Followers of Jesus possess tremendous freedom, because of the Gospel. The problem comes in determining if and when exercising that freedom might cause harm to others, or foster unnecessary division in the church.
The issue was driven home to me more than a few years ago, when I served in youth ministry. Some adult friends of mine invited me to go to a sports bar/restaurant, nearby a local college campus. My friends wanted to know if I would like to split a pitcher of beer.
Though I am close to being a teetotaler, I have never been super strict about it. After all, Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. I figured, the Gospel gives me tremendous freedom in Christ. The Bible forbids drunkenness, but there is no direct prohibition against alcohol in general. There is effectively nothing wrong with sharing a pitcher of beer, with a bunch of friends, in a public restaurant. So, I was in!
No sooner had the pitcher of beer arrived at our table, that one of the guys in my youth group showed up and said, “Hi!” It turned out that this restaurant was frequented by a few of the underaged guys in my youth group. I quickly noticed that he took one glance at the pitcher of beer, and another glance at me with a cup of beer in my hand. After exchanging some small talk, he made a fast exit.
I realized that I had made a mistake.
There were a number of guys like him in the youth group, who came from families where alcohol abuse was a serious problem. I had no such history in my family, nor in my immediate sphere of friends. But for this teenager, the potential threat of fallout from alcohol abuse was just around the corner.
The faith stability of this particular guy, who saw me that night, troubled me. He had shown interest in deep spiritual matters, but I could sense that he was confused about the conflicting messages he was hearing around him, among his peers, his family, and in the youth group. I could tell that the wheels were churning in his head, as he watched me take a sip of my cheap beer (It was not even that good! I could have had a decent micro-brew instead!).
I kept running through my mind what I should say to that young guy, the next time I saw him: I could mention that I am normally a teetotaler. I could launch into a speech about the importance of responsible drinking. I could tell him that Jesus turned water into wine.
But I never had that chance.
I never saw that kid come back to the youth group again.
Alas, I really enjoy the freedom I have in Christ. But that incident was a wake-up call for me. Sometimes, the exercise of my freedom does not benefit others. In fact, it stands a good chance of needlessly harming relationships.
Paul’s Approach to “Disputable Matters,” and Christian Freedom, in Corinth
The Apostle Paul faced a similar problem at the church in Corinth. Food that was often used for pagan rituals could also be found in the marketplace as leftovers, to be taken home and shared at meals with neighbors and friends. Paul opposed the idea of eating food sacrificed to idols, as part of a ritual ceremony. But when it came to sharing a meal with an unbelieving friend, where such food might be present, this was a “disputable matter,” among Christians in the Corinthian church.
Many of the Corinthian Christians had a Gentile background, and probably saw nothing wrong with eating such food. But others might have reacted differently. Some probably rejected the eating of such food, out of principle, to set themselves apart from the culture. Others probably wrestled with this, having had a pagan background, whereby they could be easily led back into their former pagan ways of living and thinking. Others were perhaps from a strict Jewish background, whereby any hint of eating such food would have been forbidden, as a sign of giving into idolatry.
So, what was Paul’s response?
- ‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.’ (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV)
In this particular passage, Paul begins by quoting those in Corinth, who championed the cause of Christian liberty. “All things are lawful,” they would say. There was no hint of legalism in the Church at Corinth. I could even imagine some of them saying that they were led by the “Holy Spirit” to exercise their freedom, in all of its fullness.
But Paul issues a gentle yet firm warning. Yes, there is Christian liberty, but not all things are helpful…. not all things build up, and edify your fellow believer. He continues with some practical advice, that are broken down here into four paragraphs:
- FIRST: ‘Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
SECOND: If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his.
THIRD: For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
FOURTH: So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.’ (1 Corinthians 10:25-33 ESV)
In the first paragraph, Paul acknowledges the case for freedom. He encourages the Corinthians to go easy on themselves and with others, and not lead up to some unnecessary offense. After all, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” so everything created by God is good indeed. Therefore, we can be thankful that we have the freedom to eat whatever God provides for us.
But as the second paragraph shows, Paul considers the case of a believer being invited to dinner, but the unbelieving host tests to see if idolatry really matters to that believer. Paul instructs that if you are informed that “this has been offered in sacrifice,” then the believing guest should refrain from participation in the meal. The main concern is not about the conscience of the guest invited to the meal, but rather, about the conscience of the one serving the food.
