So Christians have the means, through the Spirit, to apply the Scripture to their own decisions about how to live. Yet their interpretation skills are imperfect, and they’re involved in a long process in which the Spirit teaches them how to live. So they’re works in progress.
That means that believers, who love God, seek to live for him, and know their Bibles, will disagree about the details.
The issues change over time and space, as cultures change. When I was a boy, Christians argued about whether women should have pierced ears; that’s not really much of an issue anymore. When I was in Mexico years later, I learned that some Christians there don’t think mariachi music is appropriate; I was genuinely surprised by that.
So in every time and in every place, believers will disagree about some sort of application. Right now in the US, Christians disagree about alcohol use; about tattoos; and about lots of other stuff.
In Paul’s day, they disagreed about whether Christians should eat meat that had been offered in sacrifice to idols. Nowadays we don’t offer meat-based life units to idols in Western culture, but I think we can put ourselves in first-century sandals and imagine how they felt.
- “That’s idol worship! We can’t act as though that doesn’t matter! Idol worshippers eat that sacrificial meat as an act of devotion to their gods! We don’t want to do anything to give the impression that that’s OK!”
- “Come on, they’re just idols. They don’t even really exist. We worship the true God. He’s not threatened by superstition. We don’t want to give the impression that we take those idols seriously.”
We can also imagine how the groups would tend to shake out. Converted idol worshippers would be more sensitive to the religious meaning of those sacrifices; they’d be more likely to want to get as far away from those practices as possible. Jewish Christians—particularly Hellenistic ones—might be more likely to dismiss the concerns.
I suspect the difference would shake out another way as well. The less well educated and traveled would tend to be concerned about the implicit “worldliness” of eating the meat. The more cosmopolitan and well educated—those with more frequent exposure to diverse cultures—would tend to see no problem with it.
And they go to church together.
What to do?
Paul addresses that question directly in a lengthy portion of 1 Corinthians. In chapter 8 he introduces the issue and gives the short answer; in chapter 9 he reminds the readers of his own example; and in chapter 10 he gives the longer answer with some explanation.
But he begins it all with an important principle about how we are supposed to get along—something that’s going to set the tone for the rest of the question:
1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
So what’s that all about? What does that have to do with eating meat offered to idols?
We all think we’re right. We think we understand the issue of the day, and anybody who disagrees with us is either 1) lying, 2) evil, or 3) just stupid. We see this all the time in political debates these days. The Other Side is so evil that we should “lock her up!” or so stupid that we don’t even need to address their arguments; we just mock them.
Here’s the thing. It can’t be that way in the church. It can’t. We must not think that way about one another.
- Suppose I think that eating the meat is fine, and you don’t. Well, you know what your problem is? You don’t understand grace! You don’t understand the gospel! You just don’t get it!
- Suppose I don’t think that eating the meat is fine, and you do. Well, you know what your problem is? You don’t love Jesus! You don’t understand holiness! You just don’t get it!
As soon as a believer says, “You just don’t get it!” he’s rejecting Paul’s teaching—regardless of which side of the issue he’s on.
Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. We need a completely different approach.
And what approach is that?