Freedom to do whatever.

The Text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13


Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

You might recognise this type of phrase if you have one of those pedantic parents who like to use every opportunity to educate you on the technicalities of the English language, such as when you asked such a question like: “Can I have a Tim Tam?”

Your mother may have answered: Yes, you can, but you may not.”

When you look at her with frustration she may have then gone on to say something like: “’Can I?’ is a question which asks about ability, where the question ‘May I?’ asks permission. So, yes, you can have a Tim Tam biscuit because you’re quite capable of going and getting it, holding it in your own fingers, and feeding yourself. However, you may not be permitted to have a Tim Tam right now because it’ll spoil your appetite for dinner.”

So yes, there are many things you can do, but that doesn’t mean you should.

St Paul uses a similar argument in regard to our freedom as Christians.

An example Paul cites is one about food offered to idols (which at first glance doesn’t seem like it would apply to us today).

The context for this question is this:

In Corinth there were many temples and shrines to various idols and false gods, which used animal sacrifices as part of their offerings so their idols and gods might favour or bless them. These sacrificial meats would either be a) left at the altar to these false gods, b) eaten by the people who worshipped there for their special celebrations with family and friends, or c) later taken to the marketplace and sold.

The question raised was: are Christians allowed to eat any of these meats, even though they’ve been sacrificed to false gods? And, even if they could normally avoid buying some of these meats, what happens if they’re invited to a friend’s house who are serving up meats originally offered to idols? Do they refuse and risk offending their hosts? Or, do they eat these meats without a care in the world, but risk alienating some of their own fellowship who would be offended by the fact they’re eating these meats?

In response, it’s quite likely some Christians were saying: “But we know those are false gods. We know the idols are just wood or gold or stone. We know there’s just one true God. We know this food isn’t going to get us any closer to Jesus or push us further away. It’s just plain food because those idols don’t really exist anyway. So therefore, why don’t we just go ahead and eat these temple meals!”

On the other hand, some might be also saying: “But we’ve left those types of practices in our past because we now have faith in Jesus as our Lord and God. He’s the only one we should worship. He’s the only one we should call upon to bless our food and families and service. Plus, if we live like everyone else, then how will anyone know we’re Christian? Look, I believe it’s so serious that, if any of you eat these meats, then I’m not sure your faith is genuine anymore and I’m scared you may be in danger of falling away from faith in Jesus and going back to your old ways of idolatry!”

So, what’s Paul’s advice to this divided congregation who couldn’t agree on a solution, especially where there’s no clear instruction from God about what’s commanded or forbidden?

His solution is both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’, but he also explains why, which will also help us when faced with similar dilemmas.

Firstly: “Yes, you can eat this meat, at least in the privacy of your home, since you know the idol is false and misleading, and you don’t at all mean to worship it.”

But later on, in chapter 10 (where he talks about eating this meat in public), he says: “No, you can’t be a part of those temple meals in public, even if it’s just a social gathering. In that public meal at the temple you’re participating with any demons who may be present there. To eat that meal in public would also give the wrong witness to those who are struggling to stay faithful to Jesus.”

But you may wonder, what does it matter if they were to eat these meats privately or publicly?

Well, because it’s not all about you.

The exercising of any rights by individuals in a Christian congregation should always be less important than the common rights of a Christian community and for the sake of its unity, especially if there are some within its midst who are weaker in conscience.

In this case, because it might offend your brothers or sisters in Christ, you can eat these meats (at least in private), but you may not (especially in public) for the sake of their faith.

You see, love (and especially Christian love which always considers everyone else as more important than you) always builds up. Your love for your fellow Christians is always more important than your own individual freedom or rights.

This argument can then be used for almost every other situation in the church.

For example, imagine a congregation which is considering relocating the church’s bible from the altar to the lectern. While many like to have the bible on the altar to show its centrality to our worship, it also makes sense to put it where we’ll actually use it. The bible readings are read from the lectern instead of the altar, so that would be a more practical and liturgical place to put it there.

