Vol. 1 - No. 11
To Law Against A Brother
by John W. Wilson
The first eight verses of 1 Corinthians chapter six deals with the above subject which begins as follows: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?”
The position commonly taken upon this passage is that position which forbids a Christian from going into a civil court in order to settle a matter with another Christian. There are varied reasons for this position. I will name a few:
(1) Some say that Paul forbids legal action with a brother because of the reproach which it brings upon the church. (2) Others say that a Christian should not go to law against his brother in a civil court because it would be difficult to obtain justice in such a court. (3) Still others contend that Christians are forbidden to go into civil court in opposition to his brother because Christians have a higher and better court; namely, the church, which is to try the case.
If the apostle is prohibiting a Christian going into civil court against a brother, we are forced to ask why he would make such a prohibition at this time, if ever, because this passage has nothing to do with either civil courts, nor legal matters, but has to do with the standard of judgment and the persons selected to do the judging within the church. The unrighteous, the unbelievers, and those of “no account” in the church all refer to unfaithful members and Paul is against such characters acting as judges in disciplinary matters rather than using the holy and wise in the church.
Paul's burden in this passage is not the forbidding of taking legal matters before civil courts but rather the forbidding of taking church cases (disciplinary cases) before the unfaithful despised brethren. “Go to law” in verse one is the word, “krinesthai,” and does not refer to the civil courts. The word merely means to seek judgment. Thus, this verse could be paraphrased, “Dare any of you, having a ground of action against the other, seek judgment from those who judge unjustly, and not from those who are holy ones?”
Now in response to the three positions taken on the passage: (1) As to such a trial between brethren bringing reproach upon the church, there is absolutely nothing said in the passage concerning any possible reproach in the eyes of the world. The only reproach mentioned is in verse five, and this has to do with the shame to be felt by Christians themselves. Moreover, common sense should tell us that there is no more reproach brought upon the church in a court appeal of two Christians than there is between a Christian and an unbeliever. The same people in the world who know that both are Christians also know that the party who is a Christian is in a suit with an alien and no doubt would be more inclined to hold the Christian's actions against the church. (2) As to it being more difficult for a Christian to obtain justice in civil court against a brother than against a nonChristian, it seems to me that it would be more difficult to win against an unbeliever in a court trial, tried by an unbeliever than it would to win when both are Christians. (3) As to the argument that Christians are forbidden to go into civil court because we have a higher and better court; namely, the church which is to try the case, would give to the church the power to judge civil and legal matters. It would require that the church be competent to judge such matters as boundary disputes. The ones in the church who judge would have to be experts on deeds, be able to read and understand surveyor's reports, and have a sufficient knowledge of real estate in order to make a fair settlement. In a divorce case, the church would not only have to judge moral guilt and innocence, which it might conceivably do, but it would also have to be empowered to decide the legal rights of the parties involved such as alimony, property settlement, and child custody. Surely we can see that the church of the Lord was not set up for nor authorized to act as a tribunal in affairs outside its jurisdictional competence, but is only equipped to judge in regard to matters of its own discipline.
Paul recognized that some cases between brethren can be settled by the church. The church under consideration here is the local congregation and not a hierarchical body acting for the church universal. For instance, Matthew 18:17 authorizes the church to hear and decide in regard to a sin committed by one of its members against another. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 (with \which chapter six is directly connected) likewise teaches that the church is to judge in such matters. But, where is the passage which authorizes the church to act as a tribunal in legal matters? Where do we find those in the church with the ability to make a fair judgment in disputes which involve the law of the land? In what matters would the law of the land permit the church of Christ to make binding decisions of that kind; even if both parties agreed to abide by them? After all, many legal disputes between private parties affect public welfare; (as in divorce cases) so after the church has made its decision, the matter would still have to be adjudicated in a civil court, which many insist is forbidden at either the beginning or ending of a case.
There is not the slightest hint in the context, nor evidence in history that Christians were suing one another in civil courts and had to be rebuked for so doing. Why should Paul have used the term, unrighteous to refer to the courts of the land? Although it is true that most judges of civil courts, as individuals, are not righteous people, one does not plead a law suit before judges as men, but before the courts as institutions. To have Paul say that courts as institutions are unrighteous is to have him contradict what he taught in Romans 13; that civil authorities are ordained of God. It is also to array Paul against Peter who wrote that we are to honor those who are sent by God to administer justice. (1 Peter 2:14).
The import of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 then is this: the Corinthians had cases of dispute between brethren (disciplinary matters) which needed to be settled by the church. They were setting up the unjust as judges. Those whose follies made them despised by all right-thinking Christians and those who were unfaithful were not to be trusted; therefore it was impossible to obtain JUST decisions. They might as well, in fact better, suffer r wrong than to hope for justice under such conditions. Paul rebukes them and admonishes them to let matters of the church be settled by the faithful, wise, and holy members of the church. It is shameful when this is not done.
I have lived to see many fine churches and faithful brethren who have toiled to build their own meeting places, only to walk off and turn it over to a bunch of trouble-makers just because they thought it was a sin to go into the civil courts against a brother. Such thinking actually gives the unlawful and the ungodly the right to trample upon and mistreat Christ's very own faithful children. I do not believe this and pray that we will give more diligent study to 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.