Several years ago, I read the pathetic story of a fight that broke out at a local church in Boston, USA during a members’ meeting. Tensions ran so high that a fistfight erupted, which resulted in someone calling the police. Those arrested were arraigned in court the next day before an unbelieving judge. He rebuked them saying, “Your Lord Jesus may allow you to behave this way, but the commonwealth of Massachusetts does not.” How shameful.
I don’t know the outcome of that legal scenario, but I do know, from what the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6, that those behaving in such a way are in danger of not inheriting the kingdom of God (vv. 9–11). Those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God have been washed, sanctified, and justified, which means that they respond to conflict in a radically, because reverently, different way. We learn this in the passage before us as we continue to learn about the sufficiency of the saints to govern themselves through scriptural church discipline. As Prior points out, “There will always be disagreements among Christians, but the disciplined approach of Jesus to such matters needs more uninhibited obedience (cf. Matthew 18:15–17).”
This was a lesson the Corinthian church needed to learn. I assume we do as well. In other words, we don’t only need to learn about the kind of church discipline revealed in 1 Corinthians 5; we also need to learn about and practice the kind of church discipline Jesus taught in Matthew 18. First Corinthians seems to rest in the authoritative shadow of Matthew 18:15–20.
At a recent small group meeting I attended, someone helpfully commented that, in the workplace, it is customary to undergo a performance review and, if performance is not up to scratch, then necessary corrective action is required. He then observed that, for some reason, when it comes to the church, people seem a lot more sensitive about this. He was spot on.
When you think about it, there is a close parallel between church discipline and marketplace performance review. But whereas the employee performance review is about conduct in the workplace, church discipline is about conduct in the worship place of the local church. The “performance” of the church at Corinth was dismal, to say the least. But because Paul believed this church belonged to Jesus Christ, he wrote this epistle to help them to improve. And the practice of church discipline was a part of what was necessary for their improving health.
In chapter 6, Paul continues dealing with the matter of congregational accountability and authority as he addresses another area where their actual performance was a far cry from the biblical expectation. They needed the reminder about the sufficiency of the saints to deal with conflicts between church members. Failure to do so may result in their apostasy. Paul addresses this very serious problem with a machine gun-like firing of nine rhetorical questions, which can be reduced to three major categories. These will form our headings.
- A Scandalous Question (vv. 1–3)
- A Shameful Question (vv. 4–8)
- A Sobering Question (vv. 9–11)
A Scandalous Question
Paul was outraged that members of the church in Corinth had no hesitation in going to court to settle disputes with fellow church members. “This was a church that boasted of its spiritual maturity and wisdom but, apparently, it could not solve its own internal disagreements” (Jackman). This was scandalous behaviour, which led to Paul’s rhetorical questions. We need to unpack this scene if we will more fully appreciate what was taking place and how contemptible was their behaviour.
First, this was not a criminal but rather a civil case. This is significant for a couple of reasons. When it comes to criminal law, the state exists to punish evildoers (Romans 13:3–4). Church member or not, when a crime is committed, charges, in most situations, can be legitimately and biblically laid. For example, if a church member hijacks another church member’s car, call the police. If a pastor molests a child, call the police. God has instituted the home, the church, and government for the ordering of society. We must respect and properly respond to those spheres. If both parties in a married couple are members of the church and the husband is excommunicated, his wife should respond to him as her husband. She will still fulfil marital obligations to him. But in the church, she will not be able to share the Lord’s Table with him.
Second, it seems that, in Greek Corinth, civil litigation was corrupt (favouring the wealthy and notable) and, since it also served as a form of entertainment, the church would be scandalised by such lawsuits. No doubt Paul was outraged that church members would haul fellow church members before such wrongdoers. Clearly, they were not practising Micah 6:8. Rosner and Ciampa observe, “The injustice of secular courts was not Paul’s only reason for opposing their use to settle disputes between Christians. He is also concerned about the reputation of the church before outsiders about unity and concord within the body.”
