The Problem of Settling Disputes
Tim Temple


The story has been told of a Christian who for several years went from church to church looking for what he said was the perfect church. Finally, after years of searching, he found such a church, and he was thrilled. He went back to a Christian friend to whom he had been reporting about this search all through the years. He told his more mature Christian friend, “I have finally found the perfect church.” His friend said, “Are you sure about that?” “Oh, yes, I am sure this is the perfect church.” His friend said, “Well, if you're sure about that, you'd better not join it.” Very astonished, he asked, “Well, why, if it's the perfect church, should I not join it?” His friend said, “Because if you join it, then it won't be perfect anymore.”

No church is perfect–not even this church–because every church is full of sinners; every church is made up of people who have sinned and come short of the glory of God. By God's grace, we are forgiven sinners. By God's grace, we have the strength to overcome sin if we will avail ourselves of that strength, but every one of us is a sinner. The most important thing that you can remember, in terms of church relationships, in terms of trying to find a church in which you will not be disappointed, is that everybody in this church, or any other church, is a sinner. Hopefully most or all of them are sinners saved by grace, but we're all sinners.

As we come to chapter 6 of I Corinthians today, we find that fact emphasized. The beautiful truth is that God enables us, because of the forgiveness of our sins, to rise above our sinfulness; but because we are sinners, there are inevitable problems that can come up in churches. We have looked at a number of those problems as we've worked our way through this Corinthian letter. But as we come to chapter 6, we have some information about how to deal with those problems that inevitably arise, and particularly those that go to such an extreme that there seems to be no way to settle them. What do we do about those situations in which two believers simply cannot come to an agreement about their situation? Well, that's what we want to think about today, the problem of settling disputes.

Argument Before the Courts

The first thing that we find in the chapter is the problem of settling disputes described. Verses 1-6 tell us about the possible options that are available to believers when they have a disagreement. Woven into this text are three options from which a Christian must choose when he has a dispute with another believer. The first of those is probably the most obvious. In our society today, unfortunately, the most well known option of argument before the courts is in verse 1:

I Corinthians 6

1Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?

Here is the first option. Even among Christians those dreaded words, “You'll hear from my lawyer,” are sometimes spoken. More and more those words are becoming common. In fact, to make a little aside from the specific text, I believe one of the most serious problems in our society today is this lawsuit mentality which so many people have. People are suing each other over the wildest kinds of things, and there's no need for me to give illustrations of that, because you're as aware of it as I am. But what is really serious is that this kind of thing is taking place even between Christians. It's very interesting to me that the Word of God zeros in on that particular problem. The phrase, “having a dispute,” here in verse 1, is a translation of a Greek phrase that was commonly used in secular Greek to refer to lawsuits, to refer to going to court with other people. Incidentally, this was the option that the Corinthians were choosing most often. Skip down to verse 4 of chapter 6:

I Corinthians 6

4If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.

We will come back to verse 4 in a minute, but let me just use it to emphasize that apparently that was the problem in Corinth. They were taking each other–fellow Christians–to court. In verse 4, that phrase, “the least esteemed in the church,” doesn't mean that we look down on unbelievers. You lawyers will be happy to know that it doesn't mean that we look down on lawyers or on judges. What it means is that if we take a lawsuit to a court in most societies, and it certainly is becoming more and more true of our society, the chances are extremely great that we'll be arguing that case before a majority of unbelievers. The chances are probably next to zero of getting a jury that would be made up entirely of believers in Jesus Christ. So what he's saying is that when we go to a courtroom with our disputes as Christians, we are taking our problems to unbelievers; and unbelievers have no way of understanding the principles upon which Christians decisions are to be made because Christians' decisions are to be made on the basis of the Word of God. The principles of the Word of God can only be understood by those who have the Holy Spirit living within them to open their eyes to the truth of the Scripture, and unbelievers don't have the Holy Spirit. That's not in any way critical of unbelievers. It is just a statement of fact.

So how can we as believers take our problems to unbelievers and expect to get any kind of a Biblical solution to our problems? As our age gets worse and worse, Christians are going to be more and more misunderstood, I firmly believe. I think we see that going on around us already. So Paul is making it clear that this is an option which Christians should not choose even though the Corinthians apparently were choosing that.

