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Grasping Disputes

*1 Corinthians 6:1-8
February 25, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 14:30 in the audio file.

Or, What’s the Matter with Christians?

What is the matter with Christians? We really ought to know better, but we give so much ammunition to the unbelievers around us by acting just like them, or by putting our trust in them to fix our problems. It’s one thing to have stones thrown through the windows of your bus. It’s another thing to leave a pile of rocks sitting next to the bus. It should not surprise us that Christians get so much criticism; we paint targets on our backs.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul tackles yet another serious problem among the saints in Corinth. In the first four chapters the apostle confronted the church for dividing up according to their favorite teacher. They behaved this way because they failed to apply the word of the cross and instead they associated according to the same crowd-gathering rhetorical standards as the world.

Then in chapter 5 Paul confronted their unholy tolerance of allowing a professing believer and member of the church to remain in ongoing and gross sin with his step-mother. They should have judged the man and removed him from among them, yet they were busy boasting about their spiritual maturity. This was a specific and flagrant case of unrepentant sin that required action.

Now at the beginning of chapter 6 Paul addresses a specific and apparently acceptable practice among some of the Corinthians. It didn’t require church discipline, but it did require them to act differently. Some in the church were taking others in the church to court over relatively small matters, and they were looking for resolution from unrighteous and unbelieving judges. It was foolish to expect justice from these unjust courts, and it was foolish not to consider how it affected their witness to the world. It’s as if their promotional slogan was: “Believe in Christ, join our church, you can sue people over petty things just like before!”

Through a series of seriously sarcastic questions Paul points out how wrong their grasping disputes are.

His concern about these lawsuits has three parts in verses 1-11. First he deals with how wrong it is to go before the unrighteous in verses 1-6, then he deals with how wrong it is to treat family like this in verses 7-8, and then he deals with how wrong it is to trust the unrighteous and why we ought not behave like them in verses 9-11. We’re going to look at the first two points this morning.

Wrong Before Unbelievers (verses 1-6)

The ESV makes verses 1-8 a paragraph, and that’s fine. But there is an observable set of bookends in verse 1 (κρίνεσθαι ἐπὶ τῶν ἀδίκων) and verse 6 (κρίνεται…ἐπὶ ἀπίστων), as both verses include the verb “go to law” and “before” either “the unrighteous” or the “unbelievers.”

While the original manuscripts did not have punctuation, the standard Greek text punctuates seven rhetorical questions in these first six verses.

The Concern (verse 1)

The cheek of the Corinthians is on display again, but not the kind of cheek that could get slapped. When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? This could be anyone, one of you, and maybe a common occurrence to have a grievance, but Paul doesn’t seem to have a particular case in mind as he did with the incest in chapter 5.

The word grievance refers to something that is the matter, a dispute, and here it flares into a lawsuit. Based on the following verses, the grievances here are “trivial cases” (verse 2), “matters pertaining to this life” (verse 3), which are “ordinary matters” (NET). These are squabbles in the category of civil law, not criminal law, and are the kinds of tiffs that belong in small claims court, something you might see on Judge Judy. God appoints governmental authorities to avenge wrongdoing, even to the point of capital punishment (Romans 13:1-4), but these are “He said, she said; Mine! No, mine!” contentions.

These disputes could have been about inheritance (a man in a crowd asked Jesus this kind of question at least once, and Jesus responded about covetousness, see Luke 12:13-21), or about property, or about breach of contract, or about a poor service or product, or something similar. The one thing these have in common is money. When men live together these problems are bound to arise, so what to do about it?

The Corinthians were using the secular courts, going before the unrighteous. These men are renamed in verse 6 as the unbelievers, repeated in verse 9, and contrasted with the saints. Christians did not fill many judge’s benches in first century Roman Empire. Christianity did not even flavor the law much in first century Roman Empire. Most of the historical records describe judges pronouncing in favor of the highest briber, or ruling to invest in the highest social capital, and usually both. We’d think that just wanting justice would be a right expectation, and we’d be wrong.

The Corinthian Christians were presumptuous for daring to take fellow Christians before the unrighteous. It could only have been grasping for their own benefit, beating down the opponent, certainly not in order to unify the body.

The Argument (verses 2-3)

There are another three questions that demonstrate the inconsistency of trusting those who are committed to another set of standards than the saints.

Or do you now know that the saints will judge the world? Paul just said that saints have nothing to do with judging those outside the church (5:12), but that was a different kind of judging and a different time of judging. Verse 2 is a future judging, and along with the angels mentioned in verse 3, this refers to end time judging. Jesus told His disciples that they would reign with Him (see Matthew 19:28). When He comes to judge, we who are in Him will also judge.

That’s going to be a big deal. And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Knowing what we know about the context in Corinth, we may not follow Paul’s expected answer. In other words, based on how they were behaving the Corinthians were incompetent. But they should have been. The argument remains, from the greater to the lesser, that universal and eternal judgment takes more ability than local and temporal judgment of trivial cases, the “smallest matters” (KJV).

