Righting Wrongs

We're on the next leg of our journey through the apostle Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. We've got to 1 Corinthians 6.1-8. Please grab a Bible and have that open in front of you so you can see what I'm talking about. And my title is 'Righting Wrongs'. So here's a question for you that gets to the heart of what this section of the letter is dealing with.

What do you do if a fellow Christian behaves in a bad way towards you? And I mean seriously bad. Not just fails to laugh at your jokes, terrible as that would be. But maybe steals from you, or acts fraudulently in such a way that your bank balance is hit hard. What's the Christian way to behave in such a situation? It's an important issue to figure out, not only in case we find ourselves in such a situation, but also because if we've figured out how to react to really serious wrong, then we'll have principles we can use for the easier, less serious and more common situations as well.

Now when I ask what do you do if a fellow believer behaves in a bad way towards you, I'm aware that assumes you are a believer, and you may not be yet. But I presume you're here at least in part because you'd like to know more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So this will fill in the picture a bit more for you.

My question also assumes that a fellow Christian might behave very badly towards you. And that sadly can be the case. Christians are forgiven sinners not perfect saints. We should be learning more and more not only to trust in Jesus but to live like him. But our sinful natures still linger, and the blunt truth is that there are times when we still prefer the devil's ways to the ways of Jesus, and we remain capable of seriously evil behaviour. Probably you don't really need persuading of that. Maybe you've been on the receiving end of very bad treatment from a Christian brother or sister. Maybe you can see, if you're being honest, that you've dished it out yourself. Maybe both.

That was the sad reality in that recently planted church in Corinth. They really were believers. They were redeemed sinners. They had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the pagan patterns of behaviour that they should've left behind were still regularly rearing their ugly heads. Sin was rampant in the church in all kinds of ways. And this passage is yet another example of that. So what's going on here and how's it relevant to us? That's what I'd like us to get at under my four headings:

  • The situation here
  • Things you ought to know in the light of this situation
  • The implications of these things
  • The applications of all this

But the overall thrust of the passage is this: don't drag a fellow believer through the secular courts for your own gain, even if he or she is in the wrong. And in the light of that, let me immediately say this. What the apostle is saying doesn't mean that we should have nothing to do with secular courts. He would say himself that they have been put in place by God to restrain evil. So he is not by his teaching here providing a hiding place for evil of any sort in the life of the church. And sometimes using the courts is either unavoidable or justifiable.

We may be taken to court ourselves, and the apostle is not saying that we should refuse to co-operate with the court in such a situation. Far from it. Or it may well be right on occasion either to assert or to defend our legal rights in a Godly way and not for our own gain but for Godly reasons. Those are very different situations to those Paul is discussing here.

When the cause of truth, or the gospel, or the Kingdom of God, are at stake, then we should use all God-given means at our disposal. The apostle Paul himself, when he was being prosecuted for his witness to the risen Christ, used his legal rights to appeal to Caesar so that he would be taken to Rome to appear before the Imperial courts at the heart of the Empire, where he could further extend his witness.

In our day and in our nation, an example that comes to mind is the Ashers Bakery case, in which the McArthur family were taken to court for refusing to compromise their faith. Their vigorous defence is right in line with the way the apostle Paul made full use of his legal rights. But if all our concern is just for our own interests and our own bank balances, that, says Paul, is quite another matter. So let's go through those headings in turn.

1. The Situation Here

Paul says a number of things here about what's going on. Some of them had grievances against others within the church. Verse 1:

"When one of you has a grievance against another…"

And these grievances are being laid before the pagan courts. Verse 1 again:

"When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?"

And verse 4:

"So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?"

And again in verse 6:

"…brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers…"

So not only are Christians going to law against Christians, but they are using secular, pagan courts. So cases between Christians are being heard, before the non-Christian public, by non-Christian magistrates. Christian dirty linen is being washed – or at any rate displayed – in public. And from the perspective of the Kingdom of God, it's not as if these grievances are very significant in the big scheme of things. In fact, in verse 2 the apostle calls them 'trivial cases'. Not that there isn't real wrong being done. There is. Paul is clear that not only are some of them wronging and defrauding, they're doing it even to their own fellow believers in the church. Verse 8:

"But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!"

Maybe you're shocked at the state of that church in Corinth. And you would be right to be. But I for one am not surprised by it. I've been around long enough, and seen enough of our behaviour towards one another over the years, to be under no illusion about the depths to which we can and do fall within the church. So, first, that's the situation here.

2. Things You Ought to Know in The Light of This Situation

There are four eternal realities about what's involved in being a Christian, and about our eternal destiny, that the apostle draws attention to, because they're relevant to what's going on.

  • The saints will judge the world.
  • We will judge angels.
  • The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.
  • You are a temple of the Holy Spirit.