The third paragraph, starting as “For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?…,” is sometimes confusing, as it seems like it might be contradicting what Paul just said, in the second paragraph. But many commentators suggest that Paul is recalling what he said at the first paragraph of the passage above, namely that God has given freedom to the believer. Paul affirms that yes, indeed, the believer has been given freedom in Christ. He does not want to see his teaching in the second paragraph misconstrued as a denial of Christian freedom.
Nevertheless, Paul remains undeterred in making his point in the fourth and final paragraph. Paul ties up everything he stated by reminding the believer that we should “do all to the glory of God,” and avoid making unnecessary offense to others. “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” The exercise of that very freedom should not be thought of as an excuse for harming others.
Paul’s case study is very specific. But the application of the central principle, ‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor,’ has sweeping ramifications. In seeking the “good of his neighbor,” Paul has in mind not only relations with those outside of the church, but also relations within the church, when it comes to those “disputable matters,” that can so easily divide us.
Some Christians have thought that Romans 14 is the only passage that discusses “disputable matters” in the church. But both passages, the section from 1 Corinthians 10 highlighted here and Romans 14 both deal with the controversy over eating food sacrificed to idols, despite framing the argument slightly differently in each passage.
Actually, Paul goes more into depth here, within the larger context of 1 Corinthians 8-10, to make his point about “disputable matters.” Paul’s overall argument is that while he felt that he surely had the right to do any number of things, the exercise of such a right was not absolute. Paul was conscious of his actions, and he kept his sense of “entitlement,” as a follower of Jesus in check, less the exercise of his freedoms might become a stumbling block to others. There was a tension that Paul had to live with, as the Gentiles surely felt offended by a number of the beliefs and practices of the Jews, and the Jews likewise were offended by certain Gentile particularities. Paul summarized it like this:
- ‘To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some..’ (1 Corinthians 9:20-22 ESV)
No one likes to think of themselves as being “weak,” but identifying who is the “weak” and who is the “strong” is not the issue. His point is about not putting an unnecessary stumbling block in the path of someone else’s faith journey.
Applying Paul’s Teaching About Christian Freedom
This teaching can be very difficult. For the legalist, Paul’s notion of freedom might come across as too loosey-goosey. But for the anti-legalist, Paul might come across as being too concerned with offending others.
However, these are both wrong-headed ways of understanding Paul. Paul’s main concern is two-fold: (1) He wants to avoid unnecessary division within the church. The Corinthian believers were divided enough as it was. Likewise, Paul encourages us neither to abuse our freedoms, at the expense of others, nor to place heavy burdens on others, that are too difficult to bear. (2) Paul also wants to clear out any and all obstacles for the furtherance of the Gospel, when reaching out to non-believers. Or, to put it another way, we can not make demands on the consciences of others, but we can make demands on a Christian’s charity towards others.
It is not always clear as to what counts as a “disputable matter.” Most Christians would put the issue of drinking alcohol in this category. Others would put doctrinally volatile issues, like the freedom to exercise charismatic gifts, and the freedom of having women serving as elders in a local church, in this list, too. Others may not. Nevertheless, the principle that Paul lays down shows us how we are to handle “disputable matters,” whatever they are, when they arise.
Such “disputable matters,” like the issues faced in the church at Corinth, have the potential to sadly divide Christians today in our churches. Furthermore, those outside of the church make note of when Christians divide amongst themselves, and are generally not impressed when this happens. Granted, we need not fear all division, as sometimes division does happen among believers, when the Word of God is compromised.
But not all division in churches is inevitable, nor is all such division particularly helpful and edifying. Taking a closer look at how the Apostle Paul handles such matters, by acknowledging the freedom we have in Christ, while yet cautioning the exercise of such freedom, is the wisest path to follow. God calls us to hold back on our freedoms, when such restraint is called for, for the sake of the good of our neighbors. Those neighbors include our unbelieving friends, as well as believers in our fellowship.
This topic addresses broader issues of conscience. What is a Christian conscience, anyway? For an excellent study on the matter, I would recommend Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, a book reviewed here on Veracity.