RPM, Volume 13, Number 10, March 6 to March 12, 2011

1 Corinthians 6:1-11

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing with our study of 1 Corinthians, picking up at Chapter 6, verse 1 and continuing through to verse 11. Now, in this first half of Paul's letter he has been dealing with internal matters - such as division in the church and how you should respond to your leaders, etc. This has been the subject of chapters 1-4. Then, in chapter 5, Paul shifted his attention to external matters - i.e., to things that were known outside the church and which were hurting the church's witness for Christ. And then, after dealing with a specific case of sexual immorality in chapter 5 he now turns to a different, but related matter of Christians using the secular courts to bring legal action against one another.

Now, the relationship between chapter 5 and this first part of chapter 6 is partly conceptual and partly linguistic. Conceptually, as we have already seen, the issues raised in chapters 5-6 all have to do with behaviors that are publicly known in the city of Corinth and which are casting a shadow on Christ's reputation. A further conceptual link is a common failure that lay behind the various behaviors described in chapters 5 and 6, and at which we will be looking in greater detail this morning - the failure to think and act as a community of God's people.

Alongside these conceptual links is a linguistic one. At the end of Chapter 5, if you remember, Paul used the language of judgment and he talked about Christians judging one another, etc. Well, in chapter 6 Paul takes that same idea of Christians judging one another and expands it into a full blown discussion of how Christians ought to handle their grievances with one another. With that as an introduction, let me pray, and then we'll dig in...

(Read 1 Cor. 6:1-11)

Now, in order to best understand this passage we are going to start, oddly enough, at the last verses, verse 9-11, and then go back to the beginning and work our way through - WHY? Well, simply because the truth contained in these verses is the driving motif behind this passage and is the central idea which controls Paul's statements all along the way. And so, turning to verse 11, the first thing I want you to notice this morning is this: The amazingly motivating and liberating truth of who we are in Jesus (vs 9-11)

Now whenever a list like this is read, invariably there will be some people who will see their specific issues being named - for example, there may be some people here this morning who were called out of a homosexual lifestyle, for instance. Likewise, perhaps there are some here this morning who were called out of some kind of substance abuse, whether drugs or alcohol. Or perhaps some were deeply entrenched in theft - either blue collar or white collar - it doesn't really matter. But the reality is that whenever this list is read in a congregation of God's people, there are always some who can see in this passage their own, specific story.

But it's also true that whenever this passage is preached there are some who look at Paul's list here and who are tempted to say to themselves, "You know, I don't really see myself on that list" and such a person might be tempted to conclude that these verses, therefore, are not really talking about them, at least not directly.

And if that's where you are this morning, can I ask you to please look again? Look, especially, at verse 9, "...Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?" or as the ESV puts it, "the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God". What I want you to see here is that the first half of verse 9 is sort of the general heading for this section - the wicked who do not inherit the kingdom - and then verses 9b and 10 are simply some specific illustrations of that. SO, when Paul says, in the first part of verse I 1 "and such were some of you" he means not that only some of the Corinthians were formerly among the "wicked" or "unrighteous" but rather he simply means that only some of them were unrighteous in the particular ways he has just highlighted.

But you have to go all the way back to the beginning of verse 9 and remember those opening words, and you have to ask yourself, "Who does the Bible classify as "the wicked" and the "unrighteous". And to answer THAT question, you need look no further than a classic text like Romans 3:9-12 where Paul, citing Psalms, says:

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God! All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one....
In other words, in Paul's view, everyone in Corinth, at one time, belonged to the general category of the wicked, unrighteous person who was living the life of those who do not inherit the kingdom of God. Translation? Everyone, to use the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, is recovering from something. You may be a recovering substance abuser, you may be a recovering homosexual, or you may be a recovering WHATEVER - the reality is that in the biblical view, all of us are recovering sinners - of one description or another - from all sorts of things. And we will be for the rest of our lives.

That means these verses, and this description is for all of us. WE don't need to look around the room. All we need to do is look in the mirror and we'll know exactly who Paul is talking about. He's talking about you and me.

But as soon as you notice that, as soon as you've identified the particular baggage you are carrying into this thing, as soon as you've owned up to the fact that, yes, Paul is talking about you then I want you to also hear the good news that Paul holds out for all those who once were included under that very broad umbrella described as the "wicked who do not inherit the kingdom of God". Paul says, "And such WERE some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.. "

Do you hear the HOPE in those words? Do you hear the assurance in those words? Don't swallow the line that our culture keeps dishing out that says, essentially, that we are who we are and we can't change that and therefore why fight it, just give into it - embrace it - and be who you are. Friends, don't you believe it. Yes, WE can't change it, but that doesn't mean IT can't be changed. Why? Because God can change it. What is impossible with men is possible with God. God can change things, and He does change them, all the time. He is in the business of changing things.

