READ : 1 Corinthians 6:5-8
I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and even your own brethren.
1 Corinthians 6:5-8, rsv
As I read over my title today, I asked myself: Who in the world would listen to that, “The Gospel and Litigation”? Let me hasten to say, if that is not a familiar term, that what I want to talk about is the matter of lawsuits – people going to court against one another.
A CONTEMPORARY PROBLEM
In contemporary American life, this is an enormous social problem. Never before have there been so many attorneys and so many lawsuits. I have no complaint against the legal profession, of course. I recognize the need for lawyers in every society. I personally know a number of them who are upright, distinguished public servants. But I share the concern of many that our tendency to initiate lawsuits has grown at an alarming rate.
One of the ways in which I have become personally acquainted with this situation is through my friendship with a doctor in the town where I live. He is an obstetrician and a gynecologist, a man of great ability, highly respected in our community. He lives, as many physicians do these days, under the constant threat of malpractice litigation. We can all understand the principle behind such lawsuits. Sometimes doctors can be negligent. They can by incompetence or carelessness endanger the health and even the lives of their patients. But in the case of an obstetrician, even the highest level of professional excellence cannot protect the doctor from charges of malpractice. If newborn babies suffer any kind of difficulty at birth, or have physical problems subsequently, the attending physicians are often held responsible. In fact, if a physical abnormality shows up ten, fifteen, even twenty years later, a physician may even then be charged with malpractice.
A mentality seems to have developed in this nation whereby any conceivable misfortune is thought to warrant a lawsuit. The assumption is, for example, that every baby should be born into the world perfect and therefore, if a newborn has problems, someone must have erred or failed. The rationale is this: “If my baby is born with an abnormality, it’s someone’s fault. I must be recompensed. Someone must pay.” Doctors and nurses are often the natural suspects and certain lawyers seem to stand ready in such cases to help the aggrieved parents sue for prodigious sums.
One effect of that has been to make malpractice insurance enormously expensive. Another has been to hasten flight from the medical profession. We’ve not yet seen all the sad effects of this litigiousness among our people.
Most painful for my doctor friend has been the experience at times of being sued by fellow Christians, even by members of the same church. It has seemed very sad to him that the first recourse of these people, when they felt themselves wronged, was legal action. There was no discussion of the problem, no search for mutual understanding, no working together toward a settlement. Instead, the doctor received a curt notice from a lawyer that legal proceedings had been begun. Somehow all that didn’t seem right to my friend.
With a situation like that in mind, listen to these words from the apostle Paul to his Christian friends in Corinth: “When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of 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? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?”
Here we’re listening to what the apostle Paul says about litigation, especially between two parties who both claim the name of Christian. Paul is trying to help the Corinthians see how the gospel of Jesus Christ applies to lawsuits. Here he strongly opposes Christians going to law against each other before secular courts.
SETTLE IT AMONG YOURSELVES
His first observation about this is that believers ought to settle their disputes within the Christian fellowship. For the apostle, it seems outrageous that Christians should be judged in matters of law by those outside the faith. Listen to him, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?”
That’s a striking idea, isn’t it? Believers in Jesus Christ, Paul writes, will one day judge the world. What can he mean by that? It had been foretold in the ancient book of Daniel that a time would come when judgment would be given to the saints of the Most High, and they would receive God’s kingdom. This would occur when the Ancient of Days Himself would come. The picture is that God would enter into the fullness of His reign and then His people would share in it.
Perhaps that’s what the mother of James and John was thinking of when she asked of Jesus this favor for her sons: “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” She envisioned a time when Jesus would reign as king and when His followers would sit on His right hand and on His left. Had not Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”?
Believers can claim no superiority to their fellow human beings. They have no inherent right to rule. They will exercise dominion and pronounce judgment only because they represent the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But the fact remains: the saints will indeed judge the earth.
If that is true, Paul urges, how ridiculous it is, how incongruous for these very believers to appeal to unbelieving judges. The argument is from the greater to the lesser. If the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? If you are going to adjudicate these weighty matters, exercise this far-reaching authority, can’t you settle disputes among Christians here in this world?
