When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 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? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? (1 Corinthians 6:1-7 ESV)
This is the passage where Paul tells the Corinthians not to go to court with each other, and then we sit around in Bible studies and explain to each other why we can’t obey this any more.
The cultural roadblocks are not as important as the central idea, which is: the reputation of Jesus is more important than personal justice for yourself. In fact, we usually find ourselves choking over the practical problems after we’ve already stepped around the central idea, in imagination or in actuality, to get to the apparatus of justice. We wouldn’t struggle so much over this passage if we accepted the premise before we set out to exegete the impossibility of satisfaction for those who’ve ignored the premise.
That said, we should acknowledge the practical blocks in the cultural differences between us, in the 21st century, and Paul’s world of 1st century Roman occupation. Everyone wants to talk about how there are no church courts now, and no common acceptance of their authority in property matters even if we could manage to cobble them together. But the biggest cultural divide comes before that one, even, and is missed: there is a clear line between those inside the church and those outside. Paul and his audience know immediately and intuitively that the secular courts are outside the church. Once this primal division has been blurred, the rest of the passage is going to be harder than it was designed to be.
It isn’t just that the courts were Outside. Inside was clear, too. The readers of the letter could look around at “brothers” and know the names of Those Inside. Those conservative churches who still take membership seriously and even – gasp! – exert church discipline are Paul’s heirs. That such strictness is abused more often than not does not invalidate the truth that each local congregation has the obligation to hold members to standards of visible living.
We also lack any agreement inside the church that the church even has the authority to impose an adjudication of a real property dispute. We’ve successfully stripped the church of any authority, and “we” means a broad open conspiracy between clergy and lay to strip clergy of all pastoral authority. “Look, the church is hamstrung! I know, because I hold the knife.”
It’s silly to blame Paul, or to smirk knowingly at his primitive niavete, when the “cultural differences” are mostly differences we’ve cultivated. We’re the culprits in the prequel.
But back to the central point, which as usual, is not culturally distant from us. Put the reputation of Jesus above your need for justice. Once this submission is embraced, the case-by-case minefield could be navigated.
So what we acknowledge is that this is a hard passage to obey – once we try to imagine how to disobey it.