That means that, whatever specific form your recovery is taking, there is a sense in which, yes, you are always that - a recovering THIS or a recovering THAT - but at the same time, there is a very real sense that, because of Jesus, you have permission not to see yourself that way anymore, to not believe that that is the reality that ultimately defines you. It doesn't. Not anymore. What does Paul say, "And such were some of you..."

Friends, if you are in Christ, then He has you in His grip and I don't care what your label used to be, I don't care what your name WAS - that is NOT your name anymore. And if we can ever get a hold of that truth and learn to believe it, then that will do for us what decades of self recrimination will never do. Because once we have caught a glimpse of this amazing truth: that we were made clean and set apart and made righteous in Jesus Christ - Once we catch a glimpse of that it functions like some kind of cosmic tractor beam that pulls us out of the muck and the mire, irresistibly moving us toward the image to which God is surely conforming us in his Son.

God is working his purposes out in our lives, using His Son as the blueprint - His perfect humanity. And that means that God does not look at us on the basis of what we might become one day but upon the sure basis of what no power in heaven or hell can stop him from doing - finishing and perfecting His redeeming, transforming work within his people, conforming us to the image of his Son. And not just us, individually, but this things is happening to all of us, corporately, as the Body of Christ - We are his new nation, we are his new, forever family.

This is what the Corinthians keep forgetting. This is what they have not yet seemed to grasp. So much of what is troubling their church has, at its core, this fundamental inability to believe that they really do belong to the family of God with all the privileges and responsibilities that are as real and, dare I say it, more lasting, than even their responsibilities to their own flesh and blood families.

In the previous passage we saw one of the devastating effects of forgetting this truth of who they were together in Christ: They allowed and tolerated publicly known, gross sexual sin by one of the members of their faith community. They were not taking responsibility toward one another. They were not concerned about what this said about them as a community. They were not concerned about what it said about the God in whose name this community had gathered.

Now, while we have taken the long way to get there, I want you to see that in the passage before us this morning the same sort of thing is at issue: the Corinthians, in a different sort of area, still had the same problem: they were forgetting who they were as a community of the faithful. They were not thinking about the witness of their actions before a watching world. Instead of acting and thinking like a community of the faithful, they were behaving like a mere collection of individuals, each one only looking out for what was best for him/her. If they had remembered who they were together, if they had been thinking about themselves as a real community then things might have been different...

Now, alongside that truth which is, as I said, the primary one that is driving Paul's thoughts throughout the passage there is another, lesser, but still significant truth, found earlier on, and which also influences Paul's comments here. It is found in verses 2 and 3 and has to do not so much with who we are but with what role God has for us, in Jesus, and in the future:

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? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!
While I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, please notice that it is Paul's understanding and assumption that Christians will be involved, at the end, in the judgment of the world, including the judgment of angels. In contrast to what Paul says in 5:13 - while judging those outside the church is not appropriate for Christians now, there is coming a time - one specific time when, apparently, it will be appropriate - at the final judgment, at the end when Christ returns to rule and reign and we will enter into that rule and reign with Him. Then and ONLY then is such judging of outsiders permitted.

Now Paul's statements in this regard are drawn from a number of truths found in passages like Daniel 7, Matt 19, Luke 22, Rev 3, Rev 20, etc. which we don't have time to go into this morning. But it is enough to simply take note of this fact that God's people from every age - including you and me - will be involved in the most significant judgments made in the history of humankind, a fact which Paul will use to make an important point later on.

So, to summarize what we've seen thus far: the truths of who we are and what role God has for us are powerful, life and community shaping truths that, nevertheless seemed to be completely outside of the Corinthian understanding of Christianity.But, you see, once you understand this underlying dynamic behind Paul's words which, admittedly, has taken a while to get to - but once you understand this, then the way is clear to deal with the rest of the passage much more quickly and succinctly. And so, with the little bit of time remaining, let's see how all of this works out in the rest of the passage and concentrate now on the first part of Chapter 6, and upon the particular situation which has gotten Paul so worked up - this matter of Christians suing one another and dragging one another into the courts.

To Paul the fact that this was going on was proof positive that they hadn't the foggiest idea of who they were in Jesus and what the implications of that were for them as a community....

What specifically was going on in Corinth? Well, while we cannot say for certain, judging from the information we DO have, a fairly accurate picture can be formed. If we take into account the language used - "trivial cases" in verse 2 and the phrase "the things of this life" - in verse 3 which is, literally, "everyday matters", in the Greek - and then later on the language about "defrauding" in verses 7 and 8 - which is almost always talking about money issues - When you take those things into account, then it would appear that Paul is talking about Christians taking one another to court, not over deeply serious issues but about more mundane things and about matters which most likely involved losing or being cheated out of some money, or at least thinking that you have been cheated out of some money.

