Another Look At 1 Corinthians 6

Implementing The Alternative To Taking A Brother To The Heathen Courts

By Randy Blackaby

The Apostle Paul´s denunciation of brethren hauling one another into the heathen courts has produced more confusion, disputing and inaction than it has solutions among most Christians. Brethren appear to recognize the prohibition but not Paul´s positive assertions.

In 1 Corinthians 6:1, Paul wrote:

Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?
Clearly the apostle is saying we should take our matters of dispute before our brethren. He continues that idea in the next two verses by pointing out the clear ability of brethren to handle this:

Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?

Too many of us have adopted the sectarian infatuation that misunderstands Jesus´ command in Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (I think that passage has replaced John 3:16 as the most memorized verse in scripture.) Jesus was condemning hypocritical judgment as the illustration of the ocularly-challenged ophthalmologist demonstrates (cf. Matt.7:3-5).

Paul clearly asserts that Christians have the ability and responsibility to judge. Since saints will, in some fashion, participate in the judgment of both the world and angels, it is a relatively small thing to judge matters of dispute among themselves. Such are “the smallest matters” when compared to the final judgment of the world.

The Folly Of Seeking Justice And Truth From Unbelievers

Paul demonstrates the utter foolishness and shame of taking relatively minor disputes among brethren to the public courts. First, if the saints possess and are guided by God´s divine truths, why should we want to get justice from people (unbelievers) who are not guided by those divine principles? Secondly, what does it say to the world of unbelievers about our faith in that truth when we choose to have unbelievers decide matters of truth and justice for us? Thus, Paul wrote:

I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren (v. 5)? ... Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another (v. 7a).

With abortion, divorce for any cause, homosexuality and many other sins “legal” in our country, why would a Christian expect a “just” decision from our public courts? When many of our judges are alcoholics, atheists, agnostics and adulterers, why would we expect righteous decrees to resolve our problems from such men and women?

And with Christians espousing the love of God and of one another and claiming to be part of Christ´s kingdom of peace, brotherhood and forgiveness, does not an appeal to heathens to resolve our disputes seem to undermine all those assertions? Paul writes:

Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated (v. 7b)?
If heaven is our goal and the salvation of our fellow men our purpose, the loss of a few possessions is minor in comparison to undermining the gospel message.

Who In The Church Should Judge These Issues?

How the saints are to handle these matters of judgment and who in particular should be involved has been both a practical and hermeneutical problem. Let´s start with the hermeneutical questions.

The interpretation of verse 4 has been the source of some confusion. The King James Version translates it, “If then ye have judgments or things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.” Read as a command sentence, it appears Paul is saying the least appreciated or most immature Christian would be a better judge than unbelievers.

The New King James Version translates this verse as a question instead of as a command. Thus it reads:

If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge?
Those “least esteemed,” then are not church members but the unbelievers who judge in the public courts. (The ASV, NAS, RSV, and NRSV all translate the verse as a question. The NIV translates it as a command.)

Since there should be no “least esteemed” saints, as that would seem to be the practice of showing partiality, it seems better to understand this verse as the New King James and others render it.

But that leaves us with the practical question of who in the church should do the judging of matters of dispute among brethren. The apostle doesn´t specify. Reason would suggest mature saints. Where elders are ordained, they seem a practical answer. Otherwise, any believer, or group of believers, appears to be far better than judicial infidels.

Does This Passage Authorize Church Courts?

Paul does not here outline the creation of any sort of formal and permanently seated court system in the church. But that said, let´s not run too quickly from the concept of a court. A court, at its simplest, is merely a judge or judges assembled to hear a matter and render judgment or direction.

Is that not what Paul is saying the church should be able to accomplish?

If Brother Smith and Brother Jones are unable to settle a dispute among them over a real estate deal and they ask three brethren to listen to their respective sides and give them a decision based on God´s word (law), what sort of body was created for that purpose?

