Friday, 12 August 2011

On Freedom and Love



This seems a very obscure passage. Should Christians eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols?

It is not the burning issue of today

The burning issue of a few days ago was literally a burning issue: riots in the streets of our cities. Groups of young people out on the street – not protesting about a political issue but trying to get stuff for nothing and, as two 18 year old girls said, ‘having a laugh’ at the same time.

The thing that makes this so sad is that, in parts of our society, we have young people who are profoundly lost. Yes, it may be because there is little respect for authority; it certainly is due to the significant breakdown in family life. But on the other side, it is also because here are people who do not know to live for.

We are offered freedom. The freedom to live as we want, to do what we want, to go where we want, to have what we want. There are no limits.

That is true in the virtual world. We really can build a universe around us. We can be super-hero, have astonishing powers, the most amazing body, fight wars and never die.
But it is not true in real life. If people try to live that sort of freedom in real life, then what happened last week will happen. And when people begin to realise that it is not true, that you are not all powerful, or invulnerable, and that you cannot simply have what you want, they become angry or disillusioned. And many people cease to live – oh we live biologically, our hearts beat and our lungs go in and out: but our dreams and aspirations shrivel and become nothing. We live for that minor promotion, the bigger house, retiring at 65 or going on the next holiday.

And that brings me back to eating meat sacrificed to idols!

The Christians in Corinth had bought into the dream of freedom. 1 Corinthians is a reply by Paul to an earlier letter which the Christians in the city have written to him. In it they make certain statements. One of those is in quotation marks in our reading, ‘I have the right to do anything’.

In one sense they have realised the astonishing freedom that they have in the gospel.

In Romans, which was written when Paul was probably in Corinth, he tells us that we are forgiven because of Jesus. We do not need to keep the law to be forgiven. We do not need to counterbalance our offences against God by doing good things for God. We do not need to earn brownie points to make ourselves acceptable to God. We cannot. But if we put our faith in Jesus, who paid the penalty for our sin, we are forgiven.

And Paul goes further. He says that when we were baptised, we were united with Jesus on the cross. In other words, he died, and we died with him. We have therefore already died to this world, and we have died to the laws of this world. It has no hold on us. Not only that, but as believers we have the Spirit of God. It is the same Spirit who gave God’s law in the past, but – says Paul - we are to be guided by the Spirit and not by the law.

So, say the Corinthian Christians, we are not under the law. ‘We have the right to do anything.’

And as a result, in the church in Corinth, there were serious problems. There was sexual immorality, and there were divisions. And here, in our verses, we read of one of those divisions.

It is about eating meat sacrificed to idols. If you were a Christian in Corinth 2000 years ago, should you buy meat or eat meat which had come from the local pagan temples, and which had therefore been sacrificed to idols.

And the church was divided into the non-eaters and the eaters.

The non- eaters say: ‘Christians must not eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. If you do you are, in some way, affirming the worship of the idol; the meat is contaminated and you are spiritually harming yourself by eating it’
And because they often did not know where meat came from, many of them were vegetarians. And they would be horrified if they saw other Christians eating meat which they knew had been sacrificed to idols.

And the eaters say: ‘Everything belongs to God; we are heirs of Christ and all things belong to us; idols are nothing – and this is meat in the market. It is meat. It is part of God’s created world that has been given to man and woman to enjoy and delight in – and it can be received with thanksgiving and be eaten’.

For us, it is not the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols.
But there are many other issues that are similar. Should Christians shop on Sunday? If Christians are visiting in the far east, should they buy a statuette of the Buddha because it looks nice? Should they then display it? Should Christians make use of money that has come from the lottery? Should Christians listen to particular kinds of music? I was speaking with one man who loved his Wagner (the composer, not the X factor finalist from last year). But then someone told him about the influences on Wagner’s life, and about how Wagner’s music had been used. And he started to think, ‘Should I listen to this music?’ Certainly, in my parents’ generation, evangelical Christians were not expected to go to the cinema or theatre, and certainly not to dances; they were not expected to listen to jazz or to popular music. Or, to bring it closer to the issue in 1 Corinthians 10, given the state of factory farming, should Christians be vegetarians?