Importance of Human Government

Since this is so different from the normal action of our day, let's think very carefully about what Paul is and is not saying in this chapter. First of all, he is not saying that Christians would not receive justice in a court of law. He is not in any way attacking the judicial system of the Roman government or the United States government. He is not putting down the concept of law. In fact, Paul himself made use of the courts of Rome, and Romans, chapter 13, is devoted entirely to telling us about the validity of human government and the extreme importance of human government. He goes so far as to say that any government, no matter how unjust it may seem, is ordained of God. The kings, the powers that be, are ordained of God. The kings that are in power are put there by God.

We live in a society that has been greatly blessed of God, and we have the unspeakable privilege of having a choice in those who will be in authority over us. I believe, on the basis of the very statements about government that are made in the Word of God, that when we go to the polls, God is going to allow us to choose who will be in authority over us; and though God is the one who puts him in authority, I believe that in the United States, in this republic where we have the option of choosing those who will be in authority over us, God grants our wishes. Even though God puts the man in power, He puts the man in power whom we choose. That is an awesome thing when you look back over the history of the world and you read in the Word of God that God is the one who puts kings in authority, who sets up kings, and puts kings down. That He would acquiesce to the wishes of a group of citizens is an amazing thing. We have the extreme privilege in this nation of having at least a voice in those who will be in authority over us.

The Scripture makes extremely clear that God is not against government. In fact, God is behind all government. So, as we look at chapter 6 of I Corinthians, don't get the idea that he is saying, “Don't make use of the courts, and don't make use of governmental agencies.” In fact, here in verse 1, he speaks of the unjust. He is not saying that juries are unjust. He means unbelievers, and I think that's clear if you read through the chapter carefully.

The Believer's Proper Use of the Courts

A second thing we need to understand is that Paul is not saying in this chapter that believers should never go to court under any circumstances. He's not saying that we are not allowed as Christians to have a trial of any kind. What he's talking about in this chapter is disputes between two believers. You may be sued by an unbeliever and have to go to court to take care of that, and that's perfectly within the scope of God's will. There are situations in which believers can legitimately go to court and make use of the privileges of our legal system, but what he's talking about in this chapter is believers going to court against each other.

Incidentally, let me just remind you that since this chapter is teaching that two believers should not go to court with each other, this in itself would rule out two believers seeking a divorce in the courts of the land. It would rule out a great percentage of divorces that are sought if believers are not supposed to go to court with each other. Remember there's another option, but it is not an option to go to court, and so that is another thing that would support the concept of believers not being divorced.

Those are the background things. What he's saying is that believers should not go to court with each other. He's not saying that believers should not have an opportunity to settle their disputes. What he is saying is that when there's a dispute between two believers, it should not be settled in court. There are at least two other options open to believers. So the first option is argument before the courts, and I've said about six times now that it is not a valid option for believers.

Arbitration By Christians

There is a second option, and that is in the last part of verse 1, which I'm calling “arbitration by Christians”. Notice the last line of verse 1 again:

I Corinthians 6

1…and not before the saints?

Do we take our disputes between ourselves as Christians to the courts? No. What do we do? If there is a dispute that cannot be settled between two individuals, the suggestion is, the option is, to go before the saints. This obviously is a reference to asking a group of fellow believers to arbitrate a dispute between two believers. If you're not familiar with the New Testament, this may come as a real surprise to you, because I think this is an area of the Christian life that is overlooked wholesale. It is an area of the Christian life that seems to me to be largely ignored, but this is what he is saying. It is in clear, black and white English. The option is to go before the saints to ask some believers–maybe the elders of the church. It doesn't specify; it is just a group of fellow believers to hear your case just as you might take that case to court.

Qualification for Arbitration

The question naturally arises, but would a group of believers, uneducated in the law, be qualified to hear a case like that? How could a group of believers take care of a dispute like that? The courts are so complicated you have to go to school for years to learn how to present a case in court. Could believers handle that kind of thing? Well, Paul anticipated that question, and the answer is, believers certainly should be able to handle that kind of thing because:

I Corinthians 6

2Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?

