When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 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? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 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, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud — even your own brothers! – 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 ESV
It seems that the believers in Corinth were having a difficult time grasping the significance of their new status as members of the body of Christ. The concept of having been set apart to God and separated from the world had not yet sunk in. They were still thinking like Greeks and as citizens of Rome. Their mindset was more worldly than godly. This was not an uncommon problem in the early church. In fact, in his letter to Titus, Paul gave him a much-needed reminder:
…we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds. – Titus 2:12-14 NLT
Back in chapter three of this letter, Paul had reprimanded the Corinthians about their propensity to live their lives from a worldly perspective.
…you are still controlled by your sinful nature. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world? – 1 Corinthians 3:3 NLT
Whether or not Paul is laying down a hard-and-fast prohibition against Christians taking one another to court is not clear. But his point seems to be that the Corinthians are not approaching their problems from a spiritual perspective. First of all, the fact that they were having disputes among one another that would require legal action is unacceptable. This indicates that they were living in the flesh and not the Spirit. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gave a lengthy, but far from complete, list of sins associated with living according to our sin natures. In it he included sexual immorality, lustful pleasures, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, and division. Virtually any lawsuit or legal claim entails one or more of these “deeds of the flesh.” Which is what led Paul to say to them, “Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?” (1 Corinthians 6:7 NLT).
Paul’s primary concern seems to be the integrity of the body of Christ and the honor of God’s name. He is not making a sweeping accusation against the legal profession or courts of law. He simply desires that the believers in Corinth see their Christian faith as more than just a label. It was to become a way of life. It was to influence the way they lived their lives. Paul is also not naive enough to believe that disputes will never take place between believers. As long as we live in these earthly bodies, we will be prone to conflicts, even with fellow believers. But there is a proper way in which we are to settle our disputes. That is why Paul asks, “ Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues?” (1 Corinthians 6:5 NLT). For Paul, it made much more sense to settle disputes between believers within the family of God. It was a matter of common sense. How could ungodly judges know what is best when deciding a dispute between godly believers? What makes legal sense is not necessarily what God would have us do. The right legal decision and the right spiritual one are not always the same thing.
Remember that Paul said earlier in this very same letter, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent’” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19 NLT). The message of the cross is at the heart of Paul’s argument. The cross of Christ doesn’t just provide us with forgiveness from sin and escape from future condemnation. It provides us with the power to live godly lives in this world. It is a means of both positional and practical righteousness. And none of that makes sense to those living in the world. While a secular judge may determine that a believer who owes a debt to a brother must pay it in full or face the full penalty of the law, God may require that both the debt and the brother be forgiven. God’s ways are not our ways. And because, “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11 ESV), how can an unbelieving judge know what God’s will might be in a given situation.
Paul refers to the lawsuits they were filing as “trivial cases.” This does not mean that they were small matters or of little significance. Paul is simply saying that in the grand scheme of things, earthly disputes are nothing to worry about. We are to live with a future orientation, fully aware that our ultimate reward is in heaven, where we will sit as judges over the nations. We will rule and reign with Christ. And all disputes, large and small, will be settles once and for all. The greatest dispute being over the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ. Every one who has refused to acknowledge God and accept Christ as Savior will be judged. And yet, here were the Corinthians wasting time and energy disputing with one another over “trivial cases,” and taking one another to court to settle insignificant issues that have no eternal value.
We have been set apart by God. We have been given new natures. We have the Holy Spirit living within us and the Word of God to direct us. Our designation as Christians is to be more than just a label, it is to be a description of our lifestyle. We are to live like Christ. We are to love like Christ. We are to model Christ in all that we do. Christ was willing to suffer so that we might live. He was willing to endure unjust accusations and an undeserved death sentence so that we might be saved. As Isaiah so poignantly put it:
He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:7-8 NLT