Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 6:1-11
Apart from variations in detail there is little disagreement among commentators, ancient or modern, on the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 6.1-11. The following summary represents in substance the views of Barrett, Calvin, Edwards, Fee, Findlay, Grosheide, Hodge, Prior, Sampley. These reflected such unanimity that there seemed little point in widening the search. The difficulty arises not in the exegesis, but in the application.
1. The wider context
Chapters Five and Six of 1 Corinthians are linked by the theme of judgement. In Chapter Five Paul is directing the believing community to exercise judgement, internally, on one of their members, guilty of sexual immorality. The sentence to be passed is unequivocal: excommunication. They are to have no further association with this man. In the course of giving this direction, the apostle highlights the limits of any such judgement. The church has jurisdiction only over its own members: “what have I to do with judging those outside?” (5.12). We cannot excommunicate outsiders: to try to do so would require going out of the world altogether. Inevitably, therefore, we have to associate on a daily basis with the immoral of this world. But when a brother or sister lives in this way, he or she is to be expelled from the fellowship and believers are to refrain from all further socialising with them.
The judgement theme continues in Chapter Six. Having laid down that we are to judge insiders, but that we are not to judge the world, Paul lays down the further point that we are not to refer the internal difficulties of the church to outsiders or ask the world and its secular courts to adjudicate on issues which arise between Christians.
2. The issue
It is clear from the whole tone of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6.1-11 that the apostle is extremely angry. “The whole scene,” writes one commentator, “fills Paul with indignation, so much so that there is scarcely any argument at all … the passage bristles with Paul’s apostolic authority.” (Fee, 229) The result is a series of rhetorical questions: “Dare anyone ….” (v.1); “do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (v.2); “are you incompetent to try trivial cases?” (v.3); “do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (v.3); “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (v.9). These questions all assume that the wrongness of the action in question is not in dispute: everyone knows that it is a self-evident truth that believer does not take believer to law (presumably because of the Lord’s own teaching as reflected in Matthew 6:40, “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”) To do so is to fly against a principle that every Christian takes for granted.
Paul even resorts to irony/sarcasm. This appears particularly in v.5, where he latches on to the Corinthians’ preoccupation with wisdom. This preoccupation appears from the very beginning of the epistle: “Christ sent me to preach the gospel … not with eloquent wisdom” (1.17); “Where is the one who is wise? (1.20); “W are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ.” (4.10).
What, then, has happened to all this wisdom you set such store by?” asks the apostle: “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer – and before unbelievers at that?” (6.6). The Corinthians are forgetting the basic nature of the church as a Spirit-filled community destined to play a key role in the final resolution of history at the end of the age. At the Last Day, believers will sit in judgement not only on “ungodly” magistrates, but on the very angels. Surely, then, they are competent to judge the trivial matters (elachista, verse 2) of money and property in dispute among themselves? Grammatically, verse 4 may be taken either as a statement or as a question or as a command or even as an exclamation. The overall import of the passage is little affected by the uncertainty. Professor John A MacLeod points out that it is very unusual for Paul to place an imperative at the end of a sentence and opts for the view that it is an exclamation. The NIV takes it as a command, and this sits well in the context, especially if we take the command as ironic (and add an exclamation mark): “appoint as judges in these matters the people who are of least account in the church!” Some, including Professor John A MacLeod, are ill at ease with the idea that Paul could encourage believers to consider other believers as of little account. But he concedes that this difficulty would vanish if the apostle were being ironic. Even the least gifted and most inexperienced Christian should be perfectly capable of adjudicating such trivial worldly matters! Today’s New International Version takes the verse as a question, but transfers Paul’s disparagement to the non-Christian judges to whom the Corinthians were appealing: “do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church?”
What was it that so stirred the apostle? The answer is already clear in verse 1: “If any of you has a dispute with one another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgement instead of before the saints?” The central point is repeated in verse 6: “one brother goes to law against another”; again in verse 7: “the very fact that you have lawsuits among you”; and, finally, in verse 7, “the very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.
These passages all bristle with technical legal terms, though they are somewhat obscured in the NIV. The English “dispute” in verse 1 renders the Greek pragma, the accepted term for a case or cause. Those who thought they had a case were going to law: the precise import of the verb krinesthai (the middle voice of the common Greek verb, krino, I judge). It has the same sense here as in Matthew 5.40, where the NIV keeps the technical sense: “if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Even the simple preposition en (“in”), as used in verse 2, is commonly used of tribunals: “if the world is to be judged before your tribunal”. The Corinthians were bringing their disputes before the “ungodly”. The word “ungodly” translates the Greek adikoi (here in the genitive plural), usually rendered “unrighteous”. In this passage, however, it, too, has a technical sense, though not this time a legal one. The “unrighteous” or the “ungodly” was the standard Jewish way of referring to Gentiles. As Paul uses it here, it is not a judgement on the moral character, integrity or competence of the Corinthian magistrates: it is a definition of their spiritual status. They are “unbelievers” (verse 6: apistoi), or, as we might say, “the unconverted”, “pagans” or “the world”. Fundamentally, these magistrates know nothing of the fear of God. Regardless of the outcome, declares the apostle, going to law before such people was already a defeat (etema, verse 7).
