Rights, freedom, what do these terms really mean, anyway? As American citizens, we teach our children at an early age all about freedom. In this country, you are free to make your own decisions. In this country, no one can tell you how to live your life. What a blessing it is to live in such a place as this! But sometimes, I wonder if this blessing has not clouded our view just a bit. Our love for freedom causes us sometimes to forget that we are slaves. Our continual quest for independence causes us sometimes forget that we were put here to serve this world. My prayer is that this community, transformed by the power of the cross, will display our Christian freedom by loving, even when we don’t have to!
When we last left the apostle Paul, he was providing his advice to the Corinthians on the subject of marriage and singleness. If you remember, chapter seven of I Corinthians began a long section of Q & A between Paul and his spiritual children in Corinth. In the first six chapters, Paul offered his unsolicited instructions for them. But beginning in chapter seven, Paul begins his response to a number of their particular questions.
I want us to consider for a few moments one of the most lengthy sections of I Corinthians. In chapters 8–10, Paul discusses at length one issue: “Food offered to idols.” Well, I just lost half of you! Let’s be honest, in our western American culture, the issue of food sacrificed to idols doesn’t come up much! But in the first century, this was one of their big issues. Paul writes at length about it here. He also writes about it to the Romans, and over in the book of Acts, we learn that this issue caused a lot of friction among Christians in the first century. Do you remember the council of Christians that met? We read about it in Acts 15; the church could not decide what to do about all of the new Gentile converts to Christianity. Should they first become Jewish? Should they first be circumcised? The leaders in Jerusalem met, discussed this issue, prayed. In the end, they sent a letter to the Gentile congregations. Near the conclusion of that letter, they wrote:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15:28–29, NIV)Think for a moment about the implications of this statement. The Christian leaders did not want to overburden these Gentiles. They wanted to remove as many barriers as possible between them and Jesus Christ. They wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to come to know Jesus! They only required four things! And this is one of them: do not eat food sacrificed to idols! Many of us have probably read these sections of our New Testament in the past and wondered, “Just what was ‘food sacrificed to idols’”? It was a very common thing in a first century city like Corinth. Often pagan worshippers would meet in a temple to a pagan god and eat together. In their eating of this “sacred meat” in this “sacred precinct” they not only shared a meal—they also, in this act, worshipped. Some of this leftover meat was also sold in the marketplace. People could take it home to eat. And in their eating there, they also communed with the pagan god of their choice. The order given by the Jerusalem council was simple: don’t eat it! Paul’s advice is not so cut and dry. He acknowledges repeatedly in chapters 8–10 of I Corinthians that there is nothing special about this meat.
Food does not bring us near to God: we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (I Corinthians 8:8, NIV)Paul says there is nothing wrong with eating the meat! Later, in chapter 10, when speaking about the meat someone might buy and bring to their home, he says plainly:
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience for the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. (I Corinthians 10:25–26, NIV)But just when you think you have Paul figured out, he seemingly contradicts himself. Just a few sentences after he told the Corinthians to eat anything, he wrote:
But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it. (I Corinthians 10:28a, NIV)Passages like this remind me that Paul is writing a letter by hand. Are many of you letter writers? Do your letters always read perfectly? Are they always easy to understand? Do you ever write something and think to yourself “Wait, I need to qualify that; I need to say that differently.” Paul did this, he was a letter writer, and he was writing by hand. He couldn’t hit delete and start over. Some people have tried to recreate Paul’s thought process here. Richard Hays, for one, a NT scholar, has taken Paul's words in I Corinthians 10:25–30 and written them the way he believes Paul intended for them to be heard. See if this helps you understand Paul’s intent:
Eat everything sold in the meat market; you don’t need to engage in any scrutiny for the sake of “conscience.” For, as Scripture says, “The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord (Jesus).” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you want to go, eat everything that is put in front of you; you don’t need to engage in any scrutiny for the sake of “conscience.”
(But if some weak brother or sister says to you, “This is sacrificial meat,” then don’t eat it, for the sake of the one who made an issue out of it and for the sake of conscience. I certainly don’t mean your own conscience—I’m talking about the conscience of the other person.)
As I say, you yourself don’t need to engage in any scrutiny for the sake of “conscience,” for why should my freedom be judged by the limited moral awareness of somebody else? If I partake with thanks, why am I denounced for the food over which I give thanks? (Hays)Do you understand what Paul is saying? There is one constant theme that unites all three chapters (8–10). It comes to us in I Corinthians 10:23–24. “Everything is permissible” (once again, a quote from the Corinthians). Yes, but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
This sounds great, doesn’t it? But what does it look like?
In chapter 9, Paul shows the Corinthians what Christian freedom looks like. He offers them a picture of his own life. As a minister, he writes, I have every right to receive payment from you and everyone else for whom I minister. But instead, Paul accepted nothing from the Corinthians. Why?
Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel, so I can be a partner with it. (I Corinthians 9:19–23, CEB)You see, for Paul, this entire discussion wasn’t about food offered to idols. It was about the gospel. Everything for Paul was about the gospel. Paul understood very well…
All of this is not about me.
All of this is not about you.
All of this is about God.
Brothers and sisters, are we enjoying our freedom too much?
I want to confess to you that I have enjoyed my freedom too much, often at the expense of others. In recent years, in Churches of Christ, there has been an obvious polarization. Liberals vs. Conservatives, Traditionalists vs. Progressives. Most people who define the boundaries of these nebulous categories would place me squarely in the camp of liberal or progressive. Because I do not believe having a praise team will send us to hell. Because I do not believe instrumental music in worship is a matter of salvation. Because I believe there are Christian brothers and sisters worshipping with us all over Tyler, and they are not all in buildings with Church of Christ on their marquee. I want to confess to you this morning that I have become frustrated with my brothers and sisters to my right. And I have not often considered their opinions or convictions. I have not recently considered them at all. And for that I am wrong. But my confession does not end there. I think most of the time we focus too much on ourselves, and by that I mean those of us who already belong to Jesus. From this point forward, I plan to make a more concerted effort to reach those outside this building. Those outside of any building on a Sunday morning, and that means I must change. I cannot expect non-Christians of this world to act like Christians before I will associate with them. I cannot expect non-Christians to dress like me, talk like me, and go to the same places I go. Church, I want to be a minister of the gospel who cares at least as much for the lost as the saved! My prayer is that you will join me, both in my confession and in my pledge to change.
For Paul, the most important thing was the gospel, not freedom! Remember, to have a right to do something is not the same as being right in doing it. My prayer for us this week is that we will be a people who understand better the responsibility of freedom and that we will manifest our Christian freedom first of all in love.