Everything is Permissible but

Read 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

As a youth minister, one of the first challenges I confronted had to do with the difficulty of talking about purity.  The world my parents and church presented to me was morally unambiguous.  Right was right; wrong was wrong.  I do not know if they ever experienced the world with such clarity.  What I do know is that, the kids in my youth group, their parents and the adults around them did not understand the world in the kinds of discrete categories that delineated my life.  This is not to suggest that they were less moral.  After all, these were good West Texas folk.  They just didn’t seem to wrestle with the same elements.  They had less clarity and less guilt.  They had less rigidity and less shame.  It was both challenge and blessing.

There’s some terrifying aspects to moral ambiguity especially for someone like me who, were it not for very clear rules, would have tried everything imaginable.  Restraint is not in my hard-wiring.  It had to be programmed in post-production.  And it has had to be reprogrammed and reprogrammed.  Yet, as someone who did want to teach moral purity, I found I had to try to make the case moral purity.  And that meant more fully understanding my own worldview.  Sometimes failing to fully understand a worldview can lead to detrimental consequences.

Like the young people and their parents I encountered in my first youth ministry setting, the people in Corinth saw more ambiguity than did their pastor—Paul.  Meat that had been sacrificed to idols would be available in meat markets.  Some Christians said, “It’s just Bar-B-Cue. What’s the big deal?”   Others said, “It’s idolatry.  Don’t eat.”  The “no big deal” crowd had developed something of a slogan, “Everything is permissible” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  God’s grace meant freedom therefore everything is permissible.  Yet, Paul wrote to say in effect—sometimes failing to fully understand a worldview can lead to detrimental consequences.  So, Paul advocated for a more moderate approach to the issue by trying to help the Corinthian Christians understand the fuller picture.  Two big concepts he tried to get them to understand.

Concept #1—Seek what’s beneficial.  Paul adds an addendum to their bumper sticker.  “’Everything is permissible,’ but not everything is beneficial.”  Paul reminded them that they were to seek what was beneficial for others.  Yes, people had the freedom to eat whatever was placed in front of them.  After all, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  However, if eating would be detrimental (the opposite of beneficial) for someone else, then a person should abstain.  Why?  Why would a person avoid a good steak for the sake of someone else?  Because the fuller understanding of the Christian worldview meant seek the good of all and not just self-interest. Eating meat sacrificed to an idol could lead to the detrimental consequence of damaging another person’s faith. In Jesus’s words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Concept #2—Seek what liberates.  Paul repeats the Corinthians’ bumper sticker philosophy and adds another addendum.  “’Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.”  Through faith we accept God’s will as the true means for human wholeness.  In the fuller understanding of the Christian worldview, a person recognizes that their life belongs to God and God alone.  Moreover, a Christian understands that living within the boundaries God has set is not a rigid and joyless life.  It is a life that truly frees.  The sin “that so easily ensnares” (Hebrews 12:1) promises freedom but leads to control.  The moral purity that seems like a burden gives us a route to independence from the things of this world and wholeness.

Food Courts and Pagan Temples

Perhaps you’ve seen the video of a flash mob choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus in a mall food court.  It’s a beautiful and courageous display of faith in a secular context.  I’m struck by the first young lady who begins to sing alone.  She’s talking on the phone.  Even singing alone she conveys the sense that she’s there with someone else.  There are places less sacred than food courts at shopping malls . . . but not many.  The movement of Handel’s glorious praise of Christ into such a secular context puts a bit of a lump in my throat.  I think about mall food courts whenever I think about the teaching concerning communion in 1 Corinthians concerning meet sacrificed to idols.  I’m not sure that there’s any historical resemblance.  It’s just the image that comes to mind.

Corinth had several pagan temples where meat would have been sacrificed.  If a person ate at the temple, they would be participants in the pagan worship.  But what about a person being invited into a home where the meat had been bought at a pagan temple?  Did that count as participation in idolatry.  This was the kind of question that pushed at the seams of the early church in Corinth.  The church there contained some Christians who would have had strong convictions about delineating their lives from that of pagan idolatry (1 Corinthians 8:7).  The church also contained other Christians who would have thought it less consequential.  It’s just meat.  What difference did it make where it came from when one had come to know the Creator through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6)?  Paul in effect agreed with the group who believed they were at liberty to eat meat sacrificed to idols without participation in idolatry, but taught that if such an exercise of freedom were morally troubling to another believer, Christians ought to restrict their own freedom for the sake of their fellow Christians’ conscience.  This is the ethical backdrop for what Paul says about communion in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.”

The reason that Christians cannot simply exercise their freedom without regard to the needs of others is simple—Christ has made us one.  The communion that we share is not done in isolation.  It is done in union with (that’s what the word comm-union means).  We are united with Christ and through our union with Christ we are made one with other followers of Jesus Christ. I’m always a little troubled when people refer to communion as their own “private time with God.”  Solitude, meditation, private prayer all have an important role to play in the Christian life.  Jesus himself would often withdraw alone to pray.  Yet, the Lord’s table is meant to symbolize the drawing together, the sharing of life with one another.

Paul’s resolution to the question of how to navigate the tricky waters of the pagan context of Corinth was to place Christ ahead of all and understand the human relationship not in terms of who’s right or wrong, weak or strong, free to do as they please or bound by conscience, but in terms of how we mutually care for one another within the unity we have in Christ.  It matters who is present and to whom we are connected when we take the bread and cup.  Like the young woman beginning Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in the food court of a mall talking on a cell phone, we begin our spiritual lives connected to others.  Through baptism and communion, we join ourselves with fellow believers.