Third, and related to the second, it is possible that the lawsuits were bogus and the more prosperous and well-connected were extorting and manipulating church members in order to enrich themselves. No wonder Paul was irate. This was scandalous!
Paul does not seem to be concerned that there were grievances between church members. He knew very well that conflicts arise between church members. In fact, all of his one another exhortations presuppose difficulties between church members. No, what disturbed Paul was how they were handling them, or, perhaps, how they were not handling them! “Paul is advocating a nonjudicial ethic, not a non-dispute ethic” (Rosner and Ciampa).
If it was the case that manipulation and grasping what belonged to another was occurring, then even in this Paul expected a better way to sort out the matter. If the congregation was simply tolerating injustice among its members rather than confronting it, this intensified the scandalous court cases.
Paul contrasting the “unrighteous” in the court and the “saints” in the church is significant and should have been stark, which he makes clear in what follows.
The word “unrighteous” means “wrongdoers” and, with wide applications, includes not merely those who are unjustified before God (i.e. unbelievers) but also those who are unjust, who twist God’s standard of what is right. Paul was shocked that church members would run to such individuals to settle a dispute rather than to the congregation which ostensibly is committed to God’s righteous canon law. Obviously, the criterion of judgement is different between the worldly and the Christian.
Paul undergirds this with three rapid-fire questions, highlighting the folly of their behaviour while at the same time seeking to remind them of the immense privilege and inheritance of the Christian church.
First, Paul asks, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (cf. Matthew 19:28; Luke 25:28ff; Daniel 7:22). He points the church to the eschatological end, bringing it forward to how they should behave now. After all, if God has so exalted his church to sit with him in judgement upon the world on the final day, surely, we should be practicing such wise dignity now? After all, those whom God deems worthy to judge the world with him in the end surely are fit and worthy to judge the smallest of matters before then. He seeks to put all of this wrangling and grasping in proper perspective. That is, whatever matter we are preoccupied with in the here-and-now is of least importance in the light of the eschatological end. With an eternal perspective, the cares of this life lose their power and appeal.
Paul ups the ante by his next question: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” This is probably a reference to fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4, 11; Jude 6).
Angels are mentioned 173 times in the New Testament and therefore are held in prominence by the biblical authors. Angels matter in that they are servants to those who are the heirs of salvation (Hebrews 1:14), that is—to us, the church. Paul says that the church will judge these remarkable celestial beings. If we are going to judge angels in the life to come, how much more should we be able to judge the mere “matters pertaining to this life”—what Jesus refers to as the “cares of this life” (Luke 21:34).
In these questions, Paul is highlighting their scandalous behaviour of mimicking the world over which they are destined to rule. Rather than setting the example, they are following ungodly examples. They are living less than they are. Rather than following Jesus Christ and his radical ways, they are following those who reject Jesus Christ and him crucified.
This is why Paul was scandalised by their behaviour. Rather than appealing to their highest authority to deal with the conflict, they appealed to a corrupt authority airing their dirty laundry (including their perhaps dirty attitudes and actions) before the watching world. One can only imagine how those in the law courts rolled their eyes at those professing to be lovers and followers of Jesus Christ. The one who rose from the dead apparently wasn’t so powerful to transform people after all.
We can learn from this the importance of remembering who we are in Christ and the radical way that God views us in this world. Rather than being obsessed with our rights, rather than being obsessed with riches, we are to be passionate—even obsessed—with our future inheritance, with our future existence in a world that is no longer fallen and fading. This will free us from the love of the world (1 John 2:15–17).
Church, our value system has been transformed, our perspective has been transformed, and therefore, even in our grievances, and perhaps especially in the temptation to “grasp,” we send the message, “This is not how Christians live!”
A Shameful Question
In chapter 4:14 Paul said that he did not aim to shame them concerning their factions. However, here he makes clear he does want them to feel ashamed. Perhaps because their conflicts had become common knowledge as they trapesed off to the law courts. The TV cameras and journalists were waiting on the courthouse steps to get the scoop: “Hear all about it! Christians who claim to love their God and to love one another like family are suing each other, grasping for what belongs to the other!” “I say this to your shame,” indeed.
