Writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul had to deal with several major disorders in the assembly, one of which was a propensity for litigation. Paul was shocked that Christians were taking each other to the courts of law in order to settle disputes.
“Such distaste for government courts was well founded at the time Paul wrote. Secular law in his time mandated the sin of idolatry by its tradition that litigants offer sacrifices to the pagan gods of justice before the trial began. Roman judges and juries were often corrupt, prone to bribery and showed unfair partiality to those parties who were powerful and influential outside the courtroom, regardless of the merits of the case.
“Moreover, the standard Roman procedure in conducting lawsuits was completely contrary to New Testament and other Christian commands to love and accommodate one another, especially those of the household of faith. The procedure fostered animosity and bad feelings. Personal hostility was exacerbated by the rules of procedure. Character assassination was common. No matter who won, a Roman lawsuit left both parties with longstanding bitter feelings and hatred against each other, against the witnesses, and even against the judges and juries.
“Early Christians shared Paul’s opposition to secular lawsuits. Such litigation was prohibited by Clement of Alexandria (Egypt), the dean of the foremost Christian educational institution of the late second century, and the church father Tertullian, a former lawyer who wrote in Tunisia in the late second and early third century, as well as by the early-third-century Syrian church manual, the Didascalia. A Christian treatise of the mid-third century repeated Paul’s injunction against Christians going to law with Christians” (David W. T. Brattston, Direction, Fall, 2010. Vol. 39. No 2.).
If apostolic shock and righteous indignation was manifested against those Christians who were taking others to court, what recourse did someone have that was being defrauded? Three options are presented in 1 Corinthians 6.
The first option was to violate the apostolic counsel and proceed to prosecute someone in the courts. But it is clear from Paul’s letter that this option should be rejected.
A second option to redress a grievance was arbitration within the Christian assembly. This option is preferable to secular prosecution. If it is argued that no one in the church could arbitrate and judge the right and wrong of a situation, Paul’s response was, “Why not?” 1 Corinthians 6:5, I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? No, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?
Paul assumes that there were wise men in the church that could judge any matter of concern. His basis for believing this is rooted in theology. 1 Corinthians 6, 2 Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?
Paul’s argument is that one day Christians will sit in judgment upon some of the most complex situations in the universe. Therefore, Christians in the local church should be able to sit in judgment on important matters.
The concept of saints sitting with Christ in judgment is an important theme in Scripture. When the unbelieving world comes before Jesus Christ in that last great judgment, the saints shall be present to judge the world with Him (see Daniel 7:22; Matthew 19:28; 2 Timothy 2:12).
It is this theological perspective that causes Paul to be distressed over two facts. First, the Christians in Corinth were going to law, brother with brother. Second, Christians were going to law before unbelievers.
The summary of Paul’s message is this. To have a dispute with another Christian is bad. To take that dispute to worldly law courts is worse. But to let the ungodly judge in that dispute is worst of all.
It might surprise many Christians today to learn that arbitration was an established practice of the early church. Cases were heard early in the week so the fellowship of the congregation would not be disrupted by the settlement. Cases were presided over by a trusted wise man within the congregation.
The practice of arbitration stopped when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. The church was united to the state since the state and the church were viewed as one. Many Bible teachers believe the same is true today in America. Since America is an alleged Christian nation, it is not wrong to take others to court. That, of course, is a mistaken belief.
So, what happens if a person does not prosecute another Christian in the court of law, and arbitration fails? What should a person do? Paul has an answer. The Christian is to embrace a voluntary deprivation. 1 Corinthians 6:7, Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?
“Suffer yourselves to be defrauded,” says Paul. Here is Christian instruction that is extremely difficult to embrace and implement, for the flesh cries out for justice. And yet, the virtue of deprivation is exactly what Christ manifested. The reputation of Christ was taken from Him. His ministry was taken from Him. His social dignity was taken from Him as He was stripped naked in public. His health was taken from Him when He was beaten without mercy and forced to endure the agonies associated with suffocation on the Cross. His life was taken from Him. Christ was deprived of everything the world holds dear.
To be like Christ might entail allowing oneself to be defrauded. The idea of a willingness to embrace depravation is a shocking concept. It is also the will of God.