Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

Dealing With Spiritual Immaturity

1 Corinthians 6:1-11

Teaching t05401


The Corinthian Christians were very immature spiritually. Although they should have been relatively mature by now (3:2-3), they were living at a very primitive level. This passage is a classic example of how Paul deals with spiritual immaturity. He confronts the behavioral symptom, then he exposes their values problem, and finally he points them to the spiritual solution. Read vs 1-8.

The Behavioral Symptom: Christians Suing Each Other

They were evidently suing each other over what were relatively minor financial disputes. Barclay points out that "the Greeks were in fact . . . notorious for their love of going to law . . . The law courts were one of their chief entertainments . . . (Some of the Corinthian Christians) had brought their litigious tendencies into the Christian church." [1] Paul is outraged ("do you dare") and ashamed (vs 5a) because this is one more demonstration that they were still living like non-Christians (3:3). They were motivated by the same values as non-Christians (greed), and were handling their problems in the same way as non-Christians.

QUALIFICATION: Some Christians take this passage as a prohibition against Christians using the secular court system at all. Others take it as a prohibition against Christians suing other Christians to court under any circumstances. This is a classic example of elevating a case-study to a general rule. When we interpret this passage in light of the rest of the Bible, we find that neither one of these interpretations is accurate.

Should Christians ever use the secular court system?

In Rom. 13:4, Paul makes it clear that secular civil law courts are valid and needed. In a fallen world, people can be vicious and violent in their selfishness. Therefore, God provides a way to enforce relative social justice and check such destructive selfishness—by force if necessary ("sword" - severe penalties for non-compliance).

Christians have no place getting involved with this kind of compulsion; this is the proper role of civil law. Note that while Paul says we should be careful not to repay evil with evil, etc. in 12:17-21, he affirms in this same context that we have legitimate recourse through the civil courts ("wrath" in 12:19; 13:4). So it is not unspiritual to prosecute a swindler, for example; what is unspiritual is to try to stick it to him as much as possible out of hate or materialistic greed.

Paul himself used the Roman legal system in order to get a fair hearing (Acts 25:11).

Are Christians forbidden to prosecute other Christians?

Paul's statements in 1 Cor. 6 bear on an extremely limited context. The moment we press this passage beyond this context, we run into serious difficulties.

For one thing, he is dealing with financial disputes, not with things like violent crimes. Should we say that Christians may never prosecute other Christians for child-abuse, or domestic violence? That we should not contest child-custody if the other Christian parent is guilty of sexual abuse?

In my opinion, we should not even use this passage as a prohibition against ever suing another Christian over financial matters. How would you counsel people who have asked me for advice on the following financial issues: Flagrant, chronic default of child-support by a Christian parent? A swindler who takes a Christian small businessman for thousands (unable to pay employees) and then says "You can't sue me because I am a Christian?" A Christian who engages in dishonest business practices and refuses to comply with the decision of other Christians to make restitution? In each of these cases, at a certain point I have recommended legal action.

So to treat this passage as a blanket prohibition against taking other Christians to court is a form of legalism based on poor interpretation. But there are some practical principles which we should take seriously if we become embroiled in a financial dispute with another Christian:

Try to resolve it through mediation or binding arbitration by other Christians (vs 5: OUR SUCCESSES; "CHRISTIAN ARBITRATION SERVICE").

Consider absorbing the loss (vs 7b: OUR PAINTING COMPANY OVER DISPUTED EXTRAS). This is sometimes the best course of action even with non-Christians; it can be a powerful witness.

If you decide a suit is necessary, resist greed and be fair in the remuneration you seek (versus THE AMERICAN NORM TO SUE FOR ALL YOU CAN GET).

In all cases, reject hate and bitterness and vengeance: choose to forgive and be open to reconciliation (Rom. 12:17-21).

But there is an even deeper values problem which we don't want to miss . . . 

The Values Problem: "My rights are more important than anything else!"

The root problem which distresses Paul so much is that the Corinthian Christians were so committed to their own personal rights to the point that they didn't care about the cause of Christ and the good of others—and yet they prided themselves as being more spiritual than Paul! You will see this all through the letter. They demanded their money—even if it scandalized the reputation of Christ in Corinth. They demanded their right to exercise their dietary freedom—even if it stumbled new Christians or non-Christians. They demanded their personal right to exercise their spiritual gifts at their meetings however they wanted—even if it wierded out non-Christians and made it impossible for other Christians to be spiritually edified.