So from the grubby, petty squabbles and sordid disputes that are damaging the church and grieving him, Paul lifts his eyes to these mind-boggling truths about present spiritual realities and the glories of the resurrection life to come in the new heaven and the new earth. The contrasts between these two sights is massive, and deliberate.

As I was casting around for an illustration of this, I was reminded of what's happening at the end of our little garden at the moment. We've got rats. They're digging under the wall and invading our space. Vivienne has turned our little back yard into a bite-sized taste of heaven on earth, a mini-explosion of flowers and colour in a mass of blooming pots and beds. The rats spoil it. One time, Vivienne lifted the lid of our compost bin, and there was a rat, brazenly feeding off the rotting waste, and staring her in the eye. Vivienne loves the glories of God's creation. But there is the odd exception. And rats are one of them. Vivienne is not a big fan of rats. Understatement of the century.

What Paul is doing by making us lift our eyes from this squalid outbreak of sin in the church to these eternal truths is a bit like lifting your eyes from the disgusting sight of rats scrabbling around gorging themselves on rotting garbage, to the glories of a panoramic Northumberland landscape set off by the blazing light of a summer sunset. When you've seen the glory, you do not – or certainly should not – want to return to the garbage and the gorging.

The saints – that's not a sinless spiritual elite, but all believers, all who have put their trust in Christ – the saints will judge the world. Verse 2:

"Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?"

That's a truth that we don't have time to explore in depth, but that Jesus teaches for instance in Matthew 19.28, where he says:

"Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on this glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel…"

God says in Genesis that he made humanity to have Godly dominion over all creation, and in the new heaven and the new earth redeemed humanity will fulfil that destiny. And that will include ruling over the angels themselves, because though we were originally made lower than them, in Christ we are raised above the angels. Hebrews 2.5:

"Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking…"

It was to Christ – and us in him, the redeemed people of God. That is the glory and dignity of who we are in Christ, bought with his blood. And as a down payment of that future, even now the Holy Spirit of God lives in us and among us in the church. So in the light of that, how could we ever lower ourselves to the level of greedy rats in the way we behave towards one another? So that's leading us on to my next heading:

3. The Implications of These Things

Paul is quite clear that he's trying to shame them to shock them out of this disgraceful behaviour. But that's one of four implications he draws attention to.

First, the church is competent to judge these cases. Look at verse 2:

"And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?"

Of course not. And the kind of processes within the life of the church to which he's referring are what are taught to us by Jesus in Matthew 18.15-20, and it's worth spelling this out although we don't have time now to expand on it. Jesus says there:

"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him your fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

Secondly, in contrast to that kind of process, the apostle says, what you are doing is shameful. Verse 5:

"I say this to your shame."

They are bringing the church and therefore the message to which the church bears witness into disrepute in the wider community.

Thirdly, he says, you who claim to be wise cannot find people in the church you think wise enough to judge these cases. Which rather belies their arrogant, argumentative and immature self-confidence. Verse 5:

"Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers …?"

And fourthly, even such lawsuits within the church are a defeat, never mind outside among the pagans. Verse 7:

"To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you."

This is not what life in the body of Christ, bought with his blood, indwelt by his Spirit, called to glory, should be like. So what, then, does all this mean for us, sitting in Benwell two thousand years later? That's my final heading. So:

4. The Applications of All This

Here, then, is a range of lessons that move from the more particular to the more general. So if you find yourself in this kind of situation, don't take such cases before secular civil courts. Verse 1:

"When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?"

Realise that the church does have the capacity to judge such things. Verse 2:

"Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?"

Be ashamed of any such litigious or fraudulent behaviour. Verse 5:

"I say this to your shame."

Verse 8:

"But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!"

Don't even go to law within the church. Verse 7:

"To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you."

Prefer to suffer wrong and be defrauded than to bring the church and its message into disrepute. Verse 7 again:

"Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?"

That is the way of Christ. Jesus says in Matthew 5.39-40:

"But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."

Be totally honest in your financial dealings. Do not wrong your own brothers and sisters. Both of those follow from Paul's horrified cry in verse 8, as we've seen:

"But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!"

Instead, repent and be forgiven and changed by the blood of Christ and the washing of the Holy Spirit. That comes from Paul's teaching around this section. So verse 11:

"… you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

And verses 19-20:

"…You are not your own, for you were bought with a price…"

Paul is dealing here with this rather specific issue of going to law against fellow Christians for self-centred and greedy reasons. But the principles he's teaching really apply to the whole way we treat one another in the life of the church.

So let's not behave like rats in the garbage, dragging the reputation of the church after us into the gutter. Let's not by our behaviour damage the cause of Christ and denigrate his name in the watchful eyes of the world and add ammunition to the stockpiles of those who would like to see the church destroyed. Rather, let's lift our eyes to heaven and treat one another as who we really are in Jesus - future rulers of the world together for his glory.

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