See You in Court!

A Clash of Cultures ~ 1 Corinthians 6:1-6

Big Idea: Jesus’ reputation is worth more than what money can buy. The world urges us to demand what we’re due by any legal means necessary. The gospel tells us it is better to lose our money (and our rights) than to lose our Christian testimony.

What would you do if someone saved you from drowning? Thank them? Buy them a gift? Cook them a meal? Not Roy Ortiz. He sued them!

Mr. Ortiz almost drowned in September 2013 when he lost control of his car on a flooded road and plunged headlong into a nearby creek. He survived and went on to sue his rescuers!

The Colorado state authorities, his lawyers say, should have closed that dangerous road and the emergency services should have acted quicker. So Mr. Ortiz wants the state to pay him $500,000 compensation for the “emotional hardship” he endured.

Mr. Ortiz is by no means unique. President Trump has been doing likewise for over 30 years.1

Planes fly annoyingly close to your luxury resort? Sue the state for $100 million. Not happy with what Miss USA tweeted about your pageant? Sue her for defamation. Not paid what you think you’re due? Sue your own law firm for using the “Trump” name in its marketing.

The courts today are used for more than simply upholding justice. It is used to bully, stall, silence, or to exact revenge. It is used by the rich and powerful to bend others to their wants and will rather than to ensure a fair, unbiased outcome. Paul’s church in Corinth knew this situation well.

First-century Roman courts always favoured the rich and powerful. (Lawsuits were mostly about money or property.) Money, status, and race, determined who could administer justice. Judges were elected only from the upper classes. Jurors served only if their net worth exceeded 7,500 denarii.2 And in Roman provinces, Roman jurors were always preferred over all other races.

This rigid pecking order applied even to those seeking access to justice. People could sue down. They could never sue up. No one from the lower classes were allowed to even bring a case against someone of higher rank and wealth. (Their testimony was not valid anyway.) So the whole Roman legal system was rigged against the weak, the poor, as well as the foreigner.

So in what circumstance would “one brother takes another to court” (6:6) in Corinth?

Most likely this was a public dispute about money. A rich, upper-class believer in the church was suing a lower-class brother. If both were from the same class, the lawsuit would be even messier! Why? As one commentator wrote:3

If two patrons of similar wealth (leaders of two different Christian house groups, for example) faced off in such a court, they would need to rely on their ability to publicly discredit their opponent in an attempt to bring dishonor to their paterfamilias (and church group).

This would be like a mini Christian version of Trump vs. Clinton. Win by going negative. Throw as much (rhetorical) mud as possible against the other side. And when they go low, you go even lower! That’s how a first-century shame culture worked.

“Do you really want to go there?” Paul in essence asks. Publicly humiliate a poorer, weaker brother to win your lawsuit? Exploit a corrupt legal system for selfish gain? Sully Jesus’ good name to raise your own?

Haven’t you been “enriched in every way” (1:5) because of your faith in Jesus? Don’t you “have the mind of Christ” (2:16) to discern what’s right and wise? Aren’t “all things yours – the world or life or death or the present or the future” (3:22) since you are in Christ? Why then can you not put up with some temporary loss?

The heart of the matter:

Worldly people insist their rights are promptly met today regardless of the means.

Gospel people willingly forgo their rights today if Jesus and his church gain tomorrow.

1 See The Wall Street Journal (March 13, 2016) “Trump’s Long Trail of Litigation” or USA Today (June 1, 2016) “Trump’s 3,500 lawsuits unprecedented for a presidential nominee.”

2 See Bruce Winter (2001), After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change, p.60. A denarius was roughly a day’s pay for a skilled worker.

3 Preben Vang, 1 Corinthians: Teach the Text Commentary series, p.72-73.

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:

1. What other issues have you heard of in churches that involved a Christian trying to get even with another? How did the church deal with such cases?

2. If you were to find out that a Christian friend is having a great disagreement or squabble with another, what should you do, in the light of what Paul is saying in these verses?