I once received a phone call from another elder from a church not far from the one I was serving at. He told me that a member of his congregation owned a business, and a member of my congregation had been injured at work. There were no denials about what happened, nor was there any dispute about the blame. There was, however, a catch.
The business had workman’s comp insurance, but the insurance company was requiring that the injured worker’s personal insurance company file a claim in court in order to compel payment. The bottom line: in order to get covered, a believer (or his insurance company) would have to sue another believer (or his insurance company).
The elders at the other church reached out to the elders at my church (at the time I was at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles). We all wanted to apply 1 Corinthians 6, but we also all wanted to make sure the injured worker was covered. In other words, nobody was trying weasel out of anything, and we were trying to apply the scriptural principle that two believer’s shouldn’t sue each other. Here is the relevant passage:
1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!
1 Corinthians 6:1-8
So, what is an injured worker at a company owned by a Christian supposed to do? Is he out of luck?
Well, a careful study of this passage reveals that Paul was not giving a blanket prohibition on Christians using the court system, but instead was laying out a much more profound principle: it is better for Christians to count themselves as wronged than it is to be right in a way that brings shame to the church.
First, verse 1 rebukes those who go to court over a “grievance” against another believer. In fact, the word “grievance” is intentionally broad. Paul is not covering a limited kind of Greco-Roman law. Rather he uses a word that includes any kind of division or issue with another believer. In Luke 1, this word is used to cover all the “matters” or “events” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1). In Hebrews 6:18 it is just translated “things.” In 1 Corinthians 6:1, Paul is saying “if you have anything” dividing you, then apply the rest of this passage.
Then in verse 2, Paul calls any kind of division between brothers a “trivial matter.” This too is a fascinating word. It is used for the “smallest” of a ship’s rudders (James 3:4), or for Paul himself, as in “I am the least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:1). Paul is saying that compared to the surpassing weight of glory, any division with another believer is certainly trivial.
Then verses 3-6 get to the problem. Going to court reveals that there are not elders competent enough to mediate a dispute. There could be lots of reasons for that. The elders might not be impartial, the congregants may not trust the elders, or the elders may not be sufficiently versed in biblical wisdom to navigate a complex issue. But behind all of those reasons is the reality at the elders in the church are not properly functioning.
So if you are confronted with a “trivial” matter (and remember, trivial in comparison to the glories of salvation), and it involves division with another believer, and your elders cannot handle a trivial matter, the temptation would be to go to court. Yet, Paul’s point in verse 7 is that by going to court a Christian is exposing the church’s dysfunction for the world to see. The angels see it (vs. 3), the world sees it (vss. 4, 6), and believers ought to be embarrassed by that. When believers sue other believers, it is like Ham exposing his father’s nakedness. Instead, believers should count themselves as wronged, pretend they’d lose in court, and call it a day (vs. 7). They should be like Shem, and instead of exposing their elders for the world to see, they should cover them by not drawing attention to their dysfunction.
Now, this does not mean that believers should never use the court system. In Acts 25:11, Paul appealed to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman. In so doing, he exposed the truth that Festus could not protect an innocent person in Israel. That was Paul’s right as a citizen. But it did not bring shame on the church because it did not involve division with another Christian.
So what about in the worker’s comp issue above? A few elders from each church got together and talked. We decided that the insurance company’s insistence on a lawsuit was simply part of living in this world, and that nobody who heard about it would think “those elders don’t know what is going on.” Instead, both sets of elders agreed that allowing the lawsuit to go forward was the best way to get the medical expenses covered, and that it would not bring shame on the church. Key for us was realizing that even though this would result in a lawsuit, the lawsuit was not connected to division between believers. The elders, worker, and owner all left the meeting rejoicing in our common faith.
That relationship between the two churches was important, because years later a person in one church was scamming somebody from the other church, and swindling them out of thousands of dollars. Now, this is a case where the elders should be involved! So the person doing the swindling was confronted, she refused to repent, and so she was disciplined out of the church. Then, of course, the victim could sue to get her money back, as she was no longer suing someone in the church, but rather someone who had been put out of the church for exactly what she was being sued for.
I share those examples because they both show the nature of applying biblical principles to life. The principle is taught in 1 Corinthians 6—it is better to count yourself as cheated than it is to sue another believer—and it encourages elders to be involved in using wisdom to apply that principle (vs. 5). When the principle is rightly applied, the church is protected, people are confronted, and God is glorified.
But if elders run from their duty to mediate, if they lack wisdom, if they turn away from conflict resolution, or if they simply don’t care about biblical church membership and discipline, then they are exposed as being unqualified. When that happens, immature believers (like the Corinthians were) will be tempted to run to court. First Corinthians 6 is an appeal to those believers to grow up, and count yourself cheated for the greater good of glorifying God.
So, should believers sue each other over a “trivial” matter? No. It is better to be wronged than it is to disregard the Bible’s teaching, and in a quest to be right, end up wronging the church.