You think you couldn't handle some kind of a dispute between yourselves? Listen, you're going to judge the world someday. Paul is just making a passing reference to something that we don't begin to have the time to elaborate on today, but let me just mention some other places in the Scripture where this same concept is taught. If you are not familiar with this, please jot these references down and read these Scriptures when you have the time. First of all, for example, Jude, verses 14-15, speak of the fact that when the Lord comes back, He will come with ten thousands of His saints to execute judgment on the earth. We are not told there exactly what function believers will play, but it specifically says that when the Lord comes back, He will bring with Him an uncountable number of His saints. In fact, the interesting thing is that Jude was quoting Enoch, who was the seventh descendant of Adam. So this is a principle that was taught way back in the beginning of the human race.

Daniel, chapter 7, verse 22, speaks of the fact that as Daniel saw into Heaven, he saw the Ancient of Days. This was a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ–“The Ancient of Days” sitting on His throne, surrounded by all kinds of saints. So again we have a reference to Christ sitting in judgment over the nations of the earth with believers aiding in some way in that.

Matthew, chapter 19, verse 28, says that the twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. We're not apostles, but the apostles were believers; and so believers in Jesus Christ will have some kind of function in judging the world.

Future Judgment Committed to Christians

II Timothy, chapter 2, verse 12, says, “If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him.” In fact, I Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 3, goes on even more specifically: “Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?” So another area of judgment that believers will someday participate in is the judgment of the angels. Jude also refers to the angels that sinned, that are chained in outer darkness waiting the judgment day. Probably those are the angels that Paul is referring to. He just makes the general statement, but probably it's a reference to the judgment of the demons and of the other angels who chose to go with Lucifer and against God. In some way, in some capacity, believers will have a hand in the judging of those angels.

A sideline benefit of this understanding, and one of the reasons you may want to study these passages more carefully, is that it gives us a little bit more of a clue to what we'll be doing in Heaven. We have the idea that about all we'll be doing in Heaven is sitting around on the clouds playing harps or singing the Hallelujah Chorus or something. Well, that's all right for the music majors, but what about the rest of us? I'm not sure I'll enjoy the Hallelujah Chorus after the five or six hundredth time we've sung it. But you see, these verses tell us that though we'll be doing that kind of thing, that's not all we'll be doing in Heaven. Heaven is not going to be just an eternal lounging around. We're going to be involved in things. We're going to be involved with Jesus Christ for a thousand years at least in administering the government that goes on on the earth while we're in Heaven. That's an exciting thing to think about, but the point that Paul is making with that information here in I Corinthians, chapter 6, is that yes, Christians are capable of making decisions about disputes between other Christians. We may not have the legal training to present a case as it would be presented in court, but we are capable of hearing the facts in a dispute and making a judgment about those facts.

Result of Disobedience

Now obviously, the Corinthians, as I said before, had not been following this course. Verse 4 reproaches them for taking matters before unbelievers. In verse 5, he picks that theme up:

I Corinthians 6

5I 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?

To really get the impact of verse 5, you have to have been studying through I Corinthians as we've been doing. If you remember back in the first part of the Corinthian letter, one of the big problems was that they were so proud of their intellect and their wisdom. One of the first things that Paul is to hammer on them about, one of the big problems in that church, and it can be a problem in any church, was their exaltation of their intellect, their pride about their wisdom, their exaltation about their education. That's a problem that can develop in this church or any other church. And so Paul is speaking very sarcastically. “Do you mean to tell me,” he says, “that in this very church that prides itself on wisdom, there's not even one wise man who could settle disputes between believers?” I think that would indicate that it doesn't have to be the whole church. It can be a very small group, but there ought to be at least a few believers who are spiritually mature enough to be able to make these kinds of decisions. You don't have to resort to the courts. He says, in verse 6, two disappointing things:

I Corinthians 6

6But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.

First, they were going to court brother against brother, people in the family of God not able to agree on things between themselves, people who share the Holy Spirit, people who claim that they have the same Lord, people who have access to the same Word of God; and yet they're butting heads to the point that they're going to court with each other. What a terrible shame! “And what's worse,” Paul says in the last part of the verse, “they're doing that before unbelievers.”

I think Satan delights to stir up these situations in which the world laughs at the church. In the last few years, we have had opportunity, on a national scale, for unbelievers to laugh at Christians and to think how foolish we are. Here is one of those situations when believers let unbelievers settle family disputes within the Body of Christ. Think about this: Imagine the impact, the testimony that it would be to the unsaved world if Christians became known for being able to settle their own disputes among themselves. Wouldn't that be a wonderful testimony? If it became a known fact that these Christians don't go to the court with each other, but they settle their problems among themselves, that would be a wonderful testimony.

