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I’ve changed the names and a few facts of the stories that you will hear today. Bill sounded incredibly upset and shocked on the phone. He told me he returned from vacation to find he was locked out of his own company. The man with whom he was forming an agreement, Victor, literally changed the locks on the doors and took over the company. Bill is a member of Christ Fellowship and Victor was a member of a church in Plano. Bill appealed to no avail. He could have sued the man, but instead he asked me if the elders could help. Bill and Victor agreed to submit to the decision of a team composed of two elders from Victor’s church and one elder from Christ Fellowship.. After evaluating the data, the three-member elder team concluded that Victor had wronged Bill. They gave Victor a few options to make it right. He refused. The elders appealed to him. I personally called and emailed Victor appealing to him before God to do what is right for the sake of the gospel and his own soul. He stubbornly refused. Bill lost his company and a large amount of money he was owed. He could have gotten a lawyer and sued on multiple grounds. Bill chose instead to be wronged and walk away. He lived out 1 Corinthians chapter six.
In such cases most Christians sue the heck out of each other, demanding their rights and fighting for what they are due. We live in a massively litigious society; so was ancient Corinth. Even our TV shows are filled with people going to court with each other from Judge Judy to The People’s Court. How should we handle disputes, especially between brothers in Christ? We are studying Paul’s letter to Christians in ancient Corinth, in which he addresses hot potato issues to show us how to find spiritual wisdom in a foolish world. Today we look at how to handle the hot potato of legal disputes between Christians.
What was the situation in Corinth? Paul addressed a very specific problem, but as we will see, his advice has broader application. Take a look at First Corinthians chapter six, verse one to see the problem:
If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 1 Cor 6:1.
The phrase translated “has a dispute” is a technical term for a lawsuit, or legal action. Someone in the Church had the gall to haul a brother Christian to court to be judged by unbelievers. Paul is horrified. In the previous chapter, he confronted the Corinthian Christians for failing to judge sin in their midst; he now confronts them for bringing their disputes in the family before secular courts. The sharp incongruity between who they are in Christ and what they are doing boggles Paul’s mind. He literally says in verse five that he writes this chapter to shame them. With nine rhetorical questions he tries to shock them out of acting like the rest of the people in Corinth. In Paul’s analysis the problem arose not just from bad behavior, but from bad theology. So Paul takes us to four deep realities which form the foundation for how to think well about disputes between family members in the church. Paul’s one big point is quite clear. Don’t sue your brother.
Don’t sue your brother.
Most of the chapter explains why we should not sue our brother in light of these four deeper realities. But objections usually jump into people’s minds. “But in business I sign contracts all the time that have clauses about legal resolution. Should I not sign the contract? What if I do not know whether the other person is a Christian? Is it ok to sue a nonbeliever? What about suing a company or another entity that is not a person? What if you are a lawyer and a believer wants to hire you against another believer? What do you do if another person sues you? Should you get a lawyer and fight the matter in court? What about divorce? Should a believer use a lawyer and go to court in a divorce? What if another person who claims to be a Christian is hurting lots of people and needs to be stopped legally?”
We will discover that chapter six is like most of the Bible. It gives us divine principles, but not case law. Rather than speaking to specific cases, the Bible gives solid principles that we apply with wisdom by the Spirit to specific cases. My hope is to help you grasp the four deep realities of your destiny, mission, values and identity, which will guide you in how to handle disputes with fellow Christians.
Paul makes a clear point in First Corinthians chapter six: Don’t sue your brother. Don’t sue your brother in light of four deep realities: your destiny, mission, values and identity. I will read all eleven verses and then let’s break it down line by line to hear what God is saying to us. Follow with me as we read First Corinthians chapter six, verses one to eleven:
If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. 9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor 6:1–11
Paul thunders his indignation: how dare you do this! The first word in Greek is “dare.” You Corinthians have so much upside down. You think you are wise, but you are foolish. In chapter five we saw they are not to judge those outside, but only those inside. Now we see they are taking inside disputes to be judged by those outside. What are they thinking?! Paul’s opening point is that they should handle such disputes in the church among believers. Then in verse two he shares the first of the four deep realities. The deep reality of our destiny in Christ argues that we should not sue our brother. Don’t sue your brother because you have significant future responsibilities.