Professor John A MacLeod suggests that the reference to “trivial cases” (elachiston) in verse 2 leaves open the possibility that Paul would allow recourse to litigation in more serious cases: for example, cases involving the property of others. It may be, however, that the point of the comparison here is that one day the saints will judge the world; and in comparison with that, anything belonging to this age is “trivial”.
We have no detailed information as to the nature of the disputes which were agitating the Corinthian church. All we have are the hints Paul drops in verses 7 – 10. His language is particularly strong in verse 8: “you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.” “You do wrong” is one word in Greek, and it is no accident that it is the verb (adikeite) corresponding to the adjective (adikoi), which Paul has already used to identify “the ungodly,” before whom they were prosecuting their law-suits. The point is clear: they were behaving just like the ungodly; and they were doing it to each other. Paul also accuses them of cheating and of defrauding each other. The verb here is apostereite,and it occurs in other significant ethical discourses in the New Testament. Jesus himself uses it in Mark 10.19 in his conversation with the Rich Young Man. At this point Jesus is expanding his own statement, “You know the commandments,” and he introduces into the list of commandments the prohibition, “Do not defraud”. The word also occurs in James 5.4, though once again the precise nuance is obscured by the NIV. It is however clear in the AV and its derivatives (e.g., the RSV and the NRSV), which speak of the wages “which you kept back by fraud”.
This strongly suggests, as Fee argues, that the background to the litigation at Corinth was that some were trying to rob, cheat and swindle their fellow believers. The lawsuits were either a defensive response on the part of the victims, craving redress; or, possibly, themselves the very means by which one brother sought to steal from a brother what was rightfully his. Either way, it seems clear that the root of the problem was the involvement of the “brothers” in property and business deals. This is also consonant with the “vice-list” which Paul gives in verses 8-9. The NIV’s paragraph division, unfortunately, separates this list from the previous discussion, but in reality it forms an integral part of Paul’s argument. The list emphasises two kinds of sin: sexual immorality and greed. The first kind was highlighted by the case of the incestuous man (1 Corinthians 5.1-13). The second was highlighted by the propensity to take each other to court. What else could be behind this but greed? And just as “adulterers, male prostitutes and homosexual offenders” shall not enter the kingdom of God, so shall those guilty of greed and swindling be excluded.
This brings us very close to the conclusion that those who, motivated by greed, take their brothers to court, will not enter the kingdom of God. Paul is clearly aware that some members of the church in Corinth had been addicted to such sins in their pre-conversion days. But that was precisely the point: these days were behind them. Now they were washed, sanctified and justified, and heirs of the kingdom of God (verse 11). Greed (and litigation), therefore, had no further place in their lives.
Another point on which we have no detailed information is the social background to the propensity to lawsuits among the Corinthian believers. It is certain, however, that in that culture only men of substance could have access to the courts; just as it is certain that only men of substance could sit on the bench. In all probability, the leaders of the church in Corinth would have been drawn from this same class, and part of Paul’s horror would therefore have been that it was the very leaders of the church who were involved in the court cases. They were thus enforcing by their example the very culture of greed from which, professedly, Christianity had redeemed them.
Presumably, too, Paul saw here symptoms of the same problem which was affecting the administration of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth. The rich were indulging themselves without any consideration for the poorer members of the congregation. Their attitude to lawsuits and their attitude to the Lord’s Supper both showed that they had no regard for the Body.
The problem, then, is clear enough. Prominent members of the church in Corinth were in dispute with each other, probably over property and business dealings, and were taking each other to court, asking pagan magistrates to pronounce judgement in accordance with their own understanding of the law. Paul does not deem it necessary to argue the point. For him, it is self-evident that Christians do not behave in this way, and he aims, therefore, not at convincing the Christians that what they are doing is wrong, but at making them utterly ashamed of their behaviour: “I say this to shame you” (verse 5).