This mentality is directly antithetical to the "mind of Christ" (Phil. 2:5ff.). Where would we be if Jesus had demanded his rights instead of voluntarily surrendering them? This is one of the most foundational components of Christian spirituality—if we lack this, we are spiritual "zeroes" (1 Cor. 13:1-2,5 —"seeks not its own").

Make no mistake about it. If you are committed to the cause of Christ and the good of others, you will wind up in situations which call for you to give up even legitimate financial "rights" (Paul in 1 Cor. 9:12,18 >> PASSING UP MONEY-MAKING OPPORTUNITIES WHICH TAKE YOU OUT OF FELLOWSHIP/MINISTRY; PASSING UP LEGITIMATE COMFORTS TO GIVE MORE MONEY TO GOD'S WORK). This is the value-system we have been called to embrace; this is the way of life we have been called to follow.

The Spiritual Solution: Remember Your Identity In Christ & Live Consistently With It (vs 9-11)

The Corinthians were demonstrating a woeful deficiency in their spiritual perspective. That's why Paul goes on to say what he does in vs 9-11 . . . 

Read vs 9,10. He seems to be saying, "Clean up your act, or God will cancel your ticket to heaven!" Talk about bring out the heavy bat! I don't know how many times I've heard these two verses quoted to Christians to threaten them with loss of salvation. Is this what Paul is saying? No!!! This is not his point at all! This is a classic example of lifting a passage out of its context ("The Bible says ‘there is no God.’"). Let's remember what else Paul says about these people.

The Corinthian Christians were committing most of the sins mentioned in vs 9,10. Some of them are involved in coveting and swindling (6:8); some in adultery and fornication (5:1; 6:15); some in idolatry (10:14); some in drunkenness (11:21); some in reviling (4:5?). The fact is that this group of Christians was breaking almost this whole list!

Yet remember what Paul said to this group in 1:8 (read)? And he makes this same affirmation in even stronger terms in vs 11 (read). In spite of their serious present behavioral problems, Paul insists that their identity has changed ("such were some of you"), and he insists that they have been completely forgiven ("washed"), set apart as God's children ("sanctified"), and declared righteous in God's eyes ("justified"). Far from threatening their standing with God because of their sins, he affirms the security of their standing with God in spite of their sins! How can this be? Because our standing with God is never based on our work for him, but always and only on Christ's work for us—and our willingness to receive it.

GOSPEL: You don't have to change your moral life before you can come to Christ; you have to come to Christ the way you are before your moral life can be changed. The issue is not how bad you've been or how good you'll promise to be from now on; the issue is: are you willing to let Christ forgive you completely and are you willing to let him begin to change your life from the inside out? If you can answer "yes" to these two questions, you're qualified to come to Christ!

What's Paul's point to the Corinthians? They're already Christians. How does this speak to their behavioral and values problems?

Paul understands that our behavior and values tend to be a reflection of how we view ourselves. If you view myself primarily as a "tough guy," you will value a good fight and begin to seek it out—even to the point of picking fights. If you view yourself primarily as a "sexual object," you will value men or women chasing you and begin to seek it out—even to the point of sexual immorality. If you view yourself primarily as a "financial survivor," you will value material gain—even to the point of suing another Christian when it's advantageous.

But what if you viewed yourself as a child of God, as one who is eternally secure in Christ, as one who he promises to care for in this life, as one who is called to the high privilege of representing him in this world? Do you think this view of yourself would make any difference in your values and behavior? You bet it would! You wouldn't waste your time trying to bilk someone out of a few dollars like the people who don't belong to God. You'd even be willing to take the loss because you'd know he'll take care of you, and because representing him to others is infinitely more important and exciting.

That's Paul's point in vs 9-11. He corrects their behavior and their values, but he doesn't stop there. He goes all the way to their identity and tells them they've forgotten who they are. His point is: Remember your new identity in Christ and live consistently with it! Perhaps another passage will make this clearer (read Eph. 5:3-8). This is such a key issue for those of us who struggle with behavioral and values inconsistency. Do you know who God says you are? Do you choose to believe it—even when your feelings and circumstances say otherwise? Do you choose to act in faith upon it? This is the way to in-depth transformation!!


[1] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 49,50.