November 25, 2020

Liberty, Conscience and the Glory of God

offended1.jpgThe text for a sermon I heard this morning was I Corinthians 10:23ff.

1 Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1 23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience- 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? 31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

This a text that every missional Christian needs to wrestle with. It opens up the entire discussion of personal liberty in view of the consciences of those who may be offended at some exercise of that liberty. With the SBC’s recent Resolution on Alcohol still being discussed- and likely to cause more controversy in the future- it would be good to get a good hold on exactly what Paul is talking about.

The problem for Paul’s Corinthian converts was simple: Should they partake of meat offered to pagan idols in the presence of fellow Christians who are offended by the implied honor paid to pagan deities?

At the heart of this controversy were two questions: 1) Should Christian liberty be bounded by the “weaker” consciences of more legalistic, fearful believers? 2) How does Christian liberty affect an evangelistic witness?

The short version of this text is to say that anything which offends anyone should be by-passed in the name of building up the brother and winning over the unbeliever. I am sure you have heard this application made many times. Should the situation be one in which the faith of a new believer or seeker is at stake, I fully agree.

What concerns me are the tensions in the text. Notice that Paul we we are to do all things for the glory of God. At the same time, he says that we are to give no offence to Jews, Greeks or the church of God. He even says that he “tries to please everyone in everything I do.” I think it is obvious that we need to relate these things more carefully, otherwise applications of this text will be inconsistent.

The tension is obvious: Should Christian liberty be bounded by the Gospel or by the offended conscience?

The answer, I believe, looks something like this.

The Christian always asks- first- what will glorify God in any particular situation.

Next, the Christian looks at how God’s glory is going to be perceived in a particular situation. For example, a new believer may perceive an act of Christian liberty as sinful. Until this is clarified- and there is no reason it should not be clarified immediately- there is the potential for significant destruction to the faith of a new believer.

This does not mean, however, that the Christian’s posture is to allow the ignorance or weak conscience of an untaught Christian to overrule Christian liberty. New believers should be loved. They should also be taught, and they should not be given a “club” to beat the church of God into legalism.

An unbeliever’s offense at a Christian is unpredictable. In fact, an unbeliever will often be offended by that which is most honoring to Christ, such as public worship, prayer or the reading of scripture. While preachers usually say that going to an “R” movie will offend an unbeliever, it’s more likely that the offense will be an act of obedience to Christ.

A witness to the glory of God as the boundary of Christian liberty means that we are not committed to being right “at any cost,” particularly at the cost of relationships or the opportunity to serve and witness for Christ. But it also does not mean that the objections of others determine what is loving behavior. My children have frequently been “offended” at actions that were right, loving and God-glorifying, but which went against what they- immaturely- wanted.

Let me use an illustration of what happens when we are unaware of the tensions in this text.

An SBC pastor uses this text to say it is always wrong to drink, because someone might be offended or it might ruin a witness. (Since a witness is, by definition, about Jesus and not about my morals, that is nonsensical anyway. “I was sinking deep in sin….and then I met someone who didn’t smoke.”)

As he delivers the sermon, he does so without a tie. This offends older members of the church who consider it unpastoral to wear a floral shirt in the pulpit.

The sanctuary has a Christian flag, crowned with an American eagle. This offends several college students who read the iMonk’s piece on patriotism as idolatry.

The hymns are played by an organist. This offends two visiting Church of Christ couples, who decide never to return to the church.

A visiting family enters late, and the man is wearing shorts and flip-flops. The mother is carrying a McDonald’s bag. The teenage son has an iPod. This offends several deacons.

After church, someone tells the pastor that his use of the Living Bible was offensive to them.

I’ll stop. Is the point that Christian liberty conforms to all of these offended person’s objections?

I believe Paul was saying that whenever possible, we should not needlessly offend, discourage or scandalize anyone. The point is never that I get “my way,” but that we love people and treat them as the image of God. But I do not believe Paul was saying the objections and hang-ups of people should displace the truth of the Gospel as the central principle for all Christian relationships. If we do “pass” on a legitimate expression of Christian freedom, we do so while moving in the direction of all things being done for the glory of God and with the goal of mature discipleship.

And by the way, if this post offended you, I’ll stop writing my blog.

NOTE: I dealt with some of these same issues in an earlier IM post: Tyranny of the Offended. (It’s a bit of a warrior post, so if you aren’t into the TR blogosphere’s attempt to make me into road kill, skip it.)

Comments

  1. One thing I’ve noticed, from the people I’ve talked to on the subject, it seems that the people who want to make everyone stop drinking see themselves as the “stronger brethren” and drinkers as being “weaker brethren.”

    For instance, one man who I found myself in debate on this topic with, offered his commentary on why so many of the younger generation have no problem with drinking: apparently, we haven’t really seen any “strong Christians,” so we haven’t grown up with that example.

    Unfortunately, it seems more and more that the SBC is being run by the “weaker brethren” who have all decided to tell each other they’re really the “stronger.”

  2. steve yates says

    perhaps that’s part of the problem – that such deliniation exists. Maybe we should all kick the debate and let God’s Spirit determine that we all need to be stronger.

    steve yates

  3. I was struggling with my liberty in Christ today. One of my pastors read this blog post I wrote a few weeks ago: http://www.beyondwordsworth.com/?p=45 and called me into his office. The good news is we’re going to make some changes in the youth curriculum. The other news is, he told me I shouldn’t write things on my blog that are divisive to the body.

    The verses in 1 Corinth. 10 came to mind and I decided prayerfully to surrrendering my freedom in Christ in order to not offend anyone in my church who reads my blog.

    Then I got to thinking–I already censor myself everyday, imagining some of the leaders are looking over my shoulder–you’ll never catch me blogging about egalitarianism, for example, and I won’t bring up my views on non-literal days of creation ever again.

    I think the principle I’ve learned so far is to avoid saying anything that could be construed as criticism of the leadership of my church.

    But that makes it almost pointless to have a blog. Thoughts? Advice?