Missing the forest for the trees (part 1)

How many people have turned their backs on the church of their childhood, because they tired of the constant legalistic admonitions?  Don’t do this, don’t do that.  As Dave Kinnaman has suggested, what many people find so unattractive about the church is its tendency to define itself negatively by “what we’re against” than positively by the good news we’re for.

But it’s also possible to interpret the gospel of grace in such a way that Christian freedom trumps the call to holiness, and personal moral decisions take little heed of the impact on others.

Such are the problems that Paul the pastor has to navigate in the fledgling church of the first century.  He establishes lines that Christians shouldn’t cross: for example, he tells the Corinthians to flee both sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18) and idolatry (1 Cor 10:14).

Photo by Marius KraemerBut that doesn’t mean that Christians agree on what other lines should be drawn and where.  What matters?  What doesn’t?  Sometimes, the argument over boundary lines is itself the problem; both the legalists and the libertines can miss the forest for the trees.

As we’ve seen in numerous earlier posts, Paul has been responding to the Corinthians’ questions about their participation in the ritual meals at pagan temples.  Their attitude is that their commitment to one God has made pagan idols of no consequence, so eating in a pagan temple shouldn’t be a big deal either.  As Christians, they insist, they have the freedom — no, the right — to do this.

Paul draws a clear line between the what and the where, between the issues of eating meat sacrificed to idols in general and specifically eating it in the temple.  On the latter issue, he says, No way.  On the former, however, he says, No problem.  Considering his training as a Pharisee, that answer is remarkable, one that might mark him as a flaming liberal to fellow Jews.

But again, it’s not merely a matter of drawing lines between the permissible and the impermissible.  Imagine that the Corinthians decided from that point on to make Paul’s words into a inviolable rule of behavior: henceforth, they would freely eat sacrificed meat, but never in pagan temples.  Would that be enough?  For Paul, the answer is clearly no.  What the Corinthians lack is a larger vision of the meaning of gospel freedom: we have not been freed merely to serve our own interests and desires, but the good of others.

We’ll turn to that vision in the next post.