Right and Wrong
Right and Wrong: the Place of Self-Denial
For those who take God’s word seriously, some issues are beyond discussion. Prostitution is simply wrong, and so is murder and deceit. We’re all agreed.
Other things are not that straightforward. Should one watch the movie based on Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? Is it acceptable to celebrate the Lord’s Supper using only individual cups? May one take a job that has you begin work late Sunday evening? May one participate in professional sport? What conditions must one insist on before the churches can rightly establish ecclesiastical fellowship with another federation of churches? We all have our thoughts on each such issue, and generally don’t mind to state them. As long as we’re flexible with each other, expressing our thoughts and having a good debate on any such issue can be stimulating and encouraging. For iron sharpens iron.
What do you do, though, when one (or both) of the brothers in such a debate digs his heals in, and inflexibly insists that his position is correct? How do you overcome hot heads, hard hearts, and the resulting distrust and aversion?
The apostle Paul received a letter from the church of Jesus Christ in Corinth. Included in that letter was a question for the apostle to answer concerning “food sacrificed to idols” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Paul’s instruction shows us how to dig out those dug in.
A Problem Addressed
Before the gospel had come to Corinth, it was common practice for Corinthians to take food to the numerous temples of town as sacrifices to the gods. Part of the offering was burned for the gods, some was given to the priests for their consumption, and the remainder was for the self to eat in the temple. The priests could eat the food themselves, or (as they received more than they needed) they could sell it in the temple as a ‘restaurant-service’ to the public. In a town without the restaurants we’re used to, going to the temple for a meal (be it for a family or a work event) was a relatively common practice.
Through Paul’s preaching, several Corinthians came to faith in Jesus Christ. Their repentance meant that they denounced the existence of the idols as real gods, and acknowledged only the Lord as God. As a result, they now knew certain practices of their heathen past to be distinctly wrong. They no longer, for example, offered sacrifices to the heathen gods. In other areas of life, however, questions arose that were not so clear-cut. Some in the congregation were adamant: a Christian can no longer go to the temple restaurants to buy food the priests had for sale – for it was food sacrificed to idols. Others of the congregation disagreed. The idols to which the food was initially offered don’t actually exist, and so the food available at the temple is as good as any food you can get from your garden. They saw no problem taking the family to the temple for a meal. Debates raged after church…, heals got dug in, heads heated, hearts hardened…, and Corinthian Bob distrusted Corinthian Bill….
How does Paul answer? We half expect the apostle to jump up and down impatiently to point out in no uncertain terms that going to the temple restaurant is flatly wrong. In fact, the apostle eventually states precisely that position fully three chapters after he’s begun addressing the question of food sacrificed to idols! (It’s 10:19-22). Why, we wonder, does Paul take so long in giving an answer to – we’d say – a relatively simple question? That, dear reader, is because Paul considers another matter more important than the actual answer to the Corinthians’ question. To Paul’s mind, the manner of the debate needs addressing before the matter of the debate. For in Corinth the issue drove brother from brother – and that may never be. So Paul dumps the solution onto the table: “if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall” (vs 13).
The Solution Proposed
Notice how important the brother’s well being is to Paul. In that one little sentence of vs 13, the apostle twice mentions causing the brother to fall. The repetition is very deliberate; it’s Paul’s way of putting his conclusion in vs 13 into bold print.
What, though, are the grounds for Paul’s emphatic decision? Why is he so adamant that he must give away even his favorite dish in order to prevent his brother from falling? To answer that question, we need to follow the apostle’s line of thought in 1 Corinthians 8.
He begins his comments on the topic of “food sacrificed to idols” with this statement: “we know that we all possess knowledge.” On any given issue –whether it’s the right or wrong of eating food sacrificed to idols, or watching a particular movie, or using individual cups at the Lord’s table – we all have our opinion (we call it ‘knowledge’) and can state it well at a birthday party. The person we’re talking with has his ‘knowledge’ on the issue, and will state it too. Perhaps we’re agreed – and we feel good that our ‘knowledge’ is vindicated. Then again, perhaps we don’t agree, and so repeat our arguments again, and maybe again (we dig in our heals…) – and end up convinced that our ‘knowledge’ is superior and the other person dumb for not being able to see our light. It’s as Paul says next: “knowledge puffs up.” Stating our opinion, and restating it, convinces us we’ve got it right – and the other person is wrong, and maybe moronic…. Ironically, he feels the same about us: that conceited so-and-so… (but we don’t realize that…). “Knowledge puffs up,” says Paul, “but love builds up.” ‘Knowledge’ drives brothers apart, but love draws brothers together. If you think you know (and thereby lose your brother), you simply prove that you don’t know as you ought to know (vs 2), for knowledge (an opinion) without love is nothing. After all, the Lord did not save the world through knowledge, but saved the world through love (vs 3).
