This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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1When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2Or 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? 3Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!
“Grievance” translates a word that means “matter of contention, dispute, lawsuit.”1 Paul’s main charge in this passage is that believers who have legal disputes with fellow believers should settle those disputes before believers and not take them to the law court before unbelievers.
Paul does not specify clearly in this passage if he has one specific instance in mind or if he is responding to multiple cases. One hint that Paul might have a specific case in mind is that “one of you” could mean “a certain one of you.” But throughout the passage Paul directly addresses the church as a whole because the church is responsible. He refers to Christians and non-Christians in several ways.
Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.
It is unthinkable for Paul that Christians would take fellow Christians to court before non-Christians. One can better understand his reasoning when reading verses 1–11 in light of the historical-cultural context of Corinth:2
(1) The disputes Paul condemns regard civil law and not criminal law, because Paul calls them “a grievance” (1 Cor. 6:1), “trivial cases” (1 Cor. 6:2), “matters pertaining to this life” (1 Cor. 6:3), and “a dispute” (1 Cor. 6:5) and because they involve cheating and defrauding (1 Cor. 6:7–8). In general, criminal law is for punishing people who commit crimes that harm society (e.g., in first-century Corinth this would include violent offenses, treason, and embezzlement), while civil law is for resolving private disputes about money and possessions (e.g., inheritance, business dealings, property). Usually, when one person sues another in a civil case, he or she wants the court to require the other person to give the plaintiff money or property as payment. God ordained the governing authorities to enforce criminal law (cf. Rom. 13:1–5; 1 Pet. 2:13–14). What Paul condemns throughout this passage is one believer’s taking another to civil court.
(2) In the context of first-century Roman society, those who took others to court had high social rank. One who was socially inferior could not sue his superior (e.g., slave vs. master, client vs. patron, citizen vs. magistrate), and it was scandalous for a brother to sue a brother (whether brothers by blood or brothers by adoption). Instead, a person sued his social equal or inferior. It is easy to imagine a rich Corinthian Christian taking advantage of a poorer one in this way because in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 Paul rebukes the richer Christians for shaming the poorer ones (cf. James 2:6).
(3) Secular magistrates and jurists who handled first-century Roman civil litigation were notoriously corrupt. They accepted bribes and ruled in favor of friends and those with a higher social standing. Paul himself experienced this injustice: the governor Felix incarcerated Paul for two years because he was hoping Paul would bribe him (Acts 24:26–27). The whole judicial system favored the elite—those with the most power, influence, and wealth. The higher that one’s social status was, the higher his legal privilege. Paul thus uses a play on words when he calls secular magistrates “the unrighteous” (1 Cor. 6:1): they unjustly enforce the law and are wicked in God’s sight (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9–10).
(4) Civil litigation results in factionalism and rivalry, not unity. Opponents are bitter enemies. What often motivates civil litigation is not justice but retaliating one-upmanship — humiliating one’s adversary and proving oneself to be socially superior. Clients of a patron would be obligated to side with their patron if he was in a lawsuit, so if a patron who was a Christian with fellow church members as clients sued a fellow church member, his clients would feel obligated to side with him against that fellow church member. The problem would be even worse if a patron sued a fellow church member who was also a patron and if both patrons had clients in the church, because then the clients would feel obligated to side with their patron against the other patron and against that other patron’s clients.
Greater to the Lesser
Paul gives a reason for verse 1 by arguing from the greater to the lesser. For example, since Tom can pick up a 100-pound table, then he is strong enough to pick up a little plastic cup. Similarly, since Christians “will judge the world,” then (i.e., Paul draws an inference) Christians should be competent to judge relatively trivial cases between believers now.
Paul ended the previous section by asserting that Christians must judge fellow church members but not the world (1 Cor. 5:9–13). Here he says that Christians will judge the world. So this must refer to judging alongside Christ at the final judgment (cf. Dan. 7:22; Matt. 19:28; Rev. 20:4).
Paul gives a second reason for verse 1 by again arguing from the greater to the lesser. Since Christians will judge matters pertaining to the next life, then Christians should be competent to judge matters pertaining to this life right now.
Paul’s logic is sufficiently clear, but it is not as transparent what “we are to judge angels” means. God has already judged fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6), and he has prepared “the eternal fire . . . for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). This passage suggests that God’s people will judge fallen angels at the final judgment alongside Christ (similar to how they will judge the world in 1 Cor. 6:2).
