Going To Court With Brethren



   The plan of this series of three studies is as follows: In this first section, I shall set forth some observations on the meaning of 1 Cor 6:1-8. In the second section, comments will be made on verses one through three. In the third section, I shall complete the commentary with notes on verses four through eight.

   A position commonly taken on this passage is that which holds that this constitutes a prohibition against a Christian suing another Christian in a civil court. But if this is the teaching of Paul, then we must ask why he would make such a prohibition. Various reasons are given for this teaching, that I shall now consider.

   It is said by some that a Christian should not go to law against his brother in a civil court, because it would be difficult to obtain justice in such a court. But why should it be more difficult for a Christian to obtain justice in a case against a brother than for him to obtain justice in a case against an outsider? It seems that, if anything, it would be more difficult to win against an unbeliever in a case tried by an unbeliever, than it would be to win when both are believers.

   Others argue that Paul forbids legal action because of the reproach that this brings to the church. My reply is that there is nothing whatever said in the passage about possible reproach in the eyes of the world. The only reference to reproach at all is in verse five, and this has to do with the shame to be felt by the Christians themselves. Moreover, common sense should tell us that there is no more reproach brought on the church in a suit between two Christians than in one between a Christian and an unbeliever. The same person in the world who knows that both are Christians and who would hold against the church their involvement in a lawsuit, also knows that one party is a Christian in a lawsuit between a Christian and an alien and would be even more inclined to hold against the church the Christian’s actions.

   Still others tell us that Christians are forbidden to go into civil court together because they have a higher and better court: namely, the church itself, that is to try the case. This argument gives the church the power to judge civil and legal matters and requires that the church be competent to judge such matters. In a property boundary dispute, the ones in the church who judge would have to be experts on deeds, be able to read and understand surveyors’ reports, and have sufficient knowledge of real estate values to make a settlement. In a divorce case, the church would not only have to be able to judge as to guilt and innocence –which it could conceivably do—but would also have to be empowered to decide the legal rights of the parties involved. As we shall see later, the church is authorized to judge only in regard to matters of its own discipline, not in legal affairs. It cannot act as a tribunal in affairs outside its jurisdictional competence.

   The truth is that this passage does not have reference to civil courts or legal matters at all. It has to do with the standard of judgment, and the person selected to do the judging within the church. The “unrighteous,” the “unbelievers,” and those “of no account in the church” all refer to unfaithful members; and Paul’s prohibition is against setting such up as judges in disciplinary matters, rather than using the holy and wise members in the congregation.

   Now let us notice a few particulars of the passage.

   1. Paul recognized that there are genuine cases between brethren that have to be settled. The word “matter” in verse one is pragma, and means a case to be argued, a genuine ground of action (Moulton & Milligan, p. 532). This corresponds to what Jesus taught in Mt 18:15, “And if thy brother sin against thee….” Such a matter may not be successfully settled in private, and thus has to be brought finally before the church.

   2. Paul recognized that some cases between brethren can be settled by the church. Of course, the church here is the local congregation, not a hierarchical body that acts for the church universal. Only a local church can Scripturally exercise discipline, and only toward one who is a member of that local church. Nothing in the New Testament appears to authorize a congregation to make disciplinary decisions concerning one outside. The only cases, outside this passage, the church is ever called on to hear, and judge are cases of its own discipline. Mt 18:17 authorizes the church to hear and decide in regard to a sin allegedly committed by one of its members against another. 1 Cor 5:12, 13 (with which chapter six is directly connected contextually), likewise teaches that the church is to judge in such a matter. But where is the passage that authorizes the church to act as a tribunal in legal matters? Where would anyone in the church get the ability to make a fair judgment in disputes that involve not only moral, but also the laws of the land? In what nation would the law of the land even permit the church of Christ to make binding decisions of that character, even if all the parties agreed to abide by them? After all, many legal disputes between private parties affect public welfare (as in divorce cases), so after the church had made its decision, the matter would still have to be adjudicated in a civil court –which many insist is forbidden at either the beginning or end of a case!

   3. Paul did not forbid taking legal matters before civil courts, but rather forbade taking church cases –disciplinary cases—before unfaithful despised brethren. The word “unrighteous” in verse one is adikon, from the noun dike, plus a, the Greek negative. Dike is the word for right, or justice. It is akin to dikazo, to judge (Vine, p.280). “Go to law” in verse one is krinesthai, and does not mean going before a law court, but instead means to seek judgment. The verse may thus be worded: “Dare any of you, having a ground of action against the other, seek judgment from those who judge unjustly, and not from those who are the holy ones.”

