Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (13)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (13)

1 Corinthians 6:1-8

Broadcast: May 10, 1998; Message Number 1471

Solving Conflict

A while ago I read about a church somewhere in the United States that was so torn apart by internal conflicts and squabbles that the police had to be involved. It seems that several members had started a fist fight on Sunday morning and the sheriff had to lock the doors of the church. The upshot was that some of the people involved took out warrants against each other and brought their cases to the district court. This is not an isolated case. We don't need to look far to find examples of church people suing each other over church properties and other matters.

The Bible has something to say about that kind of situation. In I Corinthians 6:1-11 the apostle Paul deals with exactly this issue: Christians were fighting and taking each other to court to settle their disputes. When Paul hears about this sad situation, he knows he must address the issue quickly and decisively. The apostle not only condemns this action, but also points out its serious implications and consequences, not only for the individual Christians involved, but for the whole church.

"Dare any of you," he asks, "having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?" The apostle is shocked that some of the believers in Corinth are suing each other in pagan courts! Apparently they thought nothing of it. In Greek society litigation was part of everyday life, just as it is in our own country. The Corinthian believers had been so used to arguing, disputing and taking one another to court prior to their conversion, that they carried those selfish attitudes and habits over into their new lives as Christians.

When Paul hears what is going on, he tells the Corinthians that it is wrong for them to settle their differences in a pagan court. Not that a Christian may never go to court. God has given us certain rights which we may defend by using the legal system. What Paul was objecting to, however, was that believers were suing each other and bringing their petty grievances before pagan judges.

In doing so, they showed that they had no respect for the church's authority and competence to settle internal disputes. It also showed that they were not aware of their dignity as Christians. And this is what Paul emphasizes here: "Do you not know that the saints shall judge the world, he asks? And if the world shall be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest things?"

When Christ will come again at the Last Day to judge the living and the dead, you will participate in this important work. Yet you can't even handle small disputes among yourselves. As Christians you should be competent to deal with these issues yourselves, why then do you entrust jurisdiction to outsiders whom we as Christians don't respect? Christians should try to settle their own disputes as much as possible. To do so we give testimony to our superior resources as well as our unity, harmony and love before the world. When we go to a public court, our testimony will have the opposite effect.

The Corinthians knew better. I say this to your shame, Paul reprimands them, and then with a note of sarcasm he adds, "Is there is not a wise man among you who will be able to judge between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother and that before unbelievers!" The Corinthians had been boasting about their wisdom and now Paul asks them, where are your wise men? Isn't there anybody who can settle these kind of problems?

What Paul says here is very relevant. How often we hear about church scandals in our time! Almost daily the news media report stories of ministers falling into sin and Christians fighting among themselves. That is grist for their mills, of course. We should not blame the media for reporting such things. The blame rests on those who cause these scandals. Every time something like that happens, the Lord's cause experiences a setback from which it may take years to recover.

When Christians take each other to court before unbelievers it is not only a disgrace for the church and harmful to its witness, but they always lose by it. Even the party that wins the lawsuit loses. To have such lawsuits at all is already a defeat for you, Paul says in verse 7. Christians who take fellow believers to court have lost before the case is even heard. The fact that they can do this is already a clear sign of spiritual and moral defeat. It shows they are selfish and have no confidence in the power and wisdom of God Who uses His church to resolve conflicts among His people.

The right attitude of a Christian is to rather be wronged, even to be defrauded, rather than sue a fellow believer. It is far better to lose financially than to lose spiritually. Even when we are clearly in the legal right, we do not have the moral and spiritual right to sue and take our case to court. If the brother has wronged us in any way, our response should be to forgive him and to leave the outcome of the matter in God's hands.

Peter once asked Jesus how often he should forgive a brother who had sinned against him. The Lord replied, seventy times seven, in other words, times without number. If we are wronged or defrauded we should be forgiving, not bitter. If we cannot convince the brother to make things right and if he will not listen to fellow believers, we are better off to suffer the loss or the injustice than to bring a lawsuit against him. It is better to be sued and lose than to sue and win. Spiritually, it is impossible for a Christian to sue and win. When we are taken advantage of by others, we should simply cast ourselves on the care of God Who is able to work everything for our good and His glory.

I read about a Christian attorney who over the years had counselled dozens of Christians to drop lawsuits against each other. In most cases he had been successful and reported that without exception those who took his advice had been blessed. But also without exception, those who insisted on resolving their disputes in court had become bitter and resentful--whether they won or lost their cases. In either case they suffered spiritual loss.

Paul's appeal to the Corinthians to suffer wrong and to let themselves be defrauded may strike some of you as naive or unrealistic. I'm sure the Corinthians did not appreciate Paul's advice either, but at least they knew they were wrong. Paul could appeal to what they apparently knew very well, but had chosen to forget, namely that Christians should not be attached to earthly possessions. The early Christians were eschatological Christians. They lived toward the future. They understood they were living in the last days and expected the imminent return of their Lord. Why should they be concerned with property rights and land titles and deeds?

Today the situation has changed a lot. Not really, of course, for the coming of the Lord is even closer for us than it was for them. But our perception has changed. The first Christians lived for the day; we live for the year and years, even decades. We make our plans for retirement, save for our nest-egg through RRSP's and what have you. We are in it for the long haul. At least, that's what we think, fools that we are. And because we have our vested interests and tend to place a much higher priority on property and other material possessions, we find it hard to relate to passages as I Corinthians 6 and have real problems applying all this to our situation today, especially verse 7.

The sad thing about all this is that we no longer understand who we are and what our attitude should be as Christians living in this world. As one New Testament scholar wrote recently, "we suffer from a general lack of a Biblical self-understanding, especially in terms of the eschatological framework of our existence as the people of the future who are to be totally conditioned by that future as we live in the present." Because of this, our priorities are shaped by values of this age rather than the age to come.

That is why these passages of the New Testament strike us as quaint and far from our experience. Not only what Paul says here, but also and even more so what Christ says on the same subject in the Sermon on the Mount, seems far-out and unrealistic to us. How about this statement from Matthew 5:39: "Do not resist him who is evil, but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue you at the law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak as well."

These are radical demands and let's be honest, we don't know what to do with them, so we explain them in such a way that we rob them of their force. Or, if we don't quite dare go that far, we will admit that this is indeed what the Lord asks of us and we see it as a high ideal that we should strive for perhaps, but which we will probably never reach.

However, what the Saviour is asking here is not so far out of reach. All He is insisting on is that if we profess to be His followers we must get rid of the spirit of retaliation, the desire to defend ourselves and to revenge ourselves for any injury or wrong that is done to us. Again, this does not mean we may not ever defend our civil rights. But we should not be overly concerned about personal honour and personal insults and personal defence.

Admittedly, the Lord is asking a lot from us here. The natural man rejects this kind of teaching completely because it goes right against sinful human nature. Even the Christian, in so far as his old nature still makes itself felt, finds it difficult to practise such a life of self-denial and being the least. Yet, by the grace of God, it is possible to begin living like that and the place to begin is to admit our weakness and our sinful inclinations and to cry out to God for help.

We have come a long way already if we acknowledge that these things are an essential part of the Christian life and not something that only super-Christians need to be concerned about. This is Christianity, pure and simple, which we need to rediscover and make our priority. It is something we can only learn if we live close to Him who taught us these things and who has said, "Take my yoke upon me and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Additional Info

  • Audio: 110520511
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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