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Spring 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 1 · pp. 40–50 

People of God in the Courts of the World: A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:1-11

V. George Shillington

Many Christians are skeptical of the judicial system of the state. They have reasons for their view, not the least of which is the attitude of Paul in his statement in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. He too seems to echo a skepticism in his reference to state judges as “unrighteous” (adikon, v. 1) and “unbelievers” (apiston, v. 6). But we need to take heed lest we break the bounds of the form and intention of the text as a whole. 1

. . . the root problem lay in disengaging ethics and their confident hope in the return of Christ.

At first reading, Paul rules against a church member (a “brother”) bringing litigation against another member before a secular (“unrighteous”) tribunal. But on further reading, we discover certain aspects of the passage that make it difficult to understand fully what he is concerned about. 2 A number of questions come to the surface. What was the specific case to be tried before the secular judges? How does this paragraph (6:1-11) fit with the preceding one on the subject of sexual immorality (porneia) (5:1-13)? How does it connect with the subsequent passage (6:12-23), also dealing with sexual problems? Do verses {41} 9-11 with their catalog of vices belong with the argument against taking a brother to court? Why is the tone of address so sharp?

I will propose some tentative answers to these questions. However, the principal purpose of the article is to determine as nearly as we can the factors which led Paul to chastise the Corinthians for bringing litigation against a brother.

We may approach an understanding of this statement of Paul from several angles: the form of address, the convictions underlying the argument, the identity of the case (pragma), the root problem at Corinth, and Paul’s concessive/radical solution to the problem.


Paying attention to the form of speech in a given text can greatly help us to understand it. 3 More often than not the key to the meaning of a passage lies in the literary mold into which the statement is cast. And this argument in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 is no exception.

Overall, this is a judgment-argument in which the readers stand indicted. The force of the argument is achieved by employing certain standard modes of expression. One of these, of which Paul is master, is the rhetorical question. No fewer than ten such questions appear here. By questioning the Corinthians thus, Paul is seeking to achieve an effect that will change the pattern of thinking (and behavior) in the church. The effect of this form of address is “to shame” the readers (6:5) into a more appropriate way of thinking and acting.

At points, the question takes on a diatribe form, 4 especially in verses 2, 3 and 4 where the formula, “Do you not know?” is used. True to form, diatribe here assumes an opposing view, and seeks to render that view inoperative by making it look foolish. The tone produced in such a form of speech is biting, sarcastic, even pejorative. And it seems we have all of this encoded in our text.

Mention should also be made of the catalog of vices in verses 9-10. Again, Paul is following a pattern already well established by the Hellenistic schools, including Hellenistic Judaism. 5 Greek moralist teachers used the “listing” motif in parenetic instruction of their students. The lists were representative, not exhaustive; so also in Paul. But they succeed in intensifying the moral counsel toward the good life.

How does this notice of the form of address lead us into the {42} meaning of the passage? Above all, it tells us that certain deep convictions of Paul are at stake, that they are being challenged by the situation of the church, that Paul holds his convictions tenaciously, and that he intends to persuade the readers to come to terms with his convictions. 6 Our next step is to inquire into the particular convictions that underlie the argument of 1 Cor. 6:1-11.


Paul has a profound Christian understanding of the character of “the kingdom of God.” The theme, kingdom of God, so closely associated with the teaching of Jesus in the Synoptics, is not prominent in Paul. But the term does occur periodically, noticeably in connection with vice-catalogues; and here it appears twice, at the opening and closing of the list of vices in vv. 9 and 10. “Kingdom of God” is an eschatological designation with specific application to the quality of human life, to people’s experience of God’s life, to their behavior in relation to God and to other people. People of the Kingdom of God come under divine rule; they have been transferred out of the dominion of sin (Rom. 3:9) into the realm of Christ (Rom. 6:2-4). And for Paul there are only two realms, each one mutually exclusive of the other. 7 The freedom of which Paul frequently speaks (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:1-2; Gal. 5:1) points primarily to this change from the realm of sin to that of Christ. 8 There, in the new sphere of Christ, the believer receives a new status, an “in Christ” status. And this new status manifests itself in distinction from the other realm of sin and death. This is a deep conviction with Paul, appearing repeatedly in the Letters. 9 It is out of this conviction that the salvific terms of verse 11 arise: “But you were washed, but you were sanctified; but you were given righteous status.” All three terms—“washed”, “sanctified,” “given righteous status” (edikaiothete)—signal the idea that the Corinthians were granted new status in relation to God when they entered the community of grace by baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 10

