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First Corinthians: Lawsuits and Immorality

January 15, 2008

1Co 5:9-6:2 (ESV) I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?

In chapter 5, Paul had just admonished the church to expel those who continued to live in sin. He had pointed out that the church is responsible for discerning any of their number who continue to live unashamedly in overt sin, and for taking action to remove them from the church. Of course it was necessarily implied that they were considered competent to judge such cases. And yet, we learn in chapter 6 that they were apparently taking their worldly disputes before courts of unbelievers–seeking righteous judgment from the unrighteous and the unjust! The Jewish Christian would have considered it repulsive to go before the uncircumcised unbelievers for justice. Paul’s rebuke was undoubtedly directed at the Greeks, who were an excessively litigious community.

Note that the first eight verses of chapter 6 are a parenthetical discussion in the midst of the discussion of gross sins, particularly various forms of sexual immorality. Paul addressed the subject of judging and lawsuits in verses 1-8, and then returned to finish his comments on carnal sins from verse 9 through the end of the chapter.

1Co 6:4-6 (ESV) So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?

Although the NIV translates verse 4 somewhat differently, the footnote agrees with the ESV and most other translations. The sense of the verse seems to be that taking their cases before the unbelievers made no sense, because those outside the church did not uphold Christian values. They were known to be corrupt, unrepentent sinners. Instead, when a conflict arises between Christians, they should find someone within the church wise enough to judge the case. Since the church is considered competent for the weighty responsibility of judging cases that might require someone to be expelled from the church, surely they were also competent to judge cases involving temporal matters.

More significantly, the fact that Christians were committing sins against one another showed that they were being defeated by Satan. Paul returned to the topic of sin:

1Co 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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.

It is interesting to notice the similarity between this list of sins and the list just a dozen or so verses prior, in chapter 5:

1Co 5:11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.

Paul seems to have been highlighting the specific sins that were prevalent in the pagan culture of Corinth, and which some of the Corinthian Christians had brought with them into the church. In chapter 5, he warned them that such behavior could lead to expulsion from the church. In chapter 6, he warned them that these sins could cause them to lose their inheritance in the kingdom of God. There were members in the Corinthian church who had been caught up in those sins prior to their conversions. Apparently there were some who were still drawn back to their wretched pasts.

1Co 6:12-13 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” — and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Here Paul addressed the excuses that some of the Christians might have been making. Those sayings may have been Paul’s own words, intended to teach the Jews how to free themselves from the Mosaic Law–but misapplied by the Gentiles as a license for sin. Paul clarified that our freedom in Christ is not a license to sin. Those sins were not acceptable behavior for a Christian.

Greek philosophy held that the human body is worthless — that only the soul has value. And therefore they held that the cravings of the body could be indulged without consequence. Paul refuted that notion. The body, according to Paul, belongs to God. It is temporary, to be sure, but it has a holy purpose:

1Co 6:19-20 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

In contrast to that holy purpose, those committing sexual immorality were profaning their bodies, joining themselves to a prostitute. In doing so they grieved God’s Holy Spirit, which lives in every Christian, in effect joining the Holy Spirit with the prostitute. What an unimaginable contradiction! How could they not incite the wrath of God in doing so?

Throughout chapters 5 and 6, Paul continued to call the Corinthians back to the gospel. They needed to remember what Christ did for them, and to respond by fleeing from sin. They were called to be holy, because of the gospel:

1Co 5:7-8 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

1Co 6:11 And such were some of you. 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.

1Co 6:18a Flee from sexual immorality.

1Co 6:20b So glorify God in your body.

The gospel demands that we flee from sin. Those who do not flee sin, cannot continue as part of the church, and will not inherit the kingdom of God. This is not a game, and the consequences are real.

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