By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: In recent months I have learned of some brethren who have cheated their brethren and others out of thousands of dollars. Does the teaching in 1 Corinthians 6.1-8 prohibit brethren who have been cheated, to pursue legal action against these brethren in order to recover their loss?
Reply: 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, like some other Bible passages, has been misapplied and therefore should be restudied. Paul begins in verse one, by asking: “Dare any of you, having a matter against his neighbor, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before saints?” The usual interpretation of this verse is that it is a sin for a Christian to take legal action against another Christian in a civil court of law.
Brethren were having disputes among themselves and Paul is simply asking, who is to judge upon these quarrels, the righteous or the unrighteous? Paul is not contending that it is wrong for a Christian to take legal action against another Christian in a civil court of law. Legal matters and civil courts are not involved here. The expression “go to law” in verse one is translated from the Greek word krinesthai, present and middle passive of the Greek verb krino, “to judge.” This judgment may be in a court of law or privately. Arndt and Gingrich defined krinesthai.- “dispute, quarrel, debate, go to law before someone (as a judge) vs. 1’s (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, p. 452). A form of the same verb Krino is found in verse six (krinetai). translated “goeth to law.” In verse seven, the Greek word krimata, nominative and accusative of the Greek noun krima, is used. It is translated “lawsuits” (ASV) and “go to law” (KJV). The Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament says of verse seven: (“lit. ye have judgments) one with another” (p. 75). The Greek words in our text do riot indicate that legal procedures and civil courts are under consideration.
There is another important matter which contributes to this study. There may be unrighteous men in our courts of law today, just as there were in pagan courts of law in Paul’s day; however, they do not make the judicial system wrong within itself. The institution is not unrighteous. God ordained civil government (Rom. 13:1-7) and we are to honor those who administer justice (1 Pet. 2:14). We must remember that civil government is composed of three branches: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. This means that our judicial branch of government is ordained of God, as are the other two. Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 6:1, “Dare any of you, having a matter against his neighbor, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?” Notice that Paul did not say, “go to law before the unrighteous courts. ” He simply said, “before the unrighteous.” Since civil courts of law are not unrighteous in and of themselves, it should be evident that Paul is not referring to civil courts of law in these disputes at Corinth. Again, the issue is who is to judge in these matters – the righteous or the unrighteous? It seems obvious that the unrighteous (unfaithful) in the church are the ones referred to in the text; however, even if we grant that some were taking these disputes to unrighteous persons outside the church, the fact remains, and all will agree, that they were not to take their disputes to the unrighteous – in the church or out of it. The brethren would be better off to be defrauded than to have their cases judged by unrighteous, and that there were some unrighteous men in the church at Corinth there can be no doubt. Paul asks: “do ye set them to judge who are of no account in the church?” (v. 4, italics mine, HH)
Common sense teaches us that some disputes among brethren should be settled by the church (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:12,13 – chapter 6 is connected with this passage). But common sense also teaches us that there are also disputes which may arise among brethren which may be legal in nature. In these cases, the church would not be qualified to decide them. The church is not a tribunal in legal affairs. Civil courts are not qualified to judge doctrinal and disciplinary matters which may arise in the church. The state has no business interfering with the church in these matters (see the incident of the Jews and Gallio, Acts 18:12-16). But neither is the church qualified, nor is it the business of the church, to rule on legal matters: disputes about boundaries, divorce suits, alimony, custody of children, recovery of financial loss as a result of fraud, etc.
1 Corinthians 6:1-8 is not a shelter for the brotherhood swindler. To begin with, he should be dealt with in the church where he is a member as one guilty of sin. The procedure should be the same as that for any other offender, whether he be a false teacher or a profligate. He should be reproved, rebuked and exhorted (2 Tim. 4:2) and if he does not repent the church should withdraw from him (2 Thess. 3:6). Should he “skip” to another city and identify himself with another congregation before action could be taken by the local church, he should be exposed (marked) as one who is unworthy of fellowship (Rom. 16:17). Churches do both the crook and faithful children of God an injustice when they allow a reprobate to run loose and make more innocent brethren his prey by his dishonest dealings. This is where the church has its obligation.
From the legal point of view, brethren who have been victimized by brethren who have defrauded them have every right to pursue legal action in a court of law to recover what they have lost. The brotherhood culprit, who has been caught for his acts of fraud and to avoid being sued by another brother, has been known to hide behind 1 Corinthians 6 and declare that a Christian cannot sue another Christian. We question in the first place, whether one who makes a business of victimizing unsuspecting brethren is truly a Christian. The Bible does not shield such characters, but it does provide protection for the innocent. If a mate in marriage is guilty of fornication, Jesus gives the innocent party the right to put away the guilty and remarry. We know of no one who believes that Matthew 19:9 and other related passages apply only to those outside the church. If a brother or sister may sue another brother or sister in a civil court of law for marital fraud, why may not the same hold true in the case of financial fraud? If not, why not? Civil courts are provided for protection.
Certainly we should pray for any guilty party that he will repent of his ungodly acts that his soul will be saved. But he should also produce “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Repentance is more than saying “I am sorry” or “I repent.” It is a change of heart that results in a change of life. If one is truly penitent he will show evidence of it by correcting his wrongdoings, and if he is guilty of fraud he will pay back what he owes to the ones he has defrauded. One who is a thief, but who repents, will make an honest effort to return what he has stolen.
We need to take another look at 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 8, pp. 233, 244
April 21, 1988