Trivial suit, part 1

Photo by Jason MorrisonI remember sitting, one Sunday morning, on the steps before the platform from which I had just preached.  A woman was telling me how confused and anxious she was over a situation in which another Christian had allegedly cheated her in a property deal.  Did she have the right to sue?  Or would doing so put her in violation of God’s word?

I felt the tension.  I wanted to encourage her desire to be obedient to God, but didn’t want to advise her in a way that would mean abandoning her legitimate rights.  I didn’t want to give her legal advice, but neither did I want a legal perspective to be her only perspective.  Or mine.

What does the Bible say about this?  Here’s Paul:

When someone in your assembly has a legal case against another member, do they dare to take it to court to be judged by people who aren’t just, instead of by God’s people?  Or don’t you know that God’s people will judge the world?  If the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to judge trivial cases?  Don’t you know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary things?  So then if you have ordinary lawsuits, do you appoint people as judges who aren’t respected by the church?  I’m saying this because you should be ashamed of yourselves!  Isn’t there one person among you who is wise enough to pass judgment between believers?  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 6:1-7, CEB)

Paul has just told them that the right exercise of moral judgment, in the service of holiness, is a function of the church.  Here, he makes a practical application of that teaching, asking, “Do they dare to do this?  Don’t you know…?”  In today’s words, that might read, “Are you kidding me?  Get a clue!”

The situation, apparently, was that one man in the Corinthian church was suing another for cheating him in a business deal.  Both parties may have been of the wealthier minority in the congregation, which would also have made them more prominent, perhaps even leaders.  Cases were brought to judgment in the marketplace, so this would have made for some juicy society gossip indeed.

Paul, always concerned about the witness of God’s people and the progress of the gospel, is horrified.  As always, he tries to correct their vision: what may seem like a matter of infinite importance–especially to the victim!–is only a trivial matter when viewed from an eschatological perspective, that is, from the standpoint of the conclusion that God has already written for human history.

Don’t you understand?  Paul asks.  One day, Jesus will return as judge, and the saints will also sit beside his throne as judges themselves (cf. Matt 19:28).  You’ll judge the world; you’ll judge angels!  How ironic, then, that you would take your squabbles before unbelievers who one day will stand under judgment themselves.  You Corinthians like to brag about how wise you are.  But look at you.  Do you mean to tell me that there isn’t a single person in the church wise enough to decide the matter without having to air the church’s dirty laundry in public?  Shame on all of you!

But does that mean, then, that one Christian may never take another to court?

More on that in the next post.