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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC Weekly, 2004-05-23

Text: 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

The apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a church that gave him many problems, such as division and immorality, and questions on marriage, food and the resurrection of believers. The divisive spirit and quarrels among the Corinthian Christians were so intense that some were already taking others to court to settle their differences. We may imagine that there were some situations where in the midst of the doctrinal disputes in the church, some members may have lost their temper and slandered some other members or made libelous remarks against them. And the members who were hurt by the remarks retaliated by taking them to court.

Perhaps there may have been situations where some of them went into joint business together with other members, only to find themselves taken advantage of. Promises were either not kept or delayed for too long. Some of them may have purchased items from other members and found themselves shortchanged or cheated. It is sad, but true, that such things happen even among Christians today, and it sometimes gives rise to unpleasant situations. 

The Old, Sinful Nature

The basic cause of all these lawsuits is the same: The remnants of the old, selfish, sinful nature that still persists in believers after they are saved. We all were saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone. After that, our transformation process began, in which we gradually put off the old man which is full of sin, and "put on the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." (Ephesians 4:24). But while we are being transformed, we sometimes relapse into the ways of the old man. Even the most spiritually mature Christians have sometimes fallen back into their old ways. Even the apostle Paul had such sharp contention with Barnabas that they separated from one another and did not work together from then onward (Acts 15:39).

An Environment Where Lawsuits Abound

When contentions arise among Christians who live in a world where lawsuits are commonly used to deal with contention, there is always the temptation for Christians to use the same means as non-Christians. This seems to have been the case in Corinth. Some ancient writers have described the legal situation in the more well-known Greek city of Athens. Since Corinth was probably much like Athens, we can expect that the legal situation there was about the same as in Athens.

Litigation was part of everyday life there. It had become a form of challenge and even entertainment. In a manner of speaking, every citizen was a lawyer. When a problem arose between two parties that they could not settle between themselves, the first recourse was private arbitration. Each party was assigned a disinterested private citizen as an arbitrator, and the two arbitrators, together with a third, neutral person, would attempt to resolve the problem. If they failed, the case was turned over to a court of 40 people, who assigned a public arbitrator to each party. If public arbitration failed, the case went to a jury court, composed of from several hundred to several thousand jurors. Every citizen over 30 years of age was required to serve as a juror. 

Thus most citizens of Athens, and probably of Corinth, were regularly involved in legal proceedings of one sort or another, either as a party to a lawsuit, or as an arbitrator, or as a juror. The Corinthians had been so used to arguing, disputing and taking one another to court before they became Christians that they carried these habits over into their new lives as Christians. But that course of action was not only unnecessary, but also damaging to the name of Christ they now bore.

Thus, the cause of lawsuits among believers may be described as the result of the interaction between the old, selfish, sinful nature in believers and an environment where litigation is very common. Litigation is also becoming increasingly a way of life today. The west abounds with lawsuits for every imaginable cause - malpractice, property rights, copyright infringement, breach of trust or contract, and slander. We can be sure that in the years to come, litigation will increase in volume as e-business, e-banking, and e-commerce take off 'at the speed of thought'!

Criminal vs. Non-criminal Cases

As Christians we need to know what our view on litigation should be. Should Christians take legal action against one another? Can we sue one another in a secular court? The answer given in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 is negative. 

Of course, this is speaking only of non-criminal disputes, and not criminal cases. If someone who calls himself a Christian does things like attempted murder, kidnapping, robbing or embezzlement of company funds, litigation must be carried out. These crimes must be punished by the state as a deterrent to others (Romans 13:3,4). God has ordained the Government to maintain law and order in society and we should never hinder them from doing this. The State must fulfill its role of protecting society from crimes like these. Furthermore, if a professing Christian commits crimes like these, it is really doubtful whether he is a true Christian at all. Hence, taking legal action against him would not be wrong. But in non-criminal cases like disagreements over contracts, dividing of an inherited estate, or alleged misconduct in fulfilling one's promises, the Word of God tells us quite plainly that Christians should not do these things. 

Different Standards of Judgment

The first biblical principle regarding litigation is implied in v.1 "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?" Matters like these should not be brought before secular courts that are largely filled with judges and arbitrators who are non-Christians. They should be brought before a body of mature Christians. 

There are two reasons for this: Firstly, the courts of non-Christians are described in the Bible as 'unjust'. This does not mean that we will not receive a fair trial from them. The judiciary system is certainly well qualified in terms of learning, training and experience. What this verse means is that they still judge by a different standard of judgment from Christians, a standard that may not always be in harmony with God's higher standards. In contrast to them, Christians are required to make judgments that are based entirely on the Word of God, with the Spirit-filled wisdom that God gives to them, and with much prayer. Hence the decisions made by them are more likely to be in line with the will of God.

The second reason is that mature Christians should be trusted to make good judgments, since God will require them one day to judge the world and to judge angels (vv.2,3; cf. Daniel 7:21,22; Luke 22:29,30; Revelation 20:4).