3. Paul’s alternative
What, then, is Paul’s alternative? “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (verse 8). Adikaisthe(“wronged”) points to the idea of suffering injustice or being deprived of our rights; apostereisthe (“cheated”) to letting ourselves be defrauded of what is lawfully ours. Some scholars take both verbs as being in the Middle rather than the Passive voice, thus giving a more active role to the victims: “why don’t you submit to being wronged and cheated?” Whatever the uncertainty on this score, the essential meaning is clear, and points in the same direction as Jesus’ teaching on non-retaliation in Mathew 5.39-42. There the Lord lays down that we are not to resist evil (or the evil person). Instead, we are to turn the other cheek, and if the wicked person sues us for our tunic we are to give him our cloak as well. This is rooted not only in the law of agape, love for the enemy, but in the Christian’s fundamental attitude to the biotika (verse 3: NIV, “the things of this life”). These represent only treasure on earth. Our treasure is in heaven, and no law-suit can deprive us of that. The successful Christian litigant gained, therefore, only a hollow victory: treasure which moth and rust would corrupt, and time would steal (Mt. 5.19).
Professor John A Macleod suggests that Paul implies a further alternative to litigation before pagan judges: arbitration by Christians. The apostle, he says, clearly believes that the saints are equipped to decide disputes between believers. Professor Howard Marshall, in a private communication, takes a similar line: “Paul does seem to be stressing positively the competence of the saints to settle matters that arise between members of the church. If his point is ‘no appeal to secular courts’, this seems to be balanced by the fact that the church itself is competent to settle and should settle such issues.” Calvin speaks to the same effect in his Commentary on First Corinthians: “If anyone has a dispute with a brother, it ought to be resolved before believing judges, and not before unbelievers.”
This possibility of Christian arbitration must obviously be taken seriously, and we shall return to it later. In the meantime we confine ourselves to the following points, arising directly from Paul’s language in First Corinthians Six:\n
- As we have already seen, it may well be that Paul’s suggestion of referring such disputes to those “of least account in the church” is ironic. \n
- It is not at all clear that Paul presents us with two equally-weighted alternatives: either “take joyfully the spoiling of your goods” or remit your dispute to Christian arbitration. He clearly regards the property disputes as disputes over trifles. As such they may be beneath the dignity of the church: matters on which it would be wrong to waste Christian time. If that is so, we may well assume that meekly “suffering loss” would be the apostle’s preferred option.
- Paul is clearly influenced throughout his argument by the shame brought on the church when it washes its dirty linen in public. Resort to arbitration by Christians would obviously attract less unfavourable publicity than resort to secular courts. Yet it would inevitably attract some publicity, and confirm the prejudice that we have an inordinate interest in property matters.
\nIn sum, while there is indeed a case for Christian arbitration, it cannot be seen as an imperative arising from Paul’s directions in First Corinthians Six. There is but one central issue before his mind; and on that issue, his judgement, expressed with passionate, categorical authority, is crystal clear. For any member of the church at Corinth to raise a legal action against another member before a secular tribunal is a flagrant contravention of the Christian way. Indeed, the contravention is so flagrant that Paul condemns the prevailing litigiousness with as much severity as he condemns their leniency towards sexual immorality.
4. But does it apply to us?
But does it apply to us? Or is the situation addressed by this chapter so different from ours that we can safely conclude that we are exempt from its prohibitions?
4.1 It may be argued, for example, that Paul’s rubric binds only individual Christians and does not extend to churches or congregations.
This is a perilous logic. In general, collectives are bound by the same ethical principles as individuals. This is most obvious in relation to the Decalogue. Its authority is not restricted to personal and individual lives, but extends equally to governments, trade unions, theatre companies, churches and congregations. Granted, the New Testament church was not afflicted with formally separate denominations, but the church in Corinth clearly had its factions, if not indeed its sects, and these divisions may well have been reflected in the various legal actions. Be that as it may, it is inconceivable that Paul would have allowed the church in the household of Chloe to sue any of the other household churches; or permitted the Paul-party or the Apollos-party or the Cephas-party to add to the harm already caused by their divisions by asking the secular courts to adjudicate on the differences between them. It is even more inconceivable that he would have condoned a legal action by the church of Corinth against the church of Philippi or any other of its ecclesiastical neighbours. Churches have no more right than individual Christians to be obsessed with biotika or to disgrace Christianity by asking secular courts to adjudicate on their property disputes.
4.2 It may be argued, secondly, that the position is different when the money/property in question is held for specifically spiritual and evangelistic purposes rather than for personal profit.
This argument certainly has more force than the previous one. The central and local assets of the Free Church of Scotland are held in trust for the purpose of promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ at home and abroad, and their loss would be, on the face of things, a loss to the gospel itself. Added force is given to this point if the stolen assets were then devoted to preaching another gospel: for example, a legalistic one, preaching justification by works; or a Hyper-Calvinist one, opposed to the free offer of the gospel.