In v. 4, Paul rebukes them by a question: “Why in the world would you go to those outside the church for conflict resolution?” The phrase “who have no standing” is a phrase of contempt. Weymouth translates, “Men who are absolutely nothing in the church—is it they whom you make your judges?” Paul’s point is plain: “You should be ashamed of trusting those with merely worldly wisdom to settle matters between those who should be shaped by the wisdom of the cross.”
Sufficiency of the Saints
Paul drives this shame deeper (to secure repentance) when he challenges them concerning their lack of wisdom: “Can it be there 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?” (v. 5). Paul is astounded and they should be ashamed. “Is it really the case that there is no one wise enough to discern the issue and to settle it once for all?”
The Corinthians, of course, had been boasting about their wisdom, which Paul calls foolishness when pitted against God’s wisdom revealed in the cross. Selfless humiliation rather than selfish exaltation is the way of Christ crucified.
Conflict has a way of exposing our source of wisdom and the way the Corinthian church was dealing with theirs revealed foolishness, not wisdom. Interestingly, this is the last time the word “wise” appears in 1 Corinthians. Perhaps the assumption is that this dressing down will cure the church of its arrogant wisdom of the world.
Anyway, Paul’s point is that the church failed to live up to its calling, failed to live out its incredible ability, failed to live in the light of its God-given sufficiency.
We often talk about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture—rightly so. But we should be careful to not neglect an important related truth: the authority and sufficiency of the saints, the authority and sufficiency of the biblically-shaped, and biblically healthy local church. As Prior highlights, “The Christian community actually possesses within its own number the resources needed to sort out any problems of this kind.” He adds, “There will always be disagreements among Christians, but the disciplined approach of Jesus to such matters needs more uninhibited obedience (Matt 18:15–17).”
The Success of Losing
As Paul brings this section to a close, he highlights the sad reality of their worldly pursuit of their rights—they lose, even when they win. On the other hand, “The Christian would rather waive his rights than inflict one iota of damage upon the name of Christ” (Ellsworth).
When one goes to court, they of course hope to come out on the other side as the victors. But Paul tells this church that, regardless of which church member is afforded the winning verdict, they and the entire church prove to be defeated. Everyone loses, even the ones who walk away with the settlement. Their bank balance may be larger but at the cost of their heavenly inheritance. That is, having laid up their treasures on earth, they have nothing in heaven. We need to understand vv. 7–8 if we will properly grasp vv. 9–11.
When Paul writes, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you,” he is saying that, when they enter the law courts, the plaintiffs as well as the congregation have already lost. Literally, they are failures. Jackman notes, “By the time a dispute between believers reaches the court, the Christians concerned are already totally defeated as Christians. The fact that they have appealed to a pagan judgement shows that their trust is no longer in God.” That indeed is a serious failure.
Conflicts arising in the church are an opportunity to reveal and to grow our trust in God. But when we faithlessly respond like the world, we manifest a failure to trust the authority and sufficiency of Scripture as well as failing to trust the sufficiency of the saints to handle such matters.
Worse, it is a failure to acknowledge the authority and the power of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 11). Consider this in terms of Matthew 18.
Jesus instructed that, when a disputed matter arises between church members, it should be dealt with privately. If that fails to settle the matter, one or two witnesses are to be brought in to verify the charges/evidence (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:5–6). Failure here leads to informing and involving the congregation. If there is no repentant resolution, the individual is placed outside the membership and treated as an outsider with regard to membership privileges. Perhaps, with this in mind, Paul is rebuking the Corinthian church for going to outsiders to deal with problems between insiders! The Lord’s instructions have been completely twisted inside out. Paul says, therefore, that it is far better to experience loss than to fight to the death for one’s rights. He says, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” “Wrong” probably refers to general injustices while “defraud” properly refers to wrongs with reference to property. In either case, whether one’s reputation is mistreated or riches mishandled, Paul says it is better to experience loss than to stand for one’s rights in such a way that harm is done to the people of God and to the name of God. Does this sound familiar?