Let’s say this congregation discusses the pros and cons and puts it to the vote. The result is nearly unanimous that they should move the bible to the lectern. Then one member might stand up and say: “If that bible moves off the altar, I won’t attend worship here!”

Now, no matter what you think of such ultimatums, this congregation, out of love for this one person, might in the end agree they could move the bible, but choose not to. They might exercise both their Christian freedom and their love for their fellow member. They might choose to build up the body of Christ in love instead of dividing it over rights and entitlements and democratic votes.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen.

How many times have families and churches become divided because one person (or a number of people), choose to exercise their own rights or privileges over against their love for their brothers and sisters in Christ? How many times has the unity of the church been held to ransom by an individual or a minority group? How many times have people stopped coming to worship because of what they saw and heard fellow Christians saying or doing what they shouldn’t have?

The basic problem is our selfish desire to serve ourselves, which often puts us on a slippery slope of confrontation and division within communities.

For example:

Let’s say I want something. It may even be a good thing to want or expect. But then I have an unmet expectation because I’m not getting what I want. I still think I’m right (or at least I believe I have a right to my expectation or desire), and so I get frustrated because I’m not getting what I want. Because I’m frustrated, it doesn’t take long before I start demanding to be satisfied. When my demands aren’t met, I’m then likely to judge you’re getting in the way of what I want, and so I’ll punish you!

How quickly we often go from having a desire to becoming judge, jury, and executioner!

But an unintended result of our own desires or demands or expectations is (no matter how noble they are); when weaker Christians see or experience our lack of love for each other, they can quickly despair of their faith and fall through the gaps of a fractured community.

Too many times love and unity have taken a back seat (or been locked away in the boot), when love and unity should have been driving all our thoughts, words, and actions.

So, when St Paul talks about food sacrificed to idols (which at first doesn’t seem to apply to us today), we unintentionally become the self-made idols or gods who expect everyone else to sacrifice themselves to our whims and desires.

We make it sound like they must all bow to our desires. They must pay the price when they don’t do what we want.

The common theme running through most of the New Testament letters (and especially from those written by St Paul), is for Christians to practice love and unity. If anyone is to sacrifice themselves and their own desires or intentions, it is the stronger Christians who will always give up their rights and privileges for the sake of others.

Now, this doesn’t mean we should reduce our teachings or our practices to the lowest common denominator, because there are certain things which are clearly commanded or forbidden by God. We don’t compromise on what God teaches in his word. But it’s often in those matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden that we often make into the most divisive ultimatums and fodder for our fights.

Paul is saying here that Christian love will always seek to build those weaker in conscience. Christian love will always seek to build up the church and sacrifice itself for unity in the body of Christ. Christian love will always concern itself with the conscience of those weaker in conscience. Christian love will always model itself on the person and loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

You see, Jesus didn’t come to demand or punish or condemn; saying that we should be sacrificed for his sake. He was sacrificed for our sake.

He came to satisfy his Father’s demand for someone to pay for all the times we’re selfish. He came to be punished for all the times we try to get our own way (as if we’re the idol or god who should be obeyed). He was the one condemned and sacrificed for self-serving people like you and me.

Thankfully, no matter how much we’ve hurt or offended others because of our own desires or demands, we’re reminded that, where the blood of Cain once cried out for justice, Jesus’ blood instead now cries out for our forgiveness and mercy, and through faith we’re now innocent and washed clean by this undeserving grace and sacrificial love.

Of course, there’ll still be many more questions the church will be faced with. Some of them will threaten to divide us or trouble the consciences of those weaker in conscience. In each case, God’s word (which includes the divinely inspired letters from Paul and other New Testament writers), is our guiding light to decide on all matters of faith, doctrine and life.

But we also learn today that, whenever we come across a question of “Can I?” or “Can we?” in matters which are neither commanded or forbidden, we’re to instead ask: “May we?”

After all, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should, especially if it affects the body of Christ or those weaker in conscience. Amen.

When we consider these questions, we’re to remember the guiding principle of the love of Christ which always seeks to build up the Christian community and preserve it in loving unity. That loving unity is more important than getting our own way, no matter how noble our desires are. Amen.