Should Christians Refrain from Going to Court in Cases Involving Other Christians?

Paul links three topics which, on the surface, may appear to have little in common: “going to the law” or taking someone to court (I Cor. 6:1-8), sexual immorality (6:9-11), and freedom and discipline (6:12-20). What these three topics share is a warning against manipulating or taking advantage of fellow Christians. In Corinth there is apparently an elitist group – those who count themselves “wise” and who have more economic and social standing and who are misusing their freedom in Christ.  These people, as seen most clearly in chapter 11, are taking advantage of their social standing. They are “grasping” sexually (some conclude they are using boy prostitutes), financially (attempting to make money by taking advantage of their Christian brothers and sisters), and even in their station in the church (pride of place in wisdom and position) they are “grasping” what is not theirs. The situation, where some in the church are taking others to court, may be an extension of the thematic problem; the wealthy and powerful taking advantage of the poor and weak.

Anthony Thiselton notes that in civil courts (not criminal cases) “judges and even juries expected to receive some quid pro quo for a favorable verdict.”[1] The instigators of these lawsuits were, almost always, among those of higher social status (possibly the “not many” of 1:26).  According to Richard Hays, “The overwhelming majority of civil cases were brought by the wealthy and powerful against people of lesser status and means.” The judges themselves, being among the privileged class, “would ordinarily give preference to the testimony of their social peers against the testimony of those of lower rank; furthermore, those of high standing had the funds to hire professional rhetors to argue their cases and, if necessary, to bribe the judges.”  Hays refers to a character in the Satyricon, Petronius, who complains as follows: “Of what avail are laws to be where money rules alone, and the poor suitor can never succeed? . . . So, a lawsuit is nothing more than a public auction and the knightly juror who sits listening to the case approves, with the record of his vote, something bought” (Satyricon 14).[2]

Just as during the communion meals the wealthy were “shaming” the poor, and some may be visiting boy prostitutes (one interpretation of Paul’s unusual word in chapter 6), the wealthy elites are manipulating the disadvantaged before the law. Going to court is probably another instance of those who are powerful taking advantage of the disadvantaged. In some way the poor, powerless, or those of lower social status are being defrauded, perhaps being cheated out of their wages, being cheated in business, or being dispossessed of their property. The more powerful were using the courts to their advantage so as, in Paul’s words, to “defraud” or cheat their brothers. Paul is incensed that those who would claim the name of Christ would attempt to use the law – the law of the “unrighteous” or “unjust” – so as to defraud and take advantage of those who are dependent upon the “righteous” good will of fellow Christians.

To use law so as to defraud a brother who is already disadvantaged probably accounts for Paul’s sternness in this chapter. While we easily understand Paul’s outrage with the sexual sin of chapter 5, we may not so easily understand his being so disturbed with brother taking brother to court. Paul gives his explanation: “you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren” (1 Co 6:8). It may be that, like James, Paul has in mind passages from Leviticus in which the worst sort of sin is when an employer takes advantage of his workers. James gives the severest warning to those with power and position who take advantage of those under their power. “Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabbath” (Jas 5:4).

Christians who use this verse in Corinthians to enable them to defraud those under their power, without fear that they would have recourse to the law or to the courts, would seem to be the ones Paul is warning, “do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Co 6:9). This verse is not a loophole for Churches, Christian denominations, Christian companies, Christian schools, or Christian employers to defraud their fellow Christians or to break the laws of the land. To cheat someone out of their wages or to dispossess them of their property or to abuse them sexually, because they feel assured that the brother would not have recourse to the law due to this verse, this is to not only miss the point of the verse but is something of a sacrilegious twisting of Scripture. Paul counts the fraudulent Christian who would cheat his brother among the worst sort of sinners.  His warning to the defrauders: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Co 6:9–10). Apparently, those who would defraud the brethren are the “swindlers,” or potentially so, in Paul’s list.

Paul’s point in chapter five is, “Have nothing to do with such people” (5:11). By grasping for advantage over others, whether material or sexual, the danger is that elitist Corinthians and all “so called brothers” (Paul’s phrase) are jeopardizing their future reward. Paul’s point in chapter five is that it is best to turn these exploiters, such as the man living with his father’s wife, over to Satan. Perhaps they will come to repentance, maybe they won’t, but they have no place in the family Paul is describing. “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Co 5:11).

Obviously, Paul is not suggesting that a Christian who was once tempted into a single act of adultery, theft, verbal abuse, or exploitation of others, remains forever excluded from the kingdom of God or should be excluded from the Church. As Thiselton puts it, “those characterized by the practice of evil, habitual drunkenness, the practice of verbal abuse, or the exploitation of others, perhaps in business or social relations or in the employment of services. These are patterns of life, not isolated sins.”[3] Paul asserts, it is those who consistently or repeatedly practice evil that will not inherit the kingdom of God (v. 9a). As I John 3:6 declares, “The person who abides in him [Christ] does not practice sin.” To practice sin, to continually defraud workers out of their wages, to consistently dispossess the old of income, these wrongdoers (the unrighteous who exploit others for their own gain) will have no part in the kingdom. Both Paul and John warn that to willfully practice evil without any inclination to repent makes one’s Christian commitment suspect. Exploiting others sexually or financially – in both instances taking advantage of people to satisfy one’s own desires – is at a minimum a failure of love, which is to characterize the Christian community.

While recourse to the law, among the Corinthian Christians or contemporary Christians, points to a failure of the Church to be the Church this failure, which was obvious to the Corinthians and may be less obvious to us, has to do primarily with the powerful misusing their power. This verse should in no way stand as an obstacle to those who have been sexually abused by clergy or exploited by “so-called Christian” institutions from seeking legal recourse. An institution which consistently breaks the law, abuses those under its care, and which does nothing or next to nothing to resolve the problem, falls under the auspices of Romans 13; “if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it (the government) does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Ro 13:4). There is an obligation on the part of Christians not to allow such abuse to continue without censure, even though the abusers are “so-called brothers.”

 

[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, I Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006) 89.

[2] Richard Hays, First Corinthians Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, 1997) 93.

[3] Thiselton, 90.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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