This is the blog in a series of posts on questions that I get asked all the time in my role as a New Testament professor. This series will run through the summer of 2017. The first post on “Judgment, Paul, and Jesus” can be read HERE.
At Charleston Southern University I am blessed and humbled to be able to teach New Testament Survey every semester. We get students here from a wide variety of backgrounds and every possible relationship to Christianity. Some of our students grew up in Christian homes and were their church’s “Bible drill” champ. Some of our students have never cracked open a Bible nor stepped foot inside a church. They are all, however, required to take New Testament Survey. Needless to say, with that diverse mix of students, I get a constant stream of questions about the gospel, the Bible, and Christian practice. I am excited to get to share some of those questions and answers with you.
FAQ #2: What does Paul instruct Christians to do when they disagree on matters of conscience?
This is a question I mostly get from my church-going students. Many of them grew up in a context or have recently encountered a context where their church disagrees within itself or disagrees with them on a particular moral issue. This question is particularly pressing for students who are away from their home church at college for the first time and encounter other Christians who reach a different moral conclusion on a debated issue. Of course, drinking alcohol is the most commonly asked about “doubtful practice”—though, ironically, I’ve never been asked that question by a student who was old enough to drink legally—but I’ve pretty much heard this question on just about every topic under the sun.
The way I answer the question about “doubtful practices” is to take my students to 1 Corinthians 8 where Paul gives his most comprehensive answer to questions like these.
1 Corinthians 8 and Meat Offered to Idols
The Corinthian believers were faced with a question that we will likely never face directly, the issue of what to do with meat offered to idols. It was common in the large pagan cities of Paul’s day for people to make an offering of food to the Greek and Roman gods in their temples as an act of devotion. The food was often very expensive and of very high quality. As you might expect, however, when the priests came back to the temple the next day, the food was still there (Zeus never seems to be hungry these days . . .), so the priests would take the food that had been offered to idols and sell that food in the market place at a reduced price. Those early Christians in Corinth were divided on whether or not it was permissible for Christians to eat that food.
Paul, as he answers this question in 1 Corinthians 8, says four things specifically about meat offered to idols, and from 1 Corinthians 8 we can draw three lasting principles.
- Paul begins as he always does, by stating the plain simple truth of the situation (8:1-6). Idols are not real. The religions behind them are false. Idols are just big stone statues, and food is just food. So eating food that has been offered to idols means nothing. Eat or don’t; it’s fine.
- Paul is very quick to follow-up, however, that not everyone in the church believes what Paul knows to be true about meat offered to idols (8:7-9). This, Paul argues, means they must all be sensitive to and patient with those who understand this moral issue differently. Paul tries to get the Corinthian believers to see the matter through the eyes of those who don’t agree. Many of the brothers and sisters, he reminds them, saw those idols not that long ago and believed them to be the very gods of the universe. No one should be surprised when they don’t see this issue the way Paul does.
- Eating or not eating isn’t a core matter of the gospel or faith in Jesus, according to Paul, and he reminds all believers to never forget that (8:8). If Christians need to stop eating meat altogether to serve Christ, they will be just fine.
- Finally, Paul instructs the church that if they need to stop eating meat offered to idols to avoid damaging the faith of those who are weak in faith, they should, and without hesitation (8:9-13).
As I said above, this specific situation is one that isn’t all that relevant to American Christians, but naturally we do have disagreements on “doubtful practices.” When we do, we go to 1 Corinthians 8 to see if our situation is enough like the situation in Corinth that what Paul said to them also applies to us. When we engage with 1 Corinthians 8 on this issue, we find that Paul gives four lasting principles to the Church that apply in all situations related to “doubtful practices.”
- When you encounter a moral disagreement on a doubtful practice like this, you should try to convince Christians of the truth as you see it from the Scripture, but if they aren’t convinced, be gentle and patient with them.
- Paul is also clear that unless the circumstances are extraordinary (the matter is an obvious matter of sin and settled defiance against Christ), we should never try to persuade other Christians to violate their own consciences. Paul isn’t suggesting that we personally should cave to the whims of those who have “looser” consciences than we do on an issue, but he is clearly requiring that Christians be gentle with and respect the beliefs of those who have “stricter” consciences on a “doubtful practice.”
- Points one and two above are deeply rooted in Paul’s ethic. For Paul, because of the gospel of Christ, the good of others always takes precedence over individual personal preferences. Sacrifice and self-denial for the good of others are core Christian moral principles. No Christian should be able to say with a straight face, “I know I’m right, but I also know my actions are hurting my brothers and sisters. Surely God wouldn’t be asking me to set aside my preferences for their good. What I want is more important than them to me and to God.”
Whenever I teach these principles to my Christian students, I always get push-back over just what is and is not a “doubtful practice.” Surely, we wouldn’t have to be “gentle and patient” with those claiming to be Christians who were racist for example. On this Paul is clear too. Never ever, even to save your own life, compromise the gospel. For Paul the gospel determines what is and is not a doubtful practice. On the issue of the circumcision of Titus and on the issue of implicit racism in the Church by Peter and others (Galatians 2), for example, Paul was neither patient nor gentle. Those aren’t “doubtful practices.” Those were behaviors by Christians that were “not in step with the truth of the gospel,” and Paul confronted them and corrected the erring Christians. Not all disagreements are created equal, and we can usually tell which disagreements we should treat like “doubtful practices” by looking to the good news about Jesus. If our beliefs or practices cast a bad light on the truth of the gospel or raise questions about its truthfulness, those are beliefs and practices that we must jettison and replace with the truth of the Scripture.