Our Testimony Before the World

There is one more reason why non-criminal disputes between Christians ought to be settled before Christians. Verse 6 says, "But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers." While the term 'unjust' is used in v.1, here the term 'unbelievers' is used. This is because the emphasis now is not so much on the qualifications of those who judge, but on the effect it will have upon them. Christians are supposed to win unbelievers to Christ through the testimony of their word and conduct. What will happen to our testimony when we bring our disputes before them? Will it help them to believe in Christ? Probably not. More likely, it will cause them to turn away from Christ. We may win the lawsuit, but in the process we may do irreparable damage to our testimony before the unbelievers who handle our lawsuit.

The Church is like a family. Like any normal family, there are bound to be some occasional problems, minor disputes and disagreements within the Church. And only the family members themselves will know that these minor disputes arise occasionally because of the weakness of the flesh. They know that family members are still growing and learning to cope with various changes they are facing in life. 

Therefore these things should rightly remain within the family and not be brought out in public. The public may not fully understand these things and may jump to the wrong conclusions. What advantage will the family gain from 'airing its dirty linen'? It will only spoil its image unnecessarily. In the case of the Church, the consequences are far more serious. It will also shame the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and hinder many from coming to Him for salvation. 

The Devil is keen to capitalize on any bad publicity that a church may receive, as this helps him to keep unbelievers in their unbelief. For their sake, therefore, we should not bring our disputes before unbelievers. Let us do our best to have disputes among believers settled by believers. 

The Church Authority

Applying this may not be as easy as it sounds. The Christian with whom we have a dispute may not be from the same church or even the same denomination. It would then be difficult to convene a Christian body that would be acceptable to both parties to handle the matter. Furthermore, both parties must be willing to come before that body, and to abide by whatever decision it makes. If one party is unwilling to cooperate, then it will be hard to do anything. All the arrangements may be made to settle the matter at a meeting, but on the appointed day one of the parties may fail to turn up. There is little that can be done apart from giving a gentle rebuke, or at most, threatening to disfellowship the uncooperative party. Unlike legal authorities, the Church has limited power to impose its will on members.

But thankfully, this kind of action should not be something we have to take very often. It should be a very rare occurrence in the Church, and regarded as a last resort, used only when other measures have failed. Christians should be willing to exercise love and to bear losses rather than have a dispute.

Willingness to Love One Another

A church may expect to handle disputes once in a long while, between some members that just cannot reconcile themselves no matter how hard they try (e.g. Philippians 4:1,2). If church is all the time occupied with settling many disputes between its members, then something is obviously wrong with it. The members are either not taught the Scriptures, or are not applying what they are taught. Like the Corinthian church, they need to receive a stern rebuke. 

Paul rebuked the Corinthians when he said "I speak to your shame; Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?" (vv.5-7) Jesus had said the same thing in Matthew 5:39-41 "But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." 

Why should we absorb the grief and loss caused to us? Because this is what loving one another is all about. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another." (John 13:35) This means giving and forgiving one another; bearing and forbearing with one another. Jesus wants us to love in the same way that He loved us. He did not retaliate against us for our offences, but chose to absorb all the losses we had caused to Him by our sins. He not only bore our sins on the cross but He also forgave them. 

Hence we who are His followers should do no less. Can we sue one another and take other believers to court, when Jesus Himself did not 'sue' us, nor take us before God's high court to exact from us everything that we owed to Him? Obviously not. Following our Lord's example, we should absorb whatever grief or loss caused to us. 

Seeking the Welfare of Others

On the other hand, loving that person may sometimes require us to take other kinds of action for him. Let us understand that love seeks the welfare of others, and that includes his spiritual and moral well-being. A person who has done wrong to us must be brought to repentance and restored into a right relationship with God and with others. Otherwise he will keep on doing the same thing. Hence it would be wrong to do nothing for him. What should we do? 

A brother in Christ borrows a very large sum of money from you to pay off a debt and he promises to pay up by a certain date. Unfortunately, he breaks his promise and never returns your money. The first thing that you should do is to remind him - perhaps it is due to some careless negligence. If he still does not repay, do not bring him to court, as this would be a bad testimony to the world. Instead you should try to settle it with the help of a few other believers. If it still cannot be settled, do not pursue the issue any further. Permit yourself to be defrauded rather than to bring disrepute on Jesus' name. Write off his debt and remember, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).

If the person goes on to borrow money from other Christians without returning it, then this matter must be brought before the Church for discipline. Church leaders must be asked to deal with him, and if he still refuses to comply, then he may be excommunicated.

Lawsuits against Unbelievers

Finally, some may ask: What should I do if I have been cheated or defrauded by a non-Christian or by a secular corporation? If all Christians refuse to take any legal action against unbelievers, they would make themselves very easy prey for wicked opportunists. Therefore, in such cases, litigation may be legitimate for us to pursue, so long as the law of love for neighbour is not violated, and so long as justice is served with integrity. In dealing with the world, we should be wise as serpents, and yet harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). In any lawsuit against unbelievers we should not have a vindictive spirit. Our purpose is not to take revenge on them for causing hurt to us, but simply to seek fairness and justice. 

The apostle Paul himself appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen, and then to Caesar when the unbelieving Jews tried to kill him. He did not just passively allow them to take his life.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

December 3 & 10 - Holy Living

Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 2 Peter 3:11