The new status of believers in relation to God is indicative of the new age of which Paul is profoundly conscious. The communities of Paul’s mission, the Corinthians included, attest to the fact that the new eschatological age has been ushered in by the death and resurrection of Christ. People of these communities are those “upon whom the end of the age has come” {43} (1 Cor. 10:11); they are the new creation of God (2 Cor. 5:17) awaiting the final outcome of the plan of God (Rom. 8:18ff.) Such an eschatological community, living in expectation of the imminent denouement of the saving episodes of God in history, having the “guarantee of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; cf. Rom. 8:23) that they will soon participate in the final transformation (resurrection or radical change, 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 47-54; cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17), bears in its “body” (1 Cor. 12) the distinctive marks of the future glory of God within its present situation in the world. 11

To this series of connected convictions we may attribute the character of the argument of 1 Cor. 6:1-11. Depicted as they are in this passage, people of the church at Corinth are failing to reflect their distinctive status as the people of God in Christ. To fail thus is to violate the terms of the Kingdom of God. That, for Paul, is utterly impossible! Hence the form of address.

But now we ask, what specific shape did the “failure” take in the Corinthian community? The fact that the answer does not present itself immediately is perhaps itself a sign that we ought to keep our exegetical eye sharply focused on the reason for the argument, on Paul’s consistent convictions, as we inquire into the particular case.


The factors in the legal suit, the case (pragma, 6:1) before the secular court, is not the principal concern of Paul. The fact that such a case involving two church members exists at all, that is the real concern. To make matters even worse, the case is brought before a tribunal of the world. Paul may not even have been completely informed on the details of the case in point, relying perhaps on an oral report from “Chloe’s people” (1:11; cf. 5:1), not on a letter from the Corinthians themselves (7:1). 12 Yet commentators have assumed with remarkable consistency that the specific case in question involved monetary fraud. This conclusion is based solely on one word occurring in verse 7, repeated in verse 8, which the RSV translates “defrauded” (apostereisthe, v. 7, apostereite, v. 8). Rendered thus, monetary fraud would seem warranted, assuming that this word is the key to the complete identity of the legal suit (krima, v. 7). The word may indeed be key, but commentators may have been trying to unlock a door for which this key was not specifically designed by Paul. {44}

Peter Richardson 13 has demonstrated cogently that the proposed change of “scandal” from sexual immorality (5:1-13) to monetary fraud (6:1-8) is highly dubious. Most probably Paul is still concerned in 6:1-8 with an ethical issue now become legal related to sexual immorality. Richardson proves his point from six pieces of evidence considered together: 1) the place of the passage in the structure of 1 Corinthians; 2) the bracketing of the passage by 5:1-13 and 6:12-20; 3) the connection with 7:1-7; 4) the connection of the whole passage with Old Testament passages, especially in 5:13; 5) the similar problem in 1 Thess. 4:18; 6) a possibly similar situation in James. It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on each of these. Numbers 2) and 3), however, seem to me to lend the strongest support to Richardson’s conclusion and may be discussed briefly here with profit.