Cruciform, Not Courthouse
Paul desires them to look to the cross rather than to the courts.
As we journey through 1 Corinthians, we must not lose sight of the central theme found in 2:2: the message of the cross, the message of the person and the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious gospel. As Paul succinctly puts it, “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The Corinthians were rejecting the cruciform life while embracing the Corinth-formed life with its worldly wisdom, self-centred value system, and rights-obsessed arrogance. They were being informed more by their rights than by their redemption. Therefore, Paul uses words that for the true Christian will remind them of the sacrificial life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The perfect Son of God refused to stand on his rights when he stood falsely condemned before the Sanhedrin. He, like no other, “suffer[ed] wrong,” being treated with the worst of injustice. He who is God laid aside his robes of glory, being “defrauded” even of his common garment (Matthew 27:31). The “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) were trampled upon by wicked sinners as they treated him with contempt denying him the “riches of his glory” (Ephesians 3:16) rightfully belonging to him.
The Victim becomes the Victor
The word that Paul uses for “wrong” was sometimes used to describe being treated like a criminal. This was precisely how Jesus was treated and therefore, in the world’s eyes, Jesus, crucified, was deemed to be the ultimate loser. But in God’s eyes, he was and would be the winner, the Victor (Philippians 2:5–11).
It is this image Paul impresses upon his readers. Paul knows that it is only by the power of the cross that Christians will win by losing. It is, in fact, only by the power of the cross that the Christian will be enabled to choose losing over winning. It is only by the power of the cross that the Christian will choose to respond responsibly in the face of injustice rather than insisting on his rights to the detriment of the body and to the name of Jesus Christ (see 1 Peter 2:18–25).
The Lord Jesus exemplified what he exhorted: He turned the other cheek and suffered wrong precisely because he knew his reward was in heaven. As we will see, this was very much on Paul’s mind.
When you are mistreated by a fellow church member, think about how the Lord Jesus responded to his mistreatment and how he wants you to respond. If you don’t get the “justice” you desire, that you believe you deserve, you may need to just let it go and move forward. Remember that we live in a broken world full of broken sinners and, to some degree, are a part of a broken church filled with broken saints.
Happy church members are not those who are always harping about their rights. Ask anyone who has been a happy and holy longstanding church member. Though hurt at times, and though not always seeing things resolved the way they desired, by taking up their cross and following Christ, they have humbly persevered with joy and with fruitfulness. That is what the cruciform life will produce.
In v. 8 you almost hear Paul’s lamenting sigh: “Alas, rather than following Jesus Christ, you have chosen to fight for your rights and the family of God suffers.”
Paul was no politician or diplomat who used words to manipulate. So when he uses the word “brother” or “brothers” (39 times in this epistle, three times in vv. 5–6), we can feel his passion for the family of God, including his sadness at the way they were treating one another. His fatherly heart ached for his spiritual children (4:14–15).
Brothers and sisters, it is essential, when conflicts arise between us, that we remember our God-given description and dignity (“saints,” “brothers”), our destiny (we will judge the world), and therefore our duty to solve conflicts biblically. We have been provided with the capability to do so. God has designed the church in such a way that the saints by the grace of God, instructed by the word of God, are sufficient to deal with disputes.
I recently shared with my fellow elders that, whatever time I have left as pastor-teacher of BBC, I want to do all I can to equip us to live congregationally as the Lord expects. This series in 1 Corinthian has profoundly affected my own understanding of and commitment to congregational body life. I want to help us to appreciate, in a greater way, the immense privilege that is ours to be members of the Christ’s local church as experienced and expressed at BBC. In many ways, I have been doing this from the beginning. Ephesians 4:1–16 has been our guide for the thirty years that I have served as the pastor of the church, and it simply needs to continue to be our guide. I pray that God continue to help us grow in Christ, and therefore to grow in sufficiency to minister to the body of Christ, including the ministry of church discipline. I pray that we will all remain committed to learning Scripture, to maintaining our focus on Jesus Christ and his gospel, and to keep seeking the Lord for proverbial wisdom to live and to love well.
