Charlie Pillsbury on Paul as a Conflict Resolution Specialist

A second story courtesy of Charlie Pillsbury at Quinnipiac:

There’s a wonderful ADR story in Paul’s first letter to the newly established Christian church in Corinth.  These Corinthian Christians were in conflict with each other over almost everything:  over whom to believe – Paul or Apollos, over sexual relations, circumcision, marriage, food, hair styles, veils, you name it.  And, in at least one instance, one Corinthian Christian was apparently suing another.

Paul is clearly exasperated and angered by all these conflicts, but especially by this lawsuit. See 1st Corinthians 6: 7-8.  So Paul writes: “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it to the saints?”  1st Corinthians 6: 1. Paul then asks: “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer – and before unbelievers at that?” 1st Corinthians 6: 5-6.

Even more than the specific conflict, whatever it was, I think Paul was upset about how bad this lawsuit made Christians in general look to Greco-Roman society, as these Corinthians aired their dirty legal laundry in Roman courts.  Hence, he issues this famous call begging these “believers” to use some form of arbitration to resolve their conflict within their faith community, not outside of it.

NOTE: One commentator makes the following observation, reminding us that these early Christians were still considered Jews by Greco-Roman society. “Under Roman rule, the Jews enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. Disputes among those in the Jewish community were settled among themselves. Indeed, the rabbis taught that it was unlawful for a Jew to seek a judge’s decision in pagan courts. Even within the pagan world, there were religious brotherhoods and mutual-benefit societies that pledged not to sue one another in the courts. Disputes among these groups were settled through arbitration among themselves.” Shepherd’s Notes – 1 Corinthians, D. Gould, ed. (Broadman & Holman, 1998) (commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:5-6, titled “Arbitration Within the Church”)


3 thoughts on “Charlie Pillsbury on Paul as a Conflict Resolution Specialist”

  1. What Paul is saying in this letter to the Corinthians was probably novel at his time and I find it interesting how much wisdom there is in what he has to say.

    Conflicts that arise in a certain culture are best left handled by someone who has a good understanding of how that culture works. The reasons for the conflict are probably rooted in some context specific aspect of that culture. For the conflict to be truly resolved it seems that someone, either from that culture or at least someone with a thorough knowledge and understanding of the culture, should be the one to resolve it.

    Paul is peeved at his fellow Corinthians for going outside their community to deal with their dispute when it would be better for all parties involved to have some sort of a dispute resolution process among their own people. The Corinthians and Romans had very different cultures, values and beliefs; and given that fact, I believe that Paul hit the nail on the head by saying that it was a poor choice to go to someone who has little understanding of your culture to settle a dispute. By going to an outside party, the parties to the conflict are likely to leave feeling like their dispute isn’t entirely settled. There are several emotional issues attached to disputes and those are likely not going to be settled and could lead to more disputes in the future.

  2. I’ve never thought about ADR in the church or in a religious context but now that I do, it makes a lot of sense. The church, and religion in itself, is a type of culture, and during Paul’s time may have been the way most people defined their culture generally.
    Members of different religions, notably Christians and Pagans at this time, had different values and perceived the world and its problems through very different lenses. Airing Christian “dirty laundry” in a Roman church would not have been ideal—not only because it is publicly airing the controversies of the newly established, maybe even vulnerable, Christian church in Corinth—but also because the of the two groups did not share the same culture.

    It did not make sense to have a Christian issue tried in a Greco-Roman church during this time period because the outcome would not have served the interests of the Christian group. I think that was why Paul was so upset. Greco-Romans did not need to be deciding the outcome of these Christian issues, Christians needed to be deciding these Christian issues. All cultures value different things differently, although I am not sure exactly what the issue was in this case—whether it sexual relations, circumcision, marriage, food, etc.—I think we can all agree that the Greco-Romans and Christians would have had different values and interests on all of the different positions and an outcome in one culture would, or could, be very different than the outcome in another. I think Paul was right, it is better to have members of your own community, those who can really understand the issue and how your community values that issue, to determine the outcome than someone outside of your community who may value or understand the issue and interests attached differently.

    It is important to note the commentary that Paul was upset because of how this made the Christians look to Greco-Roman society. Privacy could have also been a major reason why Paul wanted these Christians to use some form of arbitration to resolve their conflict within their faith community rather than outside of it. The newly established Christian church in Corinth was not the “majority” group and was vulnerable. Keeping issues and disputes private could help the Christian community keep a strong “front” during this susceptible time period.

  3. In a recent court-referred mediation among members and former members of a local church, one of the parties used an app on his phone to find this passage and read it out loud.

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