“Examples to Follow” (1 Corinthians 10:23—11:1)

We love our freedom in America. It is our heritage. In today’s culture, there is the exaltation of freedom even in areas like gender identity and relationships. And Christians who dispute the biblical veracity of these expressions and see a definition of immorality within some of these relationships are viewed as judgmental prudes who want to inhibit individual freedom.

But everyone believes in drawing some limits to freedom. Even an anarchist does not want his home ransacked because someone else feels they have the rights to do so. So where are lines to be drawn?


As we wrote in the previous devotional when setting up the context for this latter portion of 1 Corinthians chapter 10, the background question being addressed by Paul has to do with the freedom to eat meat offered to idols, as most marketplace meat available at that time had been. The previous passage (verses 14-22) gave the first of three answers. Paul said that the Corinthians should flee idolatry and not be eating meat in pagan temples, thereby becoming one with the demon entities behind the idol worship.

The Corinthians were very excited about their freedoms that they believed came to them by association with the gospel and their new faith community. And Paul quotes them in their exhilaration …

10:23 – “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

Paul jumps on their assertion immediately by giving a “yeah, but” … stating that not everything they have freedom to do is constructive. There is a higher principle of being cognizant as to how actions affect others.

Answer #2 gives an affirmative to their own personal freedom to buy and consume meat bought in the marketplace…

10:25 – Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” [from Ps. 24:1]

Paul acknowledges their freedom in the context of their own homes. This is indeed a liberty that they do have. But answer #3 comes quickly on the heels of this granted liberty, setting up another scenario …

10:27 – If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

The setting is this: if you are in the home of an unbeliever, along with other Christians also there as guests, feel free to eat whatever is set before you. But if another Christian of weaker faith speaks of being troubled by participating because the food had been offered to an idol, then – for the sake of the weaker brother – don’t eat the food. Paul is not saying that they needed to change their viewpoint to match that of the weaker brother, but they should yieldingly change their behavior.

Paul summarizes …

10:31 – So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. 11:1 – Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Again, it is all about the big picture. Food and drink are really not that important, there’s always more of it that causes no issues. The larger picture involves other people, both those yet to come to faith and those who are earlier along the path of growth and sanctified maturity. You don’t want to be an obstacle to those who need the Lord or to those who need to mature in faith. Don’t demand your rights, rather, seek the good of others.

Paul is not arrogant in concluding this section of thought in 11:1 by saying, Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. This has the same spirit as that great passage in Philippians 2 about the humiliation of Christ in taking on humanity to the extent of dying for our sins. This was the ultimate in others-oriented service. There, Paul said to the Philippians to have this same attitude as Christ Jesus. And here to the Corinthians it is much the same; don’t demand you own rights. As Paul was doing, set them aside for the greater good of serving others.

It is not unhealthy for each of us as Christians to ponder where we might have the very public exercise of some liberties that are harmful to either the salvation or the growth of others. And relative to whatever issue the Spirit may bring to your mind, be it alcohol consumption or something else, the question is not so much IF you have the freedom to participate. The pertinent question is if it is WISE to insist upon your liberty.


“Getting Too Corinthian These Days?” (1 Corinthians 10:14-22)

There is an old saying about the process of biblical interpretation that goes like this, “A text without a context is a pretext.”  Now doesn’t that make everything clear?!?  It is saying that the larger context surrounding the passage (or text) you’re trying to understand is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you’re just making a guess at what is being said that may not actually be correct, such as would be clear from the information of the larger picture.

It has really struck me over the course of working through these difficult passages in Corinthian chapters 8-10 of the importance of everything being understood in light of the larger context. And again, that larger context relates to the rightful exercise of individual freedoms and liberties. And the big picture application is that, though freedoms exist, there yet needs to be a larger willingness to defer at times in the exercise of those liberties in light of others, particularly brethren who are weaker in the faith.

