass along this gift. This way we can heal from anything holding us back and each party can continue to go on in life.

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  12. While I have never seen a lawsuit filed by a church member against another due to loss of honor and motivated by status and greed, I have witnessed plenty of conflict erupt and worsen because it is not resolved in a healthy manner. Additionally, there are very few people that I have seen treat their fellow congregation members as family. One of the best examples of brotherly love among a congregation was when I visited Puerto Rico directly following hurricane Maria. There was massive devastation; most people going without adequate food, water, and electricity. Despite the hardship many members of the congregation were facing, we as a team were greeted with an incredible amount of warmth and love from this church – it was unlike anything I’ve witnessed or felt within the United States; quite frankly, it would put our “brotherly love” to shame. I believe the Bible calls us to resolve issues among ourselves and gives us a model to do it. In this way, I believe we can relate to the Corinthians in their struggles because we, as modern-day Christians, also struggle to resolve conflict.
    The Corinthian believers were very accustomed to taking fellow church members to court, fueled by an endless pool of motivations. However, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, Paul outlines how they should not be taking each other to court, describing how it was shameful to those taking out lawsuits to file one against a fellow believer. While looking at the issue from this angle, it could be slightly more difficult to apply to a current-day situation. However, Longenecker describes how this type of behavior could affect the “missionary witness of Christin communities” (Longenecker & Still, 2014). In the same way, our behavior today can be seen by others outside of our churches and on social media and can damage our testimony to those around us. The primary example I can think of is gossip, avoidance of conflict, and lack of communication when someone is offended. While we are given a very specific outline of how to resolve these types of conflicts as found in Matthew 18. We are called to go first to the person who has offended us, and if not resolved, gradually introduce more members of the church to the situation. In doing this, we can resolve it with proper communication, and include multiple perspectives. However, when gossip involved and the Biblical model is not followed, those who are seen gossiping or venting on Facebook can damage the respect that others have for them while also damaging the perception that those witnessing their behavior have for Christians and Christianity in general. In summation, I believe that this passage can be used to warn Christians of not only the importance of handling conflict in a respectful and Biblical way, but also that their actions are being watched by those around them and they should act in a way that does not damage the perception that others have of Christianity.

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  13. I think bridging this gap in today’s church comes down to the fundamentals of respect and treating people how you wanna be treated. Today’s church is not much different from the church in ancient Corinth. The church today has some of the same cultural barriers and norms that continue to create disagreements within the church. Just like in a household, disagreements arise and they often can get heated. Living in a household of 8 can be tough because everybody has established a routine or method on how they go about their day. Their routine or methods might not align with other members in the house and that is when problems come about. Although problems arise in the house they are quickly squashed by my mother’s love for us. She reminds of that we are all members of this house and must learn to live with one another. This same principle could be applied in the church because we are all members of the body of Christ and live under his roof, so we have to abide by his conditions. Sometimes this requires accepting someone’s wrongful actions and moving on. Just as Longenecker explains Paul’s proposal towards the cultural debates was to accept being wronged and accept being cheating at times (Long, 121). Accepting the wrong being done to you and being the bigger man is often required in a family in order to keep things from escalating. Learning how to take it on the chin and moving along could benefit someone in multiple areas of their life.

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  14. This situation in first corinthians throws me off, considering how immature this all seems. People jumping right to the law over personal issues just to be able to speak and show their skill in communicating. I’m sure there’s more to than that, but that’s what I have perceived from this section Paul has to address. As Christians, how do we bridge the gap to the modern church and help them come back to brotherly love in the church?
    I don’t feel the church today has issues with bringing family issues to the law as they did in Corinth. But the church seems to forget what Jesus said in Matthew 18:15-17. This passage deals with confronting sin in the church or against your brother. The first step is to call out their sin for what it is in love, if they don’t listen, bring another friend to back you up. Jesus goes even further to say that if they don’t listen, bring it to the church and if they still don’t listen, treat them as a pagan or tax collector. That might be too far, but they refused to listen. The people of Corinth jump right to the law instead of confronting first. As Christians, we need to love first and seek reconciliation and work on these relationships with forgiveness.

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