The first-century Corinthian church, we have seen, was a church troubled by factionalism, a lack of confidence in the gospel, uncertainty about the Apostleship of Paul, and a failure to exercise church discipline (1 Cor. 1–5). Other problems existed in the church as well, and in today’s passage, Paul begins to address the wrong way that the Corinthians were settling legal disputes.
First Corinthians 6:1–3 indicates that the believers were taking “trivial cases” to the Roman law courts, and Paul will argue in verses 4–8 that the Christians should have been settling such matters themselves. The text does not identify the grievances (v. 1) that were occurring, but clearly they were minor issues, matters that the believers should have been able to solve themselves. The phrase “matters pertaining to this life” in verse 3 refers to everyday matters, grievances that one did not need special legal training to sort through. The Apostle does not have in view here criminal matters or other serious cases. John Calvin comments that “Paul does not here condemn those who from necessity have a cause before unbelieving judges, as when a person is summoned to a court; but those who, of their own accord, bring their brethren into this situation, and harass them, as it were, through means of unbelievers, while it is in their power to employ another remedy.”
Paul’s anger is understandable in light of his Jewish background. First-century Jews insisted on managing their own affairs, for they did not trust pagans to settle disputes justly, especially religious matters. The Roman government gave Jews great leeway to deal with legal problems in their community, though it reserved for itself the right to impose capital punishment. Exodus 18, where select Israelites were appointed to decide small matters, likely factors into Paul’s thinking as well. As new covenant Israel, the church should be competent to deal with minor issues as old covenant Israel was.
The Apostle’s consternation finds theological roots also in the fact that since believers will judge angels, they should be able to decide lesser, ordinary matters (1 Cor. 6:3). Although Scripture does not give us every detail concerning the final judgment, it does indicate that believers will play a role in judging and reigning over creation (Matt. 19:28; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:4). If at the last day we will be able to judge angels, surely we can settle minor issues among ourselves today instead of bringing them before an unbelieving world.