Thursday, May 17, 2012

1 Corinthians 6:1-11 - A Detailed Bible Study of the Passage

Below is a detailed look at 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. Whether it be Bible Study, Expository Preaching or a Biblical Study, this essay will help you better grasp the Corinthian text and more specifically, lawsuits amongst Christians. This is written by Pete Brookshaw and forms part of Pete's Bible Commentary.

1Cor 6:1 (NRSV)  When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?
1Cor 6:2  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?
1Cor 6:3  Do you not know that we are to judge angels--to say nothing of ordinary matters?
1Cor 6:4  If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church?
1Cor 6:5  I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another,
1Cor 6:6  but a believer goes to court against a believer--and before unbelievers at that?
1Cor 6:7  In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?
1Cor 6:8  But you yourselves wrong and defraud--and believers at that.
1Cor 6:9  Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites,
1Cor 6:10  thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers--none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
1Cor 6:11  And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Introduction to 1 Corinthians 6:1-11  

It seems the days of ‘going to court’ and processing a claim to the magistrate about your next door neighbor is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Trials and civil courts have existed for thousands of years and we only need to look to the book of Exodus to read about Moses finding himself swamped by the thousands upon thousands of hearings. Below we will read about Paul and his dealings with the Corinthian church, and especially around his comments on Christians taking other Christians to court, and also his strong comments about sexual immorality and the Kingdom of God.

Firstly we will look at the letter that Paul wrote to the church at Corinth and secondly we will explore the judicial process in Corinth and how it relates to his words to the church. Thirdly, it is helpful to gain perspective on the structure of 1 Cor 6:1-11 within some of the Corinthian letter and then some redaction criticism will be explored. Following this is an interesting exegetical reflection on the ten ‘sins’ or vices that Paul lists in 6:9-10. While the hope is that this specific discussion does not impinge on the overall message of 6:1-11, the exegetical summary is nonetheless helpful for those that wish to embark on a hermeneutic on a discussion about sexuality that is relevant in contemporary culture. Lastly, we look briefly at the style of writing of the Apostle Paul.

The Corinthian Church and Corinth

Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthian church; one of those prior to 1 Corinthians and one following 2 Corinthians. In recent history the integrity of 1 Corinthians has been called into question, with some arguing the letter in fact was more than one letter, but most are agreeable to Paul writing 1 Corinthians in whole, as one letter (Murphy-O’Connor, 1996: 253-254).  Witherington writes that, ‘Corinth was a bustling and prosperous metropolis of perhaps seventy to eighty thousand inhabitants in Paul’s day’ (1995: 18). It was a city with wealth, especially following the building of the road connecting the Peloponnese and the Greek mainland (or the Aegean Sea and the Gulf of Corinth). Actually, by the time Paul was visiting Corinth in the 50s, the city was on its way to being the richest city in all of Greece (Witherington, 1995: 5).

The exact purpose of 1 Corinthians is debatable, though Paul definitely writes this letter to highlight some moral issues affecting the Corinthian Church, and the response required from the people. How Paul learns of the issues in Corinth, whether it be issues of sexual immorality, marriage, lawsuits, etc, is probably through a letter from Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. This was a letter sent back to Paul as a response to Paul’s first letter (prior to the 1 Corinthians text) (Neufeld, 2000: 381).  

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The Judicial Process in Corinth

Before exploring Paul’s reasons for challenging the Corinthian church regarding litigation, a brief overview of the judicial process in Corinth is helpful. There was a three step process for civil cases, which was:
1.      The plaintiff would speak to the magistrate requesting a case to be considered. The magistrate would then decide whether the potential case had merit and if so, then a ‘formula’ would be created listing the case details/facts.
2.      The magistrate would then assign a judge that both parties agreed upon.
3.      The judge would hear the case and pass down a ruling.
(see Witherington, 1995: 162)

With this process in mind, the question to ponder is why Paul was so forthright to the Corinthian church about not going to secular courtrooms. Many of the issues of litigation in the church of Corinth were due to the fact that certain members of the congregation were making judgments and acting on the basis of the wisdom of the world rather than the wisdom of God. For them, the wisdom of the world was equated with “knowledge” (gnosis), a kind of philosophic wisdom referred to as Gnosticism, which governed their attitude and actions.

Even more frustrating to Paul, was the fact that some Corinthian Christians were wealthy and were exploiting the judicial process. The reason a wealthy person could exploit the system, was that they were able to utilise a lawyer with great oratory skills that gave them an unfair advantage. The advantage came, because, the cases were not so much judged on merit, but more on the social standing of the lawyer and plaintiff/defendant. Garnsey (cited in Witherington, 1995: 163) says, ‘The principal criterion of legal privilege in the eyes of the Romans was dignitas or honor derived from power, style of life, and wealth’. Understandably then, Paul’s tone and rhetorical expression is quite forthright, like 6:2, ‘are you incompetent to try trivial cases?’ As Hering says, ‘Paul expects the believers in Corinth to settle such embarrassingly small squabbles outside of the civil courts’ (2010: 1) and not take attempt to squander money from other Christians. Does this enter Paul’s mind when he mentions ‘the greedy’ as one of the list of sins in 6:10?

