Prudent Freedom


Now food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse if we do not eat and no better if we do. But be careful that this liberty of yours does not become a hindrance to the weak. (1Co 8:8-9 NET Bible)

Sometimes when studying the Bible the questions and concerns that are raised seem to have little bearing on our lives today. In chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul takes up a question concerning food sold to the public after being slaughtered in pagan temples and whether or not it is allowable to eat it. How does that apply to us? Since we don't have to worry about that today, we might be tempted to just skip over the whole thing, or treat it as a historical curiosity. But I think it is helpful to get a little historical background first so that we understand the bigger picture here. Once we see what Paul had to confront and how he solved the problem, we can apply the same type of thinking and the same spiritual concepts to our situations today.

The practical decision of the question was one of immense importance. If it were unlawful under any circumstances to eat idol-offerings, then the Gentile convert was condemned to a life of Levitism almost as rigorous as that of the Jew. The distinction between clean and unclean meats formed an insuperable barrier between Jews and Gentiles. ... Gentiles had always been accustomed to buy meat in the markets. Now, much of this meat consisted of remnants of animals slain as sacrifices, after the priests had had their share. ... The market was therefore stocked with meat which had been connected with idol-sacrifices. The Christian could never be sure about any meat which he bought if he held it wrong to partake of these offerings. Further than this, he would-especially if he were poor-feel it a great privation to be entirely out off from the public feasts (sussitia), which perhaps were often his only chance of eating meat at all; and also to be forbidden to take a social meal with any of his Gentile neighbours or relatives. (The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Corinthians)

This little sketch of ancient life from the Pulpit Commentary sums it up nicely. The early Christian church was a mixture of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. To the Jews, eating anything other than kashar meats was forbidden. Furthermore, many converts from paganism still thought of the pagan deities as gods, and for them to eat such food seemed to be turning back from Christianity. Both would have seen eating meat "sacrificed to idols" as immoral. They had not yet come to the understanding that "the Kingdom of God is not meat and drink" and were still troubled in conscience over what they ate or where it came from. Those, like Paul, who had a more mature understanding were not troubled by their food. They understood, as Jesus had said, food goes through the stomach and exits the body, thus it cannot defile a person. The problem, in a nutshell, is that Paul is dealing with multiple understandings that seem to be in direct conflict with each other. Surely one view is correct and the other false.

When faced with a dilemma where there is an either this or that alternate, it is always tempting to just pick one side or the other and be done with it. But we have to watch for the "false dilemma" where only two of many possibilities are presented. There may very well be another option, but, in this case, Paul goes on to explain that, since the idols were not true deities, there was no problem with the meat to begin with. He then changes the nature of the problem from a strict legal commandment into one based on a deeper understanding of the life of a Christian. The question for Paul is not which behavior is correct, but how do we determine our own behavior towards others when we have different levels of understanding? If we can see Paul's solution to the dilemma, we have a sound spiritual concept that can be applied to many situations where there is an apparent division between believers.

With regard to food sacrificed to idols, we know that "we all have knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If someone thinks he knows something, he does not yet know to the degree that he needs to know. (1Co 8:1-2)

This opening statement gives us a first clue to how Paul handles these situations. The argument over food, like many other doctrinal disputes, was one over who had the best knowledge. Yes, Paul says, we all have knowledge, but let's never forget that none of us knows it all. Only God can be said to be omniscient, and each of us is working through a spiritual journey where our knowledge of God's ways is increasing as we go. The unfortunate difficulty we have is that those who have a lesser understanding may not realize their knowledge is limited. Those with a greater understanding see the deeper meaning and the temptation is for the more mature understanding to get "puffed up" with that knowledge. But even those with greater understanding have much yet to learn, so don't anyone think he is a know-it-all. In fact, those with a greater or more mature understanding have a greater obligation. If they truly have a mature knowledge, then they must also act with greater compassion. The closer we come to God, the more we should reflect that perfect love that is God's nature.

Understanding that any one of us may be the one with the lesser knowledge should cause us to pause and carefully consider the alternate view. There must be a consideration and compassion among us, always trying to understand the other, not just prove that we are the ones who are correct. Our own understanding may in fact be the immature one. Where we are certain in our knowledge, there is no fear to act on that knowledge. We are free to act, even if others do not understand or appreciate what we are doing or why.

However, even when we are sure in our doctrine, we cannot use our freedom as an excuse to just do whatever we want. This is a little complicated, and seems contradictory at first. If I am truly free because of God's spirit working in me, why can't I just do as I know I can do? Paul answers that with an example from his own life.

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? (1Co 9:1)

In chapter nine, Paul explains that, although he had every right to receive payment for his preaching, he did not demand that payment from the Church at Corinth. Likewise, he had the right to be married and have a family, but also forgo that right. He was free from the ordinances concerning food, clothing, associations, etc., that were embodied in the Law of Moses. Yet, at times, Paul would act according to those laws so as to be able to preach to Jews. In all cases the reason for Paul's actions was so that he could be more effective in preaching the Gospel.

This is the understanding that we need have. We tend to think of our freedom in a self-centered manner. We are set free by Jesus, and thus we are not bound by strict rules, ordinances, or cultural customs, and we interpret that as a personal thing. I can do what I was forbidden to do before, because I have been redeemed and lifted out of conformity to the world. Yet, this is a misunderstanding of our freedom. We are set free from the limitations of the worldly rules so that we might be better able to do God's will. That is what Paul is talking about here. Paul sums it up nicely in chapter ten:

"Everything is lawful," but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is lawful," but not everything builds others up. Do not seek your own good, but the good of the other person. (1Co 10:23-24)

Dilemmas over proper behavior and social customs can easily be solved when we realize our freedom is not self-serving but God-serving. Always, and everywhere, we use our freedom not for self, but for God. He has set us free so that we might be better able to serve Him. We can exercise our freedom in Christ, but not in an arrogant, me-first, who-cares-what-you-think manner. Never do we use our freedom in a manner that will cause others to stumble. Whenever possible, we help other to understand why we have this freedom, but it is better to deny some freedom to ourselves than to cause confusion to another.

The practical consequence is that we can participate in any part of society we may need to, but we do so as a servant of the Lord. We can engage in business, pursue entertainment and recreation right alongside those of the world, but always with an attitude that we are first and foremost there to help others. We can go into the worse "den of iniquity" if we are there to shine the light of God's love into that place. We can eat whatever food is set in front of us without fear in order that we might eat alongside those who need our understanding. We can participate in any social custom or festival, no matter its origin, so that we may show to others of our love of God and salvation in Jesus. We use our freedom in Christ in prudent manner, not serving self, but building up the body of Christ in love.


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