Thursday, January 29, 2009

Love Trumps Knowledge, Freedom Isn't License

Al, an acquaintance of mine, went out one evening with a group of people from the church he pastored.

Later, a close friend, Bill, who was part of the group asked him, "Al, I know that you like to have an occasional beer. Why didn't You have one at dinner tonight?"

"I think you may know why," Al said. His friend thought for a second and then asked, "Is it because of Ben's situation?"

Ben had recently told both Al and Bill that he had just come to terms with the fact that he was an alcoholic. Ben had met with Al and Bill, asking them to pray for him and to be among those who kept him accountable in his efforts to stay away from alcohol completely, something all alcoholics must do.

But Bill was still a bit clueless as to Al's motives. "Do you mean to say that you're not going to drink alcohol around Bill? You know that Jesus drank wine, don't you? Saint Paul recommended it for soothing the digestive tract. So long as you don't abuse your body with alcohol, it's perfectly OK to drink alcohol in moderation."

"I've read my Bible a few times," Al said with a smile. "Everything you're saying is true, Bill. But for Ben's sake, I won't drink alcohol around him. There are some things that aren't sins in themselves, but when done at the wrong times are sins."

"Sure," Bill said. "Sex is a good thing that God made. But when used selfishly or outside the marriage covenant, it's a sin. Food is a good thing from God. But if you use it to abuse your body, like with anorexia, bulimia, or overeating, it's sinful. But you're not saying that for you to drink alcohol in moderation in front of Ben is a sin, are you?"

"That's exactly what I'm saying," Al replied. "As a Christian, I'm free to use God's gifts properly. But if a fellow Christian or a non-believer is an alcoholic, my drinking it in his presence is a discouragement, like offering a loaded pistol to a suicidal person. Or, like putting God's stamp of approval on his alcoholism. I dare not use my freedom as license. I can't use my knowledge to hurt someone paying attention to my example. Sharing Christ's love is more important to me than my knowledge of what's right or wrong for me."

"Al," Bill said, "I couldn't disagree with you more. Why should I give up my freedom because of someone else's weakness?"

Bill would have done well to read one of the lessons for this coming Sunday, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. You can read it below, in the words of the Contemporary English Version (CEV) translation of the Bible.

A little background: The Christian community in the first century Greek city of Corinth were a dysfunctional bunch. They were prone to use their Christian freedom in ways that were destructive to themselves and to others.

In the lesson for this coming Sunday, Paul responds to questions about food offered to idols. Often, food used in the worship of false deities would show up on the tables of the Christians as they got together for dinner and worship.

Paul said that of course, there was nothing inherently sinful in eating this food. Mature Christians knew that false idols were just that--false idols--and that the food that was offered to them was just that--food.

But, Paul said, if a mature Christian eats food offered to idols in the presence of newer Christians or people who were weak in their faith, the newbies were at risk of drawing the wrong conclusions. They might have thought that it was acceptable to spread their loyalties around among different gods.

But the Christian knows that the God revealed in Jesus Christ accepts no rivals, that God can only work in the lives of those who give him exclusive fealty as their Lord and King.

And so, Paul said, those with a more mature understanding of God and a more advanced relationship with Christ will, for the sake of those who don't know Christ as well, voluntarily forgo exercising their freedom.

Love does things like that.

In my own life, I have, too often, acted selfishly with my Christian freedom, setting a bad example or creating misimpressions of the Christian life in the eyes of nonbelievers or new believers. I ask God to help me to remember Paul's words...and Al's example.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
1In your letter you asked me about food offered to idols. All of us know something about this subject. But knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others. 2In fact, people who think they know so much don't know anything at all. 3But God has no doubts about who loves him.

4Even though food is offered to idols, we know that none of the idols in this world are alive. After all, there is only one God. 5Many things in heaven and on earth are called gods and lords, but none of them really are gods or lords. 6We have only one God, and he is the Father. He created everything, and we live for him. Jesus Christ is our only Lord. Everything was made by him, and by him life was given to us.

7Not everyone knows these things. In fact, many people have grown up with the belief that idols have life in them. So when they eat meat offered to idols, they are bothered by a weak conscience. 8But food doesn't bring us any closer to God. We are no worse off if we don't eat, and we are no better off if we do.

9Don't cause problems for someone with a weak conscience, just because you have the right to eat anything. 10You know all this, and so it doesn't bother you to eat in the temple of an idol. But suppose a person with a weak conscience sees you and decides to eat food that has been offered to idols. 11Then what you know has destroyed someone Christ died for. 12When you sin by hurting a follower with a weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13So if I hurt one of the Lord's followers by what I eat, I will never eat meat as long as I live.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Pugnacious Irishman and Rediscovering the Church for linking to this post. At the Pugnacious site, Rich Bordner also offers some of his own thoughts on this subject.]


Unknown said...

This is a great post. I've seen the abuse of freedom far too many times in the church. Usually, we just aren't thinking on this level.

Peter P said...

Great post (I came here from Rich Bordner's site).

Too many people just don't think about others. It distresses me to see!

John said...

It sounds like Bill has the attitude of a true American. Having so much freedom and always worried that someone else will take it from them. We defend our freedom to the point of it becoming sin itself.

How hard is it to abstain from drinking around someone that has a problem with it? Especially if it is a friend of yours. We need to love recklessly.