   “Unbelievers” in verse six is apiston, unfaithful, not to be trusted. It is used in Titus 1:15 “of those among the Christians themselves who reject the true faith” (Thayer, p. 57). That this is the use of the word here is indicated by verses four and five. These verses contain the heart of the whole passage. “Do ye set them to judge who are of no account in the church?” The very question is an accusation; the apostle rebukes them for so doing; he mentions it to their shame. But if he is talking about civil courts, the rebuke is misdirected. Judges of civil courts are not “set up to judge” by the church; they are either appointed by a Chief Executive or elected by the people. “What, cannot there be found among you one wise man who shall be able to decide between his brethren…?” Those who are “of no account in the church” are the same as the “unbelievers” and the “unrighteous.” These terms do not refer to civil courts, but to those in the church who are not wise, not faithful, not holy.

   4. The import of 1 Cor 6:1-8, then, is this: The Corinthians had cases of dispute between brethren, and disciplinary matters, that needed to be settled by the church. They were setting up as judges those who were not just, those whose follies made them despised by all right-thinking Christians and, those who were unfaithful and not to be trusted. It was impossible, therefore, to obtain just decisions. They might as well, in fact better, just suffer the wrong rather than to hope for a settlement under these conditions. Paul rebuked them for this situation, ad told them that they surely ought to be able to settle these disputes among themselves. How could they do this? By seeking judgment from “saints” (hagion, holy persons); from those who were wise and able to decide between brethren. Let matters of church discipline be settled by the faithful, wise, and holy members of the church. It is shameful when this is not done.



Verses One Through Three

    We are now ready, in this section, to specifically look at the language of  the first three verses of 1 Cor chapter six. Then, in the third section, we shall examine verses four through eight.

   Verse One:  Dare any of you. In this strong language Paul rebukes the audacity of an action that he implied was actually taking place within the church in Corinth. While tis humon, any of you, is general in form, the apostle was not speaking in generalities. The verse is not an introduction to a new subject, but continues the subject of chapter five. There were those in the church who had sinned, and whose cases needed to be judged. Paul mentions one case requiring discipline, but further argues that the case is to be dealt with on principles that affect all similar cases (5:12, 13). The important thing to recognize here is that Paul was discussing matters of church discipline, not legal or civil matters.

   Having a matter against his neighbor. The word “matter” is pragma, meaning a ground of action, a case to be argued. Such real cases do exist in a congregation; (“neighbor” is literally “the other,” and has to do with a fellow-member, thus brother against brother; see verse six). The word “against” is pros, the face-to-face preposition, which tells us this case is being contested. The sin is not readily admitted and repented of.  If it were, it would not come before the church at all. This entire clause is best understood in the light of Mt 18:15-17. Paul is dealing here with cases in which a brother sins against another, but will not correct the matter privately, necessitating that the victim bring the case before the church to be judged.

   Go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints. The entire phrase, “go to law,” is the single word krinesthai, which means to seek judgment. It is not a reference to a suit brought in a civil court, but to a case brought for judgment before the church. A violation of God’s law is involved, and the application of God’s law must be made by those who are qualified to make it. But the Corinthians, unfortunately, were not pleading their cases before qualified persons, but before the unrighteous. “Unrighteous” is ton adikon, meaning the not-just-ones. The root word is dike, right or just. Akin to this word is dikazo, to judge. The first qualification of a judge is that he be just. The unrighteous ones of this verse are those who are unjust judges. Church cases should, instead, have been brought before “the saints,” ton hagion, the holy ones. The contrast here is not between civil courts and the church, but rather between unjust judges in the church and holy persons in the church.

   The position that the unrighteous refers to civil courts is an assumption altogether without the slightest hint in the context, nor evidence in history, that Christians were suing one another in civil courts and had to be rebuked for it. Why should Paul use the term “unrighteous” to refer to the courts of the land? It is true that the judges of the civil courts as individual men were not Christians, but one does not plead a lawsuit before judges as individual men, but before courts as institutions. To have Paul saying that court institutions are unrighteous is to make him contradict what he taught in Rom chapter 13, that civil authorities are ordained by God. I feel sure he did mot mean to say that the executive branch of government is ordained by God, but not the judicial branch. Surely not! It is also to array this inspired man against another inspired man who wrote that we are to honor those who are sent by God to administer justice (1 Pet 2:14). Of course we can honor them without taking lawsuits before them; that is not my point. My point is simply that court institutions are set forth in the New Testament in the light of being honorable, God-appointed. It seems inconceivable, then, that Paul should be referring to such with the term “unrighteous.” That there were in the church at Corinth unrighteous men who were exerting undue influence is already taught in chapter five.

