In 1 Corinthians 1-6, Paul admonishes the church in Corinth because church members have been suing each other. In this age of incessant litigation, it’s a passage with a great deal of application.
Here’s how it reads in the NIV:
“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court — and this in front of unbelievers!”
First, some context: the kind of disputes that Paul is talking about are minor. He’s talking specifically about civil suits, so this is not about murder or grand larceny, it’s more like someone damaged your car. What constitutes “minor” is pretty flexible depending on your stage of life, income, etc., but if you imagine a situation where someone in the church wrongs you to the tune of about one month’s rent, that’s a decent guideline. It’s the kind of amount that hurts, but you’re not going to be destitute as a result.
Paul’s main point is that being in relationship is central to living a Christian life. When we bring a lawsuit against someone, we are saying that we are willing to destroy our relationship with them in order to win the suit. Even if you’re clearly in the right, and the other person is being unjust, you have a duty to try and build that relationship – and maintain peace within the church – that is more important than getting whatever financial outcome you “deserve”. Take a longer view, realise that the things of this world are transient, and move on. If you obsess over “winning” this kind of battle, you’re focussing on the wrong things. In a minor civil case between friends and family, the lawyers may win but both parties are going to lose.
Is there a better way? Well, Paul says that there should be wisdom enough in the Church to solve these kinds of disputes through arbitrage and mediation. Ideally, both parties will be interested in reconciliation, and will abide by the advice of the elders in the church. But this also has implications for the status of God’s law in relation to civil law. Jesus is very clear on obedience to civil authority as a general rule, and that civil (secular) rulers should be respected in their appropriate areas of authority. But in our personal lives, God’s word is more important, and there are usually points at which civil law and Church guidance differ. Paul is saying that you subvert the authority of the Church when you take your dispute to a civil court – particularly if you seek a ruling that you would not get from the Church.
Paul’s final point is that taking your fellow Christian to court over a minor dispute is a bad witness to the rest of the world. As Christians, we need to be aware of how our actions may influence the attitudes of non-Christians around us.