Defeat and Victory in the Church

Dr. John B. Song

It is well documented that a staggering number of pastors leave the ministry each year. Conflict and burnout are numbered as some of the top reasons. Conflict between pastors and the congregation are common. In addition, the pastor's inability to resolve bitter disagreements among members can be perceived as poor leadership. This is where 1 Cor. 6:1-6 can be instructive. Paul was likely addressing a civil matter. A member within the church of Corinth defrauded another which led to a lawsuit. While many concentrate on the necessity of Christian arbitration when conflicts arise between believers, it is equally important to look at the spiritual issues that Paul addressed that led up to this lawsuit. It is striking that Paul emphasizes the gospel as a way forward. And, it is likewise important to notice that the inability to resolve conflict biblically is compared to offenses such as sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, becoming drunk, being a reviler, and a swindler.

Roman Judicial System

The Roman historian Tacitus states that in the first century legal representation could cost as much as 10,000 sesterces (Ann. 11.7). Such an amount was over eight times the annual salary of a clerk working in a Roman colony.[1] A soldier in the praetorian guard could receive 20,000 sesterces after serving in the military for 16 years (Dio Cassius 55.23).[2] The fact that a lawsuit had taken place indicates that either one, or both parties, were wealthy individuals.

In addition, the Roman judicial system was far from fair. Tacitus (Ann. 11.6) notes of the widespread corruption of the courts. The ancient philosopher and historian Dio Chrysostom (Or. 8.9) describes of "lawyers innumerable perverting justice" in the city of Corinth.[3] The Roman statesman Cicero (In Verrem 1.1.1) contended that wealth can shield any man from conviction. And, the rhetorician Apuleius (Metam. 10.33) notes how judges were open to bribes.[4] Gender, class, and race all played a factor. Wealthy Roman men had the upper hand and foreigners did not fare well. The lower social classes could win only with the help of powerful patrons. Hence, in 1 Cor. 6:1-11 either a wealthy individual was taking advantage of a financially weaker believer, or, two men of considerable means or societal connections were exploiting the courts for personal advantages. Since Paul indicates in v. 6 that it was "brother against brother" and both had the means to play out the dispute in the court system the latter interpretation is preferred.

Church in Defeat

Paul did not merely mistrust the judicial structures of his day. Rather, his outrage was grounded in the public shame the church had to endure. The judges of Corinth did not share in the common faith of the early believers and did not belong to the covenantal community. But what led up to this lawsuit? In the same verse, Paul states that neither party was willing to be wronged. The first mark of a church in defeat is when believers refuse to take a wrong. The exact situation in Corinth escapes us, but it is likely over some financial matter since criminal proceedings would have taken a different avenue, namely, the involvement of authorities. Rather, what we are witnessing is a case of wounded prides and feelings of being cheated. The desire for retaliation drove these brothers to court at the cost of the unity of the church.

The second mark of a church in defeat is that when conflict arose, no one in the church knew what to do. The "you" in the first two verses are plural indicating that Paul was addressing the entire church. If these Corinthians deemed themselves "wise," they showed their spiritual incompetency by failing to settle this intense quarrel (v. 5). Also, some have noted that the two individuals involved in the lawsuit even failed to live out Grecian wisdom.[5] Socrates, for instance, once stated: "If it were necessary either to do wrong or to suffer it, I should choose to suffer rather than do it." This statement is preserved in Plato's Gorgias.[6] This is an interesting interpretation, yet there were other Grecian philosophers who thought that retaliation was a prudent show of strength (e.g., Aristotle). Paul, rather, is discussing the failure to live out godly wisdom. Roman culture used their courts to gain personal advantages and that was the route these brothers had chosen. Paul, in opposition, echoed Jesus' teachings recorded in Matt. 5:38-42. In v. 7, Paul asks -- why not take a wrong? Or in the words of Jesus -- why not turn the other cheek?

The third mark of a church in defeat is the loss of eschatological vision. Paul reminds them that they will one day judge the world and angels. Paul is seeking to convict the Corinthians of their present responsibilities to settle disputes in the church in light of future roles at the eschaton. We can say that the consequence of losing sight of this vision made present grievances unbearable. If the two brothers in Corinth had proper spiritual sight, they would have accepted the issue as a lesser or trivial case as Paul states in v. 2. Hence, the inability to let go, or, by nurturing a wounded spirit, along with the absence of eschatological sight caused a lawsuit that marked this church as already defeated (v. 7).

