4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
This passage is difficult to relate to. The specific problem in the church at Corinth is not one that troubles us today. Aside from sanitation concerns, I have not given much thought to how an animal was slaughtered before it reached my local supermarket. In the first century Corinth however, a common meat source was from the animals sacrificed to various gods. This meat source could make it into the marketplace or someone might be invited to share the meat more as a social invitation than as a religious act. In either case, would Christians compromise their beliefs by eating such meat?
In today’s world, if you attend a KKK meeting out of curiosity, does that say anything about your beliefs or your desire to become a KKK member? Likewise, what if you visit a mosque or a synagogue regularly because they have an engaging book club? At what point does our participation ‘weaken’ our own core positions. Paul’s answer is that for the individual who remembers ‘yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist…’ , there is no conflict. In today’s parlance, if we are clear about our own beliefs, visiting other political groups or worship traditions does not mean we share those beliefs.
But real life is always more complicated. Paul points out that often the social conventions are so familiar (“some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol”) Christians can give implicit approval to idols. This is not an esoteric problem. It shows up in our individual and societal lives. Individually, I frequently hear clients wonder aloud, “Why did I agree to do that, I didn’t really want to….” Most of us have stayed silent to avoid conflict or to seek approval. There is always a struggle between maintaining our identity and values versus ‘fitting in’. Virtually everyone of us has gone along to get along.
The same issue shows up when immigrant groups both wish to assimilate and to retain their own cultural identity. When I took Hebrew in college, I was the only non Jew in the class. The rabbi teaching the class gave an introductory talk warning against dating outside the faith. Such intermingling could lead to a mixed marriage in which it would be harder to maintain Jewish traditions. The core identity would be diluted. The same conflict arises in the mixed marriages of Christians. It is not uncommon for families to avoid the conflict by choosing an amorphous spirituality rather than a formal religion. How do you hold on to what you hold sacred in a pluralistic society? When does our desire to fit in lead us to compromises— and eventually to a universalism that leaves us without a center.
In Corinth, it would be easy to blend in by sharing meals with different religious factions. Paul did not say such behavior was wrong but he did say there was a risk. If someone were joining in to get along—because that is the temptation in a pluralistic society, they would feel vindicated by the presence of other people, including Christians, who did the same thing. Sharing a meal or eating meat was not the problem, the problem was the potential impact on others.
CONCERN FOR COMMUNITY
Being mindful of our potential impact on others is difficult, demanding and is almost counter cultural in our society. Our society leans heavily toward individual rights as the principle criteria for decision making. In this morning’s paper (AJC 1/27/2021), there was a story about a state representative, David Clark, who refused to follow the bipartisan requirement that he take a regular COVID test. When he failed to comply, he was required to leave the chambers. Clark was indignant and said, “I’m not falling in line. They have no right to do this. ….The speaker is becoming a dictator. Where does it stop?” He asks a good question. How far is too far when individual rights are in conflict with community interests?
Though the line between individual rights and community welfare actually is fluid, the line exists and is subject to constant debate. I am old enough to remember when requiring seat belts was controversial. I also remember being careless when I was only going to be making a ‘short’ trip. My reluctance was quite irrational. I was putting myself, my family and others at risk but It was inconvenient for me and I did not want to comply. Besides, nobody could tell what to do in my own car! Where does it stop? Having speed limits, requiring seat belts, or forbidding the yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater are identifiable infringements upon our individual rights. In each case, the welfare of the community has taken priority over our individual right to do something.
In the debate between individual rights versus community well being, Paul comes down strongly on the side of mindfulness of others. As he puts it, “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” Of course, he has the right to eat whatever he wants. But for him, the right thing to do, is to be aware of his impact upon others. We need not be governed by the needs of others but we do have an obligation to include such needs in our decision making.
RIGHTS VS THE RIGHT THING TO DO
It is inconvenient to be a Christian. The problem of loving is that it always includes inconvenience. It always requires conscious awareness of the needs of others. And such care does not necessarily match our personal self interest. In ordinary life, this is often called common courtesy. Most of us would not serve shellfish at a dinner party if we knew someone was allergic. We have the right to do so but it is not the right thing to do. If we know our partner’s soft spot and use it against them, our ‘victory’ will be short sighted and short lived. Relationships thrive when we proactively show regard. That is a much different standard than measuring a relationship by what we receive or measuring it by what is our right.
We have spent the last three weeks looking at specific situations of human need— secularly, the least of these. We can explain and rationalize the disparities in the world. We have the right to ignore the people struggling around us. In fact, it is often to our advantage. But Paul, and Jesus, would say that is not the right thing to do.
KNOWLEDGE PUFFS UP; LOVE BUILDS UP
It is a whole lot easier to follow a rule book defining right and wrong than it is to be mindful. As Paul says, Christians need not worry about the legality of eating meat, they need to be mindful of the impact of their choices on the lives of others. We often skip buying ice cream or snacks when our partner is dieting. We might not serve alcohol if an addicted person is visiting our home. There is nothing sinful about ice cream or alcohol—but there is something sinful about insisting upon our rights and privileges without regard for others. That does NOT mean the needs of others automatically supersede our own. That is as arbitrary as saying our needs should supersede the needs of others. What it does mean is that we are obligated to struggle with discernment. There is no one size that fits all. There is a continual balancing of our needs with the needs of others. We can ignore neither.
We must be aware of our impact on our community. We must struggle with the right thing to do instead of insisting upon our rights. Claiming certainty is an artificial line we draw to protect us from the difficult task of discernment. When we insist on our own way or insist that we are right, we dismiss others and ignore the reality that honest people can come to opposite conclusions. Love builds up because love shows regard and love creates a space for other points of view.
May we trust that our righteousness comes from God not from being right. Only with such confidence can we truly see others and love as Christ loved. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.