Again, just as we saw in chapter 5, what is of greater concern to Paul than the specific cases themselves is the more important, over-riding fact of the way these things were being perceived and handled by the rest of the Church. From his perspective, he was seeing at least three (3) things wrong in this situation.

First and most importantly, as we have been talking about, the Corinthians were not thinking of themselves as a community and so were willing to engage in behaviors which brought internal damage TO the community and external damage to the name of Christ. They were more willing to allow THAT to happen, than they were to suffer even the slightest personal loss.Secondly, the Corinthians were resorting to litigation instead of conciliation and thirdly, the Corinthians were allowing unbelievers to settle problems between believers. All three of these things were tragic and fatal to the unity of the church and to the cause of Christ in Corinth. So let's pause now to look at each of them in turn....

The Corinthians were willing to risk internal damage to the community of believers and external damage to the name of Christ - rather than being willing to personally suffer loss:

To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!
When Paul talks about their being willing to be "wronged" he is surely thinking of the example and pattern set by the Lord Jesus Himself - a pattern that is highlighted in a number of places in Scripture. Listen, for example, to I Peter 2:19-23:
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly....
Or hear the words of Jesus himself, in Matthew 5:38-44:
You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. 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. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy ", But I say to you, "Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
When Paul looked upon the example of Christ he saw one who suffered unjustly, who was willing to absorb the sin and wrongdoing of others - for a greater good - and he taught those who followed him to do the same. For Paul the Christian life was not about claiming rights but about abdicating them - as Christ did. It was not about self-promotion and self-interest but about other-promotion and self-sacrifice - as Christ did.

Sadly, when Paul looked at the Corinthian congregation he saw a people who were not willing to do any of these things. Indeed, he saw quite the opposite spirit amongst them - a concern for rights, for "getting what was coming to them", for exacting revenge, etc. He saw a people who so little valued the community of faith, and the reputation of Christ, that they preferred to allow the Lord's good name to be disgraced in the city of Corinth before they would be willing to let go of even disputes over "everyday matters", over things as ultimately worthless as money. Paul is saying that what they were sacrificing was worth far more than what they were sacrificing it for.

Second, not only were the Corinthians unwilling to follow the example of Jesus, but when they did address their grievances, they did so by way of litigation instead of conciliation. Now, I'm no legal scholar, but it seems to me that there are some fundamental differences between these two processes. In LITIGATION you are seeking a redress for grievances. The practical effect of this upon the other party is not the main issue, nor is it typically a concern. Indeed, the effect upon the other party is often meant to be punitive - it is intended to exact some sort of revenge and inflict some sort of punishment upon them.

In conciliation, by contrast, you approach the situation knowing that unless both parties see the outcome as some sort of "win" then it will not work. So you know that you have to work with the other person, not just "beat them' 'in court. You know you are going to have to try and see things from their side, not just have them see and accept your version of the story.

Further, you have to have some sort of concern for the other party. If you come with the attitude of merely inflicting punishment and damage upon the other and simply getting everything that you feel is coming to you, conciliation just won't work.

As we already have seen, the fact that they have even made an issue of everyday matters that ought simply to have been absorbed is a sign of defeat. However, Paul says, putting all that aside for a moment, when you ought to be working to settle your differences, you instead seek to strong arm the other person into giving into your demands. You are seeking to "win" an argument in a way that really, in the end, makes both sides losers. Have you ever done that? Have you ever seen that? Ever "won" a fight, only to discover, in the end, that you have lost more than you won, because of what you had to do to win it?

Third, and this is the icing on the cake for Paul, the Corinthians were allowing unbelievers to settle problems between believers. It was bad enough that they were raising these issues in the first place. It was worse that they were trying to handle them by litigation instead of conciliation. It was worse still that they were taking in-house matters between Christians into a situation where they were being decided by unbelievers.

Now, in saying this, I have to point out that nearly all the scholars agree that the NIV's translation of verse 4 is really confusing. As a result, most would agree that a better translation would be the ESV rendering, "So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church". So, while the NIV is not clear as to whether it is referring to believers or unbelievers, given the context of the whole passage, it seems clear enough that Paul is appalled by the fact that Christians are taking their internal matters before unbelievers in secular courts.

The other thing to say here, by way of qualification, is this: Don't misread Paul's language here as saying more than it is. Paul is not saying that unbelievers aren't capable of a certain measure of justice or of reasonably working out things. His own life is an example of that when, in Acts 18:12-17, his ministry is brought before the courts by some angry Jews and Gallio makes a very wise and fair ruling in Paul's favor.

So, he's not saying that unbelievers aren't capable of making good decisions on certain matters. Nor is he saying that believers have no business resorting to or making use of the secular legal system. Again, he is an example of this when in Acts 25, he appealed to Caesar to have his case tried in a higher court. That is, when faced with a choice, he didn't just blow things off or refuse to use or take advantage of the system. He used it in a just way, making an appeal that it was his right to make as a Roman citizen.