The background question at hand again today has to do with the freedom to eat meat offered to idols, as most marketplace meat available at that time had been. And in today’s passage and the one to follow in the next devotional, Paul is going to give three answers. Answer #1 is today …

1 Cor. 10:14 – Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.

10:18 – Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Paul is telling the Corinthians that they should not be going to pagan temples and eating meat in those public places. Simply stated: FLEE IDOLATRY.  Just stay away from it.

The first illustration Paul uses is of the communion time in the church assembly. Drinking and eating of the cup and the bread signify unity together of the participants with the work of Christ. There is oneness, everyone understands that. In that moment we are together one body – with each other and with Christ.

The second illustration looks back to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, as those participants were also identifying with the sacrifice and with each other.

Likewise therefore, by application, when a Christian is in the pagan temple and participating, there is an identification/unity thing going on. Paul additionally says that, no, unlike with Christ, the pagan god is not real. But what is real are the demons associated with it all – doing the work of blinding and enslaving those who are fully invested in that system.

There is therefore then no place for Christians to have a foot in one world and a foot in the other. That’s crazy; that’s inconsistent. And beyond that, the Lord’s jealousy is rightly aroused; and there is no future or strength to be had to stand against that. It certainly did not work out well for Israel when they deviated in such fashion.

So how does this apply to us today?  We’re not going to go downtown to a pagan temple and eat meat. But there needs to be some thinking that goes on in the minds of Christians as to what things they should participate in and what things need to be completely avoided. I certainly don’t think any would argue with me that a strip club is rather fully over the line into the errant category. But how about a casino?  Or drop it back a couple of notches to a rowdy tavern?  How about even a classier upscale bar?

Yes, it gets complicated; and various Christian people are going to draw the line at different places. As I wrote earlier in this discussion, the faith community around which I grew up drew the line VERY far back from any possibilities of worldly contamination. It was far enough to have honestly crossed another line and into an opposite category called “legalism.”  But, having said that, I personally think the time has come where we need to consider that our evangelical liberties pendulum has swung a bit more widely to the licentious end. Just sayin’.  Just being honest. Just being concerned. Just worried we might be getting a bit too Corinthian.

“Check Your Footing” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

I believe it to truly be the teaching of Scripture that those who genuinely know Christ and are in a saving relationship with God because of the benefits of the atoning sacrifice are secure for eternity. Not all agree on this point. The troubling aspect of eternal security teachings in the minds of some folks is that they see this as allowing for totally licentious living. It would seem to be saying that if there is no potential loss of salvation that can come from living however horribly you might choose, why even be motivated to live a righteous life at all?

Today’s passage is not one that directly ties into that theological debate, but there are corresponding elements. The broader context of chapters 8-10 is that of having a high standard of living so as to not impact a weaker brother, while also having a positive witness before the world. Yes, there are freedoms. But those freedoms do not allow you to take advantage of them without regard for consequences – in your own life and the lives of others. Privilege and freedom can lead to sin and God’s displeasure.

In chapter 9, Paul used his own story of giving up his rights in the service of others as a positive illustration about how to live for Christ within the Christian community at a high level. Constantly, the thought process should be away from self, directed rather in regard toward others. There is no way that the Corinthians should be living with the idea that they are now securely on the winning team with all its blessings (and they were very blessed and enriched in every way, see chapter 1, verses 5-7), and therefore they can freely live in any flesh-serving way they desired.

