There is one prevalent aspect of historic-cultural significance which has been touched on in earlier articles but needs to be repeated since here it takes on more significance. As already mentioned the Greco-Roman world was one where honor, power and authority were the most excellent qualities to be achieved. This aspect “is of special relevance to 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, because legal proceedings were part of this larger cultural game and were seen as a means of shaming people” writes Witherington (Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995] 155).
Without going into too much detail as to how exactly judicial procedure were done in a Roman colony, we need to take note that the courts were run by the rich. Someone with low social status had no right or privilege to access this judicial system. Further, the lawsuits were not about truth in and of itself but about social status, honor, power, and authority. Thus lawyers had to be well trained in rhetoric and money was for sure another means to secure the outcome of a lawsuit. Dio Chrysostom writes that in A.D. 100 Roman Corinth was full of “lawyers… perverting justice” (quoted in Witherington, 164).
This then is the background in which the apostle Paul wrote 1 Cor 6:1-11. In vv. 1-6 Paul argues that the nature of lawsuits in the Corinthian church are trivial and should not be fought out in pagan courts (i.e., outside the covenant community – the church). The major problem Paul is addressing is that members of the congregation are involved (and even initiate) legal cases against fellow believers – and this before the “unrighteous”!
As we have seen in the historic-cultural significance pertaining to this passage the legal system was not about truth but influence and unrighteous verdicts were common. Paul’s argument goes even further (v. 2). Since saints (followers of Jesus) will judge the world, they should be able to settle trivial cases (minor matters; Gr. kritēriōn elachistōn). And since saints will judge angels, the same is set in regards to biōtika (also trivial cases). Who these angels are goes beyond the spectrum of this paper, but Garland writes insightfully,
Paul’s purpose in these verses is not to articulate doctrine about the saints’ role in the final judgment of the world and the angels but to point out a disturbing inconsistency between what they will be doing at the end of this age and what they are doing now. It is probable that he wishes only to remind the Corinthians of their glorious end-time destiny when they will be given dominion even over the angels. In that day, the current state of affairs will be radically reversed. (David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003] 203)
In verse 4 Paul accuses the Corinthian Christians who turn to pagan courts of law in suing their own fellow believers. The cause for the accusation is clear (see above) and the congregation should be able to find some in her midst who can to settle disputes between believers (v. 5). Thus fighting against a brother in public is utter non-sense (v. 6) and the Christian should rather renounce personal rights before turning his/her own brother/sister into shame via public disputes (vv. 7-8).
In v. 9 Paul reminds the Corinthian church that evildoers will not inherit the kingdom of God and lists sins which were practiced in secular society and thus part of Roman Corinth’s culture. Some of the Corinthian Christians were involved in those sins but are transformed by God (v. 11).
What can we today learn from this passage? How is God addressing us in similar issues? Lawsuits might be necessary in some circumstances and the Christian cannot be against such in general, but among Christians we should be able to settle “trivial matters” within the confines of the church. Our purpose in such matters should be reconciliation and not retaliation!
We also need to see that sometimes we need to retreat our own rights in order to pursue love and peace in the church. This does not mean that we are to be doormats but that sometimes it is wise not to fight certain battles (especially in trivial matters).
God is still transforming lives – salvation has ethical implications!