“If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6:1).
In his letter we call 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the matter of divisions in the church. He has been informed by some from Chloe’s household about quarrels among the Christians (1:11). Paul responds to this party spirit with a reminder that their allegiance is to Jesus Christ rather than human leaders. After all, they were not baptized in the name of their favorite preacher or elder, they were baptized in the name of Christ. Jesus was crucified for their sins, not Paul or Apollos (1:13). The power of God is in the message of the cross, not in the wisdom of their favorite leader (1:18). Jealousy and bickering are signs of immaturity and “worldliness” (3:1-3). The solution to this kind of party spirit is to exalt Jesus as Lord and Savior and to recognize that these men are merely “servants of Christ” (4:1).
What seems to have started with a party spirit and allegiance to a human leader quickly deteriorated into nasty personal confrontations. Some of these quarrels had gotten totally out of hand, to the point where Christians were dragging one another into court with lawsuits. In these situations a secular judge would sit in judgment on a dispute between two people who both recognized Jesus was crucified for them, who both had been baptized in his name, and who both wore the name of Christ.
“Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another – and this in front of unbelievers!” (6:4-6).
In addition to addressing the problem of quarreling, Paul now has to deal with the problem of the church getting a bad reputation in the community. This is happening in front of unbelievers! What are these unbelievers going to think about a church where members can’t even work out problems among themselves? Will we have the reputation in the community of being stubborn? Petty? Quarrelsome? Uncooperative?
Paul, concerned about the reputation of the church in the community suggests an in-house way of working through disputes between believers. Appoint some believers to serve as judges or arbiters of these disputes so the church doesn’t look bad in the community. Paul is not naïve – he knows the community loves dirty laundry. He urges the believers at Corinth not to fall into their trap.
“The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means that you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers” (6:7-8).
Imagine the words a Corinthian disputant would have for Paul: “But Paul, apostle Paul, sir, you don’t understand – I’m a victim here. These folks have done me wrong. I know my rights and they have been violated!” But Paul makes it clear he is not interested in claiming rights when wronged. Instead, he’s teaching believers to give up their rights and suffer unjustly if that’s what it takes to keep the church from being dragged through the mud of community scorn and ridicule. It is better to be wronged and just take it than to pursue our rights “in front of unbelievers.” When we start such a pursuit, we are “completely defeated already.”
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Paul does not want the church to be known in the community by our quarreling. Jesus wants people to know us by our love for one another. What kind of reputation do we have in the community? What are we doing to demonstrate love for one another? Are we willing to be wronged? May God forgive us when we lose sight of the big picture, misplace our priorities, and bring reproach upon the church. May God help us to be the kind of people that will help the community associate Christianity with love.