Now he makes the case even stronger: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” Paul writes to the Ephesians that even now God’s wisdom is being made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places through the church. The church is teaching angelic powers now and will correct them then. The saints of the Lord will share in a reign and a judgment that takes in the whole creation, human and non-human, visible and invisible. What a future for the people of God! Now if this be true, reasons Paul, how much more should these same believers in Jesus Christ exercise judgment in matters pertaining to this life?
Paul concedes that not everyone in the church has the experience, maturity and discretion to exercise judgment. But it’s unimaginable to him that no one in the church is so qualified. How could it possibly be true, he wonders, that heathen judges are preferable to the wisest and best Christian leaders? Why would believers forsake the highest court for the lowest: “Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members?” Apparently that must be the case, because the apostle has learned that in Corinth, brother has been going to law against brother, and that in the courts of unbelievers.
OUR TRAGIC DEFEAT
Now Paul goes a step further. He argues that it’s wrong for believers to have lawsuits against one another, period. That they should let their misunderstandings and disagreements get to that point, Paul sees as profoundly unchristian. It’s a defeat for them, he says. It’s a tragic failure on their part. The spectacle of Christians suing, opposing, condemning one another, seems monstrous to Paul. It leaves him aghast. It breaks his heart.
Obviously, in these cases, some of the believers have been doing their fellow Christians wrong, defrauding them, cheating them. Imagine doing such a thing to brothers and sisters in Christ! These are the people, Paul reminds them, to whom you are called to show special kindness. Paul reminds them, you are to “do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” But instead of doing good to them, you cause them harm. Instead of building them up, you tear them down. Instead of giving to them, you take away what is rightfully theirs. Paul will say later that people who persist in that kind of behavior show themselves false to their Christian commitment. They cannot expect to inherit the kingdom of God.
But now he speaks to the ones who have been cheated and harmed. What he says here seems shocking to our ears. Listen: “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” The apostle isn’t siding here with oppressors, tyrants, and brutes. He isn’t saying that people should never express their grievances or seek to have wrongs righted. Sometimes legal action may be necessary. Paul is opposing here a litigious spirit. He is insisting that some things are more important than our personal rights.
To the apostle, it is such a shameful thing that Christians should contend against one another before unbelieving judges, that they ought to go to almost any lengths to avoid it. To him it would be better to let oneself be wronged. It would be better, when defrauded, to let the matter rest. Isn’t it better to suffer injustice or loss, he asks, than to make the gospel a laughingstock before the world and dishonor God’s name?
It’s when we read things like this that we get a glimpse of how radically transforming the gospel of Jesus Christ really is. Think about what Paul has said in this passage. First, Christians are a chosen people, so identified with the crucified and risen Lord that when He comes at the final judgment, they will be at His side, sharing His authority. Next, a level of conduct, a standard of behavior, is expected of Christians far above that which is applied to those outside the church. What would be excusable and understandable in unbelievers is out of the question for those who name the name of Jesus. Finally, Christians are expected at times to let themselves be wronged without resisting. They are to endure being defrauded or cheated without taking legal action. Paul actually expects them to acknowledge, when faced with a choice, that it’s their calling at times to bear injustice.
THE KEY TO A BETTER WAY
How can Paul say such things without being laughed at or scorned? Simply because he and the Corinthians share the same faith. Because all of them know the great things God has done in the gift of His Son. They follow the suffering Savior. Hear how the apostle Peter describes Him, “He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:22,23). Peter sums up his application of that like this: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (v. 21). Paul is pointing to the example of Jesus who gave Himself freely for us.
But when he urges Christians to act in a way that so goes against the grain with all of us, he is assuming something else. Paul is not appealing to any inherent goodness in these Corinthians. He’s not calling them to some height of personal moral achievement. He’s relying, for himself and for them, upon the risen Christ. The same Jesus who suffered unjustly on our behalf and who died for our sins is now alive. He has sent His Spirit to the hearts of His people. And with that marvelous gift comes new potential, new life. Believers, because of the risen Lord, have a new power to love, to forgive, to return good for evil. They may not always express that. They often fumble and fail. But because they have been born anew, because Christ lives in them, this gracious, God-centered way of living has become a possibility. Paul is saying to them, in effect, “You died with Christ your Savior to your old life. You were raised with Him to a new life. Don’t forget your birthright. As followers of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, live out your new life. Be the persons that you really are!”
PRAYER: Father, may the gospel of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, more and more shape the way we think and live. Amen.