By Pastor Glenn Pease
Dr. James H. Robinson, a great black preacher in New York, tells of how he use to sit on the steps of the public library in Knoxville. He would watch the white people go in, and he would be filled with resentment because he wanted to read and learn, but the doors were closed to blacks. He came to hate white people, and he would look up at the high water tower and wish he could poison it and kill all the white people in Knoxville. There were 3 reasons he never did it. 1.He didn’t have the poison. 2. He was afraid of high places. 3. He could never figure out how he could keep from the drinking the same water. The complexity of his evil scheme is what prevented it from becoming a reality. Thank God for complexity. If evil was always easy there would be even more of it, and a man like Dr. Robinson may never have become a child of God and a servant of the kingdom.
Complexity is a comfort. Much of our security in this life is based on complexity. Man has devised locks and alarms to protect his possessions. Vaults and guards protect his banks, and numerous methods are devised to make it too complex for robbery. But complexity is also a challenge. People love to go into politics and wrestle with the complex issues of society. They strive to come up with a plan that benefits the majority. Scientists love to labor with the near infinite complexity of diseases to figure out a way to conquer them. Most of the challenges of our world that motivate people to dedicate their lives to a cause are based on the reality of complexity.
Complexity is a comfort and a challenge, but it can also be a curse. If every Christian had the same background, the same culture and the same personality, life would be so much simpler. It may be boring, but it would be simple. Needless to say, this is not the way life really is. Christians have all different backgrounds, and they come out of radically different cultures. Their personalities are like fingerprints, and no two are exactly alike. This can be a comfort and a challenge, but history forces us to face up to the fact that this complexity can also be a curse. It is a curse because people don’t like other people to be different. They like it when all Christians see everything from the same perspective. If the viewpoints get too diverse there is suspicion that somebody is on the wrong track.
This was the problem in the church of Corinth. Some of the Christians there felt it was no problem whatever to eat meat offered idols. After all, the idols did not really exist, and so it is a meaningless ritual that does nothing to the meat by being offered to an idol, and so why be uptight about it? Giving it up was almost like becoming a vegetarian, for practically all meat was offered to some idol. If your pagan family, which you came out of to become a Christian, invited you to a wedding, a funeral, or just a family picnic or social, you would be served meat that had been offered to an idol. It was a part of the pagan culture. Many Christians had no problem with relating to their pagan family and friends by eating this meat offered to idols. Life would have been so simple if other Christians had not taken an opposite view.
These Christians said that the idols are real, and that they represent real evil spirits and demons. Therefore, the Christian cannot be loyal to Christ and still eat meat that has been offered to his opponents in the spirit world. They had an conscience that was sensitive to this issue, and they were offended by Christians who had the audacity to profess the name of Christ and then indulge in eating such desecrated meat. This is where the curse of complexity comes in and which explains why people love westerns so much. In a western the good guys and the bad guys are so obvious. You always know whose side to be on. It is such satisfying simplicity, and it helps us escape from the real world where things are not so simple.
The Corinthians Christians were on two different sides of this issue, as Christians often are on most controversial issues. Each group thought the other group must be a pack of mutations and misfits in the body of Christ. It was no minor matter limited to a handful of Christians. This was a major conflict in the church. At the first church council described in Acts 15 the leaders of the church, with Paul present, came to the conclusion that this was one of the things Gentile Christians would have to do, and that is to abstain from meat offered to idols. The problem was that this was the Jewish leader’s telling the Gentiles what was good for them. It was the Jewish conscience trying to impose itself on the Gentile conscience. Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he did not go along with this decision.
Had Paul agreed with the decision he would have just told the Christians who were eating meat offered to idols to stop doing it immediately. Paul did not do this, however, but in fact, he defended the wisdom of those who recognized it ought not to even be an issue because strong Christians can eat it with no less loyalty to Christ because he knows the idols do not exist. Paul does not say that these Gentiles need to conform to Jewish convictions, but he does say that love demands that they be sensitive to other Gentiles who have a weak conscience on this issue. If it is a matter of legalism, Paul was on the side of those who chose liberty. But if it was a matter of love, Paul was on the side of those who chose to limit their liberty for the sake of the weak.
So is it right to eat meat offered to idols? Paul says, “Yes and no.” We don’t like this answer, for we like a simple black and white decision. But the complexity of life will not allow Paul to be superficially simple. It all depends on whether the issue is one of legalism or love. This is a crucial distinction in knowing the will of God in areas where Christians disagree and see from opposite perspectives. Whether I am obligated to surrender my conviction or fight for it all depends on this distinction. Those who do not bother to make this distinction use this passage in a way that makes it a denial of all Paul fought for in the early church.
