“Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
One of my previous Bishops tells of an incident that occurred to him when he was out of town. He and a number of other Bishops went into their hotel lounge for an after dinner drink and he noticed a young couple sitting at the bar. Eventually the couple got up to leave and as they did the woman came over to him and handed him a note written on a napkin. The note said, “It’s hypocrites like you that give us Christians a bad name.”
Isn’t it interesting that she did not consider herself a hypocrite for being in the lounge but she did for the Bishop? Perhaps her reasoning was since he had on a collar that he was therefore more noticeable as a Christian and so had a greater obligation not to be in the lounge. But that argument would only be true if there was something fundamentally wrong with him being in the lounge in the first place. The Bishops obviously didn’t think it was wrong or they would not have been there. I think what was really going on was her own conscience was getting to her because she was not certain that it was appropriate for her to be there. So the Bishop’s presence fueled her guilt.
Whatever the motivations of the various players, this scenario does present some interesting questions. What kind of behavior is unacceptable for a Christian? Do we bear any responsibility for what others might think or do because of our behavior? Are we supposed to have situational ethics or are there guiding principals that help govern what we do or do not do in terms of how it might impact others?
It is these kinds of questions that St. Paul was addressing with the Church in Corinth. The presenting matter was very different from anything that we may face in our day but the answers that the Apostle offers are still very applicable to us.
Here is the situation. In large Gentile cities like Corinth, pagan temples were of great importance. Part of the activity in these temples was to offer sacrifices. But the sacrifices only consisted of a part of the animal and so the rest of the animal was sold to merchants who in turn sold the meat in the market. Therefore it was common for folks to buy meat that had been sacrificed to idols and serve it at table.
This presented a problem for some. Could a Christian in clear conscience eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods and goddesses? And even if they raised their own food, what do they do when a pagan friend invites them over for dinner and they are served filet of Zeus?
In Paul’s day this matter was particularly troubling to new converts who had just come out of paganism and were trying to follow Christ in a world that was hostile to the Gospel. For some, eating the sacrificed meat was too much like their previous pagan life. It would be something like a new convert, who is recovering from alcoholism, going to a new church plant that is set up in a bar.
So St. Paul offered them some advice. But before we look at his advice let’s consider how churches both then and now typically responded to challenges like the ones that faced the at Corinth. One response is to follow a strict set of laws. These were the legalists that Paul addressed.
Our Puritan ancestors were famous for this approach to life. This is a law that the Puritans passed in Connecticut. “No one shall run on the Sabbath Day, or walk in his garden, or elsewhere except reverently to and from meeting. No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair or shave on the Sabbath. If any man shall kiss his wife, or wife her husband on the Lord’s Day, the party in fault shall be punished at the discretion of the court of magistrates.” This sounds bizarre to us but we see their religious decedents in many of the fundamentalist traditions today who have equally strange rules.
The guiding principal of legalism is that church should be opposed to the world. So anything that the world does, the church should not do so that the church doesn’t become like the world. On one level that sounds good, and some may even be called to follow that path, but as a general rule it is very difficult to follow. More importantly it does not bear true and lasting fruit. The greatest drawback to this approach is that you end up following the rules instead of walking in the Spirit. Plus when you are trying so hard not to be like the world, you end up letting the world set your agenda. And inevitably you end up needing more rules to clarify how to follow the first set of rules.
Both in Corinth and in the Church today we see some swing the pendulum entirely in the other direction. This logic is that since I have been forgiven and I am no longer under the law then I can do whatever I want. If you try to tell me what the Scripture says, then I will tell you that is just your interpretation. If you try to tell me what the Church teaches, then I will point out how the Church has been wrong before. If you try to hold me accountable, then I will tell you that you are being judgmental.
The person with this approach forgets that he does not live in a bubble and that his actions affect other people. More than not, when a person is vehemently defending their right to do whatever they want to do, they are at the same time trampling the rights of others. This is seen tragically in the pro abortion movement. When this mentality exits in the Church then the Church becomes a weather vane instead of a lighthouse and wherever the prevailing winds of the culture blow, the Church turns in that direction.
So what is the answer? St. Paul repudiates both legalism and licentiousness. His argument actually goes for about 3 chapters and so you have to read chapters 8, 9 and 10 to get it all but I will try to give you a summary of his argument.
First he clears up that the legalists are wrong to get all disturbed about meat sacrificed to idols. His reasoning is because there are no gods but God. So it really doesn’t matter if the meat comes from a temple or from Jim and Nick’s. Parts is parts. He says,“We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do.” In this way he points from legalism to liberty.