The people who had written to Paul belonged to the liberal, freedom, party. And here they are saying, ‘We have the right to eat meat sacrificed to idols’.

So how does Paul respond, and how does his reply help us in the decisions we need to make?

  1. He affirms the Christian’s right to eat all food, whether offered to idols or not.

v25: “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’.” It is a quote from Psalm 24, and was used by Jews as a grace before meals.

It is a very important statement. There is nothing off limits to a believer.

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul speaks of those who ‘forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer’ (1 Timothy 4:3-5)


  1. Paul affirms each individual believer’s freedom to make the decision about whether they eat or don’t eat for themselves.

Believers are free to eat. They are also free to not eat. He makes it a conscience thing.

In Romans 14, he says, ‘Those who eat meat do so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God, and those who abstain do so to the Lord and give thanks to God .. If anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean… so whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God’

There is a profound principle which should underlie much of our practice as Christians. St Augustine said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”.


  1. There are some things that are far more important than the specific issue of eating meat offered to idols.

We are not saved by whether we eat meat or don’t eat meat. We are saved by putting our faith in Christ.  

The key issue for Paul is whether

  1. WE DO WHAT WE DO TO THE GLORY OF GOD.
‘So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’ (11:31)

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the carnivores in Corinth.
Do we eat meat because we could not cope without meat?
Do we eat meat sacrificed to idols to show that we have a superior faith to those who do not?
Do we eat meat sacrificed to idols because we do not want to stand out from everyone else, and be different?

If those are our reasons, then we are not eating to the glory of God. We are eating to satisfy our very non-spiritual passions: our passion to satisfy a human craving, to be seen to be superior or not to stand out for Jesus.

So how do I eat to the glory of God? Combining this passage with 1 Timothy, I come up with 4 questions:

1. Do I receive this with thanksgiving.

Have we/can we say thank you to him for it?

I would encourage you to say ‘grace’ before meals. It is about saying thank you to God for what you are about to eat. They do not need to be long – in fact I would not recommend long graces, although perhaps not as short as Andrew used to make grace. We prayed: ‘Thank you Lord Jesus for our food. Amen’. His grace became: ‘Jesus, food, Amen’.

2. Can I live without it? If you can’t live without it (exclude things like water and food), then you are not actually free. The way to know whether what we do is to the glory of God or not is whether we have the freedom not to do it.

That is why Lent, or other periods of abstinence, can be so helpful. At those times we say: For the sake of God, I’m going to be vegetarian – to show I don’t need meat; I’m going to refrain from alcohol; I’m going to refrain from sexual intimacy.

By refraining, we are saying this thing is not the most important thing in the world. I am free to live without it.

3. Am I living in a way that is in accordance with what Jesus said about how a particular gift that God has given is to be used?

The obvious one here is the gift of sex. It is a gift, but it is not to control us. And the place for sexual intimacy is in the marriage relationship between man and woman. And I am aware of the cost that means for people who are single, whether that is because they haven’t met someone or because they are gay. But despite what society says, sexual intimacy is not everything. You are not half a person because you are a virgin or celibate.

4. Do I wish to honour God in the way that I use this particular gift?

There are many different styles of music. I don’t think that there is a particular Christian style of music. What I do know is that some classical music honours Jesus and some shames him; some R&M seriously dishonours him, some honours him. It is about how we use it.

The freedom we have is the freedom to live according to the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God longs to give glory to God.

  1. WE DO WHAT WE DO IN LOVE
Love of neighbour is more important than your own individual freedom.

We see that very clearly here: The meat eaters are condemned by Paul not for eating meat, but for eating in a way that will unsettle other Christians. They are not taking into account the concerns of other believers. Their right to eat has become more important than their responsibility to love.

