Let’s begin by reviewing. In the very opening of his letter, Paul told the Corinthians that in their relationship with Jesus Christ they were complete, mature and had all that they needed. As we have studied other New Testament passages, we understand what Paul mean. As we place our trust in Jesus, he makes our dead spirits alive. He transforms the eternal, non-dying part of us (the spirit) into a new creation, and spiritually, we become someone holy, innocent, and complete, living in perfect relationship with God.
This begins a process – the new life we have in the spirit is supposed to flow into our souls and then to our bodies, and to influence how we think, feel and act. But the problem in Corinth was that, while they had put their trust in Jesus, they were not drawing on the life of the spirit. Instead they were basing their motivations, desires, decisions and lifestyles on the “life of the flesh” – that is they were influenced not by the Lord’s redemption, but rather by the desires, attitudes and cultures of the physical world. So Paul writes:
For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people.
But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. (1 Corinthians 2:11-14)
And then he points out to them:
Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, because you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, because you are still fleshly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and living like unbelievers? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)
We need to keep this in mind as we proceed through the whole book of 1 Corinthians. In most of the letter he is pointing out to them ways in which they are living by the flesh rather than the spirit. The solution is not for them to work harder or shape themselves up. Instead, they need to return to who they are in Christ, to draw their life and make their decisions from the spirit, rather than from the world around them, or from the temptations they face.
In particular, he seems to be focusing on how they exercise judgment. They are judging according to the flesh, not the spirit, when they break up into factions following one leader or another. They are doing the same thing when they evaluate how well a Christian brother is serving the Lord. They are judging (or failing to judge) from the flesh when they allow a Christian brother to flagrantly, persistently live in sin without repenting.
In chapter six, Paul points another way in which they are living from flesh rather than spirit. They are engaging in lawsuits against one another. Once again, this has to do with their failure to exercise spiritual judgment. Paul points out that from a spiritual perspective, there is no one outside the church more qualified than they are to judge disputes.
Or don’t you know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels — not to mention ordinary matters? So if you have cases pertaining to this life, do you select those who have no standing in the church to judge? I say this to your shame! Can it be that there is not one wise person among you who is able to arbitrate between his brothers? (1Cor 6:2-5, HCSB)
I have to admit, Paul’s claim that ordinary believers will judge the world and angels is a little bit startling (when Paul says “saints” he just means anyone who is a disciple of Jesus). I can’t think of any place else in scripture that states it quite this way. Jesus told his disciples that they would sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:29-30). But that seems like something special for those original twelve. Paul tells Timothy that we will “reign with Christ” (2 Timothy 2:12). There may be more to it, but at the very least, I think Paul is being explicit about the fact that the life we’ve been given in Jesus Christ is more powerful and enduring than anything in this temporary existence of ours. God’s Spirit has the only clear, correct and righteous view of things. There is no one better qualified to judge than the Holy Spirit. In Jesus Christ, we have access to that Spirit.
So when the Corinthian Christians go to secular courts for lawsuits, not only are they judging according to the flesh, but they are even abdicating their access to the Holy Spirit and submitting to the judgments of those who cannot access the Holy Spirit. Paul’s sarcastic questions reveal how ridiculous this is. In his opinion, any Christian, relying on the Holy Spirit, would certainly be a better judge than a person, however wise, who cannot rely on the Spirit of God.
There is another aspect to the lawsuits. Why do they even have them in the first place? The very fact that it comes to the point where Christians are taking each other to court is a disgrace. Paul writes:
Therefore, to have legal disputes against one another is already a moral failure for you. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather be cheated? (1Cor 6:7, HCSB)
This is a real challenge to me. It bothers me intensely when I think I have been cheated, or treated unfairly. If it is by someone who calls himself a Christian, I get even more angry. But Paul says it would be better to let it go rather than take it to court.
Couldn’t this lead to people taking advantage of you, because you are a Christian? The answer is obviously yes. But remember, one of Paul’s points is that we are not living for this life only. What happens in this life is important. This life is where we make choices that affect how we spend the rest of eternity. This life is where we can affect others for eternity. We experience real joy here, and are touched by real sorrow. But this life is only a very small slice of time, the very tiny prelude to the beginning of never ending life with Jesus (if we trust him). What does it matter, in the light of life with Jesus, if we are cheated out of $1000, or even 10,000? Paul is telling them (and us) to have an eternal perspective on these matters.
Picture yourself in the middle of a football game. The referee makes a bad call. It’s unfair. Maybe he even does it deliberately. Maybe it even costs you the game. That sort of thing really makes me angry when I see it. But it’s just a game. Ultimately, in the rest of life, the bad call doesn’t matter. Let me put it this way: I have never received any actual harm from a bad call at a sporting event. In the same way, while we are deeply involved in this life here and now, it is an indisputable fact that our lives are quite short, even measured against the relatively short time-span of human history. When I am with Jesus, it will not matter to me in the tiniest way, that I was once gypped for $11,000. To put it another way, I need to judge from the spiritual perspective, not the flesh perspective.
I’m not saying we should never try to fight injustice. But Paul makes it clear that it would be better to accept injustice from other Christians, than to take them to court. Think of it this way: if they treat one of their fellow-Christians unjustly, if they swindle one of God’s beloved children, they have a lot more than a lawsuit to worry about. They are going to have to explain themselves to God. And of course, this is another thing that Paul calls them out about. He says:
Instead, you act unjustly and cheat — and you do this to believers! Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? (1Cor 6:8-9, HCSB)
As a practical matter, it seems like Paul is suggesting that if there is some kind of dispute between two Christians, they should seek another Christian person to help arbitrate it (1 Cor 6:5). Of course, there’s not much you can do if you are the one being sued, but you could at least attempt to resolve things out of court with the person if she is a Christian. Show her this passage, and then suggest that you find a Christian arbitrator. She may not take you up on it, but it’s worth a try.
What if you have a dispute with someone who is not a Christian? Is it OK to sue them? This particular passage is not very clear about this. I would suggest in that case, that you continue to walk in your faith relationship with Jesus. In other words, ask Him about it. Seek his wisdom and leading in that circumstance.
All of this in general is a clear signal that Christians should be living radically different lives from those around them who do not follow Jesus. Our relationships in Christ must be more important than “business as usual” and even more important than our rights. Our relationships in the body of Christ should be so important that we are willing to be cheated or suffer in injustice.
I think it goes beyond lawsuits. The Holy Spirit wants Christians to live with a practical recognition that when we trust Jesus, we join a family of other brothers and sisters who also trust him. It shouldn’t just be something we talk about on Sunday mornings. It needs to make a difference in how do our daily business.