Freedom From Stupidity

Paul has been talking about our freedom in Christ, that in Christ people are free from superstition and godless cultural practices. He began this section in chapter eight talking about various food prohibitions and practices as an example of Christian freedom. He had elsewhere discussed the fact that Christians are free from the Old Testament food laws. Here he showed that Christians are also free from pagan food practices.

What made the Old Testament food laws binding was the power of God. And what freed people from those Old Testament food laws was the power of Christ. Here he argues that only God has spiritual power, and God has given all spiritual authority and power to Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18). Therefore, the pagan gods have no power. Their sacrifices and ceremonies have no consequences, and so whatever power was thought to be transmitted to food that had been sacrificed to idols was nonexistent because false gods had no power to begin with.

Therefore, Christians could eat food that had been sacrificed or dedicated to pagan idols because they knew that there was no spiritual power associated with such food. Pagan idols were dead and powerless to do anything. So, there was no danger or threat from such idols or from anything associated with them.

And yet Paul did make a case against eating food that had been sacrificed or dedicated to idols that was based, not on the power of pagan idols, but on the weakness of Christian brothers. Paul had argued that practicing radical Christian freedom in the presence of weaker Christians, Christians who did not fully or correctly take their own weaknesses into consideration, could result in the overestimation of their own strength, their own ability to resist the pull of their old pagan habits, and lead them back into sin. Therefore it was incumbent upon the more mature Christians to model faithfulness in such a way as not to lead other Christians astray. It was an argument, not based on Christian freedom, but based on Christian responsibility to one’s weaker, less mature brothers and sisters. Of course Christians are free, but we are also responsible to God and for one another.

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up'” (1 Corinthians 10:23). Lawful is a correct translation of the Greek, but in this context it means permissible. Paul was saying that while all things are permitted, not all permitted things are helpful, not all permitted things contribute to Christian growth and maturity. Sometimes some things that are permitted should be avoided, if not for our own sake then for the sake of others.

Paul goes on, “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. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (1 Corinthians 10:28-29).

We may ask why we should not be free to express our freedom in Christ any way we please. God is sovereign, Christ is Lord, and Christians are free in Christ. All of these things are true. However, said Paul, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24). This hearkens back to Jesus admonition in Matthew 20:25-28: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

Having children provides this same lesson. Before they have children parents are free to do all sorts of things for their own benefit and pleasure. But when children are in the home, some things must be curtailed — not because they are wrong, not because they are forbidden or unlawful, but because children are prone to mimic behaviors they see without discernment. “Monkey see, monkey do,” as the old adage goes. Children learn by imitation, so adults need to do only those things that will not be abused or misused by those who are less discerning.

Christians are free to eat whatever is available at the market without concerns about propriety, morality or conscience. Because pagan rituals have no spiritual power there is no spiritual danger from pagan ritual foods. But if someone makes a point about the fact that the food is associated with pagan rituals, if someone brings it up, if someone points it out to you, then there is another concern.

This new concern is not about the food, or your freedom to eat whatever you want, but about the person who brought up the concern. If it was not an issue for that person, he would not have brought it up. So, if the concern is raised, it is a real concern. And it is incumbent upon the more mature Christian to set an example that will not be misinterpreted by the less mature Christian, or by the person who has yet to confess Christ as Lord. At this point, the issue is not the food or the power of pagan gods, but service to a fellow or potential Christian. Our obligation to be of service to others trumps our freedom in Christ to do what pleases us.

Paul has delineated an important principle here, that the controlling conscience among Christians is the weaker conscience, or we could say the more sensitive conscience. We should think of it as setting a good example. But let’s not forget that while we want to set a good example, we must not forget or neglect the greater responsibility to teach our children how to discern good and evil in the light of Christ for themselves.

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