Can Christians sue one another, or does the Bible forbid it?
That may be what we want to know. But it may be the wrong question to ask.
As we saw in the last post, Paul was horrified to hear that two men in the Corinthian church had been duking it out in the Roman court system, apparently over a shady business deal. He’s rightly concerned about what this will do to the reputation and witness of the church, and wishes their priorities were different:
But instead, does a brother or sister have a lawsuit against another brother or sister, and do they do this in front of unbelievers? The fact that you have lawsuits against each other means that you’ve already lost your case. Why not be wronged instead? Why not be cheated? (1 Cor 6:6-7, CEB)
It doesn’t matter who wins the case, Paul seems to say, because the church loses. The gospel loses. But does he really mean that we should let others cheat us, rather than risk embarrassment to the church? Doesn’t that open people to abuse?
It bears repeating: following a crucified Savior in a sinful world is dangerous. Doing the right thing does not always bring rewards or win friends. But Paul isn’t telling people to be doormats. True, when he asks, “Why not be wronged? Why not be cheated?” he’s asking the plaintiff to examine his priorities and see the bigger picture. But far from turning a blind eye to misbehavior, he continues to insist that the church should root out anything that threatens the community’s holiness:
But instead you are doing wrong and cheating—and you’re doing it to your own brothers and sisters. Don’t you know that people who are unjust won’t inherit God’s kingdom? Don’t be deceived. Those who are sexually immoral, those who worship false gods, adulterers, both participants in same-sex intercourse, thieves, the greedy, drunks, abusive people, and swindlers won’t inherit God’s kingdom. That is what some of you used to be! But you were washed clean, you were made holy to God, and you were made right with God in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:8-11, CEB)
It’s not just the plaintiff that needs to see the bigger picture. So does the defendant. So does the entire church. And again, as is his tendency, he sets the whole picture in its eschatological frame: it’s not about who will win the legal case, it’s about who will inherit the kingdom.
In that way, not only unethical business practices but every other form of sin comes under the microscope. In 5:9-11, Paul already gave the Corinthians two “vice lists,” the second longer than the first; here, the list grows again, and presumably, he could have made the list even longer.
Paul therefore doesn’t ignore the legal complaint, but places it squarely in the context of all the other behaviors over which the congregation could or should be in mourning. Don’t kid yourself, he warns. Don’t take grace so much for granted that you grow lax in your pursuit of holiness. Don’t assume that God’s already punched your ticket to heaven so that it doesn’t matter what you do in this life.
But having said this, Paul doesn’t threaten them with hell. His consistent message is: Be holy, because that’s what you really are. You’ve been washed; you’ve been sanctified; you’ve been justified. This is your true identity in Christ; this is what God has done and continues to do through his Holy Spirit.
So: can Christians sue one another? What Paul says here can’t be treated as a catchall rule to be imposed on conflicts within the Christian community. We should ask instead whether we are the kind of community that cherishes holiness: is it our desire to protect the church’s public witness, without turning a blind eye to sin? Are we willing, in humility, to both correct one another and to receive correction?
If these are the questions to which we diligently pursue the answers, the other questions may take care of themselves.