When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 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? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Cor 6:1-3)
Here, Paul is probably alluding to Daniel 7:22 where we learn that saints (i.e., faithful believers) will judge the world in God’s kingdom. The word for judge is broader than simply settling disputes and lawsuits, and also involves ruling and exercising authority. It would seem that the authority of saints in the kingdom will include authority over God’s angels.
We learn in Hebrews 2 that angels will be subject to human beings in God’s kingdom:
It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
So, just as angels are now subject to Jesus, eventually they will also be subject to other people (i.e., the saints). That may be all that is sufficient for an answer.
Do angels make mistakes?
However, some Christians believe that angels make mistakes, or even “sin”. This was an idea shared by Job’s friend Eliphaz who argued in Job 4:18 that “God charges his angels with error”. in his explanation of Job’s sufferings. Eliphaz’s beliefs were revealed as wrong in Job 42:7, so wrong in fact that God said his “anger burns” because of Eliphaz’s ideas. However if someone today shares this belief that God charges his angels with error, then they may well read Paul’s comment as saying that at some future point Christians will literally sit in heavenly courts judging angels, charging angels with error. Evidently the verses above don’t say that. Daniel 7:22 talks about the saints judging (ruling) other humans. Hebrews 2:9 talks about angels being in subjection to Jesus, as also does 1 Peter 3:22. So there is no need to imagine Paul has suddenly introduced a new teaching about Christians being trial judges for angels.
Towards reconstructing the context in Corinth
So what does the verse say? Unfortunately it is very difficult to reconstruct the context of to whom exactly Paul was speaking, and why, since this is not a “general epistle” to be read in all churches but a reply to a letter from Paul’s own disciples at Corinth including Chloe (1:11), and without the letter from Chloe and her friends we can’t know exactly what the situation is which Paul is addressing.
However we do know that there were three groups in Corinth – the Peter (Cephas) group, the Apollos group and the Paul group, which are usually, and probably correctly, identified as a conservative judaizing group, a liberal charismatic group, and the Paul group in the middle. One explanation of 1 Corinthians 6:3 is that it “judge angels” is related to these splits, and that “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” ” (5:12-13) shows that the normal process of church discipline was disrupted because of the three splits. In other words one split was protecting one of their members (the one who had his father’s wife in 6:1) and the other two splits could not get them to do anything about it. We can be reasonably certain that the individual in 6:1 was not part of the Paul group represented by Chloe, or Paul’s disciples in Corinth would not need to write to Paul to complain about it. That indicates the man was a member either of the conservative Cephas group, or the liberal Apollos group.
Of those two groups we can eliminate the conservative judaizing group since the Law of Moses clearly forbids a man to take his father’s wife (Deuteronomy 23:1, Leviticus 18:8) and this is a command repeated and confirmed in rabbinical literature. By a process of elimination that only leaves the liberal Apollos group – since if all 3 factions were against the man’s behavior then the problem would have already been resolved. He had to have the support of at least one faction to still be in the church when Paul wrote.
So this “judge angels” comment of Paul is arguing the man be temporarily excluded to those who do not already agree that he be excluded. That perhaps includes those “sitting on the fence”, if there were any, in the Cephas group and Paul group, but would primarily have to convince the man’s actual supporters, probably among the Apollos group. Without a copy of Chloe’s letter there’s no way of knowing whether Chloe wrote about “angels” in the context of this man, or whether Paul himself introduced the “judge angels” out of the blue sky. Though some consider the rather ironic “Do you not know…” means that Paul did not introduce “judge angels”, but was only replying to the idea.
Angels in 1 Corinthians
What we do know for certain is that angels come up four times in 1 Corinthians, and seem to be a subject which the Corinthians were particularly interested in:
1 Corinthians 4:9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.
1 Corinthians 6:3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!
1 Corinthians 11:10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Beyond this we are moving into guesswork.
We cannot reasonably expect to reconstruct the exact scenario of support for the man who had his father’s wife, nor can we reconstruct the ideas and arguments whjch those who supported him used to justify their taking no action. All we can say for certain is that Paul’s argument succeeded in convincing “the majority”, since in the next letter, Paul argues “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough,” (2 Corinthians 2:5) and restoration of the man – presumably now separated from his father’s wife.
There is however one small clue which may point us in the direction of why Paul said “judge angels”, and that is the following comment:
Acts 23:9 “Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?”
What we have in Acts 23:9 is one party in the Jewish religious council, or Sanhedrin, willing to suspend judgment on Paul since perhaps “an angel spoke to him”. Belief that angels did speak to men was common among Jews as later among Christians – and of course in Paul’s case it was actually true. But as we know today, just because someone claims an angel told them something was okay, doesn’t mean it really is. This may be, and it is only a suggestion, part of the reason Paul needs to argue “judge angels.”
Here we’re not suggesting anything as simplistic as the man claiming “Oh, an angel told me it was okay to take my father’s wife” – a claim which then as today most people would immediately see through.
Instead we might expect something more subtle, something consistent with the man’s probable association with the non-Peter, non-Paul remaining third group in Corinth, the Apollos group. The Apollos group happens to also be the group that is generally identified as the subject of the head coverings and angels (11:10) and tongues of angels (13:1) problems as well. It is not a very strong coincidence, but it does at least raise the question of whether the third group’s self confidence in the area of the man having his father’s wife was somehow related to their ideas about their relationship with angels.
Or another alternative reconstruction… not the Apollos group, but the Cephas group
Of course relating the angels verse to the Apollos group is a highly tentative reconstruction, it could be completely wrong.
It could instead be that someone in the Cephas group had his father’s wife, and he claimed an angel had told him it was okay, so the normally conservative Cephas group – forgetting about Deuteronomy 23:1 – closed ranks around “their man” for family or other reasons. It was Shakespeare who talked of circumstance making “strange bedfellows”, but the subject is true enough in the Bible too, and stranger things have happened when factions and family ties become mixed in disputes inside churches. We don’t know exactly how Corinth’s first problem – the three splits – was related to this second problem of failing to take action on this man, and we have even less knowledge of how Paul’s argument “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” relates to these problems, or why it was such a good argument, and apparently worked.
Why even try to reconstruct the context in Corinth?
The purpose of that suggested reconstruction isn’t to explain exactly what the scenario was in Corinth – we can’t reconstruct that with any degree of confidence – but to illustrate that the reason Paul is making this comment has little to do with the literal judgment of angels in the kingdom. Paul is not saying “one day you Corinthians will have to adjudicate between arguing parties of angels” or “one day you Corinthians will take part in condemning angels to destruction” (which some Christians have read Paul as saying), but something more like, “Look, you say this about angels, well I say Daniel 7:22, so angels are not a reason for not taking action on a man who has his father’s wife” ; that is the reason for the comment, and that was the result of the comment in 2 Corinthians 2:5.
If the above has shown nothing else, hopefully at least it has shown that a single comment relating to one group’s support of a man who had his father’s wife is not a good place to start to construct a doctrine that humans will sit as judge and jury on the fate of angels when Christ returns. It’s an obscure passage, but it relates to marital events on earth in the church in Corinth, and its that which Paul wanted the original audience to correct, not anything done by literal angels.