But over against this argument stand the following points:
- The fact that the assets are held for spiritual purposes means that any legal action inevitably involves adjudication on spiritual issues; the very area where the civil magistrate is least competent. In detail, this means that the judge would need to have an extensive knowledge of Scottish church history (as was the case in 1904, when Mr Johnston’s submission before the House of Lords could easily serve as a church history text-book); a thorough knowledge of ecclesiastical law; extensive acquaintance with the Confession of Faith; familiarity with the Formula, and its background, particularly the Disruption background; theological discernment, at least to the extent of being able to identify such deviations from the Confession as Legalism and Hyper-Calvinism; a grasp of Presbyterian church principles, enabling her/him to identify, for example, breaches of the principle of spiritual independence and to decide whether or not the introduction of such things as hymns and organs would be a contravention of the constitution of the church. Few if any of our modern Scottish judges are in a position to form a judgement on such issues. Yet the present dispute resolves itself into the question, Which is the true Free Church? and that, ultimately, is a question not of law, but of theology. \n
- In the perception of the world, any legal action will inevitably appear as concern for the loaves and the fishes: or, in the present case, Christians squabbling over millions of pounds’ worth of real estate. This may be unfair, but it is the perception, and in First Corinthians Six, perception is important. Whatever we might gain in financial terms we would lose in terms of moral authority.
- The progress of the gospel is only marginally dependent on material and financial assets. The early church had no property or capital reserves. Likewise the Free Church in 1843. Our great need is for the power of the Spirit, transforming our stammering words into the saving power of God; and while we should be profoundly grateful for the material resources we have inherited, we must recognise that if we are cheated out of these, the loss is part of God’s plan, and he will abundantly compensate us; and as the gospel prospers, it will generate all the additional resources we need.
- Though the gross value of the local properties in question is significant, it represents only a small proportion of our assets. Our centrally-held assets and most of our local funds and properties are already secure. From these we should be able to give all necessary help to the small number of congregations which have suffered wrong.
- “Assets” can be a drain as well as a resource. Every organisation faces the temptation to devote an inordinate amount of its energy to ensuring its own institutional survival, often at the expense of the purposes for which the organisation actually came into existence. The Free Church already invests a huge amount of time, energy and money in maintaining property, some of which hinders rather than furthers our national ministry: e.g., loyalty to existing buildings makes it difficult to unite small local units which, divided, lack the human resources for effective worship and evangelism but, united, might form viable, dynamic units able to attract and hold a growing number of people.
- There is a significant cost involved in fighting the legal action itself. This is partly financial: legal fees might negate the monetary value of even a successful action. But there is also a significant emotional and spiritual cost when church leaders have to focus on secular priorities related to money and buildings, and immerse themselves in a mass of legal detail. The Christian soldier is duty bound to avoid getting entangled in civilian affairs (2 Timothy 2.4). Legal actions of the kind contemplated demand an almost obsessive commitment on the part of those directing them; and that can include the church itself as well as individuals.
4.3 It is possible to take the view that those who have grabbed our property are not believers at all. It would follow (so goes the argument) that Paul’s directive would therefore not apply, since what he has in mind is specifically believer going to law against believer.
This argument derives some force from the fact that those with whom we are in contention are men who have blatantly rejected the jurisdiction of the church. In terms of Matthew 18.17 this means that we are to treat them as we would pagans. In terms of Titus 3.10 (where Paul directs Titus how to deal with “the heretical or schismatic person,” (hairetikon anthropon) we are to have nothing to do with them. The grounds of fellowship have been violated and there can be no reinstatement without a clear, sincere and credible undertaking to acquiesce in the jurisdiction of the church.
However, the fact that these brethren have been subjected to due ecclesiastical discipline does not mean that in our dealings with them we are no longer bound by 1 Corinthians 6.1-11.\n
- The discipline passed upon them was limited. It was a suspension from office, related specifically to the fact that their rejection of the jurisdiction of the church was a violation of their ordination vows. The sentence did not include a suspension from membership, that is, from “the benefit of sealing ordinances”. Nor did it contain the judgement that they are not Christians. On the contrary, church members are disciplined precisely as Christians, the discipline itself being conceived of as a means of grace: they are handed over to Satan (excommunicated) specifically so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and the spirit saved (1 Corinthians 5.5). \n
- In the perception of the world, these former brethren are Christians. This means that any legal action will inevitably bring dishonour on the church of Christ. It will be seen as a dispute between warring Christian factions. \n
- It is by no means clear that Paul’s argument leaves Christians free to sue non-Christians over matters of finance and property (biotika). \n
\n4.3 It may be argued that Scottish “secular” courts are not secular at all, but operate under a Christian constitution administered by public Christians.
