Commentary on 1 Cor 6:1-11
Today we hear of Christians at Corinth suing one another before pagan judges in Roman courts. A barrage of rhetorical questions betrays Paul’s anger over this practice, which he sees as an infringement upon the holiness of the Christian community. It seems that he is speaking of civil cases involving property rather than criminal cases which would rightly be dealt with by the state.
He refers to the secular courts as the “lawcourts of the unjust”. He is not actually accusing these courts of corruption but saying that the judges, who were pagans, had not, like the Christians, been “justified” by baptism in Christ. How then could “unjustified” people pass judgement on those who were “justified”, namely, the “saints”, the members of the Christian community?
The Corinthians should take their property cases before qualified Christians for settlement. In Paul’s day the Romans allowed the Jews to apply their own law in property matters, and since the Romans did not consider Christians as a separate class from the Jews, Christians no doubt had the same rights.
Those who have the vision of life that Christ gives are in a position, together with him, to “judge the (pagan) world” rather than be judged by it, especially in “trifling cases”. Paul is appealing to an eschatological prerogative promised to Christians: they are to share with Christ in the judgement of the world. A fortiori, they should be able to judge minor cases within their own community. And they will evaluate such situations from a different standpoint, namely, that of the Gospel. (Morality and law can come to very different conclusions.)
Instead, these cases are being brought before people for whose moral views the Church can have no real respect, namely, pagan judges. Or, to put it in another way, the most insignificant members of the church community would be in a better position to solve these cases among Christians. “You should be ashamed: is there really not one reliable man among you to settle differences between brothers and so one brother brings a court case against another in front of unbelievers?”
In fact, adds Paul, it is bad enough that they are having recourse to the law courts at all. Is it so bad to be cheated in relatively small matters when there are much more serious moral issues at stake (which will never find them before a court of law)? On the contrary, the real problem is that Corinthian Christians are cheating and committing moral wrongs to their brothers in the faith. And no one who does wrong can inherit the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of love and justice, of compassion and forgiveness.
Paul gives a list of some of the things he is referring to: people who practise idolatry (especially where it is done to avoid persecution or to accommodate pagan family and friends); adulterers; catamites, that is, male prostitutes; sodomites, that is, those who indulged in homosexual behaviour, specifically anal sex; thieves and (almost the same thing) usurers (‘loan sharks’); drunkards; slanderers (destroying the good name of others even when the accusations are true); cheats of all kinds.
Three forms of sexual immorality are identified: adultery (sexual relations where at least one partner is married to someone else); male prostitutes and males who have sexual relations with other males. In Rom 1:26 Paul also includes females who practise homosexuality. All such behaviour is quite incompatible with being under the kingship of God. His kingdom cannot contain such people.
(We might say here that in Paul’s time the concept of homosexuality as a psychosocial ‘orientation’ would have been unknown. That there were people who habitually acted in this way would have been known. It is possible that the term ‘eunuch’ sometimes referred to such people. For Paul, however, men or women having sex with people of their own gender was seen as a violation of their nature.)
Before their conversion, the Corinthian “saints”, Paul says, were all like this once but now they have been “washed clean” by baptism, sanctified (made “saints”) by the Spirit, and justified, put right with God. This has been done – and here Paul uses a Trinitarian phrase – in and through “the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God”.
Today we are living in an age when people more and more are having recourse to the courts to “get justice”. Such cases so often end up in terrible bitterness and recrimination. This is especially true in the breakdown of marriage relationships or in other family disputes. All too often the ultimate goal is not justice but (sometimes enormous) financial gain.
The Gospel recommends that, where possible, such problems should be worked out between the persons involved or at least within the Christian community. The ultimate goal should, first of all, that true justice be done to all parties concerned followed by reconciliation and a healing of wounds. Courts should only be a last resort.
And, where Christians are concerned, they are not to be turned into instruments of punishment and recrimination.