The language and thought of all parts of chapters 5 and 6 are consistent. Between the three sections of these two chapters (5:1-13; 6:1-11; 6:12-20), “innumerable overlaps and intertwinings” 14 exist. The tone, forms of speech, and theme of judgment remain constant from one section to the other; sexual immorality (porneia) unquestionably controls the argument in the first and third sections, and there is no valid reason to suspect that the basic subject matter of the scandal is radically different in the middle section. Add to these the use of vice-catalogues in 5:10, 11; 6:9-10, with sexual immorality prominent in the lists, and we have a strong indication “that the basic thrust of chapters 5-6 is sexual, specifically the right way of dealing with sexual challenges in the face of the imminent end when judgment will be given and the Kingdom of God will be attained.” 15

Connections exist also between 6:1-11 and 7:1-7. Of special note is the use of the term apostereite in 6:7-8 and 7:5, the word that purportedly determines the specific nature of the law suit to be some form of monetary fraud. The function of the word in 7:5 is clear: husband and wife are not to “refuse one another” normal sexual relations. Translated “refuse” in the RSV, and used similarly in the Testament of Naphthali (8:8), the spectrum of meaning ranges beyond monetary deprivation to include the withholding of sexual relation. Consider also the metaphorical meaning of 1 Tim. 6:5: if someone does not teach sound doctrine he is “bereft of the truth.”

But what firm ground is there for supposing that this word, occurring only in the context of chapters 6 and 7 of the Corinthian correspondence, should serve a function in 6:7-8 altogether {45} different from the context of 7:5? “It could easily be that Paul is using the words in exactly the same way: “. . . why not prefer to be deprived sexually? But you . . . deprive, and that even the brothers” (6:7-8). 16 Taken in this way the case between the two brothers has something to do with “defrauding” or “depriving” in the matter of sexual relations.

Within this boundary the range of possible options is still wide. Richardson has suggested eight specific possibilities involving sexual defrauding that could arise between two brothers in the Corinthian community. Some of these are more worthy of consideration than others, namely, a brother committing adultery with another brother’s wife; a Christian husband putting away his unbelieving wife and the wife’s Christian father bringing litigation against the husband; a wife withholding herself sexually from her husband in keeping with the teaching of some brother in the community (cf. 7:3-5); a father refusing to give his daughter in marriage who was previously betrothed (cf. 7:36-38). 17

While these possibilities could be pursued under other purposes so as to narrow the range, our objective forces us to press on to the question of the core problem among the Corinthians as reflected in their action.


It is unthinkable, as far as Paul is concerned, for members of the eschatological community to “dare to have the case tried by secular judges and not by the saints” (6:1). But apparently they do so dare! The problem is several-fold. The procedure puts in jeopardy the eschatological character of the Christian community; it denies the identity of the members as Christian; it betrays a lack of ethical sensitivity consonant with the identity of the Corinthians as the new people of God.

At heart, the Corinthians do not sense that they are really very different from people and institutions of the “unrighteous” society around them. They are willing to accept the “right” decision of unrighteous judges (adikon, v. 1). By this Paul does not mean to say that individual decisions made by these judges would inevitably be wrong. “Unrighteous” merely classifies them as outside the circle of the new righteousness of Christ. Unlike the Corinthian believers, these secular judges were not “given righteous status” (6:11) through faith in Christ. And that fact, a massive one for Paul, renders the secular judges inoperative in matters involving members of the new community of Christ. {46}

Paul grants elsewhere that the governing authorities of society have a positive function to serve during the interim prior to consummation (Rom. 13:1-7), but not in matters internal to the church’s life. In this respect, Paul’s view is reminiscent of the practices familiar to him from the Jewish synagogue where Jews maintain their right to judge their own affairs as people of Yahweh. 18 How much more the people of Christ! To have judges of the world arbitrate in community affairs would constitute a serious breach in the church’s eschatological anticipation. Since “the saints are to judge the world” 19 (v. 2) and angels 20 (v. 3)—an awesome prospect—how could the church dare to tolerate the reverse in the ordinary affairs of human existence in the short history remaining?

The root problem in Corinth, it would seem, was the disengaging of eschatological thinking from ethical patterns of thought and life. 21 As far as Paul is concerned this disengagement is unthinkable. It spells defeat for the community (v. 7), so he proposes a solution. And to that we must now give brief attention.


Paul can address the contingencies of community life with remarkable flexibility, as the Corinthian correspondence quite clearly attests. 22 But his judgment on specific problems is con-trolled by the consistent center of the Gospel of Christ, what he calls “the truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14; cf. Rom. 1:16-17). Paul’s answers are not codified law; they are the situational expression of the Gospel. To cast them in “letters of stone” (2 Cor. 3:7) would violate the very principle which Paul espouses with such conviction: the principle of freedom in the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18; Gal. 5:1).