Structure of Passage

Without delving into the entire structure of 1 Corinthians, we see that chapter 5 and chapter 6 are closely linked. W. Deming argues for unity between 1 Cor 5 and 6, and writes, ‘there has been a single case of sexual misconduct that has resulted in the Corinthians’ engaging in legal actions in secular courts’ (cited in Soards, 1999: 125). More preferably is that chapters 5 and 6 are closely linked, with the former referring to case about incest, and 6:1-11 referring to a case about property (Witherington, 1995: 164). Interestingly though, is that 6:12-20 refers once again to sexual immorality, and thus 6:1-11 is somewhat sandwiched in between this ongoing topic.

A structure we might use to highlight these passages is as follows:

5:1 – 6:20 – Problems with sexual immorality and law suits
1.      The case about incest (5:1-5)
2.      Purity of the community (5:6-8)
3.      Differentiation from world ways (5:9-13)
4.      Christians and Legal Cases (6:1-8)
5.      Kingdom expectations (6:9-11)
6.      Challenge to flee from sexual immorality
(adapted from Interpreter’s Bible, 1953: 12)

Redaction Criticism

In 1Cor 6:2-3 Paul makes apocalyptic claims that one day the saints (those who are justified and sanctified) will judge the world. Soards mentions that Paul is adapting Jewish apocalyptic material; material that outlines the day of final judgment (1999: 122). The verse is most likely derived from Daniel 7:22[1], but also from other sources such as Wisdom of Solomon (3:8)[2], Jubilees 24:29, Enoch 38:5, 95:3 (Orr, 1976: 194; Barrett, 1971: 136). While Jesus refers to Christians judging others in the end alongside the twelve tribes of Israel, Paul would not have had access to Matthew’s complete gospel, as the first letter to the Corinthians was produced around 55AD and the Gospel of Matthew most likely in the 60s. This being said, Paul’s theology on Christian judgment does correlate well with those particular words of Jesus (see also Luke 22:30) (Soards, 1999: 125). The point of the verse though, is that since Christians will one day judge the world, why then would you litigate amongst judges on earth, who are from pagan courtrooms?

Paul’s reference to the saints judging angels (v. 3), interestingly is not sourced from Old Testament Scriptures. The Jewish apocalyptic sources explain that some angels rebelled against God, and were thus cast out of heaven, including Satan (Orr, 1976: 194), and Paul assumedly has that in mind. Orr writes that Paul elevates the saints to the work of judgment of the world and of angels, because, ‘the church is the habitation of the Spirit’ (1976: 194). While vague, the point seems to be, that because Paul believes strongly that believers, have Christ ‘in them’, and Christ works ‘through them’, they have the privilege of judgment at the end times. While, exegetically, judging angels is difficult to comprehend, the message Paul is really trying to communicate is that if we will have this privilege of judging angels one day, then surely Christians can be decisive on trivial cases, and work them out amongst themselves.

The Ten Vices

In 6:9-10, Paul lists ten vices, five of which relate to sexual issues, and the others of thievery, drunkenness, slandering, swindling and greediness. The inspiration behind the mentioned vices is important, as it adds or subtracts validity to the significance of the response of the Corinthian people to Paul’s ‘catalogue of vices’. Some argue (Weiss, Lietzmann, Conzelmann and Scroggs) that the vices listed in 6:9-10, ‘are not of individual contextual significance in this epistle, but should be regarded as a generalized form reflecting stereotypical ethical material drawn from Stoic, Cynic, or satirical sources…’ (Thiselton, 2000: 441). C.H. Dodd provides are more sound approach when he argues, conversely, that Paul’s ethics flow from a response to the gospel (: 442). When we take Dodd’s approach, the list from Paul becomes not merely some memorized verse from Stoic Philosophy, or irrelevant vices from a Greco-Roman background, but rather, they become behaviours and morals relevant to the Christian Corinthian people. 

From an overview of the culture of Corinth, we see this place as a place of rampant sexual activity, a place in fact known, for its, ‘elegant and expensive women’ (Achtemeier, 2001: 329). This letter to the Corinthian church is in fact a challenge to the ethical behaviours of the church that are coinciding too closely with these worldly activities in Corinth. More specifically, the verses in 6:9-10 are once again challenging the morality of the Corinthian church; and we see similar challenges in preceding verses such as 5:1, 5:9, etc. To say then, as mentioned previous, that Paul is just grabbing material from Stoic and other sources, undermines the value of what Paul is actually saying. He is rebuking and challenging the Corinthian church about issues that relate to them, and so is writing intentionally to them, and listing vices that are relevant to these problems.    

The vices are important to explore, because immediately preceding 6:9-10, is the statement that, ‘wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God’. Wrongdoers (NRSV), is the Greek word αδικοι which is an adjective that Paul uses, which others denote as wicked (NIV), unrighteous (KJV) or people who do evil (NJB). So Paul is clearly writing, that those who partake in the vices listed, are ‘wrongdoers’ (clearly not as harsh as NIV’s ‘wicked’), and that in consequence of this, will not inherit the kingdom of God. We find similar lists of vices from Paul (Rom 1:29-31, Gal 5:19-21), but we understand Paul is writing to the Corinthian church, and through this list is highlighting specific issues of morality within the Corinthian church.

