Sunday, July 14, 2013

Food, Idols, Knoweldge and the Ethic of Love (1 Coritnhians 8)...One:on the road to Unity in 1 Corinthians (Part 8)

Paul actually spends a lot of time, chapters 9, 10 and 11 looking at the issue of food sacrificed to idols. Maybe it’s hard for us to get our head round it being that important, but in Corinth it permeated the whole of society. In the way Paul deals with this issue, applying good theology, and basic Christian ethical principles it helps us with a raft of issues we face as we along with the church at Corinth work at coming together from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to be one, and live as  the new people of God.


In the car park out here earlier in the year, I had a conversation which helped me to understand the issue of food sacrificed to idols.  I was talking with an Indian woman who shared that she was a Christian and most of her family and community was Hindu. When they got together for various community and family celebrations, she did not eat the food because it had been dedicated to various deities. Now She knew her culture well enough to make those decisions and she was able to use this difference as a way of sharing her faith with her people. It made things rather hard for her but now her family and community respected her Christian stance.


When Paul mentions food the key issue was meat. We are used to going to the butcher and getting meat, maybe now we are starting to ask where they sourced that meat from, is it free range is it from New Zealand, but in Paul’s time the pagan temples were the main source of meat in the market place. The animals would be sacrificed, part of it would be burnt as an offering, part of it would be shared in a meal with those who had come to the temple and a portion would go out and be sold. While the council of Jerusalem in acts 15 could ask gentile believers to abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols, as not to offend Jewish believers it wasn’t a simple matter.


You and I may go out and have a special celebration at a restaurant, or go out to a meal as part of our business. Maybe you’ll be aware of a statue of Buddha or some other deity in the corner and wonder. But in Corinth the temples were the restaurants, you’d go with your family or business guild to a temple and eat there and the meal would be part of the religious ceremony. How were Christians and in particular those who had just become Christians from a pagan background going to live in that environment. Did it mean totally separation, which was the Jewish approach… if there was enough of them living in a city they would have their own kosher butcher, if not they would be vegetarian,  or could the believers in good conscience simply be part of it all. After all were they not free in Christ to do whatever we wanted? Idols are only things food is just food. What would happen if they went to a neighbour’s house and were served that meat? What if it meant that their business or family relationships were adversely affected if they stayed away? Throw in the fact that for the poor the temple celebrations may have been their only reliable source of meat. What did it mean if you wanted to buy a nice piece of meat for the Sunday roast? Was there room for different approaches? Was it simply left up to the individual and what they were comfortable with?


As it’s such a major issue for the Corinthians Paul starts as we’ll see today by addressing it from a theological perspective and applying a  basic principle of Christian ethics. Then as well see next week in chapter 9 he discusses his own understanding of Christian freedom and asserts his authority as an apostle, then in chapter 10 he gets down to the nitty-gritty and deals with a misunderstanding of Christian communion and practical do’s and don’t concerning food sacrificed to idols.

Once again Paul starts by addressing the core issue behind what was happening, that some in Corinth thought that they were spiritual and had made it and that this meant that they were able to do whatever they wanted, even go to the temple and be involved in the meals and rituals there. After all idols were nothing by stone and metal and food was just food.  It didn’t matter what affect this had on other believers. It was their right.  In verse 1 Paul quotes their own words to them “we all possess knowledge”. They saw themselves as having become wise, but Paul affirms here that the basis for Christian ethics is not knowledge by itself but rather love. Knowledge is important but Knowledge by itself puffs up, love, says Paul, builds up.  For the Christian how we use our knowledge needs to be worked out through love for others. We can simply do what we want or what we think is our right to do, but that can have detrimental affect on the community of faith, its not the loving thing to do in Christ.


Paul applies this ethical understanding to meat sacrificed to idols. Firstly he affirms the knowledge. The Corinthians had rightly said that idols were simply bits of wood or stone, he affirms the Corinthians belief in monotheism, that there is no God but one. The Old Testament is full of scathing sarcasm for those who put their trust in idols. In Isaiah 44 you get this withering attack on the rational for the worship and trust in such things.  A person will cut down a tree use some it for a fire and then carve the rest into a god and trust it to help them. Paul agrees that this is absurd, however as we see when we come to look at chapter 11 he says  that believers should not be involved in the temple meals because the worship of such idols is a sphere of demonic activity. Let’s leave that for now, Paul goes on to ask them to think about what it means to believe in the one true God.