Back then (vs 4) to the topic of food sacrificed to idols: Paul agrees with the Corinthian Christians that an idol is no god, even though the heathen people of Corinth claim the opposite. Instead, there is but one true God. Who, though, Paul continues, is this God? He refers to Him as ‘Father’ (vs 6), a term gleaned from the Old Testament and from Jesus’ instruction that describes God’s mercy in making sinners His children. It’s a term that captures love for the unworthy. Similarly, though the pagans of Corinth insist there are many (divine) lords, Paul agrees with the Christians of Corinth that “there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ,” through whose sacrifice on the cross sinners again have life with God. Paul’s reference to the Lord as ‘Jesus Christ’, the Anointed Savior, points up the Lord’s love; He gave Himself to the cross of Calvary to redeem the unworthy.
These references to God’s love for sinners become building blocks Paul uses to address the wrong-headed attitude of the Corinthian Christians in their debates with each other. There are those Christians of Corinth who are so accustomed to taking idols seriously (after all, their mothers raised them to respect the idols!) that even their conversion to Christianity hasn’t freed them from some fear of the idols. You can bamboozle such brothers and sisters with your arguments that idols don’t exist anyway, and so talk them into coming along with you to the temple restaurant for an evening out – but when such a brother or sister wakes up in the middle of the night, his conscience may eat away at him because he’s done what he thinks he shouldn’t have done, or perhaps he’s even tempted to revert to the temple sacrifices and feasts of his youth. And he tosses and turns on his bed, with a heart in anguish and a soul confused and perhaps his faith stressed – all because you insisted to him that logically there’s nothing wrong with going to the temple restaurant since those idols aren’t really anyway.
It’s against this possible consequence of your ‘knowledge’ that Paul warns the Corinthian Christians. Your actions – and you’ll have thought it through and find your actions justifiable before God – can be cause for your brother to stumble. Stronger: your actions, rooted in good theological arguments, could destroy one “for whom Christ died” (vs 11). That is sin on your part, sin against the brother and sin against the Christ who redeemed that brother. It is sin because this action on your part does not reflect the same love for the brother that Christ displayed when he died for you and for him. Hence Paul’s conclusion: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall” (vs 13).
We wonder: is Paul’s conclusion not too strong? Ought Paul not to take into account that perhaps the weak brother ought to grow up?
In point of fact, the apostle is simply applying for the Corinthians what Jesus once said to His disciples. When Jesus once had a little child stand among His disciples (Matthew 18:2), He pointedly warned the twelve: “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large milestone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (vs 6). Jesus’ reference was not just to adults tripping up a six year old; His reference was also to any disciple (or Christian) tripping up a fellow Christian who we might consider weak or immature (a ‘child’). The disciples (and all Christians) must respect the other for what he is – including his limited insights. Under no circumstance may a child of God be cause for another child of God for whom Christ died – irrespective of age or talents or insights – to stumble. One ought rather to cut off one’s hand or foot than be a stumbling block to another; talk about self-denial! Paul knew Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18, and therefore determined for his brother’s sake – yes, and for his own salvation’s sake! – never to eat meat again, if that would save his brother from stumbling. Truly, this is love for the neighbor – as God loved us in Jesus Christ.
The Lesson Taught
How were the Christians of Corinth to respond when they heard Paul’s answer to their idol food question? Surely the answer is clear: they had to conclude first of all that there was a distinctly Christian way to discuss matters where opinion differed. In fact, they had to conclude from Paul’s answer that the manner of conducting the debate was more important than the actual answer to the issue being debated – for Paul delayed his answer to the issue till chapter 10, while he laid a finger first on the manner of the debate.
That meant in practice that the Christians of Corinth had to respect the other, more, had to deny the self to spare the other. The emphasis was not to be on ‘knowledge’, for “knowledge puffs up” – and drives the brother away. The emphasis was instead to be on love, for “love builds up” – and therefore seeks what’s best for the other (as Paul will draw out in much more detail in 1 Corinthians 13). So the temple restaurant became off-limits for the Christians, not first of all because of the theological grounds Paul will mention in 1 Corinthians 10:19-22 (behind the non-existent idols are real demons), but primarily because of the sensitivity you must feel to your brother who doesn’t see things your way.
In Canadian Reformed circles opinions differ on particular points of practice. Positions are taken, heals are dug in, communication breaks down, appeals are lodged at major assemblies, perhaps church discipline ensues. What is the way forward? It seems to me that the focus needs to rise above the matter of ‘knowledge’ (my position is correct because…), and rest instead on the topic of love. When we disagree and dig in our heals, we can smother our brother with the force of our arguments – but in his heart he is not persuaded, and he ends up in the ditch – a brother for whom Christ died.
We need to back up, and in self-denial assist the brother out of the ditch. More important than being theologically correct on a given issue is the need to show love for the other, as abundantly and as selflessly as the only true God displayed when He made Himself our ‘Father’, and as abundantly and selflessly as the only true Lord displayed when He showed Himself on Good Friday to be Anointed Savior. Paul catches the point: “if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
That is: we’ll join Paul in giving up our favorite dish if that’s what it takes to keep a brother from falling.