A Sobering Question
These verses strike us perhaps as out of place, almost as if Paul interrupted his thought of excommunication for sexual sin (chapter 5) to speak about lawsuits and is now returning to that theme. But I think not. In fact, what Paul says here is a seamless continuation of his concern over the Corinthian response to both the sexual immorality of chapter 5 and the lawsuits of chapter 6. Paul is highlighting their spiritual danger of apostasy. He is soberly warning them that their behaviour with regard to their rights and their zeal to grasp all they can of the here-and-now is just as “unrighteous” as those “grasping” their sins of sexual immorality, idolatry, homosexuality, thieving, covetousness, drunkenness, verbal abuse, and extortion. And just as those guilty of vv. 9–11 will not “inherit the kingdom of God,” neither will those guilty of vv. 1–8.
We should see, and be sobered, that our response to conflict with fellow church members can be a grave indicator of the true state of our soul. We need to remember that “these are patterns of life, not isolated sins” so that Paul “warns his readers that willfully to practice evil without resolve to change casts suspicion on the genuineness of a professed commitment to follow Christ” (Thiselton). If we are characterised by a litigious, my-rights mindset, including towards the body of Christ, we are in danger of eternal peril. With reference to these egregious sins, as well as with reference to their self-centred litigious obsession, “the lawsuits plaguing the church are not a minor matter, for if the Corinthians continue to give themselves over to sin, they will not inherit the kingdom. They cannot continue to engage in evil and expect a final reward” (Schreiner).
To put it succinctly: If you live in such a way that indicates your greatest pursuit is what you inherit here on earth, you have no reason to believe you will inherit the kingdom of God. However, if you are in the kingdom of God, you should live like the kingdom of God is your inheritance.
The Trinitarian Transformation
Though Paul has used a sobering tone and though he has expressed shame at their behaviour, nevertheless, like the writer to the Hebrews, he thinks better things of them (Hebrews 6:9). We read this in v. 11: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
This verse is perhaps the most striking of the “but God” celebrations in Scripture. You perhaps recall Ephesians 2, where, after he describes pre-conversion people as dead, disobedient, and depraved, Paul breaks the tragic description with, “But God being rich in mercy” (2:4–6). Here, Paul does something similar. After warning of the hopeless destiny of those who remain in their sinful condition and character (vv. 9–10) in v. 11 he celebrates, “And such were some of you.” He is saying, “This is what you were. You were disinherited, outside of God’s ‘last will and testament.’ But then, God saved you. He washed you (from your sins), he sanctified you (separating you unto himself), and he justified you (declaring you righteous).”
Each of these statements is in the aorist tense, which speaks of something complete. It is done and will never be undone. In the words of Godet, “Such a fathomless depth of grace is not to be re-crossed.”
But it is very illuminating that, in the original text, the word for “but” precedes each statement: “But you have been washed”; “but you have been sanctified”; “but you have been justified.” Yes, “but God!”
Paul had had some hard words, but he did not want them to despair. He encouraged them concerning what they had been and what they now were. Being transformed by the power of the gospel, being recreated by the power of the Spirit through the work of Jesus Christ’s cross, they were able to live for the glory of God. His deliberate trinitarian emphasis encouraged the Corinthian church concerning their distinctive dignity, their destiny, and their duty. Now, they must just do it. And so must we. “Verse 11 is a description of what the gospel of God’s free grace achieves in a sinner’s life when he, or she, repents. But, if we remain complacent about our sin and content in our quarrels, how can we claim to be real believers in such a Saviour?” (Jackman)
As members of Christ’s church, we testify that we have been washed from our sins in the blood of the Lamb and have borne witness to this through the waters of baptism. Being born again, we have been declared righteous before God. And, having been sanctified by God, our lives are set apart distinctively to him. It is therefore our gracious duty to live in such a way that we honour the name of the triune God in whom we have been baptised. We do so by seeking him first and his righteousness. And as each of us does so, we will experience God’s supernatural power revealing the glorious truth of the sufficiency of the saints to live together to the glory of God among the nations.