Now in chapter 10, Paul gives a negative example of the consequences of the abuse of liberties and God’s grace. Think about the blessings of the Israelite nation as they were rescued from their bondage in Egypt. They had incredible, life-altering experiences. The nation was led by the cloud by day and the fire by night. The waters of the Red Sea stood up like a wall as they passed through on dry ground. Food dropped out of the sky and water from a rock followed them wherever they went. Here is how Paul wrote about it …

1 Corinthians 10:1 – For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

Wow, anyone who had all these experiences was really blessed and surely so special to God that no harm could ever befall them, no matter what they did. Yet it says that God was NOT pleased with most of them, as most of them died in the wilderness wanderings (Yes, most for sure – all but two people named Caleb and Joshua – including the passing of Moses). Actions do count. Living rightly is a value to God. And the story of the nation’s history should serve as a lesson for these enriched Corinthians …

10:6 – Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” [from Exodus 32:6] 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

Paul probably preached a sermon series to the Corinthians entitled something like “We Got Issues: We are the Exodus Generation; the Exodus Generation is Us!”  Both generations did similar things, like immorality and idol involvements, complaining to God and living without regard for the reality of their identity with God – His chosen people as a nation / His chosen people as the church. Again, learn from this, says Paul …

10:11 – These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation [or “testing”] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

So check your footing. Are you living faithfully?  Are you honoring God and serving others, or are you honoring yourself by insisting upon exercising your freedoms and liberties?  If it is the latter, you might fall and face dire consequences, up to and including the loss of life.

Living in the age of the completed work of Christ and the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit is a wonderful thing. Paul calls this current era “the culmination of the ages.”  We have so much; we know the whole story of Scripture, even what is yet to come. But in this flesh, temptations and testings are real. The enemy who brings them to us, just as his did to the first family, is also real. But none of this is beyond us. Our resources are sufficient. Deferring to others by serving them rather than exercising our own liberties has the effect of also best serving ourselves and helping our own footing be more pure and secure.

“The Discipline of Self-Slavery” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Welcome today to the greatest passage in the Bible!  Obviously!  It is talking about running and racing – the very best and finest illustration available to describe the Christian life!  And obviously also, someone who was a runner, who bred champion runners in this family, coached runners galore to multiple championships, and was a coach (pastor) of spiritual runners is clearly the person closest to the center of God’s heart!

I jest! Well, maybe. I think I at least have an argument. Paul didn’t use any sport with balls or other accoutrements to make his point (and we can find running illustrations in other parts of the Scriptures – Galatians 2:2, Philippians 2:16, Hebrews 12:1).

So, to those who teasingly think I need some new speaking and illustrative material (I’m talking to you Jeff Brown) I say, “Back off, and take it up with God!”

But seriously, it is a wonderful illustration, even in the current broader context (chapters 8-10) of giving up one’s rights to serve and help others. That doesn’t always feel good and is not what you want to always do. And let me tell you that training to run is not something you always want to do and enjoy doing. But, to be serious about it and succeed like the person does who is a winner in races, you discipline yourself and make it happen.

Those who discipline themselves toward athletic excellence gain a reward that will only last so long as this world remains. But the reward for those who preach the gospel to others, as difficult as it is at times with people who are so different, yields rewards that last forever.

The word used in verse 27 of having “preached to others” is a term used in Greek culture of a herald – a person with a formal message that must be listened to and followed. In the context of a race or a boxing match, it is the official in charge – the one who calls the participants to the starting line or into the ring, boldly stating the rules. Paul wanted to run/box in such a way as to be a success, having done it the proper way.

Maybe y’all reading this didn’t need this passage today. But I sure did. There is a part of the current ministry (in the extended realm beyond our church walls) about which I’m very discouraged. I am not seeing any fruit from it right now, and frankly, I’d like to quit. I’m thinking I’m just not someone who can reach these people, apparently. But, no, I’ve got to keep straining and working toward the prize. God will have to give the victory in His own time and place.

1 Cor. 9:24-27 – Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

“Slavelikeness is Christlikeness” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Over the years I have had the opportunity to visit a number of different countries and mission fields. The first was in England and Scotland. You would not think this to be such a different context than America, but in taking a ministry team there, we were apprised of quite a number of items about which to be culturally aware. There were things to both do and say, and things to not do or say. I recall being very surprised at several of these precautions. Doing or not doing these things did not fall at all within the category of sin or ungodly disobedience, it was rather in deference to the people among whom we would be interacting.

