The Christian and the Courtroom

I Corinthians 6:1-8

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2010

We have been studying the Book of I Corinthians. We have a rather strange topic for tonight. Tonight, we will be looking at “The Christian and the Courtroom” or the Christian and lawsuits. It answers the question, Is it ever right for a Christian to take someone to court? Is legal action ever appropriate for Christians? What do you do if some cheats you?

What do you do if someone in the church rips you off? What did Jesus say about lawsuits? We will look tonight at that and what Paul says in Corinthians 6. We will also look at how what he says applies two thousand years later when the situation is different.

As we will see, this passage is also often misunderstood. It has been misinterpreted and misapplied by people. There are no clear-cut answers to some of these questions. Let’s read I Corinthians 6:1-8.

What is the problem that Paul deals with in this chapter? Christians were taking other Christians to court. Now in Chapters one to three, we saw Christians in Corinth not getting along and being divided but here they take it to the point that they are taking on another to court and they were doing it before pagan judges.

They were letting unsaved people who do not even know the Bible try to resolve the differences between two Christians who had some kind of a dispute.

How did this problem start? Apparently, one member of the Corinthian Church cheated another member of the church and the one who was victimized took legal action. Why did they do this? Let me suggest two reasons. One, the Corinthians, like most Americans today, were obsessed with their rights. They were big on their rights.

Two, the Corinthians loved to go to court. It was in their blood. They lived in ancient Greece. The Greeks loved to sue. Everybody sued people. It was a way of life for the Greeks. They were almost as fond of litigation as Americans are today. We live in a litigious society. People are suing people over everything and anything.

Paul was shocked. He said, “DARE any of you take any Christian to court before a pagan judge”. Why did he say this? He said this because Paul was Jewish. The early church was Jewish. The Jew believed that it was wrong to take their disputes before pagans.

They considered it a form of blasphemy to take another Jew to court. Jewish rabbis said, “It is a statute which binds all Israelites, that if one Israelite has a cause against another, it must not be prosecuted before Gentiles.” That was the rabbinic view.

Now the fact is that the Jews didn’t always do this. They took Jesus to a Gentile governor and Paul to Gentile judges as well. But when the Church began, it was one hundred percent Jewish (Acts 2). When did the first Gentile join the church? Acts 10.

Of course, today the church is made up mostly of Gentiles but the early church was Jewish. They will still Jews and did what Jews did. This was one of the things that they did. Paul applies the same principle to the church, as we will see.

Paul gives a couple of reasons why Christians should not do this.

1) We will judge the world (6:2).

Jesus told the Apostles that they would judge Israel (Matthew 19:28). Paul says that all Christians will judge the world, not just Israel. Christ will be the final judge but in some way we will participate in that judgment. We will rule WITH Christ. (Romans 8:16-17; II Timothy 2:11-12; Revelation 2:25-26).

2) We will one day judge angels (6:3).

This is shocking. Angels are the highest order of beings. They are the highest class of created beings. Man is lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:6-7). There are animals, man and angels and people are lower than the angels but Paul says that Christians will judge angels. What does this mean? Does it mean that we will judge bad angels or all angels? No one knows. This is the only time the Bible says this.

3) Secular courts have pagan judges.

They don’t know God or the Bible. How can you get justice from them. They are ungodly (6:1). Apparently, some of the Corinthians thought that they could get a better deal with pagan judges than with Christians.

4) It is a poor testimony (6:7).

Even if you win, you lose. When kids have a problem they go to their parents. The parents solve the problem themselves. They don’t take it to courts. They settle it within the family. If you are a Christian, you are part of God’s family. In chapter five, Paul said that we do not judge those on the outside (5:12). Here he says that we do not go to the outside with family matters. We deal with them inside the family.

Now how does what Paul says apply today? That is the million dollar question. Most people misinterpret what Paul is saying in I Corinthians 6. Paul is giving us some principles to live by, not a legal code. There are several things Paul does NOT say in I Corinthians 6.

Abuse of I Corinthians 6:1

1. Paul does not say that secular law courts have no value.

Paul said that the powers that be are established by God (Romans 13:1-7). God set up courts. God establishes civil government. Courts are part of human government. That is how evil is punished. Human courts serve a useful function in human society. They are instituted by God to maintain law and order.

2. Paul does NOT say that all lawsuits under every circumstance are wrong.

Paul does not say that Christians are forbidden to file a lawsuit against someone. He does not say that Christians can never press charges against someone. Paul does not say that.

3. Paul does not say that Christians can NEVER take another Christian to court for any reason.

That is the general rule. Are there any exceptions to this rule? Are there times when it may be the right thing to prosecute or even sue other Christians?

Paul was dealing with financial disputes in I Corinthians 6, not violent crimes. He was dealing with disputes about money or property. He was addressing civil cases, NOT criminal cases. Romans 13 says that it is the job of the state to punish crimes against people, even crimes against Christians.

There may even be some times when a Christian has to take another Christian to court over financial matters (ex husband is not paying child support).That brings us to this question.

When are Lawsuits Wrong?

1) Lawsuits are wrong when they are petty.

In I Corinthians 6, Christians were taking other Christians to court over TRIVIAL things (6:2). They were making a big deal over something that was minor. These were what we call today frivolous lawsuits. Civil lawsuits cost the US economy over 200 billion dollars per year! According to the US Federal News, every taxpayer in the US is now paying a “lawsuit tax” of around $700 – $800 per year.