Even says Paul if these gods and lords exist, be they the traditional gods or the imperial ones; that is emperors wanting to worshipped as divine, that for the believers there was one God, the Father, and one Lord  Jesus Christ, through whom we come to know God.  It’s not enough to simply know idols are not real the real question is how do we affirm and believe and live out the reality of who God is.  NT Wright puts it like this 9click for quote… “Paul wants them to think through the issues themselves, and that means thinking about just who the true God is, and what it means to love and serve him. That remains as urgent a task today as it was in the first century.”   


They may think they can go and worship at the pagan temple or be involved in other religious activity because after all behind it all there is just one true God, which has become quite a popular philosophy amongst new age folk, but says Paul, that is not the case. Yes there is one God but the only way that we can come to him and worship him is through Jesus Christ.


They may think they are free to do what they want but if they are to worship this one true god they need to do that by reflecting the nature of that God as well and that is that God loves us and calls us to love one another.


So Paul asks the believers in Corinth to realise that not everyone has the knowledge that they. That for many who come to faith in Jesus Christ, idols and idol worship was still a very real thing. They saw so called stronger Christians participating in what happened in the pagan temples; instead of being encouraged it may draw them back into that life style.


Paul introduces what is called the stumbling block principle, that we don’t want our knowledge or the way we express our Christian freedom to harm a fellow believer and draw them away from Christ. That love of others needs to be our motivation. If how we act draws people away from Christ then should we do it? 


Now in the past this principle has been misunderstood, in some older translations it said that we shouldn’t offend weaker brothers and sisters and that has led to the person with the strictest moral code ruling the roost.  We don’t do that because we may offend Brother Jo who thinks it’s wrong. The weaker brother here however is not the narrow minded legalist who wants people to keep their strict code rather it is the one for whom our actions  will lead them to do something they consider wrong or lead them away from Christ.


This does tend to fly in the face of our western understanding of personal rights and freedoms.  But Paul calls us to think communally and to  think of each other as people for whom Christ has die, so we don’t want to hurt them and lead them astray. Jesus had given some very stern warning about those who would lead his little ones away. And Paul here brings that to bear by saying that to sin against a sister or brother like that is to sin against Christ himself. It is an outworking of Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats that what we do for the least we do for Christ. 


And says Paul, using the Corinthians own logic, in the end it is just food, we are not missing out on anything of real value by giving up. He says he would rather give up eating meat than seeing a brother or sister fall into sin. The challenge for us is how this plays out in our world, in our time… here is an example which I hope helps us think this principle through.

I always remember David Stewart, who was the principle at the Bible College of New Zealand when I was there, talking about how this passage impacted on him. He was a missionary in China and one of the cultural differences amongst missionaries from different country’s was their attitude to alcohol. The European missionaries drank the American ones didn’t. It was a cultural understanding, David Stewart watched two of the Chinese people who became followers, follow the European missionaries’ example and drink and sadly they became alcoholics, David Stewart’s response was that he would no longer drink alcohol because as a Christian leader he didn’t want anyone to follow a bad example like that.


The bible has warnings against drunkenness but it does not ban Christians from drinking. Christians down through the ages have had different understanding about alcohol, the monks were the brewers and wine makers of Europe. Reformers in the 18th century encouraged beer drinking as an alternative to hard liquor (you didn't get as drunk as you did swilling gin and there was at least some nutritional value in it), conservative evangelicals have been tee total , because of the damage they see alcohol doing to society (Kate Shepherd who in New Zealand lead the call for the emancipation of women was the head of the Baptist Temperance Movement and  saw women having the vote as a way to bring abolition to New Zealand). There are others who preach and teach that we lead by our example…moderation.

It was interesting to note that there were also other clashes over moral issues amongst the missionaries as well. The American women missionaries wore makeup and some of the European missionaries thought this was decadent and vain behaviour. The different nationalities had a different understanding about smoking as well.  I remember a friend of mine talking about peoples different approaches to media as well. He went to a conference where one well known international speaker had encouraged the young people not to simply go to the latest greatest movie, as they may have their thinking and worldview tainted by the movies, the next speaker used film clips and made references to various pop culture movies. There are lots of issues that this principle helps us to deal with, both small and big issues. Even things that in the end are the grey areas or amoral… Now Paul will make some hard and fast ruling s about food sacrificed to idols in chapter 10, But the key factors for us is that we mediate our behaviour by asking How am I worshipping God in this and am I doing no harm to my brothers and sisters whom Christ died for. We will need to be prepared to curb our freedom for the sake of love. For some areas that will mean we do have different approaches, different understandings. And in that we will need to remember these words which I have heard attributed to various Christian leaders from Augustine to count Zinzindorf

In the essentials unity

In the non-essentials liberty

In all things love

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