DESTINY: You have significant future responsibilities. 1 Cor. 6:1-3
You Corinthians who claim to be so knowledgeable, so wise and spiritual, do you not know these deep realities? This first one is the most difficult for me to grasp because Paul points to the future, which we can’t see yet. And yet our certain future should impact how we act today. Paul says in verses two and three:
2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 1 Cor 6:2-3
Paul argues from the greater to the lesser. If you are going to judge the world and angels, then surely you can judge ordinary matters in this life. Our future destiny impacts our present perspective. What does it mean that we will judge the world and judge angels? Honestly, I don’t know and no scholar I read knows. The Lord Jesus Christ is the one who judges the world and since we are in Christ we will participate in his kingly reign. In Christ we will share in his rule, including judging the world and angels. Paul’s purpose here is not to give us a clear picture of the future, but to point out a disturbing inconsistency between their glorious destiny and how they were handling small disputes over ordinary life issues. Sarcastically he asks: Are you not competent for matters in this life? The phrase “trivial cases” refers to common, ordinary issues in everyday life. They might be serious in the frame of this world, but in view of our destiny they are all trivial.
Paul’s argument from greater to lesser is like saying: you have been picked to serve as a juror in a Federal Case, to decide a very serious matter, but you are unwilling to judge an elementary school science fair? You have been picked to referee the Super Bowl, and you won’t referee a middle school football game? For Christians to take their legal battles to the courts contradicts their destiny, conveying that they don’t have the wisdom to settle ordinary issues among themselves. How absurd for those who will judge the world to take their disputes to those who they will judge one day.
We need to grasp the deep reality of our destiny in Christ. Our identity is shaped by our sure future. In light of our destiny in Christ, we should not sue our brothers. So turn this into a question: How does reflecting on your destiny impact how you view your dispute and how to handle it? The second deep reality we need to grasp comes in verses four to six where Paul turns to our mission. He makes the point that you should not sue your brother because you will wreck your witness in the world.
You will wreck your witness in the world. 1 Cor. 6:4-6
Even though they did not have media as we do today, a public legal dispute between church members wrecked their witness before the world of Corinth. Paul says starting in verse four,
4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 1 Cor 6:4-6
Today the media pounces on stories where Christians are fighting each other. We bring shame on the name of Christ. Paul shames them, sarcastically asking: Is there not one wise person among you who can judge the dispute? You Corinthians who claim to be so wise, is there no brother wise enough to handle this? By implication he is saying: You are demonstrating in public that you are fools because you have to go to secular courts to find a wise person to judge between you.
Just in the last few months in the Dallas media we have had to hear about a Methodist Pastor resigning over legal allegations of sexual misconduct. A few church members have filed lawsuits against him and the lawyer is also a church member. Then a few months ago, a major television ministry faced a lawsuit filed by a former employee alleging moral and financial misconduct. It is all so embarrassing and damaging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul pushes the point of how bad this is for the family of Christ by using the Greek word for “brother” three times in verses five and six. Family should not file lawsuits against family – that is shameful. This compromises our witness and brings ridicule to the gospel. While most of us are not famous enough to be talked about in the media, what message do you send to those who know you when you sue a brother in Christ? Lawsuits are notoriously ugly because it is a legal battle. The process is dehumanizing and combative. So many times I’ve seen a couple on decent terms even as a marriage dissolves until the divorce gets legal and the lawyers start filing motions. It can get dirty as two church members fight over property, children, and rights. In my extended family, a lawsuit was filed over the estate of a relative who died after a long illness that consumed most of his estate. Another relative was his primary care giver. His children wrongly attacked that relative for supposedly misusing the funds in caring for their dad. This tore up the family members involved and wrecked relationships. Needless to say, we won’t be sharing Thanksgiving dinner together next year. And how does this look to those watching who are not Christians?