Pathway to Victory

Wisdom literature of the Old Testament seems to be operating in the background of v. 7. Proverbs 19:11 (cf. 12:16; 15:18; 20:3), for example, states that there is glory in overlooking an offense. The question we can raise is when do we confront versus overlook a grievance? Jesus taught his disciples to confront the sinful brother (Matt. 18:15-35). We are supposed to involve the church when the person refuses to repent. In this instance, however, the Corinthian church failed to intervene. So, what do we do in these cases? The guiding principle is agapē love -- we need to choose the best option that promotes love in the church. In the previous chapter, Paul tells the Corinthians to expel the wicked person from the community. Here, Paul refers to the man who was sleeping with his father's wife. To not confront such a person and allow it to continue would tear down the holiness of the church. But in 1 Cor. 6:1-11, overlooking personal offenses rather than publicly shaming the church would have better promoted love in the body of Christ. There are times when we are called to take a wrong rather than retaliate to satisfy personal desires.

Paul compares the refusal to take a wrong with sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, becoming drunk, being a reviler, and a swindler. Taking a wrong does not mean merely remaining silent, but the disallowance of bitterness and anger to take hold. At first glance this seems perplexing. There are other passages in Scripture that addresses degrees of sins (e.g., Jn. 19:11). But how can the refusal of letting grievances go compare with these other acts? Upon further inspection, Paul's argumentation is theologically rich. While I cannot address each vice individually, I will give some examples. First, the unwillingness to let go of an offense is idolatry. If idolatry is placing anything above God, then these two individuals placed their personal agendas above the gospel. They could not sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross. Second, it is like being drunk. Inebriation often leads to loss of self-control. These two brothers lost control because they were "drunk" on their wounded prides and desires for vengeance. They lashed out no matter what the cost.

Finally, it was like sexual immorality, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, being a reviler, and a swindler. The common denominator is that they were all perversions before God. For instance, Dionysius of Halicarnassus deployed the word malakos to indicate a form of pederasty which was the taking advantage of young boys by older men (Ant. rom. 7.2.4). And the ensuing term arsenokoitai denoted men engaging the same gender. The two juxtaposed together heightened the sense of perversion. Paul was referring to a form of homosexuality that involved molestation of juveniles.[7] While Paul views all same-sex engagement as unnatural and sinful (Rom. 1:18-32), pederasty according to Philo was the most common form of homosexual practice in the Greco-Roman world (De Spec. Leg. 3.37-39). To place one's desires above the gospel at the cost of the church was perverted in God's sight and was comparable to these other vices.


Paul exhorts the Corinthians to remember their identity in Christ. They were washed, sanctified, and justified in Christ and by the Spirit of God. The tenses of the Greek for all three words indicate a definitive act where believers were cleansed of the guilt of sins, set apart, and were declared to be in right standing with God. The victorious Christian life and the victory of the church hanged on members of the church living out this new life in Christ. Pastors who enter the ministry, enter with a desire to do it right. They want to serve faithfully. However, conflict takes its toll. Identifying and training the right people for ministry is vital for the success of the church. But actively discipling the church in conflict management and gospel resolutions are also indispensable. No number of right leaders can change the direction of the church if the members are not electing the gospel above their personal agendas. A church can only be victorious when the it strives by the Spirit's enablement to choose the gospel as a better way forward.


[1] Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 162. I am indebted to Witherington's commentary for some of these Greco-Roman references. Others were gleaned from John Chow, Brian Rosner, David Garland, and Richard Hays, citations are listed below.

[2] John K. Chow, Patronage and Power: A Study of Social Networks in Corinth, Library of New Testament Studies (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 76 n. 1.

[3] In addition to Witherington's commentary, also referenced in Brian S. Rosner, Understanding Paul's Ethics: Twentieth Century Approaches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 91.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 197.

[5] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 95.

[6] Hays notes how this form of wisdom was also expressed by Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Musonius Rufus. For more see, Hays, First Corinthians, 95.

[7] Witherington, Conflict & Community in Corinth, 166.


Dr. John B. Song received his M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary (PA) and completed his PhD at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and presently serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Belhaven University Atlanta.