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When to Go to Court

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 6

Our impact for Christ in this world is directly tied to our being clearly distinct from the world. We cannot pursue the attitudes and pleasures of the ungodly if we want to glorify the Lord.


The church at Corinth is in danger of losing its credibility and its gospel testimony. The trouble is, they have no one to blame but themselves. Can they do something to regain their reputation? Absolutely, but it is going to demand some major changes in their thinking.

The first problem that needs a change in thinking is addressed by Paul in verse 1:

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

Simply put, these Christians are suing one another and taking their grievances to the civil court system and before unbelieving judges. Paul considers this more than a legal matter—he wants them to think about this as a spiritual and moral matter.

Paul gives them three reasons to rethink this. First, bringing lawsuits against fellow Christians is contrary to the Christian’s future. Paul writes in verses 2-3:

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!

That is a rather stunning revelation! One day, we believers will evaluate the service of angels. And here is Paul’s point: If we can be given that incredible role one day, can we not handle disagreements among ourselves today? Believers who will one day judge the world surely are equipped to judge lesser matters now.

Second, not only are legal battles between Christians contrary to the Christian’s future, but going before unbelievers with personal disputes also is detrimental to the Christian’s testimony

Now don’t misunderstand. It is naïve to think Christians are never going to have serious disagreements and disputes. But to take them before an unbelieving world only gives the world an opportunity to mock us as being no different from our selfish, argumentative culture. It tells the world we cannot get along with one another—that we cannot settle our differences any better than they can. In other words, we are no different from anyone else.

Even the Jewish people in Paul’s day settled their civil cases by taking them to the synagogue and their Jewish leaders.[1]

Paul writes in verse 7, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” Christians who are at each other’s throats ultimately defeat their own testimony and stain the reputation of the church.

Third, Paul emphasizes that going to court against fellow believers is inconsistent with the Christian’s distinctiveness. Here is how he puts:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (verses 9-10)

Now does this mean that anybody who has been guilty of these sinful actions or lifestyles cannot get into heaven? No. In fact, Paul goes on to give this wonderful statement in verse 11:

Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

The church in Corinth consists of people who used to be thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, and swindlers. But by the transforming gospel of forgiveness and grace, no one’s past has to ruin their future. These people were saved and redeemed from their sinful lifestyles through the forgiveness and saving power of Jesus Christ. They are now living distinctive lives for Christ.

But how does this relate to Paul’s point about lawsuits? Paul seems to be implying that their legal actions against one another are immoral—the kind of actions you expect to see among unbelievers. By pursuing lawsuits against one another, they are reflecting attitudes of selfishness, greed, and vengeance. These are not Christian distinctives.  

Now, we must understand that Paul is not addressing criminal cases where physical harm has taken place. This prohibition has nothing to do with an abused wife calling the police or a woman filing for child support, or a murderer being sued for civil damages. There certainly is a place for government courts to punish crime and protect the innocent—to maintain order in society. The Bible endorses the courts of law, as we saw back in Romans 13.

Paul is addressing here the issue of personal disputes among Christians involving property, money, contracts, agreements. In cases like these, believers ought to be settling their own disputes with wise biblical counsel from leadership in the church. But this will require humility to defer to one another. We need to be willing to compromise, to reach an agreement—even if it means suffering loss—rather than destroy the unity of the church before an unbelieving world.

It is tragic today to see Christians and entire church congregations taking their cases of property disputes and personnel disagreements before the secular courts.

Through the rest of this chapter, Paul speaks in general terms about sexual purity. Again, remember that in the city of Corinth, sexual immorality was pervasive. And we have already learned that the church was allowing an immoral man to remain active in the assembly. Now Paul addresses the fact that some in the church are using Christian liberty as an excuse to justify sexual immorality.

Paul himself acknowledges in verse 12, “All things are lawful for me” because he is, like all believers, free from the demands of the law. But this principle applies only to non-moral issues. Paul explains that someone can choose to observe the Jewish feasts or not; someone can eat kosher food or not. The Christian is not bound by these laws in the dispensation of the church age. We have the freedom to choose in these non-moral issues.

However, as Paul now writes in verse 13, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Moral issues are an entirely different matter. Christian liberty does not justify lust or any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage.

Paul then takes this further by writing that sexual immorality is not just a physical act. He says in verse 16 that a man who joins his body with a prostitute becomes one body—“one flesh”—with her. He forms an alien bond, so to speak. This is a serious violation of God’s order, so it is no wonder that Paul writes here in verse 18, “Flee from sexual immorality.”

By the way, the Bible never commands the Christian to stand and fight sexual temptation but to run from it. Lace up your shoes, beloved, and run—like Joseph who ran from Potiphar’s house. He did not even stop to grab his coat because he ran so fast to get away.

Paul concludes this chapter by reminding us of something positive, something amazing:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (verses 19-20)

As Christians, our bodies not only belong to God, but they have become the Holy of Holies where the Spirit of God dwells.  

Why do we live the way we do? Because our lives—even our bodies—have been redeemed by God. Our bodies—our minds and hearts—have been forgiven by Christ and are now apartments where the Holy Spirit has taken up residency.

So, when the devil and temptation come knocking at the door, ask the Holy Spirit to help you handle it. In fact, since the Spirit of God is now the owner and the occupant of your life, why not just let Him answer the door.

[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Wise (Victor Books, 1983), 68.

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