But it was not that way in Corinth, and unfortunately, it is not that way many times in our churches today. The question comes up, “What if a church doesn't have enough spiritually mature people to make these kinds of decisions?” Or “What if the person that you have this dispute with just simply will not bring it to the church,” or what if you bring it to the church and the church says, “We don't want to mess with that.” That happens. The elders or the pastor will say, “Oh, we're not going to get into that.” What do you do if for any of those reasons you cannot bring your dispute before the church? Well, then surely you'd have to go to court, wouldn't you?

Accepting the Loss

Verses 7-11 give a third option, and this, he says, is the preferable option in a dispute that cannot be settled between believers. Verse 7 brings out the seriousness of the problem:

I Corinthians 6

7Now 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?

“Why do you not let yourselves be defrauded?” Do you see what he's saying? Your third option is simple: Take the loss. Paul says, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “It would be better for you to be defrauded than to take a fellow believer to court before unbelievers.” That's the third option. “To have an unbelieving system judge in a dispute between two believers is already a defeat,” he says, regardless of the decision rendered. Someone may win the court settlement, but both of you lose, and the Body of Christ loses if it's between two believers in the pagan court system. So the only option open to a believer when a dispute can't be settled between you and the person you're having a dispute with, and if you will not or cannot go before believers, is to simply drop the whole matter and go ahead and be defrauded.

That will not work for the person who places a higher priority on money than on the testimony of Jesus Christ. That will not work for the person who can't trust the Lord to take care of his business. It will not work for the person who cannot stand to lose an argument. It will not work for the person who insists on his rights at all costs. But for the person who is able and willing to have the mind of Christ, it will work, and it will resound loudly as a testimony for Jesus Christ among the unsaved. It will be something that God can use to bring others to Himself. Why is that? It's because this is perfectly typical of Jesus Christ.

Example of Jesus' Attitude

Let me give you some references to look at. Most of these you're familiar with already. Remember Philippians, chapter 2, verses 5-11? Those verses tell us that Jesus Christ was in Heaven as God, and had every right to be there. But when he saw the need that there was for salvation, he did not hold that which was rightfully His, but gave up His place in Heaven, made Himself of no reputation and took upon Himself the payment of our sins. He had every right to stay in Heaven as He looked at our problems, as He looked at our sins and those things that were separating us from God. Jesus Christ had every right to say, “That's their problem. They got themselves into that mess; let them get themselves out. It's none of my affair.”

Do those words sound familiar? How many times have you and I seen some kind of a need in the life of our wife or our children or a husband, and said, “Well, that's his problem. He doesn't have any right to expect me to do that.” You're not being like Jesus Christ if you take that attitude. Where would we be if Jesus Christ had said that? Jesus Christ gave up His right to stay in Heaven. He became a man, paid for our sins, and because He was also God, what He gave up was His place in Heaven. Because He was God, God the Father was willing to let that sacrifice pay for all of the sins of mankind. In fact, Philippians, chapter 2, verse 5 says:

Philippians 2

5Let this mind [mental attitude] be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

That's a command from the Word of God. We are to have that same kind of mental attitude.

I Peter, chapter 2, verses 21-23, says:

I Peter 2

21For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
22Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
23Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:

Maybe I'm speaking to somebody who is in an extremely unfair situation.

Maybe you're considering even taking it to court. Maybe it is even at the hands of another believer. The time may come when you will have to be like Jesus Christ and simply take the insults, take the mistreatments, and commit yourself to Him that judges righteously. God knows if you're right about this. God knows how wrong they are in treating you this way. God knows how unfair this is. Commit yourself to Him. He judges righteously. He may or may not bring about some result in this life, but this life isn't all there is. And when we stand before the throne of God, you will stand before a righteous judge who will remember those mistreatments and who will, in His own perfect way, make it all right. Even Jesus Christ stood those insults and that mistreatment and committed Himself to Him Who judges righteously. I Peter, chapter 4, verse 19, says that very thing:

I Peter 4

19Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.

The time sooner or later comes, in the lives of many Christians, when that is all they can do–just take the abuse, take the loss.

