Better to suffer wrong than let those with no standing in the church pass judgement

Yesterday, Tim Challies posted an article titled, It’s better to suffer wrong. He landed on 1 Corinthians 6:7 and used that as a jumping off point for discussing a wider biblical principle. Namely, it is better for us to suffer injustice than to take a brother to court. I think the point Tim was making is essentially right. I just thought I would push into two further questions on these verses.

I agree that the point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 6:6 is that believers ought not to be taking believers to court. But the reason Paul makes that pronouncement is for the sake of the gospel. He is arguing that it would damage the cause of the gospel for believer to go against believer in a secular court presided over by an unbeliever. Far from compelling people to trust in Christ by doing this, it implicitly suggests the judgement of the world is of more value.

However, I think the context is often overlooked in these discussions. Whilst Paul is saying that believers ought not to take believers to court, we often seem to ignore the context of Paul’s instruction which necessarily mean we are not being called to just suck up people treating us unjustly with impunity. Whilst Paul does tell us not to take our brothers to secular courts over civil matters, he does not say there is therefore no redress for us. Paul is quite clear the issue is not seeking justice, but asking those ‘who have no standing in the church’ to pass judgement on a brother.

The context of Paul’s comments rely on a prior understanding of church discipline. And it cannot escape our notice that the most glaring problem in the Corinthian church was an unwillingness to enact any sort of discipline, even over the most egregious sin. Paul is not suggesting that believers can treat other believers unjustly without consequence. He is saying that the church ought to make that judgement when it concerns believers. It is not for secular courts to judge between believers in the church, but for the church to judge between believers itself. One suspects the reason believer was going against believer in the secular courts of Corinth was, at least partially, because the church itself was not willing to enact discipline of its own.

The point Paul is making, then, is that judgement between believers rightly belongs in the church. Rather than seek redress in the secular courts – where the gospel will inevitably be brought into disrepute – the church should judge on these matters. Paul says in v5 ‘Can it be that there is not one wise person among you who is able to arbitrate between fellow believers?’ His concern, then, is not so much that somebody is seeking redress over an issue, it is the means of redress to which he takes exception. The church should judge between believers in civil matters, not secular courts.

Two things follow from this. First, and most importantly, where issues arise between believers in the church they should seek redress from the church. Quite simply, the process of Matthew 18:15-20 ought to be followed. Brothers should be able to resolve the problem themselves and, if not, it should be a church matter to be judged.

Second, this does not mean a believer will never take somebody to court who claims to be a believer. If the steps in Matthew 18 have been followed, but there is no repentance (which necessarily involves a proper resolution to the matter), then the one in sin is to be put out of the church and treated as an unbeliever. As soon as the church does this, they are affirming that this person can no longer be considered a believer. This means that the wronged individual can take this person before the secular courts. They may well claim to still be a believer, but as someone who has refused to repent and rejected the ruling from the church itself, the church insists they are not. And as a non-believer, this would not be a matter of believers going before the secular courts against each other, but a believer seeking redress from an unbeliever.

Whilst the main application of these passages relates to lawsuits between believers – that is the evident and immediate context – the application goes much further. Paul’s pronouncement in v4 – ‘do you appoint as your judges those who have no standing in the church?’ – would seem to apply to all matters that require judgement. Nobody should be seeking outside parties to come and judge on matters within the church without having submitted to the judgement of the church itself. As someone committed to independency, it is my view that matters ought to be judged within the local church itself. Seeking outside judgements on matters between believers within the local church is the very thing that Paul seems not to want to sanction here.

Of course, depending on your particular polity, you may see a role for those outside of the local church. You may believe the Bishop or the Presbytery has the right to judge on these matters as the designated authorities within the church. But the point is that whatever form of polity you believe is right, Paul would seem to insist that we let the church (as we understand it) judge matters and not insist on outsiders coming in to pass judgement on matters that ought to be addressed by the church itself. For independents, that means the elders and then the congregation within the local church and not those outside of it. For Anglicans, that would mean the leaders of the local church and then the bishops in the wider communion. For Presbyterians, it would mean the elders of the local church and then the wider presbytery. But what it cannot mean is that, outside of your understanding of church polity, you should draw upon those external to you to resolve the matter on your behalf. Those who will not submit to the rule of their church should not be given the right to appeal to those entirely external to it.

The reason for this is the sake of the gospel itself. Issues will inevitably arise within the church. And it is for the church to judge such things. Believers going up against believers in the secular courts damages the cause of the gospel. Churches having to seek redress from external sources beyond the proper bounds of their own polity also do damage to the cause of the gospel. When we are thinking these things are the way to resolve our differences, that it seems, is when Paul would say, ‘Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?’

He is not saying it is okay to be wronged or cheated. He is saying it is better to be wronged or cheated than to damage the cause of the gospel. It does not damage the witness of the church to be seen to address matters of injustice according to the instructions that scripture gives it to specifically address those things. But it does deeply damage the cause of the gospel to refuse to abide by them. And it damages the cause of the gospel to public renounce them and seek redress by other means. It certainly damages the church when we will not submit ourselves to it, or abide by its ruling, but claiming the name of Christ, seek outside redress. Whilst sin itself damages the cause of the gospel, to stick two fingers up to Jesus’ appointed means of addressing it is worse still.