This was the position under Christendom as established by the Emperor Constantine (313 onwards). Christianity was the religion of the Empire, both east and west, and public functionaries were all members of the church. This continued to be the case in the west throughout the Middle Ages, and remained unaltered by the Reformation. In England, the monarch was the Defender of the Faith and Supreme Head of the Church, and all judicial proceedings were conducted on the premise of accountability to the King of Kings. The position in Scotland was similar. The Scots Confession was adopted by Parliament on 17th August, 1560, the Reformed Kirk became the national church and the King, members of the Legislature and the Senators of the College of Justice were all deemed to be members of it. This is also the position envisaged by the Westminster Standards. These were drafted specifically at the behest of the Westminster Parliament to form the basis of a single united church of Britain and Ireland, and they clearly posit a civil magistracy composed of Christians and committed to safeguarding the unity, peace and doctrinal orthodoxy of the church (Westminster Confession, 23.3).
This same situation prevailed at the time of the Disruption and during the Free Church Case, Bannatyne v. Overtoun, in 1901-04. The House of Lords operated in a legal culture which, in accordance with the Articles of Union of 1707, clearly recognised the Protestant religion as the established national religion of both Scotland and England. By the same token, the legal professionals involved, whether on the bench or as advocates, clearly showed sensitivity to the ecclesiastical and theological issues involved. Brother was still going to law with brother, but not before unbelievers. This is not a pronouncement on the spiritual state of those involved. It is simply to recognise that they were not, in Paul’s sense, “unrighteous” (adikoi).
None of this, however, warrants our initiating legal action in our current circumstances.\n
- Our circumstances are radically different from those summarised above. Christendom is no more; Scottish Christianity is merely tolerated, not established; our new Scottish Legislature is officially secular; and any adherence to Christianity on the part of members of the Judiciary is entirely accidental. That they are men and women of the utmost probity is beyond question, but the presumption must be that they are “unbelievers”. \n
- Even if we could be confident that those before whom we were pleading were believers possessed of spiritual wisdom, the damage to the cause of Christ would still be grave. This was true even in 1901-04, when the public saw only the spectacle of Christians quarrelling over the loaves and the fishes. Today, that impression would be even more profound. \n
- The whole spirit of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians Six is that for Christians to engage in any formal litigation (pragma) over matters of money and property (biotika) is a confession of failure: “these lawsuits are already, or in themselves, an evil irrespective of their being conducted before heathen judges.” (Hodge on 1 Corinthinas 6.7). Such disputes should be settled by arbitration, not litigation. \n
\n4.4 It may be argued that Trustees, General and Local, are legally obligated to use all lawful means, including litigation, to ensure that Trust Funds are not diverted from their original purpose.
This argument has some weight, though the question of the legal obligations lying upon Trustees is clearly a matter for lawyers, not theologians.
However, it would surely be a sound defence, even in secular law, that in deciding not to institute legal proceedings the Trustees were acting, not negligently, but in conscious compliance with the Church’s supreme standard, Holy Scripture. More broadly, they could argue that since the original purposes of the Trust are spiritual, they as Trustees were fully justified in avoiding a course of action which, overall, would be detrimental to those spiritual objectives. Brother going to law with brother certainly falls into that category, the Apostle himself being witness. It is hard to see how any court could find fault with Trustees acting under such considerations.
4.5 Finally, it may be argued that circumstances may arise when a believer has to take action not on his own behalf, but on behalf of others. We are bound, in matters affecting only ourselves, to turn the other cheek and to take joyfully the spoiling of our own goods. But we cannot turn the cheeks of others to the smiters or stand idly by while others are being wronged or defrauded. If assaulted ourselves, we may take no further action, but if the person assaulted is a child or some other vulnerable person it may be our duty to report the matter to the police: an action which may lead to a Christian being tried in a criminal court before pagan judges. Similarly, if a widow is being defrauded of her inheritance by a Christian who refuses to listen to the church, the church may well be bound to give that widow all possible support in prosecuting a legal action. All this is implied not only in general notions of equity (though that is a highly risky concept in law), but in Paul’s endorsement of civil government in Romans 13:1-7.
But in the current case it is precisely our own property that is at stake. We cannot take the view that the Church’s property belongs to someone other than ourselves. We are the church. Indeed, we would expose ourselves to the charge: “How often, in the Clearances and in other instances, have you stood idly by while others were being defrauded! How often have you told them to take joyfully the spoiling of their goods! But now, when your own property is at stake, you stir yourselves and raise an action in court!”