Not surprisingly, going into more diverse cultures involved even more adaptation. Entering a village home in Kazakhstan involved taking off shoes, receiving oils, and sitting at low tables while reaching into the center to take food out of a common dish. In Uzbekistan, we were offered some very unusual foods. When I say that at one particular meal (the equivalent of an American Thanksgiving feast) that I ate practically EVERY part of a sheep, there is NO exaggeration. And I came home to tell my horse that he’d better behave, because I ate one of his relatives on the other side of the world and he tasted pretty good!

In going to Great Britain, I didn’t say that I didn’t care about how I might be misunderstood by insisting upon my American rights of expression. And in Central Asia, I did not refuse food offered to me or eat it in a fashion that was insensitive to their traditions and beliefs. I yielded to their ways of interacting and fellowshipping at a meal, not wanting to offend or make an issue out of something that was comparatively a small and insignificant matter. The bigger picture involved putting no obstacle or odd encumbrance between gaining a hearing for the gospel message.

And this is what Paul is communicating in the passage we read today. He had rights that were free from strictures about the Old Testament Law and regarding also the issue of food offered to idols. Paul was cognizant of the traditions of both Jews and Gentiles, and in each instance he desired to put himself into non-offensive patterns so as to be able to present the saving grace of the message of salvation to either group.

Paul is saying that he gave up his rights. These freedoms were not important. He became essentially “a slave” to their traditions. His slavelikeness was to hope that they could meet the Savior and develop in Christlikeness. This is keeping the main thing as the main thing.

The humiliation of Christ in coming from glory and becoming like mankind in all things, yet without sin, was the ultimate example of the giving up of rights and the building of bridges to what was truly important.

9:19 – Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Ox Food and Stuff Like That (1 Corinthians 9:1-18)

I will confess to you that it was not without a good measure of reticence that I pushed forward in my long-range planning to do this series on the Corinthian letters. Apart from whatever sense of divine leading I might claim, there is the simple fact that I have not actually covered these books in the recent past at TSF, if at all; and there is the Scriptural obligation to preach the whole Word of God. But again, I’d rather do a more fun-to-preach book like Hebrews (except for the hairy warning passages).

This Corinthians stuff is filled with sex, marriage complications, church fighting, controversial spiritual gifts stuff … just lots of icky and awkward passages. And then there is this one about financial remuneration for those who serve in ministry … you know, applicationally like pastor dudes, etc. Ugh!

Over the past four to five decades, the material gains being reaped by some in ministry have sadly come out of the corners of Christendom and into the worldwide spotlight. Televangelists have especially done some creepy and untoward things that combined the work of the Spirit with personal wealth attaintment. And also contributing to this has been the unprecedented expanse of mega-churches with mega-pastors with mega-egos with mega-salaries (and mega-explaining to do on the other side, I would think). Only a couple of miles from the home where I lived in Texas was a church that built a landing strip out back … so that members could fly in and park their airplanes, and for the pastor’s aircraft to take him to his gigs around the country and world. (We have enough land out behind our parking lot to do this … let me bring it up at our next congregational meeting! Hey, wealthy people need Jesus too! And I could fly to Kazakhstan, Togo, Scotland, Australia, and Kyrgyzstan to preach in our partner churches there!)

OK, I’m having too much fun now, and we’d better get to the text …

1 Corinthians 9:1 – Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

The Apostle Paul could be a lightening rod of criticism sometimes, especially in Corinth. In the second letter we will spend a couple of chapters in reading about his defense of his apostleship, and apparently the detractors were already throwing up some doubts about this designation.

You may wonder how this fits with the content of the immediately preceding context. There, Paul said he would give up eating meat if it detracted from ministry and the progress of the gospel in the life of others. He could prove that this was more than just words, because he had given up his “right” to be compensated for the work he had done with the Corinthians. He had supported himself while there.

