Winning the war, losing the battle – Tuesday, 23rd Week in ordinary time – 1Corinthians 6:1-11
Chapter six of 1 Corinthians needs to be read along with chapter five. Both these chapters take on specific issues that have clearly divided the community of Corinth. But it almost seems like chapter 5 and 6 was an interruption in his letter brought about by some news from Corinth, compelling Paul to address it by putting ink to parchment. It is probable that Paul receives the grave news of a case of incest in the church (5:1-5) and about notorious legal disputes among its members (6:1-6).
Apparently, a prominent man in the church had married his stepmother. His father must have died or been divorced, for this sexual union is not termed as adultery. Such a marriage was forbidden by the Jewish law (Lev. 18:8; Deut. 22:30; 27:20) and also by Roman statute. But Paul does not appeal just to Jewish or Roman law; Paul is certain that even pagan sensibilities are being offended by such an act.
Paul does not limit himself to demanding the severest punishment for this offender; he strongly condemns the complacency of his fellow members who seem to have given their stamp of approval. Instead of being undisturbed by the incident they should be grieving as though a death had occurred in their midst! Paul demands that a congregational meeting be called at once and his decision in the matter, to have this brother excommunicated, be ratified. For Paul, to condone the sexual immorality of a member is deplorable, but to boast of such freedom as a spiritual privilege, is perverse. Moreover, the lax attitude of these Corinthian leaders is like leaven, infecting the life of the entire congregation.
But sexual immortality was not the only issue at hand. Paul is indignant that Christians should be taking their trivial property disputes into pagan courts. He simply can’t believe what these Corinthian Christians are doing because of the scandal it brought to the name of Christ. For Paul, the Christians (he calls them saints) will one day judge the world and fallen angels. If that is to be their calling, if they are being prepared right now for such a glorious destiny, why do these Corinthian Christians allow those least esteemed by the church (that is, the secular judges) to decide disputes among Christians?
We know from Greek jurisprudence, that the very manner in which these courts were conducted became a matter of everyone’s business. The local judge sat in what was known as the “bema” seat of the civil magistrate, located in the heart of the marketplace. Greek culture found a good legal battle entertaining and anyone’s lawsuit soon became public knowledge. It was said in jest that ‘all Athenians were lawyers’ indicating the interest of the civil population in legal matters. It’s like saying, all amateur cooks who watch MasterChef are qualified food critics and even worse, all press reporters covering the Vatican are theologians.
Yet Paul, in Romans 13:1-8 believes that the state has received from God its mission to maintain peace and justice among men. He also holds that the ‘saints’, i.e. Christians, have no authority in this age to judge unbelievers and that it is God alone, through the agency of Jesus Christ, who judges men (cf. Rom. 2:11-16; I Thess. 1:76-12). Paul does not say that Christians should have their own court system to handle criminal law. In Romans 13:3-4 Paul says that it is appropriate for the state to handle criminal cases and he himself submits to a Roman trial.
So why then is Paul so enraged with the action of the Corinthians? The cause of Paul’s outrage is that by going public, the dirty linen of a Christian was washed in public. Paul rather demands that Christians should be able to handle civil cases among themselves. For Paul, the legal squabbles among Christians are additional evidence of their immaturity, and threaten their Christian witness to outsiders.
Remember that it was the Corinthians who were boasting of how wise they were, yet it appears that no one among them was wise enough to decide matter between members of the community. Instead, Christians were turning to unbelievers, who for Paul count for nothing in the standing of the Church.
Paul would rather have his community members be defrauded or wronged by a fellow Christian than have their matters solved by a non-believer. But then again, the fact that a Christians defrauds and wrongs another Christian is itself a scandal to the nonbeliever. Paul is emphatic; you will not inherit the kingdom.
Reiterating a call he made in 3:18 ‘not be deceived’, he lists this breakdown in community relationships with other sins; fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers and says none of these will inherit the kingdom. Paul reminds them that before they were baptized, many of the Corinthians lived such a life but now that they were with the Lord such a behaviour was unpardonable because by their baptism they were washed clean and sanctified.