Why would Paul be so concerned about the Corinthians taking their disputes to the local magistrates? Why was Paul so negative concerning the Roman law system? Was his view common or idiosyncratic in the mid-first century CE? How did Paul view the civic judges when compared to those believers within the community of faith?
The local-civil courts in ancient Rome were not to be trusted for the unbiased application of justice. The law system in Rome with its hierarchical structure may have provided a modicum of justice; however, even Roman citizens had no real expectation of justice being served in their civil courts. The social status of the individual oftentimes served more of a determiner of the legal proceedings than did the actual facts of the case. On the other hand, Paul may have developed his negative view concerning the Roman courts from his Jewish background. The Jews sought to avoid the Roman courts whether for reasons of exclusivism or pragmatism, Diaspora Jews choose not to, if at all possible, engage in local legal proceedings with the civil magistrates.
Paul had learned that the Corinthians were taking each other to the local civil-magistrates and he concludes that this was shameful (Hurd 1983: 85). His assessment of the court system would not have been considered inconsistent with what others living under the colonial power of Rome would have felt; however, Paul’s concern is couched in the language of the other. He considers these judges to be “unbelievers” (v. 6) and defines them as individuals who should not be held in high esteem within the believing community (v. 4). This begs the question, why would the Corinthians even wish to involve themselves in the court system? It appears, that the Corinthians, because of civic circumstances exclusive to Roman Corinth, had a fairly good relationship with the civic authorities (Walters 2005: 417). In fact, the Christ-followers in Corinth do not appear to have any external conflict with the civic rulers or community. This fact, in part, may have led to the internal conflict, in that, most of the other communities Paul founded, experienced conflict with the local governing powers (e.g. Thessalonica and Philippi; see De Vos 1999). So, it could be that Paul is basing his negative assessment of this situation, as much on his experiences with the other Jesus-believing communities that he founded, as well as, the general disdain for the local courts in both the Graeco-Roman and Jewish communities.
That said, there is also ample evidence that Paul’s rationale for avoiding the local courts may be identity driven, that is, Paul understands the Corinthians to be new “in Christ” and that has an ontological impact on the boundedness of the community (Keener 2005: 53). He engages in apocalyptic (Ramsaran 2004: 89–101) boundary formation in vv. 2–3 by arguing that the Corinthians do not realize that they, themselves are capable of judging, because, for example, they will, in the future, judge the world and angels (Belleville 2003: 226). So, the function of Paul’s argument is to redefine who should be a judge and he uses the terminology of honor and shame to communicate that to them. He honors the Corinthians, by informing them that they will one day judge the world and angels and then challenges them in v. 5 by shaming them because their practice is not congruent with this reality.
Paul negotiates identity not from a position of the social status of the elites but from a position of a contested equal seeking to affect mission within this nascent community of Christ-followers. His main argument in this section seeks to connect their local engagement with the civic authorities with their apocalyptic identity “in Christ” (Sampley 1980: 4). He concludes this section by reminding the Corinthians, after a digression into a vice list and an ironic statement of what happens to those who “do wrong,” and reminds them that the primary reason for not going to those on the outside to justice is that they had been “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11), which appears to be a part of a baptismal formula (Schnelle 2003: 208). This is important because, often identity formation is embedded in rituals and early Christ-movement rituals serve as boundaries for the new community.
Belleville, Linda L. “KEFALH and the Issue of Head Covering in 1 Cor. 11:2-16,” in Trevor J. Burke and J. Keith Elliott (eds.), Paul and the Corinthians: Studies on a Community in Conflict. Essays in Honour of Margaret Thrall, (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
De Vos, Craig Steven. Church and Community Conflicts: The Relationships of the Thessalonian, Corinthian, and Philippian Churches with Their Wider Civic Communities. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1999.
Hurd, John C. The Origin of 1 Corinthians, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983).
Craig S. Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (The New Cambridge Bible Commentary), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Ramsaran, Rollin A. “Resisting Imperial Domination and Influence: Paul’s Apocalyptic Rhetoric in 1 Corinthians,” in Richard A. Horsley (ed.), Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2004), 89-101.
Sampley, J. Paul. Pauline Partnership in Christ. Christian Community and Commitment in Light of Roman Law, (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1980).
Schnelle, Udo. “Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology,” M. Eugene Boring, (trans.), (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003).
Walters, James. “Civic Identity in Roman Corinth and Its Impact on Early Christians,” in Daniel N. Schowalter and Steven J. Friesen (eds.) Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).