Now Paul follows an inference of verses 2–3 that essentially restates the main charge of verse 1. Christians should not lay before unbelievers their relatively trivial legal cases about matters pertaining to this life.
“Those who have no standing” accurately translates the sense of a participle that more formally reads “those who are disdained” (cf. BDAG, s.v. ἐξουθενέω). Believers disdain the worldly values of unbelievers, so why would believers lay their legal cases against each other before people who have no standing in the church?
Verse 5a offers a reason for verse 4: taking a fellow believer to court before an unbeliever is shameful. Paul previously wrote that he was confronting the Corinthians not to shame them but to admonish them like a father would his dear children (1 Cor. 4:14). Not this time: they should be ashamed for bringing lawsuits against each other. Paul uses extremely strong language in an honor/shame culture.3
The second sentence (1 Cor. 6:5b–6) sarcastically expresses incredulity at bringing lawsuits before nonbelievers (v. 4) by alluding to the wisdom motif that recurs throughout 1 Corinthians 1:10–4:21 (esp. 1 Cor. 1:18–2:16; 1 Cor. 3:18–23; 1 Cor. 4:6–13). He says in effect, “How is it possible that people who think they are so wise [cf. 1 Cor. 3:18] do not have enough wisdom to handle a mere squabble in the church family between two brothers? Why is it that such wise people have to resort to taking the matter before unbelievers?
The goal is not merely to resolve disputes by serving justice but to reconcile broken relationships.
Paul makes most of his arguments in this passage by asking piercing rhetorical questions, but he begins verse 7 with a direct rebuke. He basically says, “When you take a fellow believer to court with a civil lawsuit, your goal is to win. But whether you win or lose the case, the church always loses because the church did not settle the case. Instead of having civil lawsuits, it would be better for you to be defrauded, but instead you are greedily and spitefully defrauding others—and not just anybody but your own brothers!”
“You . . . wrong” translates the Greek word adikeō, which is related to the adjective adikos, translated in verses 1 and 9 as “the unrighteous.” The implication is that the Corinthians were acting like the unrighteous, even though God had already declared the Corinthians to be righteous (i.e., justified: dikaioō, 1 Cor. 6:11).
Local Church, You Are Responsible to Deal with Private Disputes Between Members
Throughout this passage (as in 1 Cor. 5) Paul addresses the church collectively. He holds the church responsible for allowing fellow members to disgrace the name of Christ before the world by bringing petty, unity-destroying civil lawsuits before unjust judges. Not every individual believer is equipped to handle legal disputes, but a church should be able to deal with them (1 Cor. 6:5). If an individual church member has a private legal dispute with a fellow church member, that person’s first instinct should be to resolve the dispute privately. If necessary, he may resolve it with godly, mature church members as mediators or arbiters (cf. Matt. 18:15–20).4 The goal is not merely to resolve disputes by serving justice but to reconcile broken relationships.
Fellow Church Members Should Settle Private Legal Disputes as a General Principle
This is a general principle because the legal system in any one culture may differ significantly from the Roman legal system in Corinth (cf. comment on 1 Cor. 6:1). It is important for Christians to understand this historical-cultural context before applying this passage to a different culture two thousand years later. Paul specifically addresses (1) private disputes regarding money or property (2) between fellow believers who are members of the same church (3) in a first-century Roman context in which the social elite bring cases before corrupt magistrates. The further removed a contemporary situation is from what Paul addresses, the more it becomes a wisdom issue in which not all the particulars of this passage carry over directly.5
Consequently, this passage does not require a church to handle crimes internally that church members may commit against each other, such as murder or sexually abusing a child. On the contrary, in contexts such as America, the church must immediately inform the state’s authorities.6
- Bauer, W., F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999., s.v. πρᾶγμα, italics original.
- See Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 58–75; Clarke, Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth?, 59–7
- Cf. Mark T. Finney, Honour and Conflict in the Ancient World: 1 Corinthians in Its Greco-Roman Social Setting, LNTS 460 (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 17–48, 121–126.
- Churches would be wise to require church members to agree to specific relational commitments when they join. Peacemaker Ministries has prepared relational commitments that churches may adapt and adopt. See https://peacemaker.training
- E.g., it may be unclear whether an individual is a Christian; a wife might request a domestic abuse or harassment restraining order to protect herself and children; a spouse might seek to divorce (with a biblical ground; cf. comments on 7:10–16); the issue might involve a corporate business that a Christian leads.
- See Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), esp. 53–56, 279–286.
This article is by Andy David Naselli and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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