Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 18, 1969
NUMBER 20, PAGE 9b-11

A Commentary On First Corinthians 6:1-8

Gordon Wilson


The plan of this series of three studies is as follows: In the first section I shall set forth some observations on the meaning of First Corinthians 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, which 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 which this brings upon the church. My reply is that nothing whatever is 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 upon the church in a suit between two Christians than there is in one between a Christian and an unbeliever. The same persons in the world who know that both are Christians, and who would hold against the church their involvement in a lawsuit, also know that one party is a Christian in a suit 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, which is to try the case. This argument gives to 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 moral 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 to legal matters at all. It has to do with the standard of judgment, and the persons 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 real 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 and Milligan, P. 532). This corresponds to what Jesus taught in Matthew 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 formally 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 which acts for the church universal. The only cases which, outside this passage, the church is ever called upon to hear and to judge are cases of its own discipline. Matthew 18:17 authorizes the church to hear and decide in regard to a sin committed by one of its members against another. First Corinthians 5: 12,13 (with which chapter six is directly connected) likewise teaches that the church is to judge in such a matter. But where is the passage which 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 which involve not only morals, 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 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 ending 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 rather means to seek judgment. This 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 definitely 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 is rebuking them for so doing; he mentions it to their shame. "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 First Corinthians 6: 1 — 8, then, is this: The Corinthians had cases of dispute between brethren, disciplinary matters, which 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; 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 condition, and 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.

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