Two of the sins listed require further exegetical comment, because of the contemporary discussion that surrounds them. Of interest are the two words that NRSV render, ‘male prostitutes and sodomites’, which in Greek are μαλακοι (malakoi) and αρσενοκοιται (arsenokoitai) respectively. The former is defined vaguely as ‘soft ones’, or as Thiselton notes, ‘In hellenistic literature of the Roman period it may mean effeminate when applied to men’ (2000: 448). Some authors argue for a definition related to pederasty[3] (Witherington, 1995 : 166), Scroggs argues specifically for a call boy who prostitutes his services to an older male, and Barrett defines it as, ‘the male homosexual relations’ (cited in Thiselton, 2000: 449). There is less ambiguity on the latter of the two vices, (αρσενοκοιται)[4], which is clearly, the act of the sexual relationship between two males.

V. P. Furnish has his own opinion:

Exactly how Paul is using the two terms remains in dispute...Is he thinking of all kinds of homosexual relationships, or only of pederasty? Or only of male prostitution? For this reason, and also because one is dealing only with a list, 1 Cor 6:9 can be of little help in ascertaining Paul’s attitude towards homosexual practice (cited in Thiselton, 2000: 449).

Furnish’s supposition that we can know little of Paul’s attitude toward homosexual practice based on 1 Cor 6:9 is implausible. Paul clearly lists the sexual relationship between two males as an act that consequently will not inherit the kingdom of God. There is no doubt that vagueness remains on the definition of μαλακοι, but we are still left with the strong impression that Paul believes God does not look favourably upon active homosexuality in the Corinthian context.

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Some stylistic methods of Paul have been alluded to already, and when we glance at 6:1-11, we are no doubt struck by Paul’s use of a diatribe style and consistent rhetorical questions. ‘The rhetorical expression in 1 Cor. 6:1-11 are to be taken as particular kinds of speech acts designed to challenge the behaviour of the Corinthians [that are] not in accord with Paul’s code of expected social behaviour’ (Neufeld, 2000: 375).

While the days of entering courtrooms still exists today, we have seen Paul’s reaction to parts of the litigation process in relation to Christians wishing to sue other Christians. We gained firstly an insight into the wealthy aspects of first century Corinth, and the culture to which Paul writes his letter. By looking at the judicial process of the day, we saw the manipulation of the courts to have cases benefit those of a higher socio-economic, and this was the circumstances wealthy Corinthian Christians were involved in. We see within the structure of 6:1-11, a piece sandwiched between two stories/examples of sexual immorality. The discussion also delves deeper into the list of ten sins that Paul writes from 6:9-10, and explores the exegetical nuances of Paul’s writing about the topic. No doubt, the contemporary issues and questions that arise from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth would be interesting to explore, whether it be controversial topics like homosexuality, or whether Christians, in any circumstances should sue other Christians today. Hopefully then, the exegetical foundation is set, for the possibility of developing a sound, challenging hermeneutic for the church today.

This bible study essay was written by Pete Brookshaw (copyright, 2010). This forms part of Pete's Bible Commentary. CLICK HERE.


Achtemeier, Paul J. & Green, Joel B. & Thompson, Marianne Meye. (2001). Introducing the New              Testament: Its Literature and Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans  Publishing Company.

Barrett, C. K. (1971). A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. (pp. 134-143). London: A         & C Black.

Buttrick, George Arthur, et. al. (1953). The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 10. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Conzelmann, Hans (1975). 1 Corinthians: A commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians.   Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Hering, James (2010). Paul and the Issue of Litigation in 1 Corinthians 6. Erskine Theological         Seminary.

Neufeld, Dietmar. (2000). Acts of Admonition and Rebuke: A Speech Act Approach to 1 Corinthians         6:1-11. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden.

Orr, William F. & Walther, James Arthur (1976). 1 Corinthians: The Anchor Bible. (pp. 192 – 204). Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company.

Prior, David. (1985). The Message of 1 Corinthians. (The Bible Speaks Today). England: Inter-Varsity        Press.

Soards, Marion L. (1999). New International Biblical Commentary: 1 Corinthians. Peabody,           Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers.

Thiselton, Anthony C. (2000). The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text.         Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Witherington III, Ben. (1995). Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1       and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[1] Dan 7:22 – ‘...until the Ancient One came; then judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom.’
[2] ‘They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever.’
[3] Pederasty – Sexual relations between two males, especially when one of them is a minor (
[4] αρσενοκοιται (arsenokoitai) – Scroggs interprets αρσενοκοιται as an idiom which is derived from the LXX[4], namely Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13[4]. He interprets that Paul’s declaration in 1 Cor 6:10 is therefore condemning Homosexual activity in relation to what Lev 18:22 and 20:13 says (Soards, 1999: 126).

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