Paul is indignant in 1 Corinthians 6 because someone in the church has brought a fight with another believer before a civil judge. He denounces:
Someone among you has a dispute and dares to be judged by an outsider, by the unrighteous and not by the saints? (1 Cor 6.1)What is Paul’s problem? Why is he so outraged at what would seem to be a fair and unbiased way to settle a dispute? Paul clearly believes that these disagreements should be settled in the church, but why?
Is it because he believes the judges in Corinth are corrupt? He does describe these judges as “unrighteous” (1 Cor 6.1), the same word to describe those who will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9). In support of this interpretation we know that civil suits in the ancient world were notoriously biased to the wealthy. Consider the words of a character from a popular novel in Paul’s day:
Of what avail are laws where money rules alone, and the poor suitor can never succeed? [. . .]. So a lawsuit is nothing more than a public auction, and the knightly juror who sits listening to the case gives his vote as he is paid. (Petronius, Satyricon 14)Is Paul angry with a system that favors the wealthy and oppresses the poor, a problem evident elsewhere in the letter (1 Cor 11.17-34)?
Surely Paul was unimpressed with the “justice system,” but nothing in the context of 1 Corinthians 6 indicates that the problem is the character of Corinthian judges. Rather, the problem is the character of the church. The church should settle its own disputes because the “saints will judge the world” and “angels.” With such significant roles in judgment, the saints should be more than competent to judge less important matters (1 Cor 6.2-3). Paul expects the church to be able to arbitrate disputes with the mind of Christ (1 Cor 1.14-16), but the Corinthians are not spiritual (1 Cor 3.1-3) as evidenced in their division.
Not only does Paul think the saints ought to be able to righteously judge, but they should prefer economic loss to fights in the church. Bringing a matter in the church before the “unrighteous” (meaning outsiders) is bad enough, but the division in the church is symptomatic of a deeper issue:
It is already a complete defeat for you that you have a lawsuit with one another. Why is it not better to suffer injustice? Why is it not better to be defrauded? Instead, you inflict injustice and defraud even your own brothers. (1 Cor 6.7-8)The character of a church that divides over financial gain is already “defeated.” This rare word for defeat, when it appears elsewhere as a verb, refers to a loss in battle (2 Macc 10.24; Isa 13.15) or the complete inability of armies to oppose God (Isa 19.1; 30.31; 54.17). The church that divides for the sake of personal gain is to live like the “unrighteous” who have no inheritance in God’s kingdom (1 Cor 6.8). This church does not understand what it means to be the church.
The idea of letting a dispute be settled by believers rather than a law court seems not only foreign to contemporary Christian ears in the west, but perhaps even wrong. What does that say about our identity?