(1 Cor. 6:1-3 ESV) When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 Or 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? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!
Really? We’re to judge angels? Us?
Lying behind Paul’s rebuke is his apocalyptic conviction that, in God’s final judgment of sin and its grasp of the world, it is the believers who will form part of the heavenly court (cf. Dan 7:22; 12:3; Wis 3:8; Sir 4:15; 2 Esdr 9:97; 1 Enoch 104:2; Testament of Abraham 1–4; 1QpHab 5:4; Matt 19:28; Rev 3:21; 20:4), who are at least present when God’s final judgment takes place (cf. Isa 24:21–22).
J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 854.
N. T. Wright brings the point home —
Do you not know, he says (most readers today will reply ‘No!’) that the saints will judge the world, and that we are to judge angels (6:2–3)? This remarkable statement is based on Paul’s vivid awareness of texts like Daniel 7, in which ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ are given authority to execute judgment over the [figurative] beasts, and to rule the nations. He would have been quick to insist that Jesus himself was the ultimate judge, but he assumes a basic early Christian theology in which this judgment is shared with all Jesus’ people.
Once again he draws conclusions about the present from what will be true in the future: this is how things will be, so this is how they must now be. Learn to think in terms of the world that is to be, he is saying, and of the people you will be within it, and then you will see clearly who you must be in the present time. If you do that, you will see that there can be no place for Christians to go to law with one another in front of non-Christian courts.
Paul does not suggest that every single Christian will be capable of exercising a judicial role in the present, but he assumes that within even a small community, such as we assume the Corinthian church to have been, there will be some who are ‘wise enough’ to exercise this function. At all events, the eschatological reality (that God’s people will share in bringing his judgment to the world) must be brought forward into the present. If, for whatever reason, that is not possible, it would be better to suffer wrong than to turn that reality on its head and have secular courts sitting in judgment on Christians.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 288 (paragraphing modified to ease reading; emphasis is mine).
That is, we Christians, as justified people — people made just by God — should surely be capable of judging one another by God’s standards. This may be the entire congregation or it may be wise men and women chosen from among the church based on gifts of the Spirit, but some of us are surely capable of making such judgments and should be willing to do what God asks of us.
Thus, Paul concludes that it’s wrong for us to judge people outside the church (they are all damned, so what would be the point?) but necessary for us to judge those inside the church (for the sake of helping them overcome sin and make it to the end).
(1 Cor. 5:11-13 ESV) 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
That is, we should see ourselves as how we’re going to be when Jesus returns —
(Dan. 7:27 ESV) 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; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’
(Ps. 8:5-8 ESV) 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
(Rev. 5:9-10 ESV) 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Rev. 22:5 ESV) 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
We were created to have dominion over God’s creation (Gen 1:26-28; 2:15). We fell because of sin, but through Jesus, we are being restored to the image of God — and that includes having our dominion over the earth restored. And to the ancients, the dominion of kings included serving as judges. Solomon was famous for his wisdom as a judge, even though we call him “king.” Until very recently, kings were the supreme courts of their lands.
And that means that, although we live in the already-not yet time in between Jesus’s Ascension and Second Coming, we are being prepared for this new role today. Our futures define our present. Church is supposed to be a preview of heaven. Really. No. I’m quite serious.
The ekklēsia is a polis within a polis; a nation within a nation; a city within a city. We are supposed to govern ourselves, settle our own disputes, and when necessary, discipline our own members. We are all called to be kings and queens, destined to rule the world and to judge angels — with Jesus. And as we are more and more shaped into the image of God by the Spirit, we become more like Jesus and so more qualified for these tasks.
Therefore, rather than thinking of our nation’s legislature (or constitution or judiciary) as the source of godly culture and guidance for how we should live, we should think of ourselves as citizens of heaven — aliens living in a heavenly colony in the world —
(Phil. 3:20-4:1 ESV) 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
The ekklēsia, then, is not a civic organization or social club. It’s a nationality. It’s a citizenship. It’s an ethnicity.
(1 Pet. 2:9-10 NIV) 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
We are not Americans, Nigerians, Syrians, Slovaks, Germans, or Chinese. We are Christians, citizens of the ekklēsia or Kingdom of God. We don’t have dual citizenship, not really, because we don’t and can’t have divided loyalties (Mat 6:24). We are, rather, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, resident aliens.
One of my sons visited Kenya as part of a mission effort. There, all the Christian Kenyans had taken “Christian” names — from the Bible. Before, they’d had tribal names, identifying them with this or that tribe. And so they saw conversion to Christianity as a change in tribe — which is right. We want to cling to our earthly tribe while having our ticket to heaven punched. We want to be hyphenated Christians: a Christian-American, a Christian-German, etc. The Kenyans understand their Bibles better than we do.
Therefore, we don’t judge by the world’s standards, nor do we behave as the world behaves. We follow Christ’s standards, Christ’s ethics. And so, even in our roles of kings, queens, and judges, we rule and judge as Christ rules and judges — with mercy and grace, sacrificially.
We are called to be servant-kings and servant-judges. We are to police ourselves, and not expect the world to have to tell us right from wrong. And when there is sin in the camp, we should have a sufficiently common understanding of God’s will and our obligation to discipline our beloved brothers and sisters that our leaders have no hesitance in bringing sin before the congregation to be dealt with as God expects — with the wisdom of the collective ekklēsia present.
Remember: our ecclesiology derives from our soteriology. We believe that it’s possible to fall from grace. And we believe that one of the most important ways to avoid falling away is the strength and encouragement of our brothers and sisters in our local congregation (Heb 10:24-25). And if those who know us the best and love us the most are unwilling to yank our chains — to discipline us — when our salvation is at stake, well, then we don’t really believe any of this, do we? I mean, if we believe our brothers and sisters can fall away by rebellious sin, then surely we love them enough to warn them and even excommunicate them if need be in hopes of saving them.
Or to put it another way, when we become Christians, we become accountable not only to God but to each other. We give our brothers and sisters permission to ask, to rebuke — to meddle. In love. With patience. But very much in our business.
Now, many, perhaps most, will find this very objectionable. This derives not only from our Western culture but also our failure to be the church that Jesus has saved us to become. We just aren’t that Christlike in how we treat each other, and so we’re understandably reluctant to be accountable to such un-Christlike people.
The solution isn’t to ignore God’s commands about mutual accountability. Rather, it’s to teach the grace of God, to teach one another how to live as gracious people, and to appoint leaders based on the Spirit’s gifting.
(Jas. 5:16 ESV) 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.