Unnecessary Limits on Freedom

I just finished preaching through 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 on Sunday mornings here at IC (the series begins here). Although I did not originally plan to do this many, it took me 20 messages to work through this section of Scripture. I am sure I could have done it in less, but there are a few spots that warranted, I believe, slowing down to deal carefully with contemporary application. The historical context differs significantly from most Western cultural contexts, but it is a section of Scripture that is important for life and ministry in our day. I don’t subscribe to the somewhat common view that these chapters are mainly about Christian liberty and/or debatable things. Paul’s position on food offered to idols is anything but neutral and he doesn’t come close to assigning it to a debatable category. Believers never have liberty to participate in idolatry. Ever.

There are, though, some important truths taught about our freedom. One section that addresses this issue very clearly comes near the end of chapter ten. There, Paul is dealing with circumstances which do not present immediate, direct connection with idolatry, and he informs the believers that they are free to treat buying and eating the food as acceptable. They are not obligated to search out any idolatrous connections to the meat sold in the market or put on the table at a believer’s dinner party. His response to both situations is to eat “without asking questions for conscience’ sake” (vv. 25, 27).

Granted, he has already established the principle that freedom is not ultimate and seeking the good of others trumps it (cf. 10:23-24). If your freedom intersects with idolatry, your freedom ends. Love for God and love for neighbor take priority over personal enjoyment. There simply is no room for self-centered freedom. I think Paul makes that very clear. It should not be missed, however, that Paul is clear that although freedom may not be ultimate, it is still to be enjoyed and should not be unnecessarily limited.

The food which is being sold in the market and offered as dinner by the unbeliever first belonged to the Lord, so it can be received with joyful gratitude to the Lord who owns the earth and all it contains (cf. 10:26, 30). That’s how you eat to the glory of God—you recognize that it all comes from Him and should be received with thankfulness. Paul’s theological framework is that it is God “who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17) and “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5).

By twice stating that they were not to ask questions about the meat, Paul also is making it clear that they should not unnecessarily encumber their freedom. Since this meat is not immediately, directly tied to idols, they don’t need to snoop around about its religious history or press the people selling or serving it regarding any idolatrous connections. The presumption is that eating it is permissible since the food first belonged to God.

Paul’s point here was challenging to think about because it touches a spot where I’ve felt some tension for a while. Perhaps I can describe the tension by laying Ephesians 5:10 (“trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord”) down along side of the two statements in 1 Corinthians 10 (“eat without asking questions for conscience’ sake”). There is no contradiction between these texts, but it is possible that one could so emphasize doing investigations (“trying to learn”) that you negatively impact people’s ability to eat and enjoy God’s good gifts. What applies in one context (avoiding the “the unfruitful deeds of darkness”) does not in a different one (giving thanks because “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains”).

I fear that sometimes we have so emphasized “testing things” that we have damaged our ability to enjoy. I am really not much for spontaneity, so don’t jump to that conclusion, but it does seem that something is lost when people cannot spontaneously enjoy good gifts because they are preoccupied with making sure that they are not doing something wrong. It seems, at times, that we’ve created an environment where “asking questions for conscience’ sake” has become the standard operating principle.

I think that what Paul teaches here suggests that if we are living within the boundaries of God’s revealed will, then we should not treat life like a walk though a field full of landmines. Yes, I know that this world is not a friend to grace, but food is a good gift from God that neither commends nor condemns us (cf. 1 Cor 8:8), so there is a presumption of permissibility. Believers don’t need to press the matter any farther—if someone else surfaces a problem then respond correctly, but they aren’t obligated to dig around.

Now, we need to be careful moving outward with applications, but I think it is fair to say that being obsessed with the possibility of doing something wrong is almost always counterproductive. Usually it leads to man-made guidelines for behavior (think kosher rules) which seem inevitably to produce conflict among God’s people over those “rules.” Before long, distinct groups form and fuss over who is most committed to avoiding doing anything wrong. In terms of the text, this approach ends up tossing out “eat without asking questions for conscience’ sake” in favor of “don’t eat meat at all because someone might think that you are being careless about idolatry.”

What Paul is telling them to do is not careless at all, though. He has been unmistakably clear about completely banning all idolatry, and will even place them under the obligation to push the plate away if someone even raises the issue of idolatry. He does not, however, argue for total and complete withdrawal from their culture (i.e., not shopping in their markets or eating at the dinner parties of unbelievers). The issue was the idolatry, not the food. The issue was participation in idolatry, not a potential perception of association with idolatry.

My concern is that some people have confused careful with care-filled. The latter is the kind of anxious, isolated Christian who is obsessed with concern that he might do something wrong (or that others think is wrong). That poor brother or sister spends hours investigating each piece of meat on the market stand instead of just buying the one that looks like the best deal.

Somewhere between careless and care-filled we need to find the proper biblical balance.

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