1. Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?
2. Do 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?
3. Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?
4. If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.
5. 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?
6. But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.
7. 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?
8. Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren.
It is a common-place statement among historians that Judea was an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire; therefore, not of very great importance. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, when in the first century B. C. Rome took over Judea and Galilee it did so very happily. It was an event and an opportunity they welcomed because of the strategic importance of that area not only as a major trade route, but in terms of the eastern frontiers of the empire.
So Rome went out of its way to favor Judea. Hence, its vengeance when they felt betrayed in the Jewish Roman war of 66–70 A. D., a fearful war of vengeance, unparalleled in history. They had poured money into Jerusalem and elsewhere, turned it into a palatial city of marvelously paved streets, marble palaces, important and strategic centers of the empire.
Now here we have Paul writing to the Corinthians calling them a church, an ekklesia. Up until now the church was known as the Christian synagogue. In James 2, where the English translates “assembly” it is literally the Greek word, in the original synagogue.
There was a reason why the very early church and, in fact, into the second century used the term synagogue—which is what they were—they were governed by Old Testament law. They were patterned after the synagogue. They had the same officers, the same format. But by so calling themselves they also gained immunity from Roman prosecution as an unlicensed religion because the synagogue required no license. It had a special exemption as a part of the Roman strategy to placate Judea.
But Paul chose another word, a revolutionary word, one that the church has forgotten to its own peril. That word was ekklesia, or, usually in English, spelled with two Cs instead of Ks. We have that word in English as “church.” But the word “church” does not convey the meaning of the original.
As we have pointed out before, we must again and again, so you see the epistle and all of Paul’s writings, in fact, in context. Ekklesia was a political term. It was the name for the city council, the governing body of the area. Here in our county we would say the board of supervisors because virtually all of the county is unincorporated.
What was Paul doing in using a technical, political term to describe the Christian assembly? He was saying that in terms of the Kingdom of God, you are to be His governing body upon earth. First, to govern yourself, then to extend your scope into the community so that little by little the kingdoms of this world are made the Kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.
It is no wonder that very quickly the church began to be viewed with suspicion. It was, to use the old term, an imperium in imperio, an empire within the Roman Empire, claiming to have its own apostles, emissaries of the King of Kings, its own ekklesia, governing bodies. And, in fact, in the original we find the word paroikia, our English word “parish” used which originally meant an embassy. And Paul speaks of himself, in the English text, as an ambassador of Jesus Christ.
Now an ambassador has extraterritorial rights and powers as does the embassy. And this is why the ekklesia, from the beginning, refused to submit to Roman licensure or taxation or regulation.
Our text, in particular, sets this forth very powerfully and clearly. It is a text of central importance in the Bible. At issue is the question of law. Which law should rule over Christians, the laws of men or the laws of God? While submission to the ungodly powers of this world is required up to a point because the pivotal aspect of the Kingdom of God is regeneration, not revolution, the church is the advanced army of God’s Kingdom, called to convert, not to coerce the nations of the world to Christ (Matt. 28:18–20). If the church, the ekklesia of Christ, turns from God’s law, it turns from His Kingdom to the kingdom of man. This is a form of apostasy and can only be treated as such. The one whose law we obey as our social bond is our lord and savior. Is it the state or is it God? The church, as God’s governing council for an area, must be governed by God’s law; its members must obey and apply God’s law. To seek justice in man’s law is to deny that God is the only source of law and justice. For the Corinthians, the choice should have been obvious: it was God’s law or Greco-Roman law. At one time, cases in America were decided by juries out of the Bible, and relics of Biblical law are still around us to a degree. But the basic direction of statist law is now anti-Christian.
Paul thus states the issue bluntly: “Dare any of you” (v. 1). Notice that word “dare.” This is an affront to God, to Christ the King. “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?”(v. 1). Paul regards such a step as daring insolence in the face of God. This did not mean that the Roman court could not be used in certain ways. Sometimes we find ourselves entangled with such systems. Paul himself appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:8–11), but he was already forcibly before a Roman court, and he used it as best he could. His requirement is not suicide but the avoidance of pagan courts wherever possible.
Paul calls the pagan courts “unjust.” This does not mean that some decisions could not be good ones, but that the basic premise of such courts is the rule of man, not God. The existence of Christ’s ekklesia means the existence of another law sphere, the true one, and an institution to promote and further it. You can see what it means for the church to abandon God’s law, to abandon theonomy. It means—and one group has followed the logic to its conclusion—you reject the Lordship of Jesus Christ. You cannot have it because if Christ is Lord then the Word of God is a law book for His people.
