In the last essay we studied 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Paul felt compelled to exercise discipline, because of several crises that were taking place at Corinth. The first matter he dealt with was the problem of factions in the church (1:10-4:21). Then he took up the matter of a specific case of immorality in the Corinthian Church (5:1-13).
In this essay we are studying 1 Cor. 6:1-11, in which he deals with a third issue, probably learned from Chloe’s people; namely, a report of a lawsuit by one member of the fellowship against another in a secular court (6:1-11).
This lawsuit upsets Paul as much as the factions and the sexual immorality. He is astounded that a Corinthian believer would sue another, especially in a secular court, which he describes literally as “the unjust” as opposed to “the saints.” You will notice that the English translations render “the unjust” as “unrighteous” (NRSV) or “ungodly” (NIV), because Paul was not claiming that the Roman courts made unjust judgments. He had himself occasionally made use of the Roman courts (Acts 16:37-39; 25:10-12). He was saying that they were unrighteous in the sense that they were not believers. The same is true of the word “saints.” Paul was not speaking about their moral holiness; he was speaking about their status as believers. I remind you that Paul considered all Christians to be “saints.”
So Paul quickly reminds the Corinthians that the saints eventually will judge the world. Therefore they should have had no difficulty finding people within their fellowship to judge these trivial cases. Paul considered them trivial, because they had to do with the present life. Then Paul declares that we Christians, as the end-time people of God, will judge even the angels.
The Greek of verse four can be interpreted in two different ways. It can be interpreted as either a question (as by the NRSV) or as an ironic imperative (as by the NIV). If it is interpreted as a question, it has to refer to non-church members, that is, “those who have no standing in the church.” If it is interpreted as an ironic imperative, then it has to refer to church members, that is, “men of little account in the church.” Both of these interpretations have a long history, and both have some problems. But since the Greek verb used here literally means “the ones being despised,” I believe the NRSV is following the better tradition.
At the beginning of verse five, Paul tells the Corinthians that they have acted shamefully. You will recall that back in 4:14 Paul told them he was not writing to shame them, but to admonish them like a loving father. But that didn’t keep him from telling them here that their actions had been shameful.
In the rest of verse five and verse six Paul returns to sarcasm to make an important point. As you know, the arrogant ones among the Corinthians believed themselves to be wise. And yet, as Paul sarcastically points out, they didn’t have anyone wise enough to render a decision in the conflict between two Christian brothers. The offended one had gone to a secular court of unbelievers instead. Paul obviously thought that a church is in deep trouble when the members believe they can get more justice from unbelievers than from believers.
In verse 6-8 Paul turns to the specific case at hand. We are not told what the lawsuit actually was about. But he declares that having lawsuits between believers is itself a moral defeat for them. The reason is that it demonstrates that selfish desire has overcome love. Then he speaks directly to the one who has brought the lawsuit with two questions, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded (NRSV)” or :”cheated” (NIV)?. And then in verse eight Paul speaks to the one who had done the wrong and was sued, though he broadens the accusation to the whole church, “But you yourselves wrong and defraud–and believers at that.”
We must make a twenty-first century response to these verses. It is very easy for us to apply what Paul is saying to the Corinthian church without stopping to reflect on what it may mean for us. But it is essential that we apply the paragraph to ourselves. Fee reminds us that as Christians we are the end-time people of God. Therefore we are God’s people of the future as well as the present. But we live so completely in the present that we tend to follow the values of the present age rather than those of the future, end-time kingdom.
In summary, Paul has at least three problems with the community in relation to the lawsuit. First, they present a poor witness. By pursuing a lawsuit in the secular courts, they are exhibiting the same attitudes as the people to whom they are supposed to be bearing a witness for Christ. But Christians are supposed to be different from non-Christians.
Second, they are selling themselves short. One day they will judge the world and angels; and yet they ask non-Christians to judge between them. Furthermore, they boast about having great wisdom and spiritual gifts, but they cannot handle their differences within the fellowship.
And third both participants in the lawsuit are losers, regardless of whether or not they win (v. 7). Jesus and Paul are together in this. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well” (Mt. 5:40). In other words, it is better to lose the money or property involved than to lose a Christian brother and or your testimony.
The section is brought to a close in verses 9-11. In these verses Paul summarizes the kinds of sins that were threatening the Corinthian community.
In verse nine Paul issues a warning that “unrighteous men” will not inherit the kingdom of God. The NRSV translates the term as “wrongdoers” and the NIV as the “wicked.” That the warning applies to unbelievers goes without saying; but in this context, the warning also applies to the Corinthian church. Some scholars, who hold a theology that does not allow for Christians to be disinherited, dispute this; but Paul wrote the words to the Corinthian church. If they, without repentance, commit the kinds of wicked sins that are listed by Paul, they will not inherit God’s kingdom.
In verses 9-10 Paul lists ten representative sinful activities, some of which he mentioned earlier in 5:10-11. The first two, sexual immorality in general and idolatry, we discussed earlier; and we all know that the third, adultery, refers to sexual activity by married people outside of their marriages. The fourth and fifth are more difficult. Both the NRSV and the NIV translate the first of these two words (malakoi) as “male prostitutes.” Barrett uses the word “catamites.” Catamites are boys who are kept by older male pederasts for sexual purposes. This was the most common form of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world. The NRSV translates the other term (arsenokoitai) as “sodomites,” whereas the NIV translates it as “homosexual offenders.” It has two parts that literally mean “male” and “coitus” respectively. Barrett concludes that the first term represents the passive and the second the active partners in male homosexual relations. Now there are pro-homosexual scholars [e.g., Boswell, Christianity] who attempt to interpret these terms in such a way that they do not represent homosexuality, but their arguments are unconvincing.
The sixth through the tenth sinful activities listed by Paul: thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers (slanderers in the NIV) and robbers (swindlers in the NIV) are examples of sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God. However, in verse 11 Paul eases the tension by saying. “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.” In other words they sincerely had repented and been forgiven.