At first glance, chapter 8 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians sounds a little bit like a primer on pagan picnic etiquette. He talks a lot about food, idols, and "weak believers." Should you eat this food? How much? What kind? The whole passage can sound strange to modern, Western ears because Paul is addressing an ancient controversy. At the heart of his words, though, Paul offers pastoral and practical advice for a church working to live their faith daily. (That's actually most of Paul's intent in 1 Corinthians. One of the reasons I love it so much.)
The controversy at the heart of this passage is meat that has been offered to idols. Corinth was a religiously diverse city and most of the religions sacrificed animals in their ceremonies. Leftover meat from these ceremonies was usually sold in the public markets. The question Christians had was, "Are we offending God if we eat food that was first offered to idols?" Since many of the local church had converted from these religions, the question could be even more personal: "Can I eat dinner with my pagan relatives/friends if they serve meat?" (This same issue is behind Paul's comments on meat and veggies in Romans 14.)
Paul's answer is simple. "We know that 'no idol ... really exists'" (v. 4). Since there are no other gods, the meat was sacrificed to nothing and it doesn't have any spiritual or magical properties. It's just meat. And eating it doesn't harm us or God. Christians are free to eat whatever we want.
But there's a "but."
Yes, we know this is just meat, but others may not. If someone sees you eating idol meat, will they think, "She must worship Jesus and Apollo. Maybe they're the same thing" or "I thought these Christians were different, but maybe not." Out of love for others, we must think about how our actions affect them. If eating meat keeps someone from knowing Jesus, then we should be vegetarians. Yes, we are free, Paul says, but what we do with that freedom matters.
And it's on this point that this passage about an ancient controversy is still profoundly relevant for today. In the 21st century, individual rights are more common, expected, and celebrated than ever before. For those of us who are Christian and American, we have the freedom to live, think, say, and do pretty much whatever we want, both civically and spiritually. But what we do with that freedom matters.
As a secular example, just because our freedom of speech means we can say or write something cruel or unfriendly, does that mean we should to prove a point? How does being mean in the name of freedom forward our democracy? In the same way, how does using our spiritual freedom to flaunt God’s generosity forward the Kingdom? Using Christian freedom to serve my own personal desires is just another form of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace."
After all, to act and live as if our freedom trumps any consequences is the same as saying, “Nothing we do matters. My actions make no difference.” And I’ve never known anyone who has told me they want their life to be meaningless or they want to leave this world having not done anything that matters.
Part of what Paul is teaching is that the very thing that sets us free from needing to prove ourselves is also what makes our actions meaningful because we are part of a community. God's love sets us free, but our efforts to imitate that love bind us to each other, because love cannot exist in a vacuum.
Years ago I heard a story of an American entertainer (Will Rogers, maybe?) who was at a social event and reaching for a beer when he saw some kids and thought, "They look up to me. What will my drinking mean to them?" He put the beer down, the story goes, and never drank publicly again. That story and Paul's advice to Corinth are often forefront in my mind as a pastor because I realize how I speak, act, and live affects how people see me, my faith, and my profession... and, in part, how they see God.
Like the Corinthian church of old, we are free to eat/say/do what we want, but we are also called to act with love in all we do. That can be a narrow or even hazy line to walk sometimes and I don't always know what is best in every situation, but as Paul points out, sometimes having the right answer isn't as important as having love in the attempt.
From the Gray,
“Give us days to be filled with small rebellions; senseless, brutal acts of kindness from us all.” -Jars of Clay, “Small Rebellions”