Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Freedom and Responsibility

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

There are actually three whole chapters of 1 Corinthians dedicated to this subject. It was a real struggle for first century Christians, but it’s pretty foreign to us. This whole discussion is outside of our experience, so let’s talk about the situation and why it was so problematic.

Every first century city, outside of exclusively Jewish communities, had pagan temples. And most animals that were slaughtered for food were offered up as a sacrifice in one of these temples. There was a certain superstition behind this. Most people believed that evil spirits could enter your body through your food, so if you offered an animal in sacrifice before you ate it; that protected you against these spirits.

If you were going to throw a banquet of some kind, you would certainly offer the animal to be eaten in a sacrifice. You wouldn’t want your guests to get evil spirits from it. Or food poisoning. And you might even have the banquet inside a pagan temple. Temples had banquet rooms in them, basically the first century equivalent of a church fellowship hall.

But these weren’t the only places you might encounter meat that had been offered in a sacrifice. When an animal was sacrificed, only a small portion of it was burned on the altar. Most of it was given back to the person who brought it. And some of it went to the temple. Since temples got more meat than the priests were able to use, much of it would end up for sale in the marketplaces. So if you went to the marketplace, you never knew for sure whether or not that meat had been part of a pagan sacrifice. For this reason, most cities with a significant Jewish population had their own kosher marketplaces.

There was also a class issue at work. Rich people would eat meat, but most poor people only ate it when the pagan temples had their religious festivals. At festivals, the temples would sacrifice hundreds of animals and give it away to the masses. So while rich people might not think much of meat, poor Christians were more likely to think of it always having a connection to idolatry.

This made life complicated for Christians, and especially for those who had been Gentiles and had come out of this pagan world. How were they to relate to their friends, neighbors, and associates? Could they attend a feast that was being offered in a pagan temple? Could they go to a banquet in someone’s home? Could they go to the market and buy a steak, assuming they were wealthy enough to do so? Or was it best just to become a vegetarian? Some went that route. Others said, “Hey, these idols are nothing. Just pieces of stone. I know the truth, so I can do what I want.”

Paul’s answer to those with this “superior knowledge” is that “knowledge puffs us up with pride. But love builds others up.” Yes, a Christian is free in Christ. But our freedom must be matched with responsibility. We are not free to do whatever we want. That’s a toxic kind of freedom. We are responsible for each other. If our exercise of freedom causes harm to others, then we are acting outside of love.

I’m worried that this might be a particular problem for us. We live in a society that thinks a lot of freedom and our rights. And I’m afraid that we don’t think as much of our responsibility as we should. Freedom of speech can become an excuse to say whatever we want to, even if it is not true or kind or helpful.

Perhaps this past year has shown this with the whole face covering issue. Back in April or so, we were told that wearing a face mask may help to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Some people said, “It violates my rights.” Well, our rights must be matched with responsibility. If it helps, then we should take that upon ourselves for the greater good. A little inconvenience for the sake of our neighbors should not bother us.

“If the exercise of my freedom causes another to stumble, then I will not exercise my freedom.” That flies in the face of our thinking as Americans, but it should be our thinking as Christians.

Paul introduces this subject in chapter 8, then he goes off on a couple of tangents before he returns to his main point.

In chapter 9, Paul discusses his own exercise of his rights. He says, “As an apostle, I have the right to expect support from you and the other churches I have served. But I laid aside the exercise of that right for the sake of the gospel.” Apparently, from what we read in Paul’s letters, he was concerned that people would assume he was preaching the gospel just for monetary rewards. To combat that concern, he continued to carry out a profession as he preached. He did receive money from the churches he served, we read that in his letters, but he never expected it. And he didn’t begrudge that other apostles did receive financial support.

In chapter 10, Paul goes on to talk more about idolatry and the sin of pride. While it may be true that an idol was nothing more than a piece of metal or stone, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to idolatry. Paul recounts how Israel fell into idolatry quickly after God brought them out of Egypt. If we have the pride to think that something is not a temptation for us, then we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Idolatry is a very real danger. Anything other than God that governs our lives is an idol. We have a great privilege as children of God, but we can still fall from grace.

In the second half of chapter 10, Paul lays out a compromise on the subject of meat and idols. First, Christians shouldn’t eat in a pagan temple, period. That’s just plain foolishness to think that’s okay. But, on the other hand, go ahead and buy meat in the market. Don’t even ask where it came from. Just thank God for it. And finally, if you are invited to a meal at someone’s home, feel free to eat. But if they tell you the meat has been offered to an idol, then don’t.

Now, the issue at hand in these chapters is no longer a concern for us. Ideal Market doesn’t deal in idol sacrifices, at least not that I know of. Does that mean these chapters have no relevance to us? No, they still do. The principles here are still relevant in regard to other issues we face.

For example, alcohol. There was a time when Christians didn’t consider moderate consumption of alcohol to be a problem. Drunkenness, yes, but not drinking in general. The temperance movement changed that. Now some Christians view any consumption of alcohol as problematic.

Paul’s advice is relevant. Drunkenness is a definite no. Moderate consumption is fine. But if moderate consumption causes offense to another believer, then lay aside our rights and refrain for their sake. Don’t cause offense. Better to lay aside our rights than cause a problem for another believer.

Our choices in entertainment are also a good example. Are there some kinds of entertainment that are definitely “off limits” to us as Christ-followers? Absolutely. Another pastor I know told the story that he was doing a wedding rehearsal, and when it was over, one of the groomsmen invited him to go with them to the bachelor party at a local strip club. Apparently they were unaware that was not something pastors generally did. He politely declined the offer.

But what is acceptable? What kinds of movies, television, books, and so on are acceptable? Which are not. The answer is not always clear, and the way you answer and the way I answer are not necessarily going to be the same. If you don’t feel good about something, then refrain. If you feel okay about something, but you’re worried that it might cause offense to other believers, then again, refrain. Better to lay aside your right to do something than to cause offense.

We want to privatize life, to imagine that our actions only affect us. But it’s not true. Our actions do affect others. We are not free from each other. Rather, we are responsible for each other. And we must match our freedom with responsibility and love for each other.

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