Read the passage here.
Continuing in our study of 1 Corinthians, today we pick things up at chapter 6. If you missed last week’s discussion, we very briefly reviewed a few points about the letter so far. I won’t repeat that today, but I do want to indicate, right as we start, that today’s passage is closely related to last week’s (which, I trust, will become apparent). So let’s take a look at our verses today.
In our passage today, like last week’s passage, Paul is addressing an instance of sin within the Corinthian congregation. And everything seems to indicate that this is a real situation, not just a hypothetical – but it’s also possible that Paul is addressing not just one instance of this behaviour. But whereas the sin of last week’s passage – which dealt with an instance of incest, or sexual immorality – was obvious (Paul tells us it’s obvious even to the pagans), the sinfulness of the situation today may be less obviously so. Or at least, it may seem less egregious. Nevertheless, Paul seems to think that it’s obvious enough and egregious enough that he feels the need to address it in a similar fashion. So let’s examine what’s going on, however briefly.
In the simplest terms, what seems to be going on is that there is a dispute within the congregation (though again, there may be more than one – or a pattern of this behaviour). However, that there is a dispute is not the issue (for indeed, how could this be avoided in any gathering of people); rather the issue is how folks are seeking to resolve these disputes. And it seems that folks are going through the court system or the judicial system for resolution; and Paul says that they should rather seek to resolve disputes among themselves (i.e. within the Christian community).
Now I’d like to unpack this a little bit, though of course there is undoubtedly more going on than we can cover or truly understand. However, I’m hoping that the following points will help us flesh out the situation and understand Paul’s point a little better.
Firstly, numerous scholars have observed that the court system in Corinth is likely a greater reflection of power dynamics (social and political) than it is an instrument for fairness and justice. Now we have to be careful how we say this and how we understand this. Because we’re not talking about binary opposition here. That is, we’re not saying that the judicial system was entirely about power dynamics and completely unconcerned with justice. We’re merely saying that the “ideal” of blind justice that serves as our goal in the western world (recognizing that we also fall short of that), may not have existed in the ancient Roman/Greek world.
Though it would be a mistake to say that they had no such concept, it is likely that social, political, and economic power played a much larger part in determining justice in this world. Specifically, if you were a Roman citizen, if you were wealthy, if you had high social status, and etc. the judicial system would be much more favourable to you.
And we may want to remember that the Corinthian congregation might have had a few folks who fit into the aforementioned category, but who probably were largely less well-to-do.
If we accept that basic premise about the court systems, that Christians in the Corinthian congregation are turning to this system for resolving their own disputes suggests (at least to me) that what they are seeking is not justice, and not fair resolution. Rather, using my own words, what they were seeking is to win.
To put it another way, in a situation where believers come into conflict, turning to this kind of judicial system suggests that the goal is not to resolve the conflict, and much less to restore the resolution, but rather to prove one’s self “right.” The legal system, then, becomes just another tool to assert or maintain one’s power or influence over another.
But even if we don’t go that far, and allow that Christians were indeed seeking justice and fair resolution, Paul’s concern is that they are looking outside of the community instead of exercising the ‘power’ or responsibility (?) of the community. This raises the question of what exactly Paul means when he says that “the Lord’s people will judge the world” (v. 2), and “we will judge angels…” (v. 3).
Paul’s assertion here is certainly based on interpretations of the Old Testament (Daniel 7:22 seems to be the agreed reference), but he doesn’t further explain how he works this out in a Christian context. However, it might be worthwhile to note that a similar theme is expressed in the gospels where Jesus tells the disciples:
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.Matthew 19:28
Now we’re not going to go down the rabbit hole of what exactly this might mean, but it seems evident that Paul’s argument here (and his criticism of the Corinthians) is grounded in his understanding of eschatological realities. To put it another way, Paul seems to assert (or assume) that, at the end of things, believers will have a role or function in maintaining God’s order and peace. To put it yet another way, for Paul, the church is an eschatological community; and the life of the church is grounded in an eschatological hope. The identity of the church is not in what they are, but in what they are meant to be.
