On Suing another Christian in Civil Court - 1 Corinthians 6

by Charles Hodge

This chapter consists of two distinct paragraphs. The first, vs. 1-11, relates to lawsuits before heathen magistrates. The second, vs. 12-20, to the abuse which some had made of the principle, "All things are lawful."


Paul expresses surprise that any Christian should prosecute a fellow Christian before a heathen judge, v. 1. If Christians are destined to judge the world, and even angels, they may surely settle among themselves their worldly affairs, vs. 2, 3. If they had such suits must they appoint those whom the church could not esteem to decide them? Was there not one man among themselves able to act as a judge? vs. 4-6. It was a great evil that they had such lawsuits. It would be better to submit to injustice, v. 7. Instead, however, of submitting to wrong, they committed it, v. 8. He solemnly assures them that the unjust, or rapacious, or corrupt should not inherit the kingdom of God, vs. 9, 10. They had been such, but as Christians they were washed from these defilements, and justified through Christ and by his Spirit, v. 11.

1. Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?

The third evil in the church of Corinth which the apostle endeavors to correct, was the prosecuting legal suits before heathen judges. There was no necessity for this practice. The Roman laws allowed the Jews to settle their disputes about property by arbitration among themselves. And the early Christians, who were not distinguished as a distinct class from the Jews, had no doubt the same privilege. It is not necessary, however, to assume that the apostle has reference here to that privilege. It was enough that these civil suits might be arranged without the disgraceful spectacle of Christian suing Christian before heathen magistrates. The Rabbins say, "It is a statute which binds all Israelites, that if one Israelite has a cause against another, it must not be prosecuted before the Gentiles." Eisenmenger's Entdeckt. Judenth. 2. p. 427.

Dare any of you? Is any one so bold as thus to shock the Christian sense of propriety?

Having a matter. The Greek phrase (pra~gma e]cein)means to have a suit, which is obviously the sense here intended.

To go to law before the unjust. It is plain that by the unjust are meant the heathen. But why are they so called? As the terms holy and righteous are often used in a technical sense to designate the professed people of God without reference to personal character; so the terms sinners and unjust are used to designate the heathen as distinguished from the people of God. The Jews as a class were holy, and the Gentiles were unholy; though many of the latter were morally much better than many of the former. In Galatians 2:15, Paul says to Peter, "We are by nature Jews, and not sinners of the Gentiles;" meaning thereby simply that they were not Gentiles. The reason why the heathen as such are called the unjust, or sinners, is that according to the Scriptures the denial of the true God, and the worship of idols, is the greatest unrighteousness and therefore the heathen, because heathen, are called the unrighteous. The word unjust is too limited a word to answer fully to the Greek term (a]dikov), which in its scriptural sense means wicked, not conformed to the Law of God. In this verse the opposite term, saints, or the holy, designates Christians as a class; and, therefore, the unjust must mean the heathen as a class. The complaint against the Corinthians was not that they went to law before unjust judges, but that they appealed to heathen judges. It is true their being heathen proved them to be unrighteous in the scriptural sense of the term; but it was not their moral character, so much as their religious status, that was the ground of the complaint. It was indeed not to be expected that men governed by heathen laws and principles of morals, would be as fair and just as those governed by Christian principles; but what Paul complained of was, not that the Corinthians could not get justice at the hands of heathen magistrates, but that they acted unworthily of their dignity as Christians in seeking justice from such a source. Paul himself appealed to Cesar. It was, therefore, no sin in his eyes to seek justice from a heathen judge, when it could not otherwise be obtained. But it was a sin and a disgrace in his estimation for Christians to appeal to heathen magistrates to settle disputes among themselves.

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?

Do you not know? a form of expression often used by the apostle when he wishes to bring to mind some important truth, which his readers knew but disregarded. It was a conceded point, one which entered into the common faith of Christians, that the saints are to judge the world.

The saints [oiJa[gioi], the people of God, who are called saints because separated from the world and consecrated to his service. Those, therefore, who are of the world and devoted to its pursuits, are not saints.

