Eighth in a series
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels – to say nothing of ordinary matters?
We live in a litigious day. Most of us grew up in simpler times in which, if you slipped, fell and injured yourself, you assumed personal responsibility for your awkwardness or at least your failure to look where you were stepping.
The first I was aware of liability lawsuits was when I, on a summer break, went to visit my girlfriend and her family who lived on Long Island, New York. She described how early on a snowy day her father, an American Airlines pilot, would get up and shovel the walk and sand it to protect against liability lawsuits in case someone slipped and fell. In that neighborhood, neighbors were looking for excuses to sue each other for huge settlements for somewhat vague injuries such as back strain or whiplash. Little did I dream that that was only a foretaste of what within twenty years most of our society would become. People are suing right and left. As a result, our premium costs have accelerated exponentially.
It’s been with great pain that I’ve watched a number of our very best medical doctors retire early from their practices, as the cost of malpractice insurance and the threat of legal suits have made a once beloved profession much less attractive. One of our anesthesiologists retired in his late fifties after he was sued by a family member of his office staff to whom he had given free treatment.
Granted, there should be protection for people who have been seriously injured by professional incompetence.
But all this can be taken too far! Once again we find that the circumstances in first-century Corinth are quite similar to ours today. That was a litigious society, even more so than ours. The Greeks loved to sue. The law courts were one of their chief amusements. First-century records from Athens show us that the first attempt to settle was carried out by private arbitration. Each party chose its own arbitrator, and a third was chosen by agreement between both parties to be an impartial judge.
If that failed, there was a court known as The Forty. The Forty referred the matter to a public arbitrator, all who were male Athenian citizens in their sixtieth year. To refuse to be an arbitrator was to face the penalty of disenfranchisement. If the matter still was not settled, it was referred to a jury court, which consisted of 201 citizens that handled minor cases and 401 citizens for cases involving larger amounts of money. There were juries that could be as large as from 1,000 to 6,000 citizens, each of whom was paid for acting as a jury member. You can see that practically every Athenian male was in his own way a lawyer who spent a great deal of his time either deciding or listening to law cases.
Greeks who would come to faith in Jesus Christ had a tendency to bring their litigious tendencies into the Christian church. Paul was shocked. Jews, on the other hand, did not ordinarily go to law in the public law courts. They tended to settle things before the elders of the village or the elders of the synagogue. Justice was far more a thing to be settled in a family spirit than in the public arena. So we see here a clash in cultures.
Paul is not talking against lawyers or lawsuits. He is not speaking against civil courts or Roman law. He himself had been the beneficiary several years before when the Jews of Corinth brought him before Gallio. Gallio had defended Paul’s right to preach. You can read about this in
The presenting issue with which Paul wrestles in
Paul is astonished that people who are part of the family of God are taking their grievances to be settled by nonbelievers instead of fellow Christians. He writes, “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” (
He moves the argument on, suggesting an additional question. Isn’t this a moral loss to you in your witness to these nonbelievers that you have to drag your personal concerns before the very people you are praying you’ll be able to lead to faith in Jesus Christ? Wouldn’t it be better to be defrauded than to be seen fighting as brothers and sisters in Christ? Why not keep it all in the family? Better still, why not live above these petty concerns, giving greater attention to one’s responsibilities than to one’s rights? He writes, “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud-and believers at that” (
The issue is this: Can’t we the redeemed of the Lord deal with our own problems within the family of God? It scandalizes a church not to be able to handle its own affairs. We are called to try to settle these issues as brothers and sisters.
Paul did not come up with this teaching on his own. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it is in direct concurrence with the teachings of Jesus, who in
What I extrapolate from the teaching of Jesus is that, if the matter is not that significant to you, move on. Don’t get uptight over it. But if it is a significant matter of justice, you are welcome to pursue the issue in the civil courts. For God’s sake, your sake and the witness of the church, don’t be dragging every petty concern, every squabble before the civil courts. It damages the church both internally and externally.
Then Paul introduces a most significant fact. He reminds us that we are actually better qualified to judge with equity than are nonbelievers. With a note of sarcasm, he writes, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels-to say nothing of ordinary matters?” (
Are you aware that, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, when He returns to judge the quick and the dead, you will be put in the position of responsible leadership, serving in a role of judicial leadership? I’m not going to develop this concept at length. I myself find it somewhat confusing.
Building on these eschatological references, Paul is saying bluntly that, if you can judge the world in the end times, why in the world can’t you judge yourselves? You are competent to counsel. Why go rushing off to the civil courts?
If you have a difference with a fellow believer, if you love Jesus and you know that person loves Jesus, do everything in the world you possibly can to resolve it. Follow the pattern Jesus outlined. Don’t allow the church to be scandalized.
I love the way Charles Swindoll states it. He says to not deal with it within the Body of Christ is to be like a certified public accountant who goes to a second-grader to check out the accuracy of his math. It’s like a couple with a marriage problem going to a therapist who has been married four or five times. It’s like a professional consulting an illiterate for a literary criticism.
Aren’t these believers in Corinth the same ones who were so proud of their wisdom? If they’re going to boast about how wise they are, isn’t this the perfect chance to show it? Paul writes, “If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer-and before unbelievers at that?” (
By now you may be saying, “John, get practical. How can we apply this teaching in the twenty-first century?”
Let me get practical by giving two illustrations.
First is the illustration of Christian mediation.