His answer to this particular problem (in the form of rhetorical questions) follows from this principle. It opens up two possible responses, one concessive and the other radical. Paul’s concession is that the church appoint its own Christian “wise man” 23 (v. 5) to arbitrate between brothers rather than submit to “the wisdom of this age or the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (2:6). Ironically the Corinthians probably claim to “possess knowledge” (8:1; cf. 1:5) but are behaving “like ordinary men” (3:3). Paul’s proposal to set up a forum for judging between brothers is a concession, not a principle. 24

The better response to the relational problems of community {47} life is radical. “Forego your human rights; be deprived and wronged,” Paul seems to say in the questions of verse 7. What better way to identify with Christ (cf. Phil. 3:8-10)?

This radical, ethical stance, reminiscent of the words and acts of Jesus, is consonant with Paul’s eschatological preaching of “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” Paul’s whole way of knowing went through radical transformation in the light of Christ crucified and raised according to the plan of God for the ages. Paul was living at the juncture of the ages, as J.L. Martyn puts it, 25 and his ethical judgement follows that new knowledge 26 (2 Cor. 5:14-17).


We may now bring together our findings of 1 Cor. 6:1-11 and suggest some implications. Paul is addressing the specific matter of a Christian bringing a law-suit against another Christian before a non-Christian judge. The specific case is not self-evident, except that it is between two men of the congregation and appears to involve some form of sexual deprivation, possibly also involving money, but not necessarily so. The form and tone of the passage reveals Paul’s outright displeasure with the attitude and action of the community. The community acts with greatly diminished eschatological vision. By condoning this legal suit they have reversed Paul’s preaching, affirming the structures of the world which are destined soon to come under the final judgment of Christ and the church (the saints). Paul’s counsel allows a formal judgment to occur within the context of the eschatological community, not in the law courts of the world. His preference, though, is that members bear the wrongdoing, without taking any action to secure personal rights.

Paul’s response to the litigation at Corinth springs from his profound consciousness of the inauguration of the new age by the death and resurrection of Christ, the final triumph to be realized soon. His way of knowing, his way of interpreting the situation depicted in 6:1-8, revolves around a dynamic center inherent in the gospel of Christ. But his interpretation is executed in the freedom of the spirit.

What shall we say of the church in our time? Is our church any more aware of its identity as the eschatological community of Christ than the Corinthians? The lines separating Christians in our time from the systems of our society are probably even more faint than those at Corinth. The sociological situation has {48} changed, together with the theological outlook. Yet life can still be lived under the rule of Christ in “the truth of the Gospel.” Even though many of the new situations are not addressed directly in Scripture, they call for a response consonant with the dynamic center of Christian self-understanding. One such “new situation is offered here for consideration.

Most Christians and Christian institutions, including local congregations, carry various kinds of insurance policies underwritten by secular corporations. The policies are intended to protect the insured party from serious financial loss and to compensate a victim for damages incurred. The money settlement, it should be noted, comes from premiums paid by members of society, Christians and non-Christians alike, through the corporation. But what happens when a Christian individual suffers personal or property damage by involvement in the work of a Christian institution? The institution is covered; the individual and the institution agree with no animosity on either side that an insurance settlement is in order. Still, the claim has to be made by appropriate litigation against the institution through the court system of society.

Such a situation is not addressed in the New Testament, but it is no less subject to interpretation in keeping with the dynamic center of the Gospel. I believe we need to become more astute in our way of interpreting our situations in relation to the Gospel of Christ. Too often, it seems, situational interpretations have become fossilized into code, and the code sculpted in cement. Instead of moving out of the true center with the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit, we are left with a massive body of petrified statements left over from different situations in the historic pilgrimage of the church. And we have lost the interpretive genius of Paul in our handling of “cases” in our community and personal life in the world.