The saints shall judge the world. This does not mean that the time would come when Christians would become magistrates; nor that the conduct of the saints would condemn the world, as it is said the Queen of the South would condemn those who refused to listen to the words of Christ, Matthew 12:42. The context and Spirit of the passage require that it should be understood of the future and final judgment. Saints are said to sit in judgment on that great day for two reasons; first, because Christ, who is to be the judge, is the head and representative of his people, in whom they reign and judge. The exaltation and dominion of Christ are their exaltation and dominion. This is the constant representation of Scripture, Ephesians 2:6. In Hebrews 2:5-9 the declaration that all things are subject to man, is said to be fulfilled in all things being made subject to Christ. Secondly, because his people are to be associated with Christ in his dominion. They are joint heirs with him, Romans 8:17. If we suffer, we shall reign with him,2 Timothy 2:12. In Daniel 7:22 it was predicted that judgment (the right and power to judge) should be given to the saints of the Most High. Comp. Matthew 19:38. Luke 22:30. Revelation 2:26, 27. If then, asks the apostle, such a destiny as this awaits you, are ye unfit to decide the smallest matters?

If the world (mankind) shall be judged by you (ejnuJmi~n) , i.e. before you as judges. Are ye unworthy (ejnuJmi~n), i.e. of too little weight or value, having neither the requisite dignity nor ability. Unworthy of the smallest matters. The word (krith>rion), here rendered matters, in the sense of causes, or matters for judgment, means,

1. A criterion or test; a rule of judgment.

2. A tribunal or place of judgment, and then, the court or assembled judges. Exodus 21:6. Judges 5:10. Daniel 7:10, and in the New Testament, James 2:6.

3. The trial, i.e. the process of judgment.

4. The cause itself, or matters to be tried. This last sense is doubtful, although it is generally adopted here because it suits so well the fourth verse, where the same word occurs. The second sense would suit this verse. 'If ye are to sit with Christ on the seat of universal judgment, are ye unworthy of the lowest judgment seats.' But the fourth verse is in favor of the explanation adopted in our version. 'Are ye unfit for the least causes?'

3. Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? As, according to Scripture, only the fallen angels are to be judged in the last day, most commentators suppose the word must here be restricted to that class. Not only men, but fallen angels are to stand before that tribunal on which Christ and his church shall sit in judgment. If agreeably to the constant usage of the Scriptures, according to which (as remarked above, 4:9) the word when unqualified means good angels, it be understood of that class here, then the explanation is probably to be sought in the comprehensive sense of the word to judge. As kings were always judges, and as the administration of justice was one of the principal functions of their office, hence to rule and to judge are in Scripture often convertible terms. To judge Israel, and to rule Israel, mean the same thing. And in Matthew 19:28, "sitting on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel," means presiding over the twelve tribes. So in the case before us, "Know ye not that we shall judge angels?" may mean, 'Know ye not that we are to be exalted above the angels, and preside over them; shall we not then preside over earthly things?' This explanation avoids the difficulty of supposing that the good angels are to be called into judgment; and is consistent with what the Bible teaches of the subordination of angels to Christ, and to the church in him.

4. If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.

Paul laments that there were litigations among them; but if they could not be avoided, Christians should act in reference to them in a manner consistent with their high destiny. Here the word(krith>ria), rendered judgments, seems so naturally to mean causes, things to be tried, that that sense of the word is almost universally assumed. It may, however, mean trials, judicial processes; which is more in accordance with the established use of the words.

Set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. The original admits of this translation. If the passage be so rendered, then it has a sarcastic tone. 'Set your least esteemed members to decide such matters.' It may, however, be read interrogatively, 'Do ye set as judges those least esteemed in (i.e. by) the church (that is, the heathen)?' This translation is generally preferred as best in keeping with the context. The sentence is emphatic. 'Those despised (see 1:28) by the church, - those do you set to judge?' It is an expression of surprise at their acting so unworthily of their high calling.

