1 Cor. 6 and Suing Fellow Christians

Not that I expect anyone to be actively trying to do so; nor that I expect any Christian to maliciously use this to get out of being sued by another Christian they have defrauded. But here's the passage at issue:

1 Cor. 6:5-7 I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?

We might wonder about the application of this today, and whether we ought to be resolving legal disputes among ourselves and not going to law. Well, we won't say no to arbitration outside of court; but before taking this passage into account, consider the social and historical context, and how this specifically relates to the NT world as an "honor and shame" society. (For an overview of what this means, see the first part of Link 1 below.

As Malina notes in The New Testament World, social equals (such as would have been all Christian brethren) in the NT world did not consider it honorable to take each other to court. To do so was to violate a "challenge-response code" among social equals, for whom it was most honorable to resolve the issue themselves.

When an equal took and equal to court, it had the following effects:

  1. The challenger "aggravates the dishonor by publicizing it." (Hence note that when Joseph did not divorce Mary publicly, he was being sensitive to honor issues.)
  2. The result, whoever wins in court, "demonstrate[s] inequality and vulnerability," and puts the loser's jeopardy in honor. (Hence the significance as well of Gallio refusing to hear a case in Acts 18, and Jesus refusing to arbitrate between two brothers; in neither case did the putative "judge" wish to affect the honor of others.)

    It also allows the winner to gloat, further exacerbating the situation.

  3. It implies that one is socially unable to deal with one's equals, therefore heaping up more dishonor.

Thus the problem for Paul's people is clear. Christianity was supposed to make every convert equal in status; if a brother took a brother to court, it was an effective denial of equality before Christ, and also in effect a denial of Christ's power (as it was in another situation see Link 2 below to make all persons equal.

This in turn would also shame the faith as a whole in the eyes of non-believers, in light of its claims to be egalitarian, and this obvious reversal of that value. Family quarrels should stay in the family, else the entire family is publicly shamed.

So what does this mean today if a brother scams a brother? Not much. There may be other reasons not to take your fellow believer to court, but the reason Paul had for his admonition decidedly does not apply in 21st century America.

-JPH

Links

  1. here
  2. here