5.1 The Apostolic Fathers
The generation after the apostles (“The Apostolic Fathers”) took the prima facie meaning of 1 Corinthians 6.1-11 for granted, but there are few direct allusions to the passage. The Epistle of Polycarp (traditionally dated around 110 a.d.) clearly links the passage to the sin of covetousness, particularly among presbyters: “I have been deeply grieved for Valens, who once was a presbyter among you, because he so fails to understand the office that was entrusted to him. I warn you, therefore: avoid love of money, and be pure and truthful … If a man does not avoid love of money, he will be polluted by idolatry, and will be judged as one of the Gentiles, who are ignorant of the Lord’s judgement. “Or, do we not know that the saints will judge the world,” as Paul teaches?” (The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, 11).
5.2 The Apostolic Constitutions (circa 380)
“Let not the heathen know therefore of your differences among one another, nor do you receive unbelievers as witnesses against yourselves, nor be judged by them, nor owe them anything on account of tribute or fear … Choose therefore rather to suffer harm, and to endeavour after those things that make for peace, not only among the brethren, but also among the unbelievers. For by suffering loss in the affairs of this life, thou wilt be sure not to suffer in the concerns of piety, and wilt live religiously, and according to the command of Christ. But if brethren have lawsuits one with another, which God forbid, you who are the rulers ought thence to learn that such as these do not the work of brethren, but rather of public enemies; and one of the parties will be found to be mild, gentle, and the child of light; but the other unmerciful and covetous. Let him, therefore, who is condemned be rebuked, let him be separated, let him undergo the punishment of his hatred to his brother. Afterwards, when he repents, let him be received; and so, when they have learned prudence, they will ease our judicatures.” (Book II, XLVI)
“Paul now begins to censure another fault of the Corinthians: an excessive eagerness for litigation, and this arose out of greed. But the reproof has two parts to it. The first is that in pursuing their quarrels before the courts of the unbelievers, they were giving a bad name to the gospel, and reducing it to a public laughing stock. The second is that, while Christians ought to suffer injuries, they were causing harm to others, rather than put up with being involved in trouble of any kind …. If anyone has a dispute with a brother, it ought to be resolved before believing judges, and not before unbelievers. Should anyone want to know why, I have already said that this is because the gospel is discredited, and the name of Christ exposed, as it were, to the derision of the godless. For the ungodly, prompted by Satan, are always on the alert, eager for opportunities to find something in the teaching of religion, which they may misrepresent. But when believers disclose the details of their quarrels to them, they seem to be offering them, almost on purpose, a golden opportunity for calumny. A second reason can be given: we are slighting our brothers, when we are willing to subject them to the judgement of unbelievers … Paul does not condemn here those who, by force of circumstances, must enter into legal proceedings before unbelieving judges, for instance anyone who is summoned to court; but he finds fault with those who, on their own responsibility, bring their brothers there, and do them injury, as it were, at the hands of unbelievers, when another remedy is available to them. It is therefore wrong to take the initiative in instituting proceedings against brothers in an unbelievers’ court. It is in order, however, to come into court and conduct your case, if a charge is made against you.” (Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, ad 6.1)
5.4 The Westminster Assembly
The precise question of brother going to law with brother is not addressed in any of the documents of the Assembly. Nor does it appear to be addressed privately by any member of the Assembly, or their contemporaries. Judging from Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries (and he is the expert on such matters) there is no full-length Puritan commentary on First Corinthians, and we have not been able to identify any Puritan expositions of this particular passage. The most prolific of the Scottish members of the Assembly (Rutherford, Gillespie and Baillie) do not appear to refer to it, nor does Alexander Henderson. David Dickson, author of the first commentary on the Confession of Faith (Truth’s Victory Over Error, 16) has some strong words on the role of the civil magistrate, but offers no comment on the question of litigation between Christians.