Don’t do something if you know it will offend another person – simply for the sake of asserting your freedom to do it. If you think it is OK to do your main shop on a Sunday, but if you know that it offends many brothers and sisters, don’t just do it to show that you are superior to them.

V29 is quite complicated: ‘For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for’? Three different commentaries: three different views. But I take it to be saying, ‘Don’t end up being denounced for something that is OK to do. Don’t do it on that particular occasion’.

When Alison and myself lived in the seminary in Russia we used to play cards with each other. But we soon realised it was a big ‘no no’ for Orthodox Christians. So if we were playing, and people came into our room, we quickly covered them up. We did not wish to make it an issue.
Many American Christians come to the UK and are horrified that Christians here drink alcohol. So if you know that they won’t like it, put the alcohol away. If it becomes an issue then of course you need to say what you think, but don’t make it an issue – because it is not the most important thing.
Perhaps it might be the same if we go to an American home and discover a gun lying in a drawer!

Interestingly, there was an occasion when, in love for others, Paul did make eating an issue. It was when Peter refused to eat with Gentiles because he was scared of what the Jews would think of him. Paul challenges Peter – rightly so: because there food was being used to break fellowship and not create fellowship.

  1. So we do what we do to the glory of God; we do what we do in love; and there is a third principle which should control our actions. We do what we do in order that OTHERS MAY BE SAVED.

V32: Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – 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 will be saved.

Do not let your freedom cause others not to listen to you when you speak of God. As Christians we know that a printed bible is a book like any other book. What makes it special is the message. We do not worship a book. So we write in our bible, we put it on the floor, we throw it away when we get a new one. We are free.
But if you are speaking with a Muslim friend, and they see you toss the bible to one side, they would be horrified. To them it shows immense disrespect to God. And I suspect that they would not listen to you.

We must respect the customs of others: that is particularly true if we are crossing cultural barriers. I think it is Bede who records the story that when the church sent envoys about 1200 years ago to this land, they invited the local leaders together. But as the leaders approached, the bishop did not stand to greet them. He remained seated. They took this to be the height of rudeness, and they rejected him and his message. Of course he was free to sit, but do not let your freedom be used to turn others away from Jesus.

And yes you are free to go to the cinema and theatre; you are free to watch what you want – provided it is done to the glory of God (and that is quite a big proviso) – but do not let your freedom lead others into sin. And maybe you are big enough to watch an X rated film for cultural purposes and not for titillation, but what does that say to the person who is watching it with you? And even though we know that Sunday is not the Sabbath and, as Paul writes very clearly in Colossians 2:16-23 we are not to judge one another about how we treat ‘special’ days or Sabbaths, I wonder what it does say when people see us doing our regular weekly shop on Sunday.

Peter writes, ‘Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Peter 2:12)



So the Corinthians were right. They were free to do what they wished.

And the anarchists in our congregation can sit up because I am going to say something very radical here. As believers we do not and we should not obey the law of the land simply because it is the law of the land. We are free to disobey! But we do not loot shops – not because the law says that if you do you will be put in prison; but because we are controlled and guided by the Spirit of God and of love. And there are times when - because we are under the authority of the Spirit of love - we may have to disobey a law of the land, even though we recognise that the authorities are put in place by God, and so we may have to go to prison.

And so we can say to a people who desire freedom that they will discover true freedom not by becoming slaves to their passions and lusts, but by receiving Jesus Christ

The Corinthians were free to do what they wished. But they also needed to be reminded that there is, at least this side of heaven, a more important principle than the principle of freedom. It is the principle of love.  

It was St Augustine who said, ‘Love God and do what you will’. Of course, because we are sinful, we may say that we love God but we do not love God. So we need the law of God to guide and direct us. We need the law of the land to restrain us. But they will pass away. And one day we will discover the absolute freedom to love which is ours as believers in Jesus.