On the last day believers will judge unbelievers and angels. Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life? Which angels? All of them? The apostate ones? Even if we’re not sure, Paul must have included this in his teaching while among them because it’s another do you not know, which he always uses for things they should remember. Perhaps he’s referring to Daniel 7:22, and I think I’d argue that this is the angels who rebelled. It doesn’t change the point that if Christ aims to mediate His rule through us, how come we can’t figure out who gets mom’s jewelry?

The Review (verse 4)

This is a repetition of verse 1 and the conclusion of the argument. So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? At this point Paul isn’t saying that every grievance is wrong by default, but that it doesn’t make any sense for believers to take those grievances before those who despise the church, who take opportunity to oppress the poor and lowly, “who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called” (see James 2:5-7).

The Criticism (verses 5-6)

Earlier Paul told them that he wasn’t trying to shame them (4:14). Now he is.I say this to your shame. They should be humiliated. They were grasping for honor, and they were grasping for honor from the wrong people by the wrong standards. They weren’t outdoing one another in showing honor, they were just trying to outdo one another with a judge’s help.

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? This is thick sarcasm; “has it come to this?” (Thiselton). They considered themselves the wise. They boasted about it. And yet they couldn’t figure out how to solve these small problems between one another?

It is not that he is calling for a permanent court to be set up in the church. Instead, he calls for constructive intervention to save a situation which threatened the church’s unity and reputation. (Ciampa & Rosner)

Augustine, 350 or so years later, referred to how burdensome these duties had become in his role as a bishop. At least the church in his day took the apostle’s criticism seriously.

1 Corinthians 6:5 isn’t a mandate to set up a Christian court system inside the church, but an informal trellis is not necessarily wrong. Also, the church, doesn’t “bear the sword” like the secular government does, so her discipline of the unrepentant is different than punishment by the State. The church is not supposed to resolve criminal cases. There is no “why not rather be murdered” ethic.

Rather than self-interest there should have been submission.

Wrong Between Brothers (verses 7-8)

Verses 1-6 have a opening and closing comment, but verses 7-8 push the point further. The problem is not just where the Christians take their lawsuits, the problem is that they are having so many grasping disputes with each other in the first place.

It’s not good. To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. The word defeat is the opposite of nike, victory. This is loss, a lose-lose situation, #FAIL. Lawsuits like these demonstrate a man seeking something for himself, not his neighbor. He is grasping for his benefit, his profit, his “rights.” There is no good outcome in a situation such as that; everybody loses. With church members like this, who needs secular courts?

The Christian ethic is different. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? Why not? Because one is out to defend oneself at all costs. Jesus’ teaching went the other way. Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). Go two miles instead of only one (Matthew 5:41). Lend, not expecting in return (Luke 6:34-35). These are interpersonal problems, and there are times when letting yourself be taken advantage of is the more Christian way. Instead of worrying over money or status, remember that you will inherit the kingdom.

It wasn’t that they were merely responding poorly, they were initiating. But you yourselves wrong and defraud–even your own brothers! The family feuds were especially ugly.

As for us, we typically don’t take other Christians to court, but we do an awful lot of complaining. Sometimes those complaints go to the world wide web. Are Christians grumbling because they are grasping for the honor of the one they’re grumbling about? Not usually.


The next paragraph also belongs with these first eight verses in chapter 6, but we’ll look at it next Lord’s Day.

It would be interesting to hear Paul’s thoughts about our public courts that have been built on Christian foundations. I am not saying that our courts are Christian, but the effect of God’s Word and the gospel in Western governments and on our civil laws, even in criminal proceedings, is unmistakable. The penalty for bribery, the principle of being innocent until proven guilty, judgements based on evidence and eye-witnesses rather than social standing, these are Christian principles. There have been some places where the church’s influence would be impossible to isolate away from these public verdicts. What if Christians were judges? What if Jesus was honored, not merely as the Head of State, but as the Lord of all, at the beginning of every trial, and evidence and verdicts were given for the sake of His name?

I do not ask that as a post-millennial who believes that Christians will make the world more and more righteous in order for Jesus to return, I ask as someone who believes that we can and should behave Christianly everywhere as representatives of Jesus. To a Christian who said, “I don’t want to be a part of that corrupt system” I’d say, why not be a judge in Jesus’ name? Why not be a lawyer? Why not be a legislator?

One of the reasons our culture’s standards of justice has collapsed is because the church is not involved enough, and I’d argue that from 1 Corinthians 6. We should judge, and it should be the right people in the right context for the right reasons. Christians are going to judge the world and angels, and Christians are brothers. We ought to think more about how we treat one another, and the whole church ought to be more involved in addressing grasping attitudes and behavior, as well as honoring justice. It isn’t that everyday, ordinary matters don’t matter, it’s that they ought to be easy (or at least easier) compared to the greater issues.

What is wrong with Christians that we defraud each other, and that we can’t figure out how to deal with defrauding one another without also ruining our witness in the world? It is a shame to love ourselves so much.


Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Lord who brings peace and blesses His people with peace. Peace is His nature and His work. Live as Christians who are wise, who live peaceably with all so far is it depends on you (Romans 12:18), who would rather suffer wrong than wrong others. Take care of the matters pertaining to this life as those who are at peace with the Lord Jesus Christ, because You are.


Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. (2 Thessalonians 3:16, ESV)