Paul famously prohibits Christians from going to court against one another, except that he doesn’t. What he prohibits is taking disputes between Christians before unbelievers. Here is the text:
“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? 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? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. 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? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. 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? Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:1–10).
The problem was going to courts run by unbelievers, by pagans, by the unjust. If a nation were explicitly Christian, and the laws were Christian, and the judge were a Christian, it would be inappropriate and sectarian for a church to set up its own court system. Business disputes between Christians ought to be settled in civil court. That is what civil court is for — just not the civil courts when they are dominated by the enemy of our souls. Disputes between Christians ought to be settled in civil court, but the civil court ought to be Christian. And until the civil courts are Christian, you would be better served to have your case heard by all the regional church janitors. When you think you have a really strong case, it would seem to me that one of the last things you should want is for the devil to find in your favor.
To go before the unbelievers, hat in hand, looking for justice, is for Paul a humiliation. Paul didn’t speak German, but what he is talking about here is described perfectly by the German word fremdschämen. This is what occurs when you are embarrassed for someone who ought to be embarrassed for himself, but isn’t. This whole scenario is a shame to the Corinthians, but Paul has to explain to them why it is shameful, with them saying, “What? Why? What?”
To drag disputes between Christians before unbelievers is a functional denial of our eschatological hope. Do you not know, Paul asks, that we will judge the world? Do you not know that we will judge angels? That being the case, we ought to be looking forward to that day, and we should be practicing for it. We need to stretch, limber up. This dispute in our midst should be treated like a scrimmage with pads. We are not at the game yet, but we are training in earnest.
So it is bad enough when any Christian takes another Christian to court, but when postmillennialists do it, it is hard to know where to look. Postmillennialists are the ones who affirm that we will grow up into judging the world, and that we will in fact judge angels, and all prior to the Lord’s Second Coming. Our time living under the rule of unbelievers is our time of training. But it is hard to train for that day if your pious Aunt Maude — the radical Bullingerite dispensationalist — is more postmill in her instincts than you are. If I understand the decreation language of Matt. 24, and its original use in Isaiah 13, but have not love . . .
This whole thing is a really big deal for Paul, so big that he suggests a radical answer to every form of pragmatism. “But if I don’t do this, then I will suffer significant loss.” Paul responds that whatever loss you go through if you don’t sue, it is smaller than the loss that will be suffered by the Church in her testimony if you do sue. The testimony of the Church, in other words, is worth more than your 5 bucks, or 5K, or 50K.
Objections to this Pauline requirement are generally pretty feeble. Usually no arguments have to be made because large sections of the Church have surrendered to the demands of utility, and finding a Christian plausibility structure that accommodates lawsuits is not difficult. Under pressure, if someone does press the point, you get something like “well, I have an attorney friend, a very fine Christian, and he doesn’t see this passage the way you do at all.” He has a different interpretation. Okay, what is it? You say that Paul is not prohibiting Deacon Smith from suing Elder Jones over the lost widget delivery. What is he prohibiting? When would this passage apply to somebody, anybody? When was the last time anyone had to obey it?
Folly doesn’t always wing it. Sometimes folly parses its words very carefully, and we are required not to listen to its instruction. “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge” (Prov. 19:27).
Exegesis first, and then simple obedience. What constitutes obedience should be settled by the text, by what God revealed to us. It is not settled by the ins and outs of the dispute. It is not settled by expedience. It is not determined by whose ox is being sued. “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: But a faithful man who can find?” (Prov. 20:6).