Big Idea: Remember who you are, and act like it.
What would you do to break up a church fight?
Let me give you the particulars.
Two groups in the same church are fighting. Things have escalated to such a point that they’re taking each other to civil court. Tensions have been simmering for such a long time that you can feel it every time you gather to worship. They don’t sit together. They don’t look at each other. If somebody from one group enters the room, the people in the other group leave.
Imagine being part of that church. Imagine having to try to figure out how to maintain friendships on both sides. All of it would be incredibly awkward.
If you were in charge of resolving that conflict, how would you break up that church fight?
It’s really not hard to picture such a scenario.
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen how easy it is to divide over issues. I’ve seen friendships strained. I know churches where real division has taken place: one group can’t stand another group within the church. I’ve also read of lawsuits. Just last week I heard of one pastor suing another Christian leader for harming his overall reputation and “diminished his future earning capacity.” He’s seeking $750,000 in damages. “The Plaintiff’s pastoral efforts will undoubtedly suffer decreased church attendance and a reduction in donations and honorariums because of Defendant’s statements which are untruthful and have cast Plaintiff in a false light,” the lawsuit alleges.
That’s exactly the situation that Paul addresses in the passage we just read. “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6:1)
In Corinth, taking someone to court was a bit like a spectator sport. People liked a good legal scrap. It would have been natural to import this into the church. It’s always easy to import things we love from the culture and to make it the way we operate in here.
Let me tell you why this is important.
Any time you put a group of people together, conflict will eventually take place. In the 8 years we’ve been around as a church, we’ve been remarkably blessed with a lack of conflict. We haven’t had any major church fights. I don’t sense any undercurrent of tension running within this church. But we’re people. Eventually we will face conflict.
How do we handle this conflict when it happens?
Who You Are
The answer in this passage surprises me.
I would have thought the answer to conflict would a bunch of practical steps to take. To be sure, what Paul says in this passage will lead to some practical steps, but that’s not where he starts. Paul starts at a much more basic level.
Remember who you are. And act like it.
Remember who you are. What does that even mean? In this passage, Paul reminds the Corinthians — and by extension us — about who we are.
So who are you? You are two things.
You’re a saint who will one day judge the world
Imagine getting a call from the Prime Minister. You find out that you are being appointed as one of the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada effective six months from now. You will serve on the highest court of the land. You will be part of interpreting and shaping the law in Canada.
That would be pretty cool, but Paul says something even more remarkable. You are not being appointed to only the Supreme Court of Canada. You are being appointed by God to judge the world.
Read verse 2: “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” And then the first part of verse 3: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” To which we may answer, “No, we didn’t know!”
Where did Paul get this from? Probably from book of Daniel. Thousands of years earlier, we read this in Daniel 7:27:
And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High…
One day Jesus will come in glory. He will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31). This is very good news in a world that’s so full of injustice. One day wrongs will be righted, and people who got away with evil here will have to answer to a holy and righteous God.
This is where it gets surprising. If you have trusted Christ, you will have a role to play in that judgment. When God sets the world right, we’ll be part of that process. We’re going to reign with Jesus as co-regents. Listen to what Jesus says in Revelation 2:26-27:
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. (Revelation 2:26-28)
Fellow follower of Jesus Christ: Jesus will one day share his rule with you. Jesus promises that if we stay faithful, we will rule with him.
If we’re going to help rule the world one day, shouldn’t we be able to handle petty disputes right now? Why would we take our petty little cases before people that we will one day judge? When we do that, as one commentator (David Prior) says, we flaunt our failures, forget our destinies, bypass our resources, and betray our calling.
Look at what Paul writes:
And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 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, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!
Here’s Paul’s logic: you will one day judge the world, so build a church culture that learns how to handle your disputes now. In fact, it’s far better to be wronged by another believer than to drag your disputes before unbelievers. We should use our God-given status now by loving each other, and by using wisdom to resolve any disputes that may come up within the church.
Right now, Christians don’t look like much, but Jesus didn’t either. One day, though, we will rule and judge. Live out that identity right now. That means that we learn how to work through our tensions with each other. But if we get stuck and can’t do that, it means that we choose to suffer wrong. Whenever we scarp like the world, it’s a failure to take the church seriously. It’s a failure to take who we are in Christ seriously.
The late U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has made this observation:
Paul says that the mediation of a mutual friend, such as the parish priest, should be sought before parties run off to the law courts.… I think we are too ready today to see vindication or vengeance through adversary proceedings, rather than peace through mediation.… Good Christians, just as they are slow to anger, should be slow to sue.
I want to go even further: slow to take offense, slow to bear grudges, slow to look down on others. We’re called to create a community that reflects the grace we claim to believe.
Remember who you are, and build a church that reflects who you are. You will one day rule and judge the world.
But that’s not all. It’s important that you know a second thing about yourself:
You’re not who you used to be.
Here’s the problem.
They are forgetting the gospel. They are failing to be what they are. They are saints, but they are acting like non-saints. They are righteous, but they are living as though they were unrighteous. The result is that their community, which is to be a present glimpse of the future community that God intends for the world, has nothing to offer—they have no means of displaying the way a gospel shapes a community. (Stephen Um)
Here’s the solution: remember the beauty of the gospel. The beauty of the gospel is that it transforms the unrighteous into righteous, sinners into saints. We need to remember who we are.
In verses 9 to 10, Paul lists some of the things that characterize people who don’t know God:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
Paul gives us a before picture of our lives. Notice the breadth of this list. It includes a bunch of sins. We’re tempted to focus in on one or two of them, but they’re varied. The list goes all the way from greed to sexual sin and everything in between. We should take each of these sins seriously. They’re incompatible with the kingdom of God. But we should treat people who practice these things graciously, because there’s not one person present who hasn’t done something on this list.
That is who we were. But then he reminds them of who Jesus has made them — and us — to be:
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has made a decisive change in your life. As Stephen Um puts it,
- “You were washed.” The filth of sin has been removed.
- “You were sanctified.” The grip of sin has been released.
- “You were justified.” The identity of sin has been replaced.
God had brought about an amazing transformation in the believers. They lived in a a very immoral culture, but God had changed them. He’d changed their past, present, and future, and turned them into brothers and sisters in Christ, into saints.
So act like it. That’s what Paul is saying. When it comes to divisions and lawsuits and temptations and sins, remember who you are and live in light of that. Our biggest problem is that we forget the gospel. The greatest remedy is that we remember what Jesus has done and live in light of that truth.
What do you do to break up a church fight? What do you do when you’re tempted to disobey God? What you do you when you’re struggling to love God and others? Remember what Jesus has done. Remember who you are. And live in light of that.
Father, help us to remember what Jesus has done. And then help us to remember who we now are. We are future judges and co-rulers of the earth. We are completely changed. Help us to live in light of these truths. In Jesus’ name. Amen.