However, the following points should be noted:\n
- The Confession clearly maintains, over against the Anabaptists, that Christians may be magistrates: “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto” (23.2). \n
- Equally, the Confession, as we have already seen, sees it as the duty of the (Christian) magistrate to secure the unity and peace of the church. It would follow from this that any dispute which threatened the good of the church would come within his purview. \n
- Logically, the framers of the Confession could not have denied the spiritual competence of the civil judiciary to adjudicate in legal actions brought by one Christian against another. The Assembly itself was a non-ecclesiastical one, convened by the civil power (the English Parliament) to deliberate on what were clearly not biotika, but spiritual matters. By his attendance, every member was implicitly conceding the right of the civil power to adjudicate on disputed matters of doctrine, worship and polity. Using Paul’s own argument, they could not then take the view that the justiciary were incompetent to adjudicate in disputes between Christians on “trivial” secular matters. \n
- The Assembly could not have envisaged the civil power adjudicating in disputes between two Christian churches for the simple reason that the idea of two separate churches existing side by side was anathema to them. In Scotland, the unity of the Reformed Church was still unbroken: there was one nation and one church, and this would continue to be the case, practically, till the Secession of 1733 (the earlier secession of the Cameronians in 1688-92 made little practical impact: the first presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church was constituted only in 1743. After the Revolution Settlement the Episcopalians were non-jurors, unwilling to swear allegiance to the House of Orange, and existed more or less outside the law. Neither RPs nor Episcopalians were in a position to raise a civil action claiming a right to Church property). In England, the whole point of the Westminster Assembly was to erect one national church. Romanism and Episcopacy were both proscribed, and the Assembly did not countenance the innumerable sectaries. Independent/Congregational churches were indeed multiplying, but in Presbyterian theory (with its doctrine of the Divine Right of Presbytery and the total absence of a doctrine of toleration) they would not have been tolerated. In essence, church could not take church to court because there was but one church. (Later, after the Great Ejection of 1666, Nonconformist churches in England tended not to own property. Instead their meeting-places were erected by private benefactors who held the title-deeds. This is often still the case. This also happened in Scotland in the churches of the Haldane connection. Robert Haldane paid for the erection of Congregational/Baptist churches, but he himself held the title-deeds). \n
- In the situation envisaged by the Confession, every citizen (apart from the tiny minority of “papists and infidels”) was considered a Christian: that is, in the Pauline sense, “righteous”. The effect of proscribing litigation between Christians would therefore have been to proscribe litigation altogether. \n
- In conclusion, the theoretical world of the Confession is light-years away from the Scotland of today, where Christians are a marginal minority, churches co-exist side by side in a bewildering multiformity, and judges accept no responsibility for maintaining peace, unity and soundness of doctrine in the church. \n
\n5.5 The Disruption
- The polarisation in the Ten Years Conflict (1833-43) leading up to the Disruption was not between two churches, but between the Church of Scotland and the State. Such documents as The Claim, Declaration and Protest were utterances of the General Assembly, not of a faction within the Church. \n
- Although many of the churches vacated in 1843 were old properties, many others were not, but had been built as a result of sacrificial efforts on the part of the congregation. Such congregations suffered an acute sense of loss, even if they eventually “took joyfully the spoiling of their goods”. One of the clearest instances of this was St Luke’s in Edinburgh, a Church Extension charge promoted by St George’s. Their building was opened in 1837, the congregation having raised over £4,000 towards its cost. After the Disruption they received notice to quit the building (though only in 1849), even though the Minister (Dr Moody Stuart), all twelve elders and 99 per-cent of the congregation had left the Establishment. They left at once, worshipped in temporary accommodation and set about building a new church in Queen Street. \n
- The Disruption Fathers clearly recognised the jurisdiction of the civil courts over all the temporalities of the Church. The Claim, Declaration and Protest of 1842 lays down, for example, that the jurisdiction and government of the church regards only spiritual conditions, rights and privileges, and “doth not interfere with the jurisdiction of secular tribunals, whose determinations as to all temporalities conferred by the State upon the Church, and as to all civil consequences attached by law to the decisions of Church courts in matters spiritual (italics ours), this Church hath ever admitted.” The samepoint is repeated later: “the General Assembly … fully recognise the absolute jurisdiction of the Civil Courts in relation to all matters whatsoever of a civil nature, and especially in relation to all the temporalities conferred by the State upon the Church, and the civil consequences attached by law to the decisions, in matters spiritual, of the Church Courts”. A similar point of view was expressed in the Catechism on the Principles and Constitution of the Free Church of Scotland, which acknowledged that the complete power of the State over the temporalities was unquestionable, “so that it could from time to time attach such conditions to the possession of them as it pleased” (p.100). Exactly the same note was struck by the second of the Second Series of Resolutions adopted by the Convocation of November 1842: “they acknowledge the right of the Civil Magistrate to fix the terms on which he will establish the Church, as a right which he is to use on his own responsibility, and in the use of which the Church is not entitled to resist him.” \n
