Paul is upset by what the Corinthians have been doing in bringing their grievances before the secular courts. He mentions that having lawsuits is already a failure, but to then take such cases before unbelievers makes it all the worse.
Why does he say this?
In verses 7-8 he is lifting up the love, sacrifice, and humility that should instead be the character of a Christian community. Paul writes, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” He wants the body to endure the suffering, but instead it is getting caught up with the ways of the world, wronging and defrauding fellow believers in the courts. Earlier in chapter four Paul wrote, “When reviled we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” This is not the attitude of someone always seeking to prove themselves, to seek retribution, to fight it out before the world in the courts.
These battles in the courts are a public witness and they do not witness to the unity of the church or to the pattern of life that should be based on Christ’s crucifixion. It is to their shame, as Paul says.
After spending so much time in the preceding chapters speaking about the wisdom of God in the cross of Jesus Christ and a wisdom that we have received by the Holy Spirit, Paul is confronted with a church that appeals to the wisdom of the world to determine its verdict. God’s wisdom is greater and he has granted it to his people, so isn’t there even just one person wise enough to settle dispute in the church? Paul then reminds them that the judges of the world are no real authority on these matters, instead the saints are ones who will be given great authority. In Christ we will reign with him and we will judge the world.
Paul then makes his arguments as he moves from the greater to the lesser. If you will judge the world, can’t you then judge a smaller issue? (Not to say that this is trivial in the sense that it doesn’t matter, it is just of lesser significance than judging the world.) If you are to judge angels–creatures that are otherworldly, heavenly–can’t you judge matters of this life?
This is a call for the church to remember its calling. And it is a high calling. The Corinthians need to live into it, to see themselves for what they are and what they are going to be. If they are judges of the world, what does it say if they bring matters of the church before mere human (1 Cor 3:4) courts? If the church has been entrusted with the mysteries and wisdom of God, matters that the rulers did not understand (2:8, 4:1), what is the witness to the world if such wisdom is inadequate to discern issues within the Christian body? Who then is the real authority in the life of the church? If God’s wisdom is to rule in their church, they must change course and stop acting as though the law of the unrighteous is their judge.