   Verse Two:  Or know ye not that the saints shall judge the world. The language here is difficult. “World” is kosmon, but whether its meaning is the earth, or people outside of Christ cannot be easily determined. The teaching of 5:12, 13 seems to be that the saints are not in the business of judging those outside of Christ. However, in some sense, they may do so in the future. They certainly do not do so with regard to the affairs of this present life. This is the only passage in the New Testament that mentions such a judgment. At any rate, it is a judgment of cosmic proportions in which the saints will participate.

   And if the world is judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters. This last clause should literally be worded, “Are ye unworthy of the smallest tribunals?” Some have imagined a contrast in the verse, as follows: Since Christians are going to judge the world (those who are not Christians), then they should not permit those who are not Christians to judge them. However, there is no such contrast expressed or implied in the verse. The real contrast Paul makes is between a great judgment and a smaller judgment, thus: Since Christians are going to engage in a great judgment of cosmic proportions, they ought to be able to serve as a tribunal in these smaller matters that are limited to their own disciplinary  problem. How then did the Corinthians dare to set forth as judges the unrighteous ones in the church instead of going before the saints?

   Verse Three: Know ye not that we shall judge angels. Angels are spirit-creatures of free will, and, as such, are subject to judgment. That some angels will be judged is taught in the New Testament, but this is the only passage in which it is indicated that holy people will help to do the judging. The idea that Paul intends to get across here is that saints will judge immortal beings whose very existence pertains to eternity.

   How much more, things that pertain to this life. Biotika, things of this life, is from bios, which refers to life from the viewpoint of period or duration. The sense of the verse is: Since Christians are to judge those whose existence pertains to eternity, they ought to be able to judge with respect to matters that concern them here and now, in this time in which they live. It is altogether out of harmony with the context to make the things of this life refer to physical matters, or cases of dispute over material things. Cases of church discipline have to do with this life. In fact, they only have to do with this life, for their purpose is to accomplish in time what otherwise would not be accomplished till the Day of Judgment (5:5).



Verses Four Through Eight

   Verse Four: If then ye have to judge things pertaining to this life. The “ye” in this verse and the verses following are the saints. They have already been identified as the ones who are supposed to do the judging. Paul has argued that the saints (holy ones) will judge the world, therefore should be able to conduct a smaller judgment. He pointed out that the saints are to judge angels, therefore should be able to judge things pertaining to this life, i.e., cases of church discipline. Such judgment should not be left up to the unrighteous; they will not judge the world or judge angels. This seems to conform to what the apostle goes on to teach later in the chapter at verses nine through 11. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?” There is an apparent conformity between inheriting the kingdom of God, and judging the world and angels. A description is then given of these unrighteous persons. Then, “And such were some of you [saints] but ye [saints] were…washed….” But there were some unrighteous persons in the church at Corinth; they would not judge, and they should not be permitted the task of judging cases of church discipline growing out of disputes between brethren.

   Do ye set them to judge who are of no account in the church. This question carries with it a rebuke. It is always a mistake for holy people to surrender their rights, their duties, to those who are unholy. The saints needed to be rebuked for so surrendering the task of judging. Those who are “of no account in the church” are those who are despised  because of their sinfulness. To make, as some commentators do, this expression refer to outsiders, particularly civil courts, is to ignore the clear force of the preposition en. En may mean either location (in) or agency (by or with). It does not mean  “on the part of.” Paul is not talking about those who are outside the church, and despised on the part of the church. He uses the preposition to describe location: those of no account who were in the church. Now, since those “of no account” are the same as the “unrighteous” of verse one, and the “unbelievers” of verse six, it follows that these terms also have to do with those within the church.

   Verse five: I say this to move you to shame. Paul wanted the saints in Corinth to regret their failure to do their duty, and to assume the obligation of judging that was theirs. The shame was opposed to the glorying, or being puffed up, in chapter five.

   What, cannot there be found among you one wise man. That is, among the saints there ought to be someone who had the wisdom to judge; it should not be necessary to let this task go by default to the unfaithful. Who shall be able to decide between his brethren. The saints should be wise enough to determine the guilt of the offender, and the rightfulness of the victim, and thus to discipline the one who had done the wrong. Their failure to do so in chapter five had resulted in confusion and sinful boasting, and had forced Paul by apostolic authority to judge a case that they should have judged themselves.