Paul clearly tells the strong-minded Christians that love demands that they limit their liberty in Christ in order to protect their weaker brothers who are supersensitive and need support. The Christian who will not make a sacrifice for the sake of another Christian’s security is a poor specimen of a Christian. Those who take this out of a context of love and put it into a context of legalism are obscuring Paul’s message, and they are using it for blackmail to get their own way. Paul is not giving every legalistic fanatic the right to force the church to conform to his convictions. If this is what Paul is saying, it is a direct contradiction to all he fought for, and all that Jesus fought against with the Pharisees.
Many sermons have been preached on how the strong are to give way to the weak, but few have practiced it, for it would lead to the absurd conclusion that the church is to be guided by its most ignorant, weak and incompetent members. Those least set free by Christ, and most in bondage to the old life would be the pace setters. This would mean that if you had one sensitive saint in your fellowship who was brought up to believe you should never eat out on Sunday, and never go for a drive on Sunday, and never watch TV on Sunday, you would all have to conform to this legalistic conviction less they be offended.
Paul would say to this, “O you foolish Christians. You are not under the law, but you are free in Christ. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery and turn Christianity into a form of Phariseeism.” Paul opposed Peter to his face because Peter had a sensitive conscience, and he was backing away from eating with Gentiles. Paul did not say, “I don’t want to offend your sensitive conscience Peter.” On the contrary, he condemned Peter for letting the Jewish sensitivity weaken his stand for Gentile equality. Paul would not tolerate a legalistic conscience trying to regulate the liberty we have in Christ.
Paul followed in the steps of Jesus who shattered the legalism of the Pharisees. He broke all of their ceremonial laws, and he ignored their Sabbath laws that hindered his ministry of healing and doing good. They were so offended that they crucified them, but Jesus did not back off from the battle for religious liberty. The New Testament nowhere supports the idea that Christians are to conform to the minds of legalistic people. History shows that every step of progress in the church has been opposed by the sensitive conscience of legalistic people.
Musical instruments were fought by those who said it is immoral to praise God with a mere thing when the Bible says, “Let all that has breath praise the Lord.” Christians fought back and not only used all things to praise God, but even adapted secular tunes with which to do it. Battles have been fought over almost everything including colored glass, heat in the church and communion cups. If strong Christians would have feared to offend the sensitivities of legalistic Christians the church would still be in the dark ages, or never even gotten that far. It would still be nothing more than an exclusive Jewish church.
Many Christians who are truly godly feel it is evil to vote. Are we to give up our support for the best leaders we can vote for because we do not want to offend these brothers? Many Christians feel it is a lack of faith to buy insurance. Are we to leave our loved ones unprotected because of their conviction? We could go on endlessly with all the areas of life where Christians have different convictions, but the point should already be clear. When it comes to issues of legalism, the Christian is not only not under obligation to conform to the conscience of another, he is obligated to fight in order to change and overcome that conscience. He is to pursue the liberty we have in Christ in order to promote it and preserve it for the good of others.
Eating meat offered to idols is a legalistic issue between Jews and Gentiles, and so Paul takes his stand with the Gentiles. As a matter of right Paul would say the Gentile Christians have freedom to eat that meat without feeling guilty. Paul was opposed to any law demanding that Gentile Christians conform to Judaism, but because life is complex this issue is more than just a matter of legalism. It has personal ramifications that go beyond the battle of legalism, and make it a matter of love. In this chapter Paul is not concerned about Peter’s feelings, or how the council of leaders in Jerusalem feels. They are mature Christians, and Paul will deal with them on the level of debate and argument as to what is legitimate in Christian liberty. But here Paul is concerned about the pagan believers who have just recently come out of their idolatry to faith in Christ.
In verse 7 he refers to those who are the center of his concern, and they are those who do not have a clear grasp of the unreality of other gods. They have for all their lives believed in these gods, and for them to eat the meat dedicated to these gods is to feel guilty of disloyalty to Christ. Their conscience has been programmed, and for them to eat this meat is like stealing from their neighbor. They feel guilty and their conscience bothers them, for they sense they have sinned. If this sensitive person sees other more mature Christians eating this meat he is encouraged to go ahead also, even though he feels it is wrong. This violation of his conscience will damage his spiritual life. He is by this act rejecting the Lordship of Christ, for to him it is claiming another god over Jesus.
This could very easily lead to new Christians returning to their pagan ways and be lost to the church permanently. It happens all the time all over the world in the lives of those who come out of a pagan culture and then slip back into it. This is an altogether issue than someone who is trying to force you to conform to their legalistic conviction. Here are people who do not have roots. They are in an unstable transition, and they can be easily led astray. Paul is saying that Christian love demands that the strong Christian be sensitive to these people. Love demands that strong Christians be willing to sacrifice some of their liberty for the sake of these weaker believers until they too become strong. This is how love makes the simple complex.