But what Paul sees when the members of the community rely on the judicial system in order to settle disputes between them is precisely that their hope is not in this eschatological reality. Their trust is not in the justice and equity that God is bringing about. Rather, they are concerned only about what they can get in this world.
And this seems very much to be what Paul is saying in vv. 7-8,
7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.1 Corinthians 6: 7-8
Paul seems to be saying that these lawsuits demonstrate how far the Corinthians are from the eschatological hope they are actually called to. These lawsuits demonstrate how deeply their hope is in the mechanisms and economies of this world. But is it so important that they get what they think they deserve? Is it so important that they are proved right in the eyes of the world? Wouldn’t it be better to be wronged, to be cheated, in this world, and trust in the ultimate hope that is found in Jesus? But instead, the Corinthians eagerly participate in the ways of the world, and even do so against one another.
Now in the final verses of this passage (vv. 9-11), Paul seems to be setting the actions of the Corinthians against the standards of holiness in the kingdom. And the point that is worth remembering is that the Corinthians, for a variety of reasons, feel like they don’t need to pay attention to such standards. And Paul is very much saying that all of these things matter. Sexual immorality, idolatry, thieves, slanderers, and those who take one another to court (and notice the breadth of what Paul is talking about here) – all of these things matter in the kingdom.
But Paul’s final words here are words of encouragement. Paul says:
11 And that is what some of you were. 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.1 Corinthians 6: 11
Paul’s words here are again words pointing to our eschatological hope. We were all sinners – but through the work of Jesus, we are washed, sanctified, and we enter into new life.
As we wrap up for today, it’s with that idea that I want to spend a little bit of time. Our passage today is very much like our passage last week. There’s a specific problem or sin that Paul is addressing – in last week’s passage, it was sexual immorality, in today’s it’s grievances between members of the community. But Paul’s real concern is not the sin per se. Rather, it’s what this reveals about the community’s understanding and grasp of the kingdom of God.
What we’re seeing in our passage today is a congregation (or members of a congregation) that is stuck, if you will, in a pre-salvation way of thinking. To put it another way, they haven’t been able to leave behind their old way of life, or their old way of thinking about life.
And in some respects, I have a lot of sympathy for the Corinthians. Because if you’ve spent your entire life believing that the world works in a certain way, it can take something truly earth-shaking to get you to see things in a new way. Some of us would simply be unable to change at all.
And what Paul says is, you were once part of this world, thoroughly embroiled in the ways of this world. “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.” In short, Paul says, “this is what you once were (that is, sinners); but through Jesus Christ, this is what you are (that is, redeemed). Therefore, seek to live fully into what you will be.”
Again, Paul is concerned about the specific problems (such as we read about in last week’s passage and today’s). Paul is concerned about holiness, about the church being set apart for righteousness. And Paul is concerned about how we as a kingdom community live with one another, about how we love one another.
But we can easily lose the forest for the trees, so to speak. And Paul isn’t just trying to get the church to do certain things and to stop doing other things. Paul’s “forest” here seems to be that we (the Corinthians) are seeking to take hold fully of the God’s promise for which we have been saved and to which we have been called. Paul’s desire is that the Corinthians (and we) seek to be the eschatological community of God.
So, wrapping up for today, I want to leave you with this thought. Our desire is to be a faithful community of God. Our desire is to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste. And there are a lot of ways we can explore what that means; there are a lot of ways to make sense of that.
But what if we simplify the question a little bit. What if we, following Paul (though also recognizing that this isn’t Paul’s only or final word on the subject), what if we focussed on these three questions: What is it that we once were? What have we become through Jesus Christ? And who are we being called to be?
Perhaps this can help us discover who we are as an eschatological people, and to begin to live into the fullness of His kingdom.