Verse Six: But brother goeth to law with brother. “Goeth to law” is krinetai, seeks judgment. It is a diffeent form of the word krinesthai, rendered “go to law” back in verse one. Both are passive forms of the verb krino, to judge. The word in verse one is the infinitive, to seek judgment; the word here in verse six is third person singular, seeks judgment. The idea is not that of taking a case into civil court, but of seeking equity within the church itself. It is important moreover to note that Paul is not condemning the action of brother seeking judgment with brother, each presenting his side in turn, which is the meaning of “with,” meta (Thayer, p. 403). What he is condemning is the doing of this before unbelievers. He has already shown that he recognizes that there are real grounds of action that can only be settled by seeking judgment from the church. Only saints should do the judging.

   And that before unbelievers. This is the qualifying clause that makes the procedure in Corinth wrong. It is permissible for brother to seek judgment with brother, but not before unbelievers. “Unbelievers” is the word apiston, and means unfaithful or untrustworthy. It is used in Titus 1:15 “of those among the Christians themselves who reject the true faith” (Thayer, p. 57). Such is the use of the word here in 1 Cor 6:6. To take the position that the word must refer to aliens, and in particular to civil courts, is to argue that a believer cannot become an unbeliever. In Corinth some believers had become unbelievers. They were unfaithful, untrustworthy, and ought not to be set forth as judges. Nothing in the verse condemns  the practice of pleading purely legal matters in a civil court, even if both plaintiff and defendant are members of the church. There may be much in the New Testament to condemn the litigious spirit  of one who would rush into court every time his rights seem to be in jeopardy; the contentious attitude of one who insists on making public legal disputes that could be settled privately. But this passage does not deal with that subject at all. It deals with the mistake of letting unfaithful brethren judge cases of church discipline, instead of settling them before saints.

   Verse seven: Nay, already it is altogether a defect in you. Literally, it is a loss to you. These cases of dispute were a loss to the saints for two reasons. First, they were depriving themselves of their right to act as judges. Second, they could not hope for justice to be done as long as the unrighteous (unjust judges) were making the decisions. If they could but see how the situation in Corinth was a loss to them, then they would be moved to correct it.

   That ye have lawsuits one with another. The word “lawsuits” is krimata, meaning cases to be decided. No particular inference can be drawn from the word itself as to who is to do the deciding. To make it refer to civil courts is purely gratuitous. The church was to do the deciding according to the demands of the context. The bare fact of having such cases of dispute was not the thing being condemned by the apostle in this place, but the fact of presenting such cases to the unrighteous for judgment. To have cases of dispute under the circumstances that prevailed in Corinth was, and is, wrong.

      Why not rather take wrong? Why not rather be defrauded. If there is little possibility of obtaining justice due to the character of those who are the judges, one might just as well, in fact better, suffer the wrong in the first place, and not seek a judgment from the church. This verse does not teach, as so many have construed it, that a Christian is just to permit himself to be defrauded, without making any defense or any fight for his rights. God never did give a law that is designed to give an advantage to the ungodly over His people. Sometimes one has little hope of obtaining his rights, as was the case in Corinth as long as the judges were unrighteous, and in such a case the best thing to do is to suffer the wrong. But where there is hope that the grievances will be redressed, the Christian not only may, but should, seek such redress. To argue on the basis of this passage that a brother may never go into civil court against a brother, is to give a tremendous advantage to unfaithful, reprobate members of the church. We have seen far too much of letting no-account apostates cheat faithful Christians, and sometimes steal the property of whole congregations. We have no right to permit this when legal recourse is readily available to us. We have let crooked members of the church take for their own wicked uses that which belongs to the Lord, and we have so often done so without a fight, just because of a mistaken view of 1 Cor 6:1-8. We should always be willing to suffer wrong rather than to do wrong, as the New Testament clearly teaches in an abundance of places. But we should not suffer wrong when we can prevent it by doing right.

   Verse Eight. Nay, but ye yourselves do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. The “ye” is still the saints. But Paul is not saying that they were in the wrong in the cases of dispute. Rather, he is pointing out that by letting the right of judgment go by default to the unrighteous, they were unintentionally committing a wrong against the whole church; they were defrauding their brethren of their right to obtain just decisions in cases of discipline. When the saints fail to step in and judge these cases, but permit the unrighteous to judge them, the innocent will not receive fair treatment and the guilty will not be disciplined. The purity of the church will not be maintained, and confusion will reign. That is exactly what had happened in chapter five, until the apostle stepped in and made a judgment himself. Now, in chapter six he is showing them how to prevent such a situation from recurring. He is teaching them the proper way to handle cases of church discipline. That is the point of the entire passage on which I have been commenting.