We Christians have a lot of debates.
To those on the outside, it may seem that we're always arguing with each other about various points of belief. And no arguments get quite as heated as the ones about sin.
It always seems to start when one person calls another person's behavior into question. "You shouldn't do that," they say. "That's a sin."
In modern times, the gay issue has become one of the catalysts for these debates. We who are gay and Christian get accused of sin just for being who we are, when we aren't even doing anything! But it's nowhere near being the only subject of the sin debate. Live life for long, and eventually someone will say that something you're doing is wrong.
One of the biggest debates of Paul's day centered on the question of meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Christians were divided on whether this meat was okay for them to eat. We also looked at Paul's initial response to this question. Believers, he said, should not do anything that might link them symbolically to pagan sacrifice.
But the issue was a bit more complicated than that. Much of the meat available in the marketplace had been previously involved in idol worship. How could a Christian know whether or not a certain piece of meat had been used in a sacrifice? And furthermore, what about the idea that for a Christian, everything is permissible, since we're no longer under the Law?
Paul addresses those questions and more in this week's passage.
1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1"Everything is permissible" - but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" - but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake - the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God - even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
Here Paul reaffirms a characteristic message in his letters, that Christians are not bound by the old "written code" restrictions on how to eat and behave. But he also reminds us that our actions do have consequences, and we must use common sense in examining the impact our actions may have on others.
Christians shouldn't be involved in pagan sacrifices, but when meat is being sold in the marketplace, how can you possibly know where it's been? Paul says, go ahead and eat it in good conscience. Everything on this earth - including that meat - belongs to God. Similarly, if someone invites you to dinner, eat what they have to offer you. You have nothing to fear.
But what if someone tells you that the meat has been involved in a sacrifice? Then, Paul says, you should abstain, but "for the sake of the man who told you." Why?
Let's put this back into the perspective of the debates that face us today. As Christians, we have a tremendous amount of freedom, due to the fact that we are not under Law anymore. When someone accuses you of sinning, remember what Paul said: "Why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?" We are each individually accountable to God; you don't have to justify your freedom to anyone else.
But Paul also wants us to use our freedom wisely. We can choose to do almost anything we want, but Paul encourages us that "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." We should not use our freedom in a way that will cause others to "stumble," including believers and unbelievers. That sometimes means that even though something is okay for us to do, we should still abstain from it, simply because our goal isn't to indulge ourselves but to bring glory to God.
How might our actions cause others to stumble? There are many ways, depending on the situation. For example, think about the use of strong language. I can find no passage in Scripture that says that it's a sin to use certain words. I believe that our freedom in Christ gives us the right to use words that others may find offensive. But, at the same time, what if your use of those words turns someone else off to the message you're trying to convey? What if you are a less effective witness for Christ because your language offends the person you're trying to reach? Shouldn't you then voluntarily abstain from exercising your freedom, so that you can bring glory to God?
This requires a lot of prayer, humility, and self-reflection. There are times that we must do things that others don't like; for instance, I think that being honest about our gay identities is something that helps the church, even though some people may be offended by it. Other times, we may choose to refrain from a behavior in order to be more effective. Either way, our own focus must be not on what we want to do, but on what will bring the most glory to God in this situation.
"For I am not seeking my own good," Paul reminds us, "but the good of many, so that they may be saved."
And why should we go to all this trouble? Because, as Paul says at the end of this passage, we have the example of Christ, who went through more pain, suffering, and inconveniences than any of us ever could, in order that he might reach us.
So next time there's a debate about sin and Christian behavior, stop and think. How can you best glorify God in this situation: by drawing upon your freedom in Christ, or by voluntarily limiting yourself to avoid causing trouble to someone else's conscience?
Only you can answer that question - with God's help.