What do you think of this? “The Bible is not so much a set of rules as a wrestling match.” The phrase “Wrestling match” I take to be a metaphor for the give and take and tussle of relationship.
Certainly, you look in vain if you attempt to find rules in the Bible to govern every new situation that comes your way. That is the way of the Pharisee, and the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees is very instructive. And, if you’re a Pharisee, not pretty.
That’s not to say that the Bible doesn’t contain “law.” And any definition of “law” must, surely, include the idea of “precepts for life.” But, in a famous exchange, Jesus reduced all the laws of the Old Testament into one memorable way-to-live: “Love the Lord your God….love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is the primary principle by which we promulgate all those bits and pieces that make up our daily set of choices and decisions. Love is the moral wrestling match of our daily lives, if we are seeking to follow the God who IS love.
Now there was a wrangle going on in the first century church (which Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 8). The debate hinged on whether Christians could eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. The trouble was that much of the meat available on the market stalls of Corinth had arrived there via pagan temple sacrifices. Also, public dinners, charity fund-raisers and celebrity parties often took place in pagan temple contexts and if you were a normal middle-class citizen, you would receive invites to those gatherings. It was a customary, everyday thing.
The trouble was that these were new believers in Christ. They wondered whether or not they should be involved in all that stuff. It was part of a way of life that they had left behind. Surely, pagan sacrifices were somehow evil. You have to steer clear, right?
Paul’s response is fascinating, breathtaking. What he doesn’t do is say “Absolutely correct. Wrong is wrong. Steer clear of evil. As the Bible says… “ and then quote any of a hundred references to being separate from pagan outsiders.
Paul has been saved by grace. He lives by grace. Grace means that he is not keeping rules but is in relationship. A relationship of love with God and love with his fellow-human. Just like Jesus said.
But he had some measure of pastoral authority over this group of believers and they wanted to know what to do. Paul seems to suggest a counter-question: What do we do when we differ on a secondary issue?
The issue here was sacrificial meat, but on what basis do you break contact with people? Do you stop a relationship with people because they smoke, or drink alcohol, or tell off-color jokes, or gamble or go dancing? If we list the things of which some disapprove then we may end up with no friends at all and no contact with people at all -except to condemn them. And the history of the Church has shown many such examples of the way of separation. Monastic movements began that way. The Amish people have chosen quite a radical policy of separation from the evils of the world. The list is long.
But how do we talk to outsiders, having constructed this impenetrable fence of disapproval?
And what of folks inside the fence who think differently to us? The Church is splintered into multiple denominations which have come into being on some point of doctrinal differentness. There may be the acknowledgement that “Basically, there is only one Church” but there is often the subtext that “We, however, have the inside scoop of what Church really is.” And, of course, there are many groups who simply don’t believe that other Christians are Christians at all.
So what’s the right answer, Paul? Do we eat the meat or not? Do we join with outsiders or separate from them? Answer in the box provided.
Paul is not to be trapped into being a Pharisee again! He tells his church-members (so-to-speak) to start thinking love-first. Here he goes:
The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not? We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.(vv1-3)
What you know (or think you know….) or believe is less important than the effect it has on others. Love builds up….knowledge puffs up.
Lean on a balloon and it pops, messily. Lean on a wall and it supports you.
4-6 Some people say, quite rightly, that idols have no actual existence, that there’s nothing to them, that there is no God other than our one God, that no matter how many of these so-called gods are named and worshiped they still don’t add up to anything but a tall story. They say—again, quite rightly—that there is only one God the Father, that everything comes from him, and that he wants us to live for him. Also, they say that there is only one Master—Jesus the Messiah—and that everything is for his sake, including us. Yes. It’s true.
7 In strict logic, then, nothing happened to the meat when it was offered up to an idol. It’s just like any other meat. I know that, and you know that. But knowing isn’t everything. If it becomes everything, some people end up as know-it-alls who treat others as know-nothings. Real knowledge isn’t that insensitive.
We need to be sensitive to the fact that we’re not all at the same level of understanding in this. Some of you have spent your entire lives eating “idol meat,” and are sure that there’s something bad in the meat that then becomes something bad inside of you. An imagination and conscience shaped under those conditions isn’t going to change overnight. (vv4-7)
There is a central truth: the reality of God. And God is love. There is only one God. Only one Jesus. So this discussion of “idols” must be made against that backcloth
8-9 But fortunately God doesn’t grade us on our diet. We’re neither commended when we clean our plate nor reprimanded when we just can’t stomach it. But God does care when you use your freedom carelessly in a way that leads a fellow believer still vulnerable to those old associations to be thrown off track.
10 For instance, say you flaunt your freedom by going to a banquet thrown in honor of idols, where the main course is meat sacrificed to idols. Isn’t there great danger if someone still struggling over this issue, someone who looks up to you as knowledgeable and mature, sees you go into that banquet? The danger is that he will become terribly confused—maybe even to the point of getting mixed up himself in what his conscience tells him is wrong.
11-13 Christ gave up his life for that person. Wouldn’t you at least be willing to give up going to dinner for him—because, as you say, it doesn’t really make any difference? But it does make a difference if you hurt your friend terribly, risking his eternal ruin! When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ. A free meal here and there isn’t worth it at the cost of even one of these “weak ones.” So, never go to these idol-tainted meals if there’s any chance it will trip up one of your brothers or sisters. (vv8-13)
So the main issue is not an “Eat the meat or don’t” choice, as if all the vegetarians are now second-class (or have to form their own denomination). No: the main issue is: what does your decision (whatever it is) do to your relationship with the God who is your master and this person who is your brother or sister who thinks differently?
The solution to the Corinthian problem is that love must come first.
Paul says that there is a tight circle of essentials: the belief in a living, loving God, and in the revelation of Jesus as master: these are absolute essentials to anyone belonging to the fellowship of Jesus, right? If you don’t believe in those essentials then we are not on the same page. It’s like living in France and not speaking French. Your communication with a Frenchman will be very limited because you don’t share the same basic understanding.
But apart from those essentials, the point in 1 Corinthians 8 is not what you believe, but how you believe. You could believe in the doctrine that “God is love” in such a belligerent way that it sends you on crusades to kill anyone who believes differently! You might believe in the lordship of Jesus in a way that means that you ought to hate Muslims.
The principle of love is founded on the truth of one God who bids me care for my brother and sister. If Jesus said that all the commandments can be reduced to “Love God, love one another” then that becomes my bottom line: that becomes the formulating principle out of which every choice derives.
Now I can’t be lazy: I have to decide for myself how I stand on certain issues. I have to be, as Paul said, “convinced in your own mind” but ultimately the point is that I believe those things lovingly, that I have the freedom to restrict my own freedom.
Use your freedom responsibly.