Living in a broken world is messy. It would be nice if everyone saw eye-to-eye and problems were easily resolved. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Even believers sometimes find themselves in bitter disputes with other believers. This raises the question: Is it ok to take another believer to court?
A common answer to this question is a straightforward—and sometimes emphatic—no.
The Apostle Paul addressed the question directly in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
1 Corinthians 6 — 1When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2Or 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? 3Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!
While I won’t be able to fully exposit the passage here, I will make some observations that I hope will be helpful in wrestling with the question.
1) This passage deals with brothers.
This passage addresses “a dispute between the brothers” (v. 5). This is confirmed by the statement “brother goes to law against brother” (v. 6).
2) Not everyone who says he is a brother is a brother.
While we know that there will be “tares among the wheat” (Matthew 13), who has the right to judge such a thing? The answer to this question is complex in situations between the members of two churches, or where one or both parties are not connected with a church, but what is clear is that the church is authorised to mark members in prolonged, unrepentant sin and to treat them as unbelievers. This authority is explicitly defended in Matthew 18:17-20. This is important because once someone is to be legitimately treated as an unbeliever, he is not the sort of person to whom 1 Corinthians 6 applies.
3) This passage deals with disputes.
The text calls it “a grievance” (v. 1). The KJV translates it “a matter” which effectively communicates the idea in the Greek of a business matter or a contractual disagreement. In verse five, the text refers to it as “a dispute.” The Greek here speaks of someone judging something in between two brothers.
One or both parties feel that to let the situation drop would result in them having to “suffer wrong” or “be defrauded” (v. 7).
4) This passage deals with civil matters.
The passage addresses one brother taking another brother to court over a dispute. By very definition, this is a civil matter.
It is crucial here to understand the difference between a civil matter and a criminal matter. In the legal tradition passed down to us from the Roman world in which Paul lived, a civil matter is a dispute in which one person argues a case against another person. The underlying assumption in a civil case is that one person has allegedly wronged another and the two people are in need of someone to judge between them. This is reflected in the way a civil case is named in our legal system (Bloggs v Smith); the terms used for the parties in a civil case (plaintiff1 and respondent); and the way the outcome is worded (the court rules either for or against the plaintiff).
A criminal matter, on the other hand, is not a dispute. It is an alleged offence. The underlying assumption in a criminal case is that someone has been accused of committing a crime against the Crown. The purpose of the case is to give the Crown a chance to prove the alleged offence was indeed committed by the accused person. This is reflected in the way a criminal case is named (R2 v Bloggs); the terms used for the parties (Crown prosecutor and defendant); and the way the outcome is worded (the defendant is found either guilty or not guilty of the charges).
These definitions help to clarify that 1 Corinthians 6 is clearly addressing civil matters, not criminal matters.
5) This passage cannot apply to criminal matters.
The text says “brother goes to law against brother” (v. 6). As noted above, this cannot be a criminal matter because a crime is not committed against a person—it is committed against the state, against society. Individuals cannot prosecute crimes. Only the Crown can prosecute a crime.
A criminal matter is not a dispute. “I think you owe me $100 but you think you only owe me $50” is a dispute. I think you broke the law in X way is an alleged crime.
That is why in a civil case, the judge rules either for or against the plaintiff (the complainer). The plaintiff has brought a complaint (i.e. a dispute) against another person and the court either agrees with it or doesn’t. A criminal case does not seek to settle any dispute. There is no plaintiff. Rather, there is the prosecutor and when the judge rules, it will not be for or against the prosecutor, but rather will be a judgement regarding the defendant: guilty or not guilty. The question in a criminal case is not which side is right but whether the defendant has broken the law in the way in which they were accused of breaking the law.
Some thoughts on the final observation
To apply 1 Corinthians 6 to criminal cases not only takes it well beyond what is being taught in the original context, but also opens the door to all sorts of problems. For instance, if I should suffer the wrong, shouldn’t children who are being sexually abused be told to suffer the wrong as well? Is justice only for the world and foreign to Christianity? Should I report a stolen car? Should I report a sexual predator? Should matters of abuse be dealt with through a church tribunal? What about murder? Should churches own jails? Should they perform capital punishment?
This brings us to another important passage.
Romans 13 – 1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
It seems to me that this passage directly calls for us to view the state as “God’s servant” who “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” God intends the state to pursue and prosecute crimes because that is what a just state will do. God has placed the sword in the hand of the state to be used for the protection of the innocent and the state “does not bear the sword in vain.”
Clearly, the church cannot and should not usurp this God-given authority. Nothing in Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians contradicts Paul’s instruction to the Romans and visa versa. This is a crucial point in interpreting 1 Corinthians 6 and sets a solid foundation for the conclusion argued in my recent post 16 reasons crime should not be handled in-house.
While these observations do not resolve all of the interpretational difficulties with 1 Corinthians 6:1-8—indeed, they hardly begin to address them—they do, I hope, give some helpful insights on what the passages does and does not mean.
A precise understanding of this passage will allow us to know when we have the option of handling a situation in-house and/or allowing ourselves to be defrauded and on the other hand, when we have the option or even the obligation to go to the law and seek justice.
Grace to you.
1I.e. the complainer.
2The “R” refers to the Crown and stands for Rex in the case of a male monarch and Regina in the case of a female monarch.