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? I speak to your shame. That is, I desire to produce in you a sense of shame. This may refer either to what precedes or to what follows. It was adapted to make them ashamed that they had acted so unworthily of their dignity as Christians; and it was no less disgraceful to them to suppose that there was not in the church a single man fit to act as arbitrator. Who shall be able. The future here expresses what should or may happen.

Between his brethren; literally, between his brother; i.e. between his complaining brother and him against whom the complaint was brought.

6. But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Instead of referring the matter to the arbitration of a judicious brother, ye go to law, and that before unbelievers. There are here two grounds of complaint. First, that they went to law (kri>nesqai) instead of resorting to arbitration (diakri~nai). Secondly, that they made unbelievers their judges. By unbelievers are to be understood the heathen. In this connection the heathen are designated under one aspect, the unjust; under another, the despised; and under a third, the unbelieving, i.e. not Christians - but, as the implication in this particular case is, pagans. And that (kai< tou~to), a form of expression often used when particular stress is to be laid on the circumstance indicated.

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?

Now therefore [h]dh me, already indeed therefore. That is,these lawsuits are already, or in themselves (o[lwv), an evil irrespective of their being conducted before heathen judges. The word (h[tthma]]) does not so properly mean fault as loss or evil. It is a loss or evil to you to have these litigations. See Romans 11:12, where the rejection of the Jews is called their (h[tthma) loss.

Why do you not, etc. That is, why, instead of going to law with your brethren, do you not rather submit to injustice and robbery? This is a clear intimation that, under the circumstances in which the Corinthians were placed, it was wrong to go to law, even to protect themselves from injury. That this is not to be regarded as a general rule of Christian conduct is plain, because, under the old dispensation, God appointed judges for the administration of justice; and because Paul himself did not hesitate to appeal to Cesar to protect himself from the injustice of his countrymen.

8. Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that (your) brethren. Instead of having reached that state of perfection in which ye can patiently submit to injustice, ye are yourselves unjust and fraudulent. This must have been the case with some of them, otherwise there would be no occasion for these lawsuits. Their offense was aggravated, because their own brethren were the object of their unjust exactions.

9, 10. Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

The tendency to divorce religion from morality has manifested itself in all ages of the world, and under all forms of religion. The pagan, the Jew, the Mohammedan, the nominal Christian, have all been exact in the performance of religious services, and zealous in the assertion and defense of what they regarded as religious truth, while unrestrained in the indulgence of every evil passion. This arises from looking upon religion as an outward service, and God as a being to be feared and propitiated, but not to be loved and obeyed. According to the gospel, all moral duties are religious services; and piety is the conformity of the soul to the image and will of God. So that to be religious and yet immoral is, according to the Christian system, as palpable a contradiction as to be good and wicked. It is evident that among the members of the Corinthian church, there were some who retained their pagan notion of religion, and who professed Christianity as a system of doctrine and as a form of worship, but not as a rule of life. All such persons the apostle warned of their fatal mistake. He assures them that no immoral man, - no man who allows himself the indulgence of any known sin, can be saved. This is one of the first principles of the gospel, and therefore the apostle asks, Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Are ye Christians at all, and yet ignorant of this first principle of the religion you profess? The unrighteous in this immediate connection, means the unjust; those who violate the principles of justice in their dealings with their fellow-men. It is not the unjust alone, however, who are to be thus debarred from the Redeemer's kingdom - but also those who break any of the commandments of God, as this and other passages of Scripture distinctly teach.

Believers are, in the Bible, often called heirs. Their inheritance is a kingdom; that kingdom which God has established, and which is to be consummated in heaven, Luke 12:32. Matthew 24:34, etc. etc. From this inheritance all the immoral, no matter how zealous they may be in the profession of the truth, or how assiduous in the performance of religious services, shall be excluded. Let it also be remembered that immorality, according to the Bible, does not consist exclusively in outward sins, but also in sins of the heart; as covetousness, malice, envy, pride, and such like, Galatians 5:21. No wonder that the disciples, on a certain occasion, asked their master, Lord, are there few that be saved? or that the Lord answered them by saying, "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it," Luke 13:24.

11. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

And such were some of you. This is understood by many as equivalent to Such were you. The word (tine>v) being redundant, or the idea being, 'Some were impure, some drunkards, some violent, etc., or tau~ta> tinev being taken together as equivalent to toiou~toi. The natural explanation is, that the apostle designedly avoided charging the gross immoralities just referred to upon all the Corinthian Christians in their previous condition. With regard to the three terms which follow, washed, sanctified, justified, they may be taken, as by Calvin and others, to express the same idea under different aspects. That idea is, that they had been converted, or completely changed. They had put off the old man, and put on the new man. Their sins, considered as filth, had been washed away; considered as pollution, they had been purged or purified; considered as guilt, they had been covered with the righteousness of God, Romans 1:17. The majority of commentators take the several terms separately, each expressing a distinct idea. In what precise sense each of these words is to be understood, becomes, men, somewhat doubtful.

But ye are washed. The word here used (ajpelou>sasqe) is in the middle voice, and therefore may be rendered, ye have washed yourselves, or, permitted yourselves to be washed; or, as the majority of commentators prefer, on account of the following passives, ye were washed. This use of the First Aorist Middle in a passive sense is very unusual, but not unauthorized; see 1 Corinthians 10:2. It does not seem to be of much moment whether the word be taken here as active or as passive, for the same thing may be expressed in either form. Men are called upon to wash away their sins, Acts 22:16; to put off the old man, etc. and to put on the new man, Ephesians 4:22, 24; although the change expressed by these terms is elsewhere referred to God. The reason of this is, that a human and a divine agency are combined in the effects thus produced. We work our own salvation, while God works in us, Philippians 2:12, 13. With equal propriety, therefore, Paul might say to the Corinthians, 'Ye washed yourselves;' or, 'Ye were washed.'

To wash means to purify, and is frequently used in Scripture to express moral or spiritual purification. Isaiah 1:16, "Wash ye, make you clean." Psalms 51:7, "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." Jeremiah 4:14. In these and many other passages the word expresses general purification, without exclusive reference to guilt or to pollution. There is no reason why it should not be taken in this general sense here, and the phrase be rendered, either, 'Ye have purified yourselves,' or, 'Ye are purified.' The reference which so many assume to baptism, does not seem to be authorized by any thing in the context.

But ye are sanctified. This clause is either an amplification of the preceding one, expressing one aspect or effect of the washing spoken of, viz., their holiness; or, it is to be understood of their separation and consecration. 'Ye have not only been purified, but also set apart as a peculiar people.' In Scripture, any thing is said to be sanctified that is devoted to the service of God. Thus, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, Genesis 2:3. Moses sanctified the people, Exodus 19:14, etc. etc.

But ye are justified. As to justify in Scripture always means to pronounce righteous, or to declare just in the sight of the law, it must be so understood here. The Corinthians had not only been purified and consecrated, but also justified, i.e. clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and on that account accepted as righteous in the sight of God. They were therefore under the highest possible obligation not to relapse into their former state of pollution and condemnation.

In the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. These clauses are not to be restricted to the preceding word, as though the meaning were, 'Ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.' They belong equally to all three of the preceding terms. The believers were indebted for the great change which they had experienced; for their washing, sanctification, and justification, to Christ and to the Holy Ghost. The Spirit had applied to them the redemption purchased by Christ. In the name of the Lord Jesus. "The name of God," or "of Christ," is often a paraphrase for God or Christ himself. To call upon the name of God is to call on God. To baptize unto the name of Christ, and to baptize unto Christ, are interchanged as synonymous expressions. So here, to be justified or sanctified in the name of Christ, means simply by Christ; see John 20:31, "That believing ye might have life through his name." Acts 10:43, "That through his name whoso believeth in him might have remission of sins." Though these forms of expression are substantially the same as to their import, yet the "name of God" means not strictly God himself, but God as known and worshipped. The Holy Ghost is called the Spirit of our God; that is, the Spirit of our reconciled God and Father, by whom that Spirit is sent in fulfillment of the promise of the Father to the Son. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law in order that we might receive the promise of the Spirit, Galatians 3:13, 14.

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