- We should note, however, that in 1843 there could have been no question of asking the civil courts to adjudicate on the distribution of the temporalities of the Church. The pre-Disruption Church held its patrimony on completely different terms to those on which the Free Church, as a non-established church, holds its funds and properties. Ours are held on trust, secured by civil contract: the Church of Scotland held its patrimony as an endowment from the state itself (at least, this was the dominant view among the Free Church Fathers. It would not have been the view of John Knox). It had the use of such temporalities as churches, manses, glebes and teinds, but it did not own them. They were the property of the state. It was even argued that the church door collections were, strictly speaking, the property of the heritor. This is why the Disruption Fathers recognised that the State had complete sovereignty over these temporalities. It conferred them on its own terms and conditions, and what made the Disruption necessary was that the State was now making plain that the Church could enjoy its temporalities only on condition that she allowed the unfettered operation of the law of Patronage and its attendant evil, the intrusion of ministers on protesting congregations. There could be no question of appealing to the courts: the courts were themselves the state (which owned the property), and through its courts the state had declared that Patronage was an inalienable civil right and that the Church could continue to enjoy its temporalities only on condition that it recognised that right. \n
- In both the Secession of 1733 and the Disruption of 1843 ministers and congregations quit the manses and churches of the Establishment without protest. This reflected the view, outlined above, that the emoluments of a charge attached to the Established Church were entirely at the disposal of the state. But it also reflected, particularly in 1843, an overriding concern to do nothing that would weaken the moral authority of the Church. There were suggestions in some quarters that the out-going ministers should cling to their manses. Chalmers was adamantly opposed to this. “Let the people be made to see,” he said, “that, in defence of their Christian liberties, the ministers are putting to hazard if not their lives ate least their livelihoods.” The loss of the temporalities would bring a gain in influence. As a symbol of this, no lawyers were invited to the Convocation of November, 1842. It was for the same reason that, rather than continue the conflict, the Church resolved to draw a line under it in 1842-43. It was a conflict, in the words of William Hanna, “which she could not prosecute without loss of character and injury to the general interests of religion.” \n
- In connection with the Cardross Case (1859-62) the Free Church made clear that, whatever her hesitations about initiating litigation, she would have no hesitation about defending herself in a civil court if any of her actions became the occasion of formal litigation. \n
- While the Church insisted that the civil courts had no right to review, far less, reduce, ecclesiastical sentences (e.g., deposition), its leaders were fully aware, especially after the Cardross Case, that the courts would inevitably deem themselves competent to review the civil and patrimonial consequences. They were also aware that the patrimonial and the spiritual/ecclesiastical were inextricably intertwined and that any review of the one would inevitably involve review of the other. Possession of such an office as the Christian ministry involves a right to emoluments, and this means that the office itself, in its very nature, represents a patrimonial interest. No one, therefore, can be deprived of it without access to legal redress. This implies that in the case of (at least) non-established churches the courts claim the right to review, and even reverse, the most sacred acts of the church (see Begg, Free Church Principles, p. 65. Earlier, on p. 61, Begg had written, “It is quite possible in every case that may be raised to allege civil interests, and in every case of discipline it is as easy as possible to complain of the invasion of civil rights).” \n
\nThe difficulty here stems from the fact that the civil courts have never recognised the Spiritual Independence of non-established churches. They view churches simply as voluntary societies whose decisions are as liable to review by the courts as those of any other voluntary society, where individuals are bound together only by a civil contract. Courts might well find that an individual has been deprived of his/her office illegally, that is, in breach of the civil contract between himself and the church. In such a case, the courts would scarcely dare to insist that he/she be restored to his office, but they would certainly insist that he continue to enjoy its emoluments.
This means that if the Free Church chose to initiate a legal action (for example, for the recovery of a manse) it would in effect be asking “pagan” judges to review not simply the question of temporalities, but the spiritual and ecclesiastical reasons which underlay the exclusion from office. In other words, we would be putting before the secular courts the question whether certain individuals broke their ordination vows. A full review of the ecclesiastical and spiritual issues would be avoided only if it could be successfully argued that Lady Paton’s judgement already settled these issues. But that is a question for lawyers.\n
- James Begg’s Free Church Principles (with its appended “Memorial to Counsel” and its “Opinions” of three Learned Counsel) clearly took the view that in the event of a union between the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church, questions of property would naturally be prosecuted in the civil courts. He betrays no compunction on this issue. In his defence, it may be said that he was thinking of a hearing before Christian judges. He himself appealed (p. 34) to the principle of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’, but this is scarcely apposite. It is one thing to pay the state all due taxes (which is the question the Lord was addressing). It is quite something else to ask the state to adjudicate on the internal disputes of a church. The important thing for our present purpose, however, is that First Corinthians Six clearly plays no part in Begg’s thinking, or in that of Free Church Constitutionalists in general. \n
- There is an interesting footnote to the above discussion in the story of William Robertson Smith. When the Free Church Assembly of 1881 decided that it was “no longer safe or advantageous for the Church that Professor Smith should continue to teach in one of her colleges”, the motion explicitly reserved to him his full salary. He refused it, declaring that he would never consent “to eat the bread of a Church which did not permit him to serve her.” (J. S. Black and G. Chrystal, The Life of William Robertson Smith, 444) \n
- If the above exegetical and historical arguments are valid, it would be a clear contravention of apostolic teaching for the Free Church in its current circumstances, or any individual acting on its behalf, to initiate legal proceedings aimed at the recovery of funds, churches, manses or other temporal assets. \n
- Any sense of loss or injustice should be modified by the perception that we are walking in the apostolic way: “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” Let’s remember Free St Luke’s. \n