I am not saying that you should never hire a lawyer or never go to court. What is more important than specific behavior are the deep realities guiding our actions. We must grasp the deep reality of our mission. In whatever dispute you find yourself, ask if your actions hurt or help the gospel? Will how you handle this dispute aid your witness or damage your witness for Christ?
The third deep reality that shines light on disputes between brothers is our values. Paul says it is better to suffer loss than to lose.
VALUES: It is better to suffer loss than to lose. 1 Cor. 6:7-10
This sounds a bit cryptic. Paul plays with the idea of loss. What is a higher value to you? What you rather be defeated in your witness for Christ or be defeated in a lawsuit? What is more important, your personal gain or the gospel? Listen closely to Paul starting in verse seven;
7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. 9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Cor 6:7-10
The fact that they have lawsuits against each other means they are defeated already. The Greek word for defeated means to lose. Whether a person wins or loses the lawsuit, the fact that they are suing a fellow brother in Christ is itself a loss. How is it a loss? Look back to verse six. It is a loss for the Gospel. It is a loss for unity in the family. It is a loss for the honor of God.
So it becomes a question of values: what do you value more, your personal gain in the lawsuit or the gain for the gospel? Which loss is more painful to you, losing a lawsuit or losing influence for the gospel? Paul boldly asks: why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? He is saying it is better to be wronged than to hurt the mission of Jesus Christ. This is a hard one for me.
Most people in American culture, including me, are so ingrained with the value of personal rights that the thought of allowing yourself to be cheated seems crazy. Bill did it. He allowed himself to be wronged without fighting back in court because of his greater value for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know what rises up in us: “But you don’t know what he did to me. It is not fair. I stand to lose a lot of money. I will not let anyone walk over me. Payback is . . . “
This is not the way of the cross, the way of Christ, to endure unjust suffering. Jesus teaches us to turn the cheek. By enduring unjust suffering we participate in the sufferings of Christ and honor God. On the cross Jesus showed us the ultimate example of giving up rights and suffering unjustly. In our day this is a hard teaching that does not fit with the machismo of the tough guy who will get revenge at all costs from old westerners to newer revenge thrillers. Men pop their chest out snarling, “You don’t want to mess with me.”
That is not how Christ lived and died. We need to grasp the deep reality of Christ-shaped values; to value the gospel over personal gain; to prefer being cheated over diminishing our witness for Jesus.
Before we move to the fourth deep reality, I want to clarify two debated points from verses nine and ten. One has to do with the security of our salvation and the other with homosexuality. Paul says, Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Then he lists ten sins, saying those who live in such ways will not inherit the kingdom of God. Does this mean a person who is a believer could lose their salvation if they steal something, or commit adultery or get drunk or are greedy? The answer is no. A true believer’s salvation is secure because it never depended on them in the first place. Salvation is based on what Jesus did, not what we do. It is by grace received by faith apart from works.
However, if a person truly trusts in Christ, we would rightly expect their life to be transformed. Paul is saying that if a person habitually engages in one of these kinds of sins, it raises a question as to whether they are really saved. Logically, one would not think that a person who has the Spirit in them would consistently engage in such behavior without deep remorse and repentance. Those who are cheating others whether in the courts or outside them, may need to examine their hearts to see if they are really new people in Christ.
The second issue relates to two Greek words used to describe homosexual behavior. In our day, homosexuality is a super-charged issue, including in the church. The danger of my being misunderstood on this issue is sky-high. I’ve had people attack me for being too gracious to people dealing with same-sex issues. I was asked, “Do you know there is a homosexual agenda?” When I say we have open arms for everyone, I was asked if that meant homosexuals were welcome here. Yes! Jesus has open arms for everyone and so do we. We are all welcome – people of grace. If you are involved in or tempted with same sex attraction, you are welcome. I am thrilled you are here. Conservative Christians have too long treated this as some horrible sin worse than any other. Let’s confess that there is ungodly homophobia in many evangelical churches. There is real discrimination against the gay community. And it is wrong.
Please review the list of ten equal sins in verses nine and ten. Men who have sex with men is not highlighted in some way different from adulterers, the greedy or slanderers. Ironically, conservative Christians have been guilty of slander against gay men in particular and so are painted by Paul with the same brush as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. All of these sins represent some form of self-gratification and or abuse of another’s rights.