Nevertheless, you see, both the matter with Gallio in Acts 18 and the appeal to Caesar in Acts 25 are matters between believers and unbelievers. Here in 1 Corinthians Paul is addressing the situation of how believers are to respond to one another and handle internal issues. And what Paul is saying is that the Corinthians - who will one day be involved in the great judgment with and through Christ, who will one day judge angels themselves - these same Corinthians are allowing themselves to be judged by those who - with regard to their relationship to God and understanding of spiritual things - are their inferiors. They are allowing as judges people whom they themselves will one day be judging when, inside the church, they have people who are far more qualified to deal with matters between believers.

Well, let us try and wrap all of this up by focusing on the implications of all this for the community of God's people in our own day....

For starters, Christians in this and every age will continue to make use of secular courts - in dealing with issues between believers and unbelievers and, while there may be some things to think about with regard to the whole matter of being willing to be wronged, the courts and judicial system are in place and, in the providence of God, are used to restrain evil in our world in a helpful way. So, we should respect and can make use of the authority inherent in them.

However, when it comes to matters between Christians we must have a very different approach and attitude. Yes, sometimes it may be unavoidable appearing before unbelieving judges with other Christians. It is notable, in this regard, that while Paul speaks very strongly against this action, he stops just short of absolutely forbidding it. And so while it may be sometimes avoidable, it ought to be considered by believers as the absolute last resort, as the worst of all possible solutions. Sadly, in our own day, it is typically considered as the first, best and only solution.

Nevertheless, if we take Paul's words to heart then we need to be prepared to re-think this whole area of life in Christian community. And we need to be ready to take some radically different steps if we are to take seriously our responsibilities to one another, and for the reputation of Christ in Baton Rouge. And that means that right out of the blocks, we need to be ready to imitate Christ's example of being willing to suffer unjustly.

Does that mean we become a doormat? No. Does it mean that we don't go to one another to work out our differences? Of course not. But it does mean that that IS what we seek to accomplish - and not the lesser, worldly goals of revenge and retaliation and the claiming of rights and defense of our fragile egos, etc. It means that we think carefully before we respond and ask ourselves certain questions, such as these, as suggested by some helpful commentators:

1) Is this issue an everyday matter that is really just about me and no one else and will not likely affect anyone else? Is this something I can absorb, for the sake of Christ, knowing that as surely as this has been done to me, in this instance, I have no doubt done the exact same thing to someone else in my church family - and probably worse?

2) Ask yourself: Is this concerning something that, for me, is a potential idol and as such I react more strongly to it than perhaps I ought?

3) Ask yourself: Is the cost of responding to this worth the perceived gain in doing so? In other words, would it be better to absorb this particular wrong than to fracture unity and bring slander upon the name of Christ? Or is it the case that this is not an everyday matter, it is not just a personal issue between me and another person but, like the issue described in chapter 5, it is something which will do far more damage by being unaddressed in our community?

Now you may respond to all of this by asking, "Isn't there a danger here of being taken advantage of? In a temporal sense, yes; in an ultimate sense, no. Paul's words assure us that anyone that makes a practice of such a thing and takes advantage of others in the church is showing himself/herself to still be among those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God - thus God will balance that account for you on the day of Christ Jesus.

A further implication of all this is that, when we do take up a grievance with one another, we need to have as a goal conciliation, i. e., settling the matter - not "winning". And we need to be willing to pursue this, as much as it is in us to do so, in a way which shows recognition that both parties are recovering sinners and which seeks the good of the other person and their edification in Christ, ultimately.

Now, to be sure, this is yet another matter that has been complicated by the reality of denominationalism. Paul had to deal with one denomination. We have thousands, and they don't necessarily have anything to do with each other. Still pursuing this goal successfully IS possible, both within and across denominational lines.

Within denominations we need to be able to handle matters in this way. And

I must say that the PCA, on the whole, has a good structure for this and we are doing this kind of thing all the time. Every General Assembly we have matters - disputes and grievances - that are being handled between Christians and by Christians - and it is good to see this happening, even if the disputes themselves are not good!

Across denominations some have recognized the need for this and have a ministry of providing this sort of service to the wider Body of Christ. So, for example, there are groups like Peacemaker Ministries that seeks to provide this sort of service to the wider church and across denominational and organizational lines.

At the end of the day then, brothers and sisters, our attitude toward this, and so many other things, is always to be driven by our understanding of who we are and what role God has for us in Jesus Christ. We need to pray that God will help us to remember and believe the truth of who we are in Jesus, and who we are as a community, and we need to be driven to act in ways which reveal that we truly do understand our responsibilities toward one another and that we do embrace and believe in the liberating, life-transforming, community shaping truth of the Gospel.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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