It’s always dangerous to get too specific and use names, but I’m going to do just that. We have a member of our church, Fred Hearn, who retired as a lawyer after thirty years of private practice. During those years, he was regularly called upon to informally mediate disputes and differences between persons, such as beneficiaries of an estate or trust and business associates. Fred loves the secular mediation work with the L.A. Superior Court. But his real passion is to help establish mediation services within the Christian community. He offers a two-phase Conciliator Training Program that endeavors to train persons with the “. . .skills essential for biblical conflict counseling and mediation. These skills will serve you well as you talk casually over a cup of coffee with two conflicted friends or formally mediate a complicated church, ministry, or business dispute.”
Phase 1 is a Christian Conciliation Course, which covers six foundational aspects of Christian conciliation presented through 23 hours of audio tapes with detailed study guides. Themes are: The Peacemaker Seminar; Christian Conciliation Procedures; Methods of Biblical Change; Ethics of Biblical Conflict Resolution; Applying Biblical Law; and An Introduction to Civil Law.
Phase 2 is a Christian Conciliation Practicum. This involves two and a half days of live training with a team of experienced conciliators from a national conciliator network, in which practical hands-on experience is given in the areas of: exploring the distinctives of Christian conciliation; learning fundamental conciliation principles; walking through the conciliation process; participating in three mock mediations based on real-life neighborhood, church and business mediations.
All this is offered at a very nominal fee.
I’m not trying to sell a program but simply trying to let you know in practical terms that such training opportunities are available to those who feel a call to offer such services and to those of us who are in need of such services.
Second is the practical illustration of being willing to be defrauded as an alternative to prolonged litigation that may go nowhere. Are we willing to be defrauded, realizing that all in life is not fair and sometimes as followers of Jesus Christ we need to simply suck it up and willingly let go of something, even at the cost of personal loss?
One of our members, who wishes to remain anonymous, this week shared with me a life experience that has nurtured and matured him. He worked for a Christian ministry organization that had a very frugal salary plan. In 1954, he borrowed $5,000 from his GI insurance policy and made a down payment on five apartment units in a Southern California beach community. By managing the place himself and moving gradually to larger places, by the time that he retired in 1976, he had a lovely 24-unit apartment building. He sold the units and took a second trust deed for $1 million with interest-only payments of $9,000 a month for eight years that the Christian paid regularly. This man was much involved in real estate operations. At the end of that eight-year period, he negotiated a new second trust deed and then carefully forgot to record it. When my friend found out about it, he took it to a Christian lawyer and found out that this man was involved in a different illegal apartment mess that was going to send him to jail for 14 months. The lawyer noted that, if he was to press on with his claim, it would double his jail time.
Taking this biblical text into consideration, he decided not to take legal action against a Christian brother. Since this would delay his time to make any money to repay, he decided to hold off on any legal action. During his 14 months in jail, his wife paid $500 a month. Since he got out of jail about four years ago, he has worked on the staff of a local church and paid $150 per month, still verbally saying that he owes a million dollars but cannot pay any more. About the time of the refinance when this man “forgot” to record the agreement, my friend found out from the bank that he had taken out $600,000, took a trip to Europe, married a woman from Switzerland, meaning that these funds could have been safely put away in a foreign bank. My friend writes, “But the Lord is good and knows what is best for me, and I am amply receiving funds that supply every need ‘above what we can ask or think.'”
You see, my friend could be bitter, angry, cynical, but he isn’t. He could have demanded legally what is his, living the rest of his life angry against God and against a Christian brother who had defrauded him. Instead, he’s chosen a direction that produces a far greater peace of mind for him, allowing God to be the One who does the final sorting out.
This is a good reminder for me whenever I tend to be too reactive to the injustices that come my way. How about you?
Paul then concludes this section with a big reminder. The reminder is, Don’t forget who you were. It’s so easy to forget who we were before we were redeemed by Jesus Christ. Paul reminds the believers at Corinth of the lifestyle from which they were converted. Some of us here are beneficiaries of having been raised in Christian families, living within the community of Christian churches and even living in a society of people, many of whom are nonbelievers but have been influenced morally by Judaic-Christian teaching. Many of the believers at Corinth hadn’t had that opportunity. Some of them were Jews in background. Many of them were Gentiles, raised in a pagan environment. Paul gets blunt with them as he writes, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (
You and I could treat this as a list of sins. It is that. This is the level to which humanity dips when it’s unredeemed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and/or void of the endemic impact of godly biblical influences. How easy it is to forget what Jesus Christ has done for us and yearns to do through us for others.
Far from castigating the other citizens at Corinth for their wickedness, Paul is reminding the believers that many of them used to be like that themselves. This shows the power of Jesus Christ to change lives!
I’ve been told of a minister who, preaching on this text, came to the conclusion of his sermon. Having just read these verses, he paused, declaring that the congregation had become a pretty proud group of people, quite arrogant in self-righteousness, when everyone was actually fortunate to be saved by God’s grace. He declared that none was perfect. Then he paused and said, “I am going to read this list again. I’m going to ask you if you used to practice immorality, idolatry, adultery, sexual perversion, thievery, greed, drunkenness, wild partying before you came to faith in Jesus Christ. If you did, please stand.” Throughout the congregation, one then another then another and many more rose until a fairly substantial percentage of the congregation was standing.
I won’t ask you to go through that process this morning. But we all know that “. . .this is what some of us used to be.”
And I also remind you and me of this marvelous reality. You and I are washed, cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ, forgiven of our sins. You and I are sanctified, set free to grow towards wholeness in Jesus Christ in an ongoing process of Christian maturation. Having been made saints, we’ve been made members of God’s own family. You and I are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, acquitted of the penalties of our sin, because Jesus Christ took the penalty on Himself and has clothed us in His righteousness.
You and I still have a long way to go. Let’s remember where we’ve come from and where we’ll end up. Let’s live with a deep desire for purity and that resolution of our differences that God would have us experience!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.