Let me remind you that I am not sharing my opinion. At Christ Fellowship we are all-Bible, people guided by the Word. I did not write the Book and I refuse to edit it. My role is making it clear. We must be careful not to single out one sin over another. Remember, we are not to judge those outside. Those involved in a gay lifestyle are not to be feared, ridiculed, or hated. As with each person, they can have forgiveness in Christ, and their lives can be transformed. My prayer is for Christ Fellowship to be a haven of forgiveness and healing for all people, including those wrestling with same sex issues and relationships; including those who show prejudice and slander toward people involved in homosexuality. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of hope and healing for all people through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
This truth leads to the fourth deep reality that must shape how we deal with disputes in the family. It is the deep reality of our identity in Christ. Paul says you should not sue a brother because you are a new person in Jesus by the Spirit of God.
IDENTITY: You are a new person in Jesus by the Spirit of God. 1 Cor. 6:11
Verse eleven is filled with rich truth that forms our identity. Paul uses three terms to give a theological basis for whom God has made us to be. Notice how the whole trinity is involved. Verse eleven,
11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor 6:11
By saying that is what some of you were, Paul refers back to his list of the ten sins, meaning there were men from a homosexual background in the church in addition to adulterers, thieves and drunkards. I love the past tense: you were, not you are. This truth is in some tension with the modern position such as in Alcoholics Anonymous that for life I affirm, “I am an alcoholic.” Their point is to stress that we remain always tempted to sin, which is a biblical principle: be careful because if you think you stand, you will fall. However, at a deep identity level, biblically, we do not remain identified by our sin, but by our salvation. We are washed clean, set apart as holy and justified as innocent. The power of God transforms us in Christ by the Spirit.
Did you see each member of the trinity? You were washed sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the Spirit who is of God. God frees us from addictions to sin in Jesus by the Spirit. In Greek there is a powerful three-fold repetition of the word, “but.” And that is what some of you were, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified. We have been made new people in Jesus.
This is the Gospel. If you will trust in Jesus Christ, you can be washed clean of all your dirty sin. You can be sanctified; in other words made holy and you can be justified, legally innocent before God, righteous. If you have never trusted in Jesus, I urge you to do so. The three words: washed, sanctified and justified refer the same reality of salvation from different angles. All this can be yours in Christ.
Then as new people in Jesus by the Spirit, live that way. Live out your identity; become who you are. So ask yourself, in a dispute with a brother, how can I handle this dispute in a way that is true to my identity as one washed, sanctified and justified? When you grasp the deep reality of your identity, it affects how you handle disputes with brothers in the church.
So, how are we to respond to the truth in First Corinthians chapter six, verses one to eleven? Paul’s point is clear: do not sue your brother, in light of four deep realities: your destiny, mission, values and identity. It is these four deep realities that guide our decisions about how to handle disputes with brothers and sisters. Clearly Paul tells us that we should avoid bringing disputes to secular courts and instead bring them to fellow believers. Secondly we should choose to be wronged rather than hurt the mission of the gospel. In our day, there are alternatives. The Christian Legal Society and other groups have alternatives to filing lawsuits. You can write arbitration agreements into contracts that commit to resolution outside courtrooms.
In all of the complex, specific situations with their turns and twists, consider how you handle disputes in light of these four deep, powerful realities. The Corinthians did not understand who they were in Christ and did not have sufficient concern for the mission to value it over their personal gain. Here in Christ Fellowship, in considering how to handle any dispute ask, does this reflect my destiny? Will this help or hinder the mission? Am I more concerned about loss to the gospel or to myself? Is this true to my identity in Christ? Here at Christ Fellowship, let’s be people who grasp our destiny: that we have significant future responsibility which puts into perspective ordinary issues of this life. Let’s grasp our mission to witness to Jesus and value it above suffering personal loss. Finally, let’s grasp our identity as new people in Jesus by the Spirit. Then when disputes come, how we handle them will show the love and light of our God.