Next he confronts the licentious. In essence he tells them that just because there are no other gods doesn’t mean that they are now free to play with idolatry. Here is how he puts it in chapter 10. This is from the paraphrase The Message. Speaking of people who engaged in idolatry in the Old Testament he says, “…of them…God was not pleased. The same thing could happen to us. We must be on our guard so that we never get caught up in wanting our own way as they did. And we must not turn our religion into a circus as they did…We must not be sexually promiscuous – they paid for that…We must never try to get Christ to serve us instead of us serving him; (The Message p.2079).
So Paul says that the answer is neither legalism nor licentiousness. The answer is liberty and love and they become our guiding principles. Even though the Christian has perfect liberty to eat meat sacrificed to idols, love may direct him not to do so, particularly if it is going to turn into a temptation for a younger Christian. That is what he meant when he said, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Liberty understands that you have a right to eat but love doesn’t ask what rights you have. Love asks how your actions may affect others. And if you decide that your actions may harm someone else then love would say don’t do it. The law of liberty says what you CAN do. The love asks what you SHOULD do.
But let’s be clear about what it means to cause someone harm or to cause them to stumble. Someone getting angry with you because they disagree with you does not constitute causing them harm. Back to the story of the Bishop getting the angry note from the woman. He didn’t cause her to stumble because she was already in the lounge. She just didn’t think that he should be. So she was not stumbling, she was judging.
Causing someone harm happens if our actions influence them into acting contrary to their conscience, which would be a sin. That is what the Scripture means when it says, “that which does not proceed from faith is sin.” It does not mean doing something that may cause someone to be angry with you or disagree with you. If they simply disagree or become angry those are their issues and not your problem.
Therefore in the Corinthian setting, if eating meat would influence a new convert to go against his conscience, and eat when he really didn’t think that he should, then love would tell you that it is better to just have a salad. But if eating meat makes a person mad because he is a member of PETA then the problem is his. Your response to his rebuke is to lovingly ask him to them to pass the bbq sauce.
But since there is not a lot of temple sacrifices going on in Murfreesboro, Tennessee how would we apply the principles of liberty and love today? Let me take an example from the news. As of January 1 this year California has legalized recreational marijuana. But at the same time the news has been full of what is being labeled an opioid epidemic. CNN reported that deaths due to heroin have increased 533% between 2002 and 2016. These two drug related stories have the potential to be a head on collision, especially for folks who are addicted or are recovering from addiction. And according to government statistics that is 23.5 million or nearly 1 in 10 Americans. So what is the Church’s responsibility here?
It could be argued that once marijuana is legalized that a Christian is at liberty to use it. Some say they can because alcohol is also a drug used by many Christians. But that argument does not hold up. There is a difference between alcohol and drugs because they serve a very different purpose. The Scripture says that wine gladdens the heart but the only real purpose of drugs it to get wasted. To me there is a vast difference between having a fine wine with a nice meal and smoking a joint to get stoned.
Others would argue that we should avoid it all including alcohol but the list does not stop there. For some caffeine is considered a drug and so they avoid all caffeine beverages. But then we are in the midst of the battle between legalism and licentiousness and it is easy to become confused in how to respond.
Let’s go back to St. Paul who speaks of both liberty and love. Again the law of liberty tells you what you CAN do. The law of love asks you what you SHOULD do. It seems to me that not out of legalism, but out of love, we are called to have compassion on the 23.5 million addicted Americans and support them in their sobriety rather than putting yet another temptation before them in the form of Marijuana.
You can probably think of a dozen more examples of how liberty and love can guide our deliberations. The point is to see that the real question is not “what am I allowed to do?” but rather “what is best for my brother?”
I want to pull the camera back a give us a broader picture of what St. Paul is calling us to do and to be. We need to move beyond the question of personal ethics to see that the broader picture is the family of God, the Body of Christ, and how we are to function within that family. This whole discussion shows us that we are responsible and accountable to one another. The larger vision is to create a community that is filled with liberty and lover, a community that frees people from undue burdens. We are to be a holy nation that is not divided by everyone demanding their own way but rather united by serving and preferring one another in love.
When you think about it that is exactly how Jesus lived. This is Philippians 2 stuff on how Jesus did not grasp at equality with God but became a servant. So St. Paul is doing no more or less than telling us to act like Jesus. And since we are called by His Name that is how we should act. And by the way I firmly believe that if Jesus were walking the earth today that He would have been in that lounge with the Bishops, while modern day Pharisees were having a melt down, demonstrating liberty and love. Amen.