2) Lawsuits are wrong when they are done for the wrong reason. 

Some people file suits out of greed, rather than justice.  The primary reason people file lawsuits today is money.

3) Lawsuits are wrong when they damage your Christian testimony.

Be very careful about taking another Christian to court. When two Christians have disputes and bring their disputes before the unsaved, it affects the way the world looks at Christians.

Two weeks ago, just before our church softball game, a player on another team was ejected from the game. He was a big guy and he was angry. He was mad at the umpire. Other people told him to calm down and he got mad at them. He was calling people all kinds of names.

About ten guys had to physically restrain a player as he lunged at a few people on the other team.  One player on our team was a state trooper. I looked at him and expected him to save the day but he looked completely helpless.

After the incident, I turned to him and said, don’t you have any hand cuffs in the car or pepper spray or a gun?” He said, “I don’t have anything on me”. The I thought that someone should tell the Park District to file charges against the man for disturbing the peace but then I thought of I Corinthians 6 and remembered that this was a church league. No one got hurt.

4) Lawsuits are wrong when they are not necessary.

The question that has to be asked is whether a lawsuit is really necessary.  Is it something that could and should be avoided?

5) Lawsuits are wrong when they are not the last resort.

Legal action against someone generally should not be the first step. It should be the last step. We should do everything we can to avoid them (cf. Matthew 5:26-26). It should not be something that we rush into (Proverbs 25:8).  Other things can be tried first (mediation, arbitration).

Responding to Injustice Today

What do we do if there is someone in the church who is not just someone that you do not like or someone that you have a problem with but is someone in the church who has actually cheated you? What do you do if someone has taken advantage of you and even stolen from you? What do you do? There are four options.

1. Talk to the person directly and try to get it resolved (Matthew 18:15).

The Bible teaches that if someone sins against you or offends you or cheats or tries to take advantage of you, you have the responsibility to go to that person and confront them lovingly and tell them. They may not even know that they are doing it.

2. Try to get other people to talk to the individual (Matthew 18:16).

If the first step doesn’t work, try this step. Jesus was talking about sins, not crimes but the same principle would apply to minor disputes that people have.

3. Use the local church if your dispute is with another believer (Matthew 18:17; I Corinthians 6:4-5).

Go to the elders. Find arbitration in a local church. If the offender will not hear the church, he is to be excommunicated. If you study church history, you will find that the early church took Paul literally.

Paul said, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers” (6:5) and the early church did just that. They had courts set up for the first several hundred years of the church, just like the Jews had done.

The Jews had their own law courts. There is a book written in the fourth century called Apostolic Constitutions that says that these courts were to meet on the second day of the week and the deacons and elders were to be present (II.47). It was a real court. They were to call witnesses and listen to evidence (II.49-51).

The church can’t deal with criminal matters. That is in the hands of the state (Romans 13) but it can and probably should help solve trivial disputes that Christians have with each other. What does that assume?

It assumes that you have some wise people in the church who know God’s Word. The leaders of the church have to be the kids of people that you can feel comfortable going to help resolve some of these things. Unfortunately, church courts do not exist anymore.

Not too many churches have them. One thing that Paul doesn’t deal with are disputes between Christians in different churches. Paul doesn’t deal with this problem. Keep in mind that all churches do not practice church discipline.

4. Take legal action.

This is not recommended and should be done only as a last resort but there may be times when it is the right thing to do, even for Christians. In some cases, it is a matter of justice. Society would be better off. Someone else may get hurt if the person is not brought to justice.

It is not always wrong to insist on your rights. Paul did that. He was falsely accused by the Jews. The Jewish Court called the Sanhedrin brought serious charges against Paul, some worthy of death. He appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:1-12).

That was his right as a Roman citizen to have your case tried in Rome. Romans could appeal their case to a higher court. He didn’t just say, “I will be defrauded and take the wrong”. He took advantage of his rights as a Roman citizen and we can take advantage of our rights as American citizens.

That is not wrong. Paul went to Rome and the Caesar in power at the time was Nero who eventually beheaded Paul but that wasn’t until seven years later. He was at least able to write a few more books of Scripture by then. It is okay to protect yourself. Jesus said so (Luke 22:35-38; Matthew 10:23). It is perfectly appropriate to use the law to protect you.

On the other hand, we should not take this too far. We shouldn’t love to go to court. In fact, Jesus said, “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40).

Now Jesus is using a little humor here. Jesus had a sense of humor. The Jews in his day wore two garments: an outer garment (cloak) and an inner garment which was worn next to the skin (tunic or coat).

Jesus says, “If someone sues you for your inner garment, give him the outer garment as well”. I guess you go out of the courtroom naked. The NLT renders it, “If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too”.

What’s the point? Someone wants to sue you over something minor, don’t make a big deal about it. It would cost more to take the person to court than to buy a new shirt. The philosophy of the world is that if someone wants to sue you, then you counter sue.

5. Take the wrong.

If going to court will damage your testimony or bring shame to the cause of Christ, it is better to take wrong. In chapter 5, Paul said the church was to judge wrong.

In chapter 6, he said that the church is sometimes to take wrong. Sometimes it is right to take wrong and sometimes it is right to judge wrong. Sometimes, we should take the wrong in financial matters and be willing to be defrauded.

Sometimes, it might be right to take the wrong in criminal matters. Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:30).

Compare that to Matthew 5:42. What is the difference? Luke mentions someone stealing something. Luke mentions a case where you are robbed. Someone takes something of yours.

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