  1. See Werner G. Kuemmel, “New Testament Exegesis,” in Exegetical Method; A Student’s Handbook (New York: The Seabury Press, 1963), pp. 55ff.; and John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay, “Literary Criticism: The Composition, Structure and Rhetorical Style of the Text, Biblical Exegesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 67-74. {49}
  2. On the history of the interpretation of 1 Cor. 6:1-11 till 1955, Lukas Vischer, Die Auslegungsgeschichte von I Kor. 6:1-11: Rechtsverzicht and Senlichtung (Beitraege zur Geschichte der neutestamentlichen Exegese I) (Tuebingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1955).
  3. Robert Funk observes in this regard: “It is important to inquire what restrictions that language tradition imposes upon the representation of what is being made available. . . . What limitation did the letter form pose for Paul in communication with his churches? Parables and Presence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), pp. 9-10. Cf. my forthcoming article, “From Meant to Meaning,” pp. 13ff. and notes.
  4. J. A. Walther, The Anchor Bible. 1 Corinthians (New York: Doubleday, 1976), p. 193; Hans Conzelman, Hermeneia: 1 Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 104.
  5. E.g., Philo, Vit. Mos. 1:154; Deus imm. 162-165; also found in Qumran schools, 1 QS 1 V See further Anton von Vogtle, Die Tugend and Lasterkataloge im neuen Testament (Muenster: Aschendorf, 1936), pp. 58-62.
  6. Paul views the proceedings as “a brazen act.” Walther, Anchor, p. 195.
  7. Expressed sharply in the Adam-Christ typology of Rom. 5: 12-21; 1 Cor. 15:42-50. See discussion in C. K. Barrett, From First Adam to Last (London: Harper and Row, 1957), pp. 5ff; 92ff.
  8. See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp. 463ff.
  9. See the discussion in my “The Figure of Jesus in the Theological Thought of Paul,” Ph.D. dissertation, Hamilton: McMaster University, 1984, pp. 98-116.
  10. Although here edikaiothete may carry the sense of being morally righteous; so R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), p. 135; C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1968), p. 142; Walther, Anchor, p. 201; Conzelmann, Hermeneia, p. 107.
  11. W. S. Wargul, “People of God, Body of Christ: Pauline Ecclesiastical Constructs, Biblical Theological Bulletin 12 (1982): 24-28; P. S. Minear, “Christ and the Congregation: 1 Cor. 5-6, Revue Biblique 80 (1983): 341-350.
  12. John Hurd, The Origin of 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 1965), pp. 83ff.
  13. Peter Richardson, “Judgment in Sexual Matters in 1 Cor. 6:1-11,” Novum Testamentum 255 (1983): 37-58.
  14. Ibid., p. 43. {50}
  15. Ibid., p. 44.
  16. Ibid., p. 45.
  17. Ibid., pp. 45ff.
  18. Jews were forbidden to take their cases before Gentile judges, e.g., Jubilees 24:29; cf. 2 Cor. 11:24.
  19. Cf. Dan. 7:22; Enoch 1:9; Wisdom 3:8; 2 Baruch 51:12.
  20. Cf. Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4.
  21. Albert Stein, “Wo trugen die korinthischen Christian ihre Rechtshandel aus?” Zeitschrift fur die neutestamendiche Wissenschaft and die Kunde der aelteren Kirche 59 (1968): 86-90.
  22. See J. C. Beker, “Contingency and Coherence in Paul’s Letters,” Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 23-36.
  23. The “wise man” (sophos) here is probably a cipher for a tribunal set up by the church. Cf. Sanhedrin 1:1; 3-4, on the Jewish procedure.
  24. It surpasses the trial in the secular court. Persons of least account in v. 4 are probably the outside judges, not the lowest members of the community. Hence the translation in question form rather than imperative.
  25. J. L. Martyn, “Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages: 2 Cor. 5:16,” Christian History and Interpretation, ed. W. R. Farmer, et. al. (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), pp. 269-287.
  26. C. J. A. Hickling, “Centre and Periphery in the Thought of Paul,” Studia Biblica, 1978, Vol. 3, Papers on Paul and Other New Testament Authors, ed. E. A. Livingstone(Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 199-214.
George Shillington teaches New Testament language and literature at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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