But, whatever it is called, the church today needs to see Paul´s directive for Christians to adjudicate these issues among themselves. So often, it seems, we see the choice as taking a brother to law or doing nothing. That isn´t what Paul wrote.

What Sort Of Issues Does Paul Expect The Church To Judge?

One of the more difficult issues in this chapter is determining what types of issues Paul expected the church to adjudicate. Was he including all issues, including criminal conduct like murder, robbery, embezzlement and rape? Or, was he addressing only matters of morality and civil disagreement? Or, does he speak of matters of personal disagreement not involving civil law?

These questions have deeply divided brethren at times.

Let´s observe, first, that it certainly covers moral issues. In chapter 5, Paul spoke of an adulterer in Corinth and told the church there “when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan…” (vv. 4-5).

Next, let´s observe in chapter 6 that whatever was being addressed concerned “things pertaining to this life” (v.4), and it involved situations where a brother might have been wronged or cheated (v.7).

It does not seem to involve actions that criminally violate civil law. Otherwise, we are faced with either creating a church police force or letting criminals go free because we have no authority to incarcerate, fine, execute or otherwise punish such criminals. Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-16 establish civil government as ordained of God for our protection from such.

If one includes criminal activity in 1 Corinthians 6 then it would seem to prohibit calling the police if you catch a brother robbing your house, raping your wife, embezzling from your company or murdering your children. A proper hermeneutic does not make Paul´s writing to the Romans conflict with his directions to the Corinthians.

It is equally important that the righteous do not demonstrate unlawful sympathy with evil-doers (cf. Deuteronomy 13:6-10; 19:11-13, 16-21; 25:11-12).

Matthew 18 May Help

While many will not agree, Matthew 18:15-17 seems to deal with similar matters and may help us understand the will of the Lord.  Jesus here addresses cases where one brother sins against another. His instructions are incremental in nature. The first step is to talk privately with the one who has sinned against you, with the goal of gaining his repentance. If this approach fails, other Christians who can serve as witnesses are to be engaged for the same purpose. But if this also fails, the whole church is be involved. This seems to parallel, at least in part, what Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 6.

Jesus did state a fourth step, I believe. He said if the sinful brother refused the counsel of the whole church to repent, he was to be treated as “a heathen and a tax collector.”

Could that final step include turning the matter over to civil authorities when the church has exhausted its remedies?  I believe we must at least consider that possibility.

What Should The Church Do?

The following are either specific or general cases that have actually occurred. How would you apply the principles we have studied in 1 Corinthians 6 and elsewhere?

On The Other Hand

Imagine with me, however, how different things would be if brethren made the Lord´s church the first court of appeal instead of the last. Consider how different things might be if brethren first came to the Lord´s people and the law of God to determine what is right and wrong instead of initiating civil court action and then coming and trying to get brethren to take sides in the dispute.

Because Romans 13 directs us to submit ourselves to civil government and the law of the land, I am convinced that a Christian who is scripturally justified in obtaining a divorce needs to file for such in civil court.

That said, consider the propriety and benefit to such a saint and the church of involving the church first. If the saint lays out the evidence of adultery before the church, brethren can help him or her determine the will of the Lord. The erring spouse can be rebuked, edified and maybe restored. In cases where there is only suspicion and not evidence, a great mistake or even sin can be potentially avoided. And if divorce is the only or appropriate answer, the sinned against saint will have the understanding and support of the saints.

That is so different from what commonly happens. Often brethren don´t even know a problem exists until they read in the newspaper of an action filed or decision rendered by civil or criminal courts. If the church is engaged in the matter it is often “after the fact” as one or both parties seek approval of the church for what has been done in the heathen courts.


When we simplistically see only a prohibition in Paul´s statements about taking brethren before unbelievers, and fail to see our duty to adjudicate issues using God´s law as our guide, we strip the passage before us of its real power to make a difference in our lives.

(Randy Blackaby preaches in New Carlisle, OH.
He can be contacted at

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