9:3 – This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

So Paul and Barnabas did not take anything from the Corinthians, though apparently Peter and Apollos had been compensated. He follows with arguments as to why he could have rightly expected to be paid for his services …

9:7 – Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”  Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Soldiers and farmers are compensated for their work. Even the Old Testament taught that an ox is worthy of eating while he is working. But Paul didn’t insist upon his rights. And there’s more …

9:13 – Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

Whether the readers were from a Jewish or secular background, they both had the experience of knowing that those who worked in the temple (in Jerusalem, or even of the Greek temple idols), were supported by a fractional share of what was brought in worship.

9:15 – But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Paul did not insist upon payment, and he still is not doing so. It was payment enough that in doing what God merely told him to do, he was blessed to see the fruit of that gospel message. And he could even boast about this. Again, he was just doing what he was told to do, and he could do it without them compensating him. There was reward in that.

Once more, the context here is Paul talking about exercising freedoms and rights, not to expound especially about ministry remuneration. And he’ll circle back to this primary idea by the end of chapter 10.

But on this topic today, let me say personally that it has been an adventure. When one sets out (as I did 45 years ago) toward a church ministry career in accord with God’s leading in your life, you know that it is not a step in the direction of lucrative endeavor. That never bothered me, as I knew that where God guides, God provides. You’ve all heard my famous story of the one time I had nothing saved but a small amount, and so I thought it would be funny to give it away and be able to say I had absolutely nothing. I sent it to a missionary. Mere hours later, while driving in Dallas, a little dog ran under my car at a stoplight; and when I opened the door to make sure it was not under the wheels when I pulled ahead, it jumped into the back seat. About a minute later, seeing a “lost dog” sign on a telephone pole, I went to the house to return their dog. The reward was, by the standards of my life at that time, substantial. God took care of me. And He has done so for all these years.

At my churches, I’ve never given numbers for salaries. I’ve simply said to do the best they could, and God would take care of me in any event. And He has.

Maybe we can get on to some easier topics next week, or maybe not.

Thinking about Others First (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

There are surely more than a mere handful of us in the church who are middle-aged and above and who grew up in a similar Christian environment that was very, very conservative. There was a list of items that you simply did not participate in doing if you were serious about your faith. At a minimum, participating was on the verge of sin, if not seen as certainly committing sin.

Among items on the “list” were such things as going to movies, smoking or drinking, dancing, long hair for boys and short skirts for girls, and listening to rock music. Those Christians who felt they had “liberty” on these issues were viewed as rather suspect in the depth of their genuine faith.

Some of this was outright silly. Some had a marginal amount of general truth on at least a basic level, and some also was and is sourced in wisdom.

Culture and cultural norms shift and change over time, not always for the better. What strikes one generation as awful and heinous was seen in an earlier generation as normative (consider some of the issues behind the current outcry to tear down certain monuments). And what was seen in an earlier generation as forbidden may much later look rather silly (like a guy having hair over his ears – I would have been thrown out of my college for that infraction).

In the culture of Corinth, the Christian community had a question that was vexing them and causing conflict as to whether it was right or wrong. It may seem a bit ridiculous to us, though again, we have not lived in a context of pervasive idolatry and a belief in a pantheon of gods. It was a common practice in Corinth that meat sacrificed to idols was then sold in the marketplace. So was it right or wrong to eat this meat?

Paul begins and ends this discussion by bringing to it a larger principle that love for God and others is bigger than the individual rights that one possesses. He affirms that of course there is no God but the one and only true God. There is no reality to the meat being actually tainted in some fashion by having been offered to false deities.

But not every believer really believed and felt this separation. For them, this meat was still tainted and a part of their background to the extent that eating it essentially took them back to that place of the past. It destroyed their forward process toward growth in the Lord and they were greatly harmed.

