I’ve got great news for you. If you are in Christ, then you are free! (Gal 5:1) I love giving good news and this is by far the goodest (greatest?) news I could give you. That means that you are free from sin, guilt, shame, the powers of the world, and the list goes on and on. In fact, you have certain privileges given to you by God. When the fathers of our country drafted the Declaration of Independence, they even acknowledged this. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” God has given everyone certain rights, and in Jesus we are able to enjoy those rights in freedom. This is tremendous news, but it is not without conditions. As the old saying goes, with rights come with responsibilities.
Many of our rights are not provided without certain responsibilities that come along with them. For instance, the first amendment of the Bill of Rights grants me the freedom of speech, however I must be careful not to abuse this right to hurt others. I am not allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded move theater since the resulting panic would endanger people’s lives. For another example, take a look at the second amendment. It allows us to bear arms. Any responsible gun owner will tell you that while you are free to own a gun, you still have to follow certain rules in order to keep people safe. You’re not allowed to wave a gun around in a crowded mall without severe consequences. That’s really the point I’m trying to make here. While we are given many freedoms and rights, the existence of these rights does not relieve us of the consequences of our actions when expressing those rights.
This is not just true about rights given to us by our government, but also rights given to us as Christians. Paul even had to deal with one such incident in 1 Cor 8. Paul wrote his letters at a time when Christianity was still very new. Christianity was also not the majority religion at the time, which led to many instances of culture clash. As pagans and people from other religious backgrounds began joining this very young church, they began struggling with deciding what parts of their old lives and culture they can keep while still remaining faithful to Christ. One of these issues they struggled with was the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. The pagan temples at the time would regularly host meals with meat that was sacrificed to their false idols. The worshipers of those idols would partake in these meals as an act of worship to their false god. There were also Christians who would attend these meals at the time to not only get a cheap meal but to also have the opportunity to witness to pagans. Even though they were eating there among pagans, they were not doing so as an act of worship to these pagan gods.
The issue arose when some of these more mature Christians, who were strong enough in their faith to resist the idol worship at these meals, were encouraging weaker Christians, who may be tempted to fall back into idol worship, to go to these meals with them. It apparently got so severe that the stronger Christians were shaming their weaker brothers and sisters for not going to these meals. The church of Corinth found itself divided on the issue. Paul uses chapter 8 to set the record straight.
In verse one, Paul reminds us that knowledge is all well and good, but it does nothing but feed our own pride. The Corinthians might know that it’s just fine to eat the meat at the temple because they are not doing it in worship to an idol. The problem is that they are flouting this knowledge to puff themselves up with pride. Instead our knowledge should always be used to love one another more completely in Christ. He adds an exclamation point to this thought through verse two by reminding them that if you think you know anything, you don’t know it as you should know it when your knowledge is complete in heaven. It’s Paul’s way of knocking them down a peg and reminding them that we all have much more to learn. He closes this paragraph by explaining that loving God is not about knowing God. In fact, if you love God, it’s not about knowing God but God knowing you.
He then moves on to support the argument the mature Christians use for eating the meat. They say that it’s no problem to eat the meat sacrificed to idols, because they are not real. God is the one true God. Paul affirms this by saying that it’s true. There is no God besides God. Right here, Paul is saying that those who are eating the meat at the temples are totally free to do so. It is their right. He then puts a big ol’ “but” right at the beginning of his next argument. He also affirms that not every Christian in the church of Corinth knows this. There are some who’s faith would be damaged by eating these meals because they are so used to idolatry. He even goes further and says that those who eat this meal are not closer to God because of it, and those who do not are not farther from God because they don’t. Partaking of this sacrificed meat doesn’t affect their relationship with God one way or the other. He’s making sure the Corinthians understand that the issue is not how this might hurt their relationship with God. The issue is with how this might hurt their relationship with each other. He uses a hypothetical. If a weaker brother or sister sees you, a stronger brother or sister, eating this meal and it causes them harm, then you are not only sinning against them but you are sinning against Christ. It is wrong.
Unfortunately, Paul does not give clear instructions on what the Corinthians should do. Like many things in the Bible, the answer isn’t always black and white. He doesn’t say they should eat, but he also doesn’t say they shouldn’t. It’s all about the context of what they are doing and if they are considering how it might influence their weaker brothers and sisters. They have a right to go and eat but they also have a responsibility to their brothers and sisters when they do. When and how they exert that right is up to them. So, how are they supposed to know what to do? Paul tells them that to figure it out they must look at the situation through the lens of love. The problem was the selfish more mature Christians were only worried about their rights and what they are allowed to do. They were not concerned with how that might affect their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ because they were not acting in love.
This is a lesson we can all use today. I have heard more about everyone’s rights now than ever before and I have been distressed to see the fallout that good-intentioned Christians have caused in exercising their rights. I see this all the time on people’s Facebook pages. You absolutely have the right to put what ever you want on your Facebook page, but you have to be careful that the sort of things you post and share do not cause your brothers and sisters to stumble and therefore you unintentionally sin against Christ. If you look on my Facebook page, you’ll find it relatively sparse. I don’t share much because I am always careful and aware of the power I have in sharing things to my page. One of the ways I try and avoid this is by asking myself some questions before hitting “share.” “Will this encourage someone? Will this show love to my brothers and sisters? Will this unnecessarily cause division? Am I doing this out of love?” Often I find that these questions help me avoid making a mistake and causing my others to stumble.
This attitude extends a bit further than just the internet, so let’s take this a bit further. Currently, the governor of Kentucky, in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19, has mandated that everyone should wear a face mask when moving about in public. This has been met with all sorts of differing opinions and emotions. It’s difficult to even understand if the mandate is legal or not. I am not qualified to talk about the effectiveness of masks, so I’m not going to tell you if you should or shouldn’t wear one. I will say that just like Paul says in 1 Cor 8, we should always consider our love for other people over our own rights. I personally wear a face mask when I am in public and when I am at church. There are many of my brothers and sisters who are frightened by this virus and they believe that not only them but others wearing a face mask will help protect them. I believe that one of the best ways I can show love for them is by putting my rights aside and wearing a mask. I would hate for someone to feel uncomfortable or afraid at Harmony because I am not wearing a mask, regardless of whether I believe it’s effective or not.
I’m not saying you should wear one and I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I’m not saying that people who are not wearing masks are selfish and don’t care about others and I’m not saying that people who are wearing them are mindless sheep. I’m not going to tell you what to do, that’s not my job. I will remind you, though, that God’s word tells us in 1 Cor 8 to be sure that in celebrating our freedom and exercising our rights, we should always consider our brothers and sisters first and act in ways which will show them that we love them over what we believe our rights are. I leave you with Paul’s words from 1 Cor 8:9, “but be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak.”