In the words of I Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 7, “Allow yourselves to be defrauded,” and put it in God's hands. He knows how unfair it is. He knows how right you are and how wrongly you're being treated. He will, in His own perfect way and in His own perfect time, take care of that situation for you.

All Have Sinned

At this point you may be thinking, “Well, that all sounds well and good, but it's really kind of impractical. The chances are pretty slim of this kind of thing really happening to me.” Well, let me quickly point out that verses 8-10 give the setting for these kinds of problems. We don't have time to exegete these verses in detail, but just read through them with me:

I Corinthians 6

8Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren.
9Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
10Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Here is a representative list of all kinds of sins, and the thing that we must never forget is that all of us are sinners. Notice the first line of v.11:

I Corinthians 6

11And such were some of you…

He doesn't mean by that some of you Christians used to do this. What he means is that every thing in this list would apply to somebody in the group because every Christian is a sinner. Some of you may have been thieves, and some others of you may have been drunkards, and some others of you may have been idolaters, and some others of you may have been adulterers, and some others of you may have been homosexuals. Whatever it is, everybody in this room is guilty of something. We've all sinned. So don't kid yourselves! This is the kind of setting in which we live. By God's grace, our sins have been forgiven. Because the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, we're going to be in Heaven, but all of us are sinners. In fact, a very beautiful thing about the wording of verse 11 is that it says, “such were some of you.”

Solution to the Problem

That brings us to the solution to the problem. Praise God there is a solution to the problem. Look at verse 11:

I Corinthians 6

11And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

“Such were some of you.” That is past tense. But you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. You see, those sins listed in verses 9-10 are not just a list of taboos that if we can somehow avoid committing those sins, we will be able to have salvation. No, that's not what he's saying at all.

For example, Nicodemus, back in the early days of Jesus' ministry, in John, chapter 3, was the ruler of the Jews. Chances are, Nicodemus had not committed any of these overt sins that are listed here; and yet, even to Nicodemus, Jesus said, “You must be born again.” Any one of you may not personally be guilty of any one of these overt sins, but you are a sinner. Jesus would say to you, just as He said to that outwardly godly man, Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” This is a reminder and really the point: Whatever grievance you may have against another believer is nothing compared to what you've been forgiven of. It may be a legitimate grievance. That believer may have legitimately wronged you; but you are a sinner, too, and God has forgiven your sins. By God's grace you can forgive that sin that's been perpetrated against you. That's the focus of this chapter. Not only have you and I been forgiven, but:

I Corinthians 6

11…ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

When we think of all that we've been forgiven, how can we grab each other by the throat and demand our satisfaction? I mean, after all, we're all sinners anyway, and God has forgiven all of us.

As we conclude, let me ask you, do you see how all pervasive our relationship to Jesus Christ is meant to be? It is so easy to compartmentalize our Christian life. These things over here we put in this spiritual category, but these things over here are in the Monday through Saturday category. We say, “Well, these things over here, these have to be handled in a spiritual way, but these things over here, I'm going to handle them just like everybody else does.” You see, Jesus Christ paid for all of our sins. He wants to be Lord of ALL of our lives. Jesus Christ paid for those sins that fall into that secular category as well as those that we might think of that fall into a spiritual category. He doesn't make that compartmentalization. Why shouldn't He be Lord of all of our life since He paid for it all?

One last thing. Statistically speaking, there is an extremely high probability that there is one or more of you who right now are in the middle of a dispute with another believer. What about that dispute that you have with a fellow believer? Listen, isn't there some way that you can just give that to the Lord? Isn't there some way that you can be willing even to be defrauded if you have to to get that thing settled for the honor and glory of Jesus Christ, even if you just have to give up your viewpoint? The Lord can take care of it. You may want to resort to asking a group of believers to hear the grievance. But if there's no other way, just give it up, and let the Lord take care of it.

Personal Application

Let's move beyond that specific topic and think about the principle that's involved here. What about those other areas of life? Maybe it's not just a dispute with some other believer, but what about those other areas of life that you're handling just like an unbeliever would? So many times in our Christian life we might as well be unbelievers the way we handle things. What about our finances? What about our marriage? What about the way we treat our employers? How good an employee are you? What about the way we treat our employees? How good an employer are you? It's so easy, even as believers, to just handle things the way the world does. Jesus Christ wants to be Lord of every area of our lives, and that's what's pinpointed and focused on here in the first part of this chapter. Remember you are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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