So Paul says that the act of the stronger believer eating it does not make him better and closer to God for doing it. There is no benefit, and nothing is lost by not eating it. Therefore, since participation can have such a negative effect upon these other believers, the greater principle of love kicks in and non-participation is the appropriate direction.

It could be argued that these immature brethren should grow up toward a better understanding of the true realities. And yes, there should be teaching on that … if the opportunity was not completely lost by them falling away into sinful returns to their old way of life.

Applications of this passage could cause us to go on and on at great length. Paul also returns to this again at the end of chapter 10 with reference to some more overarching principles.

At this juncture I’ll simply state an overarching principle that I have arrived at on some of these questionable matters in our cultural context, with the issue of alcohol participation being particularly forefront in my mind. The question is not so much “am I able to have the freedom do this without sinning?”  Unlike the assertions of those in my past who said drinking (to use this one example) is sin, I do not believe you can make the Scriptures prohibit the liberty to do so. There is liberty. But I would still raise the question as to if it is wise and truly considerate of others (including newer believers and more than a few who have had addictive problems) in the church family to participate, particularly given the pervasively destructive nature of this issue in our culture.

I personally conclude that it is unwise to maximize this liberty in broad ways. Drinking alcohol certainly is not a necessary activity and it seems difficult to me to understand how it adds benefits, whereas it is easy to see where it leaves a wake of destruction on many fronts. That is my conclusion. I cannot understand why it is not reasonable, even as I also realize how out of step this is within even the evangelical culture of our era.

8:1 – Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.

8:4 – So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

8:7 – But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

8:9 – Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Single-Minded Service (1 Corinthians 7:25-40)

It was fairly early in my pastoral ministry career that I decided I really did not like counselling people through difficult situations, especially regarding marriage issues. Looking around, I’ve always seen others who were better at this task and who enjoyed doing it as a gift from God to be exercised in His service. What I have done of it, I feel I have given sound biblical advice. Yet, so often, it has also seemed to me that many people had already made up their mind about what they wanted to do and were going to do; they were really hoping to merely get a pastoral stamp of approval in order to feel good about their intentions.

The following is an exaggeration for sure, but I have sometimes quipped that a majority of people I know are unhappy in marriage and wish they were single, whereas a majority of single people are sad that they have not found a matrimonial partner. Reading in this portion of 1 Corinthians, I suspect Paul might just about make the same wisecrack!

Paul was a single guy, and he truly believed this was the best status in order to most effectively serve God. Yet throughout his discussions, he repeats that those who marry have the freedom to do so and that they should honor that relationship with the highest degree of fidelity.

Relative to Paul’s opinion of promoting singleness, he now supports this position with three reasons …

  1. Persecution and stress from the surrounding world. He says …

7:25 – Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

The “present crisis” that Paul is writing of here has some reference to the realities of difficulties and opposition that the Corinthians were either facing at that time or that the Apostle knew would surely come their way. The Greek term used here is one that Paul writes on several other occasions in contexts of persecution. It is easy to imagine how facing hostility from those who oppose Christ and the gospel would be complicated by marriage and family, as a person has so much more to worry about and care for than merely oneself.

  1. The pending return of Christ and the temporal nature of this world. Paul writes …

7:29 – What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Paul is not saying to avoid responsibility. He is putting priorities in order, noting that the things of this world (like marriage and the satisfaction of the flesh and material pleasures) are passing away rather quickly. This is consistent with so many admonitions of Paul throughout his writings. He constantly urges his readers to live in light of the brevity of life, always prioritizing rather the great significance of knowing God and working toward realities that are eternal.

