“When mores are sufficient, laws are unnecessary; when mores are insufficient, laws are unenforceable.”
― Émile Durkheim
In 1 Corinthians 6:1–11, Paul criticizes the Corinthians for the divisive lawsuits among them and his language is harsh. His concern is for the purity of the church and his parental scolding follows the theme of “I’m so disappointed in you” or “Don’t you know better than that?” By suing each other in civil court, the Corinthians were missing every mark. They not only failed settle their differences in a private, Christ-like way, but they were also airing out their dirty laundry to the community. Paul said if they were really trying to honor Christ with their lives, they would have instead just allowed themselves to be cheated instead of demanding retribution.
Now that’s hard teaching.
Paul’s list of vices in verse nine is heavy on sexual sins and they tend to get the most attention. In the verses that follow he will explain why sexual sins are particularly harmful, but please notice they are set down right beside covetousness, and alcohol abuse. Underline verse eleven. As Christians we receive the forgiveness that washes away our sinful past, but it doesn’t end there. We are “sanctified.” That verb belongs almost exclusively to biblical Greek and means “set apart”.
It should give us pause. When the world looks at us, is our Christianity evidenced in our character and behavior?
1 Corinthians 6:1–11
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? 4 If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!
7 Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? 8 No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! 9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
“This next case in Paul’s litany of accusations designed to deflate the Corinthians’ swollen pride begins abruptly with an interrogative conveying his shock. The verb “dare” (τολμᾷ, tolma; cf. 2 Cor. 10:12; 11:21; Jude 9) is placed at the beginning of the sentence to thunder his indignation over this turn of events—what gall they have! Suing one another before pagan magistrates is something Paul considers a horrid breach of Christian fellowship that could stem only from brazen insolence. How dare anyone do this!
“Having a case against another” (πρᾶγμα ἔχων πρὸς τὸν ἕτερον, pragma echōn pros ton heteron) is an idiom used for civil litigation (Epictetus, Diatr. 2.2.17; BDAG 859; MM 532).1 We do not know whether Paul refers to one case only or to their general practice (Roetzel 1972: 127). Given the relatively small numbers in the church, it is probable that there was only one such case. The infinitive κρίνεσθαι (krinesthai) has the meaning here of going to law (cf. Matt. 5:40). What makes this action so abhorrent is that a Christian brings a fellow Christian before the bar of the unjust. The aim of the ancient lawsuit was to prevail over another, and that usually involved an assault on the opponent’s character. Paul rejects this philosophy altogether (6:7); to try to down a fellow Christian before, and with the aid of, those who do not worship God is completely inimical to Christian love.”
David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 195.
“The Roman legal system prevented those of inferior status from prosecuting their “superiors,” such as patrons and magistrates.48 Thus these disputes are likely to have been between those of the same social status within the Roman colony; no doubt they are drawn from those who would consider themselves as “powerful” (dynatoi, 1:26). Alternatively they could be cases brought by an individual with high social status against someone with a lower social status—for example, a magistrate against a freedman. The case would be initiated by taking the matter before one of the two main magistrates in the colony, one of the duovirs. The case would be heard before a judge or a jury of one’s peers.49 Jurors were selected from wealthier social groups; in Cyrenaica (North Africa) jurors had to have a property value of 7,500 denarii.50 The Cyrene edict of Augustus dating to 7/6 B.C. suggests that juries could sometimes act in an unjust way, constituting some form of cliques.51 Later sources show that Corinth itself suffered from such legal corruption.52 The word “ungodly” can also be translated “unrighteous” (or perhaps “corrupt”). Since Paul himself used the Roman legal system from time to time, it is unlikely that he is recommending a distancing from it; he is more likely drawing attention to the potentially corrupt nature of the system.”
Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 130–131.
• Blomberg (1994, 116–17) argues that these lawsuits concerned matters of property dispute or business dealings, like most Hellenistic litigation matters. He points out that in this case Paul’s remarks would be directed toward the affluent Corinthian believers, as few people owned land or homes at that time.
“1 Corinthians 6:1–11” NIVAC: 1 Corinthians
• Ciampa and Rosner (2010, 221–22) think the lawsuits described in 1 Cor 6 probably concerned civil matters rather than criminal offenses. More specifically, they think the cases between the Corinthian believers involved matters such as “legal possession, breach of contract, damages, fraud, or injury.”
“1 Corinthians 6:1–11” PNTC: The First Letter to the Corinthians
• Fee (1987, 228–29) argues the uncommon position that Paul is referring to a single case. He offers the following reconstruction of the problem: A believer (Man A) “defrauded” another believer (Man B), who then retaliated by taking Man A to court.
“1 Corinthians 6:1–11” NICNT: First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
• According to Fitzmyer (2008, 248), the lawsuits mentioned in 1 Cor 6:1–11 do not concern the conflict of 1 Cor 5 or any singular issue. Instead, he thinks the Corinthians’ lawsuits were trivial in nature.
“1 Corinthians 6:1–11” AYBC: First Corinthians
• Johnson (2004, 92–93) thinks some of the Corinthians were suing their fellow believers over matters like “legal possessions, breach of contract, damages, fraud and minor injuries, matters of civil rather than criminal law.” He suggests the Corinthians may have benefitted from taking their disputes to corrupt pagan courts.
“1 Corinthians 6:1” The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: 1 Corinthians
• Talbert (2002, 35–36) notes the possibility that the offense mentioned in the passage may have been sexual, though other issues are possible as well. In his view, Paul is concerned that the lawsuits between believers would cause unbelief among them.
“1 Corinthians 6:1–6” Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians
Derek R. Brown and E. Tod Twist, 1 Corinthians, ed. John D. Barry and Douglas Mangum, Lexham Bible Guide (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013), 1 Co 6:1–11.