Out-of-Court: 1 Corinthians 6
I’ve struggled with sitting down to deal with 1 Corinthians 6. At present, there is a lawsuit pending against one of the mission boards of my denomination, and my first thought was that I would appear to be aiming specifically at that issue. Then it dawned on me: if we reserve speaking of challenging Scripture points for the times when they do not appear immediately relevant, what good are those points in Scripture? None at all. But this is like being a series preacher: I didn't pick the topic. It's just time for this text.
We continue on through 1 Corinthians, hitting chapter 6. This chapter addresses two major themes. The first is lawsuits and court challenges among believers. The second is sexual immorality and our responsibility about it. Given that the true Author of Scripture is the Lord God Almighty, it should not be a surprise that we continue to deal with both of these issues.
First, let us deal with the second issue. Paul reminds the Corinthians that forgiveness does not grant a license to do whatever they want. Just like the stomach is for food, but not all food is healthy, so every behavior that you can do does not equal a behavior that you should do. He specifically highlights participation in prostitution, though the wider contrast is important: if you are joined to the Lord Jesus, then you ought to glorify God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:20). It is in this passage that we find the oft-repeated “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” reference (sometimes poorly shortened to the body being a temple). Kept in context, that verse reminds us of keeping pure in heart as a temple is kept pure for its god. With the testimony of all Scripture, this is part of how we know that church buildings are helpful but optional—though gathering with the church is not!
Second, let us look at the lawsuit section. The opening 11 verses of this chapter address the church at Corinth over going to court (literally, “law”) with another. This tells us that we are not looking at victims of crime but at disputes between individuals. It is not likely that these were in-church arguments, as the church in Corinth was still somewhat on the margins of society. That is possible.
Paul tells the Corinthians, though, that it is not just a bad idea to use a secular court to solve their problems, it is shameful (v. 5) for Christians to ask the unrighteous to settle their disputes. It is bad enough (v. 7) to have disputes, but to ask the wicked to handle them? That is even worse.
Paul goes so far as to highlight that it is better to be wronged and cheated than to do this! He then segues, neatly, to a reminder of the fact that all of them were some kind of sinner before they became believers. And since they are all now justified by grace, they should show that more to one another.
Before we go further, we need to take an important note: Paul is not speaking of criminal actions. I have seen hints of pastors and churches attempting to suppress people who were victims of crime by appealing to this passage. I would suggest that neither Paul nor the Holy Spirit authored this passage with the intent that victims of sexual assault should let church boards determine if it really happened and what to do about it. In the modern American system, I would suggest this relates to the civil side of law rather than the criminal—if someone has committed a crime, then 1 Corinthians 6 is not a passage that is germane to the situation. When we see criminal actions slide into civil court, it gets a bit grayer, but there is still a justification to consider the court. If you are the victim of a crime, then utilize all the resources of the criminal justice system.
This passage, practically, reminds us of a critical reality: be careful who you ask to judge your issues. After all, you are submitting to their rules, their mindsets, their priorities. If our priority is to live like Jesus, then we should be working through our own disputes and seeking God-honoring people to help us with them. Specifically, why do we use the courts to settle when we think our fellow believers have done us some wrong? Consider the damage to our testimony of Christ.
I have seen (and won’t spend the time tracking down, though I should) lawsuits about who votes in church business meetings. Lawsuits attempting to fire or restore a pastor. Lawsuits over all sorts of trifling nonsense among believers. You know what good they do? None.
And taking a look back at 1 Corinthians 6:7, realize this: just because you are right does not mean your lawsuit is right. Paul asks why it is not better to be wronged than to bring shame on the body of Christ. It’s a valid question. It even applies to churches: sure, you terminated that person properly, but are the resources not better spent doing things other than defending the claims? Why not pay it off and let it go?
It hurts. It’s not pleasant. But God Himself said that He would equalize matters: vengeance is His, after all. (Romans 12:9) Trust God to make you whole.
What does it look like for the church to deal with these matters themselves? I don’t know for certain. I do know this: such a structure would need to envision the fallibility of all of us. There would need to be wisdom and prudence in who, how, and when such systems were used. And always stuffed with grace. That’s a great detail concept for some graduate student somewhere.