  1. The distraction and encumbrances of marriage and family. Paul writes …

7:32 – I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

Marriage is work, no doubt about it. It takes time and commitment. There are many blessings, but those come as the fruit of time investments. By illustration: Let’s say that it is announced one Sunday in a men’s class at church that the men’s ministry is going to take a full Saturday to put a new roof on a widow’s home. The question calls for a commitment as to how many can make it. What is the first thing that goes through the married man’s mind?  Yes, he (rightly) needs to think about what his wife and family will be doing that day, if there are other plans already, and how does it fit within the rest of a busy week ahead, etc., etc. Though the single man in the class may not be free of obligations and conflicts, they are likely to be fewer.

The following paragraph is just about the most convoluted couple of sentences in all of Scripture. Whatever version you follow will have many footnotes and marginal references. Commentators are all over the place on interpreting meanings of several words, whether the subject is a bridegroom (as this NIV translates) or the father of a bride. And that’s just the beginning. It was probably not unclear to the Corinthians who were asking questions, or to Paul who was answering. Let’s move past it without me getting into hundreds of words of explanations and conjectures on Greek words.

7:36 – If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

Paul again repeats an opinion on wives/widows. Stay married, but if a husband dies there is freedom to remarry. Paul once more renders his personal opinion that singleness leads to greater happiness and opportunity for fruitful service.

7:39 – A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Come back tomorrow, when we can talk about something easier, like, oh, say … food sacrificed to idols!

“Bloom Where Planted Theology” (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)

Contentment with the circumstances of our lives can be illusive. For most of us, though we may feel blessed on many fronts, there are usually more than a couple situations we might like to see different. We may wish for a better home in another neighborhood or for a higher position at work. Single people want to be married, etc., etc.

The Apostle Paul understood this natural, human tendency to have some discontentment with earthly circumstances. He addresses this theme in several of his writings. Paul tells Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain.”  This sets up his famous statement just verses later that the love of money is a root for all sorts of evil.

The Corinthians, being quick to follow varied teachers and form cliques, were also quick to form alliances around ethnicities, marital status, and social class. Paul’s emphasis was to point out that these earthly classifications were transcended by their new classification as fellow servants of the Lord. Becoming a Christian should not motivate them to seek to be something different. Rather, they should – as the famous phrase goes – “bloom where they are planted.”

Those who were from a Jewish background should not insist upon Gentile believers coming under the elements of the Law, such as their oft-emphasis upon circumcision. Neither should there be some insistence in the other direction from the Gentiles.

Likewise with slavery – a very big issue in that era where about 50% of the Roman world lived as an indentured servitude/slave class of people. Both masters and slaves would end up in the same church family. Becoming a Christian should not, in an of itself, motivate a person to seek a higher station in life such as freedom from servitude. If this happened, great!  If not, live a life of obedience to God in that classification.

Toward the end of our reading today, it is interested to see how Paul tells the slaves that they are free in the Lord spiritually, yet he tells masters that they are servants now of God.

Paul’s rule (meaning his strong teaching and opinion that would be wise to follow) was for these new Christians to find contentment where they are at in life … yep, to bloom where planted. Or, to go back to Christ’s word picture, to serve in the place of God’s vineyard where he has assigned you.

Pastors are not exempt from this occasional feeling of some fraction of discontent.

Just recently I was at a denominational gathering of pastors in our Maryland/Virginia district, a group of about 25 guys of all ages. There was a very, very blunt and open discussion about the experiential nature of our calling in life. Several of us (who are now on the older end and who have been friends together for 25-30 years in the same churches) shared with the younger guys that 40 years ago we honestly expected that our church ministry careers would have led us into more expansive situations than the outworking of our callings gave us. But we were also able to tell the younger men that, looking back, we have seen the faithful hand of God putting us at the most perfect places for our own service, enrichment, and family blessings.

Whatever we do, wherever we are, we should awake each day with a desire to serve God obediently in whatever the day brings to us. It may not be glamorous … probably won’t be. But when you do that with some consistency over multiple decades, you can look back and find a peaceful and pleasurable contentment with your circumstances and the experiences of God’s faithfulness in and through your life.

I Cor. 7:17 – Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

7:21 – Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.