Paul asks, “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?” (v. 2). He takes it for granted. This is a fundamental fact. “Do ye not know, are you so ignorant of the faith that you do not know this?” The word judge is krinousin; now judgment is a central and basic aspect of rule. So one could render it, “Do ye not know that the saints shall rule the world?” But he uses a broader term in the Greek translated as judge. No man or power rules who does not provide the law and the judgment. To surrender either is to acknowledge a greater power. It is the calling of a Christian in Christ to rule the world by the law of God. To give supremacy to another law than God’s is to deny God’s sovereignty and lordship. If the world is in time to be judged and ruled by Christians, how can they now act as though incompetent to judge the smallest matters?
Law is the will of the sovereign power for the lives of those within his jurisdiction or rule, his saved ones, in effect, the redeemed of his rule. These come under the protection of their lord or sovereign.
At one time cities were walled. Why? Because it meant that those inside the wall were the protected ones because they were the people of the law, the law-abiding. The outlaws lived outside of the law as did foreigners who were not under the city’s jurisdiction.
We reveal our faith by the law we live under as our way of life, our sanctification. Law is essentially related to salvation as its outworking, its application in our daily life. We witness thereby to who saved us, and He to whom we give our allegiance.
The world is made up, however, of God-haters. The Christian who knows God’s law is more worthy to judge in matters great and small. In due time, Christians, at the Last Judgment, shall gain their reward, and they shall be, in part, with Christ, judges over the fallen angels, for judgment is on transgressors.
Do we, in a case within the church’s jurisdiction, appoint as judges those in the church who are “least esteemed” to sit as judges? There is a bit of sarcasm on Paul’s part. “Do you have so little regard for God’s law that you, the rulers of the church, do not use it? You go to the pagans outside. Well, your lowliest members are better than they. Why go to pagans for judgment?” Our choice of elders is a choice of those wisest in Scripture and holiest in the practice of their faith. Why then go to pagans for judgment (v. 4)? Paul tries to make the church ashamed that it goes to pagan law and judges rather than to God’s law and Christian judges (v. 5). It is shameful that Christians go to court against one another before unbelievers (v. 6). Paul’s counsel is against going to pagan courts against fellow Christians when Christian men can adjudicate the case in terms of Scripture. It is better to be defrauded than to allow pagan courts to be viewed as courts of justice (v. 7). To go to pagan courts is to seek justice in a form of fraud because it gives valida-tion to ungodly courts. Paul sees it as ungodly to treat pagan courts as sources of justice. Having denied the triune God, the pagan court has abandoned true justice. The pagan court can at times give what seems to be justice, but, because its verdict is on alien premises, it undermines true justice.
We live in a time when the relics of Christian law are around us, but are increasingly being eroded which makes it all the more important for us to recognize the situation and to begin to create a Christian system. In fact, one man sought to do so, someone whom I knew well, Lawrence Eck, a brilliant young man, one of the most brilliant younger lawyers in the country who sought to set up counsels of arbitration to adjudicate all cases between Christians and Christians. They were remarkably successful until the pietistic influence prevailed and those courts of settlement were taken over by people whose attitude was, “Yes, you were wronged. You were robbed of 20,000 or 200,000 (I am talking about specific instances) by a fellow believer. But why can’t you forgive and forget? Isn’t it better to be at peace with your brother than to have your money back?” And so they destroyed the courts. And Lawrence Eck, a lawyer, because he called attention very graciously to a judicial error by a judge was thrown into jail for contempt of court and beaten to death. So you can see what is happening.
In v. 8, Paul calls any resort to pagan courts defrauding one another. The Greek word is apostereite. Paul says, “Better to be robbed than to rob. But you are actually robbing each other by unjust lawsuits against each other.”1
In v. 2, when Paul asks, “Do ye not know,” he is in effect saying, have ye forgotten what I taught you? Here is an elementary aspect of the faith, the saints are the God-destined world rulers, and you seem to pay no attention to this fact. The Corinthians saw as reality Roman rule and law, but Paul insists that the reality is God’s rule and laws. To neglect this is a surrender of the faith. As a result, he sees the recourse to a pagan power as a lawless act, a criminal act, on the part of Christians. It is their duty to obey God and to have recourse to God and His law, rather than to man’s courts.
Clearly, for Paul the Christian is not called to validate the world’s ways and institutions, nor to wage war against them by civil disobedience, or any like strategy. The Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians did not deny the jurisdiction of Caesar’s court when taken before it. Rather, he worked to bring into life another law system, its courts, and its Sovereign.
The church in our time has largely forsaken Paul’s requirements. Is it then a valid ekklesia, a local ruling counsel? The word ekklesia or church means more than preaching, although preaching is clearly required. It is a proclamation of the law-word of the Great King. The church must again be the church to be blessed of God.
Because we are called to be obedient to the powers that be, we do not, in civil society, practice civil disobedience but obedience. Within our Kingdom realm, we apply God’s law and seek to bring all men into its orbit. Our King’s law must govern us, but we are the people of the Prince of Peace, and what we do must